Products don’t sit in isolation forever as the benchmark at their price. Just by the law of averages and the driving force of competition, sooner or later something else *could* show its card in HiFi top trumps. Which brings me to the RME ADI-2 DAC FS – a digital to analogue converter. How does it perform and is my hinted hypothesis to the Chord Qutest a sound one? Sorry, forgive the pun…
Sometimes when you do a HiFi appraisal you think a product is improved because of a change, you have to check yourself. Not in a physical way, but that emotional or psychological check we should do as Audiophiles sometimes. What I’m saying is just make sure there is no succumbing to self-bias. With some products you change them over and it’s immediately apparent what they offer. This is the case with the RME because over and above the Qutest I use, in a number of areas there are decent sonic improvements.
In a technologically pleasing way this DAC looks like the radio stack out of a fighter aircraft. With its pro audio looks and credentials, from DACs I’ve tested, the colour display is second only to that used in the Mytek Brooklyn. Case wise it’s a ply sheet metal wrap around type, but quality is very good…this is a German firm after all!
At the front are bass and treble knobs, various function controls, a volume knob, and two sets of headphone outputs – 1/4inch and 3.5mm socket. The latter of which RME claims to be ‘the worlds lowest noise headphone output’. You don’t get a fixed output gain setting if you are using it as a DAC to a headphone amp or pre-amp, rather just turn the volume control (acting as gain) to the appropriate level. There is also an auto level feature that changes reference levels to account for signal to noise ratio changes as volume goes up and down. This DAC can of course be used as a pre-amp with volume control with either of the rear XLR or RCA analogue outputs.
The remote operable RME ADI-2 DAC FS has a 5 band parametric equaliser. Settings galore, which I’ll keep for another day as initially I want to see how this unit performs with factory settings out of the box. But in short there are filter settings, balance settings and cross-feed for headphone use. Also the manual is as in depth as reading a technical aviation manual. I’d prefer a cleaner quick guide of all the features and settings with the fuller reference manual you get as lots of Audiophiles will be buying the ADI-2 DAC FS.
This DAC uses an AKM AK4493 chipset, has a DSD direct mode, maintaining the DSD format, and you’ve got optical, coaxial and USB2.0 inputs. PCM music files are playable up to 32 bit at 768 kHz.
The ADI-2 uses what RME call ‘SteadyClock FS’. Not getting bogged down in technicalities, jitter is digital audio timing errors when the audio changes from digital to analogue, manifesting as noise. The DAC’s clock takes care of proceedings here and one with less jitter means it sounds better. I should say I have used the USB 2.0 input in my tests, with my Innuos Zenith Mk2 source.
And the lowdown is….
So tweakless settings wise, so far I’ve been listening for about 10 hours – this ain’t no flippant exercise – and first to the HiFi**….as ever I mark the main stand out comparative traits in bold. What immediately comes across in this DAC in benchmarking it with others I’ve tested, is a precise, accurate and resolving sound that makes it very natural. Particularly an expressive mid range that snaps you to attention especially if, comparatively, you are used to something more vague in this sonic canton. In a very shouty way, the overall effect is to punctuate ; “I’m not a DAC that compresses music”. Far from it, every ounce of the RME ADI-2 DAC FS capabilities is focused in exuding these positives.
The original impression is one of Kermit-esque ‘smileability’. Whilst superlative chucking prose risks overblowing a product to loose out in credibility stakes, I have no compunction doing so here. In an unembellished way, the reason being that this DAC took me into the pleasing sphere of listening to my favourite albums afresh. That moment we all become crazies in our pursuit – a body change occurs, not in an ‘American Werewolf In London’ kind of way, but in our brain chemistry. Alpha waves or endorphins – whatever they are, they just make you feel good.
And speak about a decently big soundstage with a wide and fat fast bass, for I can – yes Sir! It’s again accurate and dynamic and this great bass articulation is often a give away of a very audiophile capable DAC. The RME is no different in showing off its muscles overtly, this way.
It’s well balanced with bass and treble – it’s neither bright, an overused term in HiFi, nor too smooth. Smooth in a way with bass, not coffee, by the way. DACs like the Mytek Brooklyn can’t achieve this high wire steadiness in balance – admittedly as a trade off the Mytek gets out exquisite mids, by expressing all of what it has.
Equally this DAC doesn’t have the relaxation in tonal warmth and mass of something like a £1,350 M2Tech Young MkIII, if that’s your bag. Or indeed a cheaper £500 Musical Fidelity MX-DAC which comparatively is just a touch the side of warmish neutral. But neither is this disadvantageous if you’ve no preference over the sound you want, with the RME being the swashbuckling resolver and other league accuracy champion it is. It’s sonic canvass is more mid neutral centric to these other DACs.
In comparison, the Chord Qutest is a wider purveyor of music. The RME’s only real *comparative* let-down as soundstage difference is the most obvious trait between these DACs. The Chord is on parity with spot on bass/treble balance or neutrality too but in my HiFi it doesn’t have the dynamic rawness of the RME. Changing over listening to Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygen Part 5, I first got this impression at 5:20 when the electronic instruments speed up. You get an idea the electronic instrumentation is ever so slightly more dynamic with the RME.
In my HiFi the added bass weight of the RME and naturalness in mids over the Qutest is obvious. But it’s at the low frequency extreme where it’s projected with the RME. Where it should be, with better timing and accuracy in the midrange. Just letting the rest of the music do its thing. In this respect, dynamically it’s more astute than the Chord. The Chord on the other hand gets the bass out in its wide dispersive way, ‘chucking out’ all the recording in the process. So whereas the Qutest seems to strut its stuff in a full encompassing soundscape, the RME does so in a more reigned in way but one which has naturalness on side more.
Using the Qutest against the RME with the HIFIMAN Jade 2 Electrostatic headphone system, it’s a similar catch all. A more enveloping but muscular sound with the Chord, which is in your face whilst elevating all aspects in music and exposing it full frontally. The RME on the other hand has an impression again of everything being in its place. The Chord is somewhat forcing the music out comparatively with its thicker mindset, which may or may not be your thing. Again bass is more spread out, but in comparison the RME impresses in letting the highs, lows and midrange out naturally.
Regrettably I couldn’t test the standards of the RME’s headphone outputs with headphones of the Jade 2’s ilk as these electrostatics uses a ‘5 pin pro bias’ connector. But with my £300 MAS Audio science X5i IEM’s initial tests were a little disappointing. Perhaps headphones at such price can resolve only so much – a comparison using some over ear monitors would be needed to reach a definitive view. Some Focal Clear’s would probably achieve great balance with this DAC.
We are in preference territory I think on which comes out sonically *best*. And anyway ‘best’ is a murky word in HiFi by any stretch. But considering the RME makes a case at a lower price, it represents extremely good value for money. This is a DAC punching as a heavyweight but at relative welterweight prices. The feature set and headphone usage over the Chord may be a consideration too.
In a straight DAC shootout, should you choose the Qutest or this RME and is the RME a Qutest killer? ….that’s a tough one I can’t answer because going with the RME you forego the Chord’s soundstage. Soundstage can be quite a big ingredient in HiFi. Missing it is like a curry without chilli or salt. Of course the RME won’t spoil your meal as I’m talking comparatively here with nuanced changes. But equally going with the Chord you loose the RME’s midrange and naturalness relatively speaking…and I don’t have to tell you these are important ingredients too. Sticking to the food theme – like an apple with no biting citrus taste perhaps.
So horses for courses and it will depend on the rest of your gear too. But at £300 cheaper and considering what it serves up in its feature set, value for money is incredibly stellar here.
OK they might not be exactly comparable in feature sets in making straight comparisons – most obviously headphone usage. But would I personally put this DAC as a sonic performance equal to the Chord? I can comment on this and the answer is yes, absolutely. But you have to be the judge as to preference, which is in your court, or should I say on your plate. But as to sonic value for money, similarly you can be judge, jury and purchase executioner too. For those not concerned with comparison benchmarks, in itself this is a very accomplished product. It wins my vote and is a 13th Note performer very convincingly.
Please check back as I will add an addendum to this article once I’ve tested this DAC with some ATC SCM40A active speakers that have just arrived and can comment further on settings and using it as a pre amp. Also some of the technical features you may not know about, and use of different digital inputs.
Addendum – to follow
RME Audio ; Am Pfanderling 60 , D-85778 Haimhausen ,Germany
Tel : +49 (0) 8133 918170
Fax: +49 (0) 8133 9166
Web : https://www.rme-audio.de
Distributed in the UK by Syntax Audio : https://www.synthax.co.uk/ ; Unit 13, Sovereign Park, Cleveland Way, Hemel Hempstead, HP2 7DA, Tel: +44 (0) 1727 821 870, E-Mail: info(@)synthax.co.uk
- Inputs : Digital – optical, coaxial RCA, USB2.0
- Outputs rear : 2 x RCA, 2 x XLR
- Outputs front : 1/4 inch and 3.5mm IEM headphones
- Included power supply: external switching PSU, 100 – 240 V AC, 2 A, 24 Watts
- Dimensions (WxHxD): 215 x 52 x 150 mm (8.5″ x 2.05″ x 5.9″)
- Weight: 1.0 kg ( 2.2 lbs)
1) **PMC twenty5 23 speakers, Cyrus Mono X200 signature power amps, Cyrus DAC XP Signature pre amp with PSX-R power supply, Innuos Zenith Mk2 Roon source / sever into the RME ADI-2 over USB (Chord C-USB)
2) HIFIMAN Jade 2 Electrostatic Headphone System, Innuos Zenith Mk2
3) MAS Audio Science X5i IEMs, Innuos Zenith Mk2 Source
3) ATC SCM40A 3 way Active speakers into DAC XP Signature pre, using Innuos Zenith Mk2 source (further comment to come….)