SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published August 15, 2004


Apogee Mini-DAC Digital-to-Analog Converter

I’m so easy, it’s laughable.

Marc Mickelson called me one afternoon with a suggestion. "I see that Apogee is making a DAC with USB input. I think that would be the perfect companion to an iPod, which makes you the guy to review it."



Now as I was young and easy . . .

The Apogee Mini-DAC arrived two days later. It’s a tiny thang -- a scant 5.5" wide by 1.5" high by 10" deep, not including its outboard power supply. It’s uncluttered, given all its functionality. The front panel sports only three controls (power, input selector, and output volume). Also present on the faceplate are a 1/4" headphone jack, a row of four LEDs that indicate signal and lock (the top two are L and R signal; the bottom two indicate the two levels of Apogee’s dual-stage clock), and a second row of four LEDs that indicate the sample rate: 44.1kHz, 88.2kHz, 48kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, or 192kHz.

Remember that input selector? It could be a busy little switch. The Mini-DAC accepts two AES-EBU inputs (on a nine-pin D-type connector requiring a breakout cable), TosLink S/PDIF optical, coaxial S/PDIF on RCA, and USB. The only analog output options are via balanced XLRs and a 1/8" stereo jack. With a standard 1/8"-to-RCA cable, the latter can be used for RCA output, but it is also beefy enough to be used as an extra headphone output.

I mentioned the Mini-DAC’s dual-stage clock, which is something it shares with Apogee’s big-bucks Rosetta AD/DA. Apogee calls it the Intelliclock, describing it as "two clocks in one." It works like this: The rapid-response "loose" clock dumps the data into a dedicated FIFO buffer, where an ultra-low-jitter clock wrings the data from the buffer, clocking the converters. As a result, the DAC is "impervious" (Apogee’s word) to source-derived jitter and exhibits extremely low jitter at its output.

If you’re combining the Mini-DAC with a PC, you can download the appropriate USB driver from Apogee’s website (the same for Macs running OS9). My G5 runs OS10.3.4 and recognized the Mini-DAC out of the box.

The Mini-DAC with USB lists for $1195 USD, or $995 without USB input.

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light

As you can probably tell, given the 48/96/192kHz input options, the Mini-DAC is primarily aimed at the prosumer market. The connection scheme, requiring a breakout cable, seems to bear this out -- although the rear panel’s limited real estate would require some kind of input simplification in any event.

Some audiophiles shy away from prosumer products in the mistaken belief that musicians with project studios aren’t the most critical listeners. This might have been true 20 years ago, when cassette-based multitrack home studios ruled the mini-studio market, but digital recording technology has changed all that. Musicians and engineers can now achieve quality at home that regional recording studios couldn’t obtain at that time -- and, even more important, they have come to expect and demand it.

I ought to know -- I have a project studio myself. And it’s a good thing, too, because the Mini-DAC was not really designed for use with Apple’s iTunes software. Most of the time it worked just fine, but it would periodically lose sync and I’d have to reboot my G5.

The Mini-DAC never lost sync with any other source I used it with, so I’m not saying the Apogee converter is unreliable, only that it doesn’t seem to get along with iTunes all of the time. Using my ProTools-Mbox rig, however, or taking the digital output straight out of my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 3D CD player or McCormack UDP-1 universal player, the Mini-DAC never exhibited a glitch.

Dance, dance, for the figure is easy

I used the Mini-DAC in the big-rig hi-fi in my listening room, primarily connected between the Nu-Vista and the McCormack DNA-500 amp and Aerial Model 20T speakers. In this context, the Mini-DAC produced extremely high-resolution sound, with deep soundstaging and rock-solid imaging. If I had an all-digital system, I would have no qualms about using the Mini-DAC as both switching preamp and DAC -- even over separates that cost substantially more.

The Lost Chords [WATT/32 CD], by Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow, and Billy Drummond, is a live postcard from the quartet’s 2003 European tour. The Mini-DAC captured the snap and sway of the Swallow-Drummond rhythm section with exceptional panache. I was particularly impressed with the way it handled the spiky, acerbic tone of Andy Sheppard’s tenor sax, catching the dry quality without desiccating it to the point of dust. None of this would seem too complicated were it not for Bley’s unique piano style, which parses time with the precision of Stephen Hawkings. The Mini-DAC preserved the angularity and chaos inherent in Bley’s playing -- I’ve heard some players/converters round off the corners, which pretty much neuters her artistry.

Maybe you don’t believe that DACs can do "that rhythm thing." You’re entitled to that opinion, but I’d guess that far more music is ruined by digital converters that don’t handle the complexities of pace and swing than by ones that actually sound bad. That said, the Apogee’s other glory was its ability to reach way down into the data and resolve really low-level details.

This is really another way of discussing a DAC’s ability to resolve timing issues, but in less controversial terms. The better a DAC’s ability to resolve timing cues, the deeper into the soundstage it will reach -- or, to put it another way, the less its signal will interfere with itself and the clearer it will sound. The Apogee Mini-DAC allowed me to hear way into the concert space in which the Lost Chords were performing, which placed the back wall of the stage about 30’ into the street outside my listening room.

Too easy for children, and too difficult for artists

As much fun as the Mini-DAC was in the hi-fi, however, I found it difficult to pry out of my office-studio’s sound system.

Did I make it sound earlier as though the Apogee’s performance with iTunes was frustrating? Perhaps I overstated the case. Loss of sync was inconvenient, but the Apogee’s sound was light-years beyond that of my stock G5, so I gladly suffered some inconvenience to hear the rich, full sound the Mini-DAC wrested from my AIFF files. (I also discovered that I could somewhat reduce the incidence of sync loss by disabling Apple’s ENet extension and setting up a special setting in the extensions manager for playing iTunes through the Apogee.)

Of course, my office system isn’t precisely average -- it’s a Linn Klimax Twin amplifier driving a pair of Penaudio Chara/Charisma speakers. Actually, it’s a wonder I got any work done at all, considering that several times a day I would turn up the Apogee’s volume knob and sit there enthralled by a song I hadn’t heard in a long time -- or that I had never heard quite like that before.

Okay, okay, that’s just 44.1kHz digital -- but I like it, at least as delivered by the Mini-DAC. Then I wondered whether the Apogee would actually improve on ProTools’ hi-rez D/A operation.

The answer was a resounding you betcha! I made a series of recordings of my Tele driving an Edirol 700 amp/mike modeling interface, listening for differences in the amp and cabinet sounds I could achieve. The Edirol delivers "only" 96kHz digital, but it was enough to tell the tale. Wow!

In a perfect world, I’d have a collection of classic amps, so I could choose the right one for each track I lay down. In this world -- especially in my New York apartment -- a digital device like the Edirol is a lifesaver. No, it ain’t perfect, but if you’re patient and a little obsessive-compulsive, you can get the sort of crunchy, bell-like tones delivered by the small tube amps of my youth (and a darn good imitation of a Marshall stack, too -- without all the ozone and pyrotechnics).

The Mini-DAC revealed exactly what I laid down -- which wasn’t always pretty, but then, I’m not all that hot a guitarist. But I prefer brutal honesty from my studio equipment -- I get all the self-delusion I need while I’m playing. When it’s time to play back the tracks, I want to hear what’s actually there, and the Mini-DAC gave me that in spades.

I also used the Apogee to play back the DACs of the raw session tapes of Jerome Harris’ Rendezvous [CD, Stereophile STPH013-2]. Over the years since we recorded those tracks at Blue Heaven Studios, I’ve come to use Jerome’s bass as a litmus test for bass fidelity. The greater the resolving power of the system, the more stable and full-bodied his tone becomes. The Mini-DAC matched the best I’ve ever heard with that source: Jerome’s Taylor acoustic bass sounded massive and woody, earthy and solid, organic and powerful -- no single word did it justice. That’s not just good performance; that’s superb performance.

Life is not meant to be easy . . . but it can be delightful

I love finding great-performing audio products that are bargains. I always hope I’m going to find a product that I can afford that performs like the best stuff out there -- and, in the Apogee Mini-DAC, I did.

Want a great D/A converter? Get an Apogee Mini-DAC. Need a digital switch box for a multi-source system? Get the Mini-DAC. Need a studio-quality DAC for your computer-based studio? The Mini-DAC’s what you want.

In fact, no matter what you want or can afford, the simple answer to your digital problem is an Apogee Mini-DAC. Other than some minor glitches interfacing with Apple’s iTunes, it performed exactly as advertised, and did what it did as well as any other DAC I’ve ever used -- even the cost-no-logic designs we audiophiles know and love. That’s pretty impressive, but doing all of that for a bit over a kilobuck is a really nifty trick.

And yes, I am easy, but so are some choices. Choosing the Apogee Mini-DAC, for example.

 ...Wes Phillips

Apogee Mini-DAC Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $1195 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.

Apogee Electronics Corp.
3145 Donald Douglas Loop South
Santa Monica, CA 90405-3210
Phone: (310) 915-1000
Fax: (310) 391-6262


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