Halide Design DAC HD USB DAC Review

August 20, 2012

I recently reviewed the Halide Design Bridge USB to S/PDIF converter here. I think it is a terrific product if you already have a DAC and do not have or do not intend to play 176.4/24 and 192/24 downloads. It is particularly attractive because the converter circuitry is built into an Eichmann Bullet RCA or a BNC connector depending on which model you choose. There is no separate enclosure or power supply to deal with, and you save the cost of separate USB and digital cables. It is also attractively priced at $395.

What, you don’t have a DAC? Not to worry. Halide Design has recently released its new DAC HD built on the same design parameters of simplicity and small size. The built-in silver USB cable is from Wireworld with it unique separation of power and data lines to minimize interference from the 5 volt USB power supply coming from your computer. At the other end is a billet aluminum enclosure about the size of a small box of matches (remember those?) containing the DAC. Like the Halide Design Bridge, it plays all sample rates up to 96kHz at 24 bits. On the other side of the enclosure are the two six inch silver analog output cables terminated in silver Eichmann Bullet RCAs. As alluded to above, the DAC derives is power from the USB port of your computer. Again, there is no separate enclosure or power supply to deal with, and you save the cost of a pair of a separate USB cable and pair of analog interconnects. The DAC HD is cryogenically treated in the audiophile approved manner. It is priced at $495.

The DAC itself is based on the Wolfson WM8716 DAC chip, with extensive power supply regulation and filtration. It is an asynchronous USB DAC, meaning that the DAC controls the timing of the data flow from the computer rather than the other way around. This is said to reduce jitter as computer controlled timing is often interrupted as internal operating system processes take their turn for the CPU’s attention. The asynchronous USB implementation is Streamlength licensed from Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio.

I was able to compare the Halide Design DAC HD with my Wadia 121 simply by changing inputs on my Meridan G02 premplifier. Downstream components included a Meridian 557 power amplifier and Magnapan 1.7 loudspeakers all laced together with Kimber Select cables. Upstream the source consisted of a Mac Mini with 16GB of RAM using iTunes and Pure Music playback software in memory mode. Unfortunately, I was unable to conduct fast A/B comparisons, because I had to switch the DAC in use through the audio settings in Pure Music control applet. (The same would be the case if you were using iTunes with Amarra or iTunes without a third party playback engine.) When changing DACs, I always restart iTunes and Pure Music. My experience has been that if you don’t, you occasionally don’t get any sound.

I first put on the 88.2/24 verstion of the bluegrass standard Shady Grove from the storied Pizza Tapes album featuring Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Tony Rice that I downloaded from HDtracks. Legend has it that a pizza delivery boy lifted Jerry Garcia’s cassette tape of two evenings worth of very special music recorded in the studio from his kitchen counter, from which it made its way into underground tape trading circles and derived its name. This 88.2/24 version came not from a cassette tape, but from the original studio masters, and the quality is of the highest caliber. Jerry Garcia’s and Tony Rice’s guitars are easily distinguished in space. You know when each takes his turn on lead, part of which is owing to different styles of playing and part of which is owing to the different tones of their guitars, which are easily discernable. David Grisman’s mandolin is likewise distinctive both in space and tone, as he is responsible for most of the melody, and anchors the aural image. There is not a great sense of width, depth and general ambiance, which I think can be attributed to the recording engineers relying primarily on the pickups built into each of the acoustic instruments rather than microphones, and because the players are grouped close together. Nevertheless, there is a organic quality to the music, with layers of sound, and each instrument expertly blended into a coherent whole. The balance is on the warmish side with a complete lack of etching of the transients. In fact, the notes are somewhat rounded off, giving the music a very smooth, but not homogenized, presentation. With the Wadia 121, the sound is more detailed, as if drawn into sharper focus.

I listened to the same song performed by Doc Watson on The Essential Doc Watson. The presentation is entirely different as Doc is joined by his son Merle on banjo in lieu of mandolin. The performance space is larger with greater depth and ambiance. However, there is the same sense of smoothness, with the banjo not exhibiting any clangy quality to which it tends both live and on many recordings, and which can become grating. With the Wadia 121, the guitar leads and the banjo are set off into greater relief. As a gross generalization, I would say the Halide Design DAC HD has a more tube-like sound.

Finally, I listened to another bluegrass classic Down the Road performed by Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys on their 1962 Live at Carnegie Hall album. Here the performance space is huge yet there is a greater clarity to each of the instruments – guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro, fiddle – than on the previous two albums. There is a greater emphasis on the upper midrange and treble on the album as a whole, and here the Halide Design DAC HD takes on the personality of the Wadia 121 on both versions of Shady Grove, while the Wadia provides a hyper-precise presentation, which renders the banjo and fiddle almost too detailed. It is amazing how much the sound of the recording itself plays into one’s assessment of the sound of a component.

Conclusion

If I were on a budget and I didn’t need a DAC with 176.4/24 and 192/24 playback capability, the Halide Design DAC HD would be my go-to device. It is an elegantly simple design based on quality components and firmware from the likes of Wireworld, Wolfson, Wavelength Audio and Eichmann, in a form factor which is essentially a cable. It is competitively priced at $495. While not a detailed as the Wadia 121, which, when tricked out with separate USB and analog cables, will end up costing three to four times as much, you may find that you prefer the smooth and unobtrusive presentation of the Halide Design DAC HD. Unless cost is no object or you have some inner need for external boxes and power supplies with boutique power cords, USB cables and analog interconnects to grace your audio rack, this well may be the the way to go. Highly recommended.

- Frank Berryman

Contact Information

Halide Design
www.halidedesign.com

Associated Equipment

Analog Source: VPI Scout; Dynavector 20X2; Musical Surroundings Phonomena II
Digital Source: Meridian G08; Mac Mini; Wadia 121; Halide Design Bridge and DAC HD; Amarra and Pure Music
Preamplifier: Meridian G02; Meridian G68ADV
Power Amplifier: Meridian 557
Loudspeakers: Magnepan 1.7; Meridian DSP5500s
Analog Cables: Kimber Select KS1016 and KS1116
Digital Cables: Kimber D60; Meridian Digital Link; Wireworld Starlight USB
Speaker Cables: Kimber Select KS6063 and KS9033
Power Cables: Kimber PK10G and PK14G
Headphones: Etymotic ER-4S
Accessories: GIK acoustic treatments; dedicated 20 amp circuit; Audience aR2p power conditioner