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A natural sounding DAC. Does it even exist?

post #1 of 42
Thread Starter 

Hi everyone. I've been a music lover for years and have been happy with a vinyl-based system based around Shindo tube electronics, vintage Tannoy speakers and Garrard 301 LP playback that's taken me a long while of trial and error, and learning, to assemble. Recently, I've become fascinated with digital playback from my MacBook Pro, using lossless files, for both speakers and headphones. However, compared to analog, I've found every digital combination I've tried to to sound fatiguing and harshly wiry in the lower treble, with a kind of hollow, insubstantial sound that immediately reveals itself to be a reproduction. It lacks coherence and most of all, presence. Admittedly, my digital experience is limited to a few CD players as well as relatively inexpensive DACs from Audioengine and Centrance. But even the Centrance DACport and the better DACport LX, while providing excellent detail and soundstaging, still sound wiry and digital to me. I know I've hardly scratched the surface of possibilities—can someone recommend a DAC, preferably under a grand, that sounds musical and relaxed? Not smoothed over or occluded or warmed up with cheap tube stages, mind you, but genuinely natural and fatigue-free? You know, something with actual tone?

post #2 of 42
Quote:
can someone recommend a DAC, preferably under a grand, that sounds musical and relaxed? Not smoothed over or occluded or warmed up

 

Digital doesn't work like that. Competent DAC assemblies are designed to be invisible. You shouldn't know it's there.

 

It's possible to do that now surprisingly cheaply.  It's easy to test this too. You can simply loop the output back in and out again on another pair.

 

What I suspect has happened to you is something very similar to what I experienced going digital. You have spend a lot of time, effort and money getting a particular sound you like out of analogue equipment. Unfortunately it's not a flat, accurate signal.

 

You probably might be able to find a charlatan willing to supply a so called DAC with the sound you like but it will not really be a proper digital to analogue converter. It'll be a an EQ or  channe strip. 

 

Much better to get an decent quality ($200-$1,000) audio interface from one of the pro or semi pro producers who have been making them for nearly 2 decades now to serve the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) market. Something the musicians and engineers use to produce and record music in the first instance. It will come with a very sophisticated EQ and effects package. Then you can model the sound you like and save it as a preset.

 

That way you get the sound you want but are not always stuck with it.

 

RME are the gold standard. From ~$600-~$2,000. Expensive but you get loads of extras. Mac guys also like Metric Halo and Apogee which are about 50% more expensive in keeping with the Mac experience. You can get something very similar from Focusrite for as little as $200. In between look for MOTU, Presonus and TC Electronic among others.

 

M-Audio and E-MU make decent consumer versions but you will have to find your own software EQ package.

 

It's different now. Don't buy digital gear because you like the colouration. Buy what's flat and transparent. Then get the sound you want from your room, your speakers, your EQ package and, if you still use one, your cartridge.

post #3 of 42
a vinyl friend of mine checked out 4-5 dacs at home before choosing Wyred4Sound. his preferences are/was close to yours. you really should give some dacs a listen at home before deciding
Edited by stalkerDk - 7/26/12 at 6:45pm
post #4 of 42
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by RonaldDumsfeld View Post

 

Digital doesn't work like that. Competent DAC assemblies are designed to be invisible. You shouldn't know it's there.

 

It's possible to do that now surprisingly cheaply.  It's easy to test this too. You can simply loop the output back in and out again on another pair.

 

What I suspect has happened to you is something very similar to what I experienced going digital. You have spend a lot of time, effort and money getting a particular sound you like out of analogue equipment. Unfortunately it's not a flat, accurate signal.

 

You probably might be able to find a charlatan willing to supply a so called DAC with the sound you like but it will not really be a proper digital to analogue converter. It'll be a an EQ or  channe strip. 

 

Much better to get an decent quality ($200-$1,000) audio interface from one of the pro or semi pro producers who have been making them for nearly 2 decades now to serve the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) market. Something the musicians and engineers use to produce and record music in the first instance. It will come with a very sophisticated EQ and effects package. Then you can model the sound you like and save it as a preset.

 

That way you get the sound you want but are not always stuck with it.

 

RME are the gold standard. From ~$600-~$2,000. Expensive but you get loads of extras. Mac guys also like Metric Halo and Apogee which are about 50% more expensive in keeping with the Mac experience. You can get something very similar from Focusrite for as little as $200. In between look for MOTU, Presonus and TC Electronic among others.

 

M-Audio and E-MU make decent consumer versions but you will have to find your own software EQ package.

 

It's different now. Don't buy digital gear because you like the colouration. Buy what's flat and transparent. Then get the sound you want from your room, your speakers, your EQ package and, if you still use one, your cartridge.

 

I appreciate your response, but let's don't get into another eternal argument about objective sound vs. coloration. Most, if not all, perfectionist audio components are "designed to be invisible," but not a single one has yet succeeded. And digital fails in this regard differently than analog. From reading about people's experiences, I don't think I'm alone in finding most inexpensive digital sources to be musicality-challenged. And what I'm looking for is just to relax, forget about the gear and get into the listening. 

post #5 of 42
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by stalkerDk View Post

a vinyl friend of mine checked out 4-5 dacs at home before choosing Wyred4Sound. his 

preferences are/was close to yours. you really should give some dacs a listen at home before deciding.   

Thanks for that. I've read nice things about the W4S. If only there was a way to sample a whole bunch of DACs at home before committing.

post #6 of 42
Quote:
Originally Posted by mink70 View Post

Thanks for that. I've read nice things about the W4S. If only there was a way to sample a whole bunch of DACs at home before committing.

 

become a reviewer-grin. worth a visit www.audionervosa.com/index.php?board=8.0
post #7 of 42

I had the same problem till i picked up the Violectric V800. It just sounds real to me, there's not a single frequency that jumps out at you unless it's in the recording. The first dac that actually does cymbals right to my ears, it has the right amount of impact and smooth tssshhh without being grainy or harsh, it doesn't distract from the rest of the music. I've tried lots of complex music and it always stays cohesive with every note of every instrument easy to follow but without demanding too much attention. Neutral without boring, music just flows from a pitch black background.

 

It is however a bit over budget but well worth it imo.

post #8 of 42
Quote:
Originally Posted by mink70 View Post

Not smoothed over or occluded or warmed up with cheap tube stages, mind you, but genuinely natural and fatigue-free? You know, something with actual tone?

 

From reading reviews here at head-fi, the Yulong D18 seems to be a really good choice. People describe it as very musical and enjoyable. It's around $700. It doesn't have a USB input, though, so depending on your rig you would perhaps have to add a USB-to-spdif interface.

post #9 of 42

This might be what you are looking for.

 


http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov10/articles/burlb2.htm

 

Extract from the SoS review.

 

 

Quote:
The Burl B2 Bomber converters are attractive, well-built units, and capable of delivering excellent sound quality, but with a substantial side-order of analogue character. Indeed, it’s the analogue design that sets these devices apart, bestowing the subtle but often welcome sonic colorations associated with transformers and discrete class-A circuitry, as well as the nice qualities those technologies lend to transients. The digital side of things is well specified and generally well implemented, although it’s hard to overlook the risks of user error due to the unusual clocking options of the D-A converter.
My overriding impression of the Bomber converters is that they really do sound a lot more ‘analogue’ than most. We’re talking about the deliberate inclusion of some ‘nice’ and subtle distortion artifacts, but there’s also something smoother and more natural-sounding about the top end, while the bottom end is very tightly controlled but still larger than life, and the mid-range gives the impression of being slightly more expansive and dynamic than expected. None of these subtle characteristics were revealed in my bench tests, but they add up to a very nice style of presentation that addresses the ‘sterile’ nature of ultra-clean digital systems rather well. First and foremost ‘musical’ rather than ‘transparent’ converters, they have a kind of tape-like ability to handle transients in a very flattering way, and the power to make a mix sound glued together in a way that I usually associate with top-flight analogue systems. 
post #10 of 42

My experience and tastes are similar to yours. I much prefer a decent vinyl rig to any digital.

 

Check out the Audio Note line. They make very analog sounding dacs starting at about $1k. You can buy them in kit form. I own a 2.1 that I will eventually upgrade to a level 4. All Audio Note dacs are NOS, filterless, and have tube outputs. The higher level ones have transformer outputs and tube regulated power supplies.

 

Although I haven't heard one, you might want to investigate the Metrum Octave.

post #11 of 42
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the suggestions everyone. Digital is hardly wanting for resolution. I'm lucky to have what I consider some of the best amplification and speakers I've heard, but they don't kindly to edgy or metallic sounds. Cheap CD players sound like the images are stamped out of tin, all ghostly and lacking solidity. The tone is grating and aggressive. So the first step is just getting something with a decent tone. I'd be willing to trade off detail--or perceived detail—for some of that. For something that, in the words of my friend Michael Lavorgna over at Audiostream, doesn't turn the music into a specimen. In this regard, does anyone have experiences with the Halide HD or the Havana?

post #12 of 42

Check out the Anedio D1 or D2. They have the same chip as wyred for sound but better implementaton IMHO.

 

I love my D1 and I would call it very neutral and with the best clarity and texture I've ever heard from any DAC.

post #13 of 42
Quote:
Originally Posted by mink70 View Post

 

 And what I'm looking for is just to relax, forget about the gear and get into the listening. 

In that case, valves are a really bad choice ..

They DO degrade over time, until they inevitably stop working at all and you have to

worry about finding new ones, bias-adjustments and whatnot ..

 

RonaldDumsfeld  is spot-on, you actually LIKE gear-coloured sound .

Nothing wrong in that, I own several Marshall and Fender valve-amps exactly because I like the colouration,

but I'm not kidding my self : It ain't hifi ! 

I also refuse to retire my turntable, a nice Oracle Alexandria mk IV, but again : It ain't hifi, compared to even CD-format ..

So, it's only used for those recordings that either aren't available in digital format at all or only in horrible re-mastered digital version .

Frankly, you are confusing 'natural sound' with distorted sound .

post #14 of 42
Thread Starter 

To AKG240mkII. With due respect—what a pointless comment. The argument you're making has been going on for decades and isn't worth having. I guess the reason—according to you—that so many of us find inexpensive digital to be edgy and artificial sounding is because we can't tolerate "the truth." Which must also be why we like vinyl and tubes, even though, for many of us who've been trying to recreate musical performances at home for decades, they remain the benchmark for realism. There's more to fidelity than an oscilloscope sweep. If there wasn't, cheap CD players, Kenwood receivers, and $50 Sony headphones would be all anyone needed. Because most of those measure pretty well. As Daniel von Recklinghausen, the chief engineer at HH Scott, said in the 50s, "If it measures good and sounds bad, it's bad. If it measures bad and sounds good, you're measuring the wrong thing." But our hobby seems to be filled with sofa-bound theorists who love to tell people why the gear or recordings they prefer are wrong, based on measurements or their pet notions about engineering. We're all entitled to our opinions, but if you're not going to be helpful, keep them to yourself.


Edited by mink70 - 7/29/12 at 8:23am
post #15 of 42
Quote:
As Daniel von Recklinghausen, the chief engineer at HH Scott, said in the 50s,

 

The point is he said it in the fifties. They didn't have digital then. We are in the teenies and it's a new century. We do have digital. We've been to the moon. We have the Internet. Bit perfect is easy.

 

Consider the wider implications of what you propose. Say you want to make digital backups or portable versions of your favourite LPs. When you play them back through your favourite sounding DAC with analogue sound character you will get double analogue and might not like it. So maybe you get some studio monitor quality loudspeakers or headphones. Then everything you play on your TT will sound digital. What then?

 

You really are best advised to regard a DAC function like a cable, a CD transport or even a decent amplifier. You shouldn't know it is there. Spend your cash on stuff that we still cannot make pure and transparent like speakers, headphones, cartridges and microphones. If you really cannot stand the idea of adding colouration via software then try and find a vintage analogue effects unit.

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