Launched in 2013, the £400 Q-DAC was designed to capitalise on the success of the award-winning M-DAC of a year or so earlier. It’s effectively a ‘low calorie’ M-DAC, with much of the same good stuff under the hood, but cost-cut to reach a budget audience. Lest we forget, the latter was a thing of loveliness – a John Westlake design built around the respected 32-bit ESS Sabre DAC chip running at up to 24/192 resolution, and sporting seven adjustable digital filter settings for fine tuning the sound to your taste.
The Q has a nice aluminium case (247x60x236mm, 3kg) the like of which you’d never have expected at this price five years earlier. The Q-DAC stripped all of its bigger brother’s features down to a single coaxial, optical and USB input, and lost the balanced XLR output. This means there’s still a volume control, although it’s now done by slightly fiddly up/down buttons rather than the old fashioned, and easier to use, volume knob. There’s also a front panel mounted 6.3mm headphone socket, with the accompanying built-in amplifier, naturally. But another key difference is the display, which is still a nice OLED item, but smaller. One nice touch is that it can be configured to show CD track and timing information, via the settings menu, when being driven by a CD transport.
One major downside is that the remote control has upped and left, so volume setting can only be done by the fiddly fascia mounted buttons – this makes the Q-DAC feel quite a different beast to use. Also, the ESS Sabre DAC chip is the lower spec 9016, rather than the M’s 9018, although Audiolab claims this makes only a fractional subjective difference in sonic terms. Like the M-DAC, triple cascaded jitter attenuation stages ensure that jitter is kept to an absolute minimum, and there’s the same high-current, high-linearity Class A analogue output stage, the company says. Also like the M-DAC, the Q has a separate off-board switched mode PSU; Audiolab says having a switching power supply in close proximity would be a designer’s nightmare thanks to the interference caused.
Unsurprisingly the Q-DAC sounds very close to the pricier M-DAC when running unbalanced RCA phono connections; you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference through any sensibly priced speaker, with only a very slight softening of midband focus and a marginal diminution of depth perspective. The M only really pulls ahead noticeably when you’re using balanced interconnects, which of course the Q can’t do. Both DACs proved excellent partners for the matching £500 M-PWR power amplifier, turning it a very detailed, open and musically enjoyable performance at the price.
What you get is a clean and slightly tonally dry sound, one that’s unmistakably solid-state in origin, yet still impressively open and musical. Kicking off with a TEAC CD transport via the coaxial in, I was very encouraged by the sound offered by what’s effectively a £900 DAC/amplifier combination. Saint Etienne’s Hug My Soul showed a wonderful buoyancy, this classic slice of electronic pop bouncing out of the speakers with an infectiously rhythmic gait. Basslines were fast and snappy, percussion captivating and the Audiolab combo seemed to really be enjoying itself.
Next I moved to altogether richer and loucher programme material – Isaac Hayes’ Soulsville is a fat, thick slice of rare groove and this wee duo let me know all about it. Suddenly there was warmth, air and space. The recorded acoustic dropped way back far behind the plane of the speakers, giving a beautifully immersive quality to the music. Hayes’ distinctive voice was a delight, and there was no sense of strain or brittleness that sometimes comes from Compact Disc. Things moved along slowly but grippingly, capturing the plaintive feel of the song. All this made me want more, so it was time to turn the tap full open and go for some 24/192 hi-res via the USB input…
REM’s Texarkana proved a delight. Here’s a track that’s packed with ringing Rickenbacker guitars, and via 16-bit it can grate just a touch too much. But a hi-res FLAC rip of the superb DVD-A disc, played off a MacBook Pro, proved delightfully smooth and open. Once again, this combo showed its innate smoothness; it doesn’t shout at you and nor does it try to grab one’s attention by turning in an unsubtle, edgy, showy sort of performance. Instead I got four minutes of the sweet sound of Messrs Stipe, Buck, Berry and Mills enjoying themselves massively – again with Mike Mills’ beautiful vocals floating ethereally out of the speakers, yards in front of the band.
This little Audiolab sounds even and all-of-a-piece, far more mature than its price would suggest. It’s a great little unit and even five or so years later feels pretty modern. As used examples creep on to the second hand market, they’re even better value. The only question that the Q-DAC cannot answer is, “why not buy the M-DAC when it’s not that much more expensive?”