Costing €3198 the UltraDAC from Berlin-based brand BMC Audio is an unusual design both inside and out; Dan Worth takes a listen for Hifi Pig.

B.M.C. Audio was founded in 2009 as the high-end-audio brand of the Candeias Audio family business, but their roots in electronics go back much further. Everything started in 1986 with the “Candeias Audio Engineering” company in Berlin. Carlos Candeias was born and raised in Berlin and as a young man was selected for a classical singing education and performed regularly at the Berlin Philharmonie, as well as on West-Berlin’s radio station, alongside learning technical skills throughout his childhood from a friend who was a Siemens engineer who played the cello.

The front panel of the BMC Ultra DAC distinguishes it from the competition immediately.

Carlos reworked CD Player, DAC and speaker designs in the early 80s and within a couple of years as a student of Berlin’s Technical University, in 1986 he managed to turn his passion for high-end audio design into a business.

A fair amount of original designs have been released since then. Candeias Audio was actually the first high-end audio company to release a stand-alone DAC in 1991, off the back of being the first company to produce bipolar speakers with active correction the previous year and the first balanced phono preamplifier a year later in 1993.

In 1993 a complete range of products was presented at the “World of HiFi” in Berlin (now IFA). At this stage a well-known Japanese brand that represented the high-end department of one of the giant corporations contracted Candeias to design a range of products from the ground up, as well as also employing the company to redesign and remaster their current belt drive CD Players. Carlos remarked when we spoke, “I was really quite astonished to have had such a world-renowned high-end audio company put their complete faith in a 28 year old German lad!”.

This turned out to be so successful that the Candeias Audio company went global with its engineering services and soon attracted other customers. Candeias also built other well-known brands and were building more than 10,000 units a year with services from product consultation, electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, production and financial services.

Carlos also commented – “You can imagine how busy those times were! We made the very early USB DACs, balanced headphone amplifiers, CI phono amplifiers and the new analogue concept LEF amplifiers”.

As a consequence the Candeias family company, which also had other interests in real estate and capital investment, founded B.M.C. Audio GmbH in 2009. With such a background in ODM/OEM they created a very unique and complete line of products in under two years with their LEF amplifiers, the CI phono amplifier, the belt-driven CD players, and CI based DAC/Pres, which were subsequently sold that year in 25 countries. 2012 brought along loudspeakers – in-house speaker driver design and vacuum casting ceramic compound cabinets. 

FIT AND FINISH 

The UltraDAC is a work of art – a visual design concept with flair and accuracy in fit and finish. The entire unit looks like it has been CNC machined but it actually hasn’t! The lids are extruded aluminium. Fabricators cut and finish each piece by hand, and I must say they do a terrific job as everybody I have shown this DAC too has immediately commented on its design and finish and been wowed once I’ve explained that it hasn’t actually been computer machined.

I just love the shape and size of this unit it’s such an interesting piece to look at, the sleek lines running through the top, around the curvature of the front screen, the flush corners and the overall compact feel of a unit which B.M.C seem to achieve with their products, although they are quite regular in size.

I’m not convinced by the inclusion of 5 feet on the bottom of the unit and I’m assuming it’s purposeful and down to measured resonances at the factory, but personally I believe 3 would have been sufficient – I do actually use 3 on the DAC later in the review with some aftermarket options.

Connector layout is tidy and resource-rich, AES/EBU, optical, coaxial RCA and USB inputs, and although it hasn’t taken off quite as well as first anticipated I2s over HDMI is not present. A pair of balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA connectors output the analogue signal.

Around the back of the Ultra DAC is feature-rich and well-spaced.

The unit is accompanied by a handy remote control, however it doesn’t fall in line with the aesthetics of the DAC itself, it’s just a cheap plastic functional remote, though BMC assures us that a high-grade aluminium remote control is available as an optional upgrade. There is a dim button but unfortunately, this doesn’t operate incremental levels of dimming down to a complete screen off, just a single dim which still leaves the units front screen quite bright in a darkened room. I would like to see an option to turn the screen completely off.

INSTALLATION

A straight forward process – initially I like to connect a new product in the same manner as the one it is replacing. In this instance, as my Lindemann 825 was using an AES input from the Audiobyte Hydra Clock fed by USB from the Xodos streamer and I wanted the two units side by side, I chose to run the clocks RCA SPDIF connection simultaneously. I have run both the AES/EBU and RCA into many DACs at the same time and switched between the DACs’ inputs and have never noticed any differences whatsoever from this clock or the DACs used when using the same digital cable in both connection types. So in order to run side by side into the preamp this was an obvious choice.

Outputs – I chose to use the RCA outputs, likewise with the 825 which fed into my preamp, I tend to prefer this option into my Audio Music Reference T1.

Switching on the UltraDAC, paying attention to the display; it shows a 10-second countdown timer before the DAC is ready for use, where you will hear a relay click to indicate it’s up and running. Volume is set to balance gain when using a separate preamp or integrated amplifier, so just have a fiddle as every step of gain from the UltraDAC is indeed bit-perfect.

THE VOLUME CONTROL 

The volume control of the UltraDAC is not of traditional design, neither does it have a traditional preamplifier circuit. Known as a “Power DAC” the volume works directly with the gain of the DAC itself, adjusting voltage and current accordingly.

The most unusual aspect of the UltraDAC is the CI-current to voltage converter. Every DAC has an I/V converter and most high-quality DACs have an external I/V. Usually, the conversion is done within a feedback loop of an operational amplifier which adds filtering within and after the loop. The conversion ratio is fixed and the signal afterwards needs another OpAmp buffer before the DAC output. The UltraDAC has a no-feedback CI-approach, which generates the output voltage from the original DAC current virtually lossless, without depending on an OpAmp. The ratio is variable and allows for much higher output voltages. The variable-ratio delivers a lossless analogue volume control within a wide range. Only the background music level’s remaining range requires an additional digital volume control. The signal is stabilised by LEF current drivers, which BMC suggests are more linear than class A and can handle phase independent loads.

The higher maximum voltage, plus the variable gain delivers a preamplifier/headphone amplifier function. Although the signal path is shorter than a normal DAC output, you save an extra component, plus have a shorter DAC path with a lossless volume control. The output power can be matched by the LEF current driver, meaning the line output is, BMC says “surely as stable as the very best preamplifier”. The headphone output is so powerful that B.M.C can offer a 0Ω balanced headphone output, with phase stability that benefits demanding dynamic headphones. 

THE SOUND – Passive 2-Channel 

It was an interesting beginning to my relationship with B.M.C’s UltraDAC, one that I will share as this scenario can happen and does happen to us all on occasion. For the first few days I simply installed the UltraDAC side by side to the Lindemann 825 without really listening much – allowing it to just settle into its vacation home. Now and again I’d switch the preamp from 825 across to UltraDAC and during these initial few days, where I wasn’t even sat down properly listening and the system was on simply for background music, I found myself being drawn to a perceived leanness in the midrange with the UltraDAC. It wasn’t until I sat in the listening position that my perception changed.

I had always found the 825 to be a little forward in the midrange, it had good depth but that depth started from a point more prominent into the room. The midrange was also very warm and I guess although I have and have had many DACs, moving to the Lindemann from the Mark Levinson in the main rig, I found it wasn’t as warm and cuddly, it had better definition and clarity and especially better-defined bass with more integrity.

It was only after actually sitting down with the UltraDAC and listening intently that I realised that rather than accusing the B.M.C of leanness, it was actually the Lindemann that was bloated and less precise. The analogy that came to mind when I was explaining this to a couple friends was; “imagine driving down a road and looking through a clean windscreen, but right smack bang in the centre of your vision was a smear on the glass. This is how the 825 sounds, it has a blur or a smear in the very centre of a slightly forward midrange presentation, muddying the picture and clouding vocals especially.

The UltraDAC’s midrange sits where it should, fairly flat in its neutral position, but expresses itself forward and backward, leaving layers ahead and behind its midpoint as the track dictates – it’s far more natural and realistic.

The UltraDAC utilises high-precision Femto Clocks like many other high-end brands and personally I always feel that they offer slight improvements on the 9038 chip. When implemented correctly, the 9038 will extract detail that not even the recording engineer realised was on a track (slight exaggeration of course) but with the Femto clocks sound is more musical, more fluid and full – Boris Blank’s “Electrified” offered me a more three-dimensionally layered soundstage – encapsulating me with in and out of phase artifacts in my listening room and filling out the space further than before, but without pulling the music apart and giving more prominence to subtler notes. The entire picture was a good step ahead of all the other DACs I have had at my disposal and I could discern more fine layers of detail. Notes danced around in a very playful manner and conveyed better microdynamics. It’s a wonderful trait of the DAC’s sound. It has this way of introducing more of the finer details and acoustic reference points which fill the soundstage out further but at the same time gives more realistic space and positioning to individual instruments and portions of the music, without ever going thin.

This encourages me to talk about the timing which is notably superb and an attribute I’m sure most will notice very quickly. Leading edges of notes are absolutely on the money, being clear and defined, fleshed out and dynamically interesting. There has to be some correlation between the DAC’s bit-perfect output abilities and gain control to achieve this level of freedom in the sound, alongside the precision of the Femto Clocks. The whole sound package feels as if it has shed its load of additional baggage, devoid of extra weight which allows it to be very spirited and to spring along.

Fink’s “Perfect Darkness” presented an extra layer of detail in small strings rubs which accompanied the end of the decaying bass note – this added to a sense of additional rhythm and again better timing accuracy. As these notes and beats bounced along I was feeling far more convinced about the live venue this gig was recorded in and the crowd sounded as if though they were now more distant and separated from the sound of the main stage, whereas previously everything was more on top of each other. This effect was also more noticeable with Finn Greenall’s lead vocal which had a touch more echo and decay due to the venue feeling perceivably larger than what the Lindemann offered in comparison.

Yesterday Was Hard On All Of Us” from the same album whose intro is generally hard on all of us as it’s so splashy, bright and grainy due to being so busy, but this never stumbled the UltraDAC and it now sounded more relaxed. Usually, this is a cringing, ear-piercing event on every DAC I have ever heard…period, let alone the clean sounding Benchmark or Mytek, which came across as being very sharp in comparison. The Lindemann did a better job, but it failed to separate the notes enough for them to gain more control due to its comparatively muddled or even muddied midrange.

Usually, I just try to hurry the intro up in my mind whilst committing to a slight wince, rather than getting up and turning down the pre or moving the slider along on my control app. I’ve now come to the conclusion that it’s actually a fairly useful portion of music to play in order to test a DACs overall control and sharpness.

Admittedly, over the space of the next 4-5 days I made but a few short notes whilst listening to the B.M.C in favour of just sitting, closing my eyes and relaxing into some of the most balanced and informative sounds I have garnered from my system to date. I’ve had many changes over the past year, these have been predominantly in the form of modifications – I like to find something accomplished and attempt to make it better – we are talking some electronic modifications to component selection, valves, power supplies, cabling, crossover reworking, isolation etc. The UltraDAC made a big first impression on me once I had decided to sit down and really listen and is for me almost a personally tailored sound which continues to impress, and which also caters well across all my genres of music from acoustic to electronica.

This past week of listening has given me more detail than the studio-based DACs with better dynamics and a more substantial soundstage richness than the Lindeman. I found there to be additional layers to the overall stage and more realistic scope on recordings than the DiDiT 212SE.

Transparency is an attribute that is way up my list of necessities with any piece of equipment and with the UltraDAC I have it in spades. I found it to be very receptive to a few tweaks I made with isolation and cables. I swapped out copper interconnects for pure silver and silver/gold alloys, and also played with a range of different after-market footers. As mentioned briefly towards the beginning of the review, I found 3 aftermarket isolation feet from Finite Elements worked better than the five currently installed on the underside of the DAC. One on each front corner and one at the rear centre – I found swapping these to one at the front centre and one on each back corner just didn’t have the same effect. Cable-wise all interconnect types I used sounded excellent and differences were mainly in tone –  I found the same result with power cables. I opted for the copper Studio a Connections Black Star variants in the end, which balanced tonality within my system better.

Inside the BMC Ultra DAC.

HEADPHONES 

After talking with Carlos at great length about the UltraDAC it was clear that he had some real enthusiasm for the headphone amplifier installed, which alike the preamplifier isn’t actually a traditional headphone amplifier as I explained at the beginning of the review.

I decided that alongside my Audio Technica ATH-D2000X that I would borrow a set of Sennheiser HD800 and a pair of Fostex TH900 in order to gain an understanding and appreciation of why Carlos spent so much time expressing his enthusiasm for the headphone output of his DAC. 

Audio Technica ATH-AD2000X 

What I’ve always liked about the Audio Technicas is that they sit right on the cusp of “just too much” – they teeter on the edge of being too clean and forceful when played at higher volumes and like many, I like to put some volume into my headphones. They never overstep the mark though, and even when I’ve listened to them through some amplifiers and thought “that’s maybe a bit too much”, it’s arguably always been the lack of a good recording that has been to blame.

I’d disagree when some may perceive these as being too clean and I’d call them un-coloured and true to source; crap in, crap out so to speak. They can be as much a tool as much as they can be a damn good listen. I’ve spent weeks not even listening to the main system at times in favour of these headphones when a piece of equipment presents itself with a rewarding headphone amplifier.

Using the UltraDAC’s headphone output into the D2000X’s gave me an unrivaled performance to any other headphone amp I have heard with them – the level of control it gives is outstanding. The speed, accuracy, and inner-detail had me lost in the music for hours on end. Dynamically the pairing sounds devoid of any constraints, the feeling was that they had the most transparent window into the mix, which was carried along with great rhythm and tone – there is no arguing that there’s enough meat on the bone with this combo and reserves of power. It’s been the consensus throughout my review that one of the biggest virtues for the UltraDAC is its level of insight, tone, and texture that simply must be unrivalled at this price point…surely? Even my current main system DAC at two and half times the price doesn’t have as vast an open window into the music.

The flavour of the AT cans does differ slightly to my main system – although both have similarities. Transparency, imaging and great inner detail are the order of the day, but this has to be reflected in shades of tonal colour, realism and natural flow. The ATs don’t have as much weight as the main system does, but with the UltraDAC conducting the beat, notes dig down deep and everything is far better polished. 

Sennheiser HD800 

For me the HD800s are a warmer and easier listen than the ATs, they are the more forgiving of higher-end headphones although their pedigree deserves a great partner to really achieve the best of them. Whilst detail is abundant and insightful, the 800s can allow for poor recordings to be presented as being not so harsh so they can be listened to for longer periods of time, whereas the ATs keep you very alert and awake.

Introducing them firstly to the UltraDAC with an unbalanced cable, gave me a good idea of the sonic reference point between both their signatures. The Senns were a little more taught and alert than I had heard them previously with a couple different amps, two of them being valve. In combination with the UltraDAC they had a little more spring in their step and dynamics were executed with more immediacy. The two sounded very well matched and I’d say that from my last listen with the HD800s through a Sennheiser amp, I appreciated that the layering with the B.M.C still had greater complexity when using the xo|one as the source.

Moving onto running them in the favoured balanced configuration didn’t leave me wanting to return to single-ended! Depth, overall shape and presence was leaps beyond what it was previously. I even removed them from my head and held them out wider than my ears to hear if I could notice a projected soundstage outside of the cups it was that good. The largest improvement for the combination being run balanced was in regard to the upper bass and below. The UltraDAC running the 800s balanced laid out the bass with a combination of body and articulation that they thrived on. A tighter and punchier bass note which retained the 800s character was formed, which made them more dynamically articulate, even at lower volumes, expressing much more information throughout the entire frequency range as they balanced their top end with their bottom end better and seemingly opened up further. 

Fostex TH900 

The TH900 could be a review on their own, the looks, feel on the head and the sound…I do adore these cans! Contrary to common belief these are not a closed-back headphones, they are semi-open with vents around the cup edges.

I’ve listened to these a good handful of times now and I have always loved their refinement and silkiness in the treble when complimented by a good valve amplifier. I’ve also been especially pleased with them with solid-state amplification. They can keep pace and dynamically they will impress in the most natural and unforced manner.

Out of the three headphones I’ve listened to the Fostex have the best bottom end. They are so wonderfully dynamic, detailed and tight in the lower registers, the UltraDAC just loves these headphones – they are simply a match made in heaven! I got absolutely lost in Bliss’ “Quiet Letters” album. The beauty of the treble, supported by the insight and airiness of the UltraDAC is stunning. The soundstage and flow of this combination will lose the listener for hours on end as everything sounds so expressive and realistic. The UltraDAC has gain for days and although never able to use that much power, the level of grip it has on these headphones allowed me to hit unreasonable levels of volume with Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” during the drum solo – everything just stays perfectly controlled and sits correctly behind the main vocal without pushing forward during the more dynamic solo passage.

This combination can also do “beautiful, silky and elegant” as I found out when listening to Norah Jones one evening…twice! There’s a real polished beauty to be conveyed with the UltraDAC with each album having its own character and whilst the DAC doesn’t add colouration to the sound, it will allow for shades of tonal expression, but it never dictates the character or soul of the music.

Sleek, minimalist and unique aesthetic for the Ultra DAC.

ACTIVE SPEAKERS 

I have a few sets of active speakers, but my main two pairs are both Focal CMS’, a set of 40s and a pair of the bigger 50s, each represents great value for money and present the listener with an open, detailed and transparent view into the mix, devoid of a clinical or strident presentation. I have championed these speakers for a long time now and have also owned the 65s and another pair of 40s before they were upgraded to the 50s.

Using the XLR outputs from the UltraDAC and using a Melco streamer as the source connected via a B.M.C PureUSB 1 (an active USB cable)  I was amazed at how much the sound evolved over using either a Benchmark DAC3 HDR or modified Audiolab M-DAC. The Benchmark in comparison seemed quite grey in its tonal shade and a little thinner sounding. The M-DAC is great and is usually always partnered with the 40s, the upgrades I’ve carried out have brought it up a level in performance, but it retains its loveable sound, great musicality and a sound that never has me criticizing what it does.

The UltraDAC digs much deeper than the M-DAC but still retains the flow and enjoyability with the 40s. I found myself experiencing much deeper bass notes which hinted towards notes that usually I would only hear by gently adjusting either the Focal CMS sub or the Piega PS-1. The UltraDAC never sounds bossy, it never delivers unnatural force, it’s honest, as some of my other DACs, but has this uncanny nature of representing the listener with a strong connection to the music. I would say that it’s fairly neutral, especially in this configuration but it has this magic, a certain presence which is so endearing.

Strong female vocals absolutely shine with this combo; the UltraDAC has such an endearing sound that offers a vocal a certain purity of tone and texture that made me actually wonder what more these Focals were capable of. I’ve used these and each of the larger ones in so many systems and configurations over the years, with a traditional preamplifier, passive pres, DAC/Pres, mixers, studio DACs and sonic maximisers etc and again always found they fitted in well and served me well, some partnering, of course, has been better than others but always have they been strong performers. Which is why the two smaller models have remained. With the UltraDAC however, I do believe I have heard them at their best. Like the 2-Channel system, it has just sat so comfortably with the actives to deliver great music.

I set up the UltraDAC next with the 50s on a sideboard at the end of the living room for a good week and with the electronics just piled in the centre, listening as background music mostly but I did find myself on a couple of occasions grabbing the fishing chair out of the cupboard and sitting in the middle of the room trawling through music. I even plugged in an NVidia Shield for Spotify using the B.M.C PureUSB 1 (which is a special cable) and again just found myself enjoying the wide range of playlists Spotify has.

So I decided to plug in the Piega sub from the spare set of RCA outlets off the DAC. Now we’re talking! The increase in bandwidth and solidity of the sound increased tenfold. The control the UltraDAC has over the sub allowed me to hear every drum beat without smearing. The width and breadth of bass notes was never dry or lean, more so rich in texture with speed and accuracy in the upper bass. This is a system I could very easily live with and am curious as to what the little brother the PureDAC could offer this more modest priced setup.

I was presented with a completely open window into the music, with the sub reinforcing all upper frequencies, and the balance and synergy obtained with the UltraDAC as the heart of this system was absolutely fantastic – no holes in the sound, no extrapolated frequencies and the soundstage was laid out so well considering the speakers were no more than 4 foot apart, one could imagine that they were listening to a speaker package way beyond its price point. Again, the best performance I have had from this setup in every way.

From any angle the Ultra DAC looks the part – note balanced and unbalanced headphone outputs.

CONCLUSION 

B.M.C’s UltraDAC is the best DAC I have heard to date under £8k in any of my systems and I’ve had a lot! I’m always striving for a purity of tone, wide bandwidth and real insight into recording, but this has to be married up with natural texture and flow and the UltraDAC has this in spades. What is so endearing about the UltraDAC is that it doesn’t inject its own flavour into each piece of music, it is a real cross-platform unit that covers each and every genre of music so faithfully with a freedom to the sound that can’t help but excite the listener. 

With huge resolution and such strong tonality it’s the first DAC I’ve listened to that really bridges the gap between what is really possible performance-wise at a reasonable price point. It almost sounds perfect…right? Well I’m quite sure it’s not and B.M.C have further improvements for future products in their DAC range no doubt but for now, I’m happy to say that it betters everything else that I have heard, owned or championed up to that price limit.

The quality of the included headphone amp is absolutely phenomenal and again unheard of as an addition to a standalone DAC. Its volume control or unconventional preamplifier design is also a triumph for the company. The unit is so feature-rich as a DAC with nothing being added as an afterthought or just as an additional extra – it’s all been meticulously planned out and executed with real ingenuity and integrity.

Sitting somewhat behind the scenes supporting in design and engineering for other world-renowned brands for over 30 years, the evolution of the Candeias Audio family business has migrated into something which is going to make some substantial waves in this business and I wish them all the luck in the world, watch this space as B.M.C is going to be a brand talked about for many years to come and I look wholeheartedly forward to working with them on more products in the future.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: Exceptional, looks, fit and finish is amazing

Sound Quality: Absolutely faithful to the recording, a real open window, precise and fast when it warrants it, delicate and soulful where necessary. Detail rich, to ally accurate and has an endearing flow and rhythm which draws the listener in

Value For Money: I’d be confident in stating that this is the best value for money DAC I have ever had the pleasure of testing

Pros: Build quality. One of the best-voiced products I have heard to date, a true multi-genre capable sound. Balance and bandwidth is exceptional. Completely musical and detail-rich. Stunning single-ended and balanced headphone amplifier, that will drive any dynamic headphones with ease. Incredible value for money.

Cons: Cheap plastic remote as standard and not being able to switch the front display

Price – €3,198

 

 

 

 

 

Dan Worth

Review System: Xodos xo|one streamer, Audiobyte Hydra Z Clock w/Paul Hynes SR7 LPSU, Lindemann 825, Audio Music Reference T1 preamp, David Berning ZH270 power amplifier (modified), Ayon Seagull Ceramic Loudspeakers (modified), Atacama ECO Evoque rack, Studio Connections Black Star/Mundorf/Gobel High-End Cables, Custom made Balanced Power Supply, Finite Elements/SSC Isolation

You must be logged in to leave a reply.

Real Time Web Analytics