Originally Posted by TwoEars
I would like to upset everyone (well, not really) and say that I personally don't like the idea of ranking dacs.
The name of the game is synergy and personal tastes.
I can understand your point. First, the rankings (unless done on purely objective measures) will personal and therefore vary person to person and you have the issue that some people have better taste than others :) Second, as you noted, the DAC is only one part of the system, so which DAC would make the overall system the "best" will vary depending on the characteristics of the other components. Even with those caveats, I think trying to rank DACs is useful for several years:
1) Rank can be personalized... by the reader. Reading others rankings helps me discover / prioritize what might be good for me. How? When I am hunting for a new component I read reviews of components I have heard myself. I look for people whose reviews reflect what I hear. and whose stack rank list is similar to mine (of the components we both have tried). When I find someone who wrote reviews I agree with, I figured I have found someone with similar taste. Things they really like get higher priority, things they dislike get lower priority.
2) We are getting close to being about to objectively evaluate (and built) great amplifier / DACs. I think we have a pretty good idea of the characteristics of a "perfect amplifier" and I think there are numerous products are getting quite close to perfection. I think it's reasonably strait forward to objectively measure what is a good amplifier. I am sure there are subtleties that haven't yet been identified / measured, but in time we will be able to identify them and build amplifiers that are close to "perfect". I think DACs are similar, though a bit tougher / more complicated. So I think we are approaching the day when objectivism measures of these devices could be substantially driven by objective measures. 20 years ago there was a huge difference between the cheap and the good DACs. These days there are a number of <$300 DACs which are quite good, and the gap between the very best DACs and the pretty good DACs (ignoring those that are garbage) is getting smaller each year.
3) Remember Garbage in, Garbage Out. I personally think the DAC is the wrong place to try and add color. I think the DAC is the place were one should be looking for maximum fidelity because if you are messing with tone in the DAC, that limits everything downstream. The biggest variable and where getting something perfect, finding objective measurements, etc seems most illusive is in the headphones (and speakers). I think this is the place that personal taste comes into play the most because every headphone (and speaker) made today had to make a series of trade-offs. No amount of variance of the DAC or amplifier will make headphones sounds the same. I would challenge anyone to try and make the HD800 sound like LCD-X, or HD650, or Grado RS60i. My personally philosophy is that people need to select headphones whose sound signature, the trade-offs, are most pleasing to them. Decent DACs and amplifiers will give that sounds to you. Sure, there are synergies, but these are actually pretty minor provided the component is doing a decent job.