Arcam rDAC

Arcam rDacArcam has form with digital-to-analogue converters. In fact, it invented the breed, because its Black Box was the first ‘offboard DAC’ (as they were then called) back in 1989. The idea of separating the DAC from the CD transport was radical then but normal now, so what’s special about the rDAC launched in 2011? Well, this £299 design was the very first affordable product to offer asynchronous USB. We’d seen a number of USB DACs appear on the market before – the breed had been around for several years – but here was a small box that used its internal clock to time the data transfer, rather than relying on the computer that was sending the music down the USB cable. The concept wasn’t Arcam’s, that honour goes to dCS. But whereas the cheapest dCS Debussy cost £7,500 at the time, the new Arcam didn’t…

Everything was right about the rDAC from the start. A small (160x111x40mm) but beautifully formed cast aluminium box finished in satin silver, it sported four source selection LEDs with a single chromed selector button. It was a beautiful piece, finished as well as something costing ten times the price or more, with crisp and modern industrial design and wonderfully simple ergonomics. Arcam had even thought about practical issues, with the fitment of a slightly sticky rubberised base to stop the relatively light unit moving on your equipment rack.

Inside, a Wolfson Microelectronics WM8741 DAC chip was used. This was one of the best of the new generation of 24-bit, 192kHz-capable converters. Indeed it actually supported up to 32-bits, and worked in both DSD and PCM-converted DSD modes, although the rDAC didn’t use this functionality. The chip also sported several selectable digital filter settings but again these weren’t included, so was a far more sophisticated beast than the ‘8740 that preceded it. Round the back, coaxial and optical S/PDIF sockets were fitted, alongside a USB input. Analogue RCA phono outputs were offered, and there was a power socket which went to a bundled, compact ‘wall wart’ power supply. Arcam also offered a wireless version called the rDAC KW, which connected to the company’s rWave wireless USB dongle or rWand iPad/ iPod dongle. In this case, there was also an antenna socket.

The rDAC sounded great for its price. At the time, it was the best; no other £300 DAC came close and this was especially the case with USB which benefited from its asynchronous control. Tonally it had that classic Wolfson sound – light and open but with quite a warm, fluffy bass. Rhythmically it was good, bouncing along in a very musical way compared to some other price rivals which sounded a little over cautious. Spatially the rDAC was impressive, giving a wide soundstage and pleasant depth perspective. In absolute terms, the Arcam was slightly opaque, having a misty quality to its midband and a forced nature to its timing. Importantly though, it was both fun to listen to, and never harsh or grating. The addition of an aftermarket power supply such as the MCRU did a lot to smooth the rDAC out and open it up; thus equipped it’s able to hold its own with the normally powered Audiolab M-DAC, which is considerably more expensive.

The Arcam rDAC is a lovely little thing, well worth buying secondhand now for around £150. At the time of going to pixel in 2014, it hasn’t really been eclipsed and you’ll never tire of its beautiful looks and ease of use. You have to spend £500 or more on the likes of a Rega DAC or Audiolab M-DAC to comprehensively outclass it, that’s how good it is.

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