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DAC woes

post #1 of 16
Thread Starter 

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:

 

Must have

  1. Toslink input
  2. at least 96/24 support, I have quite a few studio master FLACs from Linn and B&W Society of Sound
  3. Good quality headphone amp
  4. Line output volume controlled from the DAC
  5. Ability to drive a HD800
  6. Neutral and transparent presentation suitable for classical music, I don't want euphonic distortion

 

Nice to have

  1. 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)
  2. Stepped attenuator volume control
  3. Power supply built into the unit, no wall-wart
  4. Compactness, ideally the same size as the DAC1 or smaller
  5. Silver or champagne color rather than boring black if at all possible
  6. 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.

 

  1. 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.
  2. The Lavry fits, although its user interface is not optimal (round volume knobs are easier to use than their digital controls)
  3. The DacMagic Plus is really more of a side-grade compared to the DAC1
  4. 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.
  5. 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
post #2 of 16
Thread Starter 

Hmm. It seems I should also have a look at the Audiolab M-DAC

post #3 of 16

 Ohh yes - DacMagic + is a right royal stinker. Runs on USB 1.0 out of the box, just fiddly with the driver and reboot to get

 it on USB 2.0 via the custom Windows driver - no notch or screen on the source volume (so stupid you could carve it)

 edgy, brittle - upsamples everything so that it sounds dry and digital.

 

 To be honest the M-DAC follows in the same vein of being a 'fully featured box' with everything you could ask for,

 but is it the best sounding DAC at $999 to $1200? Nooope.

post #4 of 16
Thread Starter 

Well, I have a Mac running Lion so I didn't need custom drivers, and I did perform the song and dance to get USB Class 2 and 192kHz. I can understand why they don't enable it by default. Oddly it wouldn't register when connected directly, but worked via a USB 2.0 hub.

 

The Genelecs sound so much better than the Audioengines that it's hard to tell how much of the improvement if any comes from the DAC. Benchmark has been making improvements in the DAC1 over time, I don't know how a current model DAC1 would compare with my 2005 vintage model.

 

You didn't specify what you think is the best DAC in that price range (in fact make it up to $2K so devices like the Lavry DA11 and the Grace m903 are eligible). Are you rooting for the home team (Burson)?

post #5 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by majid View Post

Well, I have a Mac running Lion so I didn't need custom drivers, and I did perform the song and dance to get USB Class 2 and 192kHz. I can understand why they don't enable it by default. Oddly it wouldn't register when connected directly, but worked via a USB 2.0 hub.

 

The Genelecs sound so much better than the Audioengines that it's hard to tell how much of the improvement if any comes from the DAC. Benchmark has been making improvements in the DAC1 over time, I don't know how a current model DAC1 would compare with my 2005 vintage model.

 

You didn't specify what you think is the best DAC in that price range (in fact make it up to $2K so devices like the Lavry DA11 and the Grace m903 are eligible). Are you rooting for the home team (Burson)?

 

 Nah mate - too many contenders in that box at that price range. I know - hardly helpful - but it's the reality of the situation,

 few if anyone has extensive experience with all those DAC's, never mind - someone who has had them all for a decent

 amount of time.

 

 To further perplex things, it comes down to taste - warm? brightened highs? fairly analog? dead set neutral?

 

 I'm going to throw it out there and recommend my own DAC if you're an analog purist - the Rega DAC - match it with a decent

 power cord, leave it on all the time and enjoy - otherwise the Burson DA-160 is also a fun coloured unit - however both will

 really fly off Coax/SPDIF instead of USB.

 

 If you're dead set against using any converters such as the Audio gd Digital Interface, M2Tech or Audiophilleo then perhaps

 consider CEntrance? Those blokes have USB sussed out and it's a very nice DAC section.


Edited by Gwarmi - 6/3/12 at 3:25am
post #6 of 16

Also consider the German made Violectric V800 - excellent DAC in the form of the pro audio purist who wishes to add nothing to source coloration.

European audio engineers stake their reputations and work on this thing - it deserves consideration for anyone not seeking a euphoric coloured

presentation (that's me out!)

 

Nordost or equivalent power chord - preferably give it a Coax connection and enjoy everything that the M-DAC wished it was in the first place.

 

V800Front.jpg

post #7 of 16
Thread Starter 

OK, thanks for the tip. I prefer neutral like the Benchmark DAC1, so I'll look into the Violectric. One thing that gives me pause, however, is their product page which says "Analog output level adjustable in the digital domain", i.e. the volume control is not analog, and like the DacMagic Plus, works by digitally scaling the signal.

post #8 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by majid View Post

OK, thanks for the tip. I prefer neutral like the Benchmark DAC1, so I'll look into the Violectric. One thing that gives me pause, however, is their product page which says "Analog output level adjustable in the digital domain", i.e. the volume control is not analog, and like the DacMagic Plus, works by digitally scaling the signal.

 

 Mate if you heard them both side by side - you'd be beside yourself - Dacmagic+ has no business being in the same company as the V800 - it is

 a sham to even compare them side by side - the only thing that the Cambridge unit has on offer is multiple inputs via Coax and Optical.

 

 Power supply is isolated and properly implemented on the V800 - Cambridge DacMagic+ gets a $6.90 outboard Walmart 'now with burger coupon'

 spec outboard power supply.

 

 No one in Pro studio is using the DacMagic+ - and there is good reason - opportunistic design house from London who makes everything in their

 line from China - target market? Bose regular customers. Nothing wrong with that. 

post #9 of 16

Is it a must to combine everything in one box?  I'd go separates if possible.

post #10 of 16
Thread Starter 

I used to have a separates setup - a Headroom Overture LE DAC, a Musical Fidelity XCan V3 + XPSU V3 headphone amp, a Channel Islands Audio VPC-1 passive volume control, a Niles Audio 4-way source switch, a Parasound Zamp V3 power amplifier and B&W CM1 speakers. This Rube Goldberg contraption overwhelmed my desk and I was quite happy to switch to a streamlined configuration of a Benchmark DAC1, headphones and powered studio monitors.

post #11 of 16

lol, yeah, I can relate.

post #12 of 16

There is the Anedio D2 that seems to fit all your requirements features-wise. I haven't heard it though so you have to rely on other HF-ers for actual impressions! 

 

http://www.anedio.com/index.php/product/d2_overview

post #13 of 16
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by K3cT View Post

There is the Anedio D2 that seems to fit all your requirements features-wise. I haven't heard it though so you have to rely on other HF-ers for actual impressions! 

 

http://www.anedio.com/index.php/product/d2_overview

Thanks for the tip, it does look like it ticks all boxes.

post #14 of 16
Thread Starter 

JUst a follow-up: Benchmark repaired my DAC1 (they detected the noisy volume control pot and replaced it, even though I hadn't mentioned it). It was out of warranty but the price was quite reasonable and the service excellent (their head of tech support called me personally to make sure everything was OK. It's seldom you see that kind of service in electronics. I tested it against the Anedio D2, taking care to match the levels with a Fluke multimeter, and opted to stay with the DAC1.

post #15 of 16

Nice.  Always good to hear about excellent customer service, even years later.  Definitely much more of a consideration for me when I make purchases these days.

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