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Does a DAC make a giant difference?

post #1 of 142
Thread Starter 

Hi everyone, 


I was just curious in finding out how much a DAC makes in listening to music, I've been slowly building my rig for the past few months. I took a dive purchasing the DT880s  600 ohms version, and just bought a valhalla amp to accompany it. The amp made a HUGE difference for me listening to my headphones. As of right now, I'm just connecting the valhalla straight to my PC with my music on it. The music itself sounds very wonderful to me. 


Would a DAC make an even greater difference? Or is the improvement just a bit better? I've already purchased an amp that was the same value as my headphones, would I need a DAC around that price as well? I'm trying to juggle my hobbies of audio gear with photography and guitar.


Thanks everyone!


I was thinking about waiting for the bitfrost to come out, but 350 is a lot of money :( And I would need the usb version as well which is another 100 :*( 

post #2 of 142

Think of it like your music is a picture.  An amp will make the reds redder, blacks blacker, etc.  Increased saturation.  A DAC will bring the image more into focus.  You'll see more blades of grass, more texture on the skin.  The two work together to get you more out of the image than what your source can give you on its own, but in different ways.


I am waiting on the Bifrost, so my perspective is biased, but yes, a DAC makes a giant difference.... depending on how good your source is.  If you are feeding a crappy DAC from a high end DVD-A player, the DAC will get in the way.  But that's not generally how it goes.  I go computer -> USB DAC -> amp -> headphones, and use the DAC to bypass the computer's crappy soundcard.

post #3 of 142

Yup HUGE difference, since you're satisfied with your amp. You would want the best quality source before entering amplification.

post #4 of 142

You already have a DAC, it's your PC sound-card connected to your Vallhalla, a sound-card is the same thing as a DAC.


The correct question is will [x] DAC make an improvement over [x] sound-card that you're currently using.




post #5 of 142

I cannot speak to the difference in quality between good and bad DACs, because for most of the times unless you're doing critical listening you may not notice it. Have you ever told yourself that mids are not liquid or there is not enough detail in your music when you're jamming in your car? I sure don't, I just enjoy the music. I guess the question is how satisfied are you with your current DAC? If your PC is outputting a left and right analog signal I can't imagine it's the cleanest signal since PCs are mostly noisy environments. If you're going to get a cheap USB DAC then you might experience diminishing returns because in the cheaper price range there might not be much improvement.


But in principal, the DAC is the next most important piece of equipment in the musical signal path besides that actual music track itself. In my opinion, it's more important than the amplifier because the signal that feeds the amplifier should be an honest and faithful reproduction of the music file which a good DAC can do for you.

post #6 of 142
If you have a spare PCI-Express card slot, get an ASUS Xonar Essence STX soundcard. You can get it from J&R for $170. I just bought one, I plan to "downgrade" my DAC1 to it. Great measurements, really good DAC for the price. Its only weakness that I can see (besides driver support) is the 10 Ohm output impedance on the headphone jack, which you'll be bypassing by using your Valhalla. As a bonus, you get Dolby Headphone support for games and/or movies!
Regarding DACs making "giant differences", not really. It's fairly easy to find a well-measuring DAC for cheap. Even onboard sound is pretty good these days. There should be definite improvements from a dedicated card or box, though.
post #7 of 142

No way. (@ thread title) 

post #8 of 142

Yes, Dacs make a difference, A huge difference in digital music that is.

post #9 of 142


Originally Posted by detectotune View Post

I recently received my first DAC. Prior to receiving it and a headphone amp, I mainly listened to my phones, which are all low impedance and efficient, directly from the headphone-out of the laptop. I have noticed a difference, which I consider an improvement but it is subtle rather than "giant". 

x2 on subtle.



Originally Posted by Head Injury View Post

Xonar etc.

10 ohm output impedance... that's bad right? For 16 ohm IEM's and my 42 ohm HP's?





post #10 of 142
Not really. Bad DACs are bad and all good DACs sound about the same. They vary in output voltage which registers as an "improvement" because humans are hardwired to think louder equals better. Level match and they all blend into sameness.

Sure, a source is important. Linn's 40 year-old marketing campaign had some truth to it back when LPs and reel were all we had. (Linn also believed that an unpowered speaker in a room caused horrible problems. Seriously.) But since then we got digital. Digital has gotten to the point where excellent quality is dead cheap. They would have celebrated that in 1975. Today, everyone gets sand in their underwear when it's pointed out that superb digital reproduction is cheap and that their status symbols are status symbols. Money does not equal performance in digital.

So when you buy a DAC, make sure it is a reliable brand. Make sure it has the inputs and controls you want. Get a nice case if you want that. The rest isn't terribly important.

Finally, buy used. Get a DAC from a generation or two back that has fallen out of fashion. You'll save a lot.
post #11 of 142

btw DeltaOne, if you have 600 OHM headphones and bought an HP amp for them, then yes, that would make a huge difference!  Don't expect the same difference from a DAC, just in case that's what you're expecting...

post #12 of 142
Thread Starter 

thanks for the responses everyone :D


And yea, I was just curious on how much of a difference a DAC would make to the music. I was told when I first bought my hp that an amp would make a huge difference and it did. The soundstage got wider and everything got clearer. It was hard justifying purchasing an amp that costed as much as my hp but I figured it would be a good investment in the long run. I'm just trying to see if a DAC is another investment I should save up for. What price range would you guys think is for a decent DAC? I was planning on waiting for the Bitfrost to come out and maybe find one used, its just that a new one with usb is around 450. That's so much money, I feel like I could buy a new lens or even a new electric guitar with that. 


I was thinking about settling for a DAC around the 150-200 dollar range, but if its only a subtle difference I'm not sure if its worth it. Or should I just try to save up and complete my rig with something like the Bitfrost? I've been having some urges on finding a decent closed can for house/electronica music, but I believe a DAC would be a better buy. Might as well complete one hobby so I can focus more on the others right?


Thanks for the input everyone! I truly appreciate it

post #13 of 142
Originally Posted by Uncle Erik View Post

Finally, buy used. Get a DAC from a generation or two back that has fallen out of fashion. You'll save a lot.

Hear, hear - advances in audio are far from computer speed upgrades. They do happen, but it's not at warp speed and crappy music will always remain crappy. 


In fact, I'm still awaiting the DAC that will be a significant upgrade to my CDs built in (and out-dated) DAC. Oh, and I say this not because my CD has such an awesome DAC, but rather that the differences have been more 'sideways' rather than forward and I may as well stick to my current one then. It's still miles away from my vinyl player which is my main source, so yeah - it would be good if DACs made a more significant difference. You do hear more and more of a difference between DACs with better amps (regardless if we're talking headphones or speakers), but for price/performance I easily agree with Uncle Erik's general argument. There is a point after which the exact DAC you go for simply becomes the choice you live with and then look to other sources for improvements in sound. I'd easily prefer a stand-alone DAC to the integrated one on my motherboard, but still... you get the point. It's a matter of where you personally perceive that you get most value for the money, and I guess myself and Erik are more conservative. I'd love to find myself a groundbreaking DAC that would offer significant gains, and suspect that time will come sooner or later (or if my DAC simply breaks so I have an excuse to check out the latest fashion statements). 


Anyone that is extremely interested should always test out a ton of stuff for themselves, but even then it is sometimes hard to know if it is indeed only the performance that get's our interest and not attractive prices, shiny boxes, funky designs, pretty lights, etc. I see this equation as something similar to playing poker for stakes that are too big: when you can't afford to make mistakes, it's much easier to stay away from making decisions on anything but cold hard facts (or at least very high likelihoods). I do think you should go and listen to some DACs ranging from cheap to fairly expensive, if you have a store close to you that will let you test them on the same amp (or your amp ideally). Only once I know how far up there I personally need to go do I ever sit down and think "is it worth it?" (sorry - but there genuinely isn't a better answer to this question as we're all different in terms of preferences).


Edit: Oh, and I wonder why Schiit named a DAC after something that implies (roughly translated to English) "the long and shaky/uncertain road"? I named a project I was PM for at a large customer site to Bifrost, but they weren't overly thrilled once someone actually told them what it meant - particularly not as it was a fitting name for the project (and also why I named it so). Granted, it is also the rainbow and bridge to where the gods withdraw when the world comes to an end, but that is a bridge to a collapsing world which is void of all hope of a future.

Edited by Trasselkalle - 8/13/11 at 4:26am
post #14 of 142

The difference was giant for me but that might be because I have a 7 years old computer, that must have a piece of junk sound-card.

post #15 of 142
Originally Posted by TexasBuck View Post

The difference was giant for me but that might be because I have a 7 years old computer, that must have a piece of junk sound-card.

That would definitely do it (i.e. make a big difference). I also hope I didn't sound as if anyone that do find differences to be significant to be 100% wrong. It's always best to get guidance from forums, but base decisions on listening perceptions. At least it will be our own subjective bias and not some online version of it.


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