I intend to do a comparison of mid-level (~$500-2500) DACs in December 2013. I will test multiple DACs and keep the one I like the best. Period. Everything else gets sent away. If I end up liking my current $200 Emotiva XDA-1 best, that's the one I'll keep and everything new gets sent away. A tie goes to the cheaper competitor. I will write up all of my results, analysis, impressions, etc. in exceedingly wordy posts to this thread, so that you can all call me names, good and bad.
All tests will be done using my desktop computer feeding USB or Optical to each DAC, which will then send the analog signal to my Odyssey Cyclops and the Cyclops will drive my Audeze LCD-3s. All DACS will be tested against each other using USB; those that have optical will be tested using that input for comparison with their USB and with the other DACs. However, the primary evaluation will be in USB, since that is where the industry is heading, or at least where most of the advancement seems to be right now.
I currently plan to use a switch between multiple DACs and the amp to ease comparisons, assuming I can find a switch that doesn't degrade the sound (I'll take any recommendations folks might have on such a unit). If no such switch can be found at a reasonable price (~$50, or less if possible), I'll review the DACs one at a time, taking notes, and then comparing. I did this for amps this past summer, and it works, but obviously quick A/B testing makes the analysis less dependent on my memory and my ability to describe small differences in real-time notes.
My hope is to be able to bring in 5-10 DACs, with the main constraint being that whatever I bring in has to be returnable for no more than reasonable shipping costs -- ~$50-60 each, max. I have absolutely no desire to own lots of DACs or to open a used DAC store. That means if there are no free returns -- forget it. If there is even a 10% restocking fee on a $1,000 DAC -- forget it. If return shipping overseas is $150-200 -- forget it. We live in a global internet market -- the Amazon Age, if you will -- and there are plenty of fine products out there that offer low-cost or free trials and/or easy returns, with net cost <$60 if I return the hardware. I just can't afford to spend thousands on the products I don't keep. The idea is to try to hold transaction costs (i.e., the costs of the competition itself, not the final winner) <$500, which is cheaper than any decent 2-week vacation trip I could possibly book.
There are exceptions to this rule: If a responsible Head-Fier will commit to buying a particular DAC from me for what I paid if I decide not to keep it, then I will include that unit in the comparison even if the transaction costs are higher than ~$60. Note, however, that my willingness to do this still has limits: (1) my exposure has to be capped at the costs of return shipping to Asia, say ~$200 for a given unit, if my partner backs out; and (2) I'm only willing to do this for a couple of units, max (one of which has already been offered and accepted... leaving one more "opportunity"). There's a limit to my willingness to trust in the internet age, since I don't really know any of you (and vice-versa, for that matter... why should you trust me?).
I will also take any DACs that folks would like to loan me for a few weeks in December. In that case, the lender would have to trust me. I swear I'm an honest and honorable person, but I understand that there's no way for you to know that. Given this risk, it is a testament to the HF community that I've already had a couple of very gracious offers of this type. I thank those people for their willingness to risk their hardware with me, and will work with them to make it happen, if possible. If your DAC wins, I'll send it back to you, no worse for wear, and will buy myself a new one of that model, thereby supporting one of your favorite DAC builders. You get the reward of being able to bask in all of the "I told you that it was the bestest DAC ever" glory of having your DAC model selected by me (a total nobody) as my favorite, using my completely subjective decision criteria. For whatever that's worth.
Unfortunately, all of the above limits will not allow me to include Audio-Gd units unless somebody loans me one, since as far as I can tell, there are no returns of their stuff. If I'm wrong about that, please let me know, since I would love to include one of their DACs.
Okay, enough BS background stuff. Here are the DACs that are currently under consideration, in no particular order, but the units that are more or less confirmed to be in the running are now bolded:
- Emotiva Stealth DC-1. It's an AD1955-based DAC, making it relatively unique these days, and it's on sale for $499 shipped, making it cheap. Emotiva has a great trial period -- 30 days and you pay only return shipping.
- Benchmark DAC-2. One of many ESS 9018-based mid-range DACs around, it has the advantage of coming from a company with an established reputation. More important, it has a 30-day free trial period, and they're on the East Coast of the US, meaning low return shipping costs for me.
- Anedio D2. Another well-regarded 9018 DAC, and Anedio has a $49 loaner program. Kudos to them for that!!!
- Resonessence Concero. An ESS 9023 DAC, it's <$1K and will be supplied by Zilch0MD (Thanks Mike!).
- BMC PureDac. Guess what: another 9018 DAC, but at least it looks different... unfortunately Moon Audio has a 5% restocking fee, which might knock this one out of the comparison. I'll talk to them and Vapor Audio to see if there's a way around that. Update: this one already has one vote for kicking it off the island. If I find another contender it will probably be the next off the list unless somebody provides a very strong argument for it.
- Matrix X Sabre... yeah, another 9018 DAC for ~$1K. Returns on this one appear to be more difficult, making it unlikely to make the field, unless somebody can find a low-risk way of getting me one. Too many 9018 DACs, not enough time or money. As of now, off the list.
- Yulong DA8... What, another 9018 DAC? Yeah, because it has a great reputation and I have a volunteer to take it off my hands for full price if I decide I don't like it. That person may reveal himself if he chooses, but I'm thanking him anonymously right now, because it means that this DAC will almost certainly be in the competition.
- Metrum Octave Mk II. A non-9018, NOS DAC that appears to have a supplier that offers low-cost trials.
- Lynx Hilo. Does way more things than I need, but has an excellent reputation and Happy Camper has volunteered it for the test, so it's in.
- Schiit Gungnir. An AKM 4399-based DAC, and I have somebody willing to loan me one. That's a good thing, since I already used my annual Schiit return on the Mjolnir I tested last summer (yeah, another potty pun, sorry, but they asked for it).
- Chordette QuteHD. A proprietary FPGA-based DAC, making it the kind of unique entrant that makes these comparisons fun to do. Acoustic Sounds has a 30-day return policy, no restocking, so this unit is in the test. Thanks for recommending this one JD007!
- Dangerous Source - another product intended for the studio that has gotten some praise by audiophiles, and it's <$1K, so it is under serious consideration.
Got any other ideas for other DACs I should include? I expect some of those currently listed to drop off, so please let me know in the next week or so about any potential adds. However, please also remember the constraints I so verbosely included above (assuming you waded through all of that "stuff"). I'll also take any recommendations regarding test setups that you would might have, particularly regarding low-cost switches and cables.
One final note on cables. I don't believe in expensive magic cables, particularly digital ones like USB or toslink, but if somebody wants to lend me/send me some at no cost to me, I will compare them to the cheap, monoprice ones I will be using for this test. If I find that the expensive cables make a difference, I'll admit it publicly in this thread, and you will have won another convert to your cause. If I receive no such cables, or hear no difference, I will remain among the heathens.
As requested, here's the final list as of candidate DACs as of 12/8/13. At this point the only reason is will change is if a DAC doesn't show up:
1. Emotiva Stealth DC-1.
|2. Resonessence Concero.|
|3. Yulong DA8.|
|4. Metrum Octave Mk II.|
|5. Lynx Hilo.|
|6. Schiit Gungnir.|
|7. Chordette QuteHD.|
|8. NAD M51.|
|9. Ciunas DAC|
|10. Benchmark DAC-2.|
|11. Dangerous Source.|
|12. BMC PureDac.|
|13. Arcam irDAC|
|14. Anedio D2.|
Note that my current DAC, the Emotiva XDA-1 will be evaluated as well, making a total of 15 DACs being compared.
For those too busy/lazy to read through the entire thread, a summary of my findings is on page 79: http://www.head-fi.org/t/689783/december-2013-mid-level-dac-comparison/1170#post_10141530.
Edited by Gary in MD - 1/7/14 at 8:48pm