Na­gra HD DAC

FOR Nat­u­ral, in­for­ma­tive sound; rhyth­mic abil­ity; dy­nam­ics; build AGAINST The dis­play could be bet­ter

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Contents -

What’s the best DAC in the world? The best we’ve heard so far are Chord’s DAVE and dcs’s Rossini Dac/clock com­bi­na­tion. To that rather short and hugely ta­lented list you can con­fi­dently add Na­gra’s HD DAC – and it’s ar­guably the most de­sir­able of the lot.

Na­gra’s level of dig­i­tal com­pe­tence comes as some­thing of a sur­prise to us. The HD DAC isn’t the com­pany’s first dig­i­tal prod­uct – it’s made recorders, DACS and other dig­i­tal prod­ucts for decades – but it’s the Swiss brand’s pream­pli­fiers and power am­pli­fi­ca­tion that grab the lime­light in high-end cir­cles.

Retro look

We love the ap­pear­ance of Na­gra prod­ucts, but it’s a shame the com­pany hasn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ated the HD DAC a lit­tle more from legacy prod­ucts. This unit is part of the no-com­pro­mise HD range, and rep­re­sents a ground-up re­think on how a dig­i­tal-to-ana­logue con­verter should be de­signed. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact when the unit looks the same as prod­ucts that were de­signed decades ago. But make no mis­take; this re­ally is an all-new, cut­ting-edge de­sign where rare, older elec­tronic cir­cuit tech­niques rub shoul­ders with in­no­va­tive new ideas.

Like ev­ery Na­gra prod­uct we’ve seen, the HD DAC is im­mac­u­lately made. Each panel is su­perbly machined and the unit as a whole feels im­mensely solid and ro­bust. The price is high, but this is an in­vest­ment that is de­signed to work for decades to come.

It’s a com­pact unit, mea­sur­ing just un­der 8cm high and 31cm wide. The front is dom­i­nated by the brand’s trade­mark sig­nal-level me­ter and stylised vol­ume con­trol. The lat­ter con­firms that this prod­uct can be con­nected di­rectly into a power amp or ac­tive speak­ers.

All in one

Such a sys­tem con­fig­u­ra­tion keeps the sig­nal path short by by­pass­ing the need for a ded­i­cated preamp and the lengths of con­nect­ing in­ter­con­nects used in be­tween. The re­sult should be a clearer, more trans­par­ent sound. On pa­per the only down­side is the lack of com­pat­i­bil­ity with ana­logue sources.

There’s a small dis­play on the HD DAC’S front panel that suits the prod­uct’s un­der­stated na­ture, but it isn’t easy to read from a dis­tance, or if you go off-axis.

Else­where, there are lovely lit­tle me­tal switches for mute and to tog­gle the DAC’S out­put be­tween line-level – sin­gleended RCA and bal­anced XLR op­tions – and the 6.3mm head­phone socket.

Look around the back and you’ll find the full ar­ray of dig­i­tal in­puts from USB, coax­ial (in both RCA and BNC forms) and op­ti­cal, to a pair of AES/EBUS and a ded­i­cated Na­gra I2 S op­tion. You won’t find an IEC mains in­put though. In­stead there are ded­i­cated, sep­a­rate power feeds for the ana­logue and dig­i­tal sec­tions, sug­gest­ing a so­phis­ti­cated power sup­ply ar­range­ment.

We’ve come to the point where cut­ting-edge pre­mium DACS will play pretty much any es­tab­lished file type, and the Na­gra con­tin­ues that trend. Its dig­i­tal file com­pat­i­bil­ity is com­pre­hen­sive, cov­er­ing PCM up to 24-bit/384khz and dou­ble-speed DSD. Bar some ul­tra-niche record­ings, that should cover pretty much all the mu­sic files out there.

Data-pro­tec­tion act

Take a look in­side the Na­gra and you’ll find plenty of clever and in­no­va­tive engi­neer­ing. Great care is taken to main­tain the in­tegrity and trans­fer of the dig­i­tal data stream. The sig­nal, even if it’s PCM, is con­verted to dou­ble-speed DSD in­ter­nally. It’s then pro­cessed by a pow­er­ful, high-spec FPGA (Field Pro­grammable Gate Ar­ray) that runs pro­pri­etary soft­ware ma­jor­ing on tim­ing pre­ci­sion, low dis­tor­tion and gen­er­at­ing a min­i­mum of noise.

The ana­logue stage is sim­i­larly un­usual and clever. It uses Na­gra’s ex­per­tise in trans­form­ers (hand­made in-house) and valves (a sin­gle JAN 5963 dou­ble tri­ode) to main­tain sig­nal in­tegrity. The 5963 valve was en­gi­neered

to work in dig­i­tal cir­cuits and was used in the first com­put­ers.

This was at a time be­fore the first tran­sis­tors be­came avail­able, so its use in a high-end num­ber-crunch­ing mod­ern DAC is kind of po­etic. At this level it should come as no sur­prise that the HD DAC is kit­ted out with high-grade in­ter­nal com­po­nents and made with al­most ob­ses­sive lev­els of care. That’s the least we would ex­pect for this price.

Power op­tions

The Na­gra’s power-sup­ply ar­range­ment fea­tures 25 sep­a­rate in­ter­nal sup­plies fed by two out­board units – one ded­i­cated to the ana­logue sec­tion and the other for the dig­i­tal. At this level, it makes sense to spend the ex­tra £5100 it takes to own the MPS out­board power sup­ply with its op­tion of us­ing ul­tra-low-noise bat­tery power. Once you’ve heard the sonic im­prove­ment the MPS makes across the board, it’s hard to do with­out.

Equip­ment at this level needs a top-class dig­i­tal source if you’re to get the best from it. We use our ref­er­ence Naim NDS/555PS mu­sic streamer for most of this test, but also draft in a Macbook Pro (loaded with Pure Mu­sic me­dia soft­ware and plenty of goodqual­ity hi-res files). We also use the Gamut D200i power am­pli­fier as well as Na­gra’s Clas­sic Amp (also a power amp), feed­ing ATC SCM50 and Spen­dor Clas­sic 2/3 speak­ers. All ca­bles are from the pre­mium end of Chord Ca­ble’s range.

But there’s more to op­ti­mis­ing the HD DAC than just find­ing qual­ity part­ners. Like most equip­ment, it is sen­si­tive to the sup­port it’s placed on – the high level of trans­parency of any suit­able part­ner­ing sys­tem makes even the small­est dif­fer­ences ob­vi­ous – so use a low-res­o­nance rack or shelf for the best re­sults. Some­thing that of­fers a good de­gree of iso­la­tion is a good idea.

Im­me­di­ate rev­e­la­tion

It takes no more than a few sec­onds to re­alise that the per­for­mance of the HD DAC is straight out of the top drawer. We start us­ing it with our usual Gamut D3i preamp, later swap­ping to Na­gra’s ex­cel­lent Clas­sic Preamp, but it doesn’t take long to de­cide to plug the HD DAC di­rectly into the power amp. The sys­tem sounds clearer and more nat­u­ral in such a con­fig­u­ra­tion.

We play Bizet’s Car­men Suite and are treated to a won­der­fully or­ganic sound. If you think dig­i­tal equip­ment can’t sound

“It’s a won­der­fully or­ganic sound. If you think dig­i­tal kit can’t sound nat­u­ral, this DAC will prove you wrong”

nat­u­ral, this DAC will prove you wrong. The pre­sen­ta­tion has scale and au­thor­ity, with a sound­stage that’s as ex­pan­sive as it is sta­ble. In­stru­ments are locked into po­si­tion and the DAC main­tains a pleas­ing sense of space around the in­stru­men­ta­tion, no mat­ter how dense or com­plex the mu­sic gets. It’s easy to fol­low in­stru­men­tal strands, even if they’re low-level and in the back­ground.

Achiev­ing au­then­tic­ity

Things are con­vinc­ing tonally. The Na­gra is evenly bal­anced and ad­mirably neu­tral, so in­stru­ments (and any voices present in the record­ing) sound be­liev­able with au­then­tic tex­tures and a pleas­ing de­gree of body. While there’s plenty of re­fine­ment and a to­tal lack of unwanted hard­ness, there re­mains a healthy dose of dy­namic punch when re­quired. The vi­o­lent dy­namic swings in the Car­men Suite are ren­dered with con­fi­dence and en­thu­si­asm – the switch from quiet to loud and back again be­ing han­dled with rare flu­id­ity.

As we lis­ten longer, we re­alise that the Na­gra is dig­ging out an un­com­mon amount of de­tail, even con­sid­er­ing its lofty price. This de­tail isn’t thrown at the lis­tener in a bid to im­press, but is strictly or­gan­ised and pro­por­tioned to serve the record­ing. The Na­gra doesn’t de­mand the spot­light – it steps out of the way, leav­ing the mu­sic to grab our at­ten­tion.

Play­ing a range of mu­sic can’t wrong­foot this DAC, ei­ther. Play some Nine Inch Nails and there’s plenty of at­tack and ag­gres­sion, leav­ing the ex­cite­ment in­tact. Switch to Bon Iver’s

22, Mil­lion set and the Na­gra’s ex­cel­lent or­gan­i­sa­tion cou­pled with su­perb rhyth­mic co­he­sion makes light work of the al­bum’s com­plex pro­duc­tion. Yet, when it comes to voices – in Aretha Franklin’s Dr Feel­good or Adele’s

Home­town Glory, for in­stance – the HD DAC sounds pure and trans­par­ent. It re­ally is a bril­liant all-rounder.

The story is just as pos­i­tive through the head­phone out­put. This has no prob­lem driv­ing the likes of Bey­er­dy­namic’s T1s and Grado’s RS1 to high lev­els, and re­tains the same ad­mirable sonic char­ac­ter­is­tics as the line stages.

The DCS Rossini Dac/clock com­bi­na­tion re­mains a ter­rific propo­si­tion and has the

added at­trac­tion of a built-in UPNP streamer that can ac­cess mu­sic through your home net­work. It just about edges the Na­gra in out­right de­tail res­o­lu­tion, but the HD DAC sounds more en­tic­ing and nat­u­ral. Chord’s DAVE is ter­rific value in com­par­i­son to ei­ther the DCS or Na­gra, but isn’t as rounded a per­former.

If you’re in the mar­ket for the ul­ti­mate DAC, you can hardly go wrong with any of those three – they are all ex­cel­lent in their own ways. But, if we had to choose, our money would go to Na­gra.

“Ex­cel­lent or­gan­i­sa­tion cou­pled with su­perb co­he­sion makes light work of the al­bum’s com­plex pro­duc­tion”

Tried and tested cir­cuit tech­niques rub shoul­ders with in­no­va­tive ideas

Old-school de­sign with im­mac­u­late build qual­ity: a win­ning com­bi­na­tion

Note the sep­a­rate power feeds for the ana­logue and dig­i­tal sec­tions

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