REVIEW: Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 DAC
Dec 3, 2008 at 4:13 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 25


Moderator - Prefers "stereo weirdo" to "audiophile"
Jul 4, 2002
I live in the midrange!
Once in a while, we stumble upon something that completely catches us off-guard, and completely exceeds our expectations. Such was the case for me when, recently, I was given an opportunity by a fellow Head-Fi-er to evaluate the Channel Islands VDA-2 digital analog converter.

I've been a fan of Channel Islands Audio's and Dusty Vawter going back to his days with Audio Alchemy. I've owned two Audio Alchemy HPA-1's headphone amps...I missed the first one after selling it so much that I had to have another. I've always liked the clean, detailed sonic signature - class A I'm told - and has there ever been a power supply designed that is any better than the Audio Alchemy PS-II? Not to these ears. I find this amp to be competitive with most entry level amps today, and still use one today (though it's no longer my primary amp). I also owned the old DAC-In-The-Box once upon a time, though unfortunately not for long enough for much more than a hastily-formed good impression (PLEASE don't ask!!).

Well, thanks to the kindness of a fellow Head-Fi'er, I was able to spend some time with the Channel Islands Audio VDA-2 DAC (along with the VAC-1 power supply) in my home rig. As excited as I was, I had no idea what to expect. Would the sonic signature hold up against today's standards?

I was saddened when Audio Alchemy left the marketplace, as I felt like they offered genuine bargains in pretty much every product they offered. That much seems familiar to me, as the pricing ($599 for DAC with a 24-bit/192kHz DAC chip - the PCM1794 chip) seems at first blush to be pretty fair for what you get.

What did I see first?:

Before I even hooked up the VDA-2 and VAC-1, they left some impressions:

The first thing I noticed is how small they are. At a mere 4.4" x 4.4" x 2.7, the footprint is smaller than most smallish non-portable headphone amps. I gather that the various CIA components use the same enclosures, which both lends a pleasing symmetry to the product line and provides economies of scale that keeps costs down.

The next thing I notices was how much they weighed. I don't have specifics (they are not listed on the CIA website, nor did I actually weigh them myself), but they are clearly built solidly. It seems clear to me that CIA has packed a lot into a very small space. The brushed aluminum faceplate and extruded black housing, though rather spartan in appearance, seem substantial.

The front panel of the VDA-2 includes two switches - an input (coax vs toslink) and phase switch - and a blue LED to indicate when a digital lock is achieved. I am, frankly, not crazy about these switches...I'd have preferred something a bit more along the lines of a rotary selecting switch. That said, it's nothing I couldn't live with, given a strong enough presentation by the DAC itself.

I listened to the VDA-2 as both a single-ended and balanced DAC with my HeadRoom Balanced Desktop and Ray Samuels Audio XP-7 headphone amps. A variety of headphones were used. In all cases, the optional VAC-1 upgrade power supply was used.

So...what does it do?:

I set up the VDA-2 initially using a toslink connection to my wireless network. Since this is the way that I do most of my listening these days, it seemed like the best way to begin. I started out by using the Ray Samuels Audio XP-7 for single ended.

The VDA-2 has two digital inputs - coax and optical/toslink - that are selected via a toggle switch on the front panel. Per CIA's website, the locking frequencies for coax and toslink are 44.1k-192k and 44.1k-96k, respectively. Most of my listening was done with a standard 16-bit/44.1kHz input.

There are two pair of RCA outputs - one normal phasing, and one 180 degrees reversed. I've never been completely sure about what one would do with a reverse-phased signal in single ended operation...perhaps someone will fill me in?? At any rate, they serve a practical purpose in this instance (stay tuned!).

Later, I also tested out the single-ended configuration with the CIA VHP-2. I will discuss further the sonic signature of the VHP-2 in another review that I'm working on, which will be linked here when complete.

Finally, I connected the VDA-2 to my HeadRoom Balanced Home amp for a little balanced listening. Wait...that's not completely clear. The HeadRoom DB can convert a single ended signal to balanced. In this case, the signal from the VDA-2 is, in fact, balanced. That's right...even though this DAC has no XLR outs, it may be configured for balanced operation. To do so, the VDA-2 requires a special cable pair (available from CIA for $149) which is terminated with two male RCA jacks and one XLR per cable. This cable combines the standard phased output jacks with the 180 degree phased output jacks to produce a balanced signal terminated with XLR jacks from originating RCA termination. The cables are color-coded, and the owners manual contains simple instructions and a diagram to guide even the biggest electronics fool in the correct set-up. That's not to say that (if one is hurrying and not paying attention) that one might not inadvertently switch the RCA's pay attention!!
biggrin.gif does it sound?:

As stated, my listening was done with both single-ended and balanced configuration. Specs (from CIA website) are listed below:

THD: <.03% 20Hz-20kHz
Output Level: 2.25vRMS (Single-ended), 4.5vRMS (Balanced)

SINGLE ENDED: As a single ended DAC, the VDA-2 was a nice, pleasant listen. I'd characterize its sonic signature as forward, with a slight emphasis on the upper mids, good low end resolution and punch. Soundstaging was good, though not exceptional. The background was appropriately black, with no annoying (or even noticeable) artifacts to distract from the listening experience. One thing that I noticed immediately was the decay of the bass...good, natural. I suspect this is attributable to the VAC-1 power supply. Can't say for sure, as I did not have the opportunity to evaluate it with the stock power supply. It was the pace that reeled me in, however. Many DAC's (particularly so with upsampling) seem a bit too laid back to me. Not so with this one - it grabbed my attention and kept it. Simply put, it was a FUN listen, but without being overly forward...a tough balancing act IMHO.

BALANCED: Take most everything I said above, give it varying degrees of moreso, and you have the VDA-2 in balanced configuration.

The most striking change was in soundstaging. While good enough single ended, it was significantly more expansive...hugely moreso in fact. Separation of instruments and tonal details was similarly changed for the better. I also noticed that musical transitions (low to high, quiet to "noisy", etc...) seemed more effortless.

One thing that DID change with balanced is the overall presentation. Interestingly, the DAC seems somewhat more laid back in balanced mode than in single ended. This was, frankly, a little surprising to me...but in no way was it an unwelcome change. I gather that this has much to do with the bass response, which seems tighter and faster in balance mode. Don't still had very nice pop, but less of the slam that the single ended configuration displayed. This works out well for any tracks with a LOT of bass action (think "Use Me" from Patricia Barber's Companion CD), as the single-ended configuration could handle it just fine, but did sometimes seem to fight with it a bit.

Things I liked:

1) Bass...especially when balanced

2) had grain-free sound

3) Separation between instruments...

4) Soundstaging...especially when balanced

5) Resolution...crisp and clean without being overly analytical

Things I didn't like:

1) Switches on the front

2) Occasionally gets a TINY BIT bogged down (was this the amp, the DAC, or the cans...dunno?) in single ended mode

I also want to say a word about USB inputs. I really like the convenience, and use them extensively in my HeadRoom Balanced Desktop. I've also listened to several other DACs with a USB in, and most do it reasonably well. Having said that, I don't find the sonics to be on par with a good coax (or even toslink) digital in, and it's clearly so IMHO. It's regrettable to me that this DAC doesn't have a USB port in some ways, as it will cause some folks who would otherwise consider it to look elsewhere. IMHO, that would be a mistake. There are ways to add a USB in (e.g. Trends U-10, M-Audio Transit) to a DAC, and failing to consider a DAC because of a lack of USB in will eliminate some of the best available DACs I have heard.

Things I wish I could have done:

One regret that I have is that I was unable to evaluate the DAC with it's standard power supply. I view this DAC as one of the better bargains out there, with a nice upgrade path (upgraded power supply, balanced operation). It would have been nice to evaluate just how much of a difference the upgraded power supply truly made. If my own experience with such things (including the upgrade to an Audio Alchemy PS-II power supply with my AA gear) is any guide, the improvement would have been significant. I'd be interested in hearing from other folks about how the DAC operates without the upgraded power supply.

I also wish that I could have spent some more time with my new HeadRoom Balanced Desktop (both as amp only and DAC/amp combo) prior to using the VDA-2. I have done a great deal of equipment churning lately, and whenever I do that I tend to lose my baseline. That said, I do take extensive notes when evaluating certain songs, and that tends to guide me through changes such as these.

My use of my computer network as a transport was more out of expediency than anything, and was perfectly suited for my purposes this time. Never the less, I would have liked to have used a real honest to god transport. I'm getting a lot of use out of my Wadia iTransport these days, and I think it would have done nicely had the two items managed to cross paths at some point.

Finally, I can't help but wonder how well this DAC would have responded to some sort of digital signal processing/reclocking (think Monarchy DIP). Don't misunderstand me, I think it came through just fine...I just find that sometimes these devices can make a not insignificant improvement in sonics. It would have been an interesting experiment.


I very much enjoyed my time with the Channel Islands Audio VDA-2. I found it to be involving and fun. I think it represents a nice value at its $599 price point, with a nice upgrade path. I wish it had a USB port, but it's by no means a deal breaker in this case.
Dec 3, 2008 at 4:15 PM Post #2 of 25
So it took me FOREVER to post this review (I've hardly been able to log on for months due to personal demands), but here it is.

I'll be back in a day or so with some minor updates and photos. In the mean time, I'd welcome any comments.
Dec 3, 2008 at 4:52 PM Post #3 of 25
Thanks for the review!

That unit is/was on my shortlist. I ended up going a different direction but I still lust after that brushed metal case
Dec 4, 2008 at 8:28 PM Post #4 of 25
Something to seek. I'm looking a DAC in this price range and this looks GOOD! Thanks for review!
Dec 4, 2008 at 8:48 PM Post #5 of 25
The -180 degrees output is used for balanced : a balanced output is made of a 0 degrees wave, a 180 degrees wave (+ and -), and a ground. To use the VDA-2 in balanced configuration, use a cable converter to switch from 2 x RCA to balanced, for each channel. You put the two ends of the Y switch in both left channel RCA outs, and the balanced end into the left balanced input of the headroom.

CIAudio VRX-1
Dec 5, 2008 at 2:02 AM Post #6 of 25
Dec 5, 2008 at 5:21 AM Post #7 of 25

Originally Posted by elrod-tom
There are two pair of RCA outputs - one normal phasing, and one 180 degrees reversed. I've never been completely sure about what one would do with a reverse-phased signal in single ended operation...perhaps someone will fill me in?? At any rate, they serve a practical purpose in this instance (stay tuned!).

Let me just say that I don't know anything about phase/inverted stuff, but according to the VDA-2 instruction manual, the usage of the phase switch for single-ended configuration is... "If you know your downstream component (preamp, etc.) inverts phase, or want to compensate for a phase-inverted recording, you can use the front panel "Phase" switch."

Just curious... I only tested it briefly, but the sonic difference between an inverted and non-inverted signal in a single-ended setup was not apparent to me. Are they supposed to sound different? Am I going to damage something if I use an inverted signal in a single-ended setup?

For non-VDA-2 owners, if you look in the VDA-2 manual (PDF available on CIAudio web site), there is a diagram showing how the phase switch affects inversion/non-inversion of outputs 1 and 2 in single-ended operation. If you move the switch to 180, output 2 (marked phase 180 in the back) will send out a non-inverted signal. Otherwise, the second output's signal will be inverted. In other words, when using the DAC to feed two single-ended setups, you can use the phase switch to ensure you have the properly inverted/non-inverted signal for the second output.

Nice write-up, but shame on you for having no pics in a review

I am currently using HagUSB to feed the VDA-1 with a coax signal from my PC. I've also used a Transit in the past. So as you pointed out, while having USB input is convenient, not having it is certainly no deal breaker.
Dec 6, 2008 at 4:27 AM Post #9 of 25
Cool, nice to know. Whenever I was using the 180 output of my VDA-2, I had been switching the phase switch to 180. Won't have to worry about that anymore.
Dec 8, 2008 at 6:37 AM Post #12 of 25
I really have no other DAC to compare against, but after > 20 days of use, I decided to keep it instead of returning it back to CIAudio.
Dec 8, 2008 at 6:38 AM Post #13 of 25
BTW, I really wish it had the USB and the Power Switch/Button. But, that's just me.
Dec 24, 2008 at 7:28 AM Post #14 of 25
dunno how I missed this little review - thanks. I have two of these pairs, neither is balanced (but then neither am I), and both are great fed by cheap Oppo spinners. one has an aftermarket PSU and the RAL umbilical, the other has the CIA VAC1 PSU. both are much better than more expensive gear they replaced. simple enough for my 8yr old to operate, clean enough in their sound for me to live with them in two systems.
Jan 29, 2009 at 3:44 PM Post #15 of 25
Great review! I am thinking of adding the VDA2 to my system which currently uses the MF 3.24 as the DAC. Did you managed to try the VDA2 with the Monachy DIP yet?

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