I already own three products (A2, A5+, and S8) from Audioengine, so when a visit to their website revealed a new DAC for 169$, it was pretty much a click now and figure out what do with it later situation. Actually, I have a perfectly legit use for it since my office computer's headphone output is buzzy and harsh.
So how exactly is Audioengine delivering for such a low price? In the past, reviewers were confounded by their quality workmanship, which made use of custom parts. Did they take the same approach with this DAC? Not entirely, so far as I can see. On the D1 (and D2), the TI1020B USB controller chip is "widely recognized as the industry standard for higher-end USB audio products" according to Audioengine's website. The SPDIF receiver (CS8416) is the same used in the Schiit Bifrost (see here). And then of course the AKM4396 DAC has been used in countless soundcards as well as the Logitech Transporter and the CEntrance DACmini (and many more).
The D1 ships in a padded box with a gold plated USB cable (mini to USB, 28"). Per usual, a microfiber bag is included, but you'll need to get your own Toslink cable.
Specs and such
Before I get into listening reactions, let me clear up some confusion about the D1's sample rate capabilities (confusion because the guide and the features say both 24/96 and 24/192). The AKM4396 converter chip is capable of handling up to a 192 kHz sample rate and a bit depth of 24 bits. However, the USB controller only supports 24/96. It is not Audio Class 2 compliant. So you will need to use the Toslink input if you want to get 24/192. Because life is funny that way, current Macs (that I've checked) do not support optical output of 24/192 for 2-channel streams. For even the latest Macs, PCM caps out at 24/96 while AC-3 (Dolby) goes up to 16/192 via the digital out. Oh the humanity! But come on now, how much remastered material is out their at 24/192? Unless I see the engineer's comments, don't expect me to throw 18$ at an "audiophile" recording. But that's just me.
So you probably can't get 24/192 unless you use an SPDIF converter box. Some of you will probably have some other workarounds. Do tell!
How does it sound?
After 40 hours, I did some critical listening. I should point out that I'm not an experienced audiophile with golden ears. I am a musician who appreciates good music, and who has read a few books on how to critically evaluate audio equipment. This is my first written review (thanks to CA for motivating me and providing member blogs). Anyways:
Speakers: A2 and A5+
Interconnects: Audioquest Sidewinder, Audioquest Evergreen
Optical: Moshlink Premium mini to Toslink
USB: Audioengine cable, Audioquest Cinnamon
I compared the performance of the D1 optical input alongside the DacMagic input. I also compared the USB inputs side by side. Ughh...unplugging cables between each listening was not making things easy. Then I remembered that I had an RCA female to 3.5mm male adapter. Voila! The A5+ speakers have both an RCA input and a 3.5mm input. Much better.
So I ran two USB cables out of an iMac 2011 (SSD) into both DACs. And ran both DACs into the A5+ speakers. I used Decibel (RAM play and Hog Mode) for high res as well as iTunes for 16/44 and mp3. For whatever reason, Decibel has problems switching the sound source back and forth during playback. Decibel would restart the whole song. Also, after selecting the Audioengine USB output, it would often take about 10 seconds before the sound started coming out. Probably just a quirk with Decibel, who knows. iTunes had no such problem, allowing rapid back and forth switching between the DACs while the songs played. The Mac volume controls are disabled when using the D1 as the output source, which is fine since you would probably want to keep digital volume at 100%.
So how do they compare? The D1 gives the DacMagic a run for its money.
The prominent difference was deep bass (down in the subwoofer zone). The DacMagic is slightly more extended in the bass, and delivers a tiny bit more punchiness. When the subwoofer (the S8) was turned off, they were indistinguishable. The bass extension became most apparent on the opening funkiness that ?estlove and Christian McBride put down on The Philadelphia Experiment, "Call for All Demons." You need to go download this track right now. I'm serious.
The D1 sounds just a slight bit more forward in presentation to me, and also a tad dry (less reverberation and space) next to the DagMagic. On the other hand, there have been times when I felt the DacMagic had a little too much reverb, i.e. ringing around the transients. And yes, I did try out all 3 DacMagic filters while doing comparisons. I prefer the Linear filter for music and the Steep filter for movies.
Other than that, I couldn't discern much difference between the D1 and the DacMagic. On one track, I suspected that the open hi hat was slightly more brassy and lifelike on the DacMagic, but it was an extremely subtle difference. The D1 did great. Even on difficult material like the Bulgarian Women's Choir. Even on albums with tons of sizzling ride cymbal (like Bill Evans, Waltz for Debby), the D1 delivers some seriously accurate sound. Overall, sins of omission are preferable in my book. Granted, my equipment is not the highest resolving stuff out there. Better equipment may reveal more, but only on pains of becoming irrelevant, since you aren't going to stick a USB powered DAC in that system anyways. Of course, that's just my ears. Maybe others will hear much more.
What about the headphone amp? It drove my AKG701s just fine, with plenty of room to spare for volume. I could not detect any sonic differences between the D1 optical and USB inputs.
The next time someone wants to seriously improve their computer's sound for under $600, I'm going to recommend a pair of A5+ speakers with the D1. Very impressed by this DAC.
One important thing to note: my reviewing was done with an iMac 2011 and a Macbook Air 2011. With the latest Intel processors (i7 in the iMac, i5 in the Air), it is possible that the adaptive mode USB is less prone to jitter. An older machine (perhaps with lots of background services running) might have performed a little differently. Who knows.
Let me know if you have any questions or corrections.