The realisation for Totaldac came to Brient after listening to many different DACs over the years which he felt never really completely hit the mark sonically. He drew on his knowledge of differing technologies from his experience in the automotive industry, audio and public sectors to create a dac to his own tastes. Subsequently, when visitors his home heard his DAC they requested if he could build one for them and Totaldac was born.
The d1-tube DAC is the version of Totaldac’s d1 DAC with a single ended tube output stage using one ECC82/12AU7 double triode per channel and Brient believes the d1-tube may be the only DAC using only tubes and Vishay Foil resistors in the conversion and analogue section.
The DAC is available with a black or silver fascia adorning the cut down pyramid style enclosure, reminiscent of the Inca Designs kit from the 90’s. There is also an accompanying outboard PSU available in the same style.
Inputs on the Totaldac include192KHz asynchronous Xmos USB, optical, RCA and AES-EBU digital inputs all selectable from a remote control and 44.1KHz, 48KHz, 88.2KHz, 96KHz, 176.4KHz and 192KHz, 16 to 24 bit formats are supported on all inputs except 96KHz max for the optical input. All unused inputs are completely disconnected (including the ground) to keep the optimum noise floor even when several sources are connected to the DAC.
Non Over Sampling Dacs (NOS DACs) are becoming the benchmark once again now that they can sample high resolution 24bit tracks which have become more readily available. I remember buying my first 16bit NOS DAC a few years back and loving its sound, I soon bought a couple over-sampling DACs as they began to enter the market but found that their recreation of the standard bitrate sounded manufactured and unnatural, for me they lost the musical integrity of a recording so I soon wandered back into the world of NOS and that is where I’ve stayed.
Now, with many manufacturers leaving over-sampling for those who choose to dabble in it down to the software based on their computers and laptops, many consumers are beginning to realise the benefit of NOS DACs that can recreate the true bitrate of a recording up to and beyond the 16bit CD standard.
There is a bunch of information on the Totaldac website regarding the technology used and the vigorous R&D that Brient undertook but that’s all above my head unfortunately. My main concern is how it performs sonically.
So, I rigged up my main system to the d1 tube Totaldac. My modded Squeezebox Touch, Emille KI40-L valve class A amplifier and my Ayon Seagull all ceramic speakers. I used a full Audioquest loom of cables, including Eagle Eye Digital Coax, Sky IC’s and K2 Speaker Cable.
Paolo Nutini ‘Autumn Leaves’ (Acoustic Live) produced such rendering of his vocal and reverb of the acoustic environment that I was completely shocked and actually spilled out the word wow without realising it. The track is completely vocal orientated and the body and clarity of Nutini’s vocal just shone out of a spatial soundstage full of echo and interaction with Paolo standing five and a half foot or so tall, which really added to the realism.
The Acoustic version of ‘Firefly’ by Sister Hazel once again had the vocal absolutely spot on – robust with analogue and tube flavours. Guitar was vibrant and textured; the cabinet could clearly be heard along with every strum, pluck and rub of a string. The Totaldac is clearly an acoustic instrument and vocal master class!
John Mayers ‘Slow Dancing In A Crowded Room’ was beautifully rendered again, the transition of rhythmic strings and a second more ambient, almost holographic, guitarist picking out notes to the right of Mayers vocal was sublime. This DAC has a method of projecting notes forward from a depth and this is unmistakably one of its top qualities, so 3D but with so much character and personality. The d1-tubedac displays a graphical exploration of truth, harmonious to the recording artist’s explanation of the musical context.
On Damien Rice’s ‘Blowers Daughter’ I found my head moving like a conductors stick with the violin as the sound emulates from its position in the soundstage and flows throughout and across the stage. It is absolutely clear that the violinist is twisting and turning her body which throws the sound slightly off axis, then forward and then away from you again and my head was following these dips and twists before I realised what I was doing. The bass notes were authorative and extended. If I ever had one little niggle with my Emille amp it would be that I’ve felt that it couldn’t reproduce that very bottom octave but I am now putting this down to source. The Totaldac hit notes which were extended and not so apparent previously with my PS Audio DAC.
There’s a strong bond between the electronics and the music here, they are alive and vibrant, full of passion for each other.
There is multitude of layering from this DAC, a sculptured an un-even depth creating areas of soundstage positioning across the listening space which stagger with differing degrees and amounts of spatial awareness. The busier the performance the more complex the 3D image becomes. The absolute opposite of “flat” applies to this DAC in shed loads!
Loreena McKennits ‘Raglan Road’ was simply breathtaking; her gorgeously clean and extended range shone from a solid central focus and dominated the accompanying small orchestra as it should. There was never any bright forwardness at all. Vocals simply projected outwards filling the room. Her silent passages revealed more of the instruments and once she sang again, without smearing them, simply outshone their volume demanding the listener’s attention to be focused on her beautiful tones. Other tracks on the album do not convey such similarities which prove this is a particular arrangement rather than a flaw. Loreena’s ‘The Dark Night Of The Soul’ conveyed all the inner detail, micro detail and micro dynamics possible from the recording, I was unaware of how busy the track was until listening to it today – marvellous!
Michael Bubles ‘All Of Me’ and ‘Cry Me A River’ had huge, tall, powerful and demanding dynamic transients with a control and presence which made me almost jump out of my seat. People have commented my Emille’s fantastic dynamic ability many times and with the French DAC having the same characteristics, they come together to produce a tube powerhouse! The clarity of background instruments and Buble’s vocal with massive dynamic swings gave up an overall performance was just so impressive. If I was at a show these two tracks for sure would be demoed on my system for others to listen to. I would maybe even cover the electronics until the tracks had finished and then surprise everyone with the all valve combo.
There is a masculine yet subtle ability to convey larger dynamic passages which lead into areas of delicacy, creating a sound which is intelligent and whimsical. The DAC seems to convey a strong bond between the electronics and the music, they are alive and vibrant, full of passion for each other, like a whirlwind romance. They walk hand in hand with their heads held high.
‘Duo For Violin And Cello’ Allegro Serioso is a very basic and stripped down tale, the music tells a story and is a dynamic and emotional piece. The scale of the DAC’s ability to reproduce a large sound was ever more apparent in this minimalist performance. The texture and tone of the instruments was accurate in timbre, height and scale. The instruments sounded so true, the speed of the violin was easily conveyed and bass notes were firm and precise. I particularly loved the speed and delicacy of the violin.
Using The USB
I was also supplied with a Totaldac USB cable which has a smallish in line metal box part way down the cable. Vincent explained this unit is a filter for the USB. It is a completely shielded box with high quality filtering components inside which do not squash or hinder the digital signal. Just the opposite in fact, the filter is designed to defeat noise and helps to keep the signal jitter free. The cable can carry PCM and DSD formats under a Windows, Mac OS or Linux based system and is bit perfect.
I plugged the cable from my Mac running Amara 2.5 into the d1tube and created a playlist of the previous tracks with a few more thrown in for good measure.
The results were remarkable, far better than I anticipated. I admit I have left this part of the review to the end as I wandered away from using the Mac as a source a long time ago after having my Squeezebox Touch heavily modified, but with Totaldac as the core of my system music was brought back to life via the Mac.
Once again the performance was absolutely staggering, the character of the DAC was at the forefront of the performance displaying rich, embracing timbres and a natural clarity that just gets the listener completely lost in the music.
I tried a couple other USB cables which I have here ranging from £50-£400 and the Totaldac USB outperformed them all on pure musicality and tonal reference.
Was the performance as good as the modded SBT, well, almost and I’m sure with a couple little tweaks to the Mac and a decent power supply I could be converted back to using it again. Very impressive indeed!
One of my first key words that I jotted down during my initial listening sessions was ‘relaxed’, but as time went on I struggled with the word more and more. I have a phrase I say often when chilling out, whether it’s in the garden with a drink or indoors listening to some music late at night. My partner would say ‘you look comfortable’ and I’d reply ‘if I was any more relaxed I’d be dead’.
Well the d1 Tube DAC is far from dead, it has an exceptionally strong life force, which can effortlessly display images in a way that seduces the listener. My cat – bless her – sleeps a lot of the day, but the slightest noise or disruption and she will spring into action, completely alert and this is similar to the Totaldac’s ability to convey emotional delicacy effortlessly, then spring into action with dynamic swings and transients.
Every single note bar none can be heard accurately, tastefully and natural in composition. A guitar has weight and body, a violin has top end texture and bass has defined extension and authority which is eerie at times, displaying comparisons to some of the very best analogue setups I’ve encountered.
The d1 tube DAC has a density of tone that explores the music and conveys it more truthful and natural – accurate in fact. Some may refer to the presentation as coloured, I would class it as analogue and organic, reminiscent of a high end £20-£30k turntable setup rather than a detail monster type digital front end. It engages the music with breadth and harmony rather than electronic sheen. Robust and able to render each instrument’s tonal character more correctly and without smearing. A colourful sound to me injects warmth around the free space, with notes reacting within the soundstage. The DAC allows its overall coherence to remain true and merge as a note flows from the body of the instrument creating the overall display and realism.
There is a more realistic pace to the music which I haven’t experienced with outboard DACs before, some, like my PS Audio Reference in particular, has fantastic attack and speed, whereas some others I have heard can be a little slow and boring making an album seem like its taken a lifetime to play through.
I wouldn’t say that the Totaldac was great with dance and electronica, but for what most people would class as ‘real music’ the Totaldac just hands the listener a reproduction of the track which is meaningful.
If vocal, acoustic, jazz, classical or instrumental work is what you listen to then this is the DAC for you. Likewise if you own electrostatics, omni-directionals, fullrange single driver type speakers or large horn arrays the Totaldac will mesmerise the listener and make them question the whole rigmarole of a vinyl based setup.
On the other hand my Ayons more standard cabinet type speakers sounded the absolute best that I have ever heard them with the music aforementioned, as did my other linked components, the synergy for me was nothing short of spectacular!
Since having the Totaldac in my system it has made it everything I never imagined possible, or even remotely achievable, from my system a reality. My PS Audio has bettered Levinsons, Krells and Wadias costing twice to three times its original price of £4000, the Totaldac has absolutely decimated the PS in every respect, the reproduction is so complex and tonally correct. It has the most organic and natural reproduction of any digital source I have ever encountered or even thought possible. I am literally having sleepless nights over it!
I need to find a way of keeping this in my system, a way to be able to continue listening to its flavour and a way to deem this new found glory as my new reference in which to compare other high end digital equipment to.
I am in absolute awe of this DAC and can only describe its creator as a genius! The d1 tube Totaldac is a new industry leader in my opinion with ground breaking performance.
Now who’s brave enough to prise it from my dead lifeless hands?
Author – Dan