The uDAC 2
I have the uDAC 2 loaner from Hadi and I’ve been spending some time with it. Good thing that at the same time I was able to borrow the original uDAC from my buddy Sem so I can do an A-B comparison between the two. Here is a short get-in and get-out write up of the products.
Nuforce has definitely improved the quality of the DAC section on the uDAC 2. I’m not even taking the 24/96 capability into the comparison here, since the original uDAC can’t do 24/96 (more about the 24/96 later). Listening with a Hifimediy TK2050 and HD650 combo, the uDAC 2 has a more spacious soundstage and a smoother sound in comparison to the constricted soundstage of the uDAC. The sound is more open and refined now, and definitely ranks higher in terms of sonic quality.
The uDACs still have a couple of coloration issues. If the original uDAC is heavily colored in the bottom end, then the uDAC 2 adds a coloration in the upper midrange. Not bad, as it helps makes the sound more engaging and livelier. But such colorations comes at the expense of the overall refinement in the sound. Comparing the uDAC 2 to the HRT MS2 DAC, and it’s definitely clear that the HRT is the superior DAC. The HRT is more transparent, has better low level detail, better transients, better decay, and overall a more natural sound. The HRT MS2′s only catch is that it lacks a headphone out, which can be very handy for laptop/office set-ups. But at this price point, I think the performance is very very good, and I really am being too demanding when I said that the uDAC 2 needs to be more such and such. However, while I would confidently rank the HRT MS2 as a budget audiophile DAC, the uDAC 2 is more like a well designed gadget with a good price to performance ratio.
Somethings that I don’t understand is that the uDAC 2 has a much lower line out level than the original. For instance, when the volume is maxxed out in the uDAC 2, I have to dial down the original uDAC to around 1 O’clock to get the same volume level. Likewise, the headphone out is also weaker in uDAC 2, with roughly the same volume level differences. Driving the 300 Ohm HD580, for instance, the original uDAC is quite comfortable at 1 O’clock, where the uDAC 2 is all the way at maximum volume. Also, I’m getting quite a punchy bass with the original uDAC, where the uDAC 2 is less punchy.
On the other hand, the lower gain of the uDAC 2 gives a very usable volume control for use with IEMs, and this is very important for many people. On the original uDAC, using the JH16Pro, I can’t get any decent volume control. At one level there is no sound, then with a slight twist on the knob, you already get a moderately loud volume. On the uDAC 2, I’m getting a far more usable volume control from zero volume to about 9-10 O’clock depending on the recording level. Volume imbalance problems has also been improved on the uDAC 2. The uDAC 2 is also much more quieter at maximum volume, even with the JH16Pro, so I can leave the potentiometer at max and control volume entirely from Itunes without getting too bothered by noise level from the amp. This gives a better sound output than if you were controlling the volume with the uDAC 2′s potentiometer.
Being able to play 24/96 files is a nice addition, though at this level the difference is mostly due to the better recording quality you get with the newer 24/96 files. But I’m sure that many of us have started building a library of 24/96 files, and it’s lame to have to downgrade your 24/96 files to 16/44.1 just so that your DAC can play it. So, again the uDAC 2 scores a point here.
As with the first version, probably one of the strongest factor behind uDAC’s strong sales performance is the first class build quality that we rarely see, even on many higher priced products. If you look at the closest competitors to the uDAC in terms of price, the HRT MS2, the Audinst HUD-MX1, the Styleaudio UD-1, and even up to the $300 price bracket products, none of them simply have the beautiful craftmanship that the uDAC has. Not only does it look prettier and more sophisticated than the HRT MS2′s DIY-like build, but the uDAC also has a better quality finishing than some $1,000 DACs. Being super tiny also help with the overall positive impressions. The uDAC is definitely one of the most iconic looking entry level audio products in the market today.
The original uDAC was priced at $99, and we all wish that the uDAC 2 has the same pricetag as the original. It’s funny that psychology affects our judgment a big deal here, as suddenly $130 seems a steep price to pay for the uDAC 2. However, the improvements in the DAC section is very real, and given how much the uDAC brand name has grown, I think that $130 is ultimately still a fair price for such the upgrades in sound.
Overall, the uDAC 2 makes for a nice simplistic system alongside a netbook. But if you’re planning to build a decent headphone system with a separate headphone amplifier, I’d still recommend you to get something better like the HRT Music Streamer as it gives a more mature DAC sound than the uDACs.
System used for review: