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This is the first in a series of reviews dedicated to the concept of 32Ohm Audio as embodied by the store of that name in downtown Portland/Oregon and described here - Ed.

Reviewer: Ken Micallef
Financial Interests: click here

Digital Source: Ayon CD 2 [in for review]; Sony Playstation One (hollowed out dead-tech used as planter)
Analog Source: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi turntable/arm combo, Denon DL-103, Auditorium 23 Denon step-up transformer [on loan], Thorens TD550/EMT Labs TSD15 cartridge with Super Fine-line Stylus [on loan]
Preamp: Shindo Allegro
Power amp: Shindo Haut Brion
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Nines
Cables: Auditorium A23 speaker cables, Shindo interconnects
Stands: Salamander rack, 2" Mapleshade platforms (8" x 15" x 2"), Blue Circle custom amp stand
Powerline conditioning: JPS Labs Kaptovator, Shunyata Black Mamba and Anaconda Vx Powersnakes, Hydra 4 [on loan]
Accessories: Mapleshade Surefoot and Heavyfoot brass points and IsoBlocks; 3" studio treatment foam damping/ceiling-wall treatment, Large cotton rug on one wall
Room size: 24' x 12', short-wall setup, suspended wood floor, 1-foot deep plaster-covered 2 x 4 walls, wood-beam 10' to 11' ceiling
Review component retail prices: Keces DA-151 Mk2 $250; Styleaudio Carat-Topaz USB $449; Mhdt Laboratory Paradisea 3 $569; Music Hall DAC 25.2 $595; Benchmark DAC1 USB $1295; Locus Designs Polestar USB cable,  $249/1m, Axis USB cable $549/1m

Inspired by Jeff Day and Dave Clark at Positive Feedback Online, I’m diving head first into the world of USB DAC riches. Why now and why not? Hmm. Perhaps it’s something to do with getting older and realizing the desire to enjoy what really matters in life: love, music, friends, living? If you’re fully involved with the last, there's precious little time to waste on the first three. Thus you must find ways to becoming more involved with your personal vision of happiness. For me and for one thing, that meant making more space in my cramped New York apartment, i.e. getting rid of that ever growing pile of languishing nearly forgotten CDs. Am I making a joke out of musical happiness? Hardly!

Think about it. Do you really listen to all those CDs stacked up in your man room? If not, a USB DAC is just the ticket. Pair a quality DAC with the laptop of your choice and some TB worth of external storage. Goodbye dusty moldy CDs. With the quality of USB DACs rising to unprecedented levels, they’re challenging one-box and even two-box CD players for audio supremacy. I quickly discovered this when—after receiving the initial USB DACs for this review— the Benchmark DAC1 USB and Music Hall 25.2 made my Raysonic CD 168 nearly irrelevant. But I leap ahead too soon.

After that revelation, I began loading 100s of CDs into my Apple MacBook/Western Digital T2 mirror external storage drive via Locus Design’s unbeatable Polestar ($249/one meter) and Axis ($549/one meter) USB cables. Writing about music for a living, I get a heap of promotional CDs in the mail. With the newfound luxury of burning CDs to MacBook using Apple’s AIFF converter for maximum quality, I found myself evaluating every disc new and old for its relative merit. Will I ever listen to that 1995 alternative rock collection again? What about the Oasis box set? Dexter Gordon’s five CD Prestige box set? Cocteau Twins? Long story short, I burned hundreds of old rock CDs to MacBook—then traded them for vinyl at Princeton Record Exchange—while nearly every classical, world and jazz CD found a permanent home. Either way, burning CDs to MacBook/external hard drive will make you listen to music from your collection you haven’t heard in years and with a small Apple Shuttle remote or the Remote app on your iPhone, it's even easier. With DACs available at every price point and the ability to easily upgrade as funds allow, the time is now to get over your CD player fetish.

The one rule for my DAC shootout beyond USB-only functionality (one interconnect, no additional boxes = uniform sound) was a maximum price of $1,000. Unfortunately the Benchmark DAC1 USB quickly shot down that limit but the other DACs all come in for under a grand. I ran all DACs wide open and controlled the volume from the Remote app on my Apple iPhone. I used the excellent Specialist HiFi Abbey Road power cord supplied by Music Hall to power the DACs save for the Styleaudio which used a wall wart.

If you’re new to the USB DAC game, there are many resources to receive the holy lowdown. Planet Analog goes into great technical detail. Jeff Day and Dave Clark provide excellent information about setup and procedure in their numerous laptop audio articles at Positive Feedback. Gordon Rankin, manufacturer of the exceptional Wavelength DACs featured at his, reveals the secrets of computer audio as does Computer Audiophile. Their Asynchronicity: A USB Audio Primer article challenges The Absolute Sound’s full-scale bashing of USB DACs in favor of S/PDIF interfaces. Additionally, Srajan shed light on the subject in his Stello U2, HRT Streamer+ and Styleaudio DAC reviews in these pages.

As in most things you get what you pay for and this collection of USB DACs was no different. The least expensive DAC didn’t run roughshod over its counterparts and the upper-tier DACs trumped those below as expected. But there were pleasant surprises along the way. Regarding technical jargon, I’ll mostly dispense with the individual stats of each DAC save that they all use USB connections. If one DAC includes a volume knob or such, I will point it out. Dimensions are a good idea but I like the "smaller than a cereal box, larger than a cigarette pack" analogy. The major difference between all these DACs? The Music Hall is the only asynchronous converter of the bunch and from my perspective, the one offering the most in-your-face leave-nothing-to-the-imagination level of resolution. The debate rages over asynchronous DACs vs. non-asynchronous DACs and I’ll leave it there. The Music Hall offered detail in spades, a large soundstage and plenty of PRaT, marking it as a bold overachiever.