As promised, here are the impressions of the rPAC after 3 days of usage. I hope it's concise enough to cover all the bases but not too long to bore you guys to death.
Please, do enjoy reading and feedback any queries you might have!
**Special Acknowledgments to Martin Hodson of Audio-T (Bristol) for the loaner product!**
Headphones: Sennheiser HD600 (stock config.), Phonak Audeo PFE112 (with Comply tips and grey/silver filters)
Sundries: Chord SilverPlus USB cable
Playback Software/Audio engine(s): Samplitude 11 (MME), iTunes 10 (MME), XMPlay 3.6 (WASAPI), JRMC 16 (WASAPI), Opera browser (Youtube/BBC iPlayer/Grooveshark/SoundCloud) (MME)
Capabilities not tested: Line out, fade-in/fade-out feature mentioned by vkvedam
Packaging & Construction: Excellent quality for what I consider as an entry-level device! Maybe it's just me, but, although the unit itself is made in China, it does not seem to come across as something that is cheaply made (unlike its other brethren). The matte finish of the chassis is slightly prone to smudging by really greasy/dirty fingers, so a little caveat there. It also comes immaculately packed in a biggish pancake/pizza box (for a product that is no bigger than most men's wallets), complete with most accessories (even a pair of RCA cables and a travel bag!) that entry users will ever need to set up the device. (Score: 4/5)
Ease of Use: Quite literally plug-and-play. No special drivers are needed for "vanilla" audio DAC use. Because I had missed the Arcam demo at the Bristol S&V Show, I can't seem to find the fade-in/fade-out feature (or software to support this feature) as mentioned by our TS. Apart from that, being a USB bus-powered device, using it is pretty much a no-brainer there. There are only 2 buttons to control the device volume (pressing both at the same time mutes the sound). I presume that it will also control external powered/active monitors (or power amps through its rear panel line-out feature). Since I don't have any monitors on hand to try this out at the time of review, I can't comment on this feature yet. Also, the indicator LED will show green for a locked device, red for no input (with power) and orange for mute. The LED brightness is pretty unintrusive for most mobile/desktop/mixing desk applications too. The included manual is rather rudimentary, doesn't really say much and experienced peripheral device users can quite literally junk it without needing it. (Score: 5/5)
Word of caution: For some reason, the device defaults to a rather ear-hurting high volume (possibly midway) the first time you plug in. So IEM/CIEM users, please take note of this if you treasure your hearing.
Sound: Excellent sound for a £150 device!! The first thing that hits you is its pretty impressive airy and three dimensional soundstage and its uncanny ability in layer/instrument separation and representation of instrument textures (which is **almost** but not really Furutech GT40-like). I'm also not too sure about most users here, but I believe seasoned ears should be able to pick out (more or less) the Chinese/"Made in China" and TI-made DAC chip "flavour" in the sound here. While there are sufficient levels of extension and (reasonably) tight, tuneful "meat" in the bass, impact and slam is understandably not that great for a device that doesn't swing more than 2V in the output (according to the manual/TI). Midrange is detailed, polite and clean, but ever so slightly erring on the warm side of being clinically neutral. Treble has a quite a bit of audible early roll off here (typical with most devices in this price range?). It also gets a bit gritty and grainy when fresh out of the box or starting up from cold.
It also possesses quite a dynamic nature to the sound and is able to ever so slightly "lift" otherwise dynamically-compressed music that is endemic in today's mainstream sources. This was also its key (combined with the expansive soundstage) where it really shines in highly lossy/compressed film (AC3/AAC encoded) soundtrack to make streaming online films and music that much more enjoyable. It still lacks a touch in leading edge attack, though (although that is just my personal preference).
There is definitely no worry about it being unable to drive most consumer-level IEMs, CIEMs and even high-impedance cans here. There is very little sign of distortion at ear-bleeding/clubbing/live-event levels and even the 300-ohm HD600s can be driven with reasonable authority. You will also lose a touch of bass extension by going loud, but gain a wee little bit more of "80 Hz punch" in the process. Treble still rolls off rather early at high volumes while the mid-range does not gain any more focus by going loud.
It is generally rather versatile across most genres too: acoustic, live, Asian pop, mainstream pop, orchestral/cinematic, classical, instrumental/percussion, vocal/acapella/operatic, rock, electronica/techno/house/trance/dance. So no worries there. As it is consistent with the Arcam house sound (slight bass bias), some potential integration issues may arise when one is using the line-out with speakers/amps. (Score: 9/10)
Notes: The sound will open up in about 2 or so days of near continuous usage. Most notable areas of improvements here are the further opening up of the already airy soundstage, more bass depth (and tautness) and less edge off the trebles. Midrange has also upped the ante on the detail game and adopted a more pacey, dynamic disposition. Note that the aforementioned upper treble roll off is still rather evident, though.
Comparisons/Value for Money: A possible no-contest here. At £150, the only possible competitor here would be stuff from Audinst and the FiiO E17 or E7/E9 combo. And although I've not heard the former two products, it definitely wipes the E7/E9 combo here. Even going higher up the ladder, (from memory) this little device will very possibly also annihilate the rather capable Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus for users who are not into its plethora of input options and are solely into the devices' sound capabilities. And rather interestingly, we have here a little mini competition from something more than twice its recommended street value in the shape of the aforementioned GT40.
Although I personally would prefer the sound off of the GT40 (largely in areas of refinement of its presentation, analogue volume control, leading edge attack, midrange expressiveness/musicality and treble sweetness over the Arcam - something I attribute to personal tastes), I personally think that the rPAC is really something retailers can push out in volumes to entry level consumers, "I want to jump ship from PC soundcard" users and people who are seeking a capable second DAC for their auxiliary/mobile setup. Of course, that means Arcam will probably need to up the ante if they really want to see this through. (Score: 5/5)
Verdict: As a a first DAC for your laptop/PC/Mac, however, I honestly cannot recommend virgin audiophiles a better recommendation for the money. With improvements over in the sundries and software department (USB bus power "cleaners", SotM, new players and the like), seasoned audiophiles looking for a capable "fire and forget" budget DAC for an auxiliary or a second/mobile setup will also not be disappointed. For the curious rest of us, why not pop in to your local dealer to have a listen out of pure interest?
I really cannot emphasise this enough: What we are looking here is possibly the next big thing in audio devices developed for mainstream PC (and Mac - yes, guys! You're not forgotten!) applications. Is there ANY thing here one can ask more from the rPAC? Well, maybe (I personally would appreciate a 6.3mm headphone output instead of a bog-standard 3.5mm one). However, what we have on hand here is an already rather nifty device more than capable of taking on the bigger boys that are already long established in the field. In that respect, this is definitely a product worth watching.
Final score: 4.6/5 (Impressive! Highly Recommended!)
Edited by 9VARZ - 3/27/12 at 1:29pm