Audio Note DAC 5 Special Review: The $43,500 Question

When I was growing up my father spoke to me about the danger of hyperbole.

’If you become known as someone who colours reality, people will always take what you say with a grain of salt.’ (I’m paraphrasing of course, I can’t remember his exact words, it was decades ago. Also, I must have looked confused to him because up to that point I thought it was pronounced ‘hyperbowl’ having only read it in books).

I was 11 or 12 years old when we had that conversation, but it’s managed to stick with me my whole life.

I bring it up because that moment popped into my consciousness again as I was transcribing the listening notes from my time with the Audio Note DAC 5 Special.

I had typed “… despite an enveloping sonic warmth like that of a velvet smoking jacket, the string plucking detail/resolution, guitar body reverberation and timbral accuracy came through with startling and natural clarity…” Heady stuff. Yet, honestly written from a subjective point of view. The several months I spent with the DAC 5 in my system – like a few other components of note – was often punctuated with moments of profound recorded-playback revelation: some of the deepest, halcyon views into music reproduction I’ve experienced. The DAC 5 is not alone in eliciting this level of musical gestalt for me, but it is in very exclusive company. More on that later.

The question many readers will ask though when hearing of the MSRP, is it worth the current pricing with Sterling conversion of $43,500 USD? I paused to evaluate what an individual would consider to be the worth of absolute fidelity and to be honest I couldn’t come up with a number that wasn’t subjective. The amount is moot because everyone has a different level of what they judge to be their own absolute fidelity, and what that is worth to them. To many, dropping a stack of Benjamins equal to the cost of a nice automobile on a DAC is madness. To others, not at all. Regardless of cost, there is a market for the DAC 5 Special along with the many other hi-fi components that share its price bracket. It’s a crazy hobby and when you have a first-world factory filled with highly-skilled artisans and craftspersons fabricating something as complex as the DAC 5 you’re going to pay for the pleasure of its company.

The driving principle behind the DAC 5 Special’s waveform-translation abilities comes in no small part from Audio Note UK’s founder – Peter Qvortrup – and his single-minded pursuit of realism in high-fidelity playback. You could say emotionally-engaging realism at all costs, but I’ve found with AN UK it’s never at the expense of the music. It’s sometimes noted by others that Audio Note UK’s gear can measure in a somewhat esoteric manner – not a particular concern of Qvortrup as he’s not out to build gear with only measurement as a guide to great sound; listening is an essential arbiter.

“You can take two pieces of equipment that measure virtually the same, and they sound wildly different,” Qvortrup said in an interview I did with him a couple years ago in Austria. “So what does that tell you about using measurements as a reference for sound? It’s completely worthless.”

There is a cult of personality around the company and I’d go as far to say Qvortrup is Audio Note UK. His vision, sonic aesthetic and tenacity to acquire the ability to control virtually every aspect of production – from in-house transformer/capacitor winding, resistor materials/design, point-to-point wiring, tonearm and cartridge construction to handbuilt and lacquered speaker cabinets – is the stuff of legend and I defy anyone who knows him to say that this desire doesn’t work its way into conversation with him on a daily basis.

But it is this drive, this passion to be the best, that permeates every manufactured link in the audio waveform-creation chain that results in products like the DAC 5 Special. A design that has, essentially, remained unchanged for more than a decade, and in listening seems more a distillation of Qvortrup’s devotion to the purity of music than anything else.

Build and construction

So, what is encased in the elementary silver and black, boxy chassis that makes the formidably-heavy (50 pounds) DAC 5 Special so, special? Some would say it’s what’s not in it that makes it special. I’d be one of them.

What am I referring to? If you’re into MQA, DSD and 32-bit/384kHz studio master files then you’ll be left without a seat when the music stops (starts). This DAC doesn’t do DSD64 or DSD128, DXD, or even 24/192 PCM files. It uses a carefully-selected-by-hand NOS (new old stock) Analogue Devices AD1865 18-Bit (Multi-bit) stereo DAC chip that has a conversion ceiling of 18/96, is no longer in production, has zero over-sampling, no jitter reduction and no re-clocking, noise shaping or filtering of any kind. Audio Note UK has bought an inordinate amount of these chips and has them squirrelled away, so fear not if you, for some odd reason, need a replacement. The reason for using this Multi-bit? Simple. Audio Note engineers listened to to a large number of options and found the AD1865 to be the best sounding one by a clear margin. The unit also doesn’t have a USB input, nor networking capability, being equipped with only digital XLR or RCA inputs.

So, it’s not a DAC that can handle every file format in the known universe. If that’s the case, what is it supposed to be focused on? The goal of the DAC 5 in it’s two guises (Special, Signature), according to Qvortrup, is to wrest every last ounce of emotional, sonic engagement from 16-bit/44.1kHz (Redbook) files, and to be used as a bridge for one of the company’s CD transports, if not as a stand-alone proposition. In numerous discussions with Qvortrup and others at Audio Note UK over the years, the feeling one comes away with is that there is more than enough information to be retrieved from a CD, or Redbook file to compete sonically with any other format, if the digital-to-analog translation is handled properly. Properly, in this context, means building a technology altar where this service can be worshipped with what AN UK considers the finest D/A construction specifications possible.

Looking inside the DAC 5 one finds an ingredients list which many manufacturers would A) envy and trade their eye teeth for, B) emulate to some degree. The Special adheres to “Level 5” criteria which at Audio Note means it operates in Pure Class A with a Zero negative feedback, Single-Ended circuit topology and valve rectification. Legendary Black Gate and Cerafine Audio capacitors, along with Tantalum film resistors help conduct internal circuit paths with wiring consisting of Audio Note 99.99 per cent pure silver cabling. “The DAC 5 Special features an upgraded version of the M6 pre-amplifier line stage (roughly $15,950 USD stand alone), using a 5814a (ECC82/12AU7a)… both of which are dual triode valves.”

Power supplies play a huge role in Audio Note’s designs and the DAC 5 is no exception with dual-mono PS [coupled] to an analog output stage utilizing NOS 6463 dual triodes coupled with a copper-wired output transformer on 0.1mm AN-Perma 50 double High-B C-cores that provide 600R balanced outputs with XLR in addition to the two single-ended silver plated RCA outputs featuring “a 33:1 step-down ratio.” This grants the output transformer the ability to not only execute “an exceptionally-wide frequency response, but also provides excellent isolation between the digital circuitry and power supply.” (The outputs cannot be hooked up simultaneously and must be toggled via a switch on the unit’s rear panel). Filter-interface coils/transformers use 80 per cent nickel Super mu-metal cores with 99.99 per cent pure Audio Note silver wire as well. Air gaps in the two filter coils per channel are “matched across the full frequency range to within 0.1dB of each other.”

Understanding how the company has focused so holistically on not only the digital signal path, but more explicitly it’s machinations in the analog realm, helps one to understand why it is that they expend resources, time, and research & development into the DAC 5’s overall architecture. They’re not letting the trees stop them from seeing the forest, so to speak. The pursuit of sonic perfection is a big picture endeavour.

Audio Note UK
Viscount House, Units C, D & E, Star Road, Star Trading Estate, Partridge Green, West Sussex, RH13 8RA United Kingdom
+44 (0) 1273 830800

spyder1's picture

For $43,500.00, why Audio Note DAC 5 lacks DSD & DXD capabilities is unusual.
Modern trends in DAC designs is to include all Hi-Res format playback.

Everclear's picture

Bryston multi-function DAC, streamer, pre-amp, BDA-3.14 for $4,200 ........ May be Rafe could review? :-) ........

Topher's picture

Can we start a GoFundMe and get Rafe a rack that actually fits all the stuff in his system? ; ) I'm getting nervous just looking at the overhang on that machine.

Rafe Arnott's picture
It was on Vibrapod cones, so the weight was balanced and centered. I've got Butcher Block stands en route :)
Chuckles304's picture

A carelessy placed snifter of that Oban 14 he's no doubt going to review ANY DAY NOW could upset the apple cart....

spyder1's picture

Schiit Dacs max out at 24/192 music files. Are Schiit Dacs better than Audio Note Dac 5.

Rafe Arnott's picture
...has nothing to do with SQ in my experience.