What Makes this Special!
This type of product is in general terms a very specialised computer with music being the core (only) focus. When it comes to the snazzy tech side of this device it does just seem more appropriate to leave the explanation to totaldac.
“The d1-server is composed of 5 key elements:
1. the Totaldac d1-digital reclocker. It generates the spdif & AES-EBU outputs, recognised for its sound quality.
2. The ARM based Cubox mini computer, a tiny and very low consumption computer, which generates much less electromagnetic pollution than a bigger computer. This mini computer is completely shielded. Its software can be updated by simply changing the microSD card easily accessed on the back panel.
3. A 5V ultra low noise power supply, inherited from the d1-dual DAC design.
4. a real time operating system, found to be the best operating system for the sound quality after listening tests.
5. The Totaldac USB cable/filter, recognised and tested in many different environments (this is an option).”
The 5th option mentions totaldacs own USB cable which sadly is not a standard accessory with this product. A shame since you do need a USB to get this up and running (not that any household lacks one). You see the computer side of this product ends in a USB output but that doesn’t go straight to the DAC, instead it goes directly to a USB input also situated on the d1-server. Sounds confusing and I think for extra neatness this could have been done internally but I presume this was done to keep the USB input open for other sources. This process is a big part of the product, as the signal then gets rechecked and spat back out as a AES or coaxial RCA signal (can be swapped to BNC). You can purchase the totaldac USB cable which I have previously reviewed and highly recommend in ideal lengths such as 0.25m, keeping everything neat at the back. Worth mentioning is that as well as the USB input for the reclocker (the reclocker is actually a stand alone product, the server is just an addition to the circuit board) there are also optical, coaxial and AES inputs that you can have reclocked, you wouldn’t be getting the most of the product but does enhance its versatility.
Obviously this is limited to just an AES and Coaxial output and while this can transmit DSD out of them into DACs that can decode DSD in that manner, I will add my totaldac is the only DAC I have had to manage that feat, meaning with most other DACs without a USB input you won’t be able to have DSD decoded and instead end up with 176.4 kHz.
I wanted to finish off by quickly talking through the process of controlling the actual unit (not music) via the included remote. As I already have a totaldac product I can use just one remote to control both. Now naturally if you press a command it will impact both devices but you can also key in a button to select just one type of device. The only annoying thing about that is it is done by selecting a number assigned to each product type which for the love of god I just cannot remember. I just wish at this price point the remote could be a tad more specialised and just have the likes of a server or dac button for easy switching. At this price point with a system revolved around multiple product types it seems like a fair request!
I do think the digital reclocker side of this is one of the stand out features of this. I mean this is one that can be tested remotely, without even incorporating the actual server function. For example I can take the optical signal out of my AK380 and feed that either directly to my DAC or into the d1-server and transforming it into a coaxial signal. While this may seem like an illogical use of this device I thought what better way is there to get a gist of what it can do. Without the reclocking process the optical output is a little underwhelming. I am not a fan of optical as it is and in this implementation I find a metallic and glassy flavour, lack of depth and a slightly thin bass. I would have no issue with you being quick to jump on the fact that I am happily labeling these issues to the optical and not any other part of my system but it was actually using the reclocker that confirmed my worries. Not only did the sound become more holographic instantly but I also found the bass to firm up. Gone was a slightly tinny edge to the upper midrange and lower treble and more importantly the sound just seemed to gel together better, cohering and moving as one. While you can easily argue that by putting the Astell & Kern through the totaldac you are adding quite the increase in price to the system, it really did make only positive contributions. On top of that it is clear that sound properties off this product are truly totaldac!
This brings me on to my next train of thought and that is does it matter what goes into the reclocker? In this basic test I am doing above does the signal I end up getting from the optical output of a portable music player deliver the pinnacle in sound for this product? The answer is no, every step will matter. Vincent said the following:
“Everything is important, the computer generating the USB signal and the reclocker transforming USB to spdif or AES-EBU. Each component helps.
The best chain is: cubox embedded in the server, small USB cable to connect the server USB output to the server USB input, then use a AES-EBU (or coax) from the server output to the DAC input.”
It seems simple enough on paper but although I have certainly come to trust what Vincent has had to say, I am going to have to see to what extent the differences and fortunately a/bing between the cubox and my AK380 for a starting point is pretty easy. Easy was indeed the case as was very one sided. Scarily the entire tonality was more natural with the cubox integrated and it was a much more obvious a difference than the more linear improvements provided by just using the Astell & Kern with the reclocker. It really pushed my system to sound even more honest, taking away the few digital artifacts I had left in the system. The same goes when I compare this to the BMC Puremedia strictly in terms of sound quality (granted that device is very different, and does a whole lot more!).
Furthering the comparison with the BMC and the totaldac may not strictly be as “detailed” or “neutral” and while previously the BMC had fought off anything i’d stacked up against, it was like the sound just blossomed when dealing with the totaldac, it sounds like I am just repeating myself if you have already read my review of a certain tube DAC but the only impression I ever seem to get from totaldac products is pure musical pleasure. I am sent on a journey through my music, engaged and relaxed with no fatigue or worry. Not taking away anything from the BMC with its tight and clean manner it is a rather impressive feat itself, but it lacks some of the warmth and desire in the bass and a bit of emotion in the vocals. It also leaves me with the impression the totaldac is a bit tame in the treble. The truth is music needs to flow, resolve, deliver nostalgia and even get really emotional, I find while the two are clearly at very high levels of capability, the totaldac does these things and more! Is this down to a personal preference? Perhaps! Is this versus closer than say using my iMac or AK as a source? You can bet your arse it is!
Keep it in the Family
I just can’t find something to outdo my d1-tube-mk2 in the digital converter domain and to be perfectly honest this server has fit with it better than any other source I have tried. In terms of impressing me that of course will go a long way, because it is maximising the quality of my favourite system to my ears. Don’t let that fool you into thinking I have some sort of bias though. I will add that I have been just impressed by its sonic qualities with some other DACs I enjoy such as Veracity’s Mystra, I wouldn’t just base the quality of something on how it did with its partner device.
That being said this is a product for those lovers of the rich and engaging with refinement over extreme clarity. Maybe you would prefer the slightly dryer BMC in comparison, it certainly is on a similar sonic plane as one would hope with the similar price tags. Ironically the sound quality difference represents how I personally view the two devices. The totaldac is for the music lover, it plays music and along with Roon is a simple and innovative to use, beyond that you won’t get much more use out of it. The BMC is a squeaky clean media server that handles movies, music, photos all with a German level of precision. So while I have compared them in sound being the best two music servers I have heard, they are heavily separated products, both of which I appreciate.
To own the totaldac of the two would be a no brainer for me, using Roon has been a godsend on its own, its basically uses its database to put together the most epic playlists just from pressing play on one song and going through similar artists and the sound synergises just great with my choice of DAC which does happen to of course be from the same brand. I think that is why Vincent made this a reality, for the totaldac users who wanted a better source that integrated naturally with it, for that purpose I don’t know what more you could want. With other DACs it might not always be quite as perfect such as the lack of a USB output which is a lot of products only DSD decoding input, I would understand if that was enough to put you off.
I want to also add that while I have looked at the standalone version of this product, having the server added is an option for a lot of Vincent’s DAC, even possible with the entry level Core model I mentioned earlier for an extra €1000 (so €5,700 all in) or as a staple for their headphone model which is all in one solution for your NAS drive right to your headphone jack!