Marantz is a company which managed to successfully penetrate the area of home cinema, receivers and modern streamers while preserving audiophile roots and an aura of exclusivity at the same time. It seems that they've found a recipe how to balance between the world of modern technologies and this what is proved, classic and desired by the lovers of high-quality sound. If you are interested in the gear from previous ages, and if you like internet profiles with vintage audio, you have surely seen loads of Marantz's equipment there - beautiful amplifiers, tuners with backlit scales and oscilloscopes, CD players with massive trays and advanced optics, all in metal, wood and glass. No wonder that in times of omnipresent plastic a retro fashion came back, bringing stereo equipment to where it should be.
Many customers have come to realise that listening to music requires just two loudspeakers, not a dozen and three subwoofers. But what happens when we throw the latest chipsets into such a stylish box? Let's say separate DAC with a few digital inputs and a headphone amplifier. Well, we get something like HD-DAC1 - one of the most expected devices that have seen the light of day in 2014. For the first time we saw the prototype at High End exhibition in Munich and even then it aroused a keen interest from the visitors and journalists from all over the world. Now one of the first produced pieces landed in our hands. Since we received it in the first instance, we had only a week to test it, so we went straight to business. Does the HD-DAC1 sound as good as it looks?
Design and functionality
About design one can write concisely or at length. Let's choose first option – the HD-DAC1 looks stunningly beautiful. I do not know if it's thanks to the retro design or the case itself. I do not know a person, though, who would not like the new Marantz. Moreover, HD-DAC1 refers with its external look but also with its weight and robustness to the models from the golden era of audio equipment. I understood it instantly during taking the amplifier out of the box. With most devices of this type it's okay to just grab them gently with one hand, and put them on a desk to strip it off wrap and foam. This time I would not make it. And it is even more worth emphasising since HD-DAC1 is essentially a headphone amplifier equipped with a digital-to-analog converter, not a big power amplifier designed to run hi-end loudspeakers. Theoretically it could be a plastic box with a few PCBs and a matchbox-sized transformer inside. But no - here we have a lot more. Not forgetting the case itself with a beautiful captivating front and details like a display contained in a round window or four robust feet, thanks to which the device does not slip even on glass surfaces.
Under that beautiful and massive outer jacket lurks a totally up-to-date device, what can be discovered by looking at the rear panel. First of all, we have here four digital inputs - two optical, one coaxial and one USB type B. Then we get to tne analogue input in a form of a 3.5 mm socket, connector for a remote control (HD-DAC1 has its own remote control) and two beautiful, widely spaced RCA analogue inputs. First output has a constant level, allowing to route the signal for example to an integrated amplifier or a receiver powering loudspeakers, while the second set of sockets gives variable signal output, so the HD-DAC1 can work directly with a power amp or active speakers. It is my guess that a dedicated amplifier, let's say, HD-AMP1 is in a final phase of testing right now. But it is only my guessing based on what other companies do. At the rear one can find two-pin supply socket and copper screws, which are sort of Marantz's signature. At the front we have two large knobs - an input selector and volume control. Apart from that we can find only a power switch, a USB type A port, a 6,3 mm headphone output and a button giving us access to a very simple menu. We can for example set three levels of amplification (which will be appreciated by the owners of headphones with a varied need for power), dim or turn off the LCD display and switch the auto-off feature. During the normal operation the display shows us the active input and the sample rate of the signal. Really cool and a very elegant at the same time.
When it comes to the connection and setting-up, such devices can be divided into two categories. The first one is an equipment which after plugging all cables in the right holes is practically fully operational. This is undoubtedly awesome but usually does not let us use all the DAC's merits to the full playback of hi-res files. Devices requiring drivers installation and a few clicks to set up everything belong to the second category. For sure it calls for patience but allows to get much better results. HD-DAC1 should be placed in the second category. After plugging a USB cable into a computer, we will see only a message informing us about device installation failure. In order to do so, we have to download the drivers from the manufacturer's website. Since we were one of the first people to test the new Marantz, drivers weren't available yet. However, a distributor contacted the company and received an answer that we can download and install drivers for the NA-11S1 model. By the way, it is very interesting that we were recommended the usage of software for a streamer that costs three times as much as the reviewed device. Could their DAC section and the digital outputs be similar? All in all, it reflects well on the quality of the used parts.
I advise to carry out the software installation and device configuration according to comprehensive manuals published as PC Audio Whitepaper on the manufacturer's website. I am not going to go into details but many varied parameters can be set here, including ASIO and WASAPI. There are screens describing the right setting for software like jRiver Media Center and Audirvana Player in order to get the best sound results. If you are a real geek, you will have a lot fun with that, but the effect should be worthwhile. You can also choose the third option - to install drivers and straight away go to listening, leaving all the fun with the options for a later time. In such case, HD-DAC1 will be ready to use in a couple of minutes after taking out of the box. Interestingly, in its documents Marantz pays attention to the digital cables' quality and length, strongly recommending a purchase of solid and well shielded cables. Probably to prevent someone from getting an idea to connect DAC to a computer with a five meter cable from a printer.
HD-DAC1 is a very audiophile animal. Since the beginning a few priorities could be identified in its tone. First of all, this DAC tries to get to the ideal of high fidelity as close as possible. We are dealing here with a device which does not sweeten or make you bore, but tells the truth about headphones and recordings, and even goes a few steps further. When you connect it at home, install the drivers and turn something on for a heat-up, you will get a foretaste what one can achieve with this beautiful device. I am sure that combined with good headphones many audiophiles will start falling in love with Marantz, but I recommend to refrain from going into ruptures at that stage and wait till you would have worked a few days on cables and power supply and what is very important for such an advanced converter - software settings. That way, step by step one can get closer to the true picture of their favourite music, and the system, before our own eyes, starts to sound more dynamic, realistic and clear.
The situation was very like during the Hegel's HD12 test. This DAC is a serious player that requires good complementary gear and will be hard on the recordings made very poorly. Marantz does not torment headphones but for sure shows all their advantages and disadvantages. Using earmuffs for a few dollars we can be sure to get to know more of the former ones. But if you connect even something like Sennheiser Urbanite XL or Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO, you surely will enjoy a really good sound. Of course it would be preferable to jump on a hi-end shelf, nevertheless I would recommend to exercise caution during the selection of headphones even if we are going to spent a lot of money on them. Many of the headphones from that price range are geared to improve dynamics and clarity, and these are the features boosted by the HD-DAC1. With Sennheisers HD 700 one can get some kind of a magnifying glass which allows us to scan the recordings to the smallest detail, what in the long run does not suit everybody. But of course that is the magic of headphones - for a relatively small amount of money one can buy a few pairs of good headphones and change them according to the mood or music. With a converter as universal as the HD-DAC1 we are allowed to experiment. If I could imagine a perfect situation, I would pair the Marantz with Sennheisers HD 700 or 800 to scan recordings and something like Beyerdynamics T70 for a quieter, long distance listening.
In Marantz's tone we can identify something which is well known to the owners of hi-end amplifiers by Arcam. This is some kind of lightness seen also as a quickness of response to impulses across the whole frequency range. It has nothing to do with preserving tonal balance. It is more about the air between the sounds and a sense of freedom. Even in most complicated electronic recordings, which are hard to follow for a human being, HD-DAC1 managed to be very calm. As if it wanted to let us know that it could cope with a tenfold whirl of sound. In its tone nothing was distorted or blurred. Bass strokes have got no influence on the midrange and high-frequency resolution. As if every sound appearing in the headphones had its own signal path. Through this, what's interesting, music does not appear to take on nervous character, but quite the opposite. Hearing more we can be more relaxed and our brain does not look for sounds that should be there. It does not have to, because they are always there. Even using Beyerdynamics DT 990 PRO, which are neither hi-end headphones nor too expressive in terms of the soundstage, I took them off a few times to check if the loudspeakers standing next to me hadn't been turned on. For a very long time I have not heard sound so saturated with air and three-dimensional.
When I connected the converter to the large system, the situation was just the same. Its tone reminded me of Primare DAC30 and it's one of the best converters we had in our editorial office. HD-DAC1 proved itself both as a source connected to Naim XS series system and as a preamplifier working with Primare A60 power amp. Although it was not as good as three times more expensive PRE60, there was still nothing wrong with the sound. Actually, the only limitations to its performance is the quality of complementary equipment, software configuration or accessories such like USB-cables and power cord. Believe me or not, but HD-DAC1 reacts even to a change of a power cable so after a few test I stopped fooling around and plugged in the Cardas Clear Beyond. As far as headphones and software, everything will be up to the happy owner of the device. I believe that a purchaser of a such DAC will know well what to do with it or at least they will want to spent a few minutes to familiarise themselves with the manual and follow the guidelines. Results that can be achieved are worth the trouble.
Build quality and technical parameters
Since the moment of taking Marantz out of the box it was known that we are dealing with a tough device but when you look under the hood you will be fully convinced about it. It is not so simple because getting to the inside demands real cunning and precision. The operation should start at the rear with unscrewing three copper screws holding the top cover. But it will not budge, so next we will have to remove the sides. Each of that shining panels is held in place by black screws which can be accessed by turning the converter upside down. We gently pull the little sides and push them into the direction of the front panel. They should elegantly click and show four additional screws holding the top in place. It is enough to push it back and gently raise and voila - we have Marantz's insides handed on the plate. Well, not completely... The inside is filled to the brim with electronics. The PCBs are stacked vertically, horizontally and as you wish. Since a heavy transformer enclosed in a shielding can and a bank of capacitors are responsible for a power supply everything looks like a mariage between a good audiophile converter and an awesome receiver. Everything, of course, in a miniaturised version. The volume control is operated only by an analogue, motorised, blue Alps potentiometer. The CS4398 chipset is the heart of the converter, allowing it to handle 24 bit/192 kHz and DSD 2.8 MHz or 5.6 MHz signals. The DAC is equipped with a jitter reducing system and double clock to increase the precision of playback. Thanks to the HDAM-SA2 modules the device has enough energy reserve to control the headphones with an impedance exceeding 600 ohms. If you use headphones measuring about 32 ohms in impedance, you are likely to get something like 800 mW of pure power. And this is a lot.
Naim CD5 XS, Cardas Clear Light, Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO, Sennheiser Urbanite XL, Jabra Revo, Beyerdynamic T70, B&W P5, Sennheiser HD 700, Audeze LCD-XC, Enerr AC Point One, Enerr Holograph, Cardas Clear Beyond, Ostoja T1.
Looking at Marantz one can have an impression that Japanese engineers designed a beautiful casing and then implanted a couple of elements from other devices. After a few days of listening I got an impression that the HD-DAC1 was meant to be something more from the beginning – an awesome headphone amplifier equipped with a hi-end converter and pre-amp, opening the way to build a fully fledged system. Price? Let me put it bluntly - looking at the pictures, parameters and equipment I was sure that Marantz will cost around €1500. At €799 it's a bargain that would be foolish not to seize.
Digital inputs: 2 x optical, coaxial, USB B, USB A
Analogue inputs: 3,5 mm
Analogue outputs: RCA (fixed), RCA (variable)
Headphone out: 6,3 mm
Frequency response: 2 Hz - 20 kH
S/N ratio: 106 dB
Dimensions (H/W/D): 9/25/29 cm
Weight: 5 kg