I find it hard to work without music. Since most of my work involves me tapping words into a computer, I consume the majority of my music via that same computer. The digital music revolution has allowed us to store vast song libraries on our computers, so all I need to do is plug a pair of headphones into my laptop and listen to my heart's content.
The major problem with this scenario is that there are few devices on the planet that are worse suited to playing back high fidelity music. Computers are invariably full of electrical noise that will adversely affect audio fidelity. On top of that, the audio circuitry that most computer manufacturers employ is basic at best, and downright terrible at worst.
It comes down to priority. A computer manufacturer, even one with a strong history in audio - yes I'm talking to you Apple - is primarily concerned with computing performance and usability, not with the audio quality from the headphone socket. As such, components such as the DAC and amplification circuitry will be far from ideal if audio quality is important to you.
Of course there are ways to bypass the internal audio circuitry in a computer, with higher-end soundcards and media-based notebooks sporting digital audio outputs in either optical or coaxial flavours. However, it's a common misconception that a digital audio signal is as good as perfect, with S/PDIF solutions subject to jitter.
The introduction of asynchronous USB has all-but eliminated digital jitter, by taking timing control away from the computer. An external DAC employing asynchronous USB will essentially tell the computer when to send data, and thus remove the issue of out-of-phase clocks that cause jitter.
So, it is possible to extract a very clean audio signal from your computer by using an external DAC connected via asynchronous USB. Unfortunately such external DACs have traditionally been very expensive, that is, until now.
The Arcam rPAC is a compact external DAC and headphone amplifier that will pump pure, clean and, quite simply, beautiful music to your ears. But what's amazing about the rPAC is that you can pick one up for under £150!
Before I get into the specifics, let me make one thing clear - I love the rPAC. In all honesty, I don't ever want this little black box to leave my desk. But when the day does come to return this review sample, I'll be buying an rPAC for myself.
What's so special about the rPAC? Well, while there's a host of other external DACs with integrated headphone amps on the market, most of them are trying to be all things to all men. Most will be battery operated so you can use them on the move, many will include optical digital inputs for versatility, and very few of them will sport an asynchronous USB connection - not at this price point anyway.
One of the best things about the rPAC is its single mindedness - Arcam has designed it to do just one job, and it does that job with aplomb. The rPAC has no battery and it has no other inputs bar the USB connector - this is a device that's meant to sit on your desk connected to your computer at one end, while your headphones plug into the other. It's simple and it's brilliant.
Despite its relatively diminutive dimensions of around 99 x 68mm, the rPAC looks and feels much like Arcam's high end Hi-Fi separates. The DAC and amplification circuitry are housed inside an aluminium casing that looks as if it was milled from a single billet of metal. That aluminium housing sits on a thick rubber base that stops the rPAC from sliding around the desk, while also soaking up any unwanted vibrations.
At the rear of the rPAC you'll also find a pair of phono sockets, so you could pump the sound to an amplifier instead of using headphones. The only controls on the device itself are for volume up and down. While discussing the rPAC with Gordon (a fellow journalist), he suggested that a mute button would be a good addition, and while I don't miss having one at all, I can appreciate that some users might. Further investication revealed that pressing both volume buttons simultaneously will mute the sound, so I guess Gordon will be happy now.
You've probably noticed that I haven't mentioned a power socket - that's because there isn't one. Adding to its simplicity, the rPAC draws all the power it needs from the USB port on your computer, thus reducing cable clutter and the need for a free power socket.
Setup is ridiculously simple - just plug the rPAC into a spare USB port, plug your headphones in and enable the device in System Preferences, assuming you're using a Mac. It's a similar procedure on a Window's PC, ensuring that you switch to the rPAC audio output. And if you were wondering, yes, you can plug the rPAC into a USB hub without any issues.
I plugged my faithful Shure SE530 triple-driver earphones into the rPAC, expecting a subtle, but noticeable improvement in sound quality. What I got was a performance so impressive that I could barely believe it was coming from my laptop. Believe me when I say that the rPAC doesn't so much clean up the music from your computer, it reinvents it!
Mike Oldfield's masterpiece, Tubular Bells, is an album that I've never been able to fully enjoy when played back on any kind of computer, but listening through the rPAC it sounded beautifully delicate and angelic, as if I were listening to it on a dedicated Hi-Fi rather than the MacBook Air that I'm currently typing this review on.
It's the improvement in high-end clarity that really impresses when listening through the rPAC. Subtle sounds and effects that would find themselves clipped or simply overwhelmed when listening through a computer's headphone socket are there in all their delicate glory.
That's not to say that the rPAC doesn't deliver with more punchy, bass heavy source material. D'Angelo's Brown Sugar pours forth from the rPAC like honey. The leading bass line surrounds you like a warm blanket, while the snare cracks like a whip over the top. In fact, the rPAC made me remember just how superb the production is on this track, and the album as a whole.
Switching genre to something more rock focussed caused no problems for the rPAC either, with Temple of the Dog's self titled album coming through with a loud, full-throttled presence. Despite Chris Cornell's vocals sitting way up front in the mix, there's a superb cohesion to the arrangements highlighted by the rPAC, especially on the opening track, Say Hello to Heaven.
I could go on, but rest assured that the rPAC will transform whatever you pump through it, regardless of genre. It's like some arcane, black magic box that performs mysterious miracles - you might not know how it does it, but you'll be very pleased that it does.
If you regularly listen to music via your computer, you want an Arcam rPAC, it's that simple. It's hard to convey just how much this little black box will increase your listening pleasure, and at £149, it won't break the bank either.
Pros: Incredible sound improvement. Asynchronous USB connection. Solid build.
Cons: I genuinely can't think of any.