T+A Elektroakustik DAC 8 DSD High End D/A Converter

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The grandly named T+A Elektroakustik GmbH was a company hitherto unknown to me. After years in the business, many reviews, shows, events and store visits, I was surprised such a highly regarded company had escaped my notice. I’m going to set that straight with an in depth look at one of the company’s DACs, the DAC 8 DSD High End D/A Converter.

T+A is a German company founded in 1978 and produces a full range of electronics and loudspeakers. The company is based in Herford, very close to my old stomping grounds in Westphalia.

The DAC 8 is from its ‘entry level’ Series 8. Let’s hope the 8 gets some trickle down love from the top DAC in T+A’s HV Series, the $37,500 SD 3100 HV Reference Streaming DAC. Our unit under review has an MSRP of $4450, a slightly easier digital pill to swallow.

As you can see from the photographs, the 8 is manufactured to a high standard in both aesthetics and materials. The dimensions of 9.5 x 27 x 27 cm (H x W x D) allow the unit to move around easily while still a substantial bit of kit. The 4 kg metal box is supported by four silver, truncated cone feet with felt on the bottom. The DAC 8 made its first appearance in 2016 and according to T+A US distributor David Schultz, current. No ‘Mk. II’ in the near future.

The 8 comes chock-a-block with digital wizardry. There are no options available as offered on the Mytek Manhattan II DAC I reviewed recently (streaming card, headphone adapter, phono stage, etc, which add almost $3000 to its base price of $5995). The 8 can act as a preamplifier with digital volume control and does have a headphone jack, both of which I did not use during this review (volume control defeat is a switch on the back panel to ‘‘LINE’). As with the Mytek, I’m looking for quality conversion, no more. And like the Mytek, the T+A does offer a few digital filtering tricks up its sleeve.

Front panel detail.

Front panel detail.

My use

The front panel is remarkably easy to use with many of the functions mirrored on a metal remote. Except for power on and volume up/down, each button has two functions. The required function is chosen by pressing the button once (blue LED) or twice (red LED). There are four digital inputs, a phase button, four digital filters, and a ‘Wide’ button that toggles between blue LED, 120 kHz bandwidth and red ‘Clean’ mode, which is 60 kHz. I chose ’Wide’ for the duration of the review which, according to the manual, ‘allows a more spacious music reproduction’. A long press on this button brings up a settings menu. The unit switches to standby mode after 90 minutes of inaction and the screen brightness has 8 settings.

The front panel display shows the DAC’s operational state, sampling frequency, type, and includes eight information symbols such as locked clock re-synchronization, USB data transfer, data transfer error, volume control in use, etc. You won’t be lacking for detailed information or digital flexibility.

In addition to the input functionality, the rear panel offers XLR and RCA outputs, a digital output and connections (SYS IN; CTRL) to interface with other T+A products.

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Filters

Much like any top DAC these days, digital filters offer the listener a customized sound. Want a softer, gentler approach? Done. Want an etched, lean performance? You got it. I spent a few days reading the manual and pressing buttons. I settled on one filter and left it for the duration of the review. I did the same when reviewing the Mytek Manhattan DAC II; the MQA setting, which the T+A does not offer (an MQA software update is in the works). I used Qobuz, primarily, as a streaming service via Roon on my Antipodes CORE Music Server. With Qobuz, there is no MQA support, but some seriously amazing hi res recordings available from the ever growing Qobuz catalogue. You won’t miss it.

Here we get a choice of four oversampling filters, used only for PCM audio (the 8 plays DSD, too, up to 512). There are two Finite Impulse Response filters and two Bezier interpolations. My choice was the ‘BEZ 1’ (blue LED), which is said to produce results ‘similar to an analogue system’. All four filters offered refined, superior sound, with enough variation to satiate the most nit picking listener. ‘A Bézier curve is a parametric curve that uses the Bernstein polynomials as a basis.’ Deep MIT dive here. To me, ‘BEZ 1’ sounded as detailed as the three other filters but with an even more pleasing musicality.

Specifications

Digital inputs: 4 x high quality RCA, 1 x opt. TOS-Link, 1 x BNC, 1 x AES/EBU

USB (Device mode): USB Class 2 Mode; support for asynchronous data transfer

D/A – converter: PCM: Double-Differential-Quadruple-Converter, four 32 Bit D/A-converters per channel 
DSD: T+A True 1 Bit Converter; direct DSD Signal path up to DSD 512 (22,6 MHz)

Frequency response: 2 Hz – 100 kHz

Output stage: Double Mono »State of the Art«; 100 kHz bandwidth

Bragging rights

The T+A adds nothing by means of coloration and offers the listener a vertigo-inducing noise floor. The unit acts silently and portrays totally black backgrounds from which emanate the most minute musical details. Even though the DAC 8 plays DSD up to 512 via USB, my primary review repertoire was from Qobuz’ hi res FLAC files, up to 24/192.

Schulz was very proud of their technology and spoke specifically about two special features. I quote about them both directly from the very well laid out manual:

For the purpose of handling DSD data which can be supplied via the PC-USB input we have developed a unique, dedicated converter: the T+A True One Bit DSD Converter. This is of fully analogue construction and constitutes a genuine one-bit converter, since – unlike other manufacturers – we did not want to use the DSD mode of a PCM converter. This development ensures that DSD data are processed in a genuine one-bit stream process, uncoloured and without detrimental additional conversion, as in our PDP 3000 HV High-End DSD / PCM player. 

Fifteen long years ago we developed a means of galvanically separating the converter from the analogue section for use in our high-end players: this provides complete galvanic isolation of the digital section from the analogue section using extremely fast digital isolators made by Silicon Labs in the DAC 8 DSD. The result is to prevent any interference from the source devices finding its way into the analogue section.

PCM

Double-Differential-Quadruple-Converter with 4 D/A-Converters per channel,
32-Bit Sigma Delta, 352,8 kSps/384 kSps. Eight times oversampling.
Upsampling: free programmable signal processor with four selectable oversampling algorithims. FIR kurz, FIR lang, Bezier/IIR, Bezier

DSD

Direct DSD Signal Path via T+A True 1 Bit Converter

Sound

Some of my best friends are DACs. I’m fortunate to have heard so many, they are getting difficult to tell apart. A little odd, possibly, but true, especially the expensive, well-engineered variety, of which the T+A Elektroakustik DAC 8 DSD High End D/A Converter most surely is.

Within the digital domain, bits are bits and chip sets are chip sets. But within chip sets, there are big differences in quality borne of excellent design principles and superior parts. The design principles come into effect with even more importance when marrying all the elements of a quality DAC. You’ve read about a couple above and the care in which T+A implements them. The same for the filtering, power supplies, the gold contact relays and Vishay resistors T+A uses, and a litany of other ‘must haves’ in a top notch DAC. The sum of this roll often times results in spectacular digital sound. Assuredly, T+A gets the all important implementation correct. Wizardry.

However, as they began to say in the mid 15th century, ‘comparisons are odious’. Yet, we audiophiles in serious research mode (when are we not?) rely on comparison for context. So, I offer a few with the Mytek Manhattan DAC II reviewed recently in Audiophilia.

First, the essence of the DAC 8 sound. It will give you custom sound from the filtering choices, all of which shine brightly with minute details, richly textured sound stages, refined instrumental and vocal timbre, with a noise floor so low that dynamics, macro and micro, jump off the musical page. In place of musical dynamics, I’ve been harping on recently about ‘marks of expression’ as seen plastered in pencil and highlighted in yellow over most classical scores and jazz charts, and like the Mytek and a couple of outstanding phono stages I’ve reviewed this year, the 8 flicks the smallest of them right to the ear. For lovers of quality music and performance, and for those of us who like to get into the weeds of a recording, the 8 is an absolute delight.

The Mytek matched the T+A’s general performance level, especially when playing MQA files. Like its German counterpart, the US/Polish DAC is also filled with digital alchemy. But, with a $1500 premium, is it better? The differences were philosophical not quantifiable—the Mytek ever so slightly forward in presentation, the T+A portraying more instrumental refinement. Yet, both could be as sweet and demure as an angel, filter dependent. You really are spoilt for choice. I think it’ll come down to an in-home audition, the price difference, possibly, and if you are an MQA disciple. I’m a huge MQA fan, but I hear Qobuz’ hi res files as equally wonderful. For those hanging on to MQA for dear life, its future is far from certain. In any case, T+A engineers are discussing an MQA update for their DAC lineup.

Interestingly, I swapped out some power cables. They both loved the Anticables Level 3 Reference Series Power Cords ($330 for 1.5 metres), but the DAC 8 adored the Allnic Audio ZL-3000 Power Cable ($1400 for 1.5 metres—it will be reviewed by Audiophilia later this year). In a perfect world, I’d have the T+A with the 3000 out back. In the real world, I always review products with the supplied power cord.

Musical presentation is always balanced no matter the repertoire. Frank singing ‘Willow Weep for Me’ from Only the Lonely is always a great DAC demo. Many portray his voice clinically, but flesh is scraped. The 8 fleshed out the voice naturally, while the detail remained—ever notice how his voice can creak slightly at the end of a long, one-breath phrase? It’s incredibly subtle just as his pitch will waver on a microscopic level, usually underneath the note. The T+A DAC 8 DSD is digital truth serum.

The MQA Dudamel/Berlin Also Sprach file is tremendous on Tidal and far superior to the standard 16/44.1 resolution Tidal file sitting right next to it on the Roon app. The Mytek shone on this file. It was incredible—dynamic, musical, with superb instrumental timbre. Qobuz does not offer this file in hi res yet, but it sounded wonderful at the improved 24/44.8 resolution if not with the ultimate refinement the unfolded MQA file offered. Qobuz is in its very early days. It’s my primary streaming service. It’ll catch up with Tidal, but you should know that when beginning your research.

A few stand out 96 files on Qobuz included: a 96 of Haitink/Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 with Maria João Pires on piano was spectacular. Her introspection in the slow movements of Beethoven Concertos is legendary and was demonstrated with extraordinary beauty by the 8. Let’s talk weeds; the slightest accent with breath only (no articulation) by the flute as Pires weaves her phrasing magic spell and a bar or two later the flawless pitch of the timpani playing a pianissimo note and hearing, even at this very low level, the kettle ringing. The detail and beauty from this Barbican-based recording was 30 minutes of pure joy.

Massive orchestral sonorities of the Bruckner variety had me pretty much spellbound for hours. Thorny textures posed no problems for the DAC, and, when in study mode, I could hear deep into the orchestral fabric. Bruckner’s ‘farewell to life’, the mighty ‘Adagio’ from his Ninth Symphony transported me from my darkened music room to the composer’s Vienna home, where, close to death, an assistant over heard Bruckner praying by his piano, ‘Please God, let me finish the Ninth’. He never did.

Heard in these ways, the T+A is truly a musical instrument, a description rarely directed at many digital devices.

Summary

As such, please do try to hear this splendid DAC if you’re in the market for quality digital around the mid 4 grand price point. Like all first class components, the sound is based on tried and true engineering, superior parts, and a dash of magic only audio visionaries and the most passionate audiophiles add to the electrical mix. Very highly recommended.

Further information: T+A Elektroakustik