Audiophiles make easy targets for mockery, the way they spend hundreds or thousands on speaker wire, when a blind listening test once famously revealed the humble coat hanger to be a suitable substitute (at least over short distances). Sometimes, an electron is just an electron.
But not everything about the audiophile way is hooey. Speakers and headphones matter tremendously, followed by lesser matters such as original source material (within reason), speaker placement, acoustics, and more — including the DAC, or digital-to-analog converter — in your signal chain. This is the crucial chip that converts the ones and zeroes on your CD or digital music file into the analog electrical signal that makes your speakers or headphones move air, allowing you to hear the sound.
We’ve just been alerted to the “only” AirPlay device designed with the audiophile in mind, because it contains a high-end DAC, low interference, and high-end specs.
We are inclined to believe Arcam that the Arcam airDAC is the first audiophile-quality AirPlay box. Yes, you could route a digital optical signal out of an Apple AirPort Express and into an expensive DAC — but that eliminates the point of AirPlay, because then you need to amplify the signal again, in which case, why didn’t you just move your amp closer to the speakers in the first place?
Anyway, lay your eyes on it: Arcam airDAC ($700), “the only audiophile-quality Airplay-enabled device in the market” (more photos below).
So, what gives Arcam the right to call this thing “audiophile-quality”?
According to the description, “The airDAC benefits from Arcam’s more than twenty years of digital audio expertise and use the finest quality parts in a layout that is optimised for low noise and distortion. A dejittering design that Arcam have used in many of the reference class FMJ products is applied to all inputs. The four-layer PCB allows our designers to maximise the quality of the ground plane in order to further reduce interference between components. The use of multiple low noise separately regulated power supplies ensures that we get the cleanest signal to the audiophile quality output stage.”
In terms of the important DAC part of the equation, the AirDAC uses the well-respected Texas Instruments TI (Burr-Brown) PCM5102, which is one reason we agree with Arcam that this device can be called “audiophile-quality.” Plus, it’s pretty expensive, for most of us, despite the fact that $700 is less then an audiophile spends on headphones.
Here are the rest of the all-important specs — note that it also supports UPnP in case you don’t want to go the AirPlay route (Arcam offers its own app for streaming to the box via UPnP from Androids):
DAC: TI PCM5102
Inputs: Airplay / UPnP, SPDIF (Coax), Toslink Optical
Frequency response: 10Hz — 20kHz, ±0.1dB
Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise: 0.002%
Signal-to-noise ratio (A –Weighted): 106dB (24-bit)
Line output level: 2.15Vrms
Supported sample rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz
Bit depth: 16-bit, 24-bit
Power requirements: 7W max
Dimensions (wxdxh, mm): 190 x 120 x 44