There’s a school of thought that maintains that multibit DACs provide superior sound to Delta-Sigma DACs. It’s a claim that I’m somewhat sympathetic to. Schiit's Yggdrasil and Holo Audio’s Spring are two multibit DACs that belong near the top of any list of the best DACs on the market today.
However, some recent Delta-Sigma DACs — like the Crane Song Solaris, Matrix X-SABRE Pro, and Dangerous Convert 2 — are giving the great multibit DACs a run for their money.
The ultimate truth is that each DAC type has its pros and cons, just as each individual DAC does.
But for those audiophiles intrigued by the potential of multibit DACs, the Massdrop x Airist Audio R-2R DAC has been getting good buzz. Like the Spring, the Airist is a multibit DAC that employs discrete resistor ladder technology. The relative complexity of this design usually carries a high price tag. But the Airist comes in significantly below expectations with a U.S. MSRP of $350.
Like many audio offerings from Drop (Massdrop’s new name), the 8.1-inch square, 1.5-inch high Airist feels solidly built thanks to its hefty, CNC-milled aluminum case. The Airist’s matte-black appearance is pleasantly utilitarian, as are its controls. The front of the Airist sports only a power button and an input-select button. The rear features USB (XMOS XU208), coaxial RCA, and TOSLINK optical digital inputs, all of which are galvanically isolated, along with analog RCA outputs and the input for the Airist’s external power supply.
The Airist uses a linear phase FIR filter. It supports a maximum 24-bit/384 kHz signal over USB and a maximum 24/192 signal over coaxial/optical. Regardless of input, the Airist upsamples incoming lower-sample rate data to 192kHz.
The Airist has been measured at several other sites. The summary is that the Airist has significantly worse distortion measurements than similarly priced Deta-Sigma DACs. However, even these comparably bad measurements are probably just on the edge of audibility in realistic use, and both the Airist’s linearity and frequency response are good.
With that in mind, I decided to first place the Airist up against the Bryston BDA-1. The BDA-1 is an out-of-production professional DAC built around the hybrid multibit/delta-sigma CS4398 chip. It was well-reviewed when it debuted in 2010. I still think it sounds wonderful (with a nice mix of multibit tonality and delta-sigma technicalities), and it can be had on the used market for a small fraction of its initial $1,995 MSRP. In order to provide a current-production comparison, I also mixed in the Schiit Modi 3. The Modi uses the AK4490 delta-sigma chip, is priced at a mere $99, measures extremely well, and sounds good.
All listening was level-matched within .2 dB*. Each DAC was fed from my Mac Mini using Audirvana. The Airist and Modi 3’s USB inputs were used, while a Schiit Eitr USB to SPDIF converter was utilized between the Mac Mini and the Bryston, due to the latter’s 16/48 limitation over USB.
* To answer the next question, no, my listening was not blindfolded. Or double blind. Or sextuple blind. And I’m okay with that.
For the Airist’s first head-to-head DAC matchup, I pulled up the original CD edition of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and cued up the album’s sparse-yet-impactful second track “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Through the Airist, the low electric guitar part in the left channel was clear and visceral. There was, dare I say it, a bit of “multibit magic” in how the Airist rendered the tonality of the instruments. However, flipping over to the BDA-1, it became clear what was missing through the Airist. The nuances of Steve Ferrone’s tight hi-hat/kick/snare groove were obscured through the Airist but clear through the BDA-1. Likewise, the Airist wasn’t able to pull the fine details out of the acoustic guitar in the center of the sound stage, the electric piano in right channel, or Petty’s vocals. The BDA-1 could retrieve those details, and it gave up little to the Airist in tonality.
I next turned to what Audiophile Style readers may recognize by now is one of my favorite audition albums, Van Morrison’s collection of unreleased songs, The Philosopher’s Stone. The album’s glorious 1975 rendition of “The Street Only Knew Your Name” features a shaker in the center channel that propels the songs forward. Through superb DACs, you can hear each individual pebble in the shaker and get a sense of the container. However, on less revealing DACs, the pebbles become a nearly indistinguishable mass and only a general “shh-shh-shhh-shhh” is left. The BDA-1 fell firmly in the first category, while the Airist landed much closer to the latter.
At this point, I inserted the Modi 3 into the DAC mix and put on “Feelin’ Alright” from the Mobile Fidelity CD mastering of Traffic’s 1968 self-titled album. The Airist does a nice job rendering front-to-back depth on the track. Jim Capaldi’s the drums in the right channel and Steve Winwood’s piano in the left channel both sound smooth and realistic. However, switching to the BDA-1, it’s once again clear that the Airist is shrouding some of the detail in the recording. With the BDA-1, I can hear every nuance of Capaldi’s hi-hat work, Dave Mason’s jangly acoustic guitar, and Winwood’s piano strings, all while sacrificing only a smidge of depth. The same details are clear through the Modi 3, but overall the Modi offers a less natural tonality, some grain, and less depth than the BDA-1.
Turning to a somewhat more recent recording, I put on the original CD pressing of Tori Amos’s Under the Pink and selected “Cornflake Girl.” The Airist reproduced the lower registers of Amos’s voice beautifully. However, the reverberant, defiant thwack of the snare drum that propels the song forward and the sense of space around Amos’s voice are missing through Airist but clear through BDA-1. Once again, the Modi 3 renders a flatter soundstage front-to-back than the BDA-1 and falls behind both DACs in tonality, but still manages to wring more detail from recording than the Airist does.
Finally, I put on “Brothers Gotta Work It Out” from the deluxe edition of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. Given the Airist’s strength in low end reproduction, I expected the Bomb Squad’s thumping soundscape to be an alley oop to the Airist. Instead, it revealed its biggest weakness. The Airist’s lack of upper-register detail made the track’s sample of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” solo harder to hear. Even more significantly, the Airist’s missing treble detail also created disconnect between low- and high-end clarity, which made special cues, particularly left-to-right, harder to discern. Both the BDA-1 and the Modi 3 corrected this problem, with the BDA-1, in particular, providing a smooth, cohesive sonic picture.
Ultimately, I came away from my extended audition of the Airist underwhelmed. It’s a fine, affordable introduction to “multibit magic” for multibit-curious audiophile. However, because it sacrifices so much detail in the pursuit of the multibit tonality, I’d have a hard time living with the Airist as my only DAC.
- Airist Audio R-2R DAC ($359)
- Airist Audio R-2R DAC Product Page
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.