Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

February 2023

When the user’s manual for a desktop DAC has 68 pages—68 pages of very small type—you know you’re not dealing with just another digital-to-analog converter. At $1299 (all prices in USD), RME’s ADI-2 DAC FS isn’t priced like most of its competitors, either. I slid it into the place normally filled by my $199 iFi Audio Zen DAC V2, between my iPad Pro and my Focal Alpha Evo 50 studio monitors.

For this modified, home version of its ADI-2 Pro ($1999), RME claims that the ADI-2 DAC FS “concentrates on DA conversion in top high-end quality” and provides “two exceptional headphone and IEM outputs.”

James Hale

As a “street” version of a studio tool, the ADI-2 DAC FS has a lot in common with my Evo 50 monitors, which are exceptional as desktop speakers even though they are nominally intended for pro use. As I’ve noted in earlier columns, the small Focals provide an immersive experience when I’m glued to my large-screen monitor for hours at a time. It’s no wonder so many recording engineers love them.

In the holiday rush here in North America—between US Thanksgiving in late November and New Year’s Day—it’s easy to miss a lot of great music. This year, one new recording I definitely didn’t want to overlook was a rare one: pianist Kenny Barron’s first solo recording in 41 years.

I hear you saying, “What?” Although it’s hard to believe, one of jazz’s most skilled and articulate pianists has been reluctant to undergo the rigors of creating an album-length set of solo performances. Even after six decades as a professional musician, he admits that performing solo still generates an uncomfortable level of nervous energy. Speaking about this new recording, he said: “You realize there’s no one else to cover you if you make a mistake. You’re out there by yourself.”

Throughout The Source (24-bit/96kHz WAV, Artwork Records), Barron displays an exceptional attention to detail, blending superb musicality with thoughtfulness. Even when the tempo is rapid, every note he plays seems considered in terms of weight, placement, and timing. Emotion and technique are showcased in equal amounts, reflecting the same exceptionalism that RME displays in every aspect of the ADI-2 DAC FS.


At just a bit more than two pounds and 8.5″ wide by 2″ high and 6″ deep, the unit isn’t much larger than my iFi DAC, but—as that hefty manual suggests—its functionality is significantly richer. While the ADI-2 DAC FS offers a simplified experience for the home user, the foundational technology and features mirror those of the ADI-2 Pro.

The differences between the two units may elude you from a quick look at the front panel, where one of the pair of balanced headphone outputs on the pro version has been replaced by an IEM output on the ADI-2 DAC FS. Otherwise, the units share the same format, with a large volume knob taking center position and the right side of the front panel housing four function buttons and a small digital screen that displays settings. Two pushbuttons control bass and treble. The rear panel tells the real tale of the differences between the two machines: the ADI-2 DAC FS proffers a power adapter port, a USB 2.0 port, inputs for digital coax (RCA) and optical (TosLink) cables, a set of analog XLR outputs, and a set of analog RCA outputs.


The 2022 test model I reviewed was equipped with ESS Technology’s ES9028Q2M chip rather than the usual AKM AK4493, as a consequence of the fire that destroyed AKM’s production facility in 2020. That extensive user manual takes pains to point out that little has changed in terms of performance as a result.

While I used the ADI-2 DAC FS with my Focal speakers, its designers have paid special attention to how it renders music for listeners who use headphones; IEMs in particular. RME claims distortion levels below –120dB, which the company says allows the IEM output to achieve a signal-to-noise ratio of 121dB (A-weighted, referenced to 0.55Vrms). Care has also been taken to ensure extremely low audible distortion, even when the volume setting is low.

RME provides a slim, well-designed remote control that matches—yet greatly simplifies—the ADI-2 DAC FS’s feature set. An array of buttons enables control of many features, and there are four programmable buttons that provide access to 32 different functions and commands for maximum flexibility.

Remote control

Between that very full feature set and the intimidating appearance of that manual, I felt a bit overwhelmed. A good critic studies all the documentation first, right? But that depth of detail! That font! I wanted to hear some music, and I already had a novel on the go.

But I figured, how hard can it be?

Even with my background in technology, radio, and sound engineering, dealing directly with the interface on the DAC itself proved frustrating. I couldn’t get any sound out of the ADI-2 DAC FS, despite trying a variety of approaches, including—I wish I were kidding—starting at square one again.

Fortunately, the remote proved to be my savior; its ease of operation gets full marks. The unit’s interface made me wonder if RME had shipped the pro unit by mistake; I definitely felt like an amateur.

My advice: Take the time to read the manual, small font and all, before you jump in. It’s actually quite well written for such technical material.


When I finally heard some music, I was struck once again by the similarity in detail and consideration between the equipment manufacturer and the musician.

From the opening notes of Barron’s own “What If?” it’s clear that the pianist remains at the very top of his craft, age be damned. He has power, sensitivity, and depth, but perhaps what is most evident is his ability to inflect everything he plays with humanity. Maybe that’s so simple a concept as to sound trite, yet few pianists can reach the depth of feeling that Barron summons, time and time again.

To be sure, the tracks on this album are some of Barron’s favorites—a handful of his own compositions, as well as gorgeous pieces by Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, and others—but there’s no question that he’s measuring every note and nuance as if he’s playing them for the first time. As one of the finest improvisers of his generation, Barron leaves no doubt that he is creating in the moment. But, as fabulous as he is at living second to second inside the music, Barron is perhaps most interesting in the ways he can move you—not unlike the way a painter might use color, shape, and texture to communicate mood.

If Barron has a flaw, it’s a pretty minor one he shares with Oscar Peterson—that technique can overshadow expression. Anyone familiar with Barron’s extensive CV can likely point to a few recordings where he does tend to disappear behind a blur of notes. Not here. With nowhere to hide, Barron lays it all out.

Electric Ladyland

While the sound of The Source is rich, resonant, and transparent to Barron’s every nuance, there’s only so much stress a solo piano recording with precise, contemporary sonics can provide for a sound chain under review. By chance, the answer to this challenge was close at hand: a mint copy of the 2018 50th-anniversary expanded edition of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (CD, Experience Hendrix) that had just arrived. Remastered by Bernie Grundman, this version of Hendrix’s epic likely sounds as good as this material can be.

Interesting fact: Barron and Hendrix were born less than a year apart. But let’s set aside wistful imaginings of what a solo Hendrix album would sound like in 2023, and go straight to Jimi in his prime: wailing halfway into his epic, 15-minute jam, “Voodoo Chile.” The sound of his primary guitar (there are likely overdubs) was just roaring, thanks to the brilliant studio wizard Eddie Kramer. Steve Winwood’s organ sounded super-hot, and Jack Casady’s bass tone was deep and clean. I edged the volume up to a level that would’ve had my ever-patient, music-loving father moving my stuff to the curb in 1969. The sound chain held it together with remarkable clarity; I was hearing sonic detail I’d never noticed before, and this disc has been near the top of my desert-island list for 50 years.

Electric Ladyland

Do I—or does anybody—need to hear Electric Ladyland at a volume sufficient to put a teenager on the street? No, but just as a Hendrix wannabe might crave that amplifier setting of 11 or a stack of gear to boost the Strat’s signal into the Jimisphere, there’s a part of me that wants to hear what this rig can do with “. . . And the Gods Made Love.”

. . . James Hale

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.