Originally Posted by Willakan
I've been trying to work out what DAC is best at a budget (up to £300) pricepoint, but have been getting increasingly confused as claims are regularly made that appear to be scientifically impossible. For example, the Benchmark DAC1 (out of my price range, but an excellent example here) is regularly referred to as bright and treble-centric - nothing in its totally flat frequency response or otherwise excellent specs suggests this.
The DAC1 has been measured many times and so verified as a technically superb DAC. It is as near perfect as it needs to be, it has noise/distortion levels and deviations from flat so good as to be beyond human detection. When Peter Aczel reviewed it he said ....
It should be obvious from the above discussion, at least to those familiar with The Audio Critic, that the Benchmark DAC1 has no sound of its own, transparently passing on to its output the quality of its input. Whatever sonic peculiarities may perchance be audible are due to the input signal, not the DAC1 circuit. Even if the circuit were a lot less perfect, that would still be the case. Absolute sonic transparency is a concept innocent audiophiles are uncomfortable with, believing that all audio components—CD players, preamplifiers, amplifiers, tuners, all of them—exhibit varying degrees of soundstaging, front-to-back depth, grain, air, etc. That it isn’t so, except in the case of loudspeakers, is a fact calmly accepted by professional engineers but not by the high-end pundits and high-end manufacturers, who would be out of business if the truth were to sink in universally.
I am by now a little tired of harping on this subject but was still amused by John Atkinson’s comments on the Benchmark DAC1 in the May 2004 issue of Stereophile. John made sure to tell his readers that the Mark Levinson No. 30.6, which cost $17,500 before it was discontinued, still sounds better than the Benchmark, despite the latter’s perfect measurements. In a December 2004 followup (“2004 Editor’s Choice,” namely the Benchmark!) he adds the Theta Generation VIII ($10,000) and the Wadia 27ix ($9959) to the of-course-sounds-better list. I wonder what quality the Mark Levinson, Theta, and Wadia engineers dial into their products—above and beyond flat frequency response, low distortion, low noise, and the other usual suspects—that mysteriously makes them sound better. Maybe I should stop wondering after 28 years as an audio journalist and 57 years as an audiophile.
But the DAC1 reaches heights that may not be necessary, see....
DAC Benchmark DAC1 vs Behringer DEQ2496
In fact, looking purely at released specifications, it is unclear exactly where all these DAC sound signatures are coming from.
Most of these "evaluations" come from flawed listening tests which are non level matched, prone to several types of cognitive bias and rely heavily on memory of events long passed for comparisons
For example, at the other end of the price spectrum, the Essence ST is regularly touted as bright and harsh by those with more expensive DACs, but I see nothing in the frequency response that would suggest this, and distortion and other specs are uniformly excellent.
See above but add expectation bias caused by low price and nature of device
In fact, looking at specifications, it seems increasingly difficult to distinguish all but deliberately coloured DACs. I understand that frequency response is by no means the supreme specification by which one should differentiate DACs, but apart from THD and noise, how else can I decide what's best?
FR is far and away the most important parameter, it is the basis of the fundamental sound, other things can take away from quality such as THD, IMD, Noise, and Crosstalk but all things being equal you will notice a 3db drop in midrange FR far more easily than an extra 0.005% distortion.
.....The only obvious thing I could find is how more expensive products go to greater lengths to deal with jitter - is this the core explanation for the huge differences in presentation
NO ! or highly unlikely anyway, I'd bet on winning the lottery first, there is no evidence that jitter in the levels found in moderately competent digital audio kit is in any way audible in musical playback, anti-jitter device manufacturers have not provided any controlled listening evidence for the value of jitter reduction (beyond absurd levels) and the few peer reviewed papers on this (Ashihara et al 2005, Benjamin and Gannon, 1998 ) have not supported audibility of jitter in the sub ns magnitude regardless of type or spectra.
Anecdotes abound but real evidence = zero, jitter is just not something to worry about