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DAC - Deadly Audio Confusion

post #1 of 70
Thread Starter 

Kinda confused here due to the lack of technical knowledge.

 

What's the difference between one DAC to the other? What I heard was that this DAC can support 24 bit, this DAC can support 32 bit, this one only support 16 bit.

 

OR

 

This DAC is much clearer, the sound is more detailed and has wider soundstage.

 

I wish to know what's the logic behind DAC so that I know what am I expecting a DAC to perform, and is there any sound quality difference between a cheaper one (like Fiio) to more expensive ones?

 

Thanks

post #2 of 70
A DAC should be as accurate as possible, and that is not difficult to to do and should not cost much money. It should never impart any audio quality of its own and cannot alter things like soundstage (that is up to recording and transducers almost exclusively). Transparency is the goal, just like with amplifiers.

Most of a topic like this will usually be taken up with discussions and claims of what a DAC can do for synergy, a topic that really doesn't need to be in the Sound Science forum. Synergy is trying to alter the sound of gear that has faults by matching it with other gear that has different faults. In this strange hobby the really expensive electronics stuff is usually more colored - deviating from transparency - than the lower priced offerings. An expensive tube DAC, a discrete one or one with special circuits to do things with timing errors, etc, will never outperform the transparency of a competent DAC chip, and will rarely or never equal it.

A frequent straw man that shows up in DAC discussions is that the quality of the analogue section - the "A" in DAC - is the key to audible quality. True, but at these tiny signal levels that is also not expensive to accomplish.
Edited by Clarkmc2 - 10/3/12 at 10:00am
post #3 of 70
Thread Starter 

So to make sure I'm reading right, a DAC, no matter what price it is, is quite similar to an amp, in a sense that they have basic function, and when those functions are done right, then there's little to no difference between their peers in the similar category right?

 

So as to say, cheaper DAC should sound the same as a more expensive ones? What about DAC chip? Does a cheaper one will not perform as well as a more expensive one? Until now I haven't find the reason behind pricing of DAC. If a DAC does its job without incurring much cost, then why are there so many different DAC chips (like Op Amp chips)? What I read from sound science (part of the threads) is that it is very hard to discern an op amp from the other. Is the DAC also the same?

post #4 of 70
I am sure DAC chips differ in quality, though the audibility of the differences is debatable. This is a pretty mature technology and the really nasty examples are in the distant past. DAC chips are mostly not at all expensive. A Wolfson or a Burr-Brown (from Texas Instruments) costs more than the units in a mass produced bargain DVD player, but still just a few dollars. The price of an expensive DAC is not in the chip.

The answers to your questions are, in my experience, affirmative. The pricy stuff may sound different, but not more transparent. One of the reasons there are so many different chips is price points. A lot of companies make DAC chips and many make a variety because two dollars versus five dollars makes a difference to mass market electronics.
Edited by Clarkmc2 - 10/3/12 at 10:31am
post #5 of 70

Neglecting anything with tubes at the moment (I know little about them and they're completely pointless in a DAC). The DAC chips themselves are all fairly similar (wolfson, sabre etc.), the differences come from the circuit the chip is inserted into. For example, whether or not the DAC upsamples, the accuracy of the onboard clock, whether it's asynchronous and how robust that is, the quality of the opamps and (coupling) capacitors, the quality of the power supply, all make a difference.

 

Poetic descriptions are often imaginary or at least overstated, as above you want the thing to be as neutral and accurate as possible. One thing that comes to mind is support for 24 bit is essential if using a digital volume control (quite useful and often far better than mechanical ones).

post #6 of 70

My two cents on DAC's is that you really need to go by the reviews. You cant really glean anything useful from the specks or parts list etc. A good start would be to read blogs and reviews of simple budget DAC's ex. Schiit. There is some fantastic, very reasonably priced kit out there these days. I think we can thank the recession for that!
 

post #7 of 70
For the life of me, I can't figure out why standalone DACs are necessary. The DAC built into the iPod is fantastic, even the cheapest Sony bluray player has specs that equal the most expensive DACs, with the added ability of playing SACD, DVD and blu. And just about every amp nowadays has a great DAC built in, capable of decoding a wide range of different formats, both two channel and 5:1.
post #8 of 70
Quote:
Originally Posted by bigshot View Post

For the life of me, I can't figure out why standalone DACs are necessary. The DAC built into the iPod is fantastic, even the cheapest Sony bluray player has specs that equal the most expensive DACs, with the added ability of playing SACD, DVD and blu. And just about every amp nowadays has a great DAC built in, capable of decoding a wide range of different formats, both two channel and 5:1.

Short answers, chasing inaudible differences, seeking synergy instead of buying better headphones/speakers, and there is a lot of money to be made. It's all right up there with cable elevators. And you forgot to mention soundcards.
Edited by Clarkmc2 - 10/3/12 at 10:59am
post #9 of 70
Quote:
Originally Posted by bigshot View Post

For the life of me, I can't figure out why standalone DACs are necessary. The DAC built into the iPod is fantastic, even the cheapest Sony bluray player has specs that equal the most expensive DACs, with the added ability of playing SACD, DVD and blu. And just about every amp nowadays has a great DAC built in, capable of decoding a wide range of different formats, both two channel and 5:1.

 

My standalone DAC has better specs in every regard than the soundcard in my computer (AMB gamma2 vs. Xonar DX), and a more sophisticated digital filter. I don't know yet whether that results in a difference in a blind test but it's on my list of things to do. For a $200 upgrade I thought it was a good idea.

post #10 of 70
Specs are only good up to the level of the specs for your ears. Beyond that, it doesn't matter.
post #11 of 70
Quote:
Originally Posted by Clarkmc2 View Post

And you forgot to mention soundcards.

I don't have any experience there. I buy Mac and it works out of the box. Based on what I read, there are a bunch of crappy PC soundcards, but I'd guess that's because of noise isolation, not the DAC.
post #12 of 70
Quote:
Originally Posted by bigshot View Post


I don't have any experience there. I buy Mac and it works out of the box. Based on what I read, there are a bunch of crappy PC soundcards, but I'd guess that's because of noise isolation, not the DAC.

There are actually decent soundcards at like $30. Unshielded so they might have some interference issues if they are right next to certain wifi adapters, GPUs, etc... but other than that they can produce a clean sound.

 

Onboard sound of PC's actually isn't terrible nowadays, but it can very likely have interference. Especially front panel audio, mine is horrible. The wiring is at fault there though..

post #13 of 70
Amazing how people make things so expensive for themselves.
post #14 of 70
Quote:
Originally Posted by joeyjojo View Post

My standalone DAC has better specs in every regard than the soundcard in my computer (AMB gamma2 vs. Xonar DX), and a more sophisticated digital filter. I don't know yet whether that results in a difference in a blind test but it's on my list of things to do. For a $200 upgrade I thought it was a good idea.

 

Judging from some infamous AMB Mini3 measurements, I am not sure how reliable their specs are, and what they measured with RMAA is worse than what the Xonar DX is capable of, although admittedly they were "limited by test equipment". In my tests here the PCI version of the card did quite well, and also in an older blind test no one was able to tell apart two loopback recordings from the original audio (only a few people tried it, though, but the result is as expected from the measurements).

If you do need a USB DAC, the more thoroughly tested ODAC might be a safer choice.


Edited by stv014 - 10/3/12 at 3:00pm
post #15 of 70

while were on the subject, id appreciate some clarification, and an answer to a question, if thats not too much to ask.

 

clarification:

as far as i could understand, a DAC exists on anything that plays music, it takes the digital part, ie the 1's and 0's of your mp3/flac/aac/whatever and turns them into the analog bit, which is basically an electric pulse/wave (i dont know the terminology) which then goes into you headphone, making the membrane "dance", compressing and moving the air in a way that our ears (or rather our brain) interpret as sound. (please correct me if im wrong of course)

is this why your meant to plug a DAC into your DAP via usb and not through the headphone jack? because if the music got to your headphone jack it would already be an analog wave (again, terminology) making the external DAC useless?

 

question:

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Clarkmc2 View Post

A DAC should be as accurate as possible, and that is not difficult to to do and should not cost much money. It should never impart any audio quality of its own and cannot alter things like soundstage (that is up to recording and transducers almost exclusively). Transparency is the goal, just like with amplifiers.
Most of a topic like this will usually be taken up with discussions and claims of what a DAC can do for synergy, a topic that really doesn't need to be in the Sound Science forum. Synergy is trying to alter the sound of gear that has faults by matching it with other gear that has different faults. In this strange hobby the really expensive electronics stuff is usually more colored - deviating from transparency - than the lower priced offerings. An expensive tube DAC, a discrete one or one with special circuits to do things with timing errors, etc, will never outperform the transparency of a competent DAC chip, and will rarely or never equal it.
A frequent straw man that shows up in DAC discussions is that the quality of the analogue section - the "A" in DAC - is the key to audible quality. True, but at these tiny signal levels that is also not expensive to accomplish.

 

i understood what you said, and again, keep in mind im just a newbe who doesnt even own a dac, but say i want more bass or more treble or any other emphasis in the music im listening to, what difference does it make where the color comes from? if its from my bassy headphones, bassy amp, bass boost switch on an amp, a dac that colors the music or for that matter - an equalizer? would a bass heavy headphone give a better quality than a bass heavy dac? i hope im making sense, ill try and clarify:

you said that the more expensive, coloring amps cant "outperform the transparency of a competent DAC chip", it sounds like your being critical about amps that provide color and i just want to know why, because no one speaks up when one talks about bass heavy headphones, or equalizing music for emphasis on treble, but DACs seem to be a heated subject for some reason.

 

edit: is it a question of whether or not DACs can provide you with any coloration at all?

and btw, whats the difference between a DAC and an external sound card? are they the same thing?


Edited by adamlr - 10/3/12 at 4:12pm
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