Apologies for there having been an updated from us over the past few weeks. Unfortunately, there’s no interesting tale of cheating death at the hands of Covid. Instead, I had simply managed to pull a muscle in my neck moving around some speakers upstairs in the shop and such was the discomfort that I couldn’t manage staring at a computer screen for any amount of time. Now that I’m back to normal, I felt it was the polite thing to do to treat myself to a closer look at one of the more unusual and overlooked pieces of Hi-Fi in our range. May I introduce to you, the £8,950 Computer Audio Designs 1543mk2.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past ten years or so, you’re probably familiar with the term DAC. The stand alone Digital to Analogue Converter used to be a must-have upgrade for CD players back in the day and faded somewhat into obscurity over the years as integrated CD players became better and better. With the rise and rise of computer audio and the opportunity to play high resolution music, the standalone DAC suddenly became a vital component in the audio chain once more and a slew of designs flooded the market. Most offered a USB input, Wall wart PSU, set of RCA connectors and an off the shelf DAC chip from the likes of Wolfson. Some of these became almost ubiquitous in the Hi-Fi scene, like Arcam’s R-DAC and others simply didn’t receive the praise and attention that they sorely deserved. The CAD 1543mk2 is one of the latter and stands out as the black sheep of USB DACs.

The 1543 comes from British/American firm Computer Audio Design and is the brainchild of Scott Berry. Having had the opportunity to meet Scott back in 2014, I was immediately taken in by his obvious passion for offering a totally different way of embracing the shift to computer or streamed audio whilst offering some frankly genius touches that allow the DAC to rub shoulders with the very best. I was immediately besotted with the DAC and we became an early addition to his growing network of dealers.

Where to begin with the 1543? Starting with the USB input on the rear, the USB socket is galvanically isolated to negate any noise or interference caused by source component from reaching the DAC chips. The signal path from input to converters is kept as short as possible in an effort to eliminate any degradation and a whopping 16 of the classic Philips TDA1543 resistive ladder DAC chips are used to drive the RCA sockets. This, for me, was the real touch of genius in the design, managing to have a passive output stage without any transistors, valves or transformers to colour the wonderful sound of the 1543 and resulting in one of the most analogue and natural sounding boxes that I have had the pleasure to listen to. Power the 1543 are no less than five separate transformers with independent regulated supplies that feed each of the DAC’s sections and a thick acrylic chassis to combat resonances. A pair of RCA Terminals complete an elegantly simple and uncluttered back panel.

Absolutely despising computers as I do, I elected to use a trusty Aurender N10 as my front end for the CAD 1543 and plugged it into our Audio Research Ref6SE Preamplifier and T+A A3000HV Power amplifier. These two work in tandem to give a beautifully balanced performance, capable of immense control but also of disarming intimacy and insight. I chose the gorgeous Franco Serblin Accordo as the cherry on top of this particular cake and eagerly sat down to refresh myself in how the 1543 sounds.

Starting with an old favourite, Rodrigo Y Gabriella’s amazing take on Stairway to Heaven is served up with a delicious tonal darkness, the guitar strings are given such amazing texture that one can almost feel them being played right in front and every tap on the body is rendered with a timbre that seems totally woody and real. Staging is a good old-fashioned British affair, eschewing a more eastern “upfront” presentation for a very deep and recessed soundstage giving the illusion that the listening room is much longer than it really is. This effect really shines as I listen to Al Di Meola’s classic Friday Night in San Francisco, where the 1543MK2 places  Al Di Meola, John McGlaughlin and Paco De lucia at different distances into the soundstage, completing the illusion that I could really be sat in the Warfield theatre and not in central Oxford.

Switching the pace somewhat with Jem’s electropop gem “They”, the CAD shows that it’s no slouch either, keeping the pace of the track’s percussion effortlessly flowing and conveying an immense sense of musicality.  Jem’s vocals are unclouded among the backing vocals and as the (what sounds like) mandolin is introduced into the mix at the chorus, the track explodes outward and the effect becomes almost euphoric. As I flitted between genres and artists, the incredible warmth, character and timing of the 1543 continued to enthrall and captivate. This (the ability to stop me from doing what I should be doing on a Monday) is invariably what to me makes a piece of Hi-Fi exceptional rather than just plain old excellent, I WANT to go back upstairs and experience more music ameliorated by the velvety touch of the 1543.

This takes us to the aspect of the 1543MK2 that will split a room of music-lovers stright down the middle. We sell other DACs that offer up far more detail, greater signal to noise ratios, greater linearity, support higher sampling frequencies but none whatsoever that challenge the 1543 at what it is attempting to do – “reproduce a more natural “analog” sound that is typical of well-designed turntables”. In this regard, The CAD is a triumph and adds nuance and emotion to what can so often become a stark and brittle sounding medium. It’s conversion becomes an additive process, enriching the music and breathing life into 1’s and 0’s; It is therefore criminal that it spends so much time sat on a shelf here not being listened to! Even if it is a small start, its time to finally give it the exposure it sorely deserves. If you’re looking for a way to add that organic presence to your digital collection, there are few examples finer than Scott’s Magnum Opus featured here. Yes, it’s a black rectangle but behind the baffle lies a touch of brilliance.

Glad to be back, hope you’re all well!

Alasdair