The Acoustic Research UA-1 is a USB powered headphone amplifier and a DAC, supporting hi resolution audio up to 192kHz. Very simple in design, minimalist in look it is, thus far, a faultless performer on my laptop using the J River software provided in the box, complete with licence code.
Quality and Design
In the Box
See my out of the box article on this one for more detail. In the box you get the Acoustic Research UA-1 itself a CD with PC Drivers and a copy of the J River Audio software, that supports Hi Resolution Audio Playback. You also get an AR branded USB cable that powers the DAC itself so there are no nasty power leads and transformers everywhere. I actually like this a lot, given how many plugs, chargers and leads I have cluttering up my desk.
The DAC is a Burr-Brown PCM 1794a and is supported by other Burr-Brown components and those from ‘Oscon’ and ‘Alps’.
Supported sample rates include 44.1kHz, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192kHz. A full version of the J River Media Centre covers DSD and higher rates but the machine itself is Analogue output to 192kHz. The software is absolutely excellent and I have switched away from dbpoweramp’s foobar which is quite a thing for me.
The Acoustic Research UA-1 is asynchronous. This means it has its own clock which reduces jitter, errors in data handling, so this is a very useful and important thing.
The principal input is an asynchronous USB Audio 2.0, that hosts power supply as well. As I have mentioned, this means there are no power leads or the like which I am chuffed with. This therefore means it is not a very flexible DAC in a HiFi setting because it needs USB support which also means it is not a portable DAC.
All of this is fine, if you don’t want it to do anything other than support you laptop output with either RCA output or a proper headphones jack, that being the classic, larger 6.3mm output jack. There is also a TOSLink (optical) output port.
The UA-1 is a weighty 338g. It is 135mm x 82mm x 24mm high.
There is a very nice volume control that clicks neatly, from about “seven o’clock to five o’clock”.
Acoustic Research UA-1 Performance
I have reviewed the UA-1 on my Asus laptop using the XMOS USB Audio ST 300C (!) driver software provided and the USB cable supplied. I have a pair of wonderful Oppo PM-2s to hear the full potential of the Acoustic Research UA-1 and I have also listened to a pair of Focal Spirit Classics to hear the performance using more ‘mid-range’ (affordable?) cans, I’ve also listened to some ‘everyday’ Lindy earbuds.
The Acoustic Research UA-1 is very simple to set-up by just plugging it in to a ‘spare’ USB port on your computer. The driver software is a three minute job. The only indication of information you have from the Acoustic Research UA-1 is the the LED status display that shows the sample rate of the source music. What you have to do (which I didn’t) is set the correct driver software in the Playback Options on the J River software preferences, once you have done this the LED status displays green when it is ready and then the sample rate of the music playing in the following colours:
Firstly, the key question is what does the UA-1 add to your set-up, no matter what it is? Simply, it is absolutely excellent at what it is. The Oppo headphones sound ten times better than the laptop DAC, of course. Given the UA-1 cost as much as my laptop (probably), that is a obvious. Yes, I am using 24 bit, 192kHz Hi Res audio files but I hear no loss of resolution using a very good pair of headphones that I know well and like (very much). Just listening to the detail of Jeff Buckley’s ‘sigh’ at the beginning of ‘Hallelujah’ lets you understand this. I last heard detail like this in my ears from the HA-1 I reviewed a few months back and fell in love with, and that is three times the price!.
The sound is familiarly warm, wide and most importantly natural, the UA-1 does not feel as if it is removing any detail put there by the artist and the producer. Even using other headphones there is a wider, more full presentation from the music that you might not expect. I think the treble and vocal presentation from this product is very good as well and it suits my tastes nicely.
I have tried several FLAC recordings in the last couple of weeks at many sample rates and indeed I have thrown some lower resolution files that are managed nicely by the Acoustic Research UA-1.
In the end I have not played with the Acoustic Research UA-1 as a DAC to output. I will have a go but I will probably have to find an amp, phono leads to connect it up, some speakers and cart my PC about so it is not really something I think most people would do given the prevalence of DACs and streamers in a HiFi set-up. Also, I simply do not have the space on my desk to plug in an amplifier, trail phone leads and speaker cables everywhere, though the Musical Fidelity V90 Amp, reviewed on this site, springs to mind.
J River Software
Quite honestly the J River software is absolutely excellent and I have been very impressed with it. It is a super intuitive layout that affords a clear show of your music. I’ve built my review playlist without grief.
If you are looking to get the best from your computer on a desk with a good pair of headphones you really must give this small minimalist solution a good listen. It is excellent at what it is. The main thing I like about it is that it is extremely effective and does not have wires everywhere. It can sit on your desk , under a book or notepad without causing any bother at all. The J River software is excellent and I would argue this little wizard, a few Hi Res downloads, and a good pair of headphones may be a fine place to start an audiophile journey!
I cannot see that you are going to consider the Acoustic Research UA-1 for other HiFi needs if I’m honest, it is not portable given it needs a USB for power. Also it is hard to think you would use this in a HiFi separates system given it has quite limited inputs and with the prevalence of DACs everywhere these days there are many more flexible options around.