Pros: Price-to-performance, transparency, simplicity
Cons: Neutral tonality may not suit all listeners
I know a lot of people say a DAC is a DAC is a DAC, but I’m not one of them. A DAC’s chipset and its implementation, among other things, play a very real role in determining how it sounds. Well, the OL DAC doesn’t really sound like anything, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Quite the contrary. The OL DAC is audibly transparent, which makes it a great reviewer’s tool. But what about for the rest of you?
Satisfactorily small and straightforward, the OL DAC was, as JDS Labs’ Jude Hopper and John Seaber tell me, “an accidental child.”
As the company was experimenting with single-unit prototype DAC/amp combinations based on the open source amp design philosophy of acclaimed audio blogger NwAvGuy, it became apparent that the best bench tests came by way of standalone self-powered units. A standalone DAC design also allowed JDS Labs to better implement its USB and Optical inputs—a move aimed at appeasing customer demand for support for games consoles, CD/DVD players and other devices. And, so, the OL DAC was brought to market.
But let’s be honest, it’s not an “exciting” product—it’s just an affordable DAC ($139) that does its DAC duties well. And that’s why people love it. The roughly 4”x3”x1” box provides nothing but the basics. On the backside there’s one plug-and-play USB Audio Class 1 input (16/44.1 thru 24/96), one Optical input (16/44.1 thru 24/192), one gold-plated RCA 2.0V output, and a jack for the 15VAC linear power supply. On the minimalist front there’s a power button, USB/Optical slider switch and single green LED. Inside you get the premium AKM AK4490EQ DAC chip—which also appears in high-end audio components from the likes of Astel&Kern, ESOTERIC, Marantz and others—that’s summed by an ultra-low noise and wide bandwidth Texas Instruments OPA2227 operational amplifier. Done.
As I mentioned, one of the things I appreciate about the OL DAC is that it’s very transparent—there’s no coloration, or hints of overemphasis in any specific area of the dynamic range. Mating it to my O2, Eddie Current Balancing Act or HiFiMan EF-6 allows the traits of each to become readily apparent, not to mention what my head gear or speakers are doing. For tube audio fans, eliminating the influences of an audibly colored DAC allows for more immersive and effective tube rolling. Add in the fact that the OL DAC has an absolute noiseless, pitch-black background and nice detail retrieval, and that whole search for system synergy gets a little bit easier.
The downside here, if you can call it that, is that transparent can be “boring”. It’s not what I would consider especially lush or organic (my preference); it’s just clean and clear and conveys a good sound stage. But the point is that you can marry this little low noise, low jitter, low distortion DAC to any amp you wish and end up with banging budget audiophile results (did I mention that the OL DAC is $139?). There are no surprises with the OL DAC, and that’s not a bad thing at all.