In writing and speech, hyperbole is a rhetorical device used to make or emphasize a point with extravagant exaggeration. You might describe someone as being skinny as a toothpick, or complain that you’re overwhelmed because today you have a million things to do. No one, of course, is as skinny as a toothpick, and no one can do a million things in one day -- but that doesn’t keep most of us from frequently making such statements.
When I’m not moonlighting as an audio reviewer, my day job is in science, where hyperbole is not especially welcome. In a field where clear communication of accurate information is important if you want to be taken seriously, deliberately describing something inaccurately hurts your credibility. In less formal contexts, however, hyperbole can be a powerful means of persuasion, essentially by virtue of its absurdity. In the audio community, we’re guilty of employing hyperbole to a fault. Reviewers sometimes use strong language and make bold claims to draw attention to their writing and make their work stand out. Unfortunately, this can mislead readers to the point of their making poor purchasing decisions. Yet hyperbole persists.
What got me thinking about this was a comment I came across several weeks ago, by an audio dealer who’d spent some time listening to Bryston’s new flagship DAC, the BDA-3 ($3495 USD). This person claimed that the BDA-3 blew away its predecessor, the BDA-2, with its superior sound. Wow, I thought; I own a BDA-2, and to my ears, it sounds pretty good. If the BDA-3 is far better, I want to hear it for myself. Fortunately, the folks at Bryston were accommodating, and sent me one to review.
While there’s no shortage of high-quality, great-sounding DACs, few offer the BDA-3’s flexibility. It comes with a whopping ten digital inputs: four HDMI (stereo), one AES/EBU (XLR), two S/PDIF (one RCA, one BNC), one optical (TosLink), and two USB Type B. There’s also an HDMI output, so that when audio is sent to the BDA-3 via HDMI, the output will pass along (up to) 4K video signals to whatever HDMI receiver is connected to it. Not only are HDMI inputs somewhat uncommon in a stereo DAC, they (and the USB input) can accept Direct Stream Digital (DSD) signals, which the BDA-3 is designed to play. This means that if you own high-resolution DSD audio up to DSD256 -- whether as digital files, SACDs, or Blu-rays -- the Bryston is equipped to let you hear them. As for pulse-code modulation (PCM) data, the BDA-3 can accept and play signals of resolutions up to 32-bit/384kHz.
The BDA-3 has RCA and XLR analog outputs, the latter for those that want to run a balanced system. My integrated amplifier lacks balanced inputs, so I used the RCA jacks. The Bryston also has three two-way control interfaces -- RS232, USB, and Ethernet -- to allow it to be run with a home automation system. A trigger input enables the user to turn the DAC on and off using a master component (e.g., a home-theater receiver). I ended up needing the Ethernet input to download a firmware update issued by Bryston while I had the BDA-3 in for review.
Users of OS X or Linux already have drivers installed on their computers that will automatically recognize the BDA-3, but users of Windows 7 or later must download a driver from Bryston’s website to take advantage of all of its high-resolution capabilities. Given that one of the BDA-3’s features is its ability to play hi-rez DSD signals, this will inevitably be a factor in any buying decision. As the owner of an older Apple iBook laptop, I had no problems listening to DSD through the BDA-3 using Audirvana’s playback software v.1.5. If you play digital music using JRiver Media Center or foobar2000, the BDA-3’s owner’s manual provides instructions on how to set it up to optimize the sound quality.
The BDA-3 can be ordered with a faceplate 17” or 19” wide, finished in silver or black. At 3.63”H x 11.12”D, the Bryston isn’t obtrusive, especially with the smaller faceplate -- which my review sample had. Its appearance was clean and fairly simple, characteristics that should help it fit nicely into just about any system. I’ve always been impressed with the solid construction of Bryston gear, and their newest DAC is no exception. At 8.5 pounds, the BDA-3 feels sturdy, and its five-year warranty is evidence that Bryston is confident in its reliability.
A plethora of buttons adorn the front panel, including one for each input. Above each input button is a light that glows green when that input is selected and receiving audio, or red when the input is active but no signal is present. To the left of these, three columns of four LEDs each indicate the data rate of the incoming PCM or DSD signal. The Upsample button engages the BDA-3’s sample-rate converter: 44.1 and 88.2kHz data can be upsampled to 176.4kHz, and 48 and 96kHz data to 192kHz.
When digital data arrive at the BDA-3, they’re received at an input galvanically isolated to prevent the audio signal from contamination by any ground noise from the interconnect and/or source component. The BDA-3 discards the clock signal embedded in PCM data, and reclocks it using Bryston’s own internal master clock, to reduce jitter as much as possible. Two AKM DAC chips are used in balanced mode to lower the signal/noise ratio and help reduce crosstalk. Since the requirements of the DSD and PCM signal paths are different, independent pathways to the DAC were designed for each. After conversion, the analog signal is sent to Bryston’s proprietary, discrete class-A operational amplifiers (op-amps) before being sent to your preamp. Two fully independent power supplies, one each for the digital and analog sections, are included to further reduce distortion.
Bryston’s new flagship DAC replaced its predecessor, the BDA-2, in my system. The BDA-3 received digital content from an NAD C 565BEE CD player and an Apple MacBook running Audirvana through, respectively, i2Digital X-60 digital coaxial and AudioQuest Forest USB links. I used Thorens RCA cables to link the BDA-3 to a Bryston B135 SST2 integrated amplifier, the B135 in turn connected to Revel Performa3 F206 floorstanding speakers with AudioQuest Comet cables. All electronics were plugged into an ExactPower EP15A power conditioner-regenerator.
It took me almost no time to realize that the BDA-3 will hold great appeal for those listeners who place transparency and neutrality at or near the top of their lists of sonic priorities. With regard to transparency, this DAC was textbook Bryston: It sounded exceedingly clean as it highly resolved detail. As I continued to listen to it, I found myself pulling out my better recordings, just to hear how good they sounded through it. Furthermore, because it had little or no character of its own, the BDA-3 tended to take on the personality of whatever I was playing at the time, serving as a neutral conduit for the music.
One of the recordings I wanted to hear through the BDA-3 was a collection of Beethoven’s songs, with baritone Stephan Genz accompanied by pianist Roger Vignoles (CD, Hyperion GAW21055). This disc showcased the BDA-3’s low noise floor, which in turn helped emphasize the powerful dynamics of Genz’s singing. The DAC was dead quiet, producing backgrounds so “black” that details emerged naturally on a deep, wide soundstage. I found the BDA-3 a precise instrument; it should be deeply appreciated by listeners who want to hear everything their recordings contain.
With this in mind, I put in the CD tray Low and Dirty Three’s cover of Neil Young’s “Down by the River” from these bands’ collaborative album In the Fishtank (CD, Konkurrent 18752 03812), and hit Play. This is one of my favorite cover tunes; like the collection of Beethoven songs, it exhibited the transparency and resolution that are the hallmarks of the BDA-3’s sound. So much reverb was used on this track that it sounds as if it could have been recorded in a vast cavern, rather than the Amsterdam studio where the entire album was cut in three days. In addition to conveying a dark, brooding atmosphere for Young’s bleak lyrics, what I like about the decision to add all that reverb is that the stage feels enormous, and the apparent amounts of space between the musicians are palpable. In this downtempo reimagining of a classic rock anthem, the drum kit is placed well back on the stage, with singer Mimi Parker crooning front and center. With this and many other recordings, the Bryston BDA-3 commendably re-created a large, open space at the front of the listening room.
I also heard powerful, weighty bass from the BDA-3, but in keeping with its clean overall sound, that low end was clear and articulate, without bloat or exaggeration. The bass in “m.A.A.d. city,” from Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city (CD, Aftermath/Interscope B001753602), was hefty, providing a solid foundation for the track. The music was upfront and vivid, and the Bryston delivered the visceral impact the engineers clearly intended when they recorded and mastered this tune.
Fed “Inertia Creeps,” from Massive Attack’s Mezzanine (CD, Virgin 8 45599 2), the BDA-3 presented me with a huge, three-dimensional soundstage. The percussion was tight and energizing as it propelled the music with an infectious rhythm that really jumped out at me, sounding upfront and immediate. With the title track of R.A.P. Music, from Atlanta emcee Killer Mike (CD, Williams Street 384-460-018-2), the Bryston-Revel system delivered incredibly powerful, clear sound that only made me want to hear it more loudly. Much like “Inertia Creeps,” “R.A.P. Music” sounded forward and full, but also articulate and squeaky clean. It’s arguable that such music should sound fatter, with even beefier bass and weightier impact, but the production style used for these tracks is far more balanced, and the BDA-3 presented it as such.
Calexico, a rock band out of Tucson, Arizona, has written some great songs that have been well captured in the studio. Their music tends to be more layered and immersive, the soundstages often extended well beyond the speakers’ outer boundaries. I found the BDA-3 perfectly suited to it -- it added nothing to Calexico’s sound while subtracting nothing from it. With “Man Made Lake,” from Carried to Dust (CD, Quarterstick qs108cd), the Bryston was a clear window on the music, precisely reproducing instrumental lines to clearly delineate them in space. The instruments in the somber “The News about William” occupied a wide stage, with the strings of the violins, acoustic guitar, and double bass clearly outlined and sounding as lucid as the drums.
In a similar melancholic vein, the BDA-3 sharply outlined Elliott Smith’s acoustic guitar and voice in “2:45 am,” from his Either/Or (CD, Kill Rock Stars KRS 269). The Bryston was superb at communicating the near hiss of Smith’s emphasis on the sibilants in his words. As the song opens up toward the end and the percussion enters, the kick drum had punch and commanded a strong presence in the room. I think this track is well recorded; the BDA-3 was ideal for appreciating the work that went into getting the sound right.
I was able to compare the BDA-3 directly with my BDA-2 ($2395). The two Bryston DACs have several important features in common; for example, both employ a pair of 32-bit AKM DACs that are connected to a pair of proprietary, discrete, class-A op-amps. However, there are key differences. The BDA-2 has eight digital inputs to the BDA-3’s ten, including four HDMIs. The BDA-2 has no HDMI functionality, but instead has four S/PDIF coaxial (two RCA, two BNC), one AES/EBU, one USB, and two optical inputs. The other significant difference is that while the BDA-2 plays PCM music files up to 24/192, it can’t play DSD files. Which DAC will better suit you will depend on whether you need HDMI inputs and/or you listen to DSD files or SACDs.
Bryston’s brochure for their digital products states that while the BDA-2 sounds “almost as good as” the BDA-3, it lacks the latter’s DSD playback, HDMI connectivity, and Ethernet control. If you don’t need those features, they argue, save some cash and buy the BDA-2. While I mostly agree, I had a difficult time hearing significant differences between the two, and thought their sound quality comparable. They sounded so similar that, had this been a blind listening test, I’m not confident I could have told them apart.
For example, with “So What,” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (CD, Columbia/Legacy CK 64935), I switched back and forth between the Bryston DACs many times and found them nearly impossible to tell apart. Their soundstages were identical: one didn’t move the piano farther left on the stage, nor did the double bass seem closer or more distant through one or the other. Most important, regardless of which DAC I was hearing, each produced a coherent, vivid stage full of musicians crafting a jazz landmark -- I was happy with whichever BDA I was listening to. Immediately after I switched, there were moments when I thought I could detect some difference -- sometimes, one sounded more forward -- but almost as soon as this thought occurred to me, the difference I thought I’d heard disappeared, and I was no longer certain. Then, as I focused more carefully on individual instruments, it was obvious that the sound hadn’t changed at all, spatially or tonally.
Listening through the Brystons to War Dance, from Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Respighi’s Belkis, Queen of Sheba: Suite (CD, Reference RR-95 CD), was similar to hearing Kind of Blue -- the two DACs created stages of equal size, populated by musicians positioned in the exact same spots on that stage. The low noise floor of each was especially well suited to this recording -- it exposed plenty of detail in the music, and the sharp, sometimes explosive shifts in dynamics seemed even more pronounced. To say that the two DACs sounded so similar is not a criticism of either, but a compliment to both for the sonic strengths they share.
To test how the BDA-3 acquitted itself with DSD recordings, I listened to performances for which the same master had been used to create the PCM and DSD versions -- not as easy as you might think. I was fortunate in being able to download a number of DSD and PCM digital files produced from the same masters by Norwegian record label 2L. If you’re curious about exploring hi-rez audio and want to be able to make some direct comparisons, I highly recommend checking out 2L’s website. They offer a decent collection of tracks you can download at no cost -- everything from “Red Book” CD all the way up to DSD256.
There were times I couldn’t tell the difference between DSD128 and PCM files -- such as when I listened to “Che Giova il Sospirar,” RV679, a recitative and aria from Bellezza Crudel, a collection of chamber cantatas by Vivaldi performed by soprano Tone Wik and two instrumentalists (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC or DSD128, 2L). No matter how much I switched back and forth, it was nearly impossible for me to hear a difference between the two formats. Both sounded incredibly clean and open -- I’d bet no money on my ability to distinguish between them in a blind listening test. At other times, I was sure I could hear subtle distinctions between DSD and PCM. For example, with the Finale -- Presto of Haydn’s String Quartet in D, Op.76 No.5, from the Engegard Quartet’s String Quartets: Haydn, Solberg, Grieg (16/44.1 FLAC or DSD128, 2L), the violin tone was slightly richer in hi-rez DSD than in PCM -- a character I preferred.
Although I enjoyed experimenting with various pieces of music at a choice of resolutions and formats, I actually heard few differences. If anything, this underscored the point that well-recorded material is well-recorded -- it sounds good regardless of sampling rate or format. More than anything, I was impressed by the high quality of sound of the free music 2L has made available from its catalog. The Bryston BDA-3 proved a useful tool for exploring it.
While I don’t agree that Bryston’s BDA-3 blows away its predecessor, the BDA-2, it’s a highly accomplished DAC that can easily hold its own against far more expensive competition. The most full-featured DAC I’ve encountered, it offers myriad connections for just about any digital source you might have. With four HDMI inputs and the ability to play recordings of almost any resolution, Bryston’s top DAC model distinguishes itself from its competition. And there are converters at multiples of the BDA-3’s price that don’t come close to it in terms of flexibility. But more important than any of that, the BDA-3 sounds transparent and resolving, always remaining faithful to the signal it’s fed.
Although I don’t always succeed, I try to avoid using hyperbole in my reviews; other than resulting in colorful prose, it doesn’t, I think, ultimately benefit the reader. But the Bryston BDA-3 requires no hyperbole. I’m certain that its many strengths, both sonic and functional, will find it lasting homes in the systems of many music lovers, and I don’t think it needs any stronger endorsement than that.
. . . Philip Beaudette
Bryston BDA-3 Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $3495 USD.
Warranty: Five years parts and labor.
677 Neal Drive
Peterborough, Ontario K9J 6X7
Phone: (800) 632-8217, (705) 742-5325
Fax: (705) 742-0882