The Channel Islands Audio VDA-1 DAC and VAC-1 Power Supply
|The Channel Islands Audio VDA-1 DAC and VAC-1 Power Supply|
6 January 2003
VDA-1 Digital to Audio Converter
Based on the Burr Brown PCM1716
Inputs: (2) Toslink Optical, Coaxial SP/DIF
Locking Frequencies: 44.1k, 48k, 88.2k, 96k
Frequency Response: 20 Hz-20 kHz +/- 0.1 db
THD: < 0.006% 20 Hz-20 kHz
Output Level: 2.4 vRMS
Dimensions: 4.40″W × 2.65″H × 4.40″D – or dinky!
Warranty: 1 Year, Parts & Labor
VAC-1 Power Supply
Output Voltage: 14VAC @ 1.44 Amps
Accessories: IEC Type AC Cable, AC output Cable
Dimensions: 4.40″W ×2.65″H × 4.40″D – matching dinky!
Warranty: 1 Year, Parts & Labor
Dusty’s Dinky Dynamo DAC
I first became acquainted with Dusty Vawter shortly after the Audio Alchemy clan folded up tents, mounted their camels and headed for the sunset. Dusty had been the technical manager at Audio Alchemy, leaving them in 1999 to join forces with Greg Schug, who, in the early 1970’s, had founded Monolithic Sound. Monolithic Sound’s stated purpose was to build highly reliable, major bang-for-the-buck gear that the less-than-well-heeled music lover could afford. Well, I am happy to say that they have been very successful in that endeavor; just look at the reviews. In fact, I still use the Monolithic PS-1 phono stage with the dual-mono HC-1 power supply Dusty designed.
About the same time he left AA, Dusty founded a new company, Channel Islands Audio, near Port Hueneme, CA. At the time we met, Dusty was doing some wonderful mods to Audio Alchemy gear, and worked his magic on my AA DDE v1.2 DAC and PS-2 power supply, which, along with a DTI Pro 32 upsampler, “Tin Ear” still enjoys to this day. I have yet to see a product associated with Dusty’s name that has not impressed me with both its level of musical involvement and its superb value. The most recent item of his that I have fallen in love with was his absurdly transparent and, for a passive preamp, remarkably dynamic $249 passive preamplifier, the VPC-1. With his stellar history, I was both anxious and curious to see what he could achieve with a digital to analog converter.
Nuts ‘n’ Bolts
The VDA-1 is carefully designed with the boards laid out in a way to optimize the shortest possible signal paths. Hell, the whole thing isn’t much bigger than two packs of cigarettes stacked atop one another. Using the same chassis for all his components, as did Audio Alchemy and Monolithic coincidentally, yields lower manufacturing costs and an aesthetic that is hard to argue with – unless you are into pretense.
Given a choice between a tiny or less-than-glamorous box that sings or a larger or sensational looking box that just lip-syncs, I’ll take the tiny or Spartan unit every time. The unit is black on all sides except the front, which is a brushed aluminum panel. The face has four Torx head screws, one in each corner, and is labeled CIAudio in the upper left corner, and VDA-1 in the upper right. Centered at the bottom is 24 Bit D/A Converter. In the center of the panel is the word Lock, with a blue LED pilot which, when a digital signal is sensed at either input, illuminates.
On the rear, from left to right, you have the right and left single-ended audio outputs. Next, you have a choice of inputs, RCA coaxial or Toslink optical. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never heard an optical conductor that could come close to a good 75-Ohm coaxial RF cable, but, as this unit is both a perfect and logical way to upgrade older CD/DVD players, many which may ONLY have a Toslink digital output, this must be seen as a wise move. To the right of the Toslink input is the AC input socket for either the supplied 14 VAC wall-wart, or the umbilical from the optional VAC-1.
Once you’ve selected optical or RF in, the unit will accept up to a 24-bit word at 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96 kHz. The signal is then fed into a Burr-Brown DIR1701 low jitter input receiver. The heart of the system is the Burr-Brown PCM1716 digital to analog converter. Once the ones and zeros are back to analog voltages, they are routed through a Class A output stage, utilizing yet another Burr-Brown device, the OPA2132 op-amp. The board and parts quality are all optimum. Throughout the signal path, only Vishay metal film type resistors and polystyrene filter capacitors are used. All told, though economical in execution, it is not a “cheap” design – get my drift?
I will admit to expecting that I’d enjoy this mighty mite, taking into account all my past pleasant experiences with Dusty’s gizmos, but had no idea just how engaging it was going to be. Right from the start, with no real run-in time, it was clear that this DAC had the musical goods, but, through the circumstances involved, it ended up with some 140 hours of casual use before I started taking notes.
Powered by the included wall-wart supply, the unit was very musical and had a remarkably well-balanced tonality. How balanced? Take a look at the provided response graphs, outlining frequency response, noise and crosstalk information. Providing this type of performance verification is something virtually unheard of at this price point. Bravo, Dusty!
Timbre seemed excellent, with just the slightest tilt in favor of the upper midrange, which could occasionally infuse a bit of hardness into the upper registers. This attribute prevented the VDA-1 from being able to fully realize that creamy bronzy flavor from well recorded cymbals and horns that the best DAC’s can retrieve, instead producing it just a bit more on the brittle side of natural. Though voiced slightly forward, and with instrumental images occasionally a bit larger-than-life, this little bugger got down! Foot tapping and head bobbing were the order of the day.
Soundstaging was very good, as was image specificity, with instrument bodies produced with just a bit of bloom in some instances. In terms of resolution, it is a bit above what I have come to expect in this price range, but, ultimately, falls short of the best out there. Let me use a photographic analogy to explain. When compared to my reference ModWright Signature Perpetual Technologies P-1A/P-3A powered by the Monolithic Sound P3 supply, where my reference unit resolves as, say, a Leica M6 equipped with Carl Zeiss optics, the little CIAudio DAC was more like an Olympus OM4Ti with the Zuiko Lenses; not fuzzy, blurred or out of focus mind you, just a bit less crisply defined and detailed by way of comparison. And that, my friends, is mighty fine news for the humble asking price.
The biggest frailty I uncovered with this little guy is its ultimate lack of finesse at both frequency extremes. At the extreme top and bottom, it just is not as refined as some of its state-of-the-art brethren. Moreover, it seems less noticeable with the uppermost regions and more susceptible in the deepest of bass. Now, I don’t really see this as a sticking point, given both its overall good bass and midbass performance and its target audience. How many folks out there shopping for a $350 super-DAC have a speaker system that will plumb the deepest depths anyway? I mean, c’mon, this little thing only retails for $350!
Adding the VAC-1, which is identical in size and appearance save for the Lock light and different stenciling, brought both some welcomed and expected sonic improvements. With this heftier supply, there was a noticeable shift towards a slightly warmer overall tonality and the fabric of the music was now emanating from a darker foundation. These two attributes are especially appreciated with intimate jazz and chamber classical works.
Bass, though it assumes a bit more control, is still on the slight side. Treble, imaging and soundstaging enjoy slight improvements too, as does overall resolution and detail retrieval. To my ear however, the most manifest improvement with the addition of the VAC-1 is the distinction and enhancement it affords dynamic contrasts. With the beefier power supply, dynamics are noticeably improved, though still not completely effortless. However, they are less congested and homogenized and are handled with much less distraction. To my mind, the addition of the VPC-1 is well worth the additional buck sixty.
Dusty has hit a home run with this humble little DAC. On it’s own, what it lacks in ultimate resolve and bass excavation is made up for in its splendid timber and overall balance.
Add the VAC-1, and you find yourself with one of the best digital bargains out there today, to these ears. This combo is musically involving and, depending on your hot buttons and biases, will give the likes of the entry Assemblage DAC 2.6 and MSB Link DAC III some stiff competition, besting each in a number of categories.
Is it a giant killer? No, of course not. Is it one heck of a good deal? You can bet the farm on that. That is one guarantee you will find common to any product associated with Dusty’s name. In my opinion, the VDA-1 is one VERY natural sounding and involving device that you can afford. It is a real musical treat and should be high on the list for the first time digi-phile, the older CD player up-grader or the budget conscious. This DAC will also make great music in a second system for you well heeled ‘philes who want to equip yet another system. Dusty has done it again, and you get the benefits in spades.
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