A few months back I had an ant infestation in my basement office, and they decided my Audioengine A2s were an ideal place to build a nest... After taking care of the ant problem, I had to toss the speakers. I finally got around to buying a new set of computer speakers. I looked at the B&W MM-1 and the Focal XS Book, but for the price you can get a pair of Genelec 6010A pro class (albeit bass-lean) studio monitors.
It's at this point I found out the left line out on my 7 year old Benchmark DAC1 went bad (at first I thought I might have a dud Genelec or a bad cable). I'll either send it out to repair it, or rotate it out to desk duty at my office (where I don't need the line out or preamp functionality), but in the meantime I needed a replacement, and the brick-and-mortar pickings are slim, even though I live in a major metro area (San Francisco). I ended up getting a Cambride DacMagic Pro and am getting used to it (finally a 192kHz capable audio device, the Toslink out on my Mac Pro is limited to 96kHz).
Before getting the DacMagic Plus, I did some research, as DAC options have proliferated since 2005. To be quite frank, I was a bit unhappy about my DAC1 - the volume control pot is shockingly poor - it crackles when you change the volume, and at some positions I would lose one of the channels, and I wanted to upgrade anyway. The options I considered are:
- Burson HA-160D (the shop I got the DacMagic Plus sells Burson, but they only have the pure DAC or the HA-160DS without line out)
- Lavry DA11 (I like Dan Lavry's no-nonsense approach to audio engineering)
- The DacMagic Plus
- Antelope Audio Zodiac
- Another DAC1 (the base model, I don't need USB or the other bells and whistles of the DAC1 USB, DAC1 Pre or DAC1 HDR).
My requirements are fairly simple:
- Toslink input
- at least 96/24 support, I have quite a few studio master FLACs from Linn and B&W Society of Sound
- Good quality headphone amp
- Line output volume controlled from the DAC
- Ability to drive a HD800
- Neutral and transparent presentation suitable for classical music, I don't want euphonic distortion
Nice to have
- Sample rate indicator (I don't always use Fidelia, and I'd like to see at a glance if the Mac's sample rate is set incorrectly, as iTunes is brain-dead in this respect)
- Stepped attenuator volume control
- Power supply built into the unit, no wall-wart
- Compactness, ideally the same size as the DAC1 or smaller
- Silver or champagne color rather than boring black if at all possible
- A good warranty like Benchmark's 5-year coverage
It's surprising no product meets all the (fairly basic) requirements despite the wide variety on the market.
- The best bet is the Burson (AudioVision SF, the shop where I bought the DacMagic Plus suggested they can special order it and take back the DacMagic Plus minus a 15% restocking fee, which is more than fair). I had a listen at the HA-160DS and the headphone amp is definitely better than the Cambridge, but it lacks the sample rate display and is a bit on the bigger side.
- The Lavry fits, although its user interface is not optimal (round volume knobs are easier to use than their digital controls)
- The DacMagic Plus is really more of a side-grade compared to the DAC1
- The reviews on the Antelope seem to be so-so, clearly having an ultra high-end clock is not sufficient to make a stellar DAC.
- Unfortunately all the awards and reviews in Stereophile et al have gone to Benchmark Media's head and the other models like the DAC1 HDR or DAC1 Pre are grossly overpriced.
I haven't been following the integrated DAC/headphone amp/preamp space closely since 2005, and I'd appreciate any tips more experience Head-Fi-ers could contribute.
Edited by majid - 6/2/12 at 10:46pm