DAC-V1 DAC & Headphone Amplifier Review
Company & Product Overview
Headquartered in Salisbury, England, Naim Audio has been one of the UK’s most famous high-performance audio manufacturers for over 40 years. Naim employs over 150 people, all of which are in tune with the art of making some of the best-sounding audio gear in the world.
Naim has always placed a special emphasis on having the best possible power feeding the circuitry of their units. They have stuck with this philosophy over the years and it continues to set them apart from the competition.
Audio Advice was first introduced to Naim in early 2014 when we were doing a lot of comparisons to find the best products for playing back digital audio files. We were blown away by the performance offered by Naim and became a dealer on the spot.
Today’s review focuses on a model that has been around for a little over 4 years but received an update recently. We think it might be somewhat of a sleeper in Naim’s vast product lineup that includes over 60 different component pieces, not counting accessories.
The Naim DAC-V1 is a bit of a swiss army knife. It is a D/A converter with USB capability, a preamp (if you configure it that way), and/or a headphone amp. We recently had some of the folks from the Naim factory in our store showing us some of their new gear. The subject of headphone amps came up and they suggested we give this guy a spin.
Design & Build Quality
There is a USB input for connecting a computer, and five digital inputs for digital sources. One of these is a BNC connection type, plus two Toslink and two coax. On the output side, you’ll find a standard set of RCA analog outputs and Naim’s famous balanced DIN single cable output, designed to connect up to other Naim components. There is a switch to change the ground scheme from floating to chassis ground. Power gets to the unit through a standard IEC 3 connection detachable power cord.
The unit comes with a nice remote control and a BNC to RCA adapter for the BNC digital input. The front panel has a good-sized display that will give you a view of input, sample rate, and volume when you change it. We particularly liked the big volume knob and the easy to read input selection buttons. Of course, all of this is also on the remote. The full-sized headphone jack is just under the volume knob.
Naim is all about isolating their products from external vibrations, and as such, the DAC-V1 has a really solid outer shell. There is no question that Naim gear is some of the best made on the planet and the DAC-V1 is no exception.
Features & Technology
The DAC-V1 can be used as a stand alone digital-to-analog converter or as a preamp. Through the software, you can set the outputs to fixed or variable, and you can even set a volume limit on the preamp out. In fixed mode, it will connect to your preamp or an integrated amp like a normal source component, and in variable, you can connect it up to a power amp.
The headphone mode is pretty slick too. When you plug in a headphone cord, all of the circuitry switches over to run only the headphone amp section, turning off the outputs. Even if you have it setup for fixed output, the volume control will change the headphone level.
Try to lift the unit and you can tell right away that it has a serious power supply. From the size, you might think it wouldn’t weigh much, but the DAC-V1 weighs in at just under 10 pounds. As with all Naim gear, it has tons of current reserve in the power supply.
The DAC-V1 has the ability to decode audio files via its digital inputs up to 24/192. Naim is not one to sit on any of their technology and recently did a free firmware upgrade, enabling the DAC-V1 to also accept DSD files. They also enabled files up to 384khz into its USB input. We really love companies that keep your investment up to date through software upgrades!
The DAC in the DAC-V1 is like some of the better DACs on the market in that it is asynchronous. In the world of digital audio, timing is everything. If you do not put all of those bits of data back together the way they were recorded, you miss out on subtle nuances in your music. The digital clock that assembles the data is critical to this. In many DACs the clock in the computer is used, which as you might suspect, is not very good. With an asynchronous DAC, the files are pulled from the computer and run through the clock in the Naim DAC rather than just being pulled in already put together in time.
For the volume control, Naim uses a super precise, digitally controlled analog system. The internal processor for handling all the oversampling and filtering of the digital files is a 40-bit SHARC DSP -- considered by many to be the finest chips on the planet when it comes to audio.
Finally, the headphone amp section. Headphones do not require the power of speakers to drive them loudly, but they do require very precise power. Since the dawn of transistor amps, Class A amplifiers have always been considered the best sounding of any type of circuit. Audio Advice sold some of these early Class A type amps, where a 20 watt per channel model might weigh in at 50lbs.
To explain a bit, all music looks like a waveform. There is a peak and a dip. Most amps have one set of circuitry that turns on to do the peak, and another for the dip. This constant turning on and off is known as switching distortion. However, if you left everything on, you would need to be connected directly to a power substation to have a 500 watt Class A amp.
With Class A, the circuits never switch off. This is why they have always been low in power. The sound you get from a Class A amp is super sweet and controlled. Since headphones don’t need even 5 watts, Naim uses a low-power Class A amp for the headphone section. When you plug the headphones in, the unit automatically turns off the preamp section so the unit only needs to worry about the digital section and the headphone amp.
Audio Advice started carrying Naim their gear was some of the best sounding digital we had ever heard. Naim also makes some of the highest-rated and best-sounding amplifiers in the world, including their $90,000 monoblock Statement power amps. So what happens when you put the best digital in the world with a Class A headphone amp from a company that also makes some of the world’s best amps? In a word, magic!
We connected up the DAC-V1 to the digital output of Naim’s new CORE streamer. This is a unit that rips your CDs better than anything out there, then serves their files up perfectly. It works with the Naim streamers, or you can use its digital out into a DAC like we did here.
This is by far the best headphone amp we have used so far! We threw all kinds of music at it, from classic rock (of course) to jazz, classical, and electronic. We tested headphones from mid-level Grados to the AudioQuest Nightowl, Focal Listen, and Focal Utopia. In every case, it was the best we have ever heard those headphones sound.
You will instantly notice bass with control and impact that you have never heard before. On a good pair of open-back headphones, you will hear separation and a sense of space that every audio enthusiast would drool over. The top end? Fast as lightning yet silky smooth. Pacing, rhythm, and timing are also just perfect.
It will definitely reveal a bad recording, but if the music is great, you will still get lost in it when it gets your foot tapping.
We never even got around to testing it as a preamp. We are sure from the specs it can drive any amp with ease and can see this as a great preamp for a lot of systems, but again, we are just super excited how it sounds just as a headphone amp.
If you are in need of a great DAC that can handle Hi-Res Audio files, this is one to consider. Add in the fact that it is a preamp and you’ll probably be doing your system an upgrade by just adding a power amp.
If you are serious about your headphone listening, you really need to check out the Naim DAC-V1. If your sources are all digital, you’ll be hard-pressed to find its equal.
HIGH NOTES UNPACKED
Swiss Army Knife DAC
With 5 digital inputs, USB input, headphone, and analog variable or fixed outs, there are multiple uses for the DAC V1.
Class A Headphone Amp
Get a direct feed from your computer or digital files to what could be the best headphone amp out there.
High-Speed USB Input
The USB input supports 24-bit 384/khz signals.