Bonjour, où faire la meilleure DACs vivre? The answer could indeed be France, the home of totaldac who have set out to achieve one thing, the ultimate DAC. Now the brains behind the company Vincent Brient worked the rounds tinkering in a range of areas of the electronics industry designing circuit boards and ended up learning about audio, studying amps and other components. As far as DACs were concerned they were never quite right so he did the obvious thing (for someone with a technical mind) and designed his own, probably not the path most average Joes take. The company only formed because visitors to his system wanted him to make them a version of his DAC and if it was on the level of his latest creations I know why.

One of a Kind

From humble beginnings we come to the latest totaldac, the d1-tube-mk2, which sits unique in the line up as the only model with a tube based output. It comes in at €9900, which is the second cheapest along with the d1-dual. The price isn’t the only common denominator either and these two units share a lot, such as USB input stage and the discrete R-2R conversion ladder (as basis for all the models). The biggest difference though is in the output stage, where this employs double triode valves. The valves are ECC82/12AU7 and they do shape the DAC in a lot of ways, not only influencing with their sonic properties but also leaving this DAC single ended and with a comparatively weak output compared to any balanced DAC I have in my ever growing collection. We will get to what this means later anyhow.

Sneaking a look at the tubes

Now we have clearly established this is a DAC, but it is also a digital pre amp, in that it acts a pre with volume controls but doesn’t have any analogue inputs, so you have to use the internal DAC, which I can assure you is no hardship. Obviously you can also set it as a pure line out as well into an external pre or integrated amp to no problem what so ever. It can do most file formats including up to 24/192 (I have not cared once this can’t do DXD) and also DSD64 over DoP, for a whopping three of its inputs as well, in fact everything but its optical input (which can’t stretch beyond 96kHz). The other three inputs are USB, SP/DIF coaxial and AES/EBU. Now something that I am a big fan of is that this actually has both XLR and RCA outputs (they work simultaneously as well), even though it is only single ended. So yes when using the XLRs, you only use some of the connection points but you can still send this into amps that may only have XLRs in (such as my Amphion 100 Monos), or use your already purchased high end interconnects. I will lastly mention this doesn’t come with a headphone out like the d1-dual and some others do.

The totaldac Way

Now the design of this is the same as every other totaldac unit, its like a flattened off pyramid and it is a gloss black with a bright yellow glow. If that is a bit boring for you then you can pay a bit extra and get the silver fronted models which glow a baby blue, this design option won me over when I saw it at Munich and it would also sit nicer with my headphone amp and music server which are both silver. I think the design is distinctive and also very well executed, especially compared to the original A1 series from totaldac. You see a totaldac, and you know what it is from a mile off!

Now one thing that this does have, which obviously saves Vincent money but does not seem like it should be present in a 10 grand piece is that because the chassis is the same for every product totaldac do, you have a label for all the different features that could be available but are filled in, such as the headphone jack and a SD card port. In reality its not big deal, but its odd to see. As for the tubes in this DAC they have decided to be on the low profile side, able to only be seen subtly glowing behind a grill on the back. It doesn’t give off a lot of heat either and this thing stays cool for something tube based. This also means that tube rolling isn’t really an option with these something that starts to define some other tube based DACs like my tube proud Lampizator that has them jutting out at the top, ready to roll. For isolation we have three round rubber feet, with one at the front and two at the rear and it also sits on a copper antivibration plate.

The remote leaves me a touch disappointed. DACs from the likes of Antelope and NAD are amazing, metal, relevant buttons, hell the NAD M12 remote even lights up when it senses you are in a dark environment. totaldac’s is at the very least branded but is all plastic and looks like a shrunken down sky remote. Also the buttons barely have relevance. Some do, such as the mute and volume controls, they are all clearly labeled. Input selection gets a little more difficult, we have numbers 0-9 but 5 and above have no real task (they select an individual totaldac product if you have more than one), so are pointless in my experience. 1-4 are input choices and every different input is numbered but the thing is, I don’t remember what’s what, so it becomes a guessing game every time I switch input. I would much rather they got rid of 5-9 (for single units) and gave us bottoms that said inputs clearly on. Also for switching things in the menu, instead of a menu button, 0 and -/– cycle back and forth through the menu, another thing you get used to but still, with a €10k outlay I want a well built and super functional remote, especially when the DAC has to be controlled by the remote with not a single physical button in sight.

Now when it comes to the design of this it is much more complicated than building a circuit around a shop bought digital to analogue conversion chip or even creating a snazzy FGPA to control it. Instead Vincent got some Vishay branded 0.01% VAR Bulk Metal resistors and implemented them to do the conversion for him. When I say some it is an understatement as well because he uses an array of 200 per channel, yes that’s 400 resistors in total. Adding to that is the fact these are far from cheap, a single resistor with a 1% tolerance is about $16 so I don’t even want to imagine how much the resistors alone are in this DAC considering these are of even better tolerance. I know he also uses his own custom FGPA to control them but beyond that I would have no clue explaining how they turn binary into sweet, sweet music. If I was Vincent I wouldn’t want anyone knowing anyway, keep this magic locked down.

Now totaldac have done a lot to eliminate noise interfering with the sound. Something that is obviously a big deal. The first and a very important way they do this is by shutting down the inputs that are not in use, meaning they are dead as far as noise is concerned. The second way is that they have the power supply in an external chassis. It is actually a cute little version of the main chassis and doesn’t look to bad if you want it to sit next to the DAC on a rack, although in my personal situation I have it tucked down under my desk.

Grand Master Sound

The sound in a sense is quite stereotypical for both a NOS DAC and a tube based product, not in a bad way but you do sense some of the more ‘traditional” characteristics. By that I mean we have a touch of valve warmth and NOS treble roll off. Now there is a lot more to this DAC than them two things of course but they bring me to my next point and that is the one FIR filter that this DAC has, specifically implemented to compensate for the treble roll off. The treble roll off isn’t a flaw, it very well suits some systems I have tried this with while others, such as when using the Amphion Argon 0/1 speakers seem a little bit dark. That’s when the filter comes in as it just gives you a boost right up top too keep the treble nice and flat along with the rest of the frequencies. It basically allows you to get a classic non-oversampling signature and more neutral, technically correct sound and both have their places of use.

Now even though I have already gone ahead and said we have a bit of euphoric sound, the big look at me characteristic of this DAC is the soundstage. I think it is something that starts out as being generally huge in all axis, most notably having crazy depth. I would say you sit a step back with a great projection of the stage in front of you. Now something I think that directly lends a huge helping hand to this would be just how quiet this DAC is, bringing noise out in other DACs such as the Northstar Incanto and Exogal Comet that I never knew even existed, I even think I could hear something with the Lampizator Lite 7 in comparison. The D1s black background though is just transcending and you get such elegant imaging because of it, its not just clear but its picturesque, real and able to morph to scenarios that is being played back, be it a boxy recording studio or a stadium tour live recording.

Now maybe an effect of the tubes or just how this DAC was designed but we do have an element of warmth to the bass and it is actually a touch soft as well. The warmth comes from an easy going decay and along with the not so aggressive impact, you have some extremely fluid bass. It is quite syrupy and progresses with ease and grace. What it is not is sloppy and manages to layer and texture the bass at the very top level. In fact bass notes have a distinction and honest timbre to them that you just don’t get with a lot of DACs which seem to care more about forcing agility and speed and I am not giving the usual this is musical mumbo jumbo, know this is doing a real bass, one that rumbles and makes your hair stand on end as only Flea’s bass guitar live can. While I find the deep bass to be full and impressive, I do find it to just start to fade away when you get to depths that you hear in very few music tracks, in fact its more of something you only notice with test tones. I love that bass and while it isn’t the fastest or something that is going to give you an impact that gives you a look like you’ve been slapped with a wet fish, it gives you such a true representation of what bass instruments sound like.

Tonally the midrange doesn’t really take on the warmth from the bass, it isn’t that kind of sound. Some properties do carry over and that slightly softer sound is one of them. It is thick, resolving and just doesn’t try too hard. The music does with out jagged edges, extreme vividness or an attempt at getting details and forcing them down your throat. DACs like the NAD M51 and to an extent Antelope Audio Zodiac Gold, while not bad DACs they seem to sound a bit glaring and off, detailed and clear, but not real. Now this DAC has the perfect balance because in terms of easy details this has loads, the background is so silent everything is easy to pick out, they just don’t feel held under a magnifying glass. On top of that the dynamic range is unparalleled, able to explode with out a moments notice or get real quite and intricate. Again it’s not the old musicality over neutrality nonsense and you know better for me to start flogging that rubbish. Now we have incredible balance here topped off with rhythm and flow. This isn’t a false DAC and it isn’t something that glosses over everything in the name of musicality, this is more, it could just be the winning combo of the two.

The treble can be a bit dependent on whether or not you decided to use the filter and for the most part I find myself using it. It gives you better neutrality, air and also zip up top. Without the filter it is much calmer and can help cool down some hot headed headphones or speakers but even with headphones that sound bright to some like the Sennheiser HD800, I stick with the filter switched on. The treble feel just fits and finishes off this DAC, it just feels right for the way this sounds and everything is so coherent, attached, together.

All the above description can be summed up into something that seems to just be what a DAC should be. The technicalities that should be amazing are, I am talking layering of sounds, timbre of instruments, body and soundstaging. The rest of it is controlled and confident and doesn’t seem as though its doing a chore, or something that was simply made to perform a task. When speaking to the guys at Exogal they told me how they have done much more complicated things in PCB design so creating an FGPA was an easy task for their “smart” team. You hear it in the artificial sounding DAC. Vincent not only has the knowledge but he didn’t start off to fill a gap in the market but to make himself a better DAC, selling it was the just demand in the aftermath. Again this is a bit of tubey sounding DAC, more so that Lampizator Lite 7 which wears its tubes like a peacocks feathers, in fact that doesn’t sound tubey in the slightest, lacking body, depth and warmth in comparison. I think that type of sound is to be expected though as it is the tube of the line up, surely that comes with some sort of responsibility.

As for PCM and DSD and how it reacts to them both, I don’t think this discriminates. It sounds awesome with both. I did do a little test, comparing the same track in both DSD and 24/192 (Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road) and did I find a much more dramatic difference and preference do the DSD on my Northstar Incanto, with DSD only taking a slight lead on the totaldac. I know it shouldn’t come as a shock with the price difference but the PCM file on the totaldac was still light-years ahead of the DSD with the Northstar. So yes your PCM collection will be fine, be it redbook CD rips, high res tracks (maybe steer clear of MP3s as usual) and so will your DSD collection.

Head to Head 

A DAC impressing is one thing, but taking on some other DACs always makes things clearer, out of all my many, many DACs, only two made a case for a comparison.

Lampizator Lite 7 – While cheaper, I thought the Lampizator would make an interesting comparison, especially seeing as they are both tube based, single ended and it also has a lot of hype surrounding it at the moment. For a start the SE output of the Lampizator is a lot stronger than the totaldac, which you can take as you like. Obviously the Lite 7 is a DAC only with no volume control so all comparisons are with a line out.

The presentation between these two DACs is clear, the Lampizator is more up front and in your face. It also feels wider. That being said as you are so close, I just don’t get near the sense of depth I get from the totaldac and overall the totaldac seems more impressive with soundstage due to things being a bit more three dimensional. The L7 is flatter and still impressive and it seems quiet but as I have said before, nothing is as quiet as the totaldac.

In terms of tonality the L7 is certainly more neutral, its got a sense of forwardness in mids and treble and on top of that, its harder sounding, much more vivid and etched. I would go ahead and say it comes across with more details as well, maybe thats just the more obvious presence in the upper mids though. Maybe a trade off for this is a thinner sound, we lack the big body of the d1 and timbre appears a bit more aggressive and due to a quicker sound isn’t quite as realistic. On occasions the trebles more vibrant and sparkly sound also become a bit splashy, without as clean transients as the d1, which is obviously much smoother in the treble and even with the filter applied doesn’t have as much presence in the upper regions.

Both are very good DACs but I think they sit very much on either sounds of the scale, the d1 being the warmer, softer sounding unit with the most realistic timbre and huge soundstage, the L7 is more about speed, clarity and neutrality although can come off a bit lean. With the price difference you should hope the totaldac sounds better and I think it does, it has the upper hand in refinement, realism, emotive ability and presentation, but that’s not to say the Lampizator doesn’t have its own areas of prowess and while in a lot of cases I would sway to the more neutral unit, I don’t think that is the case here, yes tonally you may prefer the Lampizator but I just think the totaldac’s signature just has something that even the most pompous of people will find them self not wanting to leave.

Antelope Audio Zodiac Platinum w/ 10m Atomic Clock – This one is a bit more relevant in price, especially once you add the clock option that adds £5,700 to the £4,250 DAC, which actually means it ends up a touch more expensive that the d1, let the show down begin. The Antelope is clearly a pretty impressive piece, especially wowing with DSD. For a start the bass sit between both the d1 and L7, with a bit more bloom and meaning than the L7, but also has more punch and feeling than the d1, its a nice start and combines aspects of both. It still doesn’t have the rhythm (or warmth) of the TD but man the impact is glorious, I reckon it has the best sub-bass of the three as well. The sound is big, but like a lot of the DACs I have compared that to most people have an incredible soundstage, the totaldac laughs them off, its incredible, it is becoming my favourite feature and its just such a clean improvement at all times, I managed to output music at the same time to both DACs with my BMC PureMedia and had them simultaneously inputting into my Questyle CMA800R, this allowed me to flick a switch to compare amps and and you feel the music just increase around you, spreading out and expanding. Funnily enough it seemed to actually put yourself in a similar perspective to the TD, unlike the L7.

Most shocking here though is that with the TDs treble filter on, I couldn’t help but find there to be more presence in the upper mids through to the treble. Thats normally an area of chill out for the TD so I gather the Zodiac has a similar approach but it doesn’t seem as clear. It maybe feels a bit restrained, not showing of any splash at all. That being said the midrange is more focussed, forward and very well pronounced.

The Platinum doesn’t hit me as being miles faster or more detailed or any of that like the L7 did, it is similarly bodied and is only a touch shorter on decay, the Zodiac certainly is one of the more natural sounding DACs and has some similar traits to the TD, but as of now the TD just seems to do it bigger and you just cant stop hearing a few areas in which the d1 is well, better, and did I mention BIGGER.

Integrating the totaldac

Now while I have got this involved in our loudspeaker system, which resides round Josh’s, it is not secret that I am a headphone guy. I think for the most part something that is a bit more guarded or at least something people are just ignorant too is just how vital a DAC is in a high end headphone system, I have said it before but a bad DAC can really bottleneck and limit everything in the system. On top of that I think this is a DAC that plays well with headphone systems due to its weaker, unbalanced output. The totaldac’s line out is only 1.4Vrms, which is a bit on the low side compared to most other DACs, which if come with a balanced output, normally sit in the ballpark of 4Vrms while single ended options are on average at least 2Vrms. Now for headphone amps, which obviously don’t sit as powerful speaker counterparts actually prefer a weaker output and we are therefore able to get more movement out of the volume pot. In fact, the portable Aurender flow which has adjustable power output, distorted and crackled with my headphones when set to 5Vrms and I could only ever use at 2Vrms. Once again don’t let this smaller number try and fool you into thinking the output is weak sounding, quite simply it is not.

Now the output strength does obviously have a potential limiter if you plan on using this as a pre-amp as well as a DAC. Josh found in a far from power hungry system (NAD M22 and Audioplan Kontrast), when using this as a pre that he was getting to -10dB at some points. Obviously this will be one of the trade offs from putting tubes into solid state electronics and I think we would have a bit more power to play with on tube electronics but that brings me onto the next point, it was well worth doing regardless. The totaldac has its custom FGPA handle the digital volume control and unless you have a EXTREMLEY serious pre amp, I don’t see why you wont be using this in that role. I will let Josh say a few words.

I got to use this baby for a couple of weeks whilst Sonny was busy with other items, and did I want to give it back? Hell no! But let me tell you why!

I am in the position at the moment where I have the Exogal Comet with PSU upgrade, NAD Master Series M12 DAC/pre amp (normally as just a pre) and the M22 power amp running the rather impressive Audioplan Kontrast MK 5’s. It sounds wonderful actually, the price including cabling which is from Nordost and Audioplan is approximately £17,500 which is far from ridiculous for a whole system (not including sources). 

The totaldac began in the system as a standalone DAC running into the M12 pre, initially every aspect of the d1s sound that I knew from our reference headphone system was present here too. The richness and smoothness was there in bucket loads with just enough technical prowess to accompany the NAD pair beautifully. Timbre was fantastic and I far preferred the tonality and the performance compared to the less expensive Exogal as one would hope. Knowing it wasn’t going to be my product to review, I was quite happy with just enjoying the new gear and how my music had changed up to another level without doing any serious critical listening but then, Sonny was curious as to how the pre amp in the totaldac would fare. Was it just an afterthought? Or was it a genuine accompaniment to what is a lovely sounding DAC. 

Having got to know the sound from the M12/M22 pretty well I unplugged the M12 and fed the TD straight into the M22. I was impressed to say the least, the most prominent change in sound was the imagery and soundstage; it was brilliantly wide, deep, and tall, hell it was an expanse of sound. The Exogal itself is a very wide sounding DAC probably as wide in fact but the combination of richness, depth and togetherness of the TD sets it apart from any DAC I’ve heard in our systems so far in this area. The precision of the stage is brilliant too, pinpoint accuracy all round, it’s an impressive sound believe me.

It’s a very loveable product, if you want a seriously capable, warm sounding DAC/Pre at around this price you must give it a chance, demo if you can. It’s a little rolled off at the top and could be a little more impactful at the bottom end if I’m being really critical and if it were me, I would prefer a little less of the warmth and I would assume the tubeless version of this DAC (d1-dual) would offer you just that, I would love to put that too the test. It’s great and despite not being exactly my signature preference I respect it immensely for its capabilities and quickly become intoxicated by its sound.

 

The one issue I had was the low output though, as Sonny has already mentioned. The NAD M22 is a powerhouse I will explain why in its own review soon, but it has 250 wpc there ready to be used and for the Kontrasts this really is plenty believe me. With the TD connected straight to the M22 I would find myself at -10 to -20 db on the pre amp when I fancied  getting it pretty loud, and while it’s not a problem, it does concern me that if I was in a bigger room with some not so efficient speakers I would run out of juice. It is designed for tube amps I know, but you should still be able to crank it with a solid state if you ask me! As I say, it wasn’t actually an issue for me but I can see it could pose difficulty for someone running it this way. That is of course another situation where the d1-dual comes in with its much more powerful 6.2Vrms XLR output.

Try It Yourself

This DAC clicks with me and I also find it to do stuff I didn’t know possible with a DAC, pushing my headphone system beyond the limits I thought possible with the way it renders soundstage and also doubling up as a top pre amp in speaker set ups. While it doesn’t present absolute neutrality it sounds more natural than any DAC I ever tried, it flows better too, but of course, your tastes may very well come into play and something more linear, may take priority but in 100% honesty before this, I thought I was that guy. Yeh, I have moaned about some of the less important things like the remote but in reality these things I get over so quickly when I love the sound as much as I do and at least it has a remote, some products such as my Lite 7 only respond to tactile buttons. In fact because the sound is so good, this is being placed upon the exclusive Inearspace Pride of Place as the best DAC we have ever reviewed. That’s how confident both me and Josh are with it.

If we have piqued your interest but your still not sure, you want to hear (pun intended) the best part, you can try it yourself at home for 14 days and be able to send it back IF you don’t end up liking it. I can tell you that sending this thing back just isn’t going to be easy so be ready to commit.

Sonny Trigg