It’s not often that you can call a piece of audio equipment cute. You can with the Optoma uDAC5.
When we took it out the box, our first thought was that someone was pranking us. This thing costs $200? This little hunk of metal that literally fits in the palm of our hand? We’ve heard of miniaturisation, but this isn’t a smartphone. It’s got no display, no cool buttons, just a single dual-function knob and one - count it - one light.
And then we plugged it in, and turned it on. And as George Takei might say: oh my.
This part is probably going to be shorter than normal. After all, it’s not like there’s a lot of design to explore here.
First, a short primer. DAC stands for Digital-to-Analogue Converter. It’s a set of circuits that transform digital audio, like MP3s or streaming audio, into actual electronic signals that can be pumped out as soundwaves by speakers and headphones. Your computer has one, and so does your phone, which is how you’re able to play music through them. What gizmos like the Optoma uDAC5 do is essentially allow your device to outsource the audio conversion, much as an American company outsources its call center work to Mumbai. Difference being, the quality of the circuits in an external DAC are usually much, much higher than the existing ones in the player. It’s like an American company outsourcing its call center work to…well, to George Takei.
The uDAC5 packs all of this into a two-inch by three-inch metal box with minimal features. You connect it to your Mac or PC via a USB cable; it works instantly on Macs, although PC users will need a separate downloadable driver. Alongside the rear-mounted USB port is a stereo RCA input and a coaxial input, all of which are always-on once the unit is powered up. Ditto for the 3.5mm headphone jack round the front. Power and volume are provided by the single prominent knob, and there is a power light as well (with an interesting hidden function, which we’ll go into in more detail below). It’s worth noting that this is a computer-based system only; it’s not set up the smartphone operation in any way, so don’t buy it if you’re looking for a DAC for your phone. If that’s the case, it may be worth investing in a portable amp/DAC combo, like one of these.
It’s a no-frills design that is absurdly easy to set up and use. Although it doesn’t do anything unusual or groundbreaking, it still gets top marks from us for its sheer simplicity. And its tiny size makes it eminently portable, which is a big plus.
If the design isn’t special, then what about the sound? We don’t wish to invoke clichés about big things coming in small packages, but really, what choice do we have here? Say what you like about its tiny stature, but the Optoma uDAC5 is simply extraordinary.
Bass is deeper. Highs are crisper. Mids are warmer, guitars crunchier, synth lines sweeter. Compared to the soundcard on our Macbook, it’s an immediate and visceral upgrade, and in the space of a few seconds’ listening, it shows why it’s worth the $200 price tag. Listening on the soundcard is like drinking cheap wine through a straw; putting the music through the uDAC5 is like drinking vintage burgundy by firelight. Admittedly, it’s not going to compare to DAC heavyweights like the Schiit Bifrost or the Audiolab MDAC, but it’s still absolutely extraordinary.
And it does have one very wonderful feature, one which we haven’t seen in any other DACs. It’s so unusual and so specialised that unlocking it feels like you’ve punched in a cheat code.
It’s to do with DSD audio, which stands for Direct Stream Digital. It refers to the single highest-quality digital audio files available, files which make a normal MP3 sound like some dude banging on a tin can. A single album, released in DSD format, can run up to 2 GB in size; for comparison, an album imported into iTunes is between 70 and 100mb. The reason you don’t hear about this format more often is that very, very few artists actually bother to release music that uses it. The ones that do are mostly legacy acts, artists who have classic albums that are worth enough money for them to experiment with new formats. Think Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Marley. To get their albums in DSD, you’ll not only have to download them from individual web stores like Acoustic Sounds, but you’ll also need a specialised (usually paid-for) desktop player like Audirvana Plus. iTunes is simply unable to handle them.
The uDAC5’s party trick is that it has a special mode for ultra-high-resolution playback of these files. If you actually managed to get a DSD-ready album, and hook up the uDAC5, the white power light on the front will turn blue, and your ears will turn all the colors of the rainbow.
At TMS, one of our pet peeves is when hi-fi product reviewers talk about specific music that they used to test their gear, mostly because we feel that if you don’t share their tastes, what they are listening to will mean absolutely nothing to you. We’re going to break that rule here, mostly because DSD audio is so uncommon. We grabbed a copy of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme for testing, and…look, we won’t bore you with the details, but we will say that we felt like we were in the room. Not even remotely joking. We were standing next to the drummer. Coltrane was blowing a sax in front of us. It was that good.
Of course, we had to take it further. Once we added in a phenomenal tube amp (the Linear Tube Audio MZ2-S) and a good pair of headphones (our trusty Beyerdynamic DT770 Pros), the music got kicked into the stratosphere. Who knew that such a tiny little gizmo could have such a big impact?
Should You Buy It?
In our opinion: absolutely. No question. You could argue that it’s overpriced, that $200 is too much to pay for a device that hangs its hat on a file format that very few will ever hear. But who cares? Even without resorting to DSD playback, the uDAC5 is a simple, effective device, with almost no downsides. Just shell out for the thing already, and thank us later.
Dedicated DACs(As opposed to DAC/amp combos) are actually quite uncommon, and often quite expensive. The Bifrost is one of the best. It’s a lot pricier than the uDAC5, still among the best pieces of audio equipment ever made.
If anything, this tiny little red pocket rocket is even more portable and easy-to-use than the uDAC5, although we prefer the sound of the latter. It’s a simple USB stick but gets the job done with minimal fuss.
Breaking Down The Specs:
|Optoma uDAC5||$199||3.5oz||2.7" x 1.8" x 0.8"||4.7Ω||>0.01%||384KhZ/DSD256|
|Schiit Bifrost||$399||5lbs||9 x 6.75 x 2.25”||75Ω||>0.003%||192KhZ|
|Audioquest Dragonfly Red||$200||2oz||2.4” x 0.75” x 0.5”||Unknown||Unknown||96KhZ|
*THD = Total Harmonic Distortion
**MSR = Max Sample Rate