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Scott Dolan

Emotiva XDA-2 DAC

31 posts in this topic

Emotiva_XDA2_Photo_Main.jpg

So after a ton of research this past year in hopes of putting together a small tube amplified two channel listening system, I scrapped it because my budget wasn't big enough for what I truly ended up decided on and I wasn't willing to compromise on cheaper Chinese built amps. With that project on the back burner I turned my attention to rebuilding my main surround system in the living room. I set an initial budget of $4,000 but found after tons of research that I was going to build a supremely ass kicking system for less than $3,000. Well, that is as long as I don't change my mind on the speakers. But that will be another story for another time.

Because we had the holidays upon us, I simply decided to start out with two simple (so I thought) pieces. M4U-1 headphones from PSB Speakers, and the Emotiva XDA-1 DAC.

I hadn't even been thinking DAC when my research got under way because every component under the sun with a line level out has a DAC built into it. So, it sounded like another candidate for the snake oil barrel. But, the more I learned about them the more they made sense. With that said, I was still quite skeptical as to what improvements, if any, were to be gained. I initially had settled on purchasing the Peachtree Audio decco65 which uses a tube buffer. I figured if I wasn't getting my tube amp, I wanted to try to get as close as I could to the tube sound. And while reviews for both DACs were universally glowing, two in particular stood out. In one, the reviewer remarked that the Emotiva reminded him of listening to his tube amp rig. In the other, while not a head-to-head comparison, the author noted that while the Emotiva was $700 cheaper that he found no appreciable differences between it and the decco65, which he personally owned. Deal sealed.

With Emotiva's 30 day return/refund policy in mind, I pulled the trigger.

After running my Emotiva RCA cables ($7.99) to my old workhorse Harman Kardon receiver, with skepticism radars on code red alert, I fired up my go to evaluation track. Something, from The Beatles remastered box set. Right away Ringo's toms no longer had that slightly flat and vertical sound that I had heard for years. They actually seemed horizontal and "present". McCartney's bass was tighter, more warm and round than I had heard before. Harrison's vocals were so natural it was almost eerie. It really was like hearing it the way it was meant to be heard.

I quickly realized I hadn't taken that proverbial incremental step. No, this was a really, really big step up in quality.

I won't bore you with the rest of the tunes I used for evaluation, but suffice it to say the Emotiva breathed all new life into every one of them. Imaging and mid-range has never been a strength for my tired old Polk Audio speakers, so I'm not going to comment on any classical music until I finish my system next month and get the new speakers thrown on. But everything from Rock to Jazz is just astonishing.

Now, I will say that this DAC will expose weaker MP3s. I had some older 160kb MP3s on one of my playlists, and as soon as one came on it was readily apparent, and exposed as the fraud it is. It's almost as if the DAC is saying, "are you shitting me?! Well, if you don't care, then fuck it, neither do I".

Listening to it through the M4U-1 cans on a direct feed, and through my Headroom Micro headphone amp, the quietness of this component hits you right between the eyes. The music literally sounds like it is taking place in a vacuum. Quiet passages have so much room to breathe it's just absurd. Acoustic bass solos, especially recorded live, sound downright ethereal.

The Emotiva is also billed as a headphone amp, but a simple A/B test between its headphone output and my Micro isn't even a fair fight. As quality of a DAC that it is, Emotiva should remove the headphone amp billing from it. It's lightyears better than most headphone outs on your average receiver, but a dedicated headphone amp it is not, IMO. But, that's really the only bad thing I can say about it. This will not be going back in 30 days, or 30 years. I've spent a HELL of a lot more than $250 on individual components (shit, my Micro alone was $350), but I can't recall any other component that paid off as handsomely as this one. Not even close. Less than a week ago I was a skeptic who made sure he removed the DAC from its packaging with greater care than normal since I was 50% sure it would be making a return trip to Franklin, Tennessee. Now I'm willing to say a dedicated DAC should be the first priority for ANY system. Be it $500 or $5,000.

Lastly, Emotiva builds the most ridiculous remotes known to man. The remote for this thing is made of brushed aluminum, with polished aluminum buttons. And weighs as much as two iPhones. Easily, maybe a little more. If nothing else, it makes for a great conversation piece.

At the end of the day, whether you choose the Emotiva, or go with another brand, I highly encourage you to invest in a dedicated DAC if you listen to ANY digital media.

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Scott, your detailed enthusiasm has gotten me to try one out. I see that the Headroom Micro costs more that the whole DAC converter! You say the Emotiva's heaphone amp isn't ideal but better than the usual. I've been listening for years through the headphone jack in my computer, so I assume anything would be better than that.

In the future I may save up for a "real" headphone amp, but, baby steps.

Edited by Hoppy T. Frog

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Yeah, the Micro ran me $350, I assume that's what it still is. They used to have a micro DAC that stacked with it, but they discontinued it years ago for some reason.

The Emotiva DAC was on sale when I purchased it, and usually runs $400. Still on sale until this Sunday.

Either way, there are both quality DACs and headphone amps out there for less than that. Just gotta do some homework on stuff that's in your price range. Now, I can't speak for DACs since I just started learning about them just a few months ago, but I can tell you that while researching headphone amps I saw many good reviews for those that were even under a hundred bucks. I've never demo'd any FiiO products, but they usually get excellent reviews. And I think their product line starts under fifty bucks. Maybe start there and see where your research takes you.

Here, a quick search just turned up a FiiO DAC + headphone amp for less than seventy buck. http://www.amazon.com/FiiO-Portable-Headphone-Amplifier-Black/dp/B003N0XDT4

The reviews are quite positive as well. Might make an excellent place holder while saving up for something a little higher on the food chain later. Or who knows? It may be exactly what you're looking for, and that's that. :)

Edited by Scott Dolan

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Just realized I may have misrread your post and that you've already decided to order a DAC.

Either way, I look forward to hearing your thoughts if that is indeed the case.

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Can an iMac be connected to a DAC? Can two different digital inputs be connected to a DAC?

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Two different digital inputs can indeed be connected, and then some. The XDA-2 can receive 2 TOSlink cables, 2 digital coax, 1USB, and 1 AES/EBU.

Yes, you can use a USB cable to connect your Mac to it.

Here's an example of what you'd need. A USB A to USB B cable.

http://www.americanmusical.com/Item--i-HOS-USB205AB-LIST?src=Y0802G00SRCHCAPN&gclid=CLOe7qmd3rsCFTNp7AodLUsAmA

Full disclosure, I run mine via a TOSlink from an Apple TV unit.

Edited by Scott Dolan

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I just found out that Apple has recently, without much fanfare, released updates to their iMac line. My 2007 iMac is getting slow and weary, so my thought now is to repurpose it as a music server.

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Sure, why not? My iMac is just a couple of years old, but that's exactly how I use it. I have an Airport Express, and an Apple TV. So I use the remote app on my iPad to control my iTunes library on the iMac, and play it through my main system in the living room. I have access to every cd I've ripped with a couple of taps on the screen.

Edited by Scott Dolan

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I use my mac mini to stream to my apple TV or airport express to my stereo as well.

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Ordering my Emotiva amp and pre-amp tomorrow. Can't wait!

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Scott, which speakers are you thinking of getting?

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PSB Speakers Imagine B.

http://www.crutchfield.com/S-wAXzQ3A4mAP/p_760IMGNBGB/PSB-Imagine-B-Gloss-Black.html

Since I already have a very powerful and outstandingly fast and accurate sub, I've decided not to go with floorstanders this time. I figure if for some reason it doesn't end up working out they can always be moved to the rear for surround speakers should I replace them with something bigger. I just don't foresee that happening. Well, until my sub bites the shitter. But even then I may just replace it with another sub, who knows?

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There's a long article in this weekend's WSJ on streaming services and the general notion of digital audio. A sidebar to the article discusses 4 different hi-res players that double as DACs. It's an interesting read (if the article doesn't open, Google "The Best Gear for Listening to Hi-Res Audio"):

WSJ

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Got mine today and have just set it up for computer output. Need to do some A/B comparisons, but so far liking what I hear.

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Cool, let us know what you think.

There 's a definite warmth to the sound, and I'm hearing a lot more of what is in the source. The first CD I put in, I could hear the room ambience, which I definitely couldn't do with my headphone jack directly into the computer. Also, there's definitely less ear fatigue. Worth the 250$ definitely.

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Excellent! I'm glad you're enjoying it, and are experiencing all the things I also noticed.

Put the rest of my system together yesterday with the Emotiva UMC-200 pre-amp, and UPA-500 amp. Cranked up Take Five. Man, Morello's drums were right there in the room with me, and I could feel every drum strike in my gut.

Even the wife admitted, "that was impressive".

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Even the wife admitted, "that was impressive".

...we're talking about the music, I hope ... :unsure:

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Well, I don't like to brag...

...that's not what I've heard.....

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Well, with the Emotiva amp and pre-amp officially installed, up, and running all I have to say is how disappointing my Polk Audio Speakers really are. This new system really exposes all of their weaknesses. I've set them to "small" and put their crossover at 70HZ.

Letting my Velodyne CHT-15 cover everything under that.

That's actually made a huge difference. The Velodyne is incredibly fast and tight for its size.

New speakers are on the horizon. Still haven't settled as of yet.

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Scott, you have entered the audiophile rabbit hole.

Once you settle on the speakers, then you will have to revisit the speaker wire issue. And connectors. And power cable....... ;)

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Here, let's revisit it now.

More expensive speakers cables. No.

More expensive connectors? No.

More expensive power cables? No.

Done. :)

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Maybe I'll spend hundreds on a great set of bi-wire speaker cables!!!!!

Not sure if I ever posted this here, but I thinks it's hilarious. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Audio_woo

And here's a great example of almost everything in that article.

Got that one from a thread on Audioholics, which is a fantastic site full of common sense audiophiles who also don't buy into bullshit and faith.

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Maybe I'll spend hundreds on a great set of bi-wire speaker cables!!!!!

Not sure if I ever posted this here, but I thinks it's hilarious. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Audio_woo

And here's a great example of almost everything in that article.

Got that one from a thread on Audioholics, which is a fantastic site full of common sense audiophiles who also don't buy into bullshit and faith.

Now that's funny! There should be some kind of award for this clip.

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