Massdrop x Airist Audio R-2R DAC
About a year ago I was approached to provide some early feedback on a new multi-bit (discrete R-2R) DAC. It didn’t have a case. It didn’t have a projected price. It didn’t have a release date. And it didn’t have a name - simply being referred to as “RDAC”.
First impressions were distinctly positive, even compared to some of the stalwarts in this space, to the point I was quite anxious both to learn what it might be sold for and to hear how the final iteration was going to perform. So, when about a month ago I was offered a unit with the final production electronics, properly cased, and ready to be subjected to a formal review, I jumped at it.
Today the veil comes off and what is now officially called the “Massdrop x Airist Audio R-2R DAC” (or, “RDAC” for short) is public and being formally offered for sale, at $349.99, starting on June 6th:
The interesting features of the RDAC are buried inside the unit - the exterior being an unassuming, but stylish matte-black housed in a chassis that stacks perfectly with the Massdrop x series Cavalli amplifiers:
- Dual 24-bit discrete R-2R ladders, per channel, in sign-magnitude configuration.
- Bit-level buffering/isolation on the ladder resistors.
- Separate PCBs for the resistor ladders vs. I/O, conversion and other processing.
- Internal power regulation and reference voltage stabilization.
- Low phase-noise NDK clocks.
- Custom decoding and linear-phase filter implementations.
- USB (galvanically isolated) and S/PDIF (COAX and TOSLink) inputs.
- PCM native conversion up to 24 bit/384 kHz.
- DSD support to DSD128 (via internal PCM conversion).
How Does it Sound?
The TL;DR; here is simply that the RDAC sounds marvelous .
The signature is one of general neutrality with a touch of sweetness to the mid-range and upper registers, and a distinctly “pristine” quality/clarity to the sound. Overall presentation is open with a good sense of air but is neither lacking, nor carrying too much, tonal weight/density. The RDAC’s rendering is fluid, articulate, nuanced and well balanced - capable of excellent top-end delicacy while simultaneously plumbing a tuneful, driving, bass-line and keeping vocals present and lucid.
The strongest, and most enduring, comparison I can make for the Massdrop x Airist Audio R-2R DAC is that, at least from a signature perspective, it sounds like a Holo Audio Spring DAC and Soekris dac1541 got it on - and this was the result. It exhibits some of the sweetness that I found so beguiling with the Spring DAC combined with the distinctly “pristine” quality to the sound rendered by the dac1541.
While the RDAC is not quite on the same level with all technicalities as those two units, it’s surprisingly close and the combination of their better sonic aspects results in a very compelling delivery with a broad variety of music.
In More Detail
Tone is lovely and pure, with just a hint of sweetness. I’d stop short of calling the presentation romantic or euphonic. There’s just enough “sugar” to keep the otherwise “pristine” or “super clear/resolving” delivery on the “musical side” of things vs. drifting off towards being “analytical” and is, for me, a more engaging listen because of it.
Extended sustain on piano notes, from my own pieces, exhibit none of the strange tremolo or vibrato that I’ve found in some other discrete R-2R DACs that would be considered natural competitors to the RDAC. Here … the tone remains pure until the notes naturally ebb away.
Timbre is natural and realistic. Instruments are easy to identify reliably, even in very complex orchestral works and when they’re separated by relatively minor familial differences, purely by how they sound (without resorting to locational cues). Individual oices, similarly, are easy to identify and localize, even when faced with multi-part close-harmonies.
Transient performance is excellent, almost NOS-like in fact, with plucked strings, discordant brass and aggressive percussion all exhibiting surprisingly rapid and impactful attack/bite. Switching to electronic music and the impact and transient speed remains … play the first 60 seconds of “The Rat” (Infected Mushroom, “Army of Mushrooms”) and you’ll see what I mean. Or run something like “Along this Road: Kono Michi” (Ottmar Liebert, “One Guitar”) and the instant bite of the pluck and the reverberant decay against a deep, dark background.
As I’ve said, there’s a hint of sweetness to the delivery of the Airist Audio R-2R DAC - and this is most in evidence in the mid-range. Lucid and transparent are also terms that come immediately to mind here. Vocals, particularly female, are present, well articulated, and unexaggerated. There’s no apparent emphasis or reticence. Just a natural, emotive, and evocative rendering.
Something like “Ellis Island” (Mary Black, “Looking Back”) showcases this sweetness quite nicely. And being a semi-sweet piece in its own right helps to show when this sort of sound is taken too far … and with the RDAC it is not - it’s just where I like it.
The upper registers are clean, smooth and properly extended, carrying some of that mid-range sweetness forward in a Goldilocks-like “Aaahh … just right” fashion. There’s a palpable sense of air and space and a very honest delivery. If there’s sibilance or harshness in the source material it’ll be reproduced faithfully, without ever exaggerating or exacerbating it. Cranking various pieces by “Heart” or “Julia Fordham” can be a bit of a wince-inducing torture test in this regard but were handled with aplomb by the RDAC.
Playing a couple of “guilty pleasure” tracks here, specifically, “Buffalo Girls” and “Double Dutch” (Malcom McLaren, “Duck Rock”), through the RDAC shows that it is not going to gloss over faults or harshness in a recording (and you can hear well into the aggressive edits/mix of, say, some of Prince’s works) but it won’t make them worse either!
At the opposite extreme, the bottom octaves, while perhaps not the absolute last-word in terms of low-end drive and slam, are only marginally behind the front-runners there and the RDAC certainly isn’t lacking in the bass-department. Playing some more bass-intensive tracks (Beyoncé’s “Partition” or Trentemøller’s “Chameleon”) shows no lack of weight, and excellent texture, speed and articulation. A run through Talvin Singh’s collection “Anokha: Sounds of the Asian Underground” is, similarly, fully satisfying.
Stage is quite convincing. I only got to test this with headphones but even so the RDAC is capable of projecting a realistically wide stage, and the “sense” of space in a given venue is very well communicated - play something like “Mining for Gold” (Cowboy Junkies, “The Trinity Session”) and you’ll be subjected to a distinct sense of the simple, stark, natural environment the recording was made in.
Layering and separation are typically strong points of R-2R implementations for me, and the Airist Audio R-2R DAC is no exception. Picking out individual instruments in a complex mix is easy as is tracking the melody while tapping your foot along to the baseline (which you’ll be hard pressed not to do).
As mentioned initially, there’s a distinctly “pristine” aspect, and a strong impression of “clarity” and resolution/detail that’s evident even on first listening to the RDAC. There’s nothing artificial to this … the detail is real and not of the often-encountered “artificial hyper-detail” found in many D/S type converters. Brushes on cymbals or drum skins, decaying triangle strikes, and so on exhibit are resolved to a level that I’ve generally only found on rather more expensive units.
Dynamics, both macro and micro, are addictive. “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel) or the intro to “Twist in my Sobriety” (Tanita Tikaram), which are possibly opposite extremes, still both provide graphic illustrations of the ability of the RDAC to simultaneously handle large dynamics while maintaining deftness, subtely, and resolving power with micro-dynamics. Cohen’s typically gravelly delivery, perhaps exemplified in “You Want it Darker”, also serves as an excellent illustration of the Massdrop R-2R DAC’s ability to portray tiny, subtle, variations in volume modulation … which gives his voice a lot of its visceral emotion.
All of this is set against a deep, dark, velvety-black backdrop. There’s no sense of veil here. Clarity is excellent and, again, “pristine”. Noise on the recording, be it from the tape, the environment (in acoustic recordings), and so on will be fully reproduced, but nothing is getting added to it. I think this is, as with a couple of other DACs I’ve listened to recently, a major factor in how pronouncedly some of the other positive traits are rendered.
The RDAC Should be on your RADAR if You’re-Shopping-For:
If you’re in the market for a DAC and have been considering the Schiit Modi MB or Bifrost MB, Soekris dac1321, iFi Audio Micro iDSD Black Label, Chord Mojo, or DENAFRIPS Ares, then you should add this to your list of units to audition/consider.
In real terms, it wasn’t until I got to the level of the RME ADI-2 DAC and the Soekris dac1421, both coming in at around $1,000, that I could say that I found something that was, across the board, better technically than the RDAC while being as enjoyable to listen to (I do still like the hint of “sweetness” from the RDAC, however).
[You should also note that those units give a slightly false sense of the level of price/performance on offer here as they include other features, including capable headphone outputs and, with the RME unit, a very rich EQ and DSP capability.]
The Massdrop x Airist Audio R-2R DAC is an excellent sounding DAC, with a slightly sweet tone, a distinctly “pristine” and clear delivery and offering very high value. In the month I’ve been listening to it, it has been unfailingly engaging and involving, while continuing to impress on technicalities.
For the $349.99 asking price, the RDAC is an easy and enthusiastic recommendation.
Compared to its primary competition, and some units that could reasonably, at least on a price basis, be considered one or two tiers above it, the RDAC offers both higher value and, for me, both better performance and a more enjoyable overall listen. As such I expect it’s going to prove to be somewhat disruptive in the sub-$800 DAC ($1,000 DAC/amp) market.
Some of that has to be attributable to the Massdrop design and manufacturing approach, which clearly enables higher than expected performance at lower than typical cost.
You can be sure that I’ll be joining the drop when it goes live on 6/6.