Firestone Audio Fubar 2 USB DAC Review

$399

4 stars

Finally, a doo-dad that will take sounds from your computer and make them sing on your hi-fi system.

When an audio product comes from the “Cute Series”, it’s probably safe to assume that it isn’t going to be a rack-bending 50 kilogram steel and aluminium number, unless the manufacturer has a pronounced sense of the ironic.

In the case of the Fubar 2 and all the other “Cute Series” units from Firestone Audio, cute is as cute does. Compact to the point of fitting in the palm of a small hand, the Fubar 2 is a USB DAC with no fancy features; it grabs digital audio from a computer and outputs it to a music system, and that’s all there is to it.

At a similar price, you can have something like the Zero DAC, which has USB, optical and coax inputs along with a headphone stage and the ability to double as a preamplifier. So there is stiff competition in the DAC segment at the moment, with many little-known players fighting for the dollars.

Features and Construction

The Fubar 2 comes well packaged, with a USB cable and a set of basic RCA interconnects.

The chassis is a rugged and very solid piece of extruded aluminum and the Fubar 2 feels as if it could appear on an episode of Top Gear, where Clarkson drives over it with a vintage Land Rover. The finish is not bad for the bucks. Power, suspend and playback LCDs make up the front panel. There’s a little power switch round the back where you’ll be least likely to use it, so you may as well just leave it powered up full time; it’s not going to be much of a power hog. Two RCA sockets, a USB socket and a power socket for the wall wart round out the back panel.

Setup is simple, mainly because there’s not much to do and less to go wrong. My MacBook Pro picked up a “Burr Brown Japan PCM2702” USB device as soon as the Fubar 2 was powered up. I selected it and hit the play button in iTunes with a 320kbps rip of Mr Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ from The Essential Dave Brubeck. Plugged into RCA inputs on my preamp, the Fubar sounded pretty good to me, even though I wasn’t meant to be listening critically; my new policy is to run everything in regardless of how new it is, so I gave the Fubar 2 a few days to settle down.

Great Expectations

I had reason to expect good things because I’ve heard the Fubar 2 and its more expensive sibling, the Fubar 4-plus in a system I know well. My Perreaux SX25i integrated amplifier and B&W CDM2 stand mounts have been out on loan to ex-Tone editor Tim Grey for about a year now.

He’s not a silver disc kind of guy, so the Perreaux had been fed a steady diet of tunes from an iPod or MacBook Pro via 3.5mm jack, and it sounded pretty good. Until he got a Fubar 4-plus in to review and suddenly the system sounded better than I ever remembered it. How rude! Dynamics went through the roof, as did every other aspect of the sonics. Tim, being a semi-savvy kind of guy, couldn’t go back to the 3.5mm jack way of life, so he bought a Fubar 2 and the system still sounded great, so much so that he convinced me to sell him the amp and speakers (much against my better judgment).

So with my expectations firmly ensconced, back to the review of the Fubar 2 in my own system. It’s digital source city around here at the moment and the Fubar 2 has shared space with the Zero DAC, a $3200 Simaudio Moon 300D DAC, Micromega’s Airstream WM-10 wireless streamer, Pro-Ject’s filterless DAC Box FL and a Qsonix Q205, at a mighty eleven grand.

Sound Quality

The source to beat is still my Marantz SA8260 SACD player, which is one of the best investments I’ve made in audio gear. It does everything right and can’t really be beaten for anything less than silly money. The finite life of the laser is what’s driving me to audition all these DACs as I search for a possible replacement.

The little Fubar proved to be no substitute for the all round performance of the Marantz but the gap wasn’t a yawning gulf either. It did a great job at transforming the music in my iTunes library and compared to a 3.5mm minijack to RCA connection, the Fubar was in a different league. Just as in Mr Gray’s system, levels of detail, dynamics and depth went up, the noise floor went down and the overall sound improved, regardless of the quality of the files I was playing. The Fubar 2’s balance leans towards warmth and there was no bright edge to the sonics at all – a sweet and smooth sound without being wooly or restrained.

The first minute of ‘Blues For A Hip King’ from Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Dawn has a slowly struck piano, and even on my lowly 192kbps rip, the Fubar 2 put plenty of space around the notes along with a detailed tonal pallet and enough speed to make the track entirely listenable. Even the note decay sounded good and there was no sensation that the top end had been compressed into non-existence.

The Fubar 2 doesn’t support any high resolution formats, just good old CD quality 16/44, but fed lossless files from my MacBook Pro, I had zero complaints at what I was hearing. Patricia Barber’s ‘Postmodern Blues’ from Modern Cool sounded fabulous through the Fubar 2, with loads of low level oomph, and the attack and weight on the strummed bass caught my attention in a big way.

The rolling bass lines on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’ (off The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan) had real presence and were nicely contrasted against the guitar and distant cymbals. There was good instrumental separation and expansive atmospherics.

Neil Young’s Live At Massey Hall is an intimate and clear recording and the Fubar 2 had no trouble making the album shine. The softly picked guitars on ‘Old Man’ and the piano on ‘Journey Though The Past’ were beautifully rendered as was that voice – Neil Young at his best (in the days when his voice still needed a tweeter to sound right). There was no sensation that the source was compromised in any way.

Imaging was precise, while dynamics and slam were exemplary at the price, which again echoed what I’d heard previously from both the Fubar 2 and 4-plus. The music swings from deep silence to big crescendo with insouciant ease and this makes the system sound alive and full of energy. Foot-tappingly good is the best way to describe it.

Negatives

I’d noticed a shallow soundstage on the lower bitrate tracks and had assumed this was a result of the compression process, but even with lossless and CD quality files, the sound seemed unwilling to break too far beyond the boundaries of the speakers. There was no hassle with soundstage depth though, as certain tracks extended right into the room. This may well be a strange synergy in my system and room because it’s not a major factor with the same unit in another environment.

Then there’s the lack of high resolution file support, but at the price, that’s not a big deal because it’s not what the basic Fubar 2 is all about. There are units in Firestone Audio’s range that cater for the hardcore digital audiophiles.

Conclusion

Firestone Audio’s Fubar 2 is a very different proposition to the wireless Micromega Airstream WM-10 [see review elsewhere on Witchdoctor] but both have their place in the audio firmament, and while the Fubar will appeal to those who don’t mind running a USB cable, they’ll also appreciate the price point.

So then, a strong sonic performance from this cute little box in a very competitive space. It’s definitely not the wrong kind of FUBAR (Google it if you don’t know) and is worth serious contemplation by anyone looking for a simple USB DAC that will lift their computer sound to a different plane. ASHLEY KRAMER

www.nzaudio.co.nz

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