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.