Ranking of 17+ DACs and DAC Configurations
This is a ranking of 17+ DAC and DAC configurations by my ninjas and I. These rankings are largely based on personal preference. They should be taken with a grain of salt. We have heard many more DACs, but these 17 DAC and DAC configurations are ones we feel comfortable making decisive statements about because of the following:
- We have spent significant time with them in a controlled environment or we own them.
- We have able to solicit opinions from each other, usually in the same sessions as as part of the ongoing semi-regular DAC-offs sessions I hold in my home.
- We have been able to compare them with at least several other DAC in the list at the same time.
There was also a lot of older no longer manufactured or no longer popular junk we have listened to that we didn't bother to comment on. Feel free to ask about other DACs that we have heard, although our opinions of them in comparison to the DACs listed here should not be considered reliable.
The associated gear used was as follows (it has been consistent so far):
- Amps: Schiit Mjolnir. Eddie Current Super 7 (modified)
- Headphones: HD800 Anax 3.0 (Beta) Modded, HE-500, JPS Labs Abyss
- Speakers: Madisound BK-16 Kit augmented by Fostex T90 supertweeters and one Hsu STF-2 subwoofer placed in a corner of the room. Digital PEQ was applied at the listening position for a smooth response from 20-20kHz with a downward slope of 6db. Room modes and major driver resonances were corrected.
- Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 5 USB to SPDIF/i2s converter. Regulator upgrade only on the i2s output. No turboclocks.
The DACs are ranked according to order of preference and classified into separate categories:
- Highly Recommended
- Recommended for others
- Class S
- Beyond Classification - which denotes a conditional recommendation - something we would purchase for specific listening purposes.
Warning: DACs are a very personal thing and preferences are very specific. It goes without saying that component synergy will play a huge role. There were some minor differences of opinion and DAC ranking among my ninjas and I, but we were able to reach an agreement that we were all happy with. Ultimately it comes down to this: what is would we rather use X or Y, or what do we want to use today? Because personal preference does play a huge role, I am willing to entertain questions concerning specific attributes of any of these DACs.
Although some DACs were DSD capable, we used PCM to evaluate the DACs because despite our combined extensive SACD collections, 99% of our content was still in PCM.
Note on OR5 USB Converter: With some exceptions (because of time / effort limitations), if we felt the OR5 didn't improve a DAC significantly enough to change its ranking, we didn't bother with it. The OR5 only improves certain specific aspects of DACs, and even then it can only do so much based on the limitations of the DAC. The few DACs I wished we had a chance to try the OR5 on were the Lavry, M51, Luxman, Gamma2. The Gamma2 would have mainly been out of curiosity since it's DIY and usually obtainable used for a little over two hundred dollars. In any event, only the top three DACs, the Alpha, PWD2, and especially M7, improved significantly with the use of the OR5.
VERY GOOD STUFF
#1 Audio GD Master 7 (i2s from OR5 with USB cut +5V line and AMB Sigma11 power supply feeding the OR5)
See AGD M7 comments in #5 below. This is where the AGD finally meets or even starts to exceed the PWD2 in terms of technicalities. The +5V USB cut opens up the soundstage, brings about a better sense of space and a bit of air. With the OR5 i2s, the stage gets very deep with stable precise imaging - a HUGE improvement. The OR5 PS blackens the background image and brings about an ease of presentation. That last bit of PCM1704 softness is finally removed - the M7 is finally able to compete with the PWD2, Alpha, and Gungnir on the macrodynamic level. Bass is not as thick as the #5 configuration below, but some warmth still maintained (this is actually to my preference.). In a nutshell, the M7 with the OR5 i2s is where we finally get the best of the R2R (naturalness and smoothness) and Sigma-Delta DAC (resolution and attack) worlds. All DACs have a readily identifiable and describable sound. We can listen to something and say "Ah, that's a Bifrost. Or that's a PWD2." This setup, not so much. And that's a very good thing.
#2 PS Audio PWD2 (AES from Lynx / i2s from OR5 USB Converter / Coax from a Vintage Denon CDP)
*Upgraded from PWD1 to PWD2 - we are not sure about new PWD2 units as one unit we had sounded very different. Others have reported no issues with their own newer PWD2s. The latest firmware revision appears to have leveled the playing field.
Read the PWD2 USB entry below for the "meat." We achieved very positive results using the Lynx Hilo via AES as a USB converter. AES was less favorable using the OR5 compared to it's I2S implementation, so impressions may vary. Superior to PS Audio's XMOS USB solution in every way. This is assuming your AES or coax source is up to par. Results in a more cohesive liquid sound, blacker background, better defined and precision rendering of sounds. Improved clarity and overall resolution, microdynamic performance. BTW, the Perfectwave Transport via i2s isn't all that great. Actually it's incredibly average sounding in our comparison of five separate transports.
#3 Berkeley Alpha Series 2 (Alpha USB or OR5)
Haunting similar sounding to the PWD2. You may as well read the PWD2 description below. Both the Alpha USB and OR5 (WASAPI) USB converters sounded essentially the same. Compared to the PWD2 USB, the Alpha 2 has slightly more natural tone, timbre, and liquidity, but does so at the expense of some microdetail. The PWD2 is only able to nudge in front of the Alpha2 via the i2s from the OR5. Unfortunately, the Alpha 2 won't take i2s; and the Alpha USB won't output i2s. The Alpha2 does have the BADA input, but I don't think devices for this input have been developed yet. One of the other ninjas preferred the PWD2 via USB to the Alpha. I preferred the Alpha based on better tone. An excellent DAC, but a proper USB "transport" is required.
#4 PS Audio PWD2 (USB)
Extremely resolving, great microdynamics, fast sharp attacks, able to reproduce wide gradations in volume. Deep and wide stage with a great sense of space. Maybe wooden and slightly raspy in the treble depending on filter preferences. One trick we used was to upsample Redbook in software to 176k. This shifts the digital filter upward and results in a smoother treble. Tends to have a bit of haze, or a clarity penalty listening from USB. Still the XMOS USB implementation is one of the better ones. The Audiophilleo AP1 USB/SPDIF converter actually sounded slightly worse than the internal PWD2 USB. Firmware revision can make a difference in bass, treble, and overall clarity. The differences can be significant. This can be good for bad depending upon how you look at it. We have not auditioned the latest firmware.
#5 Audio GD Master 7 (Coax OR5 or vintage Denon CDP)
Vocals to die for! Great bass pitch differentiation and texture while being able to sustain power. Natural treble, if not a little rolled in the air region. Best vocals of any DAC we've heard here to date (along with the Metrum and Gungnir). Very engaging, lively, seductive vocal harmonics. Rich in natural vocal timbre. Perhaps a a bit warmer sound as you might find with typical R2R DACs. The transparency window opens up with both USB and PS upgrades on the front end of I2S/AES converters. Without the OR5 i2s, the soundstage was pushed very far back and compressed in terms of depth; and the imaging is not as stable and precise as the above DACs.
#6 Lynx Hilo (USB)
Clean, clear imaging, excellent separation. A bit flat with its imaging making it more 2D wanting for more depth. Bass can be lacking in body which might make percussive instruments like snares appear a bit brittle which could be a factor over long term listening for some recordings. We wouldn't call the Hilo thin or lean sounding though. The Hilo bests the XSabre and Invicta on inner dynamics even though it lacks the thickness of note which helps contribute to more explosive macrodynamics. There are more transients being illuminated and correspondingly more plankton than the other two. The articulation of sounds is superb, especially because they are painted on a really black background. What’s unique about the Hilo is its very smooth sound signature without reliance on added warmth or bass to cover up issues found upstream. This helps some bad recordings sound more palatable. All these make for an very enjoyable and involving listen.
#7 Schiit Gungnir Gen2 USB Board (USB)
Highly dynamic. Great tonal balance. Like the Lavry DA11, it doesn't do much wrong. Sweet sweet tone. Excellent tonal response with some balls in the bass. Compact but well defined stage with great localization of instruments. Very good sounding treble, one of the best we've heard with a sigma-delta chip. Vocals are only second the AGD M7. Resolution is not the best, but it can still hang in there. With the Gen 2 USB upgrade, the Gungnir has now found its way into my regular rotation. Now I can feel comfortable lending out one of my better DACs to friends because I have a DAC good enough as a substitute. Some have found the Gungnir Gen 1 to be overly dynamic - having a tendency to be too loud. Think rock stadium. The Gen 2 USB brings to the table some finesse through the restoration of low level sounds which were previously compressed or lost in the Gen 1 USB version. Gen 1 USB also sounds less lively (microdynamics) and less clear. The Gen 2 USB upgrade is significant. It's interesting to note how Schiit has removed all the bad things they said about USB on their website with the release of the Gen 2 USB.
#8 Auralic Vega (USB Coarse / Fine Clock)
Hyper detailed with the same microdynamic authority but almost, almost just as much plankton extraction as the top setups using the external USB converters. It's on the nicely bright side (maybe lean is a better word) as the SABRE nature of this DAC is very evident. Surprisingly, this DAC manages NOT to annoy us too much. There is a very high level of refinement and precision. We applaud the fact that Auralic has allowed this DAC to be SABREish without trying to make it into something else which usually ends up with peculiar results (see Invicta). This is SABRE done right, leveraging all of the SABRE's strengths without covering up its weaknesses. You either take it or leave it. Very clean sounding. On the more analytical side, but not harsh like the Mytek. (One ninja, the one who really disliked the Mytek, remarked "it's tolerable.") Sub and low bass don't have the palpablility of most of the other DACs, but extension is there. Excellent attack, speed, and drive. Great sense of space, layering, separation, and openness. Doesn't have the natural timbre of ladder DACs but instead has a synthesized robotic quality. (I'm exaggerating, but you know what I mean. Think fine silky grain akin to the M51.) But what it does well, it does very very well. This is why we can overlook these weaknesses. The Vega is what the Benchmark DAC wishes it could be. Off Ramp 5 USB to AES added a little bit of bass and warmth, but at the cost of speed. The Vega sounded disjointed (between bass and treble) with the OR5 and we preferred the built in USB which appears to be a very good implementation. This DAC probably plays better with speakers or the LCD2/3 rather than brighter headphones such as the HD800 where fatigue can be an issue. The three ninjas who heard this DAC were split on the ranking of his DAC. The ranking is a compromise.
EXACT MODE UPDATE: Maybe the occasional drop-out before everything fully stablizes, but wow! A much more refined smoother less lean sound signature (meaning the Vega still has a treble emphasis but now with some warm in the bass.) Smoothness or lack of grain is not on the level of the R2R or better AKM implementations, but more akin to the the PWD2 via OR5 - a bit of raspyness and grain. PWD2 isn't as bright so this isn't as noticable on it.
#9 NAD M51 (USB)
The NAD is a neutral (compared to other DACs in the list which may be slightly warm or bright) sounding DAC with very good resolution, but short in the microdynamics department compared to the best. Good bass power, but not quite as explosive in the bass the better DACs. Good bass extension and good air with a wide stage. The NAD has limitations reproducing wide gradations on the volume scale - compressed in that sense. It's our understanding that there have since been firmware revisions which may have changed the sound of the NAD. The sigma-delta like nature of the M51's treble is slightly evident, but it's not annoying like anything SABRE. It's really detailed in the treble, but something with the timbre is not quite right. Sort of a silky synthesized upper octave. Maybe its because of their internal PCM to PWM conversion process. We are nitpicking, but you readers should already know that.
#10 Schiit Bifrost Uber Gen 2 USB (USB)
The Gen 2 USB is more resolving and has more "finesse" than the Gen 1 USB. This is why the Bifrost Gen 2 is rated slightly higher than the Gungnir Gen 1 USB. As you can imagine, the Bifrost is getting way too close for comfort to the Gungnir Gen 2 USB. Bifrost is weaker than the Gungnir G2 in the following ways: slightly less smooth, slightly less dynamic (which may be a good thing for certain people), slightly more grainy. Bifrost G2 and Gungnir G2 are equally resolving. The Uber Analog boards correct two notable issues I had with the original boards: slight mid-bassiness; slight treble stidency. The original Bifrost is not anywhere as resolving. As for the Gungnir G2: make no mistake, the Gungnir is better, even with the single ended outputs. It's also not that much more money because the Bifrost with all the bells and whistles starts to get expensive.
#11 Schiit Gungnir Gen1 USB Board (USB)
See Gungnir above. Some can find the Gungnir Gen 1 overly dynamic - having a tendency to be too loud, brash, without finesse, Gen 1 USB seems to drop off the softest sounds or compress them upward. Gen 1 USB also sounds less lively and less clear than Gen 2.
#12 Audio GD Master 7 (USB)
The USB severely limits what the M7 can really do. Everything gets taken down a notch. Soundstage gets taken down a notch from coax losing even more depth and offering fuzzy unstable images. The M7 also becomes a bit strident in the treble and slower; muddier and thicker int he bass. The midrange tends sounds recessed because of these factors. The USB32 is soft sounding, hazy, and lazy compared to the better transport options. Also the background was rather gray with the USB32. It's still a really good DAC, but nothing exceptional other than still being quite detailed and providing that characteristic R2R sound.
#13 Lavry DA11 (USB)
We were pleasantly surprised at how well rounded this DAC sounded. The Lavry's greatest strength is that there was absolutely nothing about it which we found annoying. Especially of note, was the lack of apparent digital glare, stridency or harshness (aka. digitittus). It does everything somewhat well. Staging, resolution, dynamics, tonal balance,etc. Although this is a studio DAC, it does not have the typical studio DAC sound. This is solid conservative choice backed by a well known industry player. The biggest drawback to the Lavry would be it's rather slightly flat presentation lacking ultimate depth and dimensionality. Everything is done well or above average but nothing is excelled at except it's superb tonal balance which maybe the most important aspect for some listeners.
#14 Matrix X-Sabre (USB)
Dynamic, precise tight rendering of midrange and treble. Clear sounding with great blackground. Good openness with wide imaging not quite as tight or deep as the best DACs in the list. Highly resolving: better than DA11 and Gungnir above and matching M51. Overall tonality tends toward the very slightly lean side and only in comparison to most the other DACs in this list. Solid piece of aluminum can be used as a weapon. A rather polite and laid back sounding DAC; however as with all SABRE based DACs, there are issues with the treble and bass rendering: the mid/high treble is spitty, the bass while quick, explosive and punchy, tends to lack pitch differentiation and texture. Personally, I didn't have much trouble with the X-Sabre's treble rendering, but I know others who had. Feeding the X-Sabre DSD via DoP sounds slightly better. We recommend converting PCM content to DSD. Don't let the relatively low personal ranking of ours discourage you from trying the X-Sabre out, especially if you are OK with the current sigma-delta DAC kind of sound.
#15 AMB Gamma2 (USB)
Great tone. Great slam and bass extension. Great refined sound. Maybe a slight tilt toward a dark tonality. Short in the resolution department, probably because of the ASRC chip, although I've heard this DAC is much more resolving with a good coax source. Amazing sound for such little DAC. It sounds like a bigger desktop DAC.
#16 Metrum Quad (Coax or OR5)
This is the entry level DAC for Metrum's R2R NOS line of DACs. While we loved the timbre and smoothness of this DAC, especially for voices, we ultimately found the Quad too laid back sounding. Laid back as too in polite. Not enough bite in voices, trumpets, and percussion. Note that "laid back" should not be misinterpreted for warm or thick sounding. Treble and bass extension were very good. Stage was compact and intimate. Bass tended to get syrupy with the PC/Coax, but was fine with the OR5. Control and precision were good from the mids on up. The OR5 helped deepen the stage and provide a better sense of the space. The Quad's presentation lends itself to vocals at the expense of other instruments. Easily the least resolving of all the DACs in the "good stuff" category. This DAC is the opposite of the Vega. Good stuff and recommended if you like this kind of presentation.
RECOMMENDED FOR OTHERS
#17 Resonessence Invicta (USB)
Much has been said about the close relationship and between Resonnessence Labs and ESS (the maker of the DAC chip in the Invicta). We when first powered the Invicta up and listened to it, we were like "Wow, this is kind of nice. Instruments and vocals have a great sense of body. This is totally unlike anything SABRE." However, it didn't take long for us to realize the Invcita has some serious shortcomings. Despite the voicing of this DAC to provide a fuller bodied sound, the SABRE treble is still there in the form of stridency. (You can't fool us!) The effect is much more muted compared to the poorer SABRE implementations of course. Unfortunately, the extra body makes the bass sound slow. Complex passages sound congested and muddy. Some could say in the attempt to tame the SABRE-esque qualities of the DAC, it crushes the soul of your music. At least gear synergy would not be a problem anymore. Congestion, lack of air, and transient response are issues here. Best considered for those looking for an all-in-one integrated solution when providing your own SD Card material. The SD card sounds better than USB.
#18 Benchmark DAC1 (USB, Coax from Pure i120)
This ubiquitous DAC is not particularly impressive. As many others have observed, the DAC1 is the thin sounding side. It lacks bass impact and seems to apparently get weaker in bass volume as we go downward to the extreme. It does a good job of presenting detail on a macro level, but lacks the ability to resolve low level information. Even though this DAC is on the thinner sounding side, its treble behavior was not as bad I was I left to believe. The treble is not horribly etched, glaring, or anything that like. It took us several years to get a friend to dump this DAC, and when he finally did, he thanked us. Reportedly the DAC1 sounds much better with a decent USB/SPDIF converter, exceeding the Gamma2 above. We have yet to test this.
#19 ODAC (USB)
At its best, the ODAC sound expansive, detailed, and precise in imaging. At its worst, the ODAC sounds closed-in, flat, dull, uninteresting, and with wooly bass (Class S). It depends upon the USB connection. Overall the ODAC is not as precise in rendering of sounds. This is where the comparable Modi exceeds its performance. Comparatively, the Schiit Modi is able to reproduce a wider range of more continuous of volumes than the ODAC. Still, the fact that a DAC can even make sounds from USB power is amazing. Nwavguy was right when he said it sounded as good as a Benchmark DAC1
Eximus DP-1 (USB)
We do hope though that anyone considering the DP-1 has actually listened to it (rather than relying on hype) before deciding on a purchase. We liked the DAC, but for specific purposes. While we liked the DP-1's sweet treble and instrument separation on the highs, we found bass extension, power, dynamics and overall control through the entire audio band somewhat lacking. Sounds were always a hair fuzzy and not tightly focused. We would have also liked more micro-detail extraction given the price. The upsample button did one of two things (off = more detail/slight digititus, on=smoother/less detail). The Eximus is mid-foward, fun sounding, has a deep three dimensional soundstage, a bit soft, but euphorically enjoyable. It's enjoyable especially if you don't A/B it w/ anything more capable. Nevertheless, it's not a bad fit specifically for something like the TH900 which as a lot of bass energy anyways, provided that a good head-amp is used. We did not like the DP-1 on electrostatics because the e-stats can be light on bass impact if the DAC is light on bass impact. Beware the headphone out.
Luxman DA-06 (USB)
Think of this DAC as the Luxman P1u (headamp) of DACs. The Luxman P1u is well known to be euphonic sounding despite it being a solid state amp. The P1u actually sounds like an inferior version of the Eddie Current Zana Deux - the ZD is way better (separation, dynamics, articulation, microdynamics and detail... everything). In that sense, the DA-06, at least through USB, is more P1u than Zana Deux. This DAC's sound is difficult to describe. It's sort of got a inner warmth. That is warm without being bloomy or loose. All of the ninjas agreed that the amp was a little flat sounding and tended to blend everything together. Depth, layering, and seperation were certainly not its strong points. Personally, I liked it. It's like riding in a nice Mercedes. One ninja remarked I am allowed to like this DAC and place it in the Beyond Classification because he himself liked the Eximus DP-1 while I hated it. If there is anything I regret, it's that we lacked time to try this DAC out with the OR5 or BADA USB converters. What these converters bring to the table happen to suit this DAC's weaknesses.
Teac UD-501 (Coax from Sony Transport)
Presents a staticy unrefined grain found in many low cost low performance products. An overall rough unrefined signature which imparts itself upon the music. Not too different from many mediocre or poor quality headphones and amps. On the analytical side with on the moderately high scale in false detail. Slightly lean. The treble, while not as bad as most SABRE implementations, screams delta-sigma. It gets annoying after a while. It ain't exactly cheap either. If you really want to try DSD / DoP, try the Schiit Loki first.
We did not find this DAC as outright annoying as the other DACs in "Class S", but it's simply just not very good sounding. There is a strong possibility that your laptop line-out is better sounding. This DAC is veiled and flat sounding, as if the output were run through a chain of op-amps or Objective 2 amplifiers (they measure great, sound mediocre). The rending of sounds is imprecise. It's hard to explain, but it this DAC exhibits a certain kind of raw unrefined sound common with portable DACs - the bad ones. Macro-dynamics and extension at both ends, especially the bass, is poor. I almost placed this DAC in the "Recommended for Others", until I realized I would only give this DAC as a gift to my enemies.
Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC (USB)
Supposedly sounds better after 400 hours burn-in, with the use of firewire, feeding it DSD, or lowering the gain via jumpers. Unfortunately, my PC doesn't have firewire and we forgot to try DSD. Just to make things clear: the first sample model we got our hands on was used. We left it on for two days before our evaluation. While the Mytek was very detailed and resolving, we couldn't stomach the treble glare which was almost immediately apparent. It took a while for me for the glare to affect me, but this quality as immediately annoying to two others who had heard it. A second unit we heard (also well used and left on for a period of time) also exhibited this glare. In addition, we found sub-bass volume rather lacking. Think of this DAC as a hyper Benchmark DAC1. There are thousands of people who love this DAC and many great reviews of it. We are definitely in the minority.
THOUGHTS ON OTHER DACS NOT RANKED AS OF JULY 2014
My speaker and headphone systems have since changed, so the following DACs will not be ranked. Also, I haven't had an opportunity lately to stack of bunch of DACs together for comparative purposes, so it's difficult to gauge.
Schiit Wyrd+Modi (USB)
Astoundingly good for the price. The Modi by itself can sound thin at times depending upon USB power quality. The Modi also has a tendency to sound imprecise or lacking in focus. The Wyrd solves these issues. 1+1 = 3 in this case. While not as good as a Bifrost Uber w/ Gen 2, the Wyrd+Modi is an very involving listen with good dynamics. While it doesn't resolve, extend as low, or have the smoothness and refined quality of the the best DACs, it certainly does not sound flat and boring. The Wyrd+Modi was able to keep me up until 1pm listening to music, and few DACs can do that.
PS Audio DirectStream DAC (USB)
The PSA-DSD does have a lot of the “PerfectWave” sound; but with the following caveats or specific characteristics: 1) tonal balance reverts to the PWD-1’s tonal balance - very forward with an emphasis in the upper midrange; 2) lacks sub and low bass impact, similar to some of the PWD2 DACs [new production, non-upgraded from PW1] running the newer brighter sounding firmware versions; 3) smoother treble characteristics [but still slightly delta-sigma raspy], akin to feeding the PWD2 PCM oversampled in software; 4) which also results in less delineated transients and duller attacks. Unfortunately, this effect seems to be carried so overboard where the PSA-DSD sounds slightly on the flat and dull side. Microdynamics have taken a serious hit. One step forward and two steps back.
I heard the PSA DSD on two separate setups with amps, headphones, and recordings I was familiar with. Only built-in USB was used, so I cannot comment on its performance with the OR5's i2s output.
Edited by purrin - 7/21/14 at 9:02pm