Im so easy,
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. Its a
tiny thang -- a scant 5.5" wide by 1.5" high by 10" deep, not including its
outboard power supply. Its 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 Apogees
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-DACs dual-stage clock, which is
something it shares with Apogees 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" (Apogees word) to source-derived jitter
and exhibits extremely low jitter at its output.
If youre combining the Mini-DAC with a PC, you can
download the appropriate USB driver from Apogees 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
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 panels
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 arent 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 couldnt 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
its a good thing, too, because the Mini-DAC was not really designed for use with
Apples iTunes software. Most of the time it worked just fine, but it would
periodically lose sync and Id have to reboot my G5.
The Mini-DAC never lost sync with any other source I used
it with, so Im not saying the Apogee converter is unreliable, only that it
doesnt 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 quartets
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 Sheppards 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 Bleys unique piano style, which parses time with the precision of Stephen
Hawkings. The Mini-DAC preserved the angularity and chaos inherent in Bleys playing
-- Ive heard some players/converters round off the corners, which pretty much
neuters her artistry.
Maybe you dont believe that DACs can do "that
rhythm thing." Youre entitled to that opinion, but Id guess that far more
music is ruined by digital converters that dont handle the complexities of pace and
swing than by ones that actually sound bad. That said, the Apogees 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 DACs
ability to resolve timing issues, but in less controversial terms. The better a DACs
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-studios sound system.
Did I make it sound earlier as though the Apogees
performance with iTunes was frustrating? Perhaps I overstated the case. Loss of sync was
inconvenient, but the Apogees 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 Apples ENet extension and setting up a special setting in the
extensions manager for playing iTunes through the Apogee.)
Of course, my office system isnt precisely average --
its a Linn Klimax Twin amplifier driving a pair of Penaudio Chara/Charisma speakers.
Actually, its a wonder I got any work done at all, considering that several times a
day I would turn up the Apogees volume knob and sit there enthralled by a song I
hadnt heard in a long time -- or that I had never heard quite like that
Okay, okay, thats 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, Id 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 aint perfect, but if youre 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
The Mini-DAC revealed exactly what I laid down -- which
wasnt always pretty, but then, Im not all that hot a guitarist. But I prefer
brutal honesty from my studio equipment -- I get all the self-delusion I need while
Im playing. When its time to play back the tracks, I want to hear whats
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, Ive come to use
Jeromes 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 Ive ever heard with that source: Jeromes Taylor acoustic bass sounded
massive and woody, earthy and solid, organic and powerful -- no single word did it
justice. Thats not just good performance; thats superb performance.
Life is not meant to be easy . . . but it can be
I love finding great-performing audio products that are
bargains. I always hope Im 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-DACs 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 Apples iTunes, it performed exactly as advertised, and did what it
did as well as any other DAC Ive ever used -- even the cost-no-logic designs we
audiophiles know and love. Thats 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.
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