If you’re an audiophile fed up with all those pesky wires, or a normal human being put off by the prospect of them in the first place, then this is for you. Essentially it’s a high quality digital-to-analogue converter which also works as a UPnP music streamer and an AirPlay receiver. As such, it’s an amazingly versatile little device – playing music from your Network Attached Storage drive or computer, or any AirPlay compatible iDevice, wirelessly. Indeed it even syncs with Android mobile phones, which can ‘throw’ music at it to play out.
Most buyers won’t be interested in the intricacies of its chipsets and wireless networking protocols. Rather, they will feel a bit like Compact Cassette has just been reinvented. Remember back in the eighties, when we had a universal music medium that would play anytime, any place, anywhere? Well here it is back again. We all have smartphones, tablets and computers with music on them, and the £400 airDAC lets you play it out through your hi-fi. Marvellous!
Switch it on and it sets itself up as its very own local network, which you can select on your computer as you would choosing a Wi-Fi network in a new coffee shop you’ve just dropped into. Then, you can select AirPlay as your music output device and suddenly everything that would go to your computer speakers goes to the airDAC. You can load up iTunes, press the little button that suddenly pops up when it senses an AirPlay network and suddenly you’re playing your favourite songs through your hi-fi. Yes, it’s that easy – I even had my Sony Xperia Android phone playing tunes in under a minute.
AirPlay is free and easy, and even works for computer audiophiles running specialist music player apps like Audirvana. By changing the output setting in the Preferences menu section for example, I soon had my hi-res music playing. The caveat is that the system only runs up to 16bit, 44.1kHz sampling rate, so my 24/96 Kate Bush album 50 Words for Snow had its digits forcibly rearranged down to CD-quality. That’s the major limitation of AirPlay, which is designed primarily for ease of use.
For those wanting hi-res playback, you’ll need to turn to the airDAC’s UPnP functionality, and this is a little fiddlier to set up, thanks to the rather geeky instruction manual. The process is best started by connecting the airDAC to your router via an Ethernet cable, after which you can get into the settings via a web browser page and reconfigure things to your heart’s content. The Arcam streams up to 24/96 when working via UPnP.. Arcam kindly supplies a free SongBook app which on my iPad was slightly glitchy – here’s hoping the next update will sort that.
The unit also has coaxial and optical digital inputs, to which you can hook up your Compact Disc or Blu-ray player, and the source is clearly displayed on the front panel. There’s a single pair of RCA analogue line outputs, to which you should attach your amplifier, or you can port the digital datastream out to a better DAC via the coaxial digital output. Design-wise, it’s not a million miles away from the excellent irDAC, which means a gorgeous (190x120x44mm, 1.1kg) alloy casing complete with non-slip rubber base, a four-layer PCB inside and multiple low noise separately regulated power supplies – although a Texas Instruments PCM5102 DAC chip (running up to 24/96) is fitted rather than its brother’s Burr Brown PCM1796.
What you get is a typically Arcam sound – a little on the warm side of neutral, with a nice sweet treble and an expansive yet smooth midband. Wired is always better than wireless, so the airDAC gives of its best via coaxial digital in or Ethernet. You get a bright, spry, sound with loads of energy and drive, and a surprisingly powerful bass too.
Aphrodite’s Child’s The Four Horsemen was an energetic, expansive affair that was great fun to listen to. I was struck by how fast and involving the sound was, without the Arcam adding any undue harshness or edge. I was also bowled over by the wonderfully wide soundstage – although just when I began questioning the sanity of Arcam’s pricing policy I did begin to notice a tendency for the music to cluster around the plane of the speakers; its depth perspective is no match for more expensive DACs.
Via AirPlay from Audirvana, there was a slight thinning out of stage depth, although it still sounded very good indeed. Herbie Hancock’s Rock It was extremely fast and animated, with a pile-driving bass allied to powerful snare drum and hi-hat work delivered with riflebolt precision. The swirling ambient sounds of Fragile State’s Every Day a Different Story were also lovely to behold; there’s something innately musical about this DAC which makes whatever you play sound fast and fun. It doesn’t lack refinement either; admittedly you’d do better from the Audiolab M-DAC but it’s more expensive and lacks the airDAC’s wireless functionality.
Overall then, Arcam’s new baby digital converter is an excellent product. Its feature count is superlative at the price, as is its build, yet it still takes the sound quality side of things dead seriously – and is styled as nicely as many DACs costing five times as much. Oh, and it’s by far the most accessible hi-fi implementation of AirPlay so far, making this fine convenience format all the more appealing.