In 1976 two engineering students at Cambridge University with a passion for electronics and music founded Amplification and Recording Cambridge (Arcam). In 1988 they produced the first stand-alone DAC then as time went on many other iconic products. Then a few years ago they released the highly acclaimed irDAC that impressed audio fans far and wide. Today I’ll be looking at the successor of that product Arcam irDAC-II.
Disclaimer: The Arcam irDAC-II was loaned to me by a local distributor – Mungkong Gadget for the purpose of this review. I do not gain financially from this collaboration and all opinions stated here are my own based on my time spent with the product.
Excellent headphone amp
Versatile input options
No rotary volume control – the control buttons are a little clumsy
The irDAC-II comes in a cardboard box that feels and looks premium. The front of the box is black with irDAC-II in large white print and an image of the DAC itself. The back is white with black text outlining the specifications, features and included accessories and a picture of the rear casing showing all the input options.
Dimensions 194 x 124 x 44mm
Net weight: 1.1kg
Power supply: 12V DC, 1.5A
Inputs: 1 x USB Class II, 4 x SPDIF , 1 x Bluetooth
As you can see there are plenty of accessories included and inside the box, you’ll have everything you need to get up and running.
The remote control unit is refreshingly simple. There are playback and volume controls on the top section. Below are separate buttons for each of the input methods. The buttons have a nice tactile click which is something rarely seen and I like these a lot. It uses 2 AAA batteries and it’s a nice remote which, like everything else here exudes quality.
The irDAC-II feels very solid and reassuring in the hand. The housing is beautifully crafted from cast aluminium. All the edges are rounded and smooth, presenting a premium impression. The front edge curves over the front of the unit, revealing six pinstripe LEDs (one for each input). The LEDs change colour from red to green when a signal is detected through the selected input.
Near the top-front edge are 4 round buttons – 2 for input selection and another 2 for volume control. Personally, I would have preferred a rotary style volume control but this is partly negated by the option of a fixed level RCA output, which allows you to take control of the volume from an external pre-amp or amp. The front panel is bare apart from the 3.5mm headphone jack and an IR sensor.
On the rear panel, we find the host of digital input options. Fixed and variable RCA, 2 x optical, USB and coaxial. There’s also the power switch, power jack and screw terminal for the Bluetooth antenna.
Maximum supported sampling rates are as follows:
USB: 24-bit, 384kHz
Coaxial: 24-bit, 192kHz
Optical: 24-bit, 96kHz
Bluetooth SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX:LL
On the bottom of a unit is a rubber base that covers the entire under section. It’s a practical addition as it prevents scratching of the surface the DAC sits on, however, the rubber is a little too hard which results in the unit sliding easily on your desk when inserting or removing headphones.
Windows 10, Gigabyte Z170x Gaming 7, Samsung Galaxy Note 5
Solar Fields – “Altered – Second Movements” full album
Marcin Wasilewski Trio – “Spark of LIfe” full album
The Pineapple Thief – “Your Wilderness” full album
Wiener Symphoniker, Philippe Jordan “Schubert Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8
Mathias Eick – “Midwest” full album
Function and sound
The Arcam irDAC-II has a fluid yet detailed presentation while reproducing audio faithfully and without colouring. Instrument separation and soundstage is exquisite, especially when using the headphone amp. The headphone amp incidentally was taken directly from Arcam’s flagship amp the A49 and paired with the ES9016 Sabre DAC it’s a formidable combination. There is absolutely no background noise evident when listening.
As I mentioned above I would prefer a traditional volume knob for fine adjustments but this is just nitpicking as the provided buttons work perfectly well.
Listening to Marcin Wasilewski’s “Spark of Life” album the imaging and tonal neutrality are wonderful, with the piano and bass notes sounding warm and rich and at the same time high-hats and cymbals are crisp and natural without any hint of scratchiness. With Mathias Eick’s “Midwest” I was really impressed with the soundstage and again with imaging, being able to place the instruments with ease. Throughout testing the irDAC-II stayed cool as a cucumber, barely getting any warmer than in its powered off state.
When using the RCA line out (both fixed and variable) there’s no way to switch between headphone amplifier and line out, so when you insert headphones the speakers continue to output sound. This seems like a rather large oversight and I’d like to see a more elegant solution such as the one used on the JDS Labs Element.
Pairing with Bluetooth was a breeze with my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and worked flawlessly. Some purists might wonder at the inclusion of Bluetooth on a DAC of this quality but obviously, it’s a convenience and if you’re sitting down for some critical or analytical listening you’d most likely use a different input method. For my tastes, though it’s really handy for certain situations, such as a friend who’s visiting and wants to share their new favourite music with you – just pair their phone up with the irDAC-II and you’re good to go. Oh and hope your friend doesn’t have awful (from your point of view) taste in music.
As far as inputs go the irDAC-II is the obvious winner here unless you need an analogue in. Both of these DACs have impressive headphone amps with enough power to drive just about anything you can throw at them. I prefer the volume control knob of the Element and the button to switch between the amp and line out is something I feel is sorely missing on the Arcam model.
The Element seems slightly more aggressive in its presentation compared to the more refined and subtle irDAC-II so for me this would come down to personal preference. I’d give the irDAC-II a slight edge in sound but prefer the user-friendly nature of the Element. Another factor for deciding would be the price with the Element currently retailing for $349US and the irDAC-II at roughly $641US (or £269 vs £495 respectively).
This is not really a fair comparison considering the price difference but the FX-Audio holds up well in terms of inputs. It has almost the same amount of digital input options excluding Bluetooth (USB, Coaxial, Optical) albeit only 1 of each. The DAC-X6 only has a fixed level RCA output but has a traditional style volume knob which earns it extra points.
As you’d expect when it comes to the power and quality of the headphone amp the Arcam comes out on top. Build quality on the irDAC-II really stands out as it is heavy and solid as if there’s no empty space inside (there was no way I was going to open it just to find out!) whereas the DAC-X6 feels like an aluminium box with some PCB inside. Keep in mind though the irDAC-II comes in at almost x10 the price of the FX-Audio unit.
The Arcam irDAC-II is a solid product and well suited to be at the centre of your digital audio experience. Beautifully crafted, loaded with features and producing a warm, neutral sound at an affordable price and it also looks sweet on the desktop. DACs are ever-increasing in popularity due to the surge of digital sources and integration with things like Spotify and Tidal and Arcam are leaping right into the fray with confidence.
The included remote control is icing on the cake. This would probably have been given a 5-star rating if not for the volume buttons and no switching between headphone amp and line out although this is just my opinion and might not be an issue at all for others. The sound and build of the irDAC-II however, is fantastic and easily worth 4.5/5 stars. If you’re looking for a DAC and a high-quality headphone amplifier this is well worth considering. Recommended.