Product name: Harmony DA09
Manufacturer: Harmony Design - Sweden
Cost: 699-849 euros depending on configuration. (Currency conversion)
Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: September, 2012
New hi-fi products from a manufacturer are either completely new, ie a new design using different core components, or an update of an existing design. The new designs may be a bit more exciting for both reviewer and reader but often the products that satisfy the most are the latest developments of an existing item which has been honed nearer to perfection. I reviewed the Harmony DA9 DAC way back in June 2005, and then the revised version in March 2010. And now here is a new version called the DA09, so as song says "what's it all about Alfie?"
The DA09 is roughly the same DAC as the DA9, with a few tweaks as you may expect. In this version the CS8414 receiver has been replaced by the CS8422. The power supply has also been tweaked, as have the analogue sections. The review sample arrived with the optional volume control, that allows the DA09 to directly drive most power amplifiers, without the need for a buffer or pre amplifier (if you can live without the facility to switch multiple analogue inputs). Talking of input selection, you can connect up to three digital inputs to the DA09, and thankfully (and sensibly), the selector switch has been moved from the rear of the case to the front panel. The review sample also came with a headphone output (socket on the front panel next to the volume knob). I like the understated appearance of the DA09, and the construction is still to the same high quality. There is a choice of black or silver finish.
The DA09 looks much like its predecessor. The rear of the case sports a similar range of sockets, ie a choice of digital input sockets (2 x SPDIF) and a USB. Obviously the designer isn't such a big fan of BNC sockets for the SPDIF input, and I was a little disappointed not to find one on the latest version of this DAC. There are however, still a pair of balanced output sockets, as well as a pair of the more usual phono sockets for analogue connection to the hi-fi system.
One improvement that I really like the idea of is that the digital section of the DA09 can be easily removed. By easily, I don't mean by the supplier, but apparently it is simple enough for the customer to do. That means if the digital section is improved or re-designed in the future, Harmony DA09 owners can upgrade for the cost of the replacement digital board. Considering the cost of shipping items of hi-fi anywhere these days, this should make upgrading the DA09 as inexpensive as is reasonably possible. A nice touch by the designer to offer some future-proofing in this ever-changing world of hi-fi upgrades!
I auditioned the DA09 in both my main system, and my second system which comprised of a selection of class AB, class D, and valve amplifiers. As usual I gave it a good period to burn in before any serious listening. I used several sources for the auditions including a modified Logitech SB3, a couple of CDP's, both via the SPDIF input, a PC running Ubuntu, and a laptop running Windows 8 and Jplay, via the USB input. And yes, it was convenient to be able switch between a CDP and one of the computers for a fast comparison of the sound. This DAC works without the need for special drivers, so it's simply a case of connecting it up, and playing some music.
I didn't find that there was much of a change in the sound of the DA09 from what I remembered about the DA9. The presentation is smooth and liquid, and very easy to listen to. The sound is detailed and transparent, the bass tuneful, and the top-end clear and detailed. Vocals were presented clearly, and individual instruments easy to identify. In fact it is very difficult to find anything new to add to my comments about the DA9 with nothing negative to report. However, without having both DAC's to hand, it is impossible to say how much of an improvement the DA09 is over the previous model.
What I did like with the review model was having the volume control built in. This made it very easy to add a power amp and speakers for a 'simple' system. I found that the DA09 drove all the amplifiers that I tried with it, without the need for a buffer stage between them. So if you are looking for a minimalist system, this DAC would slot in nicely with a compact amplifier, and fed from a laptop or CDP, would only take up two shelves. It's a pity though that the volume can't be remotely controlled as I believe these days, that sort of convenience is becoming the norm rather than a luxury.
I wrote at the beginning of this review that I quite like products that are refined over the years but there comes a time when you have to look at any product in relation to the competition - the 'new kids on the block' if you like. And it appears from one or two other DAC's that I had available for review at the same time, that the DA09 is beginning to slip behind that competition in terms of sound quality. Mainly, it's not quite so transparent and subtle. So while I can still recommend the DA09 as a good quality DAC that makes enjoyable music, my enthusiasm for it is now slightly diminished comparing it to what else is available in the same price-range. Whether this is something that Harmony can rectify with an upgrade (remember that it is easily upgradeable) we will have to wait and see but as it stands now, I feel that the DA09 has slipped back in the pecking order of the DAC's that I would most recommend.
© Copyright 2012 Nick Whetstone - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com