052-055 Primare DAC30_v4_SPCBPM.indd

052-055 Primare DAC30_v4_SPCBPM.indd
Outboard USB & S/PDIF DAC
Made by: Primare AB, Sweden
Supplied by: Karma-AV Ltd
Telephone: 01423 358846
Web: www.primare.net; www.karma-av.co.uk
Price: £2000
Primare DAC30
What do you get if you take the bespoke engineering from Primare’s Oppo-based
BD32 universal disc player? Something very much like this new DAC30 converter
Review: John Bamford Lab: Paul Miller
iven Primare’s near-30 year
history, and its wide-ranging
product portfolio, it’s surprising
to discover that this new DAC30
is the Swedish firm’s first standalone D-to-A
converter. Any new DAC had better be
capable of accepting data up to 24-bit/
192kHz, preferably via the convenience
of a USB input to avoid the extra expense
of a separate USB-to-S/PDIF (or USB-toAES/EBU) converter and additional digital
interconnect cable. And at £2000,
Primare’s DAC30 is clearly aimed at qualityconscious audio enthusiasts rather than
casual buyers, so naturally it does include
‘Full HD’ 24/192 compatibility.
The DAC30 is housed in Primare’s
familiar heavyweight steel chassis with
three chunky isolation feet (used for all its
30 Series components), with the minimalist
brushed aluminium fascia immaculately
finished with chrome-capped operation
buttons. There are five digital inputs at
the rear, a row of green LEDs on the front
panel numbered 1-5 indicating which
is selected. Inputs 1, 2 and 3 are S/PDIF
with both Toslink optical and RCA coaxial
sockets provided, input 4 is AES/EBU (XLR),
and input 5 is a USB-B input socket. There is
also an S/PDIF digital output.
Brown OPA2134 op-amps, WIMA and
EPCOS polypropylene filter capacitors
and MELF resistors. Single-ended (RCA)
analogue outputs are of course included
in addition to balanced XLRs, the singleended analogue stage utilising MOSFET
transistors fed by an active current source
rather than passive resistors.
The linear power supply uses a R-core
transformer with separate windings for
analogue and digital power supply circuits,
with extensive regulation in both the
analogue and digital supplies. Primare
chooses to use banks of small supply
capacitors for lower equivalent series
resistance (ESR), the company says.
In developing its asynchronous USB
interface – used both in this DAC30
and the company’s MM30 multimedia
add-on module for its I32 integrated
amplifier – Primare collaborated with
Syncore Technologies AB, an embedded
systems specialist based in Linköping. For
Windows OS, USB Audio Class 2.0 drivers
from Bristol-based XMOS are provided via
Primare’s website. Says Primare’s managing
director Lars Pedersen: ‘For reliable 24/192
operation there were few choices available.
We chose XMOS because it offered an
integrated communication hub hosting
the microcontroller, and the company
was very helpful in developing our specific
application. We were able to fine-tune its
firmware for optimal performance with our
hardware platform.’
Installation of the driver was certainly
straightforward. I had the DAC30 hooked
into my system and music flowing from
my computer into the DAC30’s USB input
in a matter of minutes, the row of LEDs
on the fascia confirming that all sampling
rates were being correctly received. One
At the heart of the DAC30 is part of the
processing ‘engine’ from the company’s
BD32 universal Blu-ray disc player [HFN
Feb ’12] which, as with most universal BD
players, is based on an Oppo core with
Primare’s bespoke power supplies and
audio output section. Consequently the
DAC30 employs Crystal’s CS4398 DeltaSigma DAC, and a Burr-Brown SRC4392
digital interface receiver/ sample-rate
converter operating at 192kHz.
It’s a fully balanced design, the DAC30’s
analogue output stage employing BurrRIGHT: Primare’s linear power supply, with its
R-core transformer and extensive regulation,
and its choice of DAC and balanced analogue
output stage are all inspired by the BD32
universal player [see HFN Feb ’12]
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of Primare’s C23 multi-function system
remote controllers is supplied with the
DAC30, its numbered keys providing direct
input selection as well as the up/down
keys allowing scrolling through inputs. The
Dim button, which adjusts the brightness
levels of the display in many Primare
components, turns the DAC30’s indicator
LEDs off/on. The power button operates
the DAC too – but other
than this there’s nothing
else to control, as there are
no digital filter options or
up-sampling modes from
which to choose.
Criticisms? As with
many DACs that employ
relay-controlled mute
circuits, you’ll often miss the first second
or so of music when you play consecutive
music tracks that have different sampling
rates, necessitating restarting the track.
Frankly, I can live with this – I’ve become
accustomed to it as a common issue.
Also, the DAC30 doesn’t remember the
last input selected when powered down.
When you bring it out of standby it always
defaults to Input 1. This I did find mildly
irritating and I’d like to see Primare address
this in a future revision.
I can imagine the DAC30 sounding
wonderful in unison with one of Primare’s
crisp and super-vivid UFPD Class D
amplifiers, as it has a
richly-coloured warm tone
with delicate treble and
really ‘ballsy’ bass. I was
struck from the outset
by its bold and powerful
depiction of bass
dynamics and descriptive
detailing of bass textures
when playing Sting’s ‘Children’s Crusade’
from The Dream Of The Blue Turtles [A&M
393 750-2], while doing my utmost
to ignore the unnecessary electronic
treatments in the recording (Sting’s voice
swimming in cavernous artificial reverb).
The DAC30 allows you to hear all the
way into a recording’s noise floor, pulling
‘Marsalis’ sax
wailed clearly
above dense
keyboard layers’
Primare’s history dates back to the mid-1980s, its iconic 900 Series components
causing design-conscious audiophiles to go weak at the knees. It was the work of
Scandinavian designer Bo Christensen, one of the most creative and inspirational
industrial designers the world of audio has ever seen. Lars Pedersen, managing
director and owner of Primare Systems, has been at the helm since 1996. As a
young entrepreneur he was the Scandinavian importer of British-made Target
loudspeaker stands, and by the 1990s had a business (Xena Audio) that owned
Primare, Copland and QLN before he chose to focus on Primare. What was a
niche ultra-high-end marque has grown into a successful brand that today covers
multi-channel AV electronics as well as specialist two-channel analogue and
digital audio components. Manufacturing is mostly in the Far East, Primare’s
chief electronics designer Bent Neilsen and co-product development engineer
Bjørn Holmqvist juggling their time between supervising suppliers in Taiwan and
China and at the company’s design and testing headquarters in Växjö, Sweden
where final assembly and soak testing is undertaken.
ABOVE: Available in black or titanium finish,
the Primare’s aluminium fascia sports on/off
and input selector buttons, with LEDs indicating
active input and incoming sampling frequency
out delicious detail from a beautifully dark
background. During the rather difficult
middle section of Sting’s anthem – difficult,
that is, for a hi-fi system to deliver it
without seemingly collapsing into a wall of
noise – as the level increases and Branford
Marsalis’s parping saxophone joins in the
mix, the DAC30 retained its composure
admirably. The ride and crash cymbals had
natural ‘ring’ while the saxophone wailed
clearly above the increasingly dense layers
of keyboards, the Primare serving up a
coherent image throughout the piece.
Later in the album, during ‘We Work The
Black Seam’ with its Police-esque ‘white
reggae’ beat, the DAC’s excellent resolving
ability allowed transparent differentiation
between kick drum and plucked bass notes,
and the clarity of the hypnotic keyboard
patterns in the background helped make
the song engagingly rhythmic.
Regular readers will be familiar with
my listening room and resident amplifier/
speaker rig [go to www.hifinews.co.uk
and click on ‘Meet the Team’]. Currently
I’m using a Mac Mini (2.2gGHz/8Gb RAM)
running J River Media Center v.17 playback
software under Windows 7, driven from
a recently acquired Dell ST2220T touchscreen monitor. I’ve spent the last four
years gradually transferring my entire CD
collection to a 2TB HDD, and with my
selection of hi-res recordings added to
the library, playing out from computer
has inexorably become the predominant
listening source both for pleasure and
critical audio component analysis.
With Primare’s DAC30 in the replay
chain, using its asynchronous USB input,
I was utterly blown away by the playback
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ABOVE: Balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) analogue outs are joined by AES/EBU
(XLR) and USB digital inputs alongside three Toslink optical and three coaxial S/PDIF
of a 24-bit/96kHz file of a recording
of Norwegian pianist Helge Lien. I
was listening to ‘Diverted Dance’
by the Helge Lien Trio, from Hello
Troll Germany’s Ozella Music
imprint [24/96 FLAC download from
highresaudio.com]. The transient
attack of the keyboard notes was
startlingly real, the natural decay of
reverb creating a palpable image of
a piano at the end of my room as my
monitors seemed to ‘disappear’.
The sharp tinkle of Indian bells
that first marks the introduction of
drum kit and bass accompaniment
leapt forward in holographic fashion
– and once the trio got into its stride
I was treated to swathes of rich,
creamy and abundant bass alongside
the drummer’s sizzling cymbals and
Lien’s modal piano workout.
Coupled with the Primare DAC’s
subjectively bold and powerful
disposition through the bass and
midband is a hint of gentleness in
its reproduction of high frequencies.
I wouldn’t describe it as soft, but
it is smooth and ‘sweet’, sounding
refined both via its USB and S/PDIF
inputs. Whether you’ll consider it
an upgrade to your CD player will
depend entirely on the performance
of your player of course. Certainly
it added verve and gravitas to the
performance of an ageing Stable
Platter Mechanism-equipped Pioneer
PD-S06 CD player I had, that itself
has a polished and refined sound.
Using the player as a disc
transport, adrenalin-fuelled rock
music and large-scale orchestral
works gained muscularity and
dynamic potency – with better
resolution of fine detail as well.
Rarely were recordings delivered in
a raucous, up-front manner. Most
of the time the DAC30’s smooth
treble ensured that its authoritative
energy was tempered with a
degree of civility, encouraging long
listening sessions. Nevertheless
the Primare can’t make everything
sound gloriously listenable. Beverley
‘the voice’ Knight’s rousing ‘Come
As You Are’ from 2006’s The Best
Of… retrospective [Parlophone
0946 354566 2 2] was shown
to be quite horrible (more’s the
pity), dynamically squashed and
bandwidth limited.
Her premier-league vocals,
double-tracked extensively in
the song, might just as well have
been recorded down a couple
of telephone mouthpieces. The
engineer responsible might learn
from listening to a recording of
Scott Walker from more than three
decades earlier. I was playing Boy
Child: The Best of Scott Walker
1967-1970 [Fontana 842 832-2],
admiring ‘The War Is Over (Sleepers)’
taken from his 1970 long player
’Til The Band Comes In. The slightly
distant, shut-in quality of the
string arrangement betrayed the
recording’s vintage sure enough,
but the clarity of Walker’s voice was
sublime. Some might say: ‘It must
have been the tubes…’
When Primare says that the DAC30 ‘incorporates the supreme
processing engine of the award-winning BD32 universal
player’ it might also mention that the two-channel CS4398
DAC-based analogue stage also looks to be lifted from this
chassis [see HFN Feb ’12]. The 4.3V output from its XLRs is
the same, as is the 113.5dB A-wtd S/N ratio and, tellingly, the
97ohm source impedance. The output is also phase-inverting,
so you might want to flip your speaker leads before doing any
meaningful comparisons. The responses with 48kHz, 96kHz and
192kHz are also the same as we recorded for the BD32, and
consistent between S/PDIF and USB inputs, at –0.1dB/20kHz,
–1.4dB/45kHz and –5.2dB/90kHz, respectively.
Primare implements the CS4398’s standard, FIR-type digital
filter which offers a very uniform response but incurs both preand post-echoes in the time domain. Still, not having to trawl
through numerous filters makes my job a little easier in the lab,
for which it has my thanks! Otherwise, while the layout of the
analogue stage looks broadly unchanged (stereo separation still
deteriorates slightly at HF), there is an improvement in treble
distortion, down from 0.0009% to 0.00065% at 20kHz/0dBFs
and, more importantly, from 0.0016% to 0.0003% at 20kHz/
–30dBFs [compare blue trace, Graph 1 below, with BD32]. The
freedom from the BD32’s necessary complexity also allows the
DAC30 to escape its very mild PSU-related jitter. What remains
is very low and clustered at ±1.3kHz/ ±2.6kHz and consistent
through all inputs at ~20-30psec [see Graph 2, below]. Readers
are invited to view comprehensive QC Suite test reports for the
Primare DAC30’s S/PDIF and USB inputs by navigating to www.
hifinews.co.uk and clicking on the red ‘download’ button. PM
ABOVE: Distortion vs. 24-bit/48kHz digital signal
level over a 120dB dynamic range. S/PDIF input
(1kHz, red) and USB input (1kHz, black; 20kHz, blue)
This is a great sounding D-to-A
converter that can be strongly
recommended to audiophiles
looking for a straightforwardin-use DAC for a high resolution
computer audio system setup. It’s
perhaps a little expensive given
its limited feature set, but that
classy casework doesn’t come
cheap – and you can certainly fit
it and forget it. Its tremendous
sound quality will prove highly
rewarding in top-flight systems.
Sound Quality: 84%
- 100
ABOVE: High resolution jitter spectra from 24-bit/
48kHz data over S/PDIF (USB is almost identical)
Maximum output level (Balanced)
4.31Vrms at 97ohm
A-wtd S/N ratio (S/PDIF / USB)
113.6dB / 113.5dB
Distortion (1kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)
0.00005% / 0.0003%
Dist. & Noise (20kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)
0.00065% / 0.0004%
Freq. resp. (20Hz-20kHz/45kHz/90kHz)
+0.0dB to –0.09dB/–1.4dB/–5.2dB
Digital jitter (48kHz/96kHz/USB)
30psec / 18psec / 40psec
Resolution @ –100dB
Power consumption
Dimensions (WHD)
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