Review: totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer

Vincent Brient’s newest creation, the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer, which falls on the lower end of the company’s price list, offers the benefits of being imbued with the totaldac house sound. For anyone who has heard a totaldac or read one of my reviews of same, you know that’s very high praise.

The totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer is a non-oversampling discrete ladder DAC that employs a single R2R ladder per channel. Each R2R ladder in a totaldac contains 100 Vishay Precision Group 0.01% VAR Bulk Metal Foil resistors and as we move up the totaldac line, we find more R2R ladders. For example, the d1-tube-mk2 DAC houses 2 ladders per channel, for a total of 400 Vishay resistors. The d1-tube is a single-ended topology so while there are XLR outputs, they are run single-ended.

One ECC82/12AU7 dual triode sit in each output channel, thus the name, and the d1-tube incorporates a digital volume control for those users who prefer to go power amplifier direct or for totaldac d1-driver owners. PCM resolutions up to 24bit/192kHz are supported via the Streamer, Coax, Toslink, USB, and AES/EBU inputs. DSD64 is available through the DSD (DoP) option (320euros excl VAT). Like every totaldac, the d1-tube incorporates the company’s FPGA-based FIR (Finite Impulse Response) compensation filter, offering a graduated signal boost delivering a reported flat frequency response to 20kHz. This compensation filter can be bypassed using the included remote. The FPGA also incorporates a FIFO buffer for re-clocking the incoming data stream in an effort to reduce jitter.

The optional Roon Ready Streamer Board (920euros excl VAT) which is included in the review sample, is engaged by connecting a USB cable between the USB Type A and USB Type B inputs. The totaldac USB Cable Filter (330euros excl VAT) was sent along for use here. The totaldac’s external power supply connects to the DAC with the included, and captive on the power supply side, umbilical cord. Vincent also supplied the upgraded live-power power supply (620euros excl VAT) and the totaldac ethernet filter/cable (360euros excl VAT/2M) for use in this review.

The remote allows for a number of additional commands including power, volume level, input selection, remote mode which can operate other totaldac products, and, through the Menu Options, PHASE (inverts absolute phase of the signal), EARTH (the signal ground is connected to the earth or the signal ground and the earth are isolated), DISPLAY (on/off), TREBLE FIR (in/out), and DSD to PCM conversion for the d1-streamer where DSD is converted to 24bit/176kHz PCM when employed. Every totaldac is housed in the same black aluminum trapezoidal chassis with either a black PMMA (Polymethyl methacrylate. e.g. Plexiglas) or silver aluminum face plate. While I like the totaldac’s looks, especially in all black with the display turned off, I have seen higher build quality in similarly priced DACs like those from Mola Mola.

I used Roon exclusively to control playback and paired the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer with three different integrated amplifiers (Ayre EX-8, Line Magnetic LM 845iA, and Kora TB140) driving the DeVore O/93 speakers. I did not use the totaldac’s internal volume control as I did not have a power amplifier on hand.

totaldac is a totaldac is a totaldac — Gertrude Stein (amended)

It is safe to say that I am very familiar with the totaldac sound, having owned three, d1-six, d1-seven, and d1-direct, and having reviewed others. I have also had the opportunity to hear totaldacs paired with a boat-load of associated gear as I used one for years as part of my reviewing rig. So we’re talking about years of listening time in all manner of systems, not to mention hearing totaldacs in other people’s systems and at shows. If I were to focus on highlighting just one trait that follows every totaldac I’ve heard everywhere I’ve heard one, it would best be summed up by the phrase startlingly present. What this means is that the sounds that make up music, when played through a totaldac in a system that can handle it, are presented in a manner that so closely resembles the way things sound in real life, it’s startling.

The totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer is startlingly present. The sounds of music practically exploded from the DeVore O/93s in every dimension making for a barn-sized stage within which music unfolded. Another area of totaldac strength is its ability to represent the relationship between music’s various parts with digital-reproduction-defying clarity, subtly, nuance, and texture. The relative scale of things, coupled with the differences in level and voice, make for live-music-like titillation, the kind of presentation that can grab hold of your attention even when you are working on something else and pull you into your listening chair so you can give music undistracted listening time. With a totaldac, more than nearly ever other DAC I’ve heard, that undistracted listening time can go on for hours, days, and months. During my time with the d1-tube DAC/Streamer, I sampled from the usual full course menu of music and the d1-tube fueled my curiosity, my craving, for the new while re-presenting the old as if newly polished to its original luster.

I’ve brought up the Tom Waits’ track “I’m Still Here” from his album Alice in reviews many times before, perhaps too many times?, but I do so because this song contains a number of elements that, when conveyed properly, add to the song’s message. When the track begins, Waits’ piano is accompanied by Dawn Harms’ violin which is heard off in the distance at a very low level. As the song progresses, Matt Brubeck on cello and Colin Stetson on clarinet join in, and become increasingly level-matched, along with Harms’ violin, to Waits’ voice and piano as he finally sings, You haven’t looked at me / that way in years / but I’m still here. You could interpret the backing instruments as an embodiment of longing, of lost love or perhaps more poignantly the person who was loved (You dreamed me up and left me here / How long was I dreaming for), culminating in the full force of voices when Waits sings, but I’m still here. Even though I’ve listened to this song countless times, when everything comes together as it does through the totaldac d1-tube, I am still deeply moved. This type of ‘listening test’ is to my mind the most important of all.

I can tell when a system is resolving music in a natural way, which is kinda rare when it comes to digital replay in my experience, when I look forward to hearing interplay. This heightened anticipation only happens when each element in a recording is portrayed with its full voice, in a harmonically rich manner akin to, you know, real life. I’ve certainly heard DACs, and I can blame the DAC because I’m talking about things I’ve reviewed where the only change was the DAC, that all but erase Dawn Harms’ violin or turn it into a bee, and blur the voices of the clarinet and cello to the point of indecipherability on “I’m Still Here,” robbing the song of its full meaning, of its full emotive powers. Of course the system that one places a totaldac within must also be up to task.

This brings us to what I see as a common problem when talking about component performance, but one that’s not commonly cited — misattribution. I guarantee you that if you plug a totaldac into a pair of $200 active speakers you are not going to hear it as its best. Further if you then connect a $100 DAC to those same speakers and declare it sounds nearly the same as the totaldac, you are suffering from a severe case of misattribution, which in this case means you are hearing the limitations of the speakers, not the capabilities of the DACs. Of course no one would actually do this but there’s a reason why some things cost more than others and contrary to what you might read online, it’s not all about getting ripped off (wink). Worse still are those people who’ve never heard a totaldac, to stick with our example, yet somehow feel able to talk about how it sounds. An opinion of an audio component by someone who’s never heard it holds the same value as an opinion of a book by someone who’s never read it.

In terms of how the totaldac d1-tube fit with each integrated amplifier I used it with (Ayre EX-8, Line Magnetic LM 845iA, and Kora TB140), there was no best match as the d1-tube DAC/Streamer got along with each swimmingly. I hold to the system-building approach that begins with speakers then moves to amplification because there’s nothing you can do, beyond moving to a different room, that can change the sound of a hifi more than changing the speakers. Because the totaldac does not exhibit any of digital’s nasties, e.g. hard or etched or flat or shrill sound or all of the above, it makes for an easy mate.

Another song that’s including on my only Playlist, which is called Fun, is Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Ring My Bell” from Tabula Rasa. Here, the boys in the band are making their signature racket, filled with sounds from all manner of things played and struck, for a clattering sputtering clash of cacophonific mayhem with Blixa Bargeld whispering in German followed by Etsuko Sakamika-Haas’ Japanese spoken vocals providing the finishing touch. Here, the sonic maelstrom is unfolded to such an extent by the totaldac that each distinct voice along with its relative position within the recorded space, which is 3D, is presented with pinpoint accuracy and clarity. When that tiny ball drops and rolls around a tight circle then slowly widens its travels, you can not only plot its course, buy you know the size of that ball relative to everything else (it’s tiny and oh-so-round). Scale is another aspect of reproduction that shouldn’t be smudged or obfuscated because it is a necessary element in conveying music’s meaning. This kind of sonic minutiae may seem to some beyond any musical point, easily written off as audiophile navel gazing, but that’s only because this degree of tactility is not a common trait in your average hifi. It is, however, a common trait in real life.

I also have the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC (which is also a streamer) here for review and have spent some time listening through it. Based on initial impressions, it appears as if I may be adding another DAC to these rarefied waters occupied by every totaldac I’ve heard and the dCS Rossini. The thing is, the Mola Mola does not sound like a totaldac. More on this in my upcoming Mola Mola review. While I didn’t have other totaldacs here for direct comparison, I have spent time comparing different totaldacs here in the Barn over extended periods of time over the course of years. One thing I can tell you is that when you increase the number of ladders in a totaldac, you get more resolution. Every aspect of reproduction gets ratcheted up, where you’ll hear greater distinction between voices, more fine-grained detail, richer texture, more perceived body and weight, and an even more uncanny sense of place. Of course you’re also talking about added cost, which typically gets us to the heart of any hifi buying jaunt.

The d1-tube, based on past experiences comparing totaldacs, appears to exhibit a shift away from ultimate resolution toward a softer touch. It’s as if the fine-grained view that increases as you travel up the totaldac line is more diffuse with the d1-tube, yet it still offers a level of apparent resolution greater than most DACs I’ve heard. While you can dig well into the recording with the d1-tube, the light it casts offers less contrast compared to the company’s costlier models.

It’s worth emphasizing that I’ve been talking about the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer combination. Potential totaldac d1-tube buyers can opt for the DAC-only version (6400euros excl VAT or $7500 at today’s exchange rates) and roll their own outboard streamer or stick with USB out from a computer, the last being least in terms of sound quality. The two streamers I’ve heard that are head-and-shoulders above the rest are the dCS Network Bridge ($5625) and totaldac’s own d1-streamer (5500euros excl VAT see review), while neither offer USB out, both offer AES/EBU output, which is the preferred input for any totaldac. The Bricasti M5 Network Player ($2600) is also a very capable performer that offers AES output.

Based on experience, I would recommend sticking with the d1-tube DAC/Streamer option if your budget is anywhere near its asking price because you’ll have to spend much more than the totaldac Streamer option’s cost to realize significant improvement. And if you’ve got a bigger budget for digital, you’d be better served spending it on a d1-tube-mk2. Note: every totaldac d1 can be upgraded to higher level d1 status for the difference in price between the more expensive model and the one you own, plus 350euros.

Meaningfully Delighted (Again)

I’ve been a big fan of the totaldac DACs from the first time I spent serious time with one back in 2012.  I reviewed the d1-tube-mk2 DAC in my old Stereophile “AudioStreams” column in 2015 where I said, There is no “best” in hi-fi, and nothing is perfect. All I can tell you is how listening to music with the totaldac d1-tube-mk2 in my system makes me feel: very happy. And when I say “happy,” I mean — Meaningfully delighted.

At that time, I had reviewed over 100 DACs and have reviewed a heck of a lot more since. If I use meaningfully delighted as the gauge of relative performance, I can tell you that very few DACs hit this mark at a level equivalent to a totaldac. I am very happy to report that the totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer is capable of delivering a startlingly delightful level of engagement. Or to put it another way, it turns out that a totaldac is a totaldac regardless of price.

totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer
Price: 7320euro ex VAT (or roughly US$8600)