- Feb 21, 2007
In "traditional" high-end circles, it's not uncommon for amps, preamps, or other components in the $1k-2k range to be considered "budget" gear. I suppose it's a matter of perspective - if your total system cost is 6 figures, anything under $5,000 is relatively small potatoes.
In the headphone world, things are not quite as extreme.... yet. We still have good examples of reasonably high performance gear in the low hundreds-of-dollars range. It doesn't take thousands to get a pretty solid component - with careful shopping, $300-500 can get you a very satisfying headphone, IEM, or headphone amplifier. DACs are a little more tricky but it can still be done.
What if your budget is even less? Is there a point at which it really isn't worth bothering, where the best advice is simply "save more money"? This is a tough question and there's no universal answer.
I'm always glad to see really high value components come to market, which help raise the standards of entry-level gear. Or, in other cases, they lower that barrier for cost of entry. Either way, the more of this stuff on the market, the better. There is plenty of budget gear available on eBay for really low prices but a lot of it is junk.... with the very occasional exception. Those types of "here today, gone tomorrow" designs are hard to keep track of as well, and rarely have any support if you have an issue. I prefer dealing with real companies who know what they are doing and stand behind their product.
To that end - Massdrop has a new DAC about to launch which is worth getting excited for. At a mere $79.99, it might be tempting to dismiss this thing as yet another import of questionable providence. That is, until you get the rest of the scoop. The device in question is the Grace Design SDAC. The S is for "Standard", as in, "setting a new one".
Yes, you read that right. A DAC from Grace Design for a penny less than $80.
In one of the promo pages they sent over, Massdrop mentioned how Grace Design products appear in home studios as well as places like the scoring stage at Skywalker Sound. I attended a recording session at that very location recently and I happened to snap a pic of a Grace microphone preamp in action. So yes, Grace Design is trusted by experts who can choose any equipment they like regardless of price.
(see that rack on the right side?)
(let's take a closer look)
Massdrop worked with Grace on the M9XX which was a Massdrop exclusive for a while, but eventually saw widespread release as the Grace M900. This time around, the SDAC is a Massdrop exclusive, and will only ever be available through them. The project was born when suppliers either jacked up pricing, or refused to sell modules all together, for Massdrop's popular ODAC. Massdrop then decided to approach Grace Design to come up with a replacement product that could meet customer demand, and possibly even outperform the original open-source ODAC.
The resulting product is the SDAC - a small, simple device which values function over form, and sounds quite good in the process. Not many bells and whistles here... basic (but sturdy) black aluminum enclosure, microUSB input, RCA and 1/8" outputs, and that's pretty much it. Power comes via the microUSB, and that 1/8" output is useful when pairing with the O2 amplifier. Massdrop still does O2 amps on a regular basis and the SDAC enclosure matches their O2 for easy stacking.
This little device has gone through multiple revisions and upgrades before arriving at the final design. I have an earlier prototype here and it sounded damn good. I was ready to give it my blessing as being "done", a great value for the asking price.... then Grace and Massdrop went in and made some big changes for even better results. Despite its size and price, this thing is the real deal.
The heart of this thing is an AKM AK4552 DAC, which is part of AKM's "Velvet" line. An XMOS U208 handles incoming USB data. The SDAC is limited to 96kHz, same as the ODAC, which means it doesn't require any drivers - Windows, Mac, or Linux, the SDAC is plug and play.
I'm still working on my thoughts regarding sound quality, but for now I'll just say this - I have no trouble using the little SDAC with my Pass Labs HPA-1. Despite the Pass being over 40 times more expensive, and acting as an extreme sonic scalpel which often shows the flaws of lesser sources... the SDAC comes across as very listenable. It's clean and neutral, with great imaging, and a tight low end which extends surprisingly deep. The standout trait thus far is the unforced treble - a spot where digital nasties often make their presence known in budget designs. This treble is extended yet smooth, with very little grain, and practically zero harshness to be found. I've got far more expensive DACs that don't pull this off.
Link to the drop HERE. Looks like it goes live on 9/5. I don't know how many will be available but I get the impression this will be plentiful, or at least not majorly limited as some drops can be.