Arcam irDAC-II Review 20


Founded in 1976 by 2 engineering students from the University of Cambridge, Arcam are a company of firsts. Their first amplifier, the A and R A60, is today considered a classic product thanks to its sleek appearance and high-end sound. They were the first company to launch an outboard DAC in 1987 during the rise in popularity of the CD. They were the first (and only) company to introduce an entirely British-built Dolby S cassette deck, the Delta 100. And they were the first company to introduce a hi-fi DAB tuner with the release of the Alpha10 in 1999.

A few years ago Arcam re-entered the DAC market with the rDAC, and today Arcam’s product range consists of hi-fi, home cinema and portable audio products. The subject of today’s review, the irDAC-II is a follow-on product from their hugely successful irDAC with a multitude of upgrades and a huge leap in performance over its predecessor.

The irDAC-II packs a wealth of connectivity and sophisticated circuitry into its anti-vibration cast aluminium casework. Two optical and two coaxial digital inputs are provided, along with asynchronous USB and low latency aptX bluetooth streaming. At its heart is the ESS Sabre ES9016K2M 32-bit DAC chip designed for portable high-fidelity applications as well as high-end audiovisual equipment, mixing consoles and digital audio workstations. DSD128 is supported as are sampling rates of up to 24-bit, 384KHZ.

Analogue and digital stages are isolated from one another for the best performance, with low-noise power supplies and a direct coupled signal path featured throughout. Special attention has been paid to jitter reduction, allowing the irDAC-II to produce a signal that is almost free of digital jitter. Fixed and variable line level outputs are provided, meaning the irDAC-II can be used with a preamplifier or connected directly to a power amplifier. Rounding out the package is a headphone amplifier stage taken directly from Arcam’s flagship A49 integrated amp, and a full function IR remote control with transport control of a PC or Mac USB source or a supported bluetooth device.

Like all Arcam products, the irDAC-II comes beautifully packaged with a full compliment of documentation and accessories. A power adapter is included along with a selection of socket adapters for the UK, EU and US. Unusually the irDAC-II includes not only a pair of decent quality interconnects, but also optical, coaxial and USB cables. There’s also a pack of documentation, the IR remote with AAA batteries and a bluetooth antenna.

Pealing the plastic wrap from the irDAC-II itself reveals the beautiful cast aluminium casework, no doubt responsible for much of its weight. At 194 x 44 x 124mm (W x H x D) it feels considerably heavier than the quoted 1.1KG, and with its rounded corners and gently curved front panel it graces any desk or hi-fi rack. Only the base gives me some cause for complaint, as it’s manufactured from a textured rubber material that doesn’t grip the surface on which it’s placed, causing the DAC to slide backwards when a headphone jack is inserted into the socket on the front.

The front is largely bare aside from the headphone jack and the IR sensor. There’s an LED for each input, which changes colour from red to green (or Blue in the case of the Bluetooth input) when a signal is detected. A row of 4 controls on the top panel cater for input selection, bluetooth pairing and volume adjustment, and pressing the latter two controls together will mute the output from the headphone, fixed and variable outputs.

The rear of the irDAC-II is where things become interesting. Both variable and fixed level RCA inputs are provided along with 2 coaxial, 2 optical inputs and a USB B computer input. There’s a screw terminal to attach the included Bluetooth antenna and a power switch with an input jack for the included power supply. The USB input supports a maximum sampling rate of 24-bit, 384KHZ, while the coaxial inputs can handle 24-bit, 192KHZ audio. The optical inputs are limited to 24-bit, 96KHZ, and the bluetooth streamer supports the SBC, AAC, AptX and AptX:LL (Low Latency) codecs.

The remote is a slim plastic affair, the controls neatly organised into sections for transport control, volume, mute and source selection. It’s nicely curved and comfortable to hold, and the controls offer up a satisfying tactile click when pressed. it takes 2 AAA batteries, which install beneath a slide-on cover clipped to the back. The remote is a welcome addition, and far nicer than that supplied with many similarly priced DACs.

Upon unpacking the irDAC-II, I elected not to read the user manual, instead diving right in and connecting a CD transport and network streamer to its coaxial inputs, and a MacBook Pro to its USB input. Once configured in the mac’s Audio Midi Setup utility, I was able to achieve full resolution through all inputs, and with the variable level outputs directly feeding a power amp I was spinning discs in a matter of minutes.

Pairing a bluetooth device however was another matter, and one that despite my reluctance eventually had me reaching for the manual. Pairing is, as it turns out, a simple procedure. Once the Bluetooth input is selected, pressing the 2 input selection buttons on the top of the device simultaneously initiates pairing mode, indicated by a flashing LED which goes solid once a device is connected.

Sound wise, the irDAC-II is smooth and refined, with an ability to reveal minute details that only the best DACs can rival. Its ability to separate the instruments and layers in a track is particularly evident, especially when using the onboard headphone amp. Its noise floor is imperceptible as should be the case with a digital device but sadly so often isn’t, and the sound lacks any strain or harshness at the top end. Many audio components are designed to impress upon initial listen, but quickly become fatiguing. The irDAC-II is like other Arcam products in that its sound is effortlessly musical, and you can listen to it for hours.

The headphone amplifier in particular is astoundingly good. It’s dead silent and offers up bags of power enabling it to drive even the most awkward phones with ease. Realising this, the Arcam soon found a place on my desktop, serving as the primary DAC and headphone amplifier for late night iTunes sessions, the regularity of which increased dramatically.

In summary, the irDAC-II is another top class product from Arcam. The features on offer are astounding for the price. For just short of £500 ($798 USA), you’re getting a DAC able to support the highest resolutions, a top quality digital preamp, a bluetooth streamer and a magnificent headphone amplifier, all housed in a chassis no larger than a DVD box set.

Its variable output makes it the perfect hub for a simple digital system, with only a power amplifier and a music source required to create a fully fledged hi-fi system equipped to handle the very latest digital music. Its fixed level output makes it the perfect digital front end to analogue systems too. The bluetooth input means everybody can stream their music to the hi-fi wirelessly, and its headphone amplifier makes it the perfect desktop companion to be used alongside a computer. Yet again Arcam impress with a product that represents superb value for money, incorporating the very best technology and offering up a top notch musical performance. Highly recommended.


About Ashley

I founded Audio Appraisal a few years ago and continue to regularly update it with fresh content. An avid vinyl collector and coffee addict, I can often be found at a workbench tinkering with a faulty electronic device, tweaking a turntable to extract the last bit of detail from those tiny grooves in the plastic stuff, or relaxing in front of the hi-fi with a good album. A musician, occasional producer and sound engineer, other hobbies include software programming, web development, long walks and occasional DIY. Follow @ashleycox2

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20 thoughts on “Arcam irDAC-II Review

  • Chris

    Hi all,

    Thanks for the review. Pretty much spot on – this dac is very open, clear and transparent. I am a rock-lover and I have read elswhere that this dac is a bit subdued and too relaxed. I agree – it *is* a bit relaxed with edgy rock but I like it toned down a bit – hate the tiresome grating of some recordings.

    I am running a CA cxc into a cxa 60 via this dac and I am very impressed indeed. The onboard dac in the cxa 60 is not bad but with this one the soundstage was beautiful and the separation of instruments immediately apparent. Very un-digital in fact, if that is possible. Smooth I suppose, but, like you say, still accurate and clear.

    Your article mentioned the headphone amp – I hadn’t even tried it until tonight. Well. I am astonished! Now I want some better headphones.

    I have a question. Maybe you’ll know the answer. I can see that the firmware version on my dac is 1.6.1 and the newest one is 1.9.2. Is it best practice to update this? It works fine at the moment.

    Cheers

    Chris

    • terry

      there is an update , yes you should update, dload and follow the guide.
      Chris.
      I have the irdac 2 , it’s really good I compared it to the cxn which I own,. And to be honest the irdac sounds that tiny bit better.
      I think the cxn is calming the sound detail ever so slightly worried th it’s upsampling.

      You should try playing dsd through the irdac, wow so good.

      • Chris

        I have the cxc cd player – I am not streaming at the moment. The cxc is just a cd transport, so I bought the irdac II to get the bluetooth up and running at some point. I have just discovered the great headphone amp at the moment. Haven’t had it for long – about 10 days!

        Have you done a firmware update then? Was it painless? Which version have to gone to?

        Cheers

        • terry

          Hi Chris.
          I think the firmware is 1.9.2
          There’s a readme that comes with the update.

          Just locate the firmware file exe file and follow instructions
          Yes it was painless.
          Just make sure you don’t touch computer while it’s updating.

          • Chris

            I have done it now, Terry. Thanks. Took about 30 seconds.

            Also found out that all the firmware updates are cumulative, so any fixes from older versions are included in the current one.

            • terry

              I think the firmware fixes a few bugs.
              Iam interested in some new headphones.
              Not sure which though.
              Never tried the headphone much, the ones I have are rubbish.
              I need some 300ohm plus to try.
              I here the headphone circuit is taken from the arcam a49 I think. So it should be excellent.

              • Chris

                I can vouch for the headphone amp in the Arcam.

                I am quite pleased with my headphones – Grado 125e – I think I’ll have to spend double what I did to get a big improvement. The design is a bit weird and they are very open-backed (anyone will heard your music within a 10 m radius) but they work fine with the Arcam – but nowhere near the resistance you are talking about. Why 300 Ohm?

              • Ashley Post author

                I tend to go with Sennheiser. The HD-202s are one of the best budget headphones out there, if not the best. Then if you like that flat studio sound go for something like the HD280, and from there you go up to the HD5, HD6, HD7 and Hd8 series. DOn’t worry about the impedance.

  • Terry

    Ashley
    Normally I play my dsds- dsf through my cxn.
    Cambridge told me that cxn will down sample them to 192.

    I also own arcam irdac 2 which plays dsd native.

    Now this is what I did.
    I played back dsd files from jriver on laptop no processing , just pure stream to irdac 2, USB.
    Then from irdac phono to cxa 80.
    Iam not sure if there’s any difference in sound quality.
    Should there be any difference????
    My ears tell me no.
    Could it be that the cxn downsample is still keeping dsd native sq,??
    What’s your opinion on this.
    Thank you.

    • Ashley Post author

      My opinion is that high resolution music (DSD, 24/96 / 24/192 etc) is massively overhyped. Much of the ‘high resolution’ material available for sale today is sourced from analogue master tapes, or from CD quality rips. Add some clever marketing and you’ll have a queue of audiophiles waving their credit cards around. This Article sums it up pretty nicely. As they rightly point out, if you record the music in a high resolution from the start then it’s possible that a difference is audible.

  • Terry

    Ashey
    Would it be safe to use old headphones with arcam irdac2 .
    They are Sony Mdr v250, cheap ones, until I get some decent ones.
    Specs are
    Frequency Response 16 Hz
    Impedance 24 Ohm
    Sensitivity 98 dB
    24 ohms rating
    Now I know the irdac 2 states that ohms are 30 to 600ohms
    Could I damage the dac using these?

  • Terry

    Hi Ashley
    I have been experimenting jriver and arcam irdac 2
    Would you know if the dac is dsD 64 128 native?
    When I use jriver, I tick the option 1xdsd in NATIVE format(requires asio and 1xdsd capable dac)
    Same for 2xdsd for 128.
    I can select any. , and they play fine.
    The thing is that I cannot for the life of me, find any info.
    I am assuming that the dac is true native dsd.

    Has apposed to pcm conversion.
    What’s you opinion
    Than you in advance

  • Terry

    Hi Ashley
    Just replaced the dacmagic plus , after it gave a loud whining noise and died huh!
    Only bought it 10 days ago.
    Any way I purchased the arcam ir dac II, wow. It sounds absolutely fantastic. I have got it attached to a cxa 60.
    I can even play dsd 64 128 native,
    Iam using momentum 2 headphones.
    I agree in all of what you said and more.
    Will update, when I have played around.