Gustard DAC R26 Review
The ladder of success
Pros: + Extremely musical sounding and engaging
+ Very natural and lifelike timbre
+ Not gooey, syrupy or slow
+ Excellent technicalities and transparency
+ Dead silent and distortion free
+ Dynamic and impactful
+ Absent of digital glare and artificiality
+ Abundance of digital inputs
+ Embedded with a LAN streamer
+ Compact sized and beautiful looking
+ Great build quality
+ Remote controlled
Cons: – Soundstage lacking in depth and holography compared to other DACs (see review)
– The streamer has random buffering issues and slightly degraded sound quality compared to the other digital inputs with a good transport
– The LCD screen is very difficult to read even from a close distance
The GUSTARD DAC-R26 was arranged as a loan in cooperation with Audiophonics to be reviewed for hxosplus printed edition.
I was so impressed with the R26 sound performance that I couldn’t resist sharing my impressions with the Headfi community.
The price of the Gustard DAC R26 is €1790 and you can order it from Audiophonics.
The R26 is the first DAC of the company to use an R2R architecture with discrete components of very high quality and perfectly optimized to offer exceptional sound performance.
Two arrays are used, one for each channel, in a fully balanced configuration while RCA outputs are also available.
In addition to the digital inputs (including the least common AES and I2S), the R26 offers Bluetooth 5.0 with LDAC and aptX HD plus network connectivity, allowing you to control the reading of your music at distance. The whole is integrated in a sublime modern and luxurious chassis.
There is also support for an external 10 Mhz clock.
Further information and full technical specifications are available here.
Build quality and appearance
The chassis of the R26 is made from aluminum with CNC machine processing and has a smooth, satin black finish.
A monochrome OLED screen is fitted at the center of the front face for displaying the configuration menu and other useful information but you have to be eagle-sighted in order to read it from a distance more than 20-30 cm.
Build quality is excellent, there are no sharp corners or rough edges and the R26 is beautiful looking too with a contemporary design that will fit all racks.
User interface and connectivity
The R26 has all the usual digital inputs (optical, coaxial and USB) plus the least common AES and I2S via HDMI.
There is also high definition Bluetooth connectivity and LAN input so you can use the embedded steamer.
An external 10 MHz clock input is also available despite the R26 already having high quality internal oscillators.
Balanced and unbalanced analogue outputs are available with the added benefit that they can be simultaneously plugged without degrading the sound quality.
The menu can be configured either from the multifunction rotary knob that is positioned at the right side of the faceplate or better with the included remote control.
The R26 works as a preamplifier with adjustable volume control that you can max it for the full scale output.
You can select the custom PCM reconstruction filters (fast, mid, slow) or bypass them by selecting the NOS (non oversampling) function which also sets the level of the output volume to fixed bypassing the preamplifier.
There are also DSD, attenuation, phase, brightness and external clock adjustments.
The embedded streamer is a small computer board running a custom Gustard OS (without an accompanying application) rather than something more common like the moOde OS.
So in order to stream you can use the Bubble UpnP application, AirPlay or Roon bridge.
My experience with the LAN streamer was a mixed one because sometimes I got interruptions and buffering issues when streaming high resolution files.
Most of the time though it was pretty stable.
The sound quality is good but not up to the standards of the other digital inputs when fed by a high quality streamer like the Musical Fidelity MX Stream or the iFi Neo Stream.
So if possible, I recommend using the other digital inputs with a high quality transport in order to get the maximum sonic performance of the R26 but if you can’t afford one, then don’t worry because you can boot with a great sound from the beginning.
Most of the listening was done using a two channel speaker system in a dedicated and acoustically treated room.
The speakers are the audio physic Spark driven by the Kinki EX-M1 integrated amplifier.
For headphone listening I mostly used the Violectric V380² and Schiit Lyr with the Focal Clear Mg, HiFiMan Arya V3 and Meze Elite.
I am using pure silver headphone cables made by Lavricables.
Mains conditioning is done with the Lab12 gordian power conditioner.
The DAC R26 was burned for about 250 hours and I have been listening for more than a month.
Initial listening to the R26 yielded the most unexpected positive surprise and from the first moment I knew that I was dealing with something special.
And it should be noted that I was negatively biased because I am not that big fan of the Gustard X26 Pro…
The R26 is one really musical sounding DAC, full of the most natural and organic timbre with plenty of saturated, colorful overtones.
Just slightly warm and analogue-like sounding but not romantic or tubey, the R26 offers the perfect balance between musicality and technicalities.
It is fast and precise with crystal clear transparency, dynamic and impactful, fully extended to both ends of the frequency spectrum but still smooth and naturally toned at the treble.
It is detailed and resolving but not analytical with excellent fidelity and linearity.
Noise floor is practically inaudible, the R26 is dead silent and without a hint of distortion, I bet that it must be really good measuring in the test bench.
The bass is fast and precise with exemplary layering, it is tight and controlled with contrasted and authoritative dynamics.
Rise and fall times are fast but not rushed so the bass is lively and impactful but without becoming aggressively tiring.
The texture is not that visceral and full bodied, like in the Denafrips Pontus but it is still weighty and not lean at all.
The mid-range and the treble are expressed with the same kind of timbre realism, absent of digital glare and without perceived artificiality.
Still the R26 is airy, crisp, lively and sparkling with fast transient response and expressive articulation.
Time decay is relaxed and even for the whole frequency range so all kinds of instruments fade away in a natural manner that enhances the overall sense of realism.
The Gustard R26 is not tuned to impress, there is no exaggerated bass, no overblown mids, nor sharp and forward treble.
The R26 is focused on converting the digits into streams of real sounding music, bonding the listener in a long lasting and engaging experience rather than giving momentarily happiness.
The soundstage is open wide with sharp imaging and accurate placement of the performers but mostly on the horizontal axis without too much of a depth.
The soundscape is grand sized and extended out of the speaker boundaries, making them disappear, but lacking in overall dimensionality and holography. The reconstructed images remind more of paper dolls rather than finely sculptured figures with real relief.
Well, at least when compared to other competitive DACs like the Denafrips Pontus or the Musical Fidelity M6x that are more skilled at sounding holographic and immersive.
This is something that gets more evident on a speaker system rather than a headphone rig and of course it is related to the rest of your chain/room and how well can highlight such differences.
The R26 proved genre agnostic and felt at home with all kinds of music but it really excelled in classical, jazz and related stuff where timbre realism and technical potency are both required and the R26 is not lacking in either.
In the end
Simply put, the Gustard R26 is one of the most musical sounding DACs of the category with great sense of realism and timbre naturalness while keeping technicalities on an extremely competitive level.
Add the excellent build quality, the abundance of digital inputs and the embedded streamer and it gets pretty clear why the R26 is an instant recommendation and a safe blind buy.
Copyright – Petros Laskis 2022.