The Arcam irDAC-II is an asynchronous USB DAC, digital pre-amplifier, a headphone amp and an advanced Bluetooth streamer. But, I’m going to start with the usual end bit for this Arcam irDAC-II review.
The SRP is £495 in the UK. The Arcam irDAC-II dealer list is here: http://www.arcam.co.uk/find-a-dealer.htm
That’s the end bit I usually use, outlining the price and where to buy it. The point being that, at this price, you probably don’t need to read much further, the Arcam irDAC-II is simply unbelievable value for money for what it delivers. Bluetooth fun in the kitchen, serious 24 bit music for the ‘lounge’ stereo and DSD and headphone amplifier performance on the desktop.
Small in stature but big in performance (dimensions – w194 x h44 x d124mm), the Arcam irDAC-II really is a high quality first stop to explore the digital and DAC explosion we are currently experiencing. The original ir DAC I liked a huge amount, see here. Initially, my thought was it was an almost whole digital solution for a growing hifi builder. The almost whole bit was the absence of Bluetooth, which I now regard, in all truth, as a ‘fun’ thing to have, having been repeatedly disappointed by dull Bluetooth performance, the recent powerhouse Roksan K3 integrated amplifier to be latest example of a Bluetooth let down (compared to the other outstanding performance).
Out of the box
As with the ir DAC (first version) the box comes loaded with all the leads and interconnects you need if you don’t have them, USB B type and the optical lead that is particularly expensive. You may need to upgrade them for optimum use but everything you need is here. The remote is still a bit dodgy and verging on plasticky but otherwise, with batteries included, Arcam provides the whole shooting match and really you cannot complain.
Inputs and Outputs
One single particularly annoying thing they have done with this update is to remove the ‘Made for iPod’ USB ‘A’ input that I found so useful when trying to get my iPod (with my labyrinthine playlists) plugged into a decent stereo set-up. For that I would give up the Bluetooth option, though of course I would prefer them both. Other inputs include two Coax connections, two optical inputs and the USB B type, as well as Bluetooth. The supported sample rates are as follows:
USB: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz, 384kHz
Optical: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz
Coaxial: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz
The new Sabre DAC, ESS ES9016K2M, supports 16 and 24 bit rates and DSD128. The original ir DAC had the Texas Instruments PCM 1976 24 bit chip.
The Bluetooth input supports: SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX-LL codecs, I didn’t realise there were so many to be honest!
In terms of output there is the headphone amplifier. The new headphone amplifier supports the higher impedance levels of higher end headphones between 30Ω – 600Ω on a 3.5mm plug. This headphone output stage has been taken from the flagship Arcam A49 amplifier.
Other outputs include a fixed RCA output to an integrated amplifier and a variable output (presumably to a power amplifier).
The Arcam irDAC-II feels really nice to hold, being a bit smaller it is portable but the stylish cast aluminium anti-vibration casework does the job in the, ‘feels good to me’ stakes. It weighs 1.1kg but being a smaller DAC it fits comfortably on the desktop, in this case the remote can stay in the drawer as you can alter the source and volume for the headphones from the buttons on the top.
The Bluetooth performance is OK. I have now convinced myself the Bluetooth is really just for fun, sitting around a dinner table, chatting about music then chucking something on, nothing more. I’m unlikely to relax in the lounge and throw on some Bluetooth music when I can either stream at full range or better still put a record on. I have hooked up my Nexus 5 Android and an iPhone 6 separately and they perform fine. Connectivity, maintaining the signal, was flawless.
Coax with Fixed Line Out
There is great clarity and detail from the source to the speakers
For this I have lined up my ageing (but good) Yamaha CD player (with digital output of course) with a high spec digital coaxial (Atlas Mavros) wire to an integrated amplifier. I have used the fixed output from the Arcam irDAC-II into the Roksan K3 integrated amplifier that I still have from my recent review (very lucky me). The thunderous performance of the K3 DAC and integrated amplifier is replicated with the Arcam irDAC-II in place , very impressive indeed. There is great clarity and detail from the source to the speakers and I would hesitate to risk any shred of credibility if have in a blind test. I’m bound to say that really picking a difference at this level of system (let’s say it is a good one with a good CD, very good integrated amplifier and some well worn but familiar speakers) is a very subjective thing. I think I am looking for overall performance and presentation and this DAC is really very impressive for the price and presentation. It may be a fraction cramped in places and lacking clarity in more complex pieces but if this going to a big issue for you, I suspect you’ll be looking at spending a bit more money (on the K3 DAC for example).
USB B & Headphone Amplifier
It was a pretty simple matter to install the device drivers for the DAC, I have Windows 10 on my HP laptop (my iMac has blown up) so there was no bother at all.
Driving the headphone amplifier from the USB B type input on my laptop the performance is very good indeed. All the detail you look for is there, although you are restricted to 3.5mm jacked headphones, when most higher end end ‘phones are the larger 6.5mm jack. So, for example, I was listening with Oppo PM-3s, where I may have preferred my PM-2s for relaxed home listening, but these have the larger jack (there’s no point in getting an adapter). There is bundles of detail from the excellent PM-3s and they are fine performers with remastered 24 bit Beatles recordings and higher sample rate files that I have. Overall, I would describe the sound as bright and clear, I would possibly prefer more depth but the sources, the headphones and the desktop conspire against this. I have some DSD music and this was handled without hassle. I am using JRiver software for the DSDs and other hi res files and this seems to be my preferred playback software these days.
So, what are you looking for? How much money do you want to spend on a digital interface? Do you rate the Bluetooth over the digital iPod connectivity? I don’t. Do you want to listen to higher quality headphones, that usually have a 6.35mm jack? I do.
I would argue, though, that at this price point, for this amount of digital flexibility, you will struggle to find a better alternative. If you can, listen to the Chord Mojo or the Audiolab M DAC. Put it this way, my four year old Musical Fidelity M1 DAC will shortly be appearing on eBay.
Performance per pound
Desktop performance with USB B Type connection
They had kept the iPod connector
It had a 6.35mm headphone jack
As I have already said, the SRP is £495 in the UK. The Arcam irDAC-II dealer list is here: http://www.arcam.co.uk/find-a-dealer.htm