Ok I sold everything and will be starting from scratch. Goal: computer audio + TV + headphones.
The previous non headphone centric system was Musical Fidelity M5 integrated with Revel M22 speakers. However NOW I have thin walls and cranky neighbors. I still have the speakers but sold the amp and matching A5 CD player. So, before I get to the amp / headphone questions I'd like the groups impression of these DACs:
Ayre QB9: I have not heard through decent headphones yet but I really liked the "space" around the instruments I heard compared to the Arcam D33. I also like the balanced output option. Alas, for a minimalist system, the lack of inputs makes it "just" a DAC...simple and true. This is my audio benchmark so far. I do not have the courage to listen to the Berkeley Audio in the next room.
NAD M51: Based on comments in Head-Fi, I chased this one down. Local dealer could not figure out how to get it to recognize my Macbook but I persisted and got it working. Once you know the secret handshake it locks on consistently. The review set-up was pretty foreign to me: Magnepan + Classe. Awesome imaging but seemed a tad flat. Speakers or DAC? I suspect the speakers but no way to tell. Clearly and A/B in home review makes sense...except for the fact that I sold everything... d'oh
April Music DP1: Great reviews but I'd love to know of any A/B comparisons with the Ayre or NAD. Obviously this one has the advantage of DAC + headphone amp...an easy step in the right direction.
I also listened to the Arcam D33 and the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC, against the Ayre. All were great but the Ayre won. It's that magic moment when you find yourself hanging on notes (Allison Krause as I recall) instead of "what's different here"
Music tastes: jazz, crossover vocals, world music, latin, percussive everything, nostalgia rock. I've always preferred controlled bass and accuracy without edginess. In speaker terms, Revel, Dynaudio. B&W not so much.
Moving to the headphone side, I will be purchasing something new soon. I like the T1 for what it does, and the HD800 for what it does. Waiting to audition the HD700. I found the LCD2 a bit bass heavy and awkward.
So, any comments on the DAC comparisons above? A/B will tell the tale sonically...but the allure of a DAC that works as a preamp appeals to my minimal side. Since I have the warped view of reality that comes with being a technology marketing guy, some perspective is appreciated.