T+A DAC 8 DAC and Digital Preamp Review

A different sort of DAC - and one that has considerable appeal

by Ed Selley
Hi-Fi Review

12

Recommended
T+A DAC 8 DAC and Digital Preamp Review
SRP: £2,914.00

Introduction - What is the T+A DAC8

The T+A DAC8 is a DAC and digital preamplifier. It joins an increasingly wide selection of this type of device in the market and, as we shall cover, it incorporates most of the refinements that you would expect of a device of this nature. As we shall see though, it additionally has some features and design decisions that are wholly original.

This is in some ways a representation of the company itself. T+A (the name means Theorie und Anwendung - Theory and Application and not, um, anything else), has a long and rather distinguished history of doing things in the manner that it feels is best, even if that is significantly different to how anybody else does things. This is also the case across an exceptionally wide selection of equipment too. As well as the ‘core’ electronics you might expect a company to make, T+A also makes speakers (and not just one or two of the things either, multiple ranges extending all the way into the serious high end), multichannel, has recently dipped a toe into headphones and has included turntables and other oddities in their range in recent history. In short, the company does everything and does it the way it wants to.

What does that mean if you just fancy dipping a toe in the water though? Is the result of doing things in the manner you fancy conducive to playing nice with others? Does it wind up in a better product or one that is merely different? Finally, what does the ‘Bezier’ button do? All this and more will be answered.

Specification and Design 

T+A DAC 8 DSD

The DAC8 was a source of immediate interest because T+A has gone about implementing its internal hardware in a manner which is rather different to most other devices on the market. For starters, there isn’t a single decoding pathway. There are two… or one and a half… not a single one anyway.

If you send PCM to the DAC8 - something you can do at rates up to 384kHz - the DAC8 uses a ‘Double-Differential-Quadruple-Converter’ which sounds like something you’d be bet £5 to say quickly after a few stiff G&Ts. What this means is that the DAC8 can run the positive and negative signal and then check them against one another to reduce distortion and errors. With four DACs per channel, this is effectively performed twice. With this arrangement on both channels, there are eight DACs in total.

These DACs are Burr Brown units which is also relatively unusual in the face of near omnipresence from ESS. The latter would argue that one of their eight channel DACs could perform the same role but T+A prefers the process they’ve taken. The DACs do no upsampling of their own, handing off to a 56 bit processor for this and the filter implementation. This is where the Bezier button comes in. The name refers to a theoretical curve that has routine implementation in the world of computer graphics. T+A feels it is the optimal filter but implement it alongside a more traditional FIR (Finite Infinite Response) type implementation. Phase can also be inverted. As I’ve pointed out before, all these implementations are ‘correct’ so it’s simply a case of choosing what works best for you.

T+A DAC 8 DSD

Neither is T+A done there. The Burr Brown DACs in the DAC8 are DSD compatible and it supports incoming rates to DSD512. If you send DSD though, these eight DACs do nothing. Instead, the DAC 8 switches over to a separate - and completely bespoke - 1 Bit DAC implementation. These process native DSD in the manner that was originally envisaged for the format when Sony and Philips developed it. The caveat to this is that PCM conversion has to occur at some point. The DAC 8 has a volume control that functions in the digital domain and DSD cannot be implemented in such a function. The mechanics of how this process occurs is very much a trade secret.

As well as the USB connection, the DAC 8 has one AES input, four RCA SP/Dif connections, one BNC SP/Dif and one optical. In a 2020 input fitment, I’d happily trade one of the four coax connections for another optical but it is usefully comprehensive nonetheless. The output is available to both balanced and unbalanced connections as well as a 6.35mm headphone socket. The T+A is not network capable - the Ethernet type port on the rear panel is part of a system control for the other members of the 8 Series. These comprise a power amp and an unusual combined CD and network streamer that outputs over coaxial. Both these devices were available at the same time for testing but given that the DAC8 is Roon ready, the bulk of testing took place via that process instead.

T+A DAC 8 DSD

This 8 Series of components is, dimensionally at least, similar to the concept of audiophile lifestyle components that were quite a big deal at the turn of the century; Sony and TEAC in particular were very active in making them. The width is partly dictated by the inclusion of a CD mechanism in the MPD8 streamer but it makes for a satisfyingly sized device. When stacked, they create a small but purposeful collection of equipment. Equally, the size isn’t so ‘out there’ to be an issue mixed with conventional full range gear.

Aesthetically, the DAC8 is highly distinctive with its silver top and bottom plates and contrasting black casework. Some of other design decisions are quintessentially T+A too. Do you like buttons? I like buttons. The feel of a good button - decent depress distance, well-judged resistance etc - are things that I can respect as a piece of engineering. I though, am merely in the foothills of button appreciation compared to the mountains that T+A has scaled. Someone at T+A feels very strongly that there is no purpose to a control interface if you can’t have plenty of buttons and the DAC8 has no less than eleven of them (it’s only skimming the surface though - the matching MPD8 has seventeen and a menu system and an app while some of the full size components have gone completely 'Russian Space Station' in terms of their controls). Thankfully, despite being small microswitch devices, the travel is very satisfying.

It is part of a wider feeling of quality that is present in most (not quite all; the supplied remote is small, easily lost and very directional) aspects of the DAC8’s construction. This is not a cheap piece of kit but there is not much else I’ve tested at this sort of price that feels decisively better made. When you consider that partnering equipment in 2020 has the scope to mean that it is a head unit and a pair of active speakers away from being a complete system, the T+A has to be considered reasonable value, on paper at least.

 

T+A has gone about implementing its internal hardware in a manner which is rather different to most other devices on the market

How was the DAC8 tested?

The DAC8 has been connected to an IsoTek Evo3 Aquairius mains conditioner and used with matching 8 Series components in a full 8 Series stack. It has run with an SOtM SMS-200 Neo and LG 55B7 OLED as sources and connected directly to a Roon Nucleus. It has then been used as a line out device into a Cambridge Audio Edge A via XLR and Rega Aethos over RCA. Speakers used have included the Focal Kanta No1 and No2, Eclipse TD712z Mk2, PMC twenty5 21i and the Kudos Titan 505. Material used has included, FLAC, AIFF, DSD, streaming and on demand video services and some CD from the MPD8.

More: Audio Formats - What It All Means

Sound Quality 

T+A DAC 8 DSD

Key to any product that interprets a technical requirement - in his case; ‘Take an incoming digital signal and convert it to analogue’ - in a manner different to the prevailing ‘approved’ method, is that if it sounds completely different to anything else, that’s not really a hallmark of success when accuracy is the intention. So, for the avoidance of all doubt, nice and early in this section, no, you can’t ‘hear’ eight DACs at work and pressing the magic Bezier button doesn’t unlock some trippy portal into a higher plane of awareness. What the DAC8 does do is demonstrate that T+A aren’t being wilfully different and there’s a definite argument to what they do.

This is because this is a fantastically easy product to listen to. Do not for once second assume that ‘easy’ is interchangeable with ‘safe.’ The DAC8 takes the splendid Incidental Music by W.H Lung and really grips the opening Simpatico People from its gentle opener and as it builds into the curious but wonderful, ‘half eighties half Balearic’ style that means I’ve been hammering this album since I found it. The DAC8 only puts a fraction of its character into the performance but what is there is hugely appealing. There is a refinement and richness to the DAC8 that is present in the full T+A system and into all the other equipment too. It lends recordings a slightly liquid quality and means that when it encounters a less than perfect piece of mastering, it does a very fine job of keeping it listenable.

The counter to this is that the DAC8 isn’t as effortlessly fast and propulsive as some rivals - compared to the admittedly £1,000 more expensive Hugo TT2 that lives here, it doesn’t tear into Bomb the Bass’ Bug Powder Dust with the same fury. This is particularly noticeable with the other T+A components and the partnership it forms with the Rega Aethos in particular isn’t going to be seen by most people as anything other than a great deal of fun. What helps here is that the bass response that the DAC8 delivers might not be the most absolutely seismic you can have for the price but the integration and control it offers is seriously impressive.

T+A DAC 8 DSD

Switching to video doesn’t really bring any surprises. The DAC8 stood in for my usual decoding for a week of TV and didn’t put a foot wrong. It has a useful ability to keep dialogue clear and the same tonal accuracy and commendable heft keeps things enjoyable. The more I use the optical out of the LG 55B7 and compare notes on the performance into various devices, I would be inclined to suggest that the basic 48KHz stream is the final arbiter of performance but the T+A will get on with the job as well as almost anything else.

The good news for anyone eyeing up the DAC8 as a preamp is that it does what it does at any volume you happen to choose. At 64 steps min to max, the DAC8 is at the lower end of the incremental scale to some modern offerings but in my time using it as a preamp, I’ve never felt that I’ve not had the exact volume setting I want (which does ask an interesting abstract question what the irreducible minimum of volume steps actually is as I had it pegged at more than 64). The performance is absolutely consistent at every level and the volume itself is very linear. In a perfect world, I’d prefer a volume knob but it’s more than good enough.

The final twist in all this is the DSD performance of the DAC8 is genuinely impressive. The effort that T+A has gone to is rewarded in a device that manages to hit the basic criteria of the format without tipping over into the foibles. Using the Roon Nucleus to convert 44.1kHz to DSD64 has a useful and tangible benefit - it boosts the vibrance and realism across the midrange and there are further, albeit smaller, benefits to the handling of rougher recordings. At the same time, there’s none of the syrupy quality that can affect some DSD devices. I maintain that DSD is not a panacea or magic bullet and the moment that Hi Res PCM is available, the performance balance shifts back a little. Nevertheless, this is a USP of the DAC8 that genuinely delivers on the promise.

T+A DAC 8 DSD
 

The final twist in all this is the DSD performance of the DAC8 is genuinely impressive

Verdict

Pros

  • Sounds great, particularly with DSD
  • Very well made
  • Good selection of inputs

Cons

  • Tiny remote
  • A bit of a button fest
  • Could do with an extra optical input

T+A DAC 8 DAC and Digital Preamp Review

Three grand (or £2,914 because T+A seemingly feels round numbers are boring) is a lot of money for a digital source. You will legitimately want it to handle anything you throw at it and to cover off a wide selection of uses. The DAC8 delivers on this absolutely. You might argue that Bluetooth would be useful (to which I’d counter argue that the iFi Zen Blue would work perfectly into one of those SP/Dif inputs) but otherwise, this is a DAC that gets plenty done and does all of it with a genuine depth of capability that’s hard not be deeply impressed by. This is a serious piece of do it all decoding that has enough charm to captivate without becoming the story itself. The T+A goes its own way and that way is more than good enough for us to Recommend it wholeheartedly.  

Recommended

Scores

Build Quality

.
9

Connectivity

.
.
8

Ease of Use

.
.
8

Features

.
.
8

Audio Performance

.
9

Value for Money

.
.
8

Verdict

.
.
8
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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