The Naim DAC-V1 is a simply wonderful piece of audio kit. Even by the incredibly high standards that anyone would judge Naim by, the DAC-V1 is an exceptional device and one that truly redefines the how computers are viewed as audio sources.
On many levels a computer is the worst possible source device for high quality audio. Computers are noise – they’re so full of electrical noise and interference that any hope of getting decent sound out of a headphone or line-out connection is futile. But there’s a solution to this problem in the shape of asynchronous USB.
Of course any digital connection is a step in the right direction, allowing the music to live as a digital bit-stream until it’s converted into sound via an external Digital or Analogue Converter, or DAC. The beauty of an asynchronous USB digital connection is that it essentially eliminates jitter by allowing the clock in the receiving DAC to control the flow of data.
I actually use an asynchronous USB DAC every day, in the shape of the Arcam rPac. When I reviewed the rPac, I found that it improved the sound quality from my laptop so much that I couldn’t go back to plugging my headphones directly into my computer. But whereas the Arcam rPac is a small, portable DAC / headphone amp that’s powered by the USB bus, Naim has taken a completely different approach with the DAC-V1.
The DAC-V1 is a pretty big box of tricks if you look at it as just an external DAC and headphone amp, but that would be selling it very short. While you could, in theory, just park it on your desk next to your iMac (or any other computer) and plug your headphones into it, it’s capable of so much more.
As well as that magic asynchronous USB connector for hooking up your computer, the DAC-V1 has five further digital inputs – two optical and three coaxial. One of the coaxial inputs has a BNC connector, but Naim provides a BNC to phono adapter in the box just in case. This means that you can hook up all manner of digital sources to the DAC-V1 and essentially improve them all.
Although the other digital inputs don’t enjoy the jitter-free environment that the USB connection provides, Naim does claim that the DAC-V1 can virtually eliminate jitter over S/PDIF too. It achieves this by buffering the incoming data and clocking it out using its local clock rather than relying on the clock at the source end. The timing of the source device is taken out of the equation, and consequently so is the propensity for jitter. The upshot being that whatever source device you use, and whatever connection interface it employs, the DAC-V1 will ensure the best possible output.
Even with the DAC-V1’s ability to virtually eradicate jitter over conventional S/PDIF connections, the asynchronous USB connection still offers a significant advantage in that it can support source material all the way up to 24-bit/384kHz, while the S/PDIF inputs top out at 24-bit/192kHz. Of course files above 24-bit/192kHz are pretty thin on the ground, but they do exist if you know where to look.
There’s a bit of setting up to get through when you first hook your computer up to the DAC-V1. If you’re a Windows user you’ll need to install the driver before connecting your computer up. For Mac users though, it’s a simple plug-and-play affair – I just connected my MacBook Pro via the USB cable and the DAC-V1 was instantly recognised as an audio output device. Once I’d selected the DAC-V1 as my output device of choice, all audio streams were sent directly to it.
If you’re looking to play source material that’s higher than CD quality – and why wouldn’t you with a DAC like this? – you’re going to need to install a player that’s capable of outputting such files. You can install the BitPerfect plugin for iTunes, or you could install a separate player. I opted for Audirvana, which will happily playback the highest quality source files in any number of formats, including FLAC. Audirvana will also link up with iTunes, so that you can control it via iTunes, including the use of remote apps.
Once you’ve decided what player you’re going to use, you need to run Naim’s bitperfect setup routine, which will ensure that the received bit-stream is exactly as it should be. This routine involves playing back a variety of test files, which can be downloaded from Naim’s website. It’s a bit (no pun intended) frustrating when all you can think about is creating a playlist and letting rip, but you’ll only have to do this once and if you’re going to splash the cash on a Naim DAC-V1, you may as well get the best out of it.
So, once you’ve finished setting up the DAC-V1 how good does it sound? Pretty damn amazing to be frank! I hooked the DAC-V1 up to the Naim NAP 100 power amp, which was designed specifically to partner to the DAC-V1. For speakers I went with a pair of Dali Mentor Menuets, keeping the entire system pretty compact. I listened to a variety of music across differing file types – I used everything from 320kbps MP3 and 256kbps AAC files, to CD quality files, all the way up to Studio Master grade FLAC files.
Even compressed MP3 or AAC source material sounded pretty fantastic through this setup, although if you encode below 320kbps for MP3 the overall effect is somewhat narrow, especially when compared to uncompressed or lossless audio.
When you pipe CD quality audio through the DAC-V1 you really start to appreciate just what this box can do. Priscilla Ahn’s Dream sounded simply magical, almost like I was hearing it for the first time. Ahn’s voice has never sounded so beautifully delicate, and I swear I could hear subtle nuances to the melody that I’d never encountered before.
Firing up some Simon and Garfunkle produced similarly stunning results. The complex arrangement and harmonies that make up The Boxer were expertly rendered – the vocals simply float above the mix, while that guitar is always gently flowing through the heart of the accompaniment.
The DAC-V1 doesn’t just make the most of acoustic fare either, as was proved when I changed tack to The Crystal Method. The bass heavy and bombastic The Name of the Game sounded powerful and intense, but still crystal clear.
But if you really want to find out what the DAC-V1 can do, you need to throw some high sample rate material at it. There are plenty of stores online that now sell high definition music, but don’t expect the same kind of selection that you’ll find on iTunes.
I’ve listened to Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones hundreds of times, but playing the 24-bit/88.2kHz studio master recording through the DAC-V1 was a revelation. The sheer amount of discernable detail was staggering, but the whole track felt so cohesive and, well musical. I’m literally going to struggle to listen to the CD quality version once Naim collects its review kit.
If you’re thinking that the impressive performance was partly to do with the NAP 100 amp and Dali speakers, you’re probably right, but I can promise you that the DAC-V1 is just as accomplished when used as a standalone DAC/headphone amp. I plugged a variety of headphones into the DAC-V1 including my everyday Shure SE530s, a pair of Bowers & Wilkins P3s and a pair of Onkyo ES-FC300s – the result with each and every set of headphones was superb and just made me wish I had a pair of Sennheiser HD800s handy.
You’re no doubt thinking that the Naim DAC-V1 can’t be cheap, and you’re right. But although I probably should think that the £1,250 asking price is steep, I don’t. The NAP 100 will set you back an additional £650, but I still can’t help feeling that this setup is worth the asking price. Of course you’ll still need speakers and a source device too, at which point the cost does start to become a little scary.
Naim suggests that its UnitiServe hard disk player would make great source device for the DAC-V1 and in many ways it would. But then you wouldn’t be using that lovely asynchronous USB connection, and would be missing out on the ridiculously high 384kHz sampling rate support. I’d be tempted to buy a dedicated MacBook Pro, and just use it to drive the DAC-V1 and store all those lovely studio master recordings.
The DAC-V1 represents Naim’s first foray into asynchronous USB, and as debuts go, this one is pretty spectacular. If spending north of £1,000 on a DAC that still needs a source, an amp and speakers seems steep to you, you’re probably not the target buyer. I won’t deny that the price is high, but I’ll freely admit that I’ve already started saving.