Bryston BDA-3 Digital-to-Analog Converter

Bryston BDA-3 Digital-to-Analog Converter

Two events prompted me to write this planned review at this time. The Absolute Sound magazine has a review of this DAC this month which I will read after this review is “in the can”. Having virtually no experience of this unit – positive or negative – it is better to put my observations on paper before reading anyone's opinions. The second event is a post on Audio Asylum regarding the ongoing analog (LP) vs. digital debate, to which I posted a reply humbly titled “Vinyl vs. Digital - The Absolute Final Answer is...”. The Bryston BDA-3 greatly contributed to the conclusions in that post: “At 384 kHz 32 bit, digital is fully competitive with vinyl.”

The Bryston BDA-3, $3,495, is the third and latest DAC in the BDA series. The well received BDA-2, which remains in the product line at $2,695, offers up to 24 bit 192 kHz processing and 8 inputs. The BDA-3 offers up to 32 bit 384 kHz resolution and DSD-256, with 10 inputs. While most users will probably never use all those inputs, the high resolutions offered will be welcome for those using a software-based playback system with upsampling, or using the front panel “Upsample” button to let the BDA-3 upsample the incoming data stream internally. I used the USB and coax S/PDIF inputs.

Other components on hand during the review period included a VPI Aries 3 turntable with a Kuzma 4-Point tonearm, ZYX UNIverse Premium and Miyajima Madake moving coil cartridges; Pass Labs XP-25 phono preamplifier; custom Windows 7 music computer running JRiver Media Center 22; Cary DAC-200ts, a brief listen to a Bricasti M-1 SE DAC, and Mytek Brooklyn DACs, the latter with external power supply; Lynx Hilo and RME ADI-2 Pro AD/DA converters with external power supplies; Mark Levinson No. 52 and Acoustic Imagery Jay-Sho preamplifiers; Rogue Audio Stereo 100, Cary CAD-805AE, Inspire Fire-Bottle SE, Bryston 2.5B3, PS Audio Stellar S300, and Pass Labs XA30.8 power amplifiers; Fritzspeakers Carrera BE with the lowest few Hertz supplied by a pair of JL Audio e110 subwoofers, and Focal Chorus 714 loudspeakers borrowed from the HT system. The audio cabling is Audioquest WEL Signature and Mogami interconnects and speaker cables. USB cables include Wyred4Sound USB PCOCC Premium and Lavricables "dual head" cable. Power cables include my DIY power cord, Straight Wire Pro Thunder, and Acoustic Zen Absolute. Power protection and purification are provided by a PS Audio Dectet for the preamplifiers and source components, and a PS Audio Quintet for the power amplifiers. The latter provides remote turn-on and -off of power amplifiers that lack a 12V remote trigger.

Like many digital components, this one benefits from a lot of break in time. The sound is a little rough and coarse when new, as expected. I let it cook for 500 hours, listening occasionally to hear the sound ripen. About 200 hours provides roughly 98% break in, and the extra time completely eliminates that “new component” electronic fingerprint. At this point, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Bryston DAC is better sounding than a lot of studio gear including mixers, boards, converters and software such as older versions of Pro Tools, which can burden the musical performances with an electronic signature.

Some converters force upsampling upon your music by default. Thankfully, “(w)ith the exception of user-selectable up-sampling, the BDA-3 doesn't convert anything to another format or re-sample at a non-native rate.” I prefer to upsample by even number multipliers, e.g. 44.1 kHz CDs upsampled 4x to 176.4 kHz, and my 192 kHz LP rips upsampled 2x to 384 kHz. JRiver Media Center makes this simple with the DSP Studio tool to select and remember the preferred upsampling frequency for each specific source frequency.

Poor recordings have a hard edge that is like the sound from an old transistor radio. The BDA-3 unfailingly lets us hear this distortion. Importantly, we can easily hear that this nonmusical characteristic is not present on good recordings, such as my 32 bit 192 kHz and 384 kHz WAV recordings of my LPs. This certifies that the BDA-3 does not exhibit any solid state hardness or glare unless those qualities are present in the recording. When it is present, it is usually perceived as a separate layer that is apart from the instrument or voice.

There are really only two requirements for audio reproduction: resolution and linearity. The component must deliver all and only the information in the recording (resolution), and must present this uniformly from octave to octave (linearity). The Bryston BDA-3 excels in both of these essential parameters. The BDA-3 offers seemingly perfect linearity from low bass to upper treble which provides realistic body and presence to instruments and especially to vocal performances. Harmonic activity is fully present, in proper proportion (!), and can last a very long time before fading into silence. This relies on excellent transient response and resolution. In direct comparison to the Mytek Brooklyn, the Brooklyn has slightly more power in the low bass. This is a matter quantity, not quality. The magnitude is one needle-width volume change on a sub. In all other areas, the Bryston is superior. As frequencies increase from bass to treble, the BDA-3 leaves the Brooklyn farther behind. The Bricasti DAC ($10k) had slightly better edge definition, which could be addressed by using different cables. Most DACs today are good to very good. The challenge is to find The One that best fits your stereo system.

The Bryston BDA-3 has a very natural and neutral character, which includes both resolution and smoothness. It is very analog-like, except that background noise, including clicks and pops, is totally absent. Very nice! I suggest that when comparing this DAC to others, an extended audition is required so that you hear and appreciate the actual sound of the DAC, and not just how it differs from something else. A quick listen will probably not tell you how good this DAC really is or how long you might be happy keeping it in your system.

The BDA-3 DAC finally convinced this listener that digital technology has gotten good enough to create archival quality 32/384 recordings of LPs. (These require about 4 GB of storage per record side.) While there are small changes to the sound provided by the recording process – the A/D converter and software - digital captures the magic of analog, at least when witnessed with the BDA-3 playing those digital music files.

Feed the Bryston BDA-3 high resolution material and be drawn into wonderful performances. It has been my preferred DAC for the past several months after I purchased it because it offers an overall sound quality that is without observable character. The tonal balance is very consistent from low bass to upper treble without any highlighting or reticence that might be called bright, laid back, warm, sweet, dull, sharp, forward, cool, or other audiophile descriptors. I judge DACs against my own original LP-sourced digital files, and make direct A-B comparisons of the LP playing and the digital recording of that same LP recorded with the same turntable/arm/cartridge/phono preamplifier. We regularly challenge the accuracy of a recording because we were not present when the recording was made. In my comparisons, this is not a factor. Input = output. This is a very neutral component that is exceptionally true to the source.

Overall Rating: 10 LPs

10 Audio 'Perfect 10 Award'

Link to manufacturer: Bryston Limited

Manufacturer's Comment:

As a manufacturer Bryston totally agrees with Jerry’s assessment that the prime objective for a state of the art audio component is to provide as much 'transparency and resolution' as possible to the signal path. The BDA3 is our best effort so far in the pursuit of this goal for a quality cost no object DAC.
James Tanner
V/P Bryston