A closer look into the workings of the French high-end audio company Totaldac. Take a dive into the mindset of Vincent Brient of Totaldac...
Where and how did it all start with your interest for audio?
I started doing electronic stuff when I was very young. Then I tried to improve a small hifi system and all started there.
How actually Totaldac happened?
People who came to visit me and listen to my hifi system with bass horns discovered the DACs and asked if they could buy it. After several demands I decided to accept and sell the DAC under the brand Totaldac.
The first Totaldac product was a R2R DAC board (with active crossover option) for Do It Yourself and OEM. Customers used it in high end systems and rapidly many people demanded a ready to use high end DAC instead of a board for DIY. They didn't want a DAC at DIY price and limited by what they installed around the main DAC board, they wanted the best possible ready to use DAC.
To illustrate the level they demanded, one of the first customers had Acapella Excalibur speakers. Another had a 4 way Goto horn system.
Would you consider yourself as an audiophile?
Audiophile and music lover. I listen first the music I like, no matter if it is classified red book or high rez. I am not only music lover, I am also an audiophile, otherwise I would not spend so much time on electronic to improve the sound.
Who were (or still are) your inspirations ?
Classical music concerts, symphonic, piano, organ.
Kindly list all of the present products from Totaldac?
d1-single, an unbalanced transistor DAC
d1-dual DAC, a balanced transistor DAC
d1-monobloc, a balanced transistor DAC in 3 boxes
d1-tube-mk2, a tube DAC
d1-twelve, a 3 box DAC which uses no transistor and no tube in the output stage
d1-integral, an unbalanced transistor DAC with embedded music streamer
d1-server, a music streamer with digital outputs
d1-digital, a reclocker which can improve all driver, CD based or computer based USB cable, with an integrated filter to get rid of the computer digital artefacts ethernet cable, with an integrated filter to get rid of the computer digital artefacts accessories such as active crossover options, SSD NAS, active XLR-RCA adapters, ethernet/wifi router...
Why did you choose Totaldac name?
When the name was chosen "Total" meant all functionalities for a system based on an active crossover. So DACs, adjustable crossover, single volume control for the 2 or 3 ways, USB input to accept a computer as a source. Soo Totaldac made the Totality of signal management from the digital record to the (excluded) power amplifiers.
What was a real breakthrough for you?
The d1 family of DACs. Before the A1 had a good success but not as much as the d1 family.
Do you produce everything in house?
The surface mount components are mounted in a specialised factory in France by machines. The mechanical parts are made by specialists of PMMA, sheet aluminium working, milling... All the rest in made in Totaldac lab: research and development, board assembly, final assembly, tests and measurements, listening, packaging, shipment, after sale service...
Everything connect to French people usually resemble passion. Would you see your way of reproduction also closely connected to passion?
Yes, 100% passion, much before the audio company was created. Before that I worked in telecommunication electronics and audio was only the hobby.
You’ve managed to design a unique aesthetics for your boxes. Please tell us more?
I like piano, I wished that it recalls a black piano with some non-parallel sides like a good room. So the font panel is black, mirror, plain. The lid is black too. The silver option was created for people who wanted a aluminium looking equipment to match their other "aluminium" equipment.
You offer both tubes and solid state DAC version. Please tell us how you see and hear the difference and why you choose to offer both?
The first released products used transistor because it makes the DAC universal, able to drive all power blocks directly whatever their sensitivity. Then came a tube version with unbalanced outputs. The d1-tube has been recently upgraded to d1-tube-mk2, now at the same price as the well reviewed d1-dual. I have always liked tube electronics, this d1-tube-mk2 may become a Totaldac best sale, I like it a lot.
General timeless question. Tubes vs. Transistors?
It is quite similar to the typical difference you have between a transistor preamp and a tube preamp. A matter a taste and association with the rest of the system.
What is your though about DSD? A trend of a new standard?
DSD is said to be revolution for entry level DACs because it bypasses some parts in their DAC chips. For very high end DACs it is just another file format, a bit different but not really better than high resolution pcm files.
What is your in house design approach and specific to your topology?
Everything is custom made, no DAC chip is used. So I can control every part, use what I find the best sounding. Audio integrated chips target mass market, the high end market in much too small for chip manufacturers.
Is there a place for mystical/esoteric dealings/materials in high-end audio?
The truth is in listening, not in theory or standard measurements. So the listening test decides what is good, even if it is unexpected or unbelievable. I like working like an instrument maker, not only as an electronic engineer. An "engineer only" work leads to very good measurements but most time a not so good sound.
What does Totaldac state of the art reproduction means?
A reproduction which reminds a symphonic concert when listening a symphonic album, it must not remind this brand of CD player or that type of DAC chip.
Do you think balanced topology is a must for best sound?
It can work very good without balanced topology. Sometimes a balanced circuit really helps. I use both balanced and unbalanced, as well as I use both transistors and tubes, low efficiency speakers and high efficiency speakers. So there is no general conclusion for me, it just depends how it is done and which problem must be solved.
What kind of reference system do you use?
I use several. A Voxativ field coil full range driver in big 2mx2mx3m bass horns, also a pair of Ampeggio Due and a Gradient Revolution low efficiency speaker. I have used Stax SR-009 headphones, big horns, other full range speakers. This spring 2015 I am testing several speakers like Soulsonic Impulse, Goebel High End, Silberstatic, Rockport, Kaiser Accoustics, other top end Voxativ stuffs...
As amplifier I have always had a lot of different triode amplifiers but also transistor and class D amplifiers.
What would you say sets apart Totaldac above other DAC manufacturers?
Well, maybe that the DAC was originally designed for me, not for market. So I really used what I found the best sounding whatever the component cost or whatever the marketing behind a technology.
Would you say, that one love for music reflects in the high-end audio end products?
I think that most high end artisans have the music passion but not all have the technical expertise in electronics. Listening tests on a resolving system + engineer research are both needed at the same time.
High prices. A must?
My customer want the best, they don't want just an affordable price. Am I sure? At least I am sure there is more people buying my top end DACs than buying my entry level DACs.
Whats your take on class A in a DAC signal chain. A must?
All analog buffers in signal path are class A in current Totaldac DACs. Class A is more difficult to do in power amplifier because of the heat produced. For a DAC it is easily achievable.
How important is the DAC power supply in your view?
Very important. The very low noise is directly linked to the power supply noise. For example I can't measure the noise floor of the d1-twelve because it is lower than my high performance measurement equipment.
What is generally specific to your design approach?
Combine listening test and engineering and without using ready to use DAC chips.
What importance do you give to built in components?
I use the components that I consider the best after I tried them. There is no marketing at Totaldac telling me what is the maximum bill of material allowed in a new product. Some preamp or amps are happy to say that they use 4 pieces of 1% Vishay VAR foil resistors, at USD16 each at Partsconnexion. I use 600 pieces of them in the d1-twelve DAC, at the much better tolerance of 0.01%.
What do you see as ultimate music test for ultra high-end?
Un-amplified concerts, so many possibilities. classical music, voice, piano, jazz...
What is your opinion on digital music revolution and high-resolution recordings?
Red book CD can already give a lot of pleasure, much more than high rez recording on a not so good transport+DAC.
Where is the fine line between, resolution, transparency and musicality?
It is sometimes possible to have both maximum resolution, maximum transparency and maximum sweetness and musicality. This is what the d1-twelve tries to do.
What is the ultimate goal of Totaldac?
Be full time fun, be in direct contact with customers and partners, focus on the best music reproduction.
What is the reference for your when designing to products?
Only the concert. I have no master tape or LP player (not any more) or no competitor digital source for example.
How close can one get with digital reproduction in comparing to analog in your opinion?
I am not an LP specialist. I am happy when LP specialised customers are happy with my digital source.
Any plans for more affordable Totaldac products?
No lower cost DAC is expected, but the Totaldac USB cable/filter and ethernet cable/filter are affordable ways to improve a system These products are quite successful.
How important are the room acoustics in your view?
Very important but I also understand that some people can't modify their living room. I have built a new 60sq meter room recently, with no parallel wall and a high ceiling. It is always a pleasure to try a new speaker in it. I have a second listening room, 45sq meters mostly made of wood where I have the big bass horn with Voxativ full range drivers. They are very different room but I like both. It is a way to test equipment in two very different rooms.
Its always hard to stop the initial design in making the end product. How do you know when to stop?
I stop when I am happy and when it is time to release to customers. Then customers can also upgrade their DAC to a higher end DAC, for example d1-single to d1-dual or d1-dual to d1-monobloc or reclocker to d1-server or d1-tube to d1-tube-mk2 or go up to the d1-twelve.
How do you see the state of the present high-end society?
It is changing, less local shops, more Internet but the final target stays the same, nice music a home. Totaldac is growing each year but I know that for the overall market it is difficult.
And what about High-end magazines? Do you believe in traditional High-end audio magazine reviews?
I prefer to listen the equipment myself. This is also a matter of personal tastes and history. I visit some customers and partners, visit some rooms in hifi shows, invite partners to try their equipment in my listening room.
I like to think, that serious audiophiles are more than intelligent when spending the money. How do you see this?
Totaldac offers a 14 day trial so they can test in their system and return it if they don't like. So the big mistake becomes almost impossible.
Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?
There is no much change for the best components. Mostly small integrated ICs are more and more affordable but they are not made for very high end.
How good can a redbook CD sound?
It can be very good. For example for hifi show we pass mainly rippped CDs, we no need to use many higher resolution files to make good demos. Obviously most people have much more CDs or ripped CDs than higher resolution files, they must not worry, the recording quality, the artistic quality and the drive + DAC is more important than the format.
What is the biggest difference between high-resolution audio files and lower ones?
What we call "red book" is the CD resolution, so 16 bits amplitude at 44.1KHz sampling frequency. What is called high resolution is mostly everything above 16 bits or above 48KHz. 24 bit can lead to more dynamic, for truly high dynamic recording which are not so common. A high sampling frequency can lead to extended high frequency so a bit more clarity. DSD is another format, also accepted in Totaldac DACs, people find it usually as good as other format, all formats can lead to music.
What kind of future path digital audio is heading towards?
Streaming (listening on the Internet) is a trend.
How do you see the future path for Totaldac?
The d1-server can already accept Qobuz, Wimp, Tidal and so on. It will not replace local files playing, it is just a complement.
Have you giving any thoughts regarding the high-performance surround sound?
In a cinema room why not but in a living room I have never heard a convincing demo whereas stereo can be good even in a non-dedicated room.
What is your thought on MP3 format? Did it brought revolution or de-volution?
There are different level of MP3, it makes a big different but anyway none is really made for high end, just use uncompressed music for high end: flac, aiff...
Do you believe we can come close to the real life experience in high-end audio reproduction?
It will never be as good but closer means more emotion, more understanding of what is happening in the recorded concert.
How important would you say front end is in the high-end audio system chain?
The drive is very important, it can change the sound even more than if you change the recording format.
Where does hi-fi stops and high-end comes in?
Maybe when the sounds makes me remember a concert and not this or this hifi technology.
Would you say that reproduction of classical music is the ultimate challenge for any high-end audio product?
Many people can listen to classical concert, composed most times of very good instrument played in good rooms by good musician, so it is a good "true" reference.
Where do you think everything will stop with sampling frequency and bits?
It is very easy to create another high resolution format, pcm 50MHz and 64bit is for me, but since recording and playback equipment will never be able to make the corresponding dynamic and distorsion it is completely useless. Also, the higher frequency the worse the noise floor, see telecom ADCs and DACs, you can't have both bandwidth and noise at the maximum together, and the ear is more sensitive to the noise level that to ultra high frequencies.
All in all, a format in audio is just a bit bandwidth, a compatible equipment only means that it can accept this stream and output some sound, it doesn't mean that it extracts the dynamic, low noise and low distortion that it could give in theory. That's a key point in digital audio, no one cares the result, only the format acceptance is given in specs.
Do we need 32-bit digital recordings?
Do you see a special value in Made In Europe?
Yes, Europe, and more specifically France where I leave has more and more a speciality of high performance and high quality. See for example plane manufacturers, trains, nuclear, army, telecom transmitter, medical equipment... but the entry level market is now almost gone: consumer electronics, washing machines... all those low cost equipment.
What would you say its a secret of Totaldac rising presence in high end audio world?
Totaldac focuses on the sound before anything else.
What is your understanding of master clock and how important it is in high-end audio digital chain?
The Totaldac products don't use the spdif or AES-EBU clock, they all have an internal clock. It sounds better than a clock which would be extracted from the spdif stream but I decided to rebuild the clock locally instead of outputting the clock because only few equipment can accept an external clock. The clock is external only for the 3 box Totaldac DACs because in this case the two monobloxes must share the same clock. So there is a specific clock in Totaldac products but it is installed in the DAC and servers.
In studio many equipment must share the same clock too but for hifi playback they don't need to be synchronised since we are just playing a recording, it is a one-direction patch, from the disc (or hard disk) to the speakers.
Upsampling? Are there benefits?
For me it has more side effects in sound than benefits.
Any dreams that you couldn't fulfil jet in audio?
A much longer room which really handles clean ultra low bass for my bass horns. Maybe a magic bass trap could help instead.
All in one digital boxes vs separate units. Is miniaturisation a future or just another try to oversimplify things?
It was my former job to miniaturise: making smart phones, GPS for pedestrian, telecommunication modules and so on. It is always a big constraints because the signals mix with another (this is called crosstalk) when they are close one to another. It is just easier and can be better when it is separate. Also more space allows more discrete DACs in parallel.
I made a 44x13x74mm GPS which had also wifi antenna, stereo sound output, flash memory inside, so could be used as a complete one box tiny streamer able to drive directly a power amplifier, but this was far to sound as the 3-box d1-
Who would you say typical Totaldac audio customers are?
A person who loves music at home for a long time, with some technical culture to appreciate design full of innovations and avoid empty boxes. They spend time studying what the market offers. They listen wherever they can. They even give me ideas and build my product marketing.
What there are usually not: people with low knowledge in hifi, going in a hifi shop, asking the best in a given price range and finished.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
Come and visit the 4 (maybe 5) Totaldac rooms in Munich High End show in May 2015. Two rooms will use transistor amplifiers, two will use tube amplifiers. Two with preamp, two without preamp. Four different technologies of speakers. CD transports and music streamer will be used. Probably 4 different DACs in these 4 rooms.