The E-DAC arrived quickly despite having been told that it would take a while due to restocking. It didn't have its own box but was just packed in the one it was delivered in, along with a USB 2.0 Type A to USB Mini-B lead and four sticky feet (which I wish I had stuck on earlier as it scratched the surface of my Magni). The unit itself was wrapped in bubble wrap and surrounded by those styrofoam or corn starch pellets. I hope it was the latter as both my dog and I ate one; I had to see what all the fuss was about but alas, they did not taste like Wotsits. Along with the DAC came a sheet instructions for setting up the device and technical specifications amongst other things.
The following day I plugged it into my laptop (a Compaq 615), it took a minute or two to install drivers for it before setting it as default output device and the output to 24 bit and 96kHz as per the instructions. I headed into foobar and hit play. I was shocked. Somebody had installed a Geiger counter and a piece of Uranium-238 into my laptop and had it hooked up to the USB out in conjunction with my music, or that's how it sounded at least. Alternatively, if you're unfamiliar with this clicking and popping sound then imagine everything you enjoy about your music, then imagine everything else. Okay, maybe it wasn't quite that bad but it was definitely unlistenable to.
So I donned a Hazmat suit and spent the rest of the day trying to solve the clicking, checking and re-checking that everything was configured correctly, changing the sample rate, plugging it into a powered hub, using different players, everything but to no avail. In the end I installed Linux Mint, it wasn't an OS I'd tried before but I had read that it was light weight and the other machine I tried the DAC with ran Linux and that worked fine. I plugged the DAC in and the drivers were automatically found and installed by the time I had set it as default output in Banshee (the first media player I could find). I hit play and thankfully the new install had paid off; click free music, finally!
Build Quality and Appearance
From pictures I had seen of the DAC I was expecting not to like the finish and was even contemplating making my own enclosure for it but the black brushed aluminium actually looks quite nice in the flesh. On the front you have two screws, a 3.5mm out and a mini USB in. It would have been nice to have the 'Line out' in the same font as the 'Epiphany Acoustics E-DAC' or not written at all as it's pretty much self explanatory but it's hardly a problem. On the back you have another two screws and the RCA outs, the black and red pieces of plastic around them look a little cheap but other wise the back looks neat. I would have preferred to have the 3.5mm out in the centre of the faceplate and the mini USB at that back as I like symmetry and I don't like the USB lead dangling in front of the stack but this is probably a limitation of the shape of the chip. If I was nitpicking then I'd point out that the faceplate wasn't perfectly flush with the body and the brushed aluminium's texture seems to trap dust but I'm not so I won't.
The DAC sits tidily on top of the Magni and I think the combo looks very smart, obviously not as good as the Magni and Modi but the contrast between the two looks good. The device itself has a reassuringly weighty feel and is satisfying to hold; it feels very durable though it hardly needs to be.
There's no denying that the E-DAC is a basic piece of gear, it does what it needs and little more. Having said that, there isn't much that you could realistically wish for. Sure it doesn't have balanced outputs, it doesn't support 32bit depth, there's no S/PDIF input, in fact there's lots of things it doesn't do but for under £100 could you expect it to?
Whilst I would have liked it to have its own mains power supply, being USB powered allows you to use it with your laptop on the go. The 3.5mm jack means you can just plug your headphones in and the E-DAC was able to drive all my headphones past comfortable listening levels without amplification. In the instructions it warns you not to use the 3.5mm and RCA simultaneously as it could cause an impedance mismatch but when I was testing the different outputs I kept finding I had both outputs in use and it caused no issues.
I ought to preface this by mentioning that the E-DAC is the first DAC I have owned so the improvements I am reporting are over my amped Sansa Clip+ or amped laptop. Gor general listening I have been using the E-DAC and my Schiit Magni but for a fair comparison I have also been doing some critical listening from the E-DAC without amplification. The headphones used most for the review were the Beyerdynamic DT770/80 and some sensitive IEMs but I have been using the DAC with all my headphones for listening day to day. I will provide a list at the end of some of the albums listened to whilst testing the DAC just so you can get an idea of the sort of music I've been listening to with it.
The main reason for wanting to upgrade to a DAC was because I didn't like the pairing between the Clip+ and the Magni. It sounded somewhat veiled and lacking in clarity and authority, as a result my Schiit wasn't getting much use, I just didn't enjoy the combination that much. So you can probably imagine my relief when I started listening with the E-DAC and Magni and found the 'veil' had been lifted. No longer was the music confined to the inside of my head but I was immersed in it, it was suddenly more involving. My initial impressions were that it had improved the soundstage not so much in width but in height and depth, my music sounded all of a sudden more three dimensional and I'd be listening to a track and find myself grinning without even realising.
In terms of improvements over the Sansa, I found the sound to be more enveloping and articulate. It seems neither to add anything nor take it away from the music and whilst transparency is subjective, I think it's fair do say the E-DAC does well. Vocals were smoother, the low end was better controlled and there was a noticeable increase in overall detail and texture across the whole range without sounding analytical or unforgiving. The main improvement for me however, came in the form of presentation and particularly so for 'non-electric' music. I was able to locate individual vocalists, the different groups of an orchestra and the position of band members with respect to one another, in short, the imaging is great! My biggest gripe is that the DAC seems to not quite isolate the USB power from the analog outputs which when coupled with my laptop's poorly insulated electronics created audible hissing and squeaking. This is more a criticism of my computer however as I tried the DAC with other machines and there was no background noise at all.
If you're looking for an all singing, all dancing DAC with tons of features then look elsewhere. If you want upgraded sound quality from your laptop with a more refined sound and more detail across the whole range but you've not got loads of money to spend then this could be exactly what you're after. It isn't night and day and it doesn't make listening to your computer unbearable in comparison but the DAC provides a substantial improvement over onboard sound and as a result I've been listening to music a whole lot more since I received it. It was a pain for me to set up but I'm convinced it was my computer causing the issue and it was definitely worthwhile once I was able to use it.
This is my first review and I hope you might have found it helpful, if you have any questions then don't hesitate to ask.
I'd just like to thank Oliver from Epiphany Acoustics for sending me the unit to review, he was ever helpful in troubleshooting the problems I had with the DAC and was always quick to respond to questions I had. I'm looking forward to seeing more products of theirs in the future.
Edited by SamHedges - 5/21/13 at 2:48am