Music Hall DAC15.2 Review

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Introduction

Music Hall, as some might know them, manufactures turntables, in Czech republic. In fact, they are known for their turntables. Other things, such as their line of integrated amplifiers, CD players, receivers, Phono amps and DACs are designed in USA and manufactured in China “under our strict specifications” as written by presumably their CEO, Roy Hall on their website. This is their DAC15.2, a small compact, Solid State DAC meant to just be a Digital-to-Analog-Conveter. From my brief search for this product, there doesn’t seem to actually be a predecessor, such as a DAC15 model. This seems to be the first of their purely DAC models. It’s something meant for use with a computer, player or anything that can output digital signals, meant to improve sound. It’s small sure, measuring only 4.2 inches wide, 6 inches in depth and only 2.1 inches in height. Like I previously said, it’s pretty small. That makes it pretty nice space-wise if you want to use it as an external DAC for anyone’s system, desktop or not.

How does it improves sound? To know exactly why, we must understand what is a DAC. You can find them in anything that produces sound from a digital device. Their purpose is to convert digital signals to Analog, electrical signals, which gets sent to an amplifier which amplifies the signal which in turn powers your speakers. They don’t tell you there is one, but for sure there is one on any device that has a speaker, from phones to laptops to bluetooth speakers, CD players, and even receivers. If they accept a digital connection, external or internal, it has a DAC. Now this product, as I’ve said is a DAC. It will accept any digital connection, provided it has the connections and convert that data to analog signals for an amplifier. But that means you need a source, and an amplifier. It will definitely not work alone.

In theory, all DACs should work the same way and with the same principle, but with as with anything and everything. not all DACs are created equal. The processor can be different, the circuitry, the cables inside, the power supply, etc., etc. Like any amplifier, each one has a personality, and whether they match your system is another matter as well. But in this case, this specialized component brings the DAC out from your device, and as such, will improve the sound quality as it reaches your speakers, as it is expediting the job to a specific component. We shall see if that is really the case.

Listening Bias

As with everyone, there are a few things that one tends to prefer when doing anything in general. Even in reviewing, there are a few things that I’ve developed a preference for. In general, I tend to like songs with more bass, but I really do like the complete package. Everything matters in my opinion. Even if there is a ton of Bass, as long as there is balance with the mid-range and the highs then I like it. I tend to pay attention to details such as the treble when cymbals are playing, the “s” sound anyone makes with their mouth, the energy and emotion I can feel from the music and the imaging of the sound-stage I pay attention to. As you can tell, I pretty much can listen to a lot of things and use them as review material. Even then, I’d say you still have to listen to them yourself to see if you truly like what you hear.

Specifications (from their downloadable manual)

  • Dimensions: W x D x H (4.2 x 6.0 x 2.0 in.) (107 x 152 x 52)
  • Weight: 3 lbs. Pkg.
  • THD+N: <0.0012% (20Hz 20kHz)
  • Output level: RCA 2.1V COAX 0.5Vp-p (@75 OHM)
  • Frequency response: DC-20KHz +/-0.5dB SNR: >110dB
  • Power dissipation: <10W
  • Dynamic range: > 115dB (24 bit) > 96dB (16bit)
  • Crosstalk: <-105dB
  • Operating temperature: 0 ~ 40
  • USB input accepts 24bit/96kHz signals
  • All other inputs accept signals up to 24bit/192kHz
  • Power supply: AC100-240V 50/60Hz
  • Ti PCM1796 24bit/192kHz DAC

Set-up and mentions

I’m running the Music Hall DAC15.2 as an external DAC for my laptop, as it is the most convenient way to do so, via a USB cable. Now, as you can see in the specifications the kHz for the processing when done via USB is 24 bit 96kHz, lower than when using Optical or Coax, which can go up to 24 bit 192kHz. If you’ve seen anything regarding my Auralic Altair and Bel Canto DAC 2.5, this is kind of in the style of the Bel Canto DAC 2.5, in which the rate for using USB differs and is lower than if you use Optical or Coax. I’ll be testing USB and it’s optical input via a Panasonic Blu-ray playing CDs. As you may know I’ve mentioned in the teaser, this should in theory improve stock listening experience vs. when you use you the integrated DAC within your selected component.

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The rear side of the Music Hall DAC15.2 Despite, the bad lighting, all of the outputs and inputs are quite clearly marked, as well as the power input on the right side.

So, other than that, this DAC15.2 is really easy to set-up. If you’re using a computer/laptop, it’s literally plug and play, and at least for my laptop, it was instant recognition, with a pop-up on the side that even recognizes that it’s a Music Hall DAC15.2, so you can just play audio literally right after the automatic set-up is done. As easy as that. There are no other inputs except for the USB, optical and coax, and a choice of analog or coax for output, as you can see from the picture above. You have the standard stereo analog outputs, which then goes to your amplifier or pre-amp. In this case I have it going to my NAD T747, which will act as an amplifier through an analog bypass (passive) stereo mode. For the DAC, You do have to specify which input you’re playing off of through the switch in the front. There is also a light that says locked which means there is an input going through it to let you know there is even one. This way, it was kind of act like a pre-amp which is nice if you’re running more than one component through this. It’s rather straightforward and you don’t actually need the manual for the setting it up or even operating this. I’ll also be switching between devices this way when going through the DAC’s input.

Just to mention the exterior of the DAC15.2, the DAC includes what seems to be feet on the DAC, which is glued onto the bottom of the casing. The casing as well is quite sturdy, despite being quite light overall. While playing audio through this, the exterior gets about the same temperature as the human body, and I know this as the first start up of the day, after leaving the DAC off, the casing feels cook to the touch. Overall design is not eye-catching, but it is functional in that if you drop it by any chance, it will definitely protect the internals. But I still wouldn’t recommend putting anything heavy above it. Boot up is also rather quick and locking in from any input is rather immediate.

Impressions

Since this is a DAC, I don’t really think there is much break-in period for the component, like with amps, but just in case, I’ve reserved a bit of the critical listening in the beginning, but after awhile I didn’t notice any major changes so I proceeded shortly after to critically listen to them.

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Final set-up of the DAC, with the Blu-ray player used seen behind the laptop, as it inputs to the DAC via optical connection.

For the most part, I’ve been switching between the headphone jack of my laptop and the DAC for the sound processing of the music I listen to. And I can say for sure, the results are quite substantial. The sound improvements is something you can tell from the get go. Immediately, provided that you listened to the default way of listening through your typical device’s headphone jack, and then switch to an external DAC. In my case of course, I switched from my laptop’s integrated DAC and amp through the headphone jack, to an external DAC. It was worth every effort to just plug in the USB cable from the laptop to the DAC, I can say that for sure. The sound comparison, even if it wasn’t a true A/B comparison, by listening to the same song after with the external DAC of the Music Hall DAC15.2, I can tell the difference. It’s like night and day.

Now, I’ve kind of been dragging this along, but to get into the details, the precision and the clarity seems to have been raise up a notch or two. Imagine if there is an area where the singer seems to be, which should be in the middle of the sound stage, and all of a sudden you can tell he’s smack right in the middle. It’s like the cross-hairs in a first person shooter video game. If you don’t move the cross-hairs is pin point dead center. If you do it kind of widens an area in the middle. The first, before the external DAC being the area and the later being the pin point area for the cross-hairs. It’s that big of a difference. Also, you can tell that the accuracy of the sound reproduction is also kicked up as well, as you can recognize the instruments in the background with more ease. Separation of instruments is also improved as well as the imaging, as the sound gets more pin-point accurate and lively. It’s the most holistic improvement you can get.

Another thing to note with this DAC is that it does present a different characteristic vs. my laptop’s internal DAC. It presents a harsher high frequency, like for example when someone says ‘s’ in whatever they say, the laptop DAC presents a more warm and dull impression versus the DAC. I’d say for sure I want something accurate, which is this harsher high frequency, but that trade off is that it might be a bit tiring on the ears of others, but I personally didn’t have that experience, listening to this for up to 6 hours straight.

To talk about the Blu-ray player briefly, even in that context, the DAC does, in my opinion improve the sound vs. the internal DAC, specifically for CD playback. I didn’t try it with a DVD or a Blu-ray because I didn’t have one at my disposal, but for CD playback I noticed similar improvements such as the harsher, but more accurate high frequencies, improvement in imaging and sound-stage, as well as improvement in the accuracy of the sound reproduction from the tracks. Plus, for the Blu-ray player as well as the laptop DAC, I noticed an increase in the volume with amplification, which is quite substantial. I had to turn down the amplification from the NAD by 10Db beacause of the DAC, which means it presents bit of amplification from the DAC itself. It’s neither a good of bad thing, but something for everyone to consider when switching back and forth from it as suddenly playing music without checking the amplification is a bit of an annoyance for you and other around you.

Conclusions

Highlights

  • Simple, functional DAC
  • Perfect for desktop use, but is not limited to it.
  • Would probably like to see a higher bit-rate ability for the USB input

Nevertheless, this NAD DAC15.2 is something that can substantially improve your listening experience in the way that it will provide a more accurate, experience, with more precision, more life-like experience of the music that you listen to everyday. It is something that improves one’s experience of sound substantially by the foundations. It presents a harsher, but more accurate tone in comparison from anything like laptop or even a media player like the one I use. The one flaw this has is that it has quite a limited number and options of inputs which can be it’s downfall when using more than one components. Nonetheless the inputs presented are enough for having a laptop and a media player for desktop use. It’s size as well is small and suitable for be on the desktop without taking too much space. And not just that, I think this DAC definitely can also be used in bigger systems not just on desktops as it can do really well even with receivers such as how I use it in this review. For your everyday components within the price-range of this DAC, I can almost guarantee an improvement of sound. It is something worth looking into if you want most money for the improvement of sound quality.

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