If you’re going to listen to great CDs, you’ll need a worthwhile CD player and they tend to run in the minimum realm of $2,000 range. But how about if you already run a pretty decent transport such as like Pioneer BDP-62FD universal player and you want to improve upon the sound (well, in the case of BDP-62, there is no analog output at all, actually)? In my case, for the longest time I’ve been using Cambridge Audio DAC Magic. Not only it sounds great, it’s cheap too. It’s very musical and very popular indeed. However, since I have a background in sound production, I know for a fact that some of the CDs I produced have been made sweeter and closer to perfection by the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic. Nothing wrong with that approach, but I prefer something that is ruthlessly honest with its utmost brutality. No sugar-coating of any kind. I want garbage-in garbage-out. After all, the job of a DAC is to convert whatever signal that goes into the box into analog without adding or reducing anything.
The ZDAC is a compact but full featured unit with plenty of connectivity. Inputs include coaxial and optical SPDIF as well as asynchronous USB. Somewhat unusually for a DAC in this price range, the ZDAC offers XLR outputs in addition to the typical RCA option. An integrated headphone amp appears on the front panel via 1/8″ jack, with a dedicated volume knob controlling headphone volume but not line-out which is fixed at 2.1 Vrms for RCA and double that for XLR.
Internally, all incoming signals pass through an Analog Devices AD1895 asynchronous sample rate converter from Analog Devices which re-clocks to 105.46875 kHz. This data is then passed to the AD1853 for D/A conversion using 4x oversampling. The net result (when rounded up) is the 422 kHz upsampling figure seen in Parasound’s marketing literature.
The ZDAC accepts 24-bit/192kHz signals through both S/PDIF inputs by way of an AKM AK4113 receiver. USB signals are handled by a Texas Instrument TAS1020B which is an older USB 1.1 part rather than USB 2.0 and thus necessarily limited to 24-bit/96kHz signals. With many new USB DACs boasting 24/192 capabilities and beyond, the ZDAC might initially seem underwhelming. But not so fast… this isn’t your run-of-the-mill design.
Some DAC makers use the TAS1020B with its stock adaptive mode firmware and call it a day. Others like Benchmark, Lavry, and Bel Canto, license code from CEntrance, which offers much higher performance. Holm Acoustics has enough in-house expertise to create their own firmware from scratch which is not something many companies are equipped to do. This avoids licensing fees which would surely push this sub-$500 DAC into a higher price bracket. It also allows for potentially higher performance. USB 1.1 means no drivers needed – just plug and play… and by being USB 1.1, this also allows the use of longer USB cables too.
So using my current setup of Pioneer BDP-62FD as the transport, NAD C 316BEE integrated amplifier, and PSB 300i speakers, I’m doing a comparison between my old Cambridge Audio DAC Magic versus the new Parasound ZDAC that’s been highly recommended by my friends at Skywalker Sound.
Compared to the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic, the Parasound ZDAC sounded faster, tighter, more aggressive, and produced a taller but narrower soundstage with more pin-point-able sonic images. The Cambridge Audio DAC Magic sacrificed speed and jump factor but produced more graceful decays, had more width and 3D texture, and created a much more deeply layered soundstage. Even the songs that I fully aware of not having a rounded vocal and less than 180-degree panorama sounded absolutely sublime through with a decidedly rounder, sweeter quality of the vocal with panoramic soundstage beyond 180-degree. It is sweet, beautiful, but I know for a fact that the original recordings I created and used for this testing are NOT this sweet and beautiful.
With the Parasound ZDAC, however, I hear all the mistakes I created when I produced these recordings. From the slightly off-centre vocal in one song, a narrower than 180-degree soundfield imaging in the other, to that one digital clipping in one of the songs I produced, I can hear it all!!!
All I can say is that if you claim to be an audiophile, you will want to hear everything as it is recorded in the studio. With my background in music production and having produced tens of albums I can tell you for a fact that the Parasound ZDAC is the only DAC that is brutally honest and faithfully reproduce anything you put into it without adding any sweeteners or sonic enhancement for less than $500.
As for my Cambridge Audio DAC Magic? It is now demoted to my daughter’s bedroom.