The new Special Edition of NuForce's popular uDAC-2 will set you back by twice the price of the older uDAC-2 (which is still available). So what do you get for your money? And how does it compare to cheaper offerings from the other manufacturers.
The first thing you'll notice is that the SE edition is a lot heavier than its predecessor — the stainless steel endcaps add substantial heft. This, in my opinion, is a good thing — should you have headphones with a heavy cable, something like the SE (or the FiiO E10) is a lot less likely to get dragged around the desk than the more svelte HRT HeadStreamer (or the CEntrance DACPort, which we also had on hand during testing). Given the small size, none of these things are going to weigh you down too much anyway, and a little ballast doesn't hurt, especially since this is really meant as a desktop unit, not a portable (though as you'll see below, it does have an on-the-go application)
Under the hood, the big story is the inclusion of an asynchronous USB decoder. This works without special drivers on the Macintosh (OSX supports async transfer natively), but NuForce supplies an asynchronous USB driver and control panel for Windows. We can't comment on the Windows drivers, but can report that things worked just fine on the Mac we used for our audition of the unit. USB decoder aside, another notable improvement for the SE version of the uDAC is an improved volume pot. Earlier versions of the uDAC and uDAC-2 had noticeable channel imbalance at lower listening levels; enough to get annoying with more efficient headphones. The model we tested was free from such problems, at least to the ear (and that's what matters, ultimately); even at very low levels we found the stereo image acceptable.
Sonically, the uDAC-2SE was a bit more refined than the FiiO, with more overall clarity and less hiss, especially noticable when driving HD-650s and HiFiMan HE-500s — it was generally more similar to the HRT, with an even response that reminded me more of somewhat bigger desktop units like the Musical Fidelity V-Can. I felt it did a better job with difficult-to-drive headphones than the E10, and sounded less cluttered in general, most noticeably on material with a lot of low-end activity under female vocals (the breakdown section of Heaven 17's "Penthouse and Pavement" with it's dueling slap bass and synth bass under massed backup singers, was revealing in this case, the E10 sounding a bit cloudy by comparison with the uDAC-2SE).
The rear-panel RCA output is a variable-level preamp output, rather than a fixed-level line out. A curious choice (and some of you might prefer a fixed output for connection to an amp), but it does make sense if you'll be using the uDAC-2SE as a front end to a pair of powered speakers. Just remember to run the volume pot flat out if you're using this into a line input and you'll probably do just fine.
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