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Epiphany E-DAC
Sound quality
Conclusion
Measured performance
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Epihany E-DAC



Micro Dac



Small and perfectly formed, Paul Rigby takes a look at the diminutive E-DAC from Epiphany.

The specialised, independent Digital-to-Analogue convertor (DAC) has become one of the most popular hi-fi components on the market over the past few years. With the increase in popularity of digital music, DACs cater for those who appreciate that a better DAC can result in improved sound from CD for their main hi-fi. Others use external hi-fi DACs to improve their computer-sourced music.  
    Like any product that has infiltrated the market on a broad level, however, the DAC is starting to reach into niche areas. The Epiphany E-DAC has been created to fill one such niche, the mobile market. Well, luggable market. For music fans on the move, a laptop weighing them down, the E-DAC is intended to free them from ‘default’ headphone output misery.
    Connecting to a laptop via the USB port, the E-DAC takes a  “...bit-perfect output which has not been interfered with in any way by the computer or any cheap internal electronics. This gives you an ultimate starting point for the signal in the chain”, said Oliver Freeborn, proprietor of Epiphany Acoustics.
    Freeborn is also happy that enough anti-jitter design has been integrated within the DAC so that, no matter what the quality of the USB is on the laptop, final sound quality will be high. The box, which spans a tiny 62x65x20mm, weighs in at a meagre 75g and arrives in any colour as long as its black. It has a mini-USB input socket which supplies power from its 5V internal line, plus a 3.5mm Line Out port. Made from brushed aluminium “it keeps the whole form factor small and light” said Freeborn.
    The E-DAC is based upon the Tenor TE7022L USB receiver chip, supporting 24bit/96kHz and the ES9022 24bit DAC chip. “The DAC is one of the few that can get 24bits out of a USB, which is quite important because, when it comes to the computer and the USB output, if you’re playing around with the software volume control, you will lose bits. So, if you’ve got a 16bit DAC, you’re reducing the quality immediately. With this particular chip, you can afford to play around with the software volume control because you will still have an awful lot of bits left, feeding into the DAC and downwards into the system”.
    As with the EHP-O2 portable headphone amplifier, the E-DAC has been designed by the anonymous NwAvGuy, whose full job is an electrical engineer. The relationship between this mysterious character and Epiphany is intriguing. “It’s a mutually agreeable arrangement. He designs it and I ship it. He has no commercial interest in it. He does not get anything from it; I don’t pay him any royalties,” said Freeborn.
    NwAvGuy is quite an opinionated chap whose forceful views spark many a forum debate online. “I think the general impression that NwAvGuy has is that he’s not too thrilled with the current quality of hi-fi and the price at which it fetches. I don’t think that he is happy at how expensive it is, so he wants to shake things up a bit and show that here is something, for £100, that offers value and top sound quality. Why buy something similar for £2,000 or more?”
    During the design, NwAvGuy was quite meticulous in his component selection. “He spent a lot of time looking at every single component on the board, measuring the performance and comparing nearly every single component with other brands, sizes and values. He refined the component choice very carefully, which is why it took so long to develop. He literally sat there, with the audio analyser, changing tiny things to see if the DAC sounded better for it. Moving a capacitor 2mm this or that way to see if it affected the sound”, said Freeborn.
    Freeborn is already working on enhancements and accessories to and for the DAC. “What I am considering doing, if I can source the right adapters and cables, is to produce a USB cable where you can inject an alternative power supply”.
    This future modification, possibly out by the end of the year, would include a split cable to allow the connection of an external transformer and would provide all power.
    Another, more certain, future release is a 3.5mm to stereo RCA convertor cable to enable you to connect the DAC to a hi-fi, resident within your listening room. In the meantime you can get a 3.5mm to RCA phono output adaptor at Maplins that does this job.

 


SOUND QUALITY
I started the listening tests using my MacBook Pro complete with SSD hard disc. Beginning in a high tempo mood, I clicked on an EAC-ripped WAV version of Skunk Anansie’s ‘Hedonism’ with the dinky E-DAC plugged into the USB port of the laptop and a pair of Sennheiser HD650s attached to the Line Out port.
    The sound of the new generation of MacBooks is generally pretty good, being quite solid and dynamic with no hint of brightness from the headphone output. Adding the E-DAC into the chain just lifted the music onto a whole new level.
    There appeared to be a drastic reduction in distortion; the overall presentation was far smoother. Whether you’re talking vocal, guitar or percussion, there was a new sense of clarity that improved any song, removing the smog factor from the front of the stage.
    That lifting of the sonic haze put a sense of air and space around the performers, along with a new and more effective instrumental separation. As such, Skin’s double tracking vocal was more evident, while the percussion enjoyed an effective degree of reverb. Bass was rounded in form, giving it dimensionality, while also sounding more destructive and heavy in terms of sheer mass.
    On Stacey Kent’s vocal track, ‘Les Eaux de Mars’, this small ensemble piece emphasised the romance of the French language song. Kent’s own delivery oozes with an exotic delicacy and it was a little distressing to hear the Mac hardening her vocals. With the E-DAC in the chain, this hardening was removed. Indeed, it now sounded like Kent was able to venture even closer to the mic to provide a more intimate rendition.
    Backing guitar was easier to follow too, despite its close micing, because it lost a bloom in the upper mids. Treble also improved, cymbal work shimmering and appearing more delicate, while the piano was both flowing and rhythmic.
    Meanwhile, Dexter Gordon’s jazz piece, ‘You’ve Changed’, was positively moody. This ballad charmed itself into my ear. The E-DAC opened up the sax and provided enough information to suggest that there was a real person on the end of it. Human touches provided imperfections that injected realism while the bass was now a full part of the mix and not stuck on as an afterthought. Midrange was spacious and this expanded the soundstage, giving each musician room to perform.
    Keeping the portable theme going, I decided to include the Audio Pro Porto luggable iPod dock which features a decent speaker system. Connecting the E-DAC’s Line Out socket to the Porto and retaining the Gordon jazz track, the resultant lower distortion encouraged me to increase the volume on the Porto which, of course, introduced more detail to the sound. Midrange was a delight, the drum brushes sounding textural while the sax was now positively seductive. It didn’t need to try as hard to get its point across while, at the same time, offering a reedy delivery that was more vibrational in its effect. Trumpet also displayed individual elements that gave it a more complex presentation.
    Onto Skunk Anansie’s ‘Hedonism’ but arranging the Porto as a near-field monitor, the rock track didn’t swamp the space, retaining the necessary quality to keep the experience an enjoyable one. The clarity maintained the delineation of the individual aspects of the mix while secondary percussion, such as tambourines, were clear and present and were never masked by the strong lower frequencies.    
    Epiphany also offers an alternative USB cable with the addition of a ferrite ring along its length. I recommend it as a simple upgrade for just £4.95 as it managed, at least on my system, to lower noise a tad further. The result was that the subtle acoustic guitar accompaniment on the Hedonism track was slightly more detailed with feather light strumming to add a sense of fragility to the mix.

 


CONCLUSION
This tiny DAC is simple in construction and bare in its facilities but offers much in terms of sonic performance. Improving every aspect of the music I played, the question of whether to buy one or not is a no-brainer. The improvement in sound it offers is immense. For a portable system, it also adds next to no weight, fits neatly into a trouser pocket and is robust enough to take a few knocks. At the price, the Epiphany E-DAC is a bargain – and no mistake.

VERDICT
With a very small form factor, this tough little DAC is ideal for a portable music system offering a major increase in sound quality.


FOR
- overall sound
- robust build
- portability

AGAINST
- nothing

EPIPHANY ACOUSTICS
E-DAC     £99.99
www.epiphany-acoustics.co.uk  

 


                 Measurement by Rohde & Schwarz UPV audio analyser

 

MEASURED PERFORMANCE
Frequency response measured flat to 35kHz with a 96kHz sample rate signal, our white noise analysis shows. 192kHz  is not an option.
    With a CD signal (16bit) distortion measured 0.14% at -60dB, a very low value. With a 24bit signal at -60dB, distortion sunk to 0.08%, again a low value as USB goes and our analysis shows an absence of noise. As USB goes this is a great result, supporting Epiphany's claims. The 24bit word is commonly truncated in budget products, just so it will play. Sound quality is no better – and often worse. The E-DAC is linear and well exploits the benefits, meaning low distortion and noise, of 24bit resolution.  
    Low distortion and noise both contributed to a high 112dB EIAJ Dynamic Range value with 24bit, and 102dB with 16bit. Most USB receivers are noisy, but the E-DAC is not and this is a big differentiating factor.
    The Epiphany E-DAC measured very well for a USB DAC. It is quiet, linear and has wide bandwidth, an exceptional set of figures for USB, especially at the price. NK


Frequency response (24/96)
    4Hz-35kHz
Distortion (24bit)    
0dB    0.001
-60dB    0.08%
Separation (1kHz)     108dB
Noise (IEC A)    -111dB
Dynamic range (24bit)    112dB
Output    2V

 

FREQUENCY RESPONSE, 96kHz sample rate.

 

DISTORTION, -60dB, 24bit.

 

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