Have been into stereo/audio for 40+ years and while my ears/musical tastes have mellowed I’ve got an audio optimized room and lately have been trying to enter the 21st century. Have been all digital for 30 years (since literally dropping my nice turntable), but didn’t rip until last year. Still a purist at heart, my babies are commissioned floor-standing transmission line single driver speakers, and I’d removed the baffle step to allow for a direct connection from mono-blocks to drivers (check out my system on the systems section). So I’ve been running EQ to compensate in the form of a Behringer DEQ2496. The advantages of the Behringer are low price and it has a DAC that can be modded into reportedly quite respectable performance (which I did).
The down sides of the Behringer are complexity, build quality, and limited digital input options. You tube has solved the complexity issue and buying used took care of the quality concerns. Being professional gear, the only available digital input is optical. Combined with my iMac being located at the back of my room, I had it connected via a $6, 35 ft Monoprice optical cable, which continues to work without a hitch. But obviously I worried about sound quality into my babies.
So I ended up getting a MacBook Air last December and figured on running the audio from my listening chair. Then noticed how many combination DAC/pre-amp/headphone amp units were out there and the interest in desktop audio. That might be a down the road eventuality, but still being a purist it was intriguing. Hadn’t done headphones since college, but what to heck? Looked into the reviews and “everyone” is into DSD/DXD. Reminded me of quadraphonic, SACD, and DVD-a fads over the years. Reading more, found out that the Schitt folks don’t believe in these super resolution formats either and point out how really hard to make and therefore rare that native (pure) DSD/DXD recordings actually are. Even if it somehow catches on, it feels like Microsoft pushing another software “upgrade” that requires a new computer merry-go-round.
So I turned from the Benchmark DAC2, Oppo HA-1, and other such units to see what existed in the PCM only realm that might put the money into what matters (remember my entire collection is Redbook). More research, ugh, but found some blue-collar reviews (not from the connected/subsidized “professionals”) that listed a number of less expensive units that are “indistinguishable” from those $1-2,000 units. Without going DIY or to China or back to tubes (have never had great luck with them) the obvious solution was Emotiva. I know, mid-fi, pedestrian, and value oriented.
But the $500 DC-1 is from their professional series. Frankly the only other thing from that series are active monitors, that have been reasonably well received considering the circles they compete in is professional studios. Anyway it’s small, dense, has nice feel/use of the controls, has a stereo RCA analog input on top of a good selection of digital inputs, and has both XLR and RCA stereo outputs. The remote is metal/heavy/covers most of the features, but the buttons aren’t lit and the volume control is hard to control. The silliest feature is two 1/8 inch headphone jacks. Again, a low priority for me, but how can you call this piece “professional” with earbud jacks?
The DC-1 works fine as a headphone amp and except for the volume control (0.25 dB increments, so using the remote means tapping every ¼ dB or holding it down where it quickly jumps at least 6 dB) works as a pre-amp in a tidy little box that gets warm. So how does it sound (finally)? Better than my modded Behringer (that supposedly is better than the original Benchmark): dynamics and detail greatly enhanced so that the listening fun factor way up with no shortfalls that I’ve found. Since the Behringer was optical input only and the MacBook is USB output only, it’s hard to get much more specific. But at a recent audio club meeting we did compare it (with only about 40 hours on it) to a dB Audio Labs Tranquility DAC (a $1500 darling from 2010) using the dB Audio Labs USB cable and found little to differentiate it in fairly ordinary system (certainly wasn’t embarrassed). Now with hundreds of hours on it, it naturally sounds better and I'm quite satisfied.
Note that I’m a bit of a “speaker guy” and not saying that these were any kind of scientific, instant, or double blind A/B test. Just wanted to get the word out on A.C. of the DC-1. BTW I picked up the DC-1 from the Axpona show in Chicago with a 10% show discount and sold my old pre-amp for $300 and scored a free good quality USB cable. Oh and note that I’m still running iTunes (my next venture into this century is better software player).