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Audiolab Q-DAC
page 2 Sound Quality
page 3 Conclusion
page 4 Measured Performance
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AUDIOLAB Q-DAC HIGH RESOLUTION, DIGITAL-TO-ANALOGUE CONVERTOR

 

From Hi-Fi World - January  2014 issue
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Audiolab's new Q-DAC promises great performance at a wallet friendly price. Jon Myles is suitably impressed.

 

The Audiolab brand has gathered a deserved reputation for the quality of its digital products over the past few years. Its M-DAC is one of the sweetest-sounding and most versatile digital-to-analogue converters around at the price.
    But at £600 it’s clearly not within range of all buyers. So enter the Q-DAC – that Audiolab claims gets remarkably close to its bigger brother’s sonic performance at two-thirds the price.
    And for those looking to build a decent system around the Q-DAC, Audiolab also has its M-PWR – a cosmetically matching 40 Watts per channel power amplifier.
    Unsurprisingly, Audiolab has had to shave some features from the M-DAC’s specification get the Q-DAC down to its £400 asking price. Gone from the M-DAC is the rotary volume control (replaced by a pair of buttons) while the power supply arrangement has been simplified.
    The range of inputs has also been reduced – with the new DAC having just single optical and coaxial connections rather than a pair of each.
    The balanced XLR outputs of the M-DAC have gone as well, its little brother having just a single pair of RCA analogue connections alongside digital S/PDIF coaxial and optical outputs for those who need them.
    There’s also no remote control option which may, or may not, be important to some armchair users.
    The Q-DAC is still usefully specified. Internally it’s built around a well-regarded ESS Sabre32 DAC chip while the USB input is asynchronous so data flow is handled by the unit’s master clock rather than your computer. Both the USB and coaxial inputs can accept a full 24bit/192kHz stream while the optical is as usual restricted to 24bit/96kHz material.
    And, crucially, Audiolab’s proprietary range of digital filters are also present and correct.  Seven user-selectable filter options allow the listener to tailor the Q-DAC’s presentation to their personal taste and – unlike some other DACs out there – have a clear and pronounced effect on the sound. You can read more about the way they work, and their sound HERE.
    Other features include a front-mounted headphone socket and a slim display window on the fascia. Fit and finish, if not luxurious, are certainly up to Audiolab’s usual high standards.
Pairing the Q-DAC with a MacBook Pro (OS 10.6.4 and above recommended) was – as per usual – straightforward and hassle-free. For Windows users the supplied drivers have to be installed first but the instruction book contains a detailed step-by-step guide.
    Once up and running the Q-DAC is simplicity itself to operate with the front screen displaying a wealth of information from nominal or exact incoming signal rate to track and time information from a CD.



SOUND QUALITY
Stripped-down it may be in terms of features, but the Q-DAC gives little away sonically to the more expensive M-DAC. Frequency extremes are well extended, the bass firm and assured without the slightest hint of overhang while treble is sweet and open.
    There’s also an exceptional amount of detail retrieval in evidence.
Keith Jarrett’s ‘The Koln Concert’ in 24/96 gave ample evidence of the Q-DAC’s impressive qualities. Jarrett's dynamic performance was presented in a tremendously spacious fashion – the piano sounding natural and undistorted. I could hear all of his sharp intakes of breath, grunts and yelps as his fingers fly over the keyboard.
    Switching between the various filter options here revealed subtle shifts in the sound. Audiolab itself recommends using one of the three Optimal Transient settings – which it says give the most natural and pure sonic performance if not the best technical specification.
    This is indeed the case. All three have a mellifluous quality which lets the music flow organically with an ever so slightly warm balance.
It’s a sound that suits something like Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’ extremely well – adding an all-important touch of menace to the singer’s growling vocals and blood-drenched tales.
    The remaining four filters -
(Sharp Rolloff, Slow Rolloff, Minimum Phase and Optimal Spectrum) – all have their own distinct sound. Optimal Spectrum, for example, is significantly sharper and more transparent giving a more CD-like reproduction.
    Experimentation is definitely recommended here – and many will find different settings will suit particular genres of music or, indeed, the recording quality of individual tracks. Whichever you choose, what will become quickly evident is the Q-DAC’s ability to take on and unravel complex pieces of music without sounding analytical or leaden-footed.
Listen to Ornette Coleman’s experimental ‘Free Jazz’ outing – two jazz quartets playing simultaneously through the left and right speakers – and it becomes surprisingly easy to track the individual players, the Audiolab providing a high level of instrumental separation while never losing its grip on the subtle interplay going on between the individual musicians.


CONCLUSION
Audiolab’s Q-DAC is a very impressive piece of equipment. It takes all that’s good about the company’s renowned M-DAC, omits a few features but shaves a good chunk off the price.
    It boasts a superb level of detail retrieval with excellent dynamics and an agile delivery – but stays precise and controlled at all times.
    The various filter options also give the user the ability to tailor the sound to their individual taste which proves remarkably useful the more you experiment.
    Partner it with the M-PWR and you have the basis of a very good system indeed – one that sounds much more powerful and well-honed than its paper specifications might suggest.
    In absolute terms the Q-DAC is the star of the show here – and capable of being paired with amplifiers costing twice the price or more of the M-PWR.
    But factor in their matching cosmetics and obvious synergy and it’s easy to see why many people would look to pair them together. If that’s you, the chances are you won’t be disappointed.


Audiolab Q-DAC     £400 (U.K.)


OUTSTANDING – amongst the best

VALUE - keenly priced

VERDICT

All the sonic assurance of Audiolab’s lauded M-DAC but with a saving of some £200 makes the Q-DAC a veritable bargain. One of the best DACs around at the price.

FOR
- detailed sound
- clean, clear presentation
- range of filter options
- pre-amp capability

AGAINST
- no remote
- little else at the price


AUDIOLAB UK

+44 (0)1480 447700

www.audiolab.co.uk


Measured by our Rohde&Schwarz UPV, the world's most advanced audio analyser

MEASURED PERFORMANCE
Like the M-DAC tested in our Oct 13 issue, the Q-DAC has seven filters, three for optimal time domain response and the rest widest frequency response, with minor variations of behaviour within each filter set.
    Optimal time domain filters avoid ringing, including pre-ringing, and sound best, having an easier, more natural sound than traditional filters like Optimal Spectrum that give extended bandwidth, as used in CD players.
    In the Q-DAC Optimal Spectrum possessed the widest bandwidth of 43kHz with 192kHz sample rate digital, and a slow roll down in output all the way up to the 96kHz upper theoretical limit.
    The optimal time domain filters reduce bandwidth but this did not affect the audio band up to 20kHz with high resolution digital, using sample rates of 88.2kHz and above. It is with CD that the optimal time domain filters affect audible response, rolling off audio above 8kHz. This gives an obviously warm sound, but also a more organic feel than is common from CD, as the admired Chord DAC64 once did.
    Output at +4dB (maximum) on the output level control measured a high 3.25V, and 2V at 0dB. The maximum setting raised the signal well above the output noise floor, giving the best measured EIAJ Dynamic Range value, an impressive 121dB with 24bit digital.
    The TOSLINK optical digital input worked up to 176.4kHz sample rate, but would not accept 192kHz. The electrical input worked to 192kHz without difficulty though, as did USB.
    Distortion levels were low, especially with 24bit, where the Q-DAC managed a -60dB value of just 0.02%. Just compare this with CD at 0.23% and you get some idea why high resolution digital is so much better than CD – ten times better in this area.
    The Q-DAC measured well in all respects, possessing a wide range of useful filters. It is little worse in performance than the more expensive M-DAC, so it looks to be good value. NK


Frequency response (-1dB)
192k sample rate       2Hz-43kHz

Distortion (%)    16/24 bit
0dB                        0.002/0.002   

-60dB                         0.23/0.02
Separation (1kHz)          115dB
Noise (IEC A)                -120dB
Dynamic range (EIAJ)    121dB
Output                               3.2V

 

FREQUENCY RESPONSE, 192kHz sample rate

 

DISTORTION, 24bit, -60dB

 

DYNAMIC RANGE (EIAJ, –60.827dB – 60dB = 121dB)

 
Comments (1)
Philips Test CD
1Saturday, 06 September 2014 06:13
Michael Krauss
Dear Experts!

With great interest I read some of your tests on CD players. You mention that you use special Test CDs for CD and SACD performance measurements.

I wonder where I could buy such a Test CD. Can you give me a hint and advice where to buy these items?

Thank you for your help in advance.
Sincerely
Michael Krauss


Sadly, the answer is "no". Philips produced the best test CDs (Denon, Technics and a few others too) but these were never made available to the public, at least in any obvious manner. In the end Philips would not even release test CDs and SACDs to those they felt might use them to criticise the medium.

There is a modern solution. Use Audacity to generate test signals and burn them to CD. It works.

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