• Bryston BDA-1 DAC Review

    The Bryston BDA-1 external DAC has been one of the most highly anticipated products of 2008. I have received countless emails asking who, what, when, where, and why all related to the BDA-1. Many audiophiles have withheld DAC purchases for several months until the release and review(s) of the BDA-1. Fortunately those patient audiophiles will be very happy they waited for this DAC. Everything about the BDA-1 is first class. Computer Audiophile is honored to publish the very first official review, anywhere in the world, of the new Bryston BDA-1 external DAC.
     

     

    Bryston

    Almost all audiophiles are familiar with Bryston and it's reputation for quality. What many audiophiles may not know is that Bryston is a very non-pretentious down to earth company. James Tanner of Bryston can often be found perusing Internet forums answering questions from current and potential customers. James has also been known to ask these same people what they want in a product. In the land of Oz that high-end audio can sometimes be, this is downright cool. I'm also willing to bet that James would have a beer and watch Hockey Night in Canada with a potential customer and only talk "shop" if the topic came up. Bryston doesn't have to be pushy, or make up questionable statements to sell products. Bryston products, including the new BDA-1, sell themselves.

     





     

     

    Design

    The BDA-1 has some very tough siblings to follow. The 28B SST amplifiers have received major accolades and the BCD-1 CD player was given the Golden Ear Award from The Abso!ute Sound this year. Having listened to all three of these products I know without a doubt the BDA-1 lives up to the family name. In typical Bryston fashion the BDA-1 has great specs. This DAC is not a BCD-1 with the disc drive removed. The BDA-1 has two independent linear power supplies and dual Crystal CS-4398 DAC chips. The inputs on this unit are almost endless. One USB at 16Bit 32K-48K, two coax, two optical, one AES/EBU, and two BNC all at 16-24Bit and 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176, or 192K. Sure there are additional inputs Bryston could have included but this is not some sort of all-in-one digital switching box. If you can't connect this DAC to your existing computer and/or audio system you've probably got a PC running Windows 3.11 or your stereo is still a piece of furniture passed down from Grandma and Grandpa. Nothing wrong with a nice sofa-sized all wood stereo, but I think it's time for an upgrade. The outputs on the BDA-1 are Bryston's standard fare, both single ended RCA and balanced XLR. There is an additional coax digital output that bypasses the DAC completely and sends out an untouched digital stream. I used this to verify bit perfect data by outputting audio to my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC. The BDA-1 passed the audio signal bit for bit every time.

    Jitter is one of the more elusive concepts in high-end audio. Bryston's website explains jitter in this easy to understand way.


    "Jitter is a mistiming of data being moved from point A to point B in any synchronous digital system. Think of jitter as individual ticks on a clock—however each tick is not occurring at exact one-second intervals. Some are slightly less than a second and some are slightly longer, and they average out so that no actual time is being gained or lost over a large number of seconds. Jitter is the difference between the shortest and the longest second, and in digital audio systems this specification is usually measured in nanoseconds. Both the frequency and the jitter characteristics of the system’s digital clock will affect the accuracy of reproduction. The frequency, if not accurate, can cause the pitch and speed of the music to change, and in some systems cause drop-outs if there is no data available."


    To reduce jitter Bryston doesn't go way overboard and require the DAC to rest on one ton of natural granite. Bryston simply re-samples and re-clocks the input to reduce jitter to 1/1000 of a nanosecond. I use the term "simply" only as a figure of speech. There is nothing simple about Bryston's solution to jitter reduction and it works wonderfully.

    Bryston's up-sampling approach in the BDA-1 is marvelous. To satisfy the "purists" I'll get this out of the way early. There is an up-sample bypass button on the front of the BDA-1. The "purists" can now pass Go, collect $200, and proceed to the next paragraph. The rest of us will be interested to know that Bryston put some serious thought into its up-sampling. The highest number is not always the best and can actually degrade the sound quality. This is why Bryston up-samples based on the input sample frequency. Multiples of 44.1k are up-sampled to 176.4k and multiples of 48k are up-sampled to 192k. This synchronous up-sampling process has at least three major benefits. First up-sampling improves processing by the DAC because it was designed for greater bit depths and higher sample rates. Second, the up-sampling process shifts noise to inaudible frequencies. Third, up-sampling produces a new clock signal that reduces jitter. The choice to up-sample is left entirely up to the listener. My preference when listening through the BDA-1 was to bypass the up-sampling feature. The major difference when electing to up-sample was very subtle but still audible. There was an almost tube-like euphonic sound that could be described as Hi-Fi with an artificially wider soundstage. Without the up-sample bypass option it would be nearly impossible to notice this very subtle difference. To put it another way, if the DAC auto up-sampled everything without a bypass feature listeners, myself included, would be hard pressed to hear anything like I described. That's how subtle the sonic difference is between up-sampled and non up-sampled output from the BDA-1.

    The most overlooked piece of all DACs is the analog stage. What I mean is consumers frequently don't take the analog stage into consideration when researching a DAC. People get very caught up in the specs of the DAC chip and achieving the highest sample rate possible and forget that the analog stage is just as important. The best DAC chip in the world will be reduced to an unimportant level if the analog stage was weak. One picosecond of jitter really wouldn't mean much with the audio flowing through a flawed analog output. Fortunately many manufacturers don't overlook the analog stage and Bryston is no different. Bryston says the analog stage is the most critical part of the BDA-1. This is why it used proprietary Bryston Class A discrete op-amps rather than commonly used IC chips. This design allows Bryston to match the needs of the DAC instead of using a standard integrated circuit that would force it to compromise the design. This is somewhat similar to an active speaker that has been matched perfectly to the power amp inside the speaker cabinet. When both parts of the system are under the control of the designer the results can be very good.

     

    Build Quality

    Bryston build quality has always been legendary and the BDA-1 is no exception. The DAC is very substantial and the solid aluminum faceplate is an eye catcher. The Bryston logo etched into the aluminum extrudes quality and attention to detail. Why screen print the Bryston name on the front when you can just carve it out of the aluminum! When many other manufacturers are seeking ways to cut costs, Bryston is insuring every ounce of quality is kept in its components while still keeping prices extremely reasonable. My favorite detail on the front panel is the sample rate indicator lights. Every sample rate from 32 to 192k is available. If you forget to set Audio Midi on your Mac to 24/176.4 when listening to the Reference Recordings HRx albums the BDA-1 will be there to remind you that your listening with the incorrect sample rate indicated on the front panel. Another nice touch is the up-sample indicator light and its color variations. When bypassing the up-sample feature the light is off. When up-sampling to 176.4k the light is amber and when up-sampling to 192k the light is green.

    Now for my traditional gripes about the product I am reviewing. If I was granted one wish and Bryston would make it happen, I'd wish for a volume control. This would allow listeners to bypass a preamp & associated interconnects and go straight to their amp(s). Preamps are filters and the less filters in the audio chain the better. It would also be nice if Bryston included a minimal remote control with the DAC. But, most users probably don't switch inputs as much as I do during a review and a remote would increase the price of the unit for everyone even if they did not need the remote. A Bryston remote is sold separately and it can control a host of Bryston components. Since these are the only two gripes that come to mind I think Bryston has done a very nice job designing and building the DAC-1.

     

    Sound Quality

    All source material while listening through the BDA-1 was AIFF or WAV files using iTunes on a Mac Pro desktop.

    The Bryston BDA-1 external DAC is one solid component in build quality and sound quality. Accurate is probably the adjective that comes to mind first when I think about the BDA-1. The DAC is just plain accurate. Putting the BDA-1 through the wringer of 24/176.4 HRx material really showed its worth. Crown Imperial from the Dallas Wind Symphony (RR-112 HRx) was reproduced wonderfully through the BDA-1. A sure sign that I like what I hear is when I don't get distracted and I sit through the whole performance without thinking about what to put on next. For me to sit through a complete classical performance without pain is something special. During the BDA-1 review I certainly did sit through the whole Crown Imperial album and enjoyed every note.

    At Rocky Mountain Audiofest I dropped a considerable amount of money at the Mobile Fidelity booth within the first ten minutes of the show opening. One disc I purchased was Natalie Merchant's Tigerlily. I ripped it to my Thecus 5200B Pro NAS drive when I arrived back in Minneapolis and I've been listening to it frequently. Listening to Tigerlily I can get a good feel for a components sound signature on Natalie's voice. Track one San Andreas Fault and track four River sounded superb. Natalie's rich voice was reproduced incredibly accurate. Having attended many Natalie Merchant concerts and listening to her albums on every system imaginable I have a pretty good feel for what I believe is an accurate reproduction of her voice. The BDA-1 was spot on with Natalie.


    One album I have been addicted to recently is Consolers of the Lonely from The Raconteurs. You wouldn't think a hard rock recording like this would really be the best test of a system or DAC's quality, but surprisingly sonic differences are readily apparent with this album. The title track has some great guitar and drums all the way through. I brought this track to many suites at RMAF 2008 and heard some impressive results and surprised many people in the room with my choice of music. Needless to say I've also heard this music on many high-end systems. The key to reproducing this recording well is the bass drum accuracy. On some systems I can't make it beyond the first minute without turning the track off because the bottom end is so loose. For example, last weekend I listened to this track through a six figure system comprised of Wilson Maxx 2 speakers and several different components from Ayre and Wadia. I played the song 1.5 times to make sure I was really hearing what I thought I was. The second time I didn't make it through the whole song. The bottom end was not doing it for me. With the BDA-1, granted in a different system under different listening conditions, I have listened to this track and album so many times I've lost count. If it was possible to wear a grove into a hard drive I probably would have done it where this album is located on the drive.


    The BDA-1 is not a perfect DAC in terms of sound quality. My biggest issue is the soundstage. Compared to my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC ($5000 MSRP) the soundstage through the BDA-1 is closed-in. The Alpha DAC reproduces an incredible three dimensional soundstage that I've never heard through any other component. So, for the BDA-1 it's like coming in second place to Michael Phelps at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. Second is not a bad place to be considering the first place winner is the best in the world. Even though the soundstage was quite a bit more closed in compared to the Alpha DAC, I consider it right on par with the Weiss Minerva via its FireWire interface. The BDA-1 remained extremely accurate with very good upper extension and very tightly controlled bottom end. Another sound quality issue arose when I used the optical input and up-sampled. I thought the sound was a bit brittle and female voices were less appealing. Just like my other observations with up-sampling this was extremely subtle and only noticeable because I was testing every input every which way but loose. Plus I was comparing them all to the Alpha DAC.

    Listening through the USB, optical, and AES interfaces brought out some subtle differences. My favorite interface in terms of sound quality was the AES via my Lynx AES16e card and Mac Pro. The AES interface in the BDA-1 accepts up to 24/192 audio. This allowed me to listen to every sample rate in my collection without downsampling at all. The USB input offered great sound as well although a little short of the performance of the AES-Lynx combination. If I only had a USB port on my computer to connect to the BDA-1 I would not hesitate one bit. The sound quality was 99% of what it was through the AES-Lynx interface. The accuracy and tightness of this DAC is all there through the USB 16 bit / 44.1 kHz input. In fact the BDA-1 is a major step forward for computer based music because of its USB interface. More and more manufacturers are talking about USB interfaces but Bryston's BDA-1 has one right now and it sounds fabulous.

     


    Wrap Up

    Bryston has built its reputation over the years by building great products. You'll never see outrageous claims from Bryston like the BDA-1 will make you look thirty years younger. However, when you play back some old Steely Dan through this DAC you may very well feel thirty years younger and like you're at a live show. The BDA-1 does not offer a Scratch n' Sniff feature for the full live concert smell, but it comes very close to live music with great sound quality. The Bryston BDA-1 external DAC is an incredible bargain at only $1995. The sound quality, build quality, and feature set are equal to or better than other DACs I've heard at twice the price. That's not a review cliche, that's the honest truth. In private conversations during the review period I described this DAC as a giant-killer. I stand by those words and advise many DAC manufacturers to steer clear of a DAC shootout with the BDA-1. If I didn't own my beloved Alpha DAC I would have purchased the review sample in a heartbeat, and saved $3000! As I box the BDA-1 back up and ready it for the trip back to Ontario, Canada I wonder if my wife needs a DAC for her iPod Shuffle?

    Look for the Bryston BDA-1 on the CASH list very soon.

     

     


    Note: Bryston currently offers its products through a large dealer network. If you live out in the boonies Audio Advisor offers the BDA-1 at the same price as a local dealer.

     

     

     

    Associated Equipment: Mac Pro, Lynx AES16e card, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC, Benchmark DAC1 PRE, Kimber Select cable, Avalon speakers, McIntosh tube amplification, Virtual Dynamics power cables.

     

     
    Comments 51 Comments
    1. catastrofe's Avatar
      catastrofe -
      Great review Chris. <br />
      I'm one of those that have been holding off on a DAC purchase. Now I can add the Bryston to my short list!
    1. Labarum's Avatar
      Labarum -
      <cite> Now I can add the Bryston to my short list!<br />
      <br />
      What else would be on your short list?
    1. catastrofe's Avatar
      catastrofe -
      That's a great question. There seem to be quite a few quality DACs in the $2K - $3K range. Here are the ones that have my attention in no particular order:<br />
      <br />
      Bryston BDA-1<br />
      Van Alstine Ultra DAC<br />
      Altmann Attraction <br />
      PS Audio Ultralink<br />
      Red Wine Audio Isabellina<br />
      <br />
      Some are tube, some are SS, some are NOS and the AVA doesn't have a USB input but all have received good reviews (except the PS which isn't in production yet). It's really difficult to select a clear "winner". Of course, maybe I should just pony up $5K for the Berkley Alpha DAC. . . ;-)<br />
    1. Labarum's Avatar
      Labarum -
      MM<br />
      <br />
      I am not a poor man, but I don't think I would want to spend that much!
    1. rancew's Avatar
      rancew -
      Nice write-up on the BDA-1, Chris.<br />
      <br />
      Having lived with this DAC for the past 2 months, I concur entirely on your description of it being "accurate" in character. Despite this, I never find it to be edgy or fatiguing. It has excellent tonal ballance with authoritative but controlled bass. <br />
      <br />
      One point that I would comment on is the upsampling. Just like with an upsampling CDP I had in the past, in my system this feature consistently makes the soundstage a bit narrower (not wider), though certainly adds some depth and - as you noted - a bit of a tube-like quality. To me, on many recordings this 'holographic' effect can sound a bit processed and artificial, though on other recordings the effect is more pleasing. I've generally prefered to bypass the upsampling.<br />
      <br />
      Anyway, I've thoroughly enjoyed this DAC and would highly recommend it for anyone looking for something in the $2K range.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Rance - Thanks a lot for the comment. I love the fact that you hear the up-sampling as narrowing the soundstage and I hear it quite differently. If readers get one thing out of this, it should be that a full demo of any component is a must!<br />
      <br />
      Thanks again Rance.
    1. Alan B's Avatar
      Alan B -
      Chris, thank you for the review of the Bryston DAC. How would you characterize the sound of the Bryston BDA-1 verses the Benchmark Dac using the USB input?<br />
      <br />
      Also is it true that the Bryston USB input is limited to 16 bit verses the 24/96 of the Benchmark Dac? Any noticeable difference when playing high rez files?<br />
      <br />
      I agree that Bryston is a great company. I own one of their amps that developed a problem in the left channel the Sunday after the RMAF show (switch on rear of amp that selects between bridged mode and stereo mode developed a problem). Sent an email to tech support and they asked that I return the amp to replace the defective switch). Can't complain about their 20 year P&L warranty, although I believe the warranty is not as long on a digital product.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks,
    1. XP9433's Avatar
      XP9433 -
      You mentioned it competes with anything under $4k. Is it that much better than the Benchmark DAC1 Pre?<br />
      <br />
      Cheers<br />
      Frank
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Alan - That's a really tough question since the two products are so different. Both USB interfaces are really good and neither one would disappoint you. If you are contemplating both products the performance of the USB interface is not something you want to over-emphasize. Both are really good. I would concentrate on the feature sets of both products because they are very different. If you need 24/96 via USB the Benchmark will handle this unlike the BDA-1. The two products really are like apples and oranges though.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi frank - The BDA-1 competes with products over $4k as well! As I said in the above post, the DAC1 Pre and the BDA-1 are really like apples and oranges because of their different feature sets.
    1. XP9433's Avatar
      XP9433 -
      I am looking purely for your comments/assessment on how the sound quality (for similar material played) stacks up between the two DACs.<br />
      <br />
      Are you able to describe briefly how the BDA-1 improves on the Benchmark's SQ.<br />
      <br />
      Cheers<br />
      Frank
    1. znorter's Avatar
      znorter -
      I'd like to know (hello to EB...I'm still here how much the digital I/O like USB and FIREWIRE of the PC's are important at the end of the listened session, using the same DAC that for me, in the "high levels products" is a different approach to the sound.<br />
      I mean that Weiss, like EmmLabs, like Prism Sound (for me almost impossible to beat, like Berkley and few others have a typical propetary sound.<br />
      So, with the difficult of my explaining in english, I will be another time satisfied from the readings from this forum/site, if someone (Chris? can use the Minerva and his Mac without DAC (only the Firewire section, like the "Vesta") connected to the Berkley or to THIS Bryston and explain us "the difference" from the listening using the same DAC BUT with its I/O like the USB for instance or with the Lynx output to DAC.<br />
      How much is "important" at the end the DAC and all its around?<br />
      Where (in which section) this Bryston (not to talk about the price) "loose" against the Berkley?<br />
      <br />
      Anyway, thanks all...<br />
      <br />
      Luca<br />
    1. Elprior's Avatar
      Elprior -
      Hello,<br />
      <br />
      I doubt the Berkeley DAC being the best DAC in the world.<br />
      Such statements are simply misleading people !<br />
      There are far more expensive DACs on the market, with specific implementations, that surely knocks the Berkeley down.<br />
      <br />
      I mean it may be a very good DAC, and have an excellent PQR.<br />
      I think you should just point that the Berkeley is better than the Bryston, as far as you can tell.<br />
      <br />
      I know I'm not being much constructive by saying so.<br />
      And I certainly prefer someone standing for its point of view, rather than having to read between the lines.<br />
      But still, this one is simply too big to be true...<br />
      <br />
      Guillaume.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Guillaume - Welcome to Computer Audiophile, thank you very much for your honest opinion. <br />
      <br />
      From the review - <br />
      <br />
      <i>"The BDA-1 is not a perfect DAC in terms of sound quality. My biggest issue is the soundstage. Compared to my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC ($5000 MSRP) the soundstage through the BDA-1 is closed-in. The Alpha DAC reproduces an incredible three dimensional soundstage that I've never heard through any other component. So, for the BDA-1 it's like coming in second place to Michael Phelps at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. Second is not a bad place to be considering the first place winner is the best in the world."</i><br />
      <br />
      <br />
      I do value your opinion and will not say it is wrong. however I disagree with you on a couple items.<br />
      <br />
      When I, or any writer, publish a review it contains opinionated statements based on our experience with the specific product(s) and based on our life experience. It would be a very difficult read if after every subjective statement I included a sentence such as "In my opinion" or "As far as I can tell." I hope it is obvious to many readers that all subjective comments are the opinions of the writer and not facts.<br />
      <br />
      In addition, my analogy about Michael Phelps and the best in the world comment was not to be taken literally and in an absolute contiguous sense. By that I mean the Bryston is second place to the Alpha DAC which I have raved about frequently. The following statement about second place not being that bad is also a generalization that somewhat played off the previous sentence. Of course the Alpha DAC is not the best DAC in the world. There really can't be such a thing because listening to music is very subjective. Plus, a Pacific Microsonics Model 2 is quite superior to the Alpha DAC and I hear that daily from someone who has a Model 2 in his system. So, in no way did I mean to suggest literally that the Alpha DAC is the best in the world. <br />
      <br />
      In terms of your statement - <br />
      <i>"There are far more expensive DACs on the market, with specific implementations, that surely knocks the Berkeley down."</i><br />
      <br />
      Yes, you are correct there are more expensive DACs that are better than the Alpha. However, the Alpha in my opinion is far better than many DACs several times its price. I'm sure you agree that price is not an indicator of sound quality just the same as price is not an indicator of automobile performance. Many less expensive automobiles will out perform a Bentley in every objective performance test. <br />
      <br />
      Anyway, thanks you again for the honest comments. My response is in no way meant to sound rude or question the validity of your statements. I'm sure you'll respect my honesty as I have yours.<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. Elprior's Avatar
      Elprior -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      <br />
      I certainly understand that you can't add the extra-cautious sentence. And maybe I took the analogy too seriously, for I really felt you meant the Berkeley was The Best DAC in the world .<br />
      <br />
      As for the price being a clue about the sound quality, I do agree with you.<br />
      My own experience however tends to show that the Hi-End category, when dealt with properly, is really in another league. That's always about details and sometimes it requires the good system, and the good environment to figure out.<br />
      But you are definitely right, there are a lot of expensive units that know nothing about music at all (not to say that some brands are specialized in high-pricing together with poor sound). And that's misleading people too.<br />
      <br />
      What I meant was that we have almost reached the point (as far as audio reviews are concerned) where the new 1k$ unit is blowing everything from its price tag to 10 times it. And that's becoming ridiculous. Unfortunately, that is being gold speech for forum geeks, and that's becoming ridiculous too...<br />
      <br />
      Anyway, I didn't mean to be rude either. I would be a fool not to recognize the excellent work you are doing here (especially by telling people that a computer can indeed be a very good transport).<br />
      <br />
      Elp.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi elp - Thanks so much for the response. I think we have a lot in common :-)<br />
      <br />
      I too dislike when every component is talked about like it's worth 10x the price and like it's the next best thing. That kind of talk really discredits writers and hurts consumers & manufacturers if it is not true.<br />
      <br />
      I look forward to see you around this place more often :-)
    1. audioengr's Avatar
      audioengr -
      James - thanks for giving me credit for the Jitter description, although I probably have better descriptions than this.<br />
      <br />
      The stuff about frequency accuracy is not from me, but also true.<br />
      <br />
      Steve N.<br />
      Empirical Audio<br />
    1. minzyman's Avatar
      minzyman -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Great seeing you at RMAF.<br />
      <br />
      I thought I would post my thoughts on the BDA-1 based on listening to it today at a dealer. The unit was hooked up to Soolos System and run thru Accuphase Pre and Boulder monos thru to a pair of Avalon Isis speakers. <br />
      <br />
      Have to say I was not impressed. The sound was fine in the midband and voices seemed accurate enough. However the audio extremes seemed truncated, espec the top end which seemed as if under a blanket.<br />
      <br />
      I played a track from Nora Jones then played the same track from a Redbook CD and was able to switch back and forth on the fly. The Redbook sounded more dynamic, rich, more natural from the Accuphase player. I just preferred it much more. It 's soundstage was also noticeably more enveloping, although room acoustics were not ideal.<br />
      <br />
      BAAS will be holding a DAC shootout in a few weeks and I will look to their site for results/observations.<br />
      <br />
      Best.<br />
      /Lee<br />
      <br />
    1. James Tanner's Avatar
      James Tanner -
      Hi Chris,<br />
      <br />
      One of the issues I find interesting from a manufacturers point of view is the widely variable subjective observations that are part of this hobby.<br />
      <br />
      You ship the product into the world and sometimes get completely opposite subjective points of view on the very same product.<br />
      <br />
      I say TOMATO you say TOMATOE!<br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi James - That point can't be emphasized enough.