So here’s the deal. I don’t like talking about my own hi-fi gear. Being the actual owner of the system and having invested a significant amount of money in it, I am inherently biased about its performance. Despite numerous requests, I have been able to hold off making any comment whatsoever on headphones, amplifiers or digital-to-analog converters. That all changes today. I was so taken aback by the lack of reviews on the TotalDAC d1-dual that I decided to write one of my own. So without further ado, here it goes.
The TotalDAC is a non-oversampling, digital-to analog converter, developed by Vincent Brient, the eponymous founder of the French company. It has a discrete R2R ladder design, consisting of 200 high-quality vishay foil resistors per channel. That makes for a total of 400 resistors altogether. Inside, there’s a 69-bit field programmable gate array (FPGA), responsible for the outstanding digital volume control, DSD to PCM conversion (optional) and 2-way active crossover (optional).
The TotalDAC outputs a solid 3.1 Vrms unbalanced and an impressive 6.2 Vrms balanced. With the volume maxed out, these voltages might reduce the usable range for your amplifier’s volume control. An alternative is to lower the volume on the DAC, giving 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.
- Class A discrete transistor output stage
- Non-oversampling, with compensation filter
- 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, optical, RCA and AES-EBU
- Analog outputs: RCA, XLR and 1/4” headphone jack
- Output voltages (Vrms): 3.1 for RCA and 6.2 for XLR
- Bit rates (Khz): 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192
The included remote allows you to select the input (RCA/AES-EBU/Optical/USB), volume (up/down), phase polarity (inverted/normal), earth connection (on/off) and the digital treble filter (on/off). The settings can be saved to memory and are not lost when powered off. Did I mention you can automatically turn off the display? Really helps with the light pollution when listening in dark environments.
- Display (on/off)
- Earth connection (on/off)
- Volume adjustment (up/down)
- Phase polarity (inverted/normal)
- Digital treble filter (on/off)
- Input selection (RCA/AES-EBU/Optical/USB)
Some people did complain about the way the TotalDAC is packaged for shipment. I can only assume Vincent has changed his shipping methodology since then, ‘cause I received mine carefully stored in a double box with crazy amounts of bubble wrap. In fact, there was so much bubble wrap involved that environmentalists would definitely object. The actual pieces are wrapped in a thin foil to prevent any scratching. Sure, gold embroiled gift paper wrap is not part of the deal. That is really not something to be disappointed about.
What’s in the box?
- 1x D1-Dual
- 1x Power Supply
- 1x Power Cord
- 1x Remote Control
- 2x AAA Batteries
- 1x USB Cable (2m)
Note that the TotalDAC USB cable is optional (€390) and not included by default. It comes highly recommend for everyone using a computer as source. Apart from the cable, I also opted for DSD (€350), which is implemented as DoP inside the FPGA. I had a small window of opportunity to test DSD during a Belgian mini-meet. The first thing that came to mind: “But this is what vinyl sounds like!” The total price, as configured, is €10640. Shipment with FedEx is another €140, although that varies from destination to destination.
The USB driver can be downloaded from http://www.totaldac.com. A link is sent to you by email upon purchase. The company website also provides usage instructions for the remote control. I somehow expected a printed manual inside the box, but found nothing of the sorts. Seems like a small effort to include this. While maybe obsolete, I’m an “RTFM” kind of guy. Overall, the packaging is outstanding.
The build quality of the TotalDAC is superb. It looks and feels very solid, with no buttons to speak of besides the switch on the back of the power supply. The included remote is the only way to change the settings. The design is borderline minimalistic and sleek, with a funky trapezoid face plate available in black or silver. A welcome alternative to the many cuboid-shaped housings you can find today.
TotalDAC uses the same housing for all of its products. That means unused inputs & outputs, covered up and nicely tucked away in the back. Definitely not worth obsessing over. After installation, you will likely forget they were even there to begin with.
The remote is a bit of a let-down. I understand the reasoning to go with a sturdy Philips remote. It gets the job done. But let’s be honest, for the money you might as well include a fancy remote. And while I only used the remote during initial setup, people that actively use the volume control or switch between inputs, use it all the time. The devil is in the details.
The housing, and the face plate in particular, has a tendency to attract dust. People try to handle their equipment with care. Keeping it dust-free is one of those things. I only wished Vincent would include a dust cover in the total package. That really goes a long way.
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 it is not all that black & white. People often buy expensive products with the wrong expectations. If you expect to be blown away by the very first note, then the answer is no. If you take the time to listen to all the micro-details, then absolutely!
For this review, I used the Sennheiser HD800 connected to the balanced out of my Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold. The TotalDAC is in turn driven by Roon running on my computer using the optional USB cable. The entire system is balanced, from end-to-end.
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 signs of fatigue. However, I did find the headphone sounded slightly less bright when paired with the TotalDAC. I’d think it has something to do with the non-oversampling aspect. I am definitely no audio guru so I might be wrong.
I heard a significant difference in the higher end harmonics. While listening to a recording of “Nightingale” by Norah Jones, the guitar plucks just sound way more realistic. It’s not the actual chords that improve, but the way each 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. 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 playbook. 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 favorite songs has, and always will be “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 128 Kbps 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. The dynamics and detail retrieval are better than anything I’ve heard. The sound is definitely an improvement over my Primare. At 4 times the cost, that is something I would expect.
I made several inquiries to Vincent over email. He answered all of them to my satisfaction in less than a business day. He also provides a 14-day trial period to customers during which they can evaluate the product at home with their own gear. If not satisfied, they are entitled to a full refund, minus the shipping costs. I honestly doubt even a single customer returned any of the items back to sender.
I negotiated an extended trial period due to the fact that I often, and unpredictably, have to travel abroad for work, which significantly reduces my time to audition gear. Vincent gracefully agreed to my terms. In retrospect, that was uncalled for. It truly is a keeper.
Each product is built upon request. Imagine my surprise when all of a sudden, 3 weeks after ordering, it shows up on my doorstep. It was almost too good to be true, considering Vincent was prepping up for the Munich 2015 High-End Show next week. His courier of choice is FedEx, and safe to say, a good choice indeed. 3 days after the initial shipping announcement, I signed off for delivery.
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. Most of them are related to the accessories, the remote control for one. That would have been the frosting on the cake. I encourage everyone to go have a listen.
I haven’t had the opportunity to compare it with other DACs in the same price range. I did hear the Schiit Audio Yggdrassil and found it to come up short compared to the TotalDAC. You won’t hear me say X is better than Y though. For comparisons with the likes of Bricasti M1 or MSB Analog, I refer to other sources. I would be very interested in other people’s takes on this piece of equipment.