The Channel Islands Audio VDA-1 DAC and VAC-1
6 January 2003
VDA-1 Digital to Audio Converter
Based on the Burr Brown PCM1716
Inputs: (2) Toslink Optical, Coaxial SP/DIF
Locking Frequencies: 44.1k, 48k, 88.2k, 96k
Frequency Response: 20 Hz-20 kHz +/- 0.1 db
THD: < 0.006% 20 Hz-20 kHz
Output Level: 2.4 vRMS
Dimensions: 4.40"W × 2.65"H
× 4.40"D - or dinky!
Warranty: 1 Year, Parts & Labor
Output Voltage: 14VAC @ 1.44 Amps
Accessories: IEC Type AC Cable, AC output Cable
Dimensions: 4.40"W × 2.65"H
× 4.40"D - matching dinky!
Warranty: 1 Year, Parts & Labor
Channel Islands Audio
567 W. Channel Islands Blvd.
Port Hueneme, CA 93041
Dusty's Dinky Dynamo DAC
I first became acquainted with Dusty
Vawter shortly after the Audio Alchemy clan folded up
tents, mounted their camels and headed for the sunset.
Dusty had been the technical manager at Audio Alchemy,
leaving them in 1999 to join forces with Greg Schug,
who, in the early 1970's, had founded Monolithic
Sound. Monolithic Sound's stated purpose was to build
highly reliable, major bang-for-the-buck gear that the
less-than-well-heeled music lover could afford. Well,
I am happy to say that they have been very successful
in that endeavor; just look at the reviews. In fact, I
still use the Monolithic PS-1 phono stage with the
dual-mono HC-1 power supply Dusty designed.
About the same time he left AA, Dusty founded a new
company, Channel Islands Audio, near Port Hueneme, CA.
At the time we met, Dusty was doing some wonderful
mods to Audio Alchemy gear, and worked his magic on my
AA DDE v1.2 DAC and PS-2 power supply, which, along
with a DTI Pro 32 upsampler, "Tin Ear" still enjoys to
this day. I have yet to see a product associated with
Dusty's name that has not impressed me with both its
level of musical involvement and its superb value. The
most recent item of his that I have fallen in love
with was his absurdly transparent and, for a passive
preamp, remarkably dynamic $249 passive preamplifier,
the VPC-1. With his stellar history, I was both
anxious and curious to see what he could achieve with
a digital to analog converter.
Nuts 'n' Bolts
The VDA-1 is carefully designed with the
boards laid out in a way to optimize the shortest
possible signal paths. Hell, the whole thing isn't
much bigger than two packs of cigarettes stacked atop
one another. Using the same chassis for all his
components, as did Audio Alchemy and Monolithic
coincidentally, yields lower manufacturing costs and
an aesthetic that is hard to argue with - unless you
are into pretense.
Given a choice between a tiny or less-than-glamorous
box that sings or a larger or sensational looking box
that just lip-syncs, I'll take the tiny or Spartan
unit every time. The unit is black on all sides except
the front, which is a brushed aluminum panel. The face
has four Torx head screws, one in each corner, and is
labeled CIAudio in the upper left corner, and VDA-1 in
the upper right. Centered at the bottom is 24 Bit D/A
Converter. In the center of the panel is the word
Lock, with a blue LED pilot which, when a digital
signal is sensed at either input, illuminates.
On the rear, from left to right, you have the right
and left single-ended audio outputs. Next, you have a
choice of inputs, RCA coaxial or Toslink optical. Now,
I have to admit that I've never heard an optical
conductor that could come close to a good 75-Ohm
coaxial RF cable, but, as this unit is both a perfect
and logical way to upgrade older CD/DVD players, many
which may ONLY have a Toslink digital output, this
must be seen as a wise move. To the right of the
Toslink input is the AC input socket for either the
supplied 14 VAC wall-wart, or the umbilical from the
Once you've selected optical or RF in, the unit will
accept up to a 24-bit word at 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96
kHz. The signal is then fed into a Burr-Brown DIR1701
low jitter input receiver. The heart of the system is
the Burr-Brown PCM1716 digital to analog converter.
Once the ones and zeros are back to analog voltages,
they are routed through a Class A output stage,
utilizing yet another Burr-Brown device, the OPA2132
op-amp. The board and parts quality are all optimum.
Throughout the signal path, only Vishay metal film
type resistors and polystyrene filter capacitors are
used. All told, though economical in execution, it is
not a "cheap" design - get my drift?
I will admit to expecting that I'd enjoy
this mighty mite, taking into account all my past
pleasant experiences with Dusty's gizmos, but had no
idea just how engaging it was going to be. Right from
the start, with no real run-in time, it was clear that
this DAC had the musical goods, but, through the
circumstances involved, it ended up with some 140
hours of casual use before I started taking notes.
Powered by the included wall-wart supply, the unit was
very musical and had a remarkably well-balanced
tonality. How balanced? Take a look at the provided
response graphs, outlining frequency response,
noise and crosstalk information. Providing this type
of performance verification is something virtually
unheard of at this price point. Bravo, Dusty!
Timbre seemed excellent, with just the slightest tilt
in favor of the upper midrange, which could
occasionally infuse a bit of hardness into the upper
registers. This attribute prevented the VDA-1 from
being able to fully realize that creamy bronzy flavor
from well recorded cymbals and horns that the best
DAC's can retrieve, instead producing it just a bit
more on the brittle side of natural. Though voiced
slightly forward, and with instrumental images
occasionally a bit larger-than-life, this little
bugger got down! Foot tapping and head bobbing were
the order of the day.
Soundstaging was very good, as was image specificity,
with instrument bodies produced with just a bit of
bloom in some instances. In terms of resolution, it is
a bit above what I have come to expect in this price
range, but, ultimately, falls short of the best out
there. Let me use a photographic analogy to explain.
When compared to my reference ModWright Signature
Perpetual Technologies P-1A/P-3A powered by the
Monolithic Sound P3 supply, where my reference unit
resolves as, say, a Leica M6 equipped with Carl Zeiss
optics, the little CIAudio DAC was more like an
Olympus OM4Ti with the Zuiko Lenses; not fuzzy,
blurred or out of focus mind you, just a bit less
crisply defined and detailed by way of comparison. And
that, my friends, is mighty fine news for the humble
The biggest frailty I uncovered with this little guy
is its ultimate lack of finesse at both frequency
extremes. At the extreme top and bottom, it just is
not as refined as some of its state-of-the-art
brethren. Moreover, it seems less noticeable with the
uppermost regions and more susceptible in the deepest
of bass. Now, I don't really see this as a sticking
point, given both its overall good bass and midbass
performance and its target audience. How many folks
out there shopping for a $350 super-DAC have a speaker
system that will plumb the deepest depths anyway? I
mean, c'mon, this little thing only retails for $350!
Adding the VAC-1, which is identical in
size and appearance save for the Lock light and
different stenciling, brought both some welcomed and
expected sonic improvements. With this heftier supply,
there was a noticeable shift towards a slightly warmer
overall tonality and the fabric of the music was now
emanating from a darker foundation. These two
attributes are especially appreciated with intimate
jazz and chamber classical works.
Bass, though it assumes a bit more control, is still
on the slight side. Treble, imaging and soundstaging
enjoy slight improvements too, as does overall
resolution and detail retrieval. To my ear however,
the most manifest improvement with the addition of the
VAC-1 is the distinction and enhancement it affords
dynamic contrasts. With the beefier power supply,
dynamics are noticeably improved, though still not
completely effortless. However, they are less
congested and homogenized and are handled with much
less distraction. To my mind, the addition of the
VPC-1 is well worth the additional buck sixty.
Dusty has hit a home run with this humble little DAC.
On it's own, what it lacks in ultimate resolve and
bass excavation is made up for in its splendid timber
and overall balance.
Add the VAC-1, and you find yourself with one of the
best digital bargains out there today, to these ears.
This combo is musically involving and, depending on
your hot buttons and biases, will give the likes of
the entry Assemblage DAC 2.6 and MSB Link DAC III some
stiff competition, besting each in a number of
Is it a giant killer? No, of course not. Is it one
heck of a good deal? You can bet the farm on that.
That is one guarantee you will find common to any
product associated with Dusty's name. In my opinion,
the VDA-1 is one VERY natural sounding and involving
device that you can afford. It is a real
musical treat and should be high on the list for the
first time digi-phile, the older CD player up-grader
or the budget conscious. This DAC will also make great
music in a second system for you well heeled 'philes
who want to equip yet another system. Dusty has done
it again, and you get the benefits in spades.