Since the advent of recorded music, there’s been a more or less constant tension between the audiophile segment of the marketplace and the great unwashed hordes of transistor-toting plebes who have always purchased most of the albums. High-end hi-fis, quadraphonic speakers, deluxe super metal cassettes (and no Dolby NR!), top-of-the-line earbuds and lossless files are all different battles in one long war — and now we’re back to shockingly expensive turntables again. It’s like Elton John said.
Gear that promises audiophile sound at midline prices is also nothing new, but a lot has changed on the hardware front in the last 50 years — you can still spend thousands of dollars on an amazing home theater system, but the gap between that and more judiciously priced equipment is thinner than ever. Case in point: NuForce’s new entry-level USB-DAC, the Icon uDAC-2.
“Hold on a second,” I can hear you saying. “What the hell is a USB-DAC?” The long answer is that I’m really not the guy to ask, because I haven’t used a soldering iron since I was in the Boy Scouts and I spent several years cheerfully listening to 128 kbps mp3s. (Neil Young and maybe Eric Johnson aside, I don’t think most musicians are really audiophiles. It’s telling that the first thing you do after you mix down a new song is play it back through the shittiest speakers you own.) But the short answer is that no matter how much you spent on it, your computer’s/iPod’s/phone’s sound card really isn’t made for delivering the kind of audio your ears want when you’re listening to music. It can get reasonably close — you’re probably happily listening to something through a computer device as you read this — but it’s always going to lack true separation and warmth, especially if you’re listening to some of the horribly compressed noise that the majors have released over the last 10 years or so.
How does a USB-DAC compensate for this? You can get the technical specs here, but you can’t get me to pretend I understand them; I’ll just tell you that my pal Jacob Detering chalked it up to “double jitter correction” before my eyes glazed over and he started sounding like one of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
In other words, it all sounds like a bunch of hooey, especially given that we’re talking about a USB-powered box that’s about as tall as a quarter, so I was skeptical when I plugged my uDAC-2 (sent for review by the folks at NuForce) into my desktop. My speaker setup isn’t amazing, but it’s serviceable for what I do — a pair of Boston Acoustics satellites with a subwoofer — so I figured it’d be pretty perfect for this type of gear. And what do you know? I was right. After doing an A/B comparison between my unassisted sound card and the uDAC-2, I heard an immediate, noticeable difference. Single jitter, double jitter, triple jitter, whatever; what ends up hitting your ears is what feels like an expanded field, where treble and bass actually have a little room to play instead of being crushed together and squeezed out of a digital tube. It helps cut down on ear fatigue, which is another way of saying I wish I could marry the uDAC-2.
There are a couple of caveats, though, and they might be fairly significant ones, depending on your own setup. First of all, if you do tend to listen to a lot of “hot” mixed stuff, the uDAC-2 will make you think twice about cranking the volume — it’s been my experience that it makes loud stuff even louder. And while it makes good audio files sound great, it’s also pretty unforgiving when it comes to cruddy ones. Anything ripped below 192 kbps isn’t going to sound better through the uDAC-2, and I think stuff down at 128 sounds even worse. If you’re the kind of person who rips at 320 or buys lossless files anyway, you know this is just a matter of course; it’s just important to note that plugging in one of these boxes isn’t going to magically correct your shitty mp3s. In fact, it may end up driving you to replace them.