The ELAC Alchemy DDP-2 is as close to an all-in-one component as they come, without being a jack of all trades, master of none. ELAC calls it a DAC, preamp, and streamer. I tend to leave out the word streamer, opting to call it a DAC with Ethernet input, but that's neither here nor there in the big picture. Designed by Peter Madnick of Audio Alchemy and Constellation Audio fame, the DDP-2 is equivalent to what the car world calls a sleeper. Its unassuming external appearance and support for nearly everything under the sun may lead many to believe it's just another big box type of component. With respect to cars, nobody drives by a Toyota Camry and says, "Hey look, it's a 2018 Camry!" Similarly, I can't imagine the DDP-2 will visually turn many heads at audio shows over the next couple years like the somewhat polarizing D'Agostino designs. However, for many audiophiles and car enthusiasts alike, performance is the most important factor. The ELAC Alchemy DDP-2 won't disappoint those seeking great performance and considering its reasonable price, it shouldn't disappoint anybody.
If This, Then That
- If I was to start over as an audiophile with a "reasonable" budget, then the DDP-2 would be on my short list.
- If I was putting together a second system for my house, then the DDP-2 would be on my short list.
- If I was looking to get the most performance and most features out of a single component, then the DDP-2 would be on my short list.
- If I could think of more situations where a full featured DAC and preamp was necessary, then the DDP-2 would be on my short list.
In my video below, viewers can hear Peter Madnick describe many of the unique features and technical details of the ELAC Alchemy DDP-2. I don't like to reiterate or go over things again, so I won't. Please watch the video.
Lacking the nice / expensive metal work of past Alchemy products, but incorporating all the intellectual property of its designer, the DDP-2 is the perfect component to listen to and review. It's impossible to be swayed by anything other than its sound quality. As such, let's get to it.
Audiophile Style member @miguelito tipped me off to a 2019 Kevin Gray remaster (link) of an all time favorite album of mine, John Coltrane's Standard Coltrane. I played the DSD64 version through the ELAC Alchemy DDP-2 extensively. When a combination is this good, why change? Streaming from Roon, the DDP-1's front panel appropriately displayed the track was received as DSDx1. The DDP-2 was connected via balanced interconnects to my Constellation Audio Inspiration mono amps' DIRECT input. This input is the cleanest input on the amps as it bypasses an internal gain stage needed by many components that can't output enough power to drive the amps well. The DDP-2's 7 Vrms output was enough horsepower to drive the amps wonderfully in all but the most extreme and demanding situations.
Back to Coltrane, in 1958 a few months before recording Kind of Blue with Miles Davis, he recorded Standard Coltrane with Wilbur Harden, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. The results of this recording session can be blissful when played through a high end audio system. With the DDP-2 driving my system, the sound was wonderful, engaging, and seductive. I felt a closeness to the instruments, especially Coltrane's tenor sax, as the album rolled through on repeat. On Don't Take Your Love From Me, I could listen to the entire soundstage as one or pick out individuals such as Coltrane in the left channel, Paul Chambers' bass in the right channel, Jimmy Cobb's drums in the right channel, and Red Garland's piano centered between everyone. Of course this information can and should be heard through any competent DAC / system, but through the DDP-2 there was a nice sense of layering of the instruments that isn't often heard.
On the last track, Invitation, Coltrane's sax seduces the listener right from the beginning, until a spacious cymbal from Jimmy Cobb breaks in at the 0:17 mark and forces the listener to think this is a jazz club with ambiance, rather than Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, New Jersey recording studio. Through the DDP-2 this cymbal appears to illuminate Cobb's corner of the "stage" as Paul Chambers digs deep and lays the bass groundwork for Coltrane's magical performance.
It's hard to believe this much information is contained on a recording from 1958, but it's the truth. Using the ELAC Alchemy DDP-2 enabled me to hear what I'll say is almost all of this recording. Cobb's cymbal certainly gives the listener spacial queues as it reverberates off the recording studio walls and the DDP-2 reproduces its shimmer as it fades away. One sonic signature of the DDP-2 can be heard at this point in the recording as well. The DDP-2 has a very analog / vinyl sound to my ears. I also liken this sound to a matte finish as opposed to glossy. Thus, while Cobb's cymbals shimmer, the totality of this shimmer is a touch muted and the very last gasping breath of the sonic decay is missing. This is far from a show stopper and more a fact of life for components that are built with price restrictions in mind. I also wouldn't consider this a flaw but rather reaching the edge of the DDP-2's high performance level.
Comparing the $2,499 ELAC Alchemy DDP-2 to the $2,399 Schiit Yggdrasil and the $3,999 Auralic Vega G1 reveals nice sonic differences, if my memory serves correctly. These three DACs are different in several respects, among them converter topology, volume control or lack of, and features. The Vega G1 has a much cleaner sound that resembles nothing like analog or vinyl. I understand that to many readers analog is the holy grail and something that sounds analog is to be regarded as the best. In my opinion analog and vinyl have certain artifacts that are well documented and audible. It's neither a pro nor a con to sound like analog or nothing like analog. This is an observation from listening to analog tape and vinyl records as well as many digital to analog converters. Compared to the Schiit Yggdrasil, the DDP-2 has a leaner yet equally lush sound. I remember listening to Gary Karr's Bass Virtuoso through the Yggdrasil and thinking about the wood material used to construct his double bass. Something about that full and robust sound of the Yggdrasil injected those thoughts into my head. On the other hand, through the DDP-2, Karr's bass is a bit more airy and perhaps a skosh less colored.
Switching sources from Roon via Ethernet to an Aurender W20 via AES to hear a classical favorite of mine also reveals blissful delights within the ELAC Alchemy DDP-2. The Kansas City Symphony's version of Britten's Orchestra, recorded by Keith Johnson for Reference Recordings is a masterpiece (out of print due to musician's union limits, available used here (affiliate link)). This track illuminates transients, power, delicacy, and detail as good as anything in my library. I set the DDP-2 volume to 95 out of 100 and let it rip. This track has a dynamic range score of 26 and can bring DACs without much output power to their knees. Listing to lesser powerful DACs connected to the Constellation DIRECT input, I always run out of volume while playing this album. Not so with the DDP-2, although it was a close call. The DDP-2 displayed its analog take on my favorite "track," Passacaglia. Starting soft and requiring a DAC with detail and delicacy, this track is revealing. The DDP-2 lets a simple violin flow to the rest of the system like a butterfly in the wind. The sound is left to wander without much else going on. There are other fine details to be heard beneath the layers of the symphony and they are audible through this DAC. Not reference quality, but very good if not great. At $2,499 this is what I expect and the DDP-2 delivered where many others fail.
Listening for transient reproduction through the DDP-2 I found two distinct levels of performance, one great and the other good. Starting with the good at 5:45 of the same track, Passacaglia, the DDP-2 pushes as hard as it can to reproduce the incredibly deep dynamics of this symphony. For all but the most discerning listeners the performance of the DAC on this track will be stunning. But, I heard the most dynamic sections as just a touch rounded at the edges. When I switch the DAC to the standard XLR inputs of my amplifiers, this roundness is reduced, making the transients more dynamic and closer to flagship components. The down side to this is that I lose a little detail because of the added gain stage.
Fortunately, great transients can be heard through the DDP-2 with different music. Larry Karush's album titled May 24, 1976 is full of fantastic music and terrific transients (Qobuz 24/96 link, Tidal 16/44.1 link). On track one, Untitled, Larry starts with a rolling melody on his piano, but soon strikes the keys with vigor. This is supposed to be jarring, and most certainly is though the DDP-2. At 1:30 into the track until 2:05, the hammer hitting the piano strings is violent in the most fantastic way and brings the listener to attention if he wasn't already. After listening to this entire album several times, I have no doubt the DDP-2 is completely capable of realistic, even terrifying, transients under the right conditions. The DAC isn't perfect, but perfect doesn't describe any component I've ever heard.
Using the other two DACs for comparison I had to use a preamp with the Yggdrasil because it doesn't have a volume control and I had to use the standard XLR amp inputs because the Vega G1 doesn't drive my amps' DIRECT inputs to my satisfaction. My take on these DACs is more of the same, just with different music. The DDP-2 sounds most like analog to me, while the Vega G1 sounds most like digital. Neither are wrong or undesirable in and of themselves, just personal preferences. Also, don't let the old guard's definition of analog and digital sound cause you to believe one is the pinnacle of sound and the other is akin to the first CD players ever made. With respect to the DDP-2 versus the Yggdrasil using this Reference Recordings album, it's the same as it ever was. The Yggdrasil is a bit more robust, strong, and dare I say colored in the best way possible. This coloration could also be due to using a preamp with the Yggdrasil, but we'll never know because this is a requirement.
Clicking over to a rare sonic gem that I was first introduced to by ELAC's Andrew Jones when he was with TAD, I heard the DDP-2 really shine as much as I've ever heard it. Boz Scaggs' But Beautiful album features a bonus track on the Japanese release (out of print, available used here (affiliate link)). It's an incredible rendition of My Funny Valentine with just Boz and a piano. Through the DDP-2 I could hear fantastic detail, terrific transients, and an absolutely awesome tone to Scagg's voice. On this track I believe the DDP-2 sounds the least like analog, yet not quite digital. What I mean by this is I can hear a tiny bit of analog flavor and a cleanliness that is reminiscent of digital. This could be the best of both worlds for many listeners, keeping in mind that no component is neutral.
The opening piano segment of this track put the DDP-2's reproduction of transients on display immediately. I didn't hear any roundness like I did on the bombastic Kansas City Symphony track, just the strike and decay of piano notes. This transient strength continues throughout the entire track. The DDP-2 only gets better at the 2:30 mark of the track. A little piano solo really shows off both this recording and the DAC.
During the recording Boz likely has a microphone extremely close to his mouth and it's very evident through a fine audio system. With the DDP-2 in my system I could hear his lips, tongue, saliva, and throat all produce appropriate sounds for a singer. These little natural "noises" make the recording all the more realistic and human. On lesser equipment these sounds fade into the background, making this superb song sound much less emotional.
Along with the detail and transients of his version of My Funny Valentine, it's Scagg's vocal tone that wowed me most through the DDP-2. This tone is very similar to what I hear through the Yggdrasil on this and other recordings, but not quite equivalent. Listening to Boz sing I can't help but think about old school guitars and amps sought after for their tone. It's those thoughts, and this vocal performance, that lead to feelings of warmth while listening to this track. The tone, in every tiny detail as Boz holds on to notes as long as necessary or begins a new verse, is second only to reference level components such as the dCS Rossini sitting in my system.
The $2,499 ELAC Alchemy DDP-2 is very analog, a touch digital, full featured, and capable of great performance. Clever design details from the mind of Peter Madnick take this ho-hum looking component with fairly standard parts to another level. The magic is all in the implementation. In addition to solid engineering, the aforementioned detail, dynamics, and tone in tracks such as My Funny Valentine prove to me that the DDP-2 is an amazing performer and using the car world's sleeper adjective is apropos. The looks are understated but the performance is surprisingly great.
I can see the new product tagline now, ELAC Alchemy Series: Don't pay for appearance, pay for performance. All joking aside, the DDP-2 is full featured, has three methods of navigating the product setup and input selection, offers two different I2S inputs, handles input as a Roon Ready device unique among DACs, keeps analog signals analog at all times as they traverses its circuitry, and a host of other items with which to compare it to the competition. Not only that but, its sound quality is equivalent to its feature set, design and implementation. Great all around.
- ELAC Alchemy Series DDP-2 DAC / Preamp / Streamer ($2,499)
- DDP-2 Product Page
- DDP-2 Tech Sheet / Brochure (1.2MB PDF)
- DDP-2 User Manual (1MB PDF)
- Where To Buy
- Source: Roon ROCK, 2018 MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Mojave)
- DAC: dCS Rossini, EMM Labs DV2
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, JRemote, Aurender Conductor
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver,
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: Transparent Audio Reference Power Isolator
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption, ATS Acoustics Bass Traps
- Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x4, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload