In the course of reviewing Tralucent's 1Plus2 earphone, I have borrowed some pretty cool gear. Astell & Kern's now-outdated AK120 is one of those. It's got a decent quality output, a slick interface; best of all, it is compact. It has also fuelled the seller's market for portable toslink-equipped DACs.
Tralucent's own DAC/amp is a truly excellent option. Its performance is top-flight performance, it's battery life decent, and its form factor quite splendid. But when it hits online and retailer shelves, it will come with a price to match its performance. Across the board, that tends to be the story.
Except for the Minidisk recorder.
The above photo shows my twelve year-old Sharp MD-DR7 minidisk recorder. Beaters can be had for 20$, while ones in better shape go for up to 70$. Sharp turned a corner with the release of its Auvi series. Prior to Auvi (featuring 1-bit processing), Sharp was considered a second-tier option whose lineup was riddled with hardware problems. Auvi units were well built, easy-to-use, and good-sounding.
A testament to that is that my MD-DR7 lives on. And using it as an outboard DAC couldn't be easier.
Just pop in an MD, click record, plug in your headphones, and voila! you've got a DAC for chump change. There are a few benefits: noiseless headphone outputs, small form factors, good battery life, and, believe it or not, a bonafide living room-HiFi sound.
What do I mean by living room-HiFi? More channel bleed, higher levels of distortion, the use of older DAC units; but best of all, MDs are simple to operate. Channel bleed helps to emulate the convivial sound of speakers, where, because the stereo image travels through the same medium, L and R channels simultaneously arrive at both ears. Your brain does the filtering.
Rife with channel bleed and low L/R contrast, old MD recorders return some of the openness and natural imaging your ears are used to hearing, and that headphones stomp with relentless precision.
The problem MD recorders have is that their sync capabilities are limited to 16-bit/48 kHz, meaning you can't enjoy DSD music through an outboard MD DAC. Ho hum.
Today, MD recorders are inexpensive. But prices are ticking back up as they become rare commodities. I picked up a second MD-DR7 from Yahoo! Auctions for about 50$. So far, it's been worth it.