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Positive Feedback ISSUE 48
march/april 2010


Audio Ramblings - The QB-9 DAC from Ayre and the BDA-1 DAC from Bryston
by Dave Clark


I find it always amusing when someone on some chat board asks the innocent question, "What is the best DAC for around 'X' amount of money?" and assumes that there will be some collective agreement that a specific DAC will be the deal of the century over all other DACs. Okay, sorry, not really amusing… more of a "come on… are you really that clueless and expect there to be one universally accepted DAC for you to buy!?" And one that you have not even listened to with your music to see if YOU like it? Sheesh man… please go to your room and think about your actions before you try that kind of thing again.

Okay so I am being little harsh here, but we should all know by now that if you ask 20 people what to buy, you will get 20 answers reflective of their own wants and needs—many of which will not intersect, intermingle, intertwine, or coincide with that of the others… nor of the poor guy asking the question - meaning he leaves the table with nothing to show for the ruckus he just caused. Hey man, for the money you can't better the DAC 'alicous 'cause it replaced my DAC 'asorous. What? The DAC 'asorous is still the king here and besides I tried the DAC 'alicous and while it is way better than… well you get the idea; to each their own. All one can do is share what they hear, why they liked or did not like it, and then move on. Saying any one product is the best is really rather comical in that it is all a matter of preference and opinion. Of course personally I would go with the DAC'alifluousness for its wonderousness musicallyicousness!

So this cantankerous diatribe takes me to what… well, to two similarly priced DACs. Sweet… so Dave which DAC should I buy? Which DAC is the best for like around $2000? Uh… both, neither, either… all depends on what you want, what you like, what you need, what works for you. For me, I could easily live with either as both are quite good at what they do – and at that price, they are VERY good at what they do… they just come at it with different personalities.

Oh, sorry, which two DACs you asked? Sorry, that be the Ayre QB9 and the Bryston BDA-1 of which one could never find two so very different DACs in oh so many different ways except, well one—they make really good music.

Now both DACs have received reams of quality press in other publications, so I am not going to go into some in-depth analysis of either—that is in terms of construction, design, ergonomics, and sound. Suffice it to say that the Ayre was made with an obvious focus on being the DAC to buy for those that are computer-based music nuts who need some sort of USB connection from their computer as that is all the Ayre is going to offer the buyer. Simple and elegant, the QB9 features Ayre's implementation of Gordon Rankin's asnyc USB interface combined with their minimum phase digital filter, single-pass 16x oversampling, zero feedback, fully balanced discrete circuitry, equilock circuitry for active gain devices, and to keep it all on the up-and-up AC-wise, the Ayre Conditioner (patent pending) power-line RFI filter. And all in a box smaller than what one would assume based on images of the DAC's case-work. The QB-9 is about the size of a decent dictionary, of which one could spend the day perusing within for the requisite superlatives to use in describing the DAC's sonics.

Yeah, the QB-9 is a real performer in so many of the musically right ways. Sure it—but only when compared directly against other DACs—has less bass slam and weight thereby coming across as perhaps a bit lighter and less full down below. And sure it might be considered as sounding perhaps papery in the sense of its delicacy with the notes and such, but it does this with a lovely rightness to it. The QB-9 presents the music as a collective whole where all the bits (bytes) and pieces fall into singular sonic presentation of completeness. Okay, I realize that this is bordering on that of the "what the f%@K is he talking about?!" so let me put it this way—with the QB-9, music just sounds complete. That is complete in terms of the overall presentation. Everything musically just sort of fits together in a way that makes musical sense.


Yeah, like I said it does it with a very light hand where the pieces are dealt with a softer touch. One where the micros take precedence of the macros… that is, the QB-9 is more about agility and finesse as opposed to brute force and slam. Sure it can swing and play the rhythmic drive game, but it is not so much about the pieces as opposed to the experience of the whole. With the QB-9 you will not be drawn so much to the details of the presentation, but to the overall presentation. I liked what the QB-9 does with my music, and what it does with me!

Sweet and airy. Light and tactile. Musically engaging and with the right ancillaries we found many a time dancing with the tunes. Can't ask for more than that. Quibbles? Not really. The QB-9 was obviously built to a price point, so Arye no doubt realized that some tradeoffs had to be made. Other than perhaps more slam, punch and bass extension, there is little to fault. Hey it is priced right at $2500 and offers the music computer guy a killer way to get his files out into the room to enjoy. I know that the time I spent with the QB-9 was done with a shit eating grin at how good the music sounded for so little cash.

I ran mine balanced with either PAD Proteus Provectus or Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnects and only found differences to be a matter of preference for a bit more of that or a bit less of this. AC cords used were from Tel-Wire and Kubala-Sosna with the Tel-Wire taking the lead in how is filled in the bottom octaves just that much more. To quote myself from a previous Ramblings, "But, sheesh man, with the Tel Wire on the QB9 being feed tunes from my MacBook… wow, simply too many times dancing around and not getting my work done—this setup/combo really makes music! Of course that is what it's all about… isn't it?" I also used the Cynosure USB cable from Locus Designs (as well as the Nucleus) and cannot recommend either enough. If you truly want to hear all that you can with you computer/DAC combo, then this is the way to go. Either cable will make sure that what comes out gets to the other end with as little damage as is possible. Also in use were either the Cardas Clear USB cable (nice) or the Furutech GT2 USB cable (nice as well).

Which takes me to the Bryston BDA-1. Now here we have a different beast altogether. Featuring just about every type of digital input one could wish for, you can run a gaggle of sources into the BDA-1 and still have a vacant few inputs out back to spare: (USB (1), COAX (2), OPTICAL (2),AES-EBU (1), and BNC (2), along with being transformer-coupled SPDIF and AES EBU digital inputs, fully differential balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA stereo outputs, independent dual power supplies, discrete Class A analog output stage, with oversampling and synchronous upsampling (176.4K/192K), the BDA-1 does just about everything and for an affordable $2000. I ran the BDA-1 either directly via its USB input (quite good) or via the S/PDIF input via the Sonicweld US Diverter (much better in all respects and the bulk of my comments refer to its use in this configuration) using either the Cardas Clear USB cable (nice), the Furutech GT2 USB cable (nice as well), or one from Locus Design (the Cynosure or Nucleus) and for S/PDIF, the Locus Design Core. The AC cords and interconnects used with the BDA-1 were the same cables and whatnot as noted above with the QB-9.

But if the Ayre QB-9 is the sweet girl boasting an alluring innocence that is oh, so attractive on an emotional level, the BDA-1 is the tattooed busty biker-vixen that your mother always told to to stay away from... cause with her, well, you are just asking for trouble! Though you and I know that this kind of trouble will always leave you smiling and wanting for more. See the BDA-1 presents music in a big, bold, and robusty manner that in some ways can leave many other DACs shaking in fear. Yeah, the BDA-1 goes deep down and with power, is extremely dynamic in all respects, and simply leaves no prisoners in how it really rumbles down the musical road. Delicacy is perhaps not its strongest suit, nor is it as sweet and airy as the Ayre, but I am thinking that perhaps Bryston  (nor I for that matter) would have it any other way. Used in the upsampling mode (the way it sounded best here compared to straight 16/44.1 with no chaser), the BDA-1 is very exciting and resolving on all terms, but yeah, the two DACs are clearly off-springs from different familes. Both are fun, but you end up appreciating them for their own qualities and virtues.

Sure the BDa-1 did not present the music in perhaps as "complete" as I heard from the QB-9; that is it was more about the parts than the whole though I never found this to be a detriment or distraction when listening to our music. But then again the two DACs are oh so different in how the BDA-1 was the more visceral and solid-state-like as opposed to the softer and nicer QB-9. The BDA-1 is all bad-ass and slamming, where the QB-9 is more polite and sweet. So yeah, is not your mom's DAC… more like the old man's DAC where it would keep a smile on his face; like the stack of old magazines with the tattooed biker babe centerfolds sitting out in the garage under the work bench. You know, the ones you thought your dad didn't know you had discovered, but in his own way had kept them sort of hidden for your own edification of the wilder-side of life. The BDA-1 is sort of like that. Meaning, yeah music rocks and it rocks hard with a serious swagger and smirk. Music is delivered with a heavier hand than that of the lighter handed QB-9, but neither is better or worse than the other—just different.

Speed and resolution is top notch with nary a hint of grit and glare. Actually, this is a quality of both DACs in that the music is clean and stress free—I was able to listen for hours without a bit of fatigue. Let me put it this way, I was able to get into the music with either DAC, but as suggested above, each brought a slightly different appreciation for what I might have been listening at that particular time. That is each DAC stressed this over that in any track i feed it making me appreciate different qualities with the same track, and for different reason. Way cool!

Which is better? Nether, as it is all a matter of taste and preference. See I liked them both… sort of like having two girls in high school; one to impress your parents and family, and the other to impress your friends. Except with the two DACs, I was able to impress all my family and friends, as each got the music across; each could be appreciated for its own accomplishments and characteristics.

Quibbles? The BDA-1 is wide. I mean it is wider than any other component I have ever had here, but well, so what. I did have some confusion about the lights on the front-panel and what they meant in terms of sampling and such, but an email and re-reading of the manual pretty much sorted that out, meaning that my time with the BDA-1 was trouble free.

For $2000 the BDA-1 is a killer product, but then at $2500 so is the QB-9. They are, for me at least, two wonderful products that will find homes with clearly different listeners and systems that obviously have different wants and needs. Toss in an old-school DAC like the NOS Isabellina ($2000) and things can get really interesting in how it now presents a third presentation for the listener to choose from (read the review here for more).

Now the big question is how good is the QB-9 since it features the asynchronous USB interface as opposed to that found in say the BDA-1? Well I have no way of knowing how effective or good (sonically or musically) the USB implementation is on the QB-9 as I do not have one here that does not use this USB interface to compare this one to… besides, you are not listening to the USB implementation/interface in isolation but the 'whole' DAC; all its parts and whatnot and how they work together as a 'piece'. So all I can report on is how the DACs sounded to me and not which one has the 'sonically/musically' better USB interface. Meaning I cannot say which one is better than another in reducing or mitigating jitter and all the issues it brings to table that affects the quality of our music; that is best left to those who have the means to determine this—like John Atkinson at Stereophile with his jitter measurements. So heck if I know. No doubt each manufacturer feels that their approach is the best in every aspect, but then again one would expect as much. All I can say the two were very nice indeed with nothing that I could attribute to jitter getting in the way of my musical enjoyment, so if jitter is an issue, it isn't with either of these two DACs.

And along those same lines, I have had conversations with someone in the know who has suggested that there is more to measuring jitter than just measuring, well… jitter. That is there are different types of jitter and that these different types of jitter are caused by different things and that their affect(s) on the rest of the digital chain and the music is different depending on the jitter and that these different types of jitter affect each other and… well I think you get the idea. Jitter is not all that simple so measuring just 'that' does not tell the whole story about 'this'.

And how good are either when compared to say what I use here: the Playback Design MPS-5 and the Sonicweld USBDiverter (a USB to S/PDIF converter)? Well they sounded quite good and in many ways I found them to be competitive, but, well… the truth is my reference combo is more refined, more naturally right, more open, more spacious, more musical, and simply more of everything I want in my music. But then, it is more money. A lot more money, so it had better be or I would be pretty embarrassed to have spent that sum for something that can be bettered by a product at an eighth the price, but the reference combo has nothing to fear. Yeah, the two $2k DACs are very good and clearly aimed at different camps, and both are highly recommended. I can see why these two DACs have received so many accolades in the press, but going back to my introduction, if you were to ask the question on a chat room which of these two DACs to buy, well… you get guys saying the Ayre and others saying the Bryston. And in many cases how they heard one and preferred the other… so there ya go. Each is a winner, but only you can decide which will be the winner for you.

More to come on both of these fine DACS....

Computer Based System (main system): MacBook (Snow Leopard, Intel 2 Core Duo 2.4/4GB ram with iTunes 9.1, Pure Music, or Amarra 3203) to an Empirical Audio Off Ramp 3 (with Ultraclock and Paul Hynes PSU) or the Sonicweld Diverter via either the Locus Design Nucleus and Cynosure, Cardas Clear, or Furutech USB cables (or direct to the DAC via a van den Hul Optocoupler II Toslink cable). Purist Audio Contego S/PDIF RCA or AES/EBU, von Gaylord Chinchilla AES/EBU, Locus Design Core S/PDIF RCA or AES/EBU, or DH Labs D-75 AES/EBU digital cables feeding the digital inputs on the Playback MPS-5. Thermaltake Muse NAS-Raid 5 (three 500 GB Hitachi Enterprise drives). Shakti Stones and Onlines. Cat 6 and Netgear gigabit switch. (Read this article for more).

Ayre QB-9
Retail: $2500


Bryston BDA-1
Retail: $2000