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Tearing my hair out over DACs!

post #1 of 33
Thread Starter 

Let me start by saying that I am looking for a DAC for a 2.0 stereo speaker setup for my living room. Not for headphones. I have a pair of Dynaudio Focus 160 speakers and an HK 3490 stereo amplifier (with digital inputs). I have been reading and researching DACs for well over 6 months now, reading reviews, forums, etc. I am at the point of tearing my hair out!

 

First, there are two schools of thought: one school believes that a $5000 DAC is no better than a $50 DAC. Those in the second school who believe the exact opposite use all sorts of very subjective and descriptive words like "airy" and "separation" and "weight" and "speed" to discuss how their $5,000 DAC purchase revolutionized their setup. Those in the previous camp would argue that all this is hogwash.

 

But let's say for a moment that the latter camp is correct. We have hundreds of DACs at various price points to consider, many based around the same ESS SABRE chips. Many reviews of singular DACs exist but direct A/B comparisons are few in my opinion, at least from "official" sources. Go to the NAIM forum and read the glowing reviews of the DAC V1 and nDAC and none of them can compare these against "lesser" DACs.  Is the Wyred4Sound DAC2 DSD better than or at least on-par with the NAIM DAC V1? No one can tell me. I hear lots of good things about Schiit. Are they truly the best value? I can keep going with brands like Wadia, MyTek, Audiolab, PS Audio, Peachtree Audio, Concero, Teac, Matrix Audio, Eastern Electric, Rega, Meridian, and more!

 

What I have determined is that this forum at headfi is perhaps the best authority on the subject and that is why I am coming (back) here.

 

I think I have come to conclusion that I would like to spend much more on a new amp (NAIM SuperNait2 for $4900) than I would like to spend on a DAC. In other words, I am particularly interested in DACs at the $500-$1500 price points, no higher. Preferably $500-1000.

 

What are the top 3 DACs in each the $500, $1000, and $1500 price points?

 

My intent is that my sources will be completely digital through a "CAPS" PC. Perhaps a BR player in the mix as well but that too may disappear.

 

Another factor to consider is that I live in the DC/NOVA area and do NOT have a car. Driving to various high-end audio shops and auditioning is not an easy proposition. As a person who often works 12-hour days, 6 days a week, buying and selling/re-shipping DACs is not ideal. What I want is consensus where there seems to be none! I want people to agree on the "best" DACs in each of the aforementioned price points and make it "easy" for me just to order A,B, or C that will pair best with a NAIM integrated and Dynaudio speakers. A very tall order I know. What is the "best" anyway? It's all subjective I know. For me, I probably prefer a slightly warmer sound, emphasizing the mids and bass over the highs. Imaging, speed, and separation are all important too. In my 2.0 setup, I listen to everything from Netflix movies to Pandora audio to classical and classic rock CDs, and even female vocal trance from DI.fm.

post #2 of 33

The first school have money, experience, and an open mind . The second school is broke, and refuse to believe their ears over charts. This is the nutshell version. Welcome to Head-fi.

 

-Daniel

 

edit: Oh yeah you're question...$500/Audio gd $1000/V800 $1500/Anedio D2 or used M51


Edited by BournePerfect - 8/29/13 at 9:27am
post #3 of 33

For slightly warmer sound, emphasizing the mids and bass over the highs - check Audio gd SA-1.32 (approx. 1.000 $)

post #4 of 33
DACs are the same regardless of whether you're using speakers or headphones. Of course you should also consider synergy with your amp. At $500, hands down the Yulong D100. At the higher price points, anything from Woo Audio.
post #5 of 33
Quote:
Originally Posted by schneller View Post

Let me start by saying that I am looking for a DAC for a 2.0 stereo speaker setup for my living room. Not for headphones. I have a pair of Dynaudio Focus 160 speakers and an HK 3490 stereo amplifier (with digital inputs). I have been reading and researching DACs for well over 6 months now, reading reviews, forums, etc. I am at the point of tearing my hair out!

 

First, there are two schools of thought: one school believes that a $5000 DAC is no better than a $50 DAC. Those in the second school who believe the exact opposite use all sorts of very subjective and descriptive words like "airy" and "separation" and "weight" and "speed" to discuss how their $5,000 DAC purchase revolutionized their setup. Those in the previous camp would argue that all this is hogwash.

 

But let's say for a moment that the latter camp is correct. We have hundreds of DACs at various price points to consider, many based around the same ESS SABRE chips. Many reviews of singular DACs exist but direct A/B comparisons are few in my opinion, at least from "official" sources. Go to the NAIM forum and read the glowing reviews of the DAC V1 and nDAC and none of them can compare these against "lesser" DACs.  Is the Wyred4Sound DAC2 DSD better than or at least on-par with the NAIM DAC V1? No one can tell me. I hear lots of good things about Schiit. Are they truly the best value? I can keep going with brands like Wadia, MyTek, Audiolab, PS Audio, Peachtree Audio, Concero, Teac, Matrix Audio, Eastern Electric, Rega, Meridian, and more!

 

What I have determined is that this forum at headfi is perhaps the best authority on the subject and that is why I am coming (back) here.

 

I think I have come to conclusion that I would like to spend much more on a new amp (NAIM SuperNait2 for $4900) than I would like to spend on a DAC. In other words, I am particularly interested in DACs at the $500-$1500 price points, no higher. Preferably $500-1000.

 

What are the top 3 DACs in each the $500, $1000, and $1500 price points?

 

My intent is that my sources will be completely digital through a "CAPS" PC. Perhaps a BR player in the mix as well but that too may disappear.

 

Another factor to consider is that I live in the DC/NOVA area and do NOT have a car. Driving to various high-end audio shops and auditioning is not an easy proposition. As a person who often works 12-hour days, 6 days a week, buying and selling/re-shipping DACs is not ideal. What I want is consensus where there seems to be none! I want people to agree on the "best" DACs in each of the aforementioned price points and make it "easy" for me just to order A,B, or C that will pair best with a NAIM integrated and Dynaudio speakers. A very tall order I know. What is the "best" anyway? It's all subjective I know. For me, I probably prefer a slightly warmer sound, emphasizing the mids and bass over the highs. Imaging, speed, and separation are all important too. In my 2.0 setup, I listen to everything from Netflix movies to Pandora audio to classical and classic rock CDs, and even female vocal trance from DI.fm.

You already hinted at the problems of your questions in that "best" is defined differently by each individual.  When you bring price point into the equation, then value plays a part in "best" and that adds even more confusion.  What about feature set?  Also, you are investing quite a bit of money into your set up, so I'd caution against basing your decision on the advice of weirdos (like me) online that you have never met and might have different preferences than you.  What I hope you do is see what people recommend in this thread and still do more research and possibly demoing.  I know you work alot, but if you care this much about audio, you might have to do more legwork to find the right match than you want.

 

To get you started, the Resonessence Concero is an excellent performer at $600.  I have this, love it, and have a hard time imagining wanting more unless I needed more features.  There is also the Concero HD at $850 that offers a slightly different character and perhaps a bit more resolution.  The Schiit Gungnir at $750/850 is popular and well-received.  The Matrix X-Sabre ($1100), Yulong D18 ($700) or DA8 ($1300), and Anedio D2 ($1500) are all in your price range and well-reviewed.  Many of the differences at this level simply come down to sound preference and features.

 

Good luck!

post #6 of 33
Quote:
Originally Posted by BournePerfect View Post

The first school have money, experience, and an believe more $$ is better . The second school is (sometimes) broke, and prefer to use science in order to prove empirical points while acknowledging people hear stuff differently.  This is the nutshell version. Welcome to Head-fi.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to head-fi, there is a nice DIY DAC @ $500 thread that may be of help. 

post #7 of 33

I've been on both sides of that coin, thankfully. You get what you pay for-but synergy is paramount. Welcome to life.

 

-Daniel

post #8 of 33

Both camps are wrong - there are audible differences between some DACs (or CDPs, other digital sources, etc), it's just that these differences aren't dependent on the price, or even the chip (marked differences between devices with different chips are more likely from sound-shaping tweaks, msotly to the analog section, by the designer). Properly designed DAC circuits (not just the chip, but also the analog output section) will sound very similar to each other, while a DAC with an analog output section deliberately designed to color the sound (clue to this nowadays is when people swap out opamps, and there's usually a "neutral" or "default" config) will sound very different from these.

Of course, in some ways, one can look at very different circuits and think, based on purely technical aspects (not necessarily actual measurements), that one DAC is immediately better than another.  To wit, a lot of DACs nowadays are simple DACs with nothing fancy in the analog output circuit and draw their power off the USB; compare that to a DAC with its own PSU, separate L-R power capacitor banks, DACs, and all the way through the analog output opamps, it's easy to assume the latter will sound better. However, you have to consider a few things:

1) Just because the power supply isn't overbuilt, doesn't mean there aren't ways around it. In terms of noise filtering, if your USB port transmits noise, cables that can hook it up to run off a batter pack/powerbank are easier to come by nowadays for those not inclined to DIY. ("Off the grid" has its own reject everything else fanatics too, BTW)

2) Neither will that be a disadvantage at all times regarding power either. A simpler circuit means it won't need as much power either, and even if you end up outputting a signal less than the Sony Redbook-standard 2V, your overall system won't necessarily be compromised. If the signal isn't colored, your amp is considerably transparent, and powerful enough yet clean at that higher output level so you can use its gain to compensate (ie when you level match during a comparo), overall your system will still sound good. Now, if for example you're getting some noise or distortion off the USB-powered DAC, then your amp when turned up to match a 2V input already has too much THD, then overall your system will sound different.

 

------

 

Just as an example of how implementation can be important, I've tried a bunch of other digital sources with my Meier Cantate.2, and believe it or not, I still prefer its simpler circuit over almost all I've tried. That would be its single PCM2706 combo USB receiver+DAC chip (that other DACs use just as a receiver with better chips) powered by the internal transformer, with no fancy analog stage but outputting close to 2v to the amp section (based on my hearing perception vs the analog input, not actually measured) from a daughterboard - beating out the iBasso D-Zero (too warm), as well as various entry- and mid-level CDPs* that have a larger soundstage but sound weird through headphones (drums positioned ahead of the band, or floating somewhere else in the headspace with no coherence with the other instruments; or just too warm). As a bonus, since it uses its own transformer to power that one chip, it works off my Android phone and together with a stand I have a really convenient music server. To be fair however, a lot of people might find my amp's built-in "afterthought/back-up" DAC a bit "boring" and relatively congested.

 

 

*Here's a list, but I have to clarify I can only be really sure with my system; apologies if I can't make a sure recommendation based on your gear. Also, those that sound weird on headphones don't necessarily sound that way on speakers.

Sources I've tried and won't spend money on for this system : all Cambridge below the 7xxC, NAD C545, Marantz CD5004, Rega Apollo (the original, larger version), uDAC

Sources I've tried and might spend money on, if I didn't have to eat instant ramen instead of $6 steaks or pork; or sell a kidney : Cayin CD50T, CDT23/100i, CD17, Arcam CD72, NAD M-series, Shanling T200
My realistic choices : used Arcam CD72, HRT iStreamer, Schiit DACs, DX100

 

 

----

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by schneller View Post

 

What I have determined is that this forum at headfi is perhaps the best authority on the subject and that is why I am coming (back) here.

 

Depends; you'd get different answers as many here are divided between the WM874x and the ESS9018, while I kinda noticed I seem to be the only one to noticed too much upper bass response from DACs/CDPs with the CS4398. Again, that's not necessarily the chip - the designers of the overall circuit could have went for that kind of overall sound.

post #9 of 33
Guys, just make suggestions on DACs for the OP. Gets really old and unhelpful when every DAC recommendation thread turns into the same, tired argument about whether or not spending money on a DAC is worth it.
post #10 of 33

This thread may be of help: http://www.head-fi.org/t/486598/testing-audiophile-claims-and-myths

 

In a nutshell: spend 90% of your audiophile budget on the speakers/headphones.  The rest of the stuff hardly matters and you probably couldn't pick them apart if you were blindfolded anyway.


Edited by dizzyorange - 8/29/13 at 12:07pm
post #11 of 33
Quote:
Originally Posted by FraGGleR View Post

You already hinted at the problems of your questions in that "best" is defined differently by each individual.  When you bring price point into the equation, then value plays a part in "best" and that adds even more confusion.  What about feature set?  Also, you are investing quite a bit of money into your set up, so I'd caution against basing your decision on the advice of weirdos (like me) online that you have never met and might have different preferences than you.  What I hope you do is see what people recommend in this thread and still do more research and possibly demoing.  I know you work alot, but if you care this much about audio, you might have to do more legwork to find the right match than you want.

 

To get you started, the Resonessence Concero is an excellent performer at $600.  I have this, love it, and have a hard time imagining wanting more unless I needed more features.  There is also the Concero HD at $850 that offers a slightly different character and perhaps a bit more resolution.  The Schiit Gungnir at $750/850 is popular and well-received.  The Matrix X-Sabre ($1100), Yulong D18 ($700) or DA8 ($1300), and Anedio D2 ($1500) are all in your price range and well-reviewed.  Many of the differences at this level simply come down to sound preference and features.

 

Good luck!

Those four DACs right there are exactly what i would recommend, with an edge to the DA8 based on your preferences.

post #12 of 33
Thread Starter 

AH, the debate rages on!

 

Thanks everyone for your words and advice.

 

I did look at Yulong. (Anedio was unfamiliar to me.) My concern there is that they seem to be an obscure Chinese company and I would be concerned about long-term support (drivers, etc.). Since I have Danish speakers and am considering an English integrated, perhaps an American DAC would be nice? This is not a main concern, however. It's also good to remember that the pre-amp/headphone-amp aspects are not key for me. As for minimal requirements, I need at least one of each the USB, optical/SPDIF/toslink, and coax digital inputs. I am on the fence considering DSD. It might be nice as a way of "future-proofing" but otherwise I don't see the need on the immediate horizon.

 

I guess no one here shops NAIM as well?

post #13 of 33
Grant Fidelity is a Yulong reseller based in Calgary, and if you buy from them they should be able to provide warranty support if anything goes wrong. As for DSD, I've heard that the difference isn't really noticeable. I guess once you get to a certain level of resolution it surpasses the resolution of your ears.
post #14 of 33

Most of the companies making dacs have resorted to the Sabre 9018 simply because it is at or near the state of the art at reasonable prices. The issue comes down to implementation of power supply, isolation, and analog section. There are only so many ways to build a dac which is why they are becoming more feature oriented than anything else. If you line up a bunch of 9018 dacs from different manufacturers I bet they sound more similar than different. The Sabre dac chip is still the engine that determines the heart in all these products so it is largely a matter of pick your features aka headamp/preamp/usb interface, etc and the look and feel of the overall device.  The reason there are so many on the market is that it is one of the easiest audio devices to design. Honestly, except for the different usb input circuits there is really nothing new going on in any of these. Do they offer different sonic flavors, of course they do but it just come down to personal preference. Until something replaces the 9018 as the top chip don't expect any breakthroughs in sound for any of these manufacturers.

post #15 of 33
Quote:
Originally Posted by Chodi View Post

Most of the companies making dacs have resorted to the Sabre 9018 simply because it is at or near the state of the art at reasonable prices. The issue comes down to implementation of power supply, isolation, and analog section. There are only so many ways to build a dac which is why they are becoming more feature oriented than anything else. If you line up a bunch of 9018 dacs from different manufacturers I bet they sound more similar than different. The Sabre dac chip is still the engine that determines the heart in all these products so it is largely a matter of pick your features aka headamp/preamp/usb interface, etc and the look and feel of the overall device.  The reason there are so many on the market is that it is one of the easiest audio devices to design. Honestly, except for the different usb input circuits there is really nothing new going on in any of these. Do they offer different sonic flavors, of course they do but it just come down to personal preference. Until something replaces the 9018 as the top chip don't expect any breakthroughs in sound for any of these manufacturers.

Well, to provide some additional info to that. It's actually one of the most difficult devices to work with. The benefit of design with a TOTL Sabre DAC is all the integrated features. This means less total parts and labor costs, but the caveat is dealing with a highly sensitive chip. They do essentially sound the same, but it's the analog stage that determines the overall sonic flavor. You're right about nothing being really breakthrough for the foreseeable future, with the exception more advanced USB chipsets, and hopefully more advanced digital preamplification.

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