The AB-1.2 lets you play high-resolution audio (up to 24 bits at 192kHz) from Windows, Linux and OS X computers. It is a hardware implementation of the Audio Widget open source project – a project started by an online group who wanted to develop a good solution for a USB DAC.
The AB-1.2 will operate in both USB Audio Class 1 (UAC1) and UAC2. In UAC1 it supports more than CD quality, 24bit/48ksps. In UAC2 it uses up to 32bit/192ksps for high quality audio. The actual DAC chip receives 24-bit samples. The USB audio protocol is asynchronous with both UAC1 and UAC2. That means the analogue part of the AB-1.2 minimizes jitter errors.
UAC1 is available with built-in drivers on Windows, Mac and Linux. UAC2 is available in Mac and Linux. For UAC2 on Windows you must install a driver. The driver is recommended even if you don’t need UAC2 playback qualities. The Windows driver will let you play back high quality audio using ASIO capable players such as JRiver Media Center and foobar2000. Windows UAC2 will not work in generic Windows programs like web browsers. For that you will have to use UAC1. The good news about that is that “Pling – You Got Mail” will also not play on Windows UAC2. So with the listed players you can listen to music on Windows UAC2 without such interruptions.
The DAC is an open Source product which allows for the playing around with and modification of hardware, firmware and drivers.
Connected from my Mac Mini the (dubbed for this review) Q DAC was fed with Wireworlds Starlight 7 USB A to Mini B cable. From the DAC to amp were Chords Crimson VEE 3 interconnects, the amp being my Emille integrated with my Ayon Seagull Loudspeakers.
A quick click into settings on the Mac, navigate to the sound menu and Q N K T C USB DAC was highlighted with another quick click and I was good to go creating playlists through Amarra 2.5.
Playing Chris Jones’ ‘No Love For Me’ simply spelled out I’ M H E R E and ready to boogie! The Q DAC pushed the track into the room with fantastic top end and mid range transparency coupled with a large warm undertone to the mid range and a bouncy bass that straight away conveys a grown up sound. Guitar strings were plucked with beautiful vibrancy and all the small tweaks and strums were absolutely clear in a large soundstage that although not as layered and developed as higher end DACs, certainly was far better than I even could begin to anticipate in any way from this puny $170 single input DAC.
‘Would not Have It Any Other Way’ showed great tone and timbre qualities to instruments, I could just about go as far as saying the DAC was rendering them naturally.
Chris’ vocals had all the body and grunt I’m familiar with and projected well from a very busy soundstage, reminiscent of a valve type presentation.
Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Little Lies’ conveyed all the tracks immediate dynamic flares and out of phase ambient backing vocals which really give a substantial 3D image. All the dynamic vocal variations in the track stand out as they should with absolute ease with that bouncy beat flowing in parallel to the music. Imaging is solid and tracks across the soundstage from right to left properly.
I actually had to revert to the manufacturers website to see if I had got the price correct $170 I said to myself, nah….it’s bloody true I tell you! There it was in black and white.
Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys performing ‘Impossible’ kicks straight into a large heavy drum beat with immediacy and Christina’s vocal just projects into the room, controlled beautifully by the Q DAC. Her tones were flowing cleanly from a strong centre focus with an array of ambient transients really showing off the transparency and ability to convey what I would describe as a solid, musically convincing performance. My PS Audio Reference DAC only belted out her extended upper mid range a little bit more controlled.
Being super critical the Q DAC will lack the ultimate in smaller delicacies but I haven’t heard a DAC even triple it’s price that comes close.
I remember reviewing the Miniwatt USB Headamp and Dac a while ago at $500 and it’s not even in the same league as the Q DAC I’m afraid to say.
Deep Forests’ album and track of the same name displayed great stereo separation and really conveyed all the subtle dynamics across the soundstage and out past the speakers. There’s no overshadowing in areas of music or what we can refer to as smeer, of course again being ultra critical and comparing to the likes of the Totaldac there would be comparisons to be made, but the little Q DAC does more than it should to impress me greatly.
Jack Savoretti ‘Dreamers’ produced a much more upfront position in the room than I was used to, but it was still enjoyable. I took out the Chord cables and popped in my Audioquest Sky interconnects, silly money with a DAC of this price but I wanted smooth things out a little and at the same time see what effect the cables would have with added data retrieval. Essentially now my main system in place and just the Q DAC and Wireworld USB.
Lise Delangea ‘All The Answers’ appreciated the added delicacy I would guess with the acoustic guitar and oboe harmonies. Lise’s vocal is another favourite of mine, very strong and country in nature and was very enjoyable and not too unlike the way I’ve heard on solid state DACs previously.
Now that it have a grip on the character of the DAC and it’s big robust, detailed and gorgeous midrange with a slightly more forward nature I began to listen to various genres, such as Reggae, R&B (old and new), Electronica and a little bit of Rock and Classical …I just want to convey a few findings.
R&B and Reggae music sounds terrifically rhythmic and bass heavy as it should in my eyes, the more modern stuff with its computer generated studio attributes sounds great with the amount of detail the DAC can put across, older stuff had particularly good instrument tone.
Electronica and Dance is upfront bold, hugely three dimensional and room filling with strong beats and slam, with female artists soaring through the soundstage.
Rock sounded edgy, forward and with lots of grunt to heavy electric guitar solos. I don’t really listen to a lot of this type of music, maybe some 80’s rock but I’m no hardcore rocker for sure but what I did hear was pretty good, maybe a little bit bass heavy on some of the harder stuff for me.
Classical was surprisingly good, I should have anticipated this really as there is that fullness in the lower mids and upper bass which I find suits piano well and also gives great body to wood and stringed instruments. The Q DAC is also very dynamically strong and large orchestral passages were very intuitive and explored the performance in a more captivating and engaging way than any other DAC I have heard anywhere near its piece range. I’m sure most classical fans would stick to vinyl for critical listening, however if you listen to Classical through the PC or laptop this DAC would make a great partner for you
How would I describe the Q DAC’s sound character if I had to nail it?
Vibrant, detailed, transparent, fairly largely dynamic, a little upfront and forward, the mids are completely full bodied and not strangled in any way, coupled with fantastic ambience all under-toned with a big robust solid bass that just makes it sound so grown up.
If I had any gripes with the DAC it would be its name, to be honest it annoys me to the point that I want to throttle the guy who made it! It is such a beautiful sounding, bonny little thing that even with the explanation of what all those letters stand for it just doesn’t float my boat, every time in look at the front panel I can here the clock ticking and me under pressure to see what word I can make out of the countdown conundrum presented before me.
However, when it sounds as good as it does at the price it is I wouldn’t mind whatever he called it, I love it and take my hat off to a man who obviously has his ears firmly in the correct place!
With the DACs circuit being open source, if voiced as well as the Q N K T C incarnation, would prove for any mid priced HiFi manufacturer an add on internal module for an integrated amplifier that would give a performance well above it’s implemented costs, the Q DAC for me is an absolute winner and I would hands down recommend it for anybody wishing to get more from there computer/laptop into a current system which doesn’t require a full blown DAC full of features and inputs.
Asynchronous USB Audio powered by Golledge high-quality crystal oscillators at 22.5792 and 24.576MHz
Supports the common sample rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192ksps
RCA (phono) stereo outputs
Asahi Kasei AKM4430 DAC
Atmel AVR32 general-purpose MCU programmed in open source C
ASIO driver for Windows programmed in open source C
Low-noise 3.3V LDOs powered from USB
The AB-1.2 is modular. An USB-I2S Module is plugged into an Analogue Board.
The option of experimenting with the power supply.
Lots of internal headers for experimenting.
You must provide a USB 2.0 mini-B cable. It is not included. Use a cable shorter than 3m.
Author – Danny