Heed Audio's first DAC, the Dactilus, has a features list that extends as far as optical and electrical digital inputs (selected using a rear-mounted switch) and a single unbalanced output! Well, what more do you want?
OK, a few more inputs for some applications, but since this is evidently conceived and marketed on the basis of quality rather than convenience, presumably the designer feels he has done his utmost and any other features would interfere with that.
In common with the majority of rival units, this one uses an external power supply, in this case a 'lump in the lead' with captive wires both ends. The connection to the Dactilus itself uses a locking connector rather than the usual push-fit DC connector.
Inside the case are two circuit boards, both quite small and surrounded by plenty of fresh air. One carries power supply regulation components and the input sockets, while the second board bears the input receiver and DAC chips, plus a small handful of passive parts (decent commercial-grade) and two transistors – the minimalism clearly extends to the circuit design.
This minimalism is enabled by the use of an unusually highly integrated DAC, a tiny chip just a few millimetres square which includes not only the means of turning digits to analogue, but also the basic output analogue filtering.
It is capable of handling 24-bit/96kHz sources and, although one couldn't describe its specifications as state-of- the-art, it should be capable of achieving good performance.
This turned out to be another 'horses for courses' DAC rather than an outright winner, but we can imagine it making a lot of friends simply on the basis of its lively character.
It was thought by all of our listeners to be one of the most 'foot-tapping' of the group and it certainly enjoys getting stuck in to some energetic rhythms. In addition, it has a very pleasing, slightly warm midrange which does much to bring out the best in voices.
Where it scores down slightly is detail, which is decent, but becomes a little coarse when there is a lot happening in the music.
This DAC scored most highly with jazz and rock and seemed least successful with classical tracks. All the same, the sound is generally convincing and we're not sure we would have been quite so picky had the listening not been conducted in terms of direct comparison with some highly capable kit.
In terms of specifics, frequency extremes are well presented with well-extended bass that also features good control. It has plenty of impact and, perhaps, just slightly less tunefulness than some.
Midrange, apart from the slight warmth noted above, seems neutral and treble is just a shade closed-in at the very top, especially in densely textured music – a single instrument works rather better in that area. Imaging is good with precise lateral placement: depth is not quite as extended as some, but still sounds basically believable.
And in all the various tracks we tried, there's a really inviting quality which tends to put specific criticisms out of mind as one feels the essential message of the music taking clear priority over the detailed means used to convey it.
As a result, while this isn't the product for the most analytical listener, it's seldom anything other than an enjoyable one to listen to and we're happy to recommend it, at the very least, for an extended audition.