October 24, 2010

Digital Music Center. Bryston BDA-1 DAC.

The Bryston BDA-1 DAC, front and back view.

This review might come in some what late for most people who are already on the media server band wagon. This Bryston BDA-1 DAC isn't exactly new product either. It's being reviewed many times over, and in the process have garnered a string of industry awards and accolades. If anything, this review serves to only re-enforce that stellar reputation.

Priced at RM$8,800 each, the Bryston BDA-1 isn't exactly short of competitors either, mostly of newer and more advanced designs too! That puts the Bryston DAC in a technical disadvantaged position today. However, it more than makes up for it in serious sound quality as you shall read on.
Digital stack, top to bottom: Sony DV-NS730P DVD player, Bryston BDA-1 DAC and Marantz CD7.

The Bryston is very well built in a sturdy case design matching those found on their BP-26 pre amp and BCD-1 CD player. Bryston has put in special emphasis on stiff power supply and regulation stages plus the discreet class A output circuitry, around the garden variety Crystal CS-4398 DAC chip, implemented in balanced pair configuration. The Bryston also has 8 digital inputs of various types, including one USB.

I tested the Bryston BDA-1 in 3 modes, first using my Marantz CD7 as a CD transport connected via the coax 1 input of the Bryston DAC. I evaluated the BDA-1 with and without the up-sampling engaged, but ended up preferring the more airy spatial, and detailed qualities of the up sampled sound. I normally do not favour up sampled sound, so here's a little unusual. The rest of the review description is based on the up sampling engaged, unless mentioned otherwise.

I found the Bryston DAC to offer class leading sound qualities, competitive with the likes of the Metronome, Wadia and Esoteric x-03(all previously reviewed here and the Esoteric is my reference CD player) as it's equal playmates. The tonal balance is near neutral with a twist of sweetness in treble and warm mid range reproduction. The bass is tight, extended and powerful. For the first time, I felt there is beauty associated with near neutral tonal balance which isn't normally exclusive either. The level of transparency is startling, and puts the Bryston in the same league as the Wadia and the Esoteric mentioned above. Sound stage is huge, enveloping with great depth perception. Imaging is solid, and packed with density. Each musical performance, irregardless of genre, comes alive. I've never enjoyed digital gear quite like this since the Wadia and the Esoteric. There's a musical element present here(very much like the Linn LP12's ability to carry a tune), that seldom comes with digital gear.

Next up, I thought since my Marantz CD7 uses the highly rated Philips CD-Pro transport, I'd try and use the Bryston with something a little more generic, like a DVD player for transport duties? The unit used is an old Sony DV-NS730P DVD player. Like the Marantz, I used the coax connection to the Bryston DAC. I found that with the generic Sony DVD transport, the sound qualities of the Bryston changed little, except there's now less low level recording detail and resolution on offer. Otherwise, the beautiful near neutral tonal balance and big enveloping sound stage plus musical qualities remains unchanged. In both cases, a Wireworld Starlight coaxial cable and PS Audio Statement SC power cord was used.
Another look from the back.

Finally, who'd buy a DAC these days without a USB input for use with media servers? So I lugged the Bryston BDA-1 to my buddy's place for a DAC shootout and evaluation session. My buddy is an expert, when it comes to the topic of computer audio. So anything he says goes with me. First he said that comparing the Bryston DAC against the other newer designs is quite futile, as the former does not have an asynchronous USB input, on top of that, it locks the input bit rate at 16/44.1k only. Music files of higher resolution would be down sampled to the locked input bit rate of the Bryston USB input. My buddy said "the Bryston would be fighting the other newer DACs with one arm tied around it's back!".

In the 3 DAC comparison session, the Bryston goes head on with a state of the art DAC costing at least 3 times the price, and one newer competitor of the latest design in the same price range. I cannot reveal the identities of the other 2 DACs for they were not officially submitted to me for a review. In the interest of keeping everything the same, only 16/44.1k rips stored in a Mac Mini were used in the evaluation process. All the DACs had their up sampling feature dis-engaged.

In terms of sound quality, I taught the Bryston to be surprisingly competitive with the latest batch of DACs. All the sonic qualities mentioned above was still there, only this time when compared to the super high end DAC costing 3 times more, the Bryston sounded a bit noisier in the back ground, as in a bit of whitish hazy compared to the jet black back ground of the later. The mid range of the Bryston is slightly forward against the creamy rich mids of the more expensive design.

When compared to the newer competitor of the latest design in the same price range, I thought the Bryston to sound more refined and less edgy. Overall, the most expensive state of the art DAC still wins by a small margin. The Bryston and the other competitor is virtually neck to neck in terms of overall sound performance. The newer competitor had more snazzy and up to date features like an asynchronous USB input that allows up to 24/96k input resolution files. The newer competitor also features a volume or gain control pot for output level matching, or can be used to by pass the need of a pre amp. In all three DACs a Wireworld Ultra Violet USB cable and Wireworld Silver Electra power cord was used to standardised the variables. All three DACs were also level match as close as possible for the comparison.

I think if one is shopping for a DAC in the ball park of up to RM$10k for price, one can find quite a few options, all featuring newer technology and offering more features for the money. However, if one uses sound quality as the sole criteria for evaluation, than I believe the Bryston is a champ! Ignore it at one's peril, as they say.

I can see the Bryston BDA-1 DAC being put in to service to upgrade one's aging CD player's(preferably one with a good quality CD transport) performance, at the same time function as a digital music center for computer audio and other secondary digital component requirements. And by the way, the BDA-1 does respond rather well to good quality power cords and isolation cone tweaks.

This Bryston DAC has shown me new found respect for the Crystal CS-4398 DAC chip and it's capabilities, and not necessarily the better the spec list, the better the sound. Why does that sound so familiar, especially when it comes to audio products?

Bryston is sold by AV Designs, contact James Tan at 03-21712828.

No comments: