If the expensive holiday season has you looking for value, this may redefine the meaning. My two-channel system is sprawling with sources: phono, CD and digital audio. So electronics that have the potential to improve the sound of all my sources has a pretty good shot at providing me with good value. With that in mind, I came across the Behringer Ultramatch Pro SRC2496 – a high-resolution 24-bit / 96 kHz A/D – D/A, sample rate and format converter. Simply put, the SRC2496 is an up-sampling DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) and an ADC (Analogue to Digital Converter). Aside from the obvious uses as an up-sampling DAC, the ADC can be used to transfer LP albums to high resolution digital audio. Musicians can use the ADC to record their performances as high resolution digital recordings. To top it off, the SRC2496 also contains a built-in headphone amplifier so one could also use this unit as a DAC and headphone amplifier with a computer and headphones. Reasonably priced at $299 US, the SRC2496 isn’t going to break anyone’s bank.
You may have observed that the SRC2496 does not look like your typical DAC that is marketed at the home audio crowd. That is because Behringer targets the professional audio industry where sound and functionality are the priority. The average home audio enthusiast will not use many of the pro-audio features on the SRC2496, but rest assured that they do not affect the sonic performance of the DAC. While this is my first hands-on experience with a Behringer product, I’ve heard a few nice sounding systems that put their digital crossover (DCX2496) to good use in bi-amped and tri-amped two-channel systems.
On the technical side, the A/D and D/A converters are 24-bit / 96 kHz. The signal output can be set at a resolution of 16, 20 or 24-bit and the sample rate can be converted into 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96 kHz. The sample rate of a normal CD is 44.1 kHz and setting the sample rate of a DAC higher than the source is typically referred to as up-sampling (not to be mistaken with oversampling). The internal high-precision quartz clock generator can be used to remove jitter and correct off-tune and incorrect sample rates. External clocks can also be used with the SRC2496.
From the exterior, the SRC2496 appears to be well built. It is housed in a 1U rack-mount enclosure that measures approximately 43 cm wide by 4.5 cm high and 19 cm deep (with the rack-mount brackets removed) and weighs about 2 kg. The front panel is made of aluminum and contains a number of controls and a series of LED indicators. At times I found the displays to be distracting so I made a small flap out of black card stock to hide them. The remainder of the chassis is black powder-coated steel. Aside from the headphone connection which is located on the front panel, all hookups are at the rear of the unit. The analogue connections are through a stereo set of balanced XLR jacks, one set for input and another for output. If your audio components do not use balanced connections you can use an RCA to XLR (female) cable which is what I used. On the digital end the inputs consist of RCA and optical (Toslink) connections for S/PDIF signals and an XLR connection for AES/EBU signals. A separate trio of connections is used for the digital output. All of the connectors appear to be durable. Power is supplied to the unit through an IEC connection. I swapped the stock power cord for one that is shielded. This is a personal cable preference of mine as I don’t like to use unshielded power cables near signal cables. A thorough but compact user’s manual is included which describes operation of the SRC2496 and gives application examples. Also included in the manual are cable schematics for unbalanced cables such as RCA to XLR which came in handy.
Once I unpacked the SRC2496 and looked through the documentation, I decided to first try it with my home computer. Actually, I was very eager to try it with my computer as I had recently purchased a couple high resolution 24-bit / 96 kHz albums from HDTracks only to find out that my Squeezebox is incapable of playing high resolution formats. The SRC2496 was connected to receive S/PDIF signals from the RCA output of the computer. In this application I made use of the SRC2496 as a DAC and the built-in headphone amplifier was used to drive a pair of Sennheiser HD 595 headphones. I began my listening with a high resolution 24-bit / 96 kHz offering of Rebecca Pidgeon – Four Marys [Chesky Records | hdtracks.com]. The level of detail and transparency from this Celtic inspired recording were remarkable – as if there was nothing between the music and myself. Next I tried my other high resolution recording, Ana Caram – Hollywood Rio [Chesky Records | hdtracks.com]. Despite not being able to understand most of what Ana is singing about, if I had not been tethered to the headphones I would have been dancing to this very musical and upbeat album. This is a great recording full of rich, deep natural sound. When paired with a nice set of headphones, the SRC2496 DAC / headphone amplifier combo made for a very satisfying computer headphone system. I found the built-in headphone amp on the SRC2496 to be comparable with the headphone amp on an NAD C162 preamp. Of course you could also use an external headphone amplifier with the SRC2496 if you prefer. The DAC in the SRC2496 is superior to that found on most mainstream computer soundcards which makes for a significant sonic upgrade.
While the SRC2496 was connected to the computer I took the opportunity to transfer a few LP albums into high resolution digital recordings. The setup was a Rega P1 turntable into the phono stage of a NAD C162 preamplifier into the SRC2496 set at 24-bit / 96 kHz, S/PDIF into the coax digital input of my computer. The turntable will pick up noise so the setup and environment will need attention for good results. AC power, RFI, grounding and vibrations are just some potential sources for unwanted noise. On my first attempt the recordings turned out very good and I’m sure the settings and setup used were not optimal. The recordings do capture the sonic signature of the turntable and preamp so this could make for an interesting method to make A/B comparisons between phono components. With the right equipment, environment and setup the SRC2496 makes it possible for home audio enthusiasts to create their own high quality digital recordings – be it from analog media or a live performance.
Next I moved the SRC2496 into my two-channel system where I used it as an up-sampling DAC with two sources: an NAD C521i CD player and a first generation Squeezebox. Both of these source units are getting up in age and using them with a newer and higher resolution DAC is sound thinking. The SRC2496 can be used to select between the CD player and the Squeezebox and the signal level was controlled using a Lightspeed Passive Attenuator into a pair of OddWatt Audio KT88 monoblock amplifiers (25W class-A, push-pull). The speakers were high-sensitivity Fostex FE206E drivers in a back-loaded horn enclosure. Musical selections were either CDs or lossless FLAC media files, both with sample rates of 44.1 kHz. I quickly cycled through a few familiar tracks so I could compare the difference with and without up-sampling. Listening to the up-sampled music was like a breath of fresh air. I found that the best results were achieved by up-sampling to 88.2 kHz which is a whole number multiple of the source sample rate. There seems to be some technical merit to this which is over my head so I can’t elaborate. One of my favourite albums is Natalie Merchant – Tiger Lily [MFSL UDCD 771] which features a number of standout vocal gems like San Andreas Fault, Wonder, Carnival and Jealousy. On San Andreas Fault every tender nuance and detail was present and they helped bring forth deep emotional feeling on this intimate track. The subtle vocal inflections were clearly presented and the music sounded very natural through the SRC2496. As my ears mature, I’ve found myself listening to more jazz and The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out [Columbia CK 52860] is a classic album that sounds great. Through the SRC2496 music was just wonderful. There were layers of sound, piano decay and drum nuances which were only hinted at before, but now shined through. Even a glass of wine to accompany music tasted better!
Normally I am not fond of “magic box devices” that manipulate music and I tend to lean towards the simple/less-is-better approach. But on the mater of up-sampling, I’m buying it. The biggest overall improvements observed were with the naturalness of music which is the most natural sounding that I have been able to achieve from digital sources so far.
For those of you who are not afraid to break out a soldering iron, you can stretch this value even further as there are a number of modifications and upgrades that can be competed to the power supply and output stage. You can search for examples on the web. If you are not that brave, Audiosmile [audiosmile.co.uk] offers a modified Behringer SRC2496 with an improved power supply and output stage.
The low cost, very good performance and flexibility make the Behringer SRC2496 a truly exceptional value. If you have not tried an up-sampling DAC this is a really good one to start with.
BEHRINGER USA Inc.
Behringer Ultramatch Pro SRC2496 24-Bit/96 kHz A/D-D/A & Sample Rate Converter
Price: $299 US