The budget DAC sector has seen numerous new products and product revisions since I first looked at the NFB-2 in late 2010.
Everything has context. One cannot discuss a DAC’s pros and cons in isolation. The broader picture must be considered. The swirl of ancillaries – to which some audiofolk refer as the God of Synergy – and directly competing units flavour each review.
With the arrival of the Audio-gd NFB-2.1 for review – and it’s predecessor being my goto budget DAC for so long now – the diversion was already set. I’d been simultaneously working on another piece about how I would – and then did – spend two grand on a ‘budget’ rig. It’s a hypothetical that many first-timers and some old-timers face: $2k in the pocket, how to buy a complete system? What’s the number one budget amplifier? What would first be plucked from the budget standmount loudspeaker shelf? In the context of this review – and being a digitally focussed audiophile – the front end would be a DAC…but would the favourite remain the Audio-gd NFB-2(.1)?
[Stick with me, I’ll get to the Audio-gd in due course].
For the $2k system, loudspeakers first. I cheated here for my primary choice. AU$400 was the run-out price on the Epos ELS-8 (RRP$729) at time of writing and I snaffled a pair. I continue to find them politely even-handed up and down the frequency range: they don’t try to reach too low, they don’t fizz up top. The ELS-8’s most enjoyable personality trait is their apparent lack of personality (traits): standmounts of an exceptionally well-mannered and unassuming nature. They’re not the most dynamic speaker around – they are backwards in coming forwards. Small-room listeners should sit up and take note here. Firing the shortest distance across my lounge room such reticence is a plus. These Epos are extremely easy to listen to. All day and all of the night. Mike Creek serves up no side order of fatigue.
Also consider the Usher S-520 (~AU$349). Why? In Epos country there just isn’t the effervescence of the all-round-thrill-ride Ushers. Be warned though: the S-520 lust for power. Fall short with the watt feet and you’ll hear high frequency etch and thinness. Get enough current to the terminals and these standmounts will reward with more air-punching rock excitement than the Epos. They hit the listener with greater heft and far better dynamics. If you want something that sits sonically in-between the Epos ELS-8 and the Usher S-520, the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 (AU$420) are your guys.
Amplifier? Choosing an integrated is easier – it’s effectively a field of one. The Rega Brio-R (AU$999) has redefined expectations at this price point. It’s a considerable way ahead of anything else one can score for a grand. Here is a unit that’s small of form – ideal for tight living spaces, bedrooms and studies – but has enough guts and glory to drive demanding loads, is remote-controlled AND ships with a phono-stage installed. I don’t use the latter, but still. It isn’t (always) all about me. Rega’s revised Brio sounds zesty but earthy, detailed but organic; it’s got a Naim-like energy but with shades of warmth. Also consider the REDGUM Sonofa’GUM (~AU$450). It doesn’t have the diminutive form factor – it’s casework is positively prosaic – but the sound is anything but ordinary.
Now, DAC time. There are myriad choices in the budget (~$500) DAC sector. Too many. In a cruel twist, the lack of audition availability of many Johnny-come-latelies makes navigating an overwhelming number of possibilities an even greater challenge for the consumer with cash ready to drop. To wit, numerous audiophiles now buy ‘blind’, particularly at this end of the market. The new digital audio product wave crashing onto Australian doorsteps is via direct purchases from overseas and interstate. The majority of local hifi stores stock little beyond Cambridge Audio, NAD, Rega and Musical Fidelity. Wanna hear HRT instore? You’d better be in Sydney. Burson? Melbourne. Besides, an hour in a hifi store won’t properly reveal a DAC’s true personality; it often takes weeks of home listening to tease out strengths and weaknesses. At this price point, there are always weaknesses. The NFB-2.1’s USB isn’t as good as its S/PDIF and but it can sound a shade hot in the upper-mids when fed by an Audiophilleo. Best results were achieved with a JKSPDIF MK3.
With the Rega Brio-R and Epos ELS-8 fully run-in, a crude DAC shoot out was held one night with a second opinion maker present, it was agreed that the Schiit Bifrost (AU$450/550) had talents that no longer saw the NFB-2.1 as irrefutable budget class leader. Another Audio-gd – the DAC19DSP (US$640) – was altogether more natural sounding with Johnny Cash’s guitar strings and didn’t sound as strident with Bjork’s vocals as its baby brother. When comparing the NFB-2.1 to the Rega DAC (also a dual Wolfson design), we could readily pick both the flavour similarities AND the areas in which the more expensive (AU$799) Brit pulls ahead: superior refinement, greater poise, more detail, deeper soundstaging. In the wider scheme of all component differences, the aforementioned DAC distinctions were relatively small.
Internally almost identical to the NFB-2, the iterative jump to NFB-2.1 (US$465) moves the previously internally jumper-set ‘flavours’ to a user-switchable interface on the front panel: digital filters that add the final few grains of seasoning to the dish. (Nerd note: the earliest NFB-2 models featured no internal flavour selection at all). A basic blue-lit display informs one of source (USB, coax, optical), ACSS/RCA output and filter flavour. The NFB-2.1’s fairly ordinary-looking casework belies its sonic talents. Readers are advise to spend some time perusing the original NFB-2 review. Like its predecessor, the 2.1 is short on delta-sigma starchiness with a presentation that’s both weighty and detailed. It’s more fruit cake than vanilla sponge.
I suspect the magic ingredient in King Wa’s recipe is power-supply regulation and not simply ingredient (chip choice) alone. It isn’t just about the cut of meat, it’s about how you cook it.
Taking the Audio-gd DAC and a handful of rival units behind headphone lines: the Peachtree DAC*iT (AU$499), KingRex UD384 (US$479), Audio-gd DAC19DSP and Schiit Bifrost all took turns on the floor. The Schiit Valhalla and AKG K-702 were dance partners on the day and a JKSPDIF MK3 provided the S/PDIF feed from a MacBook Air. The Peachtree and KingRex were dismissed early. Although both similarly proficient with inner-detail retrieval, the former lacked the Audio-gd’s effusively plain-speaking mid-range whilst the KingRex revealed comparatively too much metal in its teeth.
Being USB-only, the KingRex cannot benefit from the S/PDIF clean-up of John Kenny’s battery-powered convertor. Dispensing with the JKSPDIF to even the field to USB connectivity only, each of the other DACs endured a performance hit. Tonal colours got bleached, musical engagement took several steps backwards. Rankings in order of preference via USB only: DAC19DSP, Bifrost, UD384, NFB-2, DAC*iT.
Granted, the NFB-2.1’s dual Wolfson WM8741 design isn’t as organic-sounding as King Wa’s pricier TI/Burr-Brown PCM1704U-K models, but what keeps the NFB-2.1 AND the Schiit Bifrost ahead of the other five hundred dollar rivals is greater richness and moisture in the higher frequency gears and close-to-zero evidence of a dry-tannin after-taste. The latter is usually what keeps NOS/R-2R die-hards away from such delta-sigma designs. Note: If you want the best sound from yr NFB-2.1, opt for the DIR9001 receiver chip. It will limit S/PDIF to 24/96 – not an issue in my Redbook-dominated world – but according to a NFB-3.1 owning colleague, the DIR9001 sounds superior to the stock WM8805.
Wrapping it up. The Audio-gd NFB-2.1 offers one heck of chunk of digital decoding satisfaction for the money but now has to endure stiffer competition from the Schiit Bifrost. I could live with either and still feel that my spend were optimal. The Bifrost isn’t better or worse, it’s just different: the AKM-fuelled Californian is smoother, digs deeper into the bass and is more conducive to long listening sessions. It’s also neater looking and feels more solidly made. The Bifrost’s USB implementation is particularly handsome. Digital audiophiles who find greater comfort in softer NOS chairs will dig the Schiit big time. The Audio-gd is better-suited to those that enjoy a cleaner, neutral sound that plays with the spaces between the notes as much as the notes themselves. If your system leans towards edginess and/or you are leashing via USB, go with the Schiit. If you want to taste spicier transients and already have sufficient low frequency fullness, go with the Audio-gd.
As is evident from the above, the Audio-gd NFB-2.1 caused me to consider the broader picture of what I might find ‘best’ within the limits of self-imposed financial parameters. Not only with budget DACs but with loudspeakers and amplifiers. The former isn’t as cut and dried as the latter. In twelve months’ time it will likely be a different story; such is the constant stream of new products/updates and such is a reviewer’s fancy. Never forget the opinions expressed here are those of ONE guy. There’s no doubt about it though, the competition is beginning to snap at the NFB-2.1’s heels. Crucially, in the year or so since my late-2010 NFB-2 coverage, this model has enjoyed a smattering of aesthetic and functional dressing whilst the underlying recipe has remained pretty-much constant…and it still can’t quite be sonically outclassed. In an audio toy space that regularly shape shifts in its pursuit (or creation) of the next flavour of the month, it’s all the more satisfying to enjoy a product that transcends such trendiness with a design that remains a budget-class leader. Just.
- MacMini 2010 + JKSPDIF MK3
- Audio-gd DAC19DSP
- Rega DAC
- Schiit Bifrost
- Peachtree DAC*iT
- KingRex UD384
- Rega Brio-R
- Epos ELS-8
- Schiit Valhalla
- AKG K-702
- Beck – Sea Change (2002)
- Johnny Cash – Best of American (2003)
- Bjork – Post (1995)
- Leftfield – Leftism (1995)
- Peter Gabriel – So (1985)
Want the boorishness of star ratings? Check out the Darko DAC Index.