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.