Bryston BDA-3 DAC Review
Shopping for HiFi components can be tricky. It's always wise to consider the company from which one is purchasing, in addition to the quality of the products. The best HiFi in the world quickly turns to the worst Hifi in the world, if it malfunctions and one can't get it serviced. Unfortunately, it seems there are many questionable companies popping up to offer digital HiFi products. Some of them have left customers high and dry. As Chris Rock said at the 1997 MTV VMAs when talking about pop stars in the music industry, "Here today, gone today." It's not quite that bad in HiFi, but nonetheless, nobody likes to throw away hard earned money. On the other end of the spectrum is Canada's Bryston Limited. Bryston was founded in 1962 and makes some of the most robust products in the industry. The company prides itself on making all its components in Canada, and offering a 20 year warranty for analog products and a 5 year warranty for digital products. In addition, everyone at Bryston I've ever talked to has been a straight-shooter and very down to earth. There's no such thing as snake oil in the Bryston repertoire. When offered the opportunity to review a component from a company such as Bryston, I jump at the chance. I see part of my job as reviewing good components and another part as giving my word that the company behind the component is equally as good. In this case, I am unequivocal that Bryston ltd. is a pillar of the HiFi community, and its new BDA-3 DAC is ranked very high on my list of go-to components. The BDA-3 has more inputs and features than any normal enthusiast will ever need, and when it comes to music reproduction, it sets the new standard in the Bryston line-up. Against the competition, the BDA-3 performs equal to or better than many DACs I've heard in my system and in other systems. Needless to say, I've had a great time listening to the BDA-3 throughout this review period. It doesn't get much better than spending my time listening to my favorite music through a great component such as the Bryston BDA-3.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
The Bryston BDA-3 digital to analog converter is packed to the gills with features, yet it offers nothing superfluous. Let's start with the biggest difference between the BDA-2 and the BDA-3, greater PCM playback options and full DSD support. Whereas the BDA-2 supported PCM up through 24/192, the BDA-3 supports PCM up through 32/384. In addition, the BDA-3 supports DSD up through DSD256. (Additional information about my experience playing different DSD rates is detailed below). Not only did Bryston enable DSD in the BDA-3, but it realized that PCM and DSD have different requirements. The company went the extra mile by designing independent signal paths to the DAC chips for DSD and PCM. According to Bryston, "Audio is processed in their native format with no conversion ensuring each song is totally bit perfect — an exact replica of the master recording." Both the USB and HDMI inputs of the BDA-3 accept DSD signals. The USB input is the most versatile, accepting audio up through DSD256, while the HDMI input accepts "standard" DSD (DSD64 or DSD 1x), even from an SACD player such as those made by Oppo.
The BDA-3 features 10 digital inputs, including the aforementioned asynchronous USB and HDMI (4x HDMI, 2x USB 2.0 Type B, 2x S/PDIF (1x BNC, 1x RCA), 1x Optical (TosLink), 1x AES/EBU ). A very unique aspect of the BDA-3 is its dual asynchronous USB inputs. I can't think of another DAC with this feature. The way my main system is setup, I really don't have a use for two USB inputs, but I can see the value in this offering. Given the diversity of the Computer Audiophile community, I have no doubt many people will enjoy this feature. All the electrical inputs (TosLink is optical) are galvanically isolated, eliminating ground noise that could enter from the source devices, namely noisy computers. The effect of noise on the final sound quality of a DAC can't be underestimated. This galvanic isolation is critical.
Following the signal path from a BDA-3 input, embedded clock signals are stripped from the audio signal (PCM) and re-clocked by the BDA-3's master clock. Audio is sent to dual AKM DAC chips, which provide a better signal to noise ratio and lower crosstalk than a single chip. The converted audio signal then travels to a proprietary class-A output stage featuring fully discrete operational amplifiers. In talking to Bryston, it was made clear to me that Bryston put extensive work into designing this analog stage and is very happy with the results. As expected, in a top of the line Bryston product, both digital and analog sections of the BDA-3 have their own power supplies. Readers should note, the BDA-3 doesn't have a volume control and shouldn't be connected directly to a standard amplifier.
A few notes about the options displayed on the front panel. The BDA-3 features an upsampling mode that can be toggled off/on. When enabled, this mode upsamples incoming audio in multiples of 44.1 and 48. Audio that comes in at 44.1 or 88.2 is upsampled to 176.4 (amber light is illuminated), and audio at 48 or 96 is upsampled to 192 (green light is illuminated). This upsampling feature has no effect on audio signals coming in via USB or HDMI.
In addition to indicators for upsampling, the BDA-3 features some other very nice indicators on the front panel. Given how easy it is to output mangled audio that has had bits chopped off or its frequency resampled, it's always comforting to see what the DAC is actually receiving. The BDA-3 indicates both the rate of incoming DSD (DSD 1x, DSD 2x, DSD 4x) and PCM (through 384 kHz) audio. Not only that, but the indicator lights illuminate green if the DSD signal is received as a DoP stream and amber if the signal is native DSD. If you're not familiar with computer audio and music servers, just know that this feature will come in handy.
When discussing compatibility of audio formats with Bryston, the company indicated that the BDA-3 was designed with each separate function on its own PCB. This facilitates possible hardware updates in the future, without braking the bank or forcing customers to purchase new units automatically. Bryston has no current upgrade plans for the BDA-3, but if needed it's technically feasible. I also asked the company about support for MQA. I believe Bryston is watching the situation closely and will make a decision at the appropriate time. Based on the fact the the BDA-3 uses an XMOS chip, I also believe it would be fairly straight forward for a firmware update to enable MQA should the need arise. Don't quote me on that, and especially don't quote Bryston, because that is my conclusion based on the facts I've gathered.
Using the USB input, I tested the BDA-3's ability to accept all supported formats and sample rates. Sure the DAC supports 384 PCM and DSD256, but that doesn't mean one can take the DAC home and be sure it will work at these rates with any source. I was successful playing all supported PCM rates with Linux, Mac, and Windows based sources. The difficulty comes into play with DSD and operating systems that support USB Audio Class 2 without drivers and no native DSD support.
Here are my findings:
• macOS - DSD via DoP only, support for DSD64 and DSD128.
• Linux* - DSD via DoP or native DSD, support for DSD64 and DSD128 via DoP***, support for DSD64, DSD128, and DSD256 via native DSD playback.
• Windows** - DSD via DoP or native DSD, support for DSD64 and DSD128 via DoP***, support for DSD64, DSD128, and DSd256 via native DSD playback.
* Native DSD requires an update to Linux. My Sonore microRendu has the update enabling native DSD on its Linux build, but other Linux based sources likely don't have this yet.
**Bryston recommends using the ASIO driver installed as part of its Windows driver package. WASAPI only supports DoP, not native DSD.
*** To accept DSD256 via DoP, the DAC must support input of PCM rates at 705.6 kHz or 768 kHz. The BDA-3 is capped at 384 kHz currently.
During the review period I used the Bryston BDA-3 DAC with a Constellation Audio Inspiration Series PreAmp 1.0, Constellation Audio Inspiration Series Mono Amps 1.0, and, for the most part, the Sonore microRendu feeding the DAC via USB.
Miles: "When you see a red light on, everybody's supposed to be quiet."
Rudy: "Here we go, Miles."
Miles: "All right."
Piano intro, interrupted by Miles' whistle.
Miles: "Play some block chords, Red. All right, Rudy? Block chords, Red..."
Some of you will recognize those words immediately, some would recognize them immediately upon hearing the associated song, and yet others will have no clue about that which I write. The quotes above come from a famous exchange between Miles Davis, Red Garland, and Rudy Van Gelder during a recording session in 1956. Due to Rudy's recent passing, I'd be remiss if I didn't listen to some Rudy Van Gelder recordings through the Bryston BDA-3.
The exchange above precedes the track "You're My Everything" on the Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet album. On this track, the beautiful reverberation of Red Garland's block chords, followed by Miles' unmistakable trumpet, sounded great through the BDA-3. The recording space at 25 Prospect Avenue in Hackensack, New Jersey, Rudy Van Gelder's parent's house, can be heard and metaphorically seen when listening to this track through my system. If I wasn't aware of Van Gelder's strict no smoking policy in his studios, I'd bet anything the place was filled with smoke during the recording of this album. Listening to it on a really good system gives one the sense of being there and feeling the vibe, as much as possible 60 years later. Maybe this is the nice thing about listening through really good components such as the BDA-3, we can visualize the smokey air and feel of the environment, whether or not it was actually there, and if it was, we have no adverse effects. After all, high-end audio is about creating an illusion.
More than anything, what I heard through the Bryston BDA-3 was a sense of well-done solid state engineering. There's not even a hint of tube bloom or (un)satisfying distortion artifacts associated with the BDA-3. Of course there shouldn't be any of these sonic characteristics heard through Bryston's solid state gear, but you may be surprised when listening to components from other manufacturers. Some of these manufacturers are known to cater to customers seeking a tube sound (without the hassle of tubes) through solid state electronics, but Bryston isn't one of them. If crisp and clean solid state reproduction and reliability is your thing, the Bryston BDA-3 may be your DAC.
Listening to one more Rudy Van Gelder recording, John Coltrane's Standard Coltrane, I was again very pleased by the sound I heard through the Bryston BDA-3. Coltrane's opening notes of "Don't Take Your Love From Me" are so buttery smooth and pleasing to the ear, it's amazing. Throughout the rest of the nine-minute track, Coltrane continues to mesmerize, and the BDA-3 does it's job of strictly reproducing what's on the recording. A DAC with a little extra smoothness will make this track unlistenable, and a DAC with the opposite problem will completely ruin the glorious tone of this tenor. On the track, Coltrane's tenor saxophone can be heard solely from the left channel, while the rest of the band comes from the right. This recording doesn't have much ambiance, and that's the way it's reproduced through the Bryston BDA-3.
Moving from the late Rudy Van Gelder's recordings to a more recent favorite of mine, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. The high resolution download of this album has become a mainstay in my Roon / JRiver / Aurender queues. The track "Madame George" is nearly 10 minutes of pure sonic bliss through the BDA-3 and my Constellation Audio system. Van's vocal switches from crisp enunciation to a bit of a mumble when he belts out the lyrics, but the entire vocal performance is full of great emotion. This emotion can be sucked right out of a recording if reproduced with components that are less than neutral. Through the Bryston BDA-3, one can't help but sense the emotion in Van's vocal and get sucked right into this narrative about leaving the past behind. Adding to the emotional draw of "Madame George" is the superb string section. Through the BDA-3, this string section moves from sounding supportive of Van's vocal with a motif of mid-range elegance, to sounding ultra-sweet with high pitched solos. Both the sweetness of the solos and the resonance of the entire string section, come through wonderfully with the Bryston BDA-3 in my system. If I had to find a couple faults with he BDA-3, I'd say the DAC lacks the ultimate in holographic presentation and low-level detail. Unfortunately, the level I'm talking about is only available for around $20,000+. The Bryston BDA-3 at $3,495 accomplishes much of what the stratospheric DACs accomplish, but enables the customer to purchase a millennium worth of music for the amount of money saved.
Now for something a bit different, Metallica. I recent attended the Metallica show here in Minneapolis at US Bank stadium. It was one of the best shows I've seen, although it sounded less than stellar. My renewed enthusiasm for Metallica forced me to find the best sounding copy of the album ... And Justice For All. It's my favorite Metallica album, right in between the band's early thrash metal and the heavily-produced pop metal years. I was able to find a copy of the gold edition of the album on the Globus International label. made exclusively for Czechoslovakia. The Globus release of the album has a dynamic range value of 12. This is rare among Metallica albums. The band is known for winning the loudness wars with extreme DR compression and bad sound quality. With the BDA-3 in my system, I cranked up the volume for the track "One." Metallica is a dish best served loud. The opening guitar sounded good, as it usually does, but when Lars' Tama drum set kicked in the sound was fabulous. The kick drum put some serious pressure into my listening room, with great attack. The rest of the drums actually had texture where I'd not heard texture previously. The crunch of the guitars, a classic Metallica signature, also sounded great, but the drums are what put the sound over the top. Even throughout the two minute instrumental conclusion to the song, the drums and guitar had clear delineation that gave each one a decent texture among what some listeners would deem heavy noise. Through the Bryston BDA-3, this Metallica album sounded how I wished Metallica had sounded in my all systems over the years.
In IT the saying has always been, "Nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM." While that saying is a bit long in the tooth, in HiFi I'd venture a guess that nobody ever got fired-up (negatively) for choosing Bryston. What I mean by that is, Bryston customers are happy with both the company and the products. One doesn't see Bryston customers complaining online about getting poor service or poor quality. Since 1962 Bryston has been in this for the long haul, and the company is legendary for its service. The BDA-3 comes with a 5 year warranty. That's pretty good for a digital product in this fast moving segment of the industry. In addition to class and consistency, Bryston delivers sonic quality. The new flagship BDA-3 DAC has the ability to bring out the best in one's favorite music and deliver the emotion in one's most impassioned compositions. Throughout this review, I enjoyed the clean, crisp details reproduced by the BDA-3. The DAC has a great ability to reproduce music from old school jazz to modern heavy metal and everything in between. Those looking for a DAC to smooth out harshness or to tighten up a creamy sound, should look elsewhere. The BDA-3 is very neutral and faithful to its solid-state design. There is no editorializing, sweetening, or expansion of the sound stage. The Bryston BDA-3 embodies what music aficionados the world over have long desired, great quality and great sound from a great company.
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- Product - Bryston BDA-3 ($3,495)
- Product Page - Link
- Where To Buy - Global Dealer Locator
- User Manual - PDF
- Product Brochure - PDF
- Digital Brochure - PDF
Where To Buy (CA Supporter):
- Source: Aurender N10, Sonore microRendu, MacBook Pro (running Windows 10)
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, Mytek Digital Brooklyn
- D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
- Product - Bryston BDA-3 ($3,495)