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Small But Serious

Apogee?s Mini?DAC D/A converter By Frank Moldstad
Apogees Mini?DAC is a compact but mighty digital-to-analog (D/A) converter that can lift sonic veils from your digital audio playback. It might even cause people to look under your desk for the rack full of converters, because something this small shouldnt sound this good. But it does, delivering startlingly detailed playback -- as if theres no ?conversion going on at all.

Roughly the size of an oversized paperback book, this stereo device will handle just about anything you throw at it, including sampling frequencies up to 24-bit/192kHz. It can be digitally connected via AES, optical, S/PDIF, S/MUX or an optional USB I/O card. Best of all, the Mini?DAC is a multipurpose device. Although it's designed for portability, its conversion quality puts it right at home in a studio. Analog outputs include balanced XLR jacks and an 1/8 jack for consumer-level stereo (standard 1/8 to RCA cable required). A 1/4 headphone jack is included, and the 1/8 jack is also able to drive headphones.

A companion piece to Apogees 2003 TEC-Award winning Mini?Me A/D converter (reviewed here earlier), the two devices work together like a tag team. Between them, you can transform even an ordinary laptop into a serious audio production center. The Mini?Me converts the incoming analog signals to digital, and the Mini?DAC converts the outgoing digital signals back to analog for playback. High quality in, high quality out.

USB connectivity is the key to portability, and it works smoothly on both Macs and PCs. (If you shied away from earlier implementations of USB for audio, you should give it another chance -- USB 2.0 devices are much better, not to mention the new computer operating systems.) Apogee provides special USB drivers for its Mini series devices, which it recommends that you use (although word is that Apple's Panther OS recognizes it out of the box). The companys web site also has some tips about optimizing both Macs and PCs for USB operation ( I hooked the Mini?DAC by USB to both an Athlon-powered PC and a Mac G4, and got great-sounding playback with low latency on both platforms.

Although I didn't try it with a laptop, the USB option makes the Mini?DAC a natural for client presentations. You could just connect it to a laptop and some powered monitors to get better quality audio than most people have in their homes. USB connectivity also has other benefits: You can interface any non-USB device with a computer by using the Mini?DACs ?digital-thru mode (see illustration above).

Front panel (click image for larger view)
The Mini?DAC interface is straightforward and sort of Twenties retro clean, with the same brushed aluminum box and purple knobs as the Mini-Me. At the center left is the Input Selector knob, where you must select the correct input source, whether it's AES, optical, S/PDIF or USB. Otherwise, the lights in the FS Hz LED ladder on the far left will blink on and off and you'll get no sound. Once you select the correct input, the LEDs stay lit on the sampling rate you're using. At the center right is the volume knob for controlling the output levels to your speakers, with L-R signal LEDs in the middle, plus a clock status LED. The headphone jack and the on-off switch are also on the front panel.

Rear panel (Click image for larger view)
The rear panel has standard S/PDIF and ADAT optical connectors and a 2x AES/EBU 9-pin D-Type input connector, where you can connect standard AES cables with an included adapter. On the right are the analog XLR outs, and the 1/8" consumer stereo out, plus the USB jack if you have the USB card. An external power supply with an extra long cord also plugs in on the rear.

I dont own a high quality D/A, but it would make my life a lot easier if I did. I record digitally at 24-bit/48kHz, passing the signal optically from a Mackie d8b to a Tascam MX-2424 recorder or to an M-Audio Delta 1010-powered DAW with an optical interface. Monitors are a Blue Sky System One active monitor/sub system that make the d8bs aging D/A converters sound pretty good during tracking and mixing. But most important, Ive learned a few tricks to compensate for the Mackie converters, so I can usually get what I want when mixing. Its roughly equivalent to people who mix with outdated Yamaha NS-10 monitors, because they know how to translate what theyre hearing.


2 x AES-EBU on 9 pin D-Type (breakout cable to two female XLR-3 required) handling sample rates: 44.1k-192k single-wide and 88.2 k-192k double-wide.
S/PDIF optical on TOS-LINK 44.1/48k
S/PDIF coaxial on RCA 44/1-192k
ADAT 44/1-48k
ADAT/SMUX II for 88/2/96k
ADAT/SMUX IV for 176.4/192k
USB at 44.1/48k

2 x XLR (pin 2 - hot) for pro-audio stereo
1/8” jack for consumer-level stereo (standard 1/8” to RCA cable required) also able to drive headphone’s
1/4” jack headphone
The Mini-DAC can handle digital sample rates up to and including 192 kHz A 2x AES/EBU 9-pin D-Type input connector handles 44.1k-192k sampling rates single-wide and 88.2-192k sampling rates double wide via an included breakout cable with two female XLR-3 jacks on the other end.

$995, or $1,195 with USB option
For mastering, I downsample to 16-bit/44.1 kHz via a Z-Sys digital sample rate converter into a Marantz CD recorders digital AES input. Then I listen to the CD in the car and in my house, evaluate whats needed and go back to the studio to tweak it. So, when I hooked up the Mini?DAC to the mixers digital out and connected it directly to the Blue Sky monitors inputs, I had to adjust to the better audio translation. Trusting that what you hear is what youre going to get requires a leap of faith! After monitoring this way for a couple of weeks, all I can say is, I believe. Precise, detailed sound like this definitely means fewer trips around the block with my car stereo.

One of the reasons the Mini?DAC shines is because of the extremely low-jitter dual-stage clock Apogee has designed for it. This is the same design Apogee uses for some of its higher end converters, such as the D/A in its new Rosetta 800, an 8-Channel, 24/96 AD/DA converter. The way it's designed, the first clock stage accepts the bitstream and stores bits in a buffer, while the second stage clocks the bits out of the buffer to conversion.

This dual-stage scheme overcomes a conflict inherent in the function of any clock, according to the Mini?DACs manual: ?The clock circuitry of a typical D-to-A converter must be designed as a compromise between the ability to attenuate input signal jitter and the ability to accept any bitstream, regardless of its stability. The more the clock is allowed to track timing variations of the input, the more jitter remains in the clock at the conversion stage, with the degradation of conversion quality as a result. So, with the dual-stage clock handling each of those functions separately, the result is a very low jitter clock for the final conversion. The combination of minimal jitter and high-quality converters is why the Mini?DAC sounds so good.

There are a multitude of uses for the Mini?DAC. It gives you audiophile-grade DVD/CD playback in a studio, a home stereo or for a portable presentation. It has inputs for just about any digital source that you'd want to connect. It's small enough to put in a briefcase, yet it looks professional in a studio. When paired with Apogee's Mini-Me A/D mic pre, it forms a complete audio I/O production system.

Apogee's got another winning product for its Mini line, which in addition to the Mini?Me also includes the new Mini?MP pre-amps with the same pres as the Mini?Me without the A/D converters. If you're looking for a versatile and professional-quality D/A, the Mini?DAC would be a hard one to pass up.

USB Compatibility

OS 10.2.3 except as noted below

Native CoreAudio USB drivers provide best performance with OS 10.2.3 and above. However, some OS X apps, including Nuendo 2.0, Cubase SX and Digital Performer 4, are not CoreAudio compatible and require an OS X ASIO driver supplied by Apogee. ASIO drivers are also suggested for best performance with OS 9.

ASIO drivers required for:
Cubase SX, Nuendo 2.0 & Digital Performer 4.0
(Driver available from Apogee site)

ASIO drivers not required for:
Emagic's Logic Audio, Ableton Live, and Bias Peak

98SE, Me, 2000 and XP

Apogee-supplied ASIO drivers suggested for best performance

Windows XP note:
It is recommended that Windows XP users install Service Pack 1, which addresses known issues with USB audio.


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Related Keywords:Apogee, Mini-DAC, D/A, converter, conversion


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