Let me preface my review by saying that it’s not in my nature to write about my own head-fi gear. As the actual owner, having invested a significant amount of money in it, I am inherently biased about its performance, no matter how much I try to be objective. However, as there is little feedback on this particular piece of equipment, I figured I’d make an exception for the Totaldac D1-Dual.
It is a non-oversampling (NOS), 2-channel digital-to analog converter (DAC), developed by Vincent Brient, founder of the French-based company Totaldac. It has a discrete R2R ladder design, consisting of 200 high-quality Vishay Foil Resistors (0.01% tolerance) per channel. That makes for a total of 400 resistors in this DAC altogether. Besides resistors, there’s a 69-bit field programmable gate array (FPGA) inside for the outstanding digital volume control. The FPGA also does DSD to PCM conversion and 2-way active crossover if you opted for it. Note that the latter option significantly increases the price.
The D1 outputs a solid 3.1V unbalanced, and an impressive 6.2 V balanced. With the volume of the DAC set to max, these voltages might reduce the usable range for your amplifier’s volume control. An alternative is to lower the volume on the DAC to give the amplifier more room to play with. But hey, don’t gaze at the specifications, the sound is what matters. And we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at packaging.
I’ve seen some people complain about the way this DAC is packaged for shipment. Perhaps Vincent has changed the way he packages his products since then, but I received my DAC in a double box with insane amounts of bubble wrap for additional protection. In fact, so much that environmentalists would definitely object. The actual pieces are wrapped in a thin foil to prevent any scratching. Sure, he doesn’t use gold embroiled gift paper wrap. That is really not something to be disappointed about. Moving on… Let’s take a look inside the box:
1x D1-Dual DAC
1x power supply
1x power cord
1x remote control
2x AAA batteries
1x USB cable/filter (2m)
Note that the Totaldac USB cable/filter is an option (€390) and not included by default. Apart from the cable, I also opted for DSD (€350), which is implemented as DoP inside the FPGA. The total price of the DAC as configured, is €10640. Shipment with FedEx is another €140, although this depends on the destination.
The USB driver can be downloaded from http://www.totaldac.com. A link is sent to you by email upon purchase. On the company website, you will also find usage instructions for the remote. I somehow expected a nice printed manual inside the box, but found nothing of the sorts. Seems like a small effort to include this. While maybe obsolete, I’m a “RTFM” kind of guy.
For a complete list of the specifications, I kindly refer you to the official website. Here are some of the highlights:
Embedded custom clock with anti-jitter FIFO memory buffer
R2R ladder using 0.01% Vishay Foil Resistors, 200 resistors per channel
Digital inputs: Asynchronous USB (Xmos), optical, RCA and AES-EBU
Analog outputs: RCA, XLR and 1/4” headphone jack (32 – 600 Ohm)
Output voltages: 3.1 Vrms for RCA, and 6.2 Vrms for XLR
Bit rates: 44.1KHz, 48KHz, 88.2KHz, 96KHz, 176.4KHz (not optical) and 192KHz (not optical), 16 /24 bits
The remote control allows you to configure the input (RCA/AES-EBU/Optical/USB), volume (up/down), phase polarity (inverted/normal), earth connection (on/off), the digital treble filter (on/off). The settings can be saved to memory so that they are not lost when the DAC is completely powered off. My previous DACs (Musical Fidelity M1DAC and Primare NP30) did not have that option. It frustrated the hell out of me. Another nice thing is that you can tell the DAC to turn off the display after 10 seconds. Really helps with the light pollution when listening in dark environments. Again, all those LEDs disturb me.
The build quality of the housing is superb. It both looks and feels very solid. The design is very minimalistic and sleek. Just the way I like it. It has a somewhat funky trapezoid face plate. A pleasing alternative for the hundreds of rectangular shaped housings you can find out there. I got the black version, but it is also available in silver. Note that you won’t find any buttons on it. The remote is the only way to change the settings.
Totaldac uses the same housing for all of its products. That means they stack up really well. It also means you will find some covered up inputs & outputs on the back. There’s nothing disturbing about it though. It’s very obvious you can’t use them. And there’re on the back anyways, so you don’t even see it once installed.
The remote is a bit of a let-down. I completely understand the reasoning to go with a solid (Philips?) basic remote, but in the 5 figures price category, you might as well include a fancy remote. I have to admit though that it does the job and that I used it exactly once, for the initial setup. So this nuisance might fade over time.
Another thing I’ve noticed, is that the housing and the face plate in particular, has a tendency to attract dust. I try to handle my equipment with care. Keeping it dust-free is one of those things. I only wished Vincent would include some kind of dust cover in the total package, similar to the ones Cavalli Audio provides with their Liquid Gold. That really goes a long way.
This is by far the most important aspect of a DAC. Unfortunately, also the hardest to describe. But first things first, this is the setup I’ve been using:
Synology DS713+ --> PC --> Totaldac USB cable/filter --> Totaldac D1-Dual --> Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold --> Sennheiser HD800
Now let’s cut to the chase. The million dollar question, or in this case, the €10640 question is whether the DAC is really worth all that money? I found that the devil is in the details. If you’re expected to be blown away by the very first note the DAC produces, then the answer is no. People often buy expensive products with the wrong expectations. In this case, people expect to be blown away right away, but often forget to actually listen to the music. If you take the time to listen to all the details of the music (e.g. instruments), then “hell yeah”!
The first thing I noticed is that the Totaldac really pairs well with my Sennheiser HD800. Most people would agree that the HD800 are on the bright side, some would even go on and say they are overly bright. Not me though, I really enjoy my HD800s and can listen to them for hours without any fatigueness. However, I did find that the headphones sounded less bright when paired with the Totaldac. I would think it has something to do with the non-oversampling aspect. I am definitely no audio guru so I might be wrong about that. I leave it up to you whether that is a good thing or not.
I already mentioned that the devil is in the details, or, perhaps more appropriate, in the higher end harmonics. While listening to a recording of “Nightingale” by Norah Jones, I noticed that the guitar plucks sounded way more realistic. It’s not the actual chord that improves, but the way the pluck resonates afterwards. I find that only few DACs are capable of reproducing these resonations, and the Totaldac is definitely one of them.
Another area in which the Totaldac really shines are the drums, and cymbals in particular. In my opinion, very few DACs get the high-hats right. In Placebo’s Speak in Tongues, there’s one of them in the background that I simply do not hear on my Primare NP30. But even at low volumes, the Totaldac clearly separates this instrument from the others. And once you know it’s there, it really makes a difference.
Many a song is simply great because of its dynamics. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s loudness, sometimes it’s rhythm. But a DAC that gets the dynamics right, gets an advantage in my play book. Songs that have these traits are Foo Fighter’s “New Way Home” and “Every Street” by Dire Straits. The Totaldac has no difficulty keeping up with either one of these songs.
One of my all-time favourite songs has always been “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. Whenever I listen to the chorus, Eddie’s vocals overwhelm me. It gets me every time. Same story with the Totaldac. To be honest, I could not discern any difference with my Primare NP30, but it’s always good to know the goose bumps are still there. The reason I mention this is to stress that it is really important to audition any piece of equipment with the music you truly like. It doesn’t matter if it’s a €100, a €1000 or a €10000 DAC. For all I care, the song could be a 128Kbps mp3. If it doesn’t sound good on a DAC, simply walk away. And to me, this is one of those songs.
Overall, I would say that this DAC sounds quite natural and it definitely has a wonderful musicality to it. There’s a good separation of instruments, with a tight and controlled bass. The high frequencies are a bit rolled off though. The dynamics and detail retrieval are better than anything I’ve heard. The sound is definitely an improvement over my Primare NP30. At 4 times the cost, that is also something you can expect.
Before actually purchasing the DAC, I made several inquiries to Vincent over email. He answered all of them to my satisfaction in less than 1 business day, often a matter of only 1 or 2 hours. He also provides a 14-day trial period to customers in which they can evaluate the DAC at their own place with their own gear. If not satisfied, they can get a full refund. I seriously doubt many customers had to invoke their right for a refund though. In my case, I negotiated an extended trial period due to the fact I often, and unpredictably have to travel abroad for work, which significantly reduces my time to audition this DAC. For the record, I didn’t send my unit back for a refund. It truly is a keeper.
When I finally put in my order, I received my DAC within 3 weeks. As these are built upon request, with no significant stock to speak of, that is pretty impressive, especially considering Vincent is prepping up for the Munich 2015 High-End Show next week. In my case, he used FedEx to deliver the package (from France to Belgium). To give a rough indication, the package arrived 3 days after receiving the initial shipping declaration.
So far I’m really enjoying this DAC. If we add up the superb build quality to its distinguished sound signature, this DAC has everything to make it to the top. There’s a few things I’d like to see improved however. Most of them are related to the accessories, like the remote control. That would have been the frosting on the cake.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to compare it with other DACs in the same price range. That’s why you won’t hear me say it is better than X or Y. For comparisons with other equipment, like the Bricasti M1 or MSB Analog, I refer to other sources. I would be very much interested in other people’s takes on this piece of equipment.