APL HI-FI DSD-AR USB DAC
In these times of mass replication, it’s refreshing to find a hi-tech product that’s made by hand, to special order so you can, if you wish, make your model truly ‘one of a kind’.
The golden-eared souls who review hi-fi components are, as you’d imagine, rather protective of their hearing, so when I fired-up the newest arrival in my sound room, I wondered just who had it in for me. The APL Hi-Fi DSD-AR, you see, has a programmable volume control and, once it’s programmed, it defaults to that level until it’s changed manually. Someone had programmed my review sample to default to ‘maximum’, so that if I hadn’t been on my toes, I could potentially have blasted my loudspeakers to kingdom come.
No doubt this was the work of the person who had reviewed the APL Hi-Fi DSD-AR prior to me receiving it, however I think the DSD-AR’s designer, Alex Peychev, should share at least some of the blame because I do think that if a product has an adjustable output volume, that volume should default to zero whenever the mains power is removed. This might then mean that a little reprogramming is required in the event of a power outage, but I could live with that.
As for the APL Hi-Fi DSD-AR, it’s what its Bulgarian manufacturer calls its “most affordable” DAC, so if you’ve peeked at the price already, you will have a fair idea what it might cost to own APL Hi-Fi’s flagship DAC, the DSD-MR Mk2. And if you don’t have any idea, I’ll tell you: It retails for $79,500. But price differences aside, the DSD-AR uses a similar proprietary system to convert incoming digital signals to analogue as the DSD-MR Mk2, so there must be more than a few sonic similarities, and I was keen to hear what I’d hear if I decided to save myself a cool $66,600.
The APL Hi-Fi DSD-AR is a full-featured DAC, offering USB, coaxial RCA and AES/EBU XLR digital inputs. The USB input is capable of converting PCM up to 384kHz/32-bit and up to DSD256. The coaxial and AES digital inputs accept up to 192kHz/24-bit. As with APL Hi-Fi’s top-line converters, the DSD-AR DAC converts PCM to DSD128 or DSD256 for digital-to-analogue conversion, with the re-sampling rate user-selectable via remote control.
As you’d expect on a full-featured DAC, there are multiple filters available and filter selection is user-selectable, with a choice between ‘Normal’, ‘Slow Roll-off’ and ‘Zero’. Analogue output is also switch-selectable, between unbalanced (RCA) and balanced (XLR).
As with all other APL Hi-Fi products, the APL Hi-Fi DSD-AR DAC is hand-built in Bulgaria. It has an aluminium enclosure and uses custom power and output audio transformers made by Lundahl in Sweden.
All the power supplies inside the DSD-AR are linear, as Peychev prefers not to use switchmode supplies, and there are no op-amps in the signal path. All analogue amplification circuitry inside the DSD-AR is Class-A.
“The DSD-AR offers a unique sound quality which is in line with our ‘house sound’,” says Peychev [See break-out box Behind APL Hi-Fi for more details]. “We are certain that many audiophiles will fall in love with it, especially when it comes to analog-like sound reproduction from digital.”
As you can see, the front panel is very simple. Plain even. At far left is a mains power (standby) pushbutton.
To its right is a display brightness button that selects one of three brightness levels, or switches off the display entirely. The button immediately to the right of the display selects input source (Coax, AES/EBU, USB) and the last two buttons are to adjust volume (which they do in extremely precise 0.5dB steps).
What you won’t be able to see on the front panel, because there isn’t one, is a headphone output. I think that given the APL Hi-Fi DSDAR’s position in the audio chain—and its retail price—this is a significant oversight.
The small remote control has buttons that duplicate those on the front panel, and adds further buttons for selecting between ‘Normal’, ‘Slow’, and ‘Zero’ digital filters for PCM (no filter is used when processing DSD), PCMto-DSD Encoder rate (DSD 128 or DSD256), and a ‘Mute’ button. Your choices, once made, are shown on the front panel. When you’ve selected DSD128, the display shows ‘44k – 5.6MHz’ and when you’ve selected DSD256 it shows ‘44k – 11.2MHz’.
As with all other
APL Hi-Fi products, the DSD-AR DAC is hand-built in Bulgaria to special order, so bespoke models can be made truly unique
The remote itself is beautifully made from solid metal, with chromed metallic buttons, which means it’s heavy, at 162 grams, despite being quite small (50×17×117mm).
I was irked by one aspect of the remote control, which I’ll get off my chest now, which is that the button for the coaxial input is labelled “CX” instead of “Coax” despite there being room for all four letters, and the other of buttons on the remote being labelled with four letters or even more. What’s my problem with this? It is that the letters CX are the technical abbreviation for clock signal, so I kept accidentally pressing it instead of the encoder rate button (which is labelled ‘DSD’) when I wanted to switch between 128 and 256 upsampling rates.
The rear panel has both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) analogue outputs, with a switch to select between them and three digital inputs: coaxial (RCA), AES/EBU (XLR) and optical (Toslink). On my unit this switch didn’t appear to do anything at all, because no matter which setting I selected, there was an analogue audio signal at both outputs.
The APL Hi-Fi DSD-AR measures 435×80×260mm and weighs 4.6kg. Rather than have four support feet, it has only three. I can see the point of this for a turntable, because it means the turntable won’t rock if it’s placed on an uneven surface, but I can’t quite see why it’s necessary on a DAC. It means you have to be careful not to rest any of your weight on either of the two rear corners, or the DSD-AR will suddenly tip downwards.
Connecting the USB input will be easy if you use a MAC or run Linux, but if, like the vast majority of users, you use Windows, you’ll actually have to email APL for a suitable driver. So if you do this when it’s out of office hours in Bulgaria or, worse, a weekend, you may very well have to wait for some time for a response. I’d personally prefer a somewhat more automated process or—and here’s an idea—how about providing the drivers on a USB stick inside with the packaging?
Although you can start using the DSD-AR straight ‘out of the box’, APL Hi-Fi’s manual recommends that “It takes around 100–200 hours break-in time to fully settle” and that you should therefore run the DSD-AR in your audio system “for a minimum of 3 days, prior to any critical evaluation.” I did that—and more, just to be sure—before I started auditioning.
I started off auditioning the most ‘vanilla’ of the DSD-AR’s various setting permutations, inputting 44.1kHz PCM via the coaxial input and using DSD128 and the ‘Normal’ filter. I thought the sound that resulted was gorgeous: warm and rich, with more than adequate frequency extension at both ends of the spectrum and totally transparent backgrounds, so there was no noise at all.
Listening to Daniel Gortler play Scriabin’s Sonata No 2 in G sharp minor (Op 19)
I was immediately transported back to his performance of it in Sydney, which I was lucky enough to have attended. The sound of the piano was as sonorous and powerful as I remember, just as I recalled how Cyrus Meher-Homji described Scriabin as being occupied by “at times almost sadistic pianism”. (This was a relatively meek criticism... Aldous Huxley once described him as a ‘voluptuous dentist.’)
The absolute realism of the APL Hi-Fi DSD-AR’s delivery was then demonstrated to me when I was listening to Olivier Cazal play Pierre Sancan’s strangely transfixing work Mouvement, which has been described as a “temperamental toccata”. It’s certainly a pianist’s nightmare, with its fluttering chords and dizzying runs. I haven’t checked the score, but I don’t think he misses a single key on the piano, plus he also manages to bash the piano’s body a few times… all of which is made abundantly audible via the sonic transparency of the DSD-AR.
But for all the clarity and musicality offered by this setting, I thought that what I was hearing was high-end sound at its best, but a high-end sound quality not so different from the sound on offer from a broad range of
DACs from other high-end audio component manufacturers. So I started experimenting with different combinations of the settings until I finally reached the setting I thought Peychev must mean when he said he designed the DSDAR to deliver APL Hi-Fi’s ‘house sound’. Those settings were DSD256 and Zero Filter.
Now the sound was definitely different, with the music assuming a density that was previously not present and a definite ‘not digital’ character, as if I were listening to an all-analogue signal chain. Definitely different, definitely unique, and at first I was not quite certain I was on Peychev’s wavelength because the sound was so completely different that it wasn’t what I was used to and I didn’t much warm to it. But after a few weeks of listening exclusively to his ‘house sound’ I found that I’d acclimatised to it so much that when I switched back to my original ‘vanilla’ settings, I was equally not sure that Peychev wasn’t right about his ‘House Sound’ sounding superior.
Incidentally, while I was doing all this checking, I had to make sure volume levels were matched, and while it should have been most convenient to do this with the remote control it wasn’t, because the volume control buttons on my remote had an annoying quirk of often (but not always!) not working at all when they were pressed the first time, requiring a second push to get the volume to change. I found this frustrating because I was adjusting volume so often: In day to day use, it wouldn’t really be an issue. And, of course, it could have been an issue that affected only my review sample which, after all, was built by hand, rather than by automated machinery.
If you’re after a ‘me-too’ DAC whose sound is similar to that of most of the other high-end DACs available at the moment, you will certainly be able to get that sound from the APL Hi-Fi DSD-AR… but you’ll likely be able to get its like elsewhere at a lower price, and likely with many more features and facilities.
But if you listen to the DSD-AR in its ‘non-vanilla’ modes and find that you fall in love with the APL Hi-Fi ‘house sound’, then the DSD-AR is the lowest-priced of APL Hi-Fi’s DACs and, since it’s a bespoke boutique product that’s hand-crafted to individual order, I think that if you really do want a headphone output and perhaps an extra foot, Alex Peychev would be only too happy to oblige. Kevin Lee