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Emotiva XDA-2 DAC/Digital Preamp/Headphone Amp Review

Sections: Analog, Audio, Digital, Reviews

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Emotiva XDA-2 DACEven my non-techy friends generally have a reasonable idea of what my job entails. I tell them I’m reviewing a new set of electrostatic speakers, and while they may not know what “electrostatic” means, they at least get the whole speaker concept. I tell them I’m reviewing a new planar magnetic headphone, and again, “planar magnetic” may not ring any bells, but “headphone” at least makes sense. But for the past few weeks, my answer to, “What are you reviewing right now?”—the Emotiva XDA-2 DAC—has met with nothing but blank stares.

“What’s a DAC?” I’ve heard more times than I care to count.

So, of course, first comes the explanation of what digital-to-analog conversion is the first place—the fact that amps and speakers can’t reproduces the 1’s and 0’s stored on CDs and in digital download files; how receivers and CD players and media streaming devices all have to convert digital to analog, but often do an iffy job of it; how a good standalone DAC can do a superior job of converting sampled and quantized information back into a physical waveform signal that can be amplified and heard; how a good DAC can drastically improve the sound quality of CDs, FLACs, and MP3s.

And it isn’t until all of that is said and absorbed that I can really start to explain what makes the XDA-2 so special. Because, yes, it’s a standalone DAC. A damned good one, at that. For $399, if all it did was take a digital optical or asynchronous USB signal and deliver clean, clear, luscious analog output, I would call it quite a deal. Doubly so, given the unit’s incredible rock solid construction and refined fit and finish. Just the chassis alone hints at a device that’s worth two or three times Emotiva’s asking price.

When you consider the fact that it’s also a fantastic digital preamp—with a digitally controlled analog volume control—as well as a really incredibly versatile headphone amplifier, not to mention the fact that it has two coaxial inputs, two optical inputs, and AES/EBU in, along with the USB connection, as well as both balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA ouputs… well, you can see why the XDA-2 isn’t the easiest of components to explain to the uninitiated.

Emotiva XDA-2 back

I’ll be honest: the fact that it does so much also left me waffling a bit on how to put the XDA-2 to best use. My first inclination was to use it as a DAC for my Autonomic Controls MMS-2 media server in the main media room, but given that the media server is connected to my Anthem D2v processor, which itself features amazing digital-to-analog conversion capabilities, going that route ended up not making much sense. The amazing thing to me, though, is that the XDA-2 held its own against that $9500 sound processor, performing no better or worse, really, although the resulting sound was a little different—a bit brighter, a bit less warm in the midrange frequencies.

What I really wanted to do was put the XDA-2 to good use in my home office computer sound system, but I’m running Windows 8 on that machine, and much to the woe of audio-loving computerphiles, Microsoft decided that Win8 didn’t need native support for USB Class 2.0 Audio (which isn’t the same as USB 2.0, mind you—I know, it’s confusing), and the USB Class 2.0 Audio drivers for Windows 7 won’t work. That’s when I noticed, though, that Emotiva’s latest drivers for the XDA-2 were labeled thusly: “New Unified Driver for ALL Windows Versions.” Just like that, in all capital letters.

I was skeptical but hopeful, because I’ve been following the drama surrounding Win8’s lack of USB Class 2.0 Audio surround, and the horrific audio issues that have plagued those brave souls who did make it work somehow.

I’m happy—nay, I’m absolutely squeeing—to report that the Emotiva XDA-2 works beautifully with Windows 8, and has absolutely breathed new life into my beloved Paradigm Shift  A2 a² Ava Anne Hathaway Powered Speakers. Not only am I now able to drive the A²s to new heights of volume with virtually zero noise, the improvement over my soundcard’s digital-to-analog conversion is simply staggering. Midrange is smoother. Bass is more articulate. The high end positively sparkles, resulting in a bigger, wider, cleaner soundstage that I just want to climb into and wallow in.

Emotiva XDA-2 internals

The difference is most startling with acoustical fare like Glen Hansard’s new album Rhythm and Repose, especially with tracks like “High Hope,” which builds an incredibly deceptively dense and complex mix out of very simple and sparse instrumentation. The XDA-2 really accentuates that complexity, putting a wonderful amount of “air”—for lack of a better word—between the instruments. America’s “Ventura Highway” is another song that became absolutely revelatory for me through the XDA-2, specifically in the way the DAC resolves the rapid-fire rhythm guitars with a deft mix of warmth and precision. And most importantly, no noise.

One of the features I’ve had the most fun playing around with on the XDA-2 is its ASRC (asynchronous sample rate converter), which re-samples incoming PCM to a fixed 96k sample rate and pretty much eliminates jitter completely. Emotiva included a bypass button (on the remote only, unfortunately) that allows you to turn the ASRC on and off instantaneously, with only the tiniest gap in playback, so you can quickly and easily determine whether you like its effects (or, for that matter, whether you can even hear them). I wish I could tell you I have a definite preference, but I don’t. Some tracks in my collection sound noticeably better with the asynchronous sample rate converter on; some sound better with it off; some—like my CD rip of George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90”—sound different, but not necessarily better or worse one way or the other. With ASRC off, that particular track sounds more present, more aggressive, tighter, more poppy; with ASRC on, the track sounds more spacious, more laid-back, and yet, Michael’s voice stands out in the mix more.

And with other tracks, I honestly didn’t notice a difference at all. But even those tracks that didn’t reveal a difference between ASRC on and ASRC off revealed a ginormous difference between the XDA-2 and my computer’s own soundcard.

Emotiva XDA-2 remoteHonestly, I intended to gripe a little more about the fact that the ASRC bypass isn’t available via the front panel of the XDA-2, since all other functions are, but it’s really hard to complain about such a beautiful and well-built remote. It’s hefty, it’s built like a freaking tank, its button layout is perfect, and although its design can only be described as the exact opposite of ergonomic, it still feels really nice in my front paws.

So the only genuine complaint I’m really left with is regarding the XDA-2’s headphone output. Not its headphone amplifier, mind you; that’s fantastic, and really adapts beautifully to virtually any headphone I throw at it, from mobile models like B&W’s P3 and Paradigm’s upcoming H15 to harder-to-drive planar magnetics like HiFiMan’s HE-400 and the Audeze LCD2 I just finished reviewing for Residential Systems. There’s a broad range of loads in that list, from 26Ω for the Paradigms to 60Ω for the Audeze, but no matter the headphone, I feel like I’m getting the most of it from the XDA-2, with beautifully balanced tonality, oodles of detail, and again—no noise! None! I also love the fact that the XDA-2 remembers your last volume setting separately for its headphone and balanced/unbalanced audio outputs. Plug the headphone jack in, and it’s exactly the same volume as when you last listened to headphones. Unplug your phones, and it jumps back to your  last volume setting for your speakers.

So, whence the complaint? It’s the fact that the XDA-2’s headphone jack is of the ⅛-inch variety, so I have to use an adapter with my ¼-inch-jack-equipped headphones. Cry me a river, right? Still, if I’m going to have to use an adapter, I would really prefer to use one that converts smaller plugs to the larger variety rather than the other way around. Because, most of the time, sitting here at my office desk, I’d really rather listen to my HiFiMan ‘phones (or the LCD2 until the cruel bastards at Audeze take it back from me), and the adapter is just a little unwieldy.

Seriously, though, just typing that makes me feel like my dad when he complains that the cup holders in his Corvette weren’t positioned right under his hand. In a market that’s filled with overhype and spooky language, the XDA-2 is a gorgeous product that delivers 100% on every one of its claims—even the really spooky sounding stuff. Like this bit, from the manual, for example:

Volume control is via a precision digitally controlled analog resistor ladder network, which ensures absolute repeatability and near-perfect channel matching, even at very low settings. Unlike digital volume controls, the XDA-2’s analog volume control doesn’t reduce bit depth nor introduce grain or distortion at low volume settings.

If you’ve suffered through enough of the audiophile world’s Abracadabra language, you have to look at statements like that and squint. And yet, every single claim of that sort on Emotiva’s part is borne out in listening. Especially with headphones. Imaging is dead-on balls accurate. Volume adjustment is silky smooth and precise (although the lack of a knob does make large loudness adjustments take a little longer). And even at the lowest volumes, the XDA-2 delivers beautifully detailed, incredibly distortion-free audio that’s simply a pleasure to listen to.

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Emotiva

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