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Budget DAC?

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  1. jason41987
    I am looking for a budget DAC around the $100 range to see if there's any real improvement to my computers audio which outputs through a surround sound adapter currently. Doing some frequency tests I've discovered said surround sound adapter, is malfunctioning and buzzing at certain frequencies where it does not when that feature is bypassed. So I am looking for an upgrade to PC audio.

    So, Is a DAC going to make me think "wow, this audio sounds like it's fuller, and with more depth?" Because onboard audio, or my surround sound adapter with the stereo pass-through function on sounds like complete garbage. Voices sound fake, artificial, quiet, they just sound more like a voice you'd hear on an old radio than in real life and I would like to know if a DAC is going to be a noticeable difference here.

    Second question I have is whether BALANCED audio is going to make a big difference here as well. I wouldn't mind trying it out, but is it going to be a mind blowing experience or am I just paying extra for "meh"?

    Currenly I am looking at the Fiio K3, but if balanced isn't going to be a noticeable difference, perhaps there is a better sounding non-balanced DAC in the price range?

    Portability is NOT a concern, this will be a permanent part of my desk.
  2. Chris Kaoss
    First, you've to clearify some things. :wink:
    What headphones you're using and is there a need for an amp, not just a dac.
    That's 2 different things.

    Imo, balanced isn't necessary, but you've to figur it out by yourself later. :)

    The Fiio K3 is a good point to start with, i think.
  3. Tatalor51
    What headphones are you looking to use this with? I have the K3 and its amp is on a weak side (quite so).
  4. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    Sounds more like the sound is like that because it's running surround simulation and spatializer.

    Voice sounds like old analogue radio - fake, artificial, quiet - because it's being simulated to be farther away from you the same way that if I'm speaking at 65dB from another room it won't sound like actual 65dB right next to you.

    Even if you're running a stereo signal ie music the software can still work on it, like how home theater receivers have "enhanced stereo" or whatever Dolby calls it. This is why normal soundcards have stored profiles for whatever situation and one is usually for removing all processing.

    It's hard to answer how bad that soundcard is vs normal soundcards (PCI-E or USB) in terms of performance but it looks like in terms of how the software works it sounds more like this is an example of where the extra $35 goes if it went to Creative or Asus: software engineers.

    The main thing balanced drive does is maximize power output given the input to/through the power supply. Some single ended amps can still produce more power, like the comparison between the Schiit Lyr and Jotunheim. The thing is though if the amp is drawing power direct from the wall then you can just make the power supply pull more power; in certain applications this isn't an option, and when the power source is a battery or two or 5V, 500mA USB you can squeeze out more power that way.

    Think of it like how you can get a Honda Civic with a 1.5L turbocharged engine that has more power than the 2.0L, or how the BMW i8 only has a tiny 3cyl engine; and yet there are all the other high performance cars that either use larger internal combustion engines (or in the case of Tesla et al two high power electric engines).

    Going back to the previous example, this is like whether your next sport sedan purchase be that 1.5L turbocharged Civic that by comparison is small and sips gas (battery or USB powered amp circuit) vs something that can be something like an old Altima with the VQ35DE all the way to something like a BMW M5.

    Personally depending on whether your headphone actually needs more power the cost of a balanced drive USB/battery-powered DAC-HPamp plus the balanced cable is questionable next to just getting a single ended amp that actually has more power with the downside being size and that it has to be connected to wall power. As it is your current headphones don't need a lot more power unless your real problem is getting cleaner power, in which case then maybe the Fiio K3 or the Schiit Fulla2.

    There's the Schiit Hel which I think has DSP but if you're only listening to music then it's not that useful to you.
    PaganDL likes this.
  5. baskingshark

    I use the Khadas tone board (DAC) and it retails at 99 USD usually. Cheaper during sales (I saw it at 85 now on Aliexpress for black friday).
    It does open up the dynamics and soundstage and details for my music. And it is super clean.

    You can check out this link for some head to head comparisons for DACs: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/...ad-distortion-comparison-graph-for-dacs.4814/

    Khadas tone board ranks quite high here, and I can't complain much for the pricing. Although this link is on objective measurements, whether we can hear the difference with our ears beyond a certain point is questionable. Powered by USB.

    The only thing is the Khadas tone board comes usually as a naked board (which doesn't pick up any electronic interferance despite being used next to my desktop). But I paid about 13 bucks to get a acrylic case made for it, to look asthetically better.
    Koei likes this.
  6. jason41987
    To answer some questions.Yes I do need a DAC because my sound device I was using, is faulty, and frankly doesn't get loud enough for open backs so if I don't replace it, I'll be using onboard PC audio. I am currently using SHP9500s and I have some other sub-$100 headphones as well and wanted to make sure I had a good DAC capable of getting good audio from good headphones before I upgrade to something in the $200 range (looking at Sennheiser HD58x, HD6XX, Beyerdynamic DT770/880/990, Hifiman HE400, Audio Technica ATH-M50X, etc. I wanted to get a good DAC, maybe order a few selections of these headphones, and have something good to compare them through in order to pick one and return the others.
  7. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    It's not the MSRP you need to worry about.

    You get the K3 now and it's not exactly the best for driving a 300ohm, 97dB/1mW sensitivity headphone, even if it worked fine with a 32ohm, 96dB/1mW headphone since power output changes with the impedance load.
    PaganDL likes this.
  8. jason41987
    Is there a point of telling me what I already know?
  9. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    Communicate more clearly?

    Because you started with looking into the K3 and your more recent stated concern was the price tier which I clarify isn't indicative when you can get a $799 32ohm, 99dB/1mW headphone when there are $100 35ohm, 93dB/1mW headphones.
    PaganDL likes this.
  10. jason41987
    most of the headphones ive looked at are driveable by DAC/amps in the price range i have listed, so the ohms, and the headphones are irrelevant at this point, none are going to sound that good with onboard audio, so just keep the conversation to a dac/amp for under $150 that will do at least some of these headphones justice.. i mention the K3 because it has a very high bitrate, seems to be able to drive the headphones listed just fine, and has the balanced option to try out
  11. Chris Kaoss
    Hi jason,

    first, listen with a surround sound device coupled with a stereo setup isn't a good idea.
    I've tried it with several 5.1 music files.
    The sound is mostly dedicaded to the center speaker, which isn't available on a stereo setup, especially on stereo headphones.
    Just leave the surround device out of the line. That will improve your percieved sound at a hugh point.
    Keep it a go and plug your headphone right to the front speaker out of your motherboard.
    If it doesn't improve the sound let's go further.
    Second, the bitrate of a dac does mean nothing about its capability to drive a specific headphone.
    The important things are impedance and sensibility of the headphone you want to drive, the impedance of the amp output and the delivered power at specific impedance.
    Anyway, the K3 will be a big jump over onboard audio output.
    Just try it by yourself, you'll get into the right direction with it. :wink:
  12. scruffy1
    i'm using a stoner acoustics ud110v2 usb dac (sans amp) on my desktop for gaming, and it kills the quality from an asus xonar d2 it replaced

    i also recently bought a stoner acoustics ud130 dac / amp which is even better again, and for $80usd plus post $6, your request is fulfilled

    my brief review and specs / links is here : https://www.head-fi.org/threads/stoner-acoustics-ud130.918013/
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2019
    Chris Kaoss likes this.
  13. jason41987
    How does it kill it though? What sounds different to you?
  14. jason41987
    Actually, the surround sound makes the audio sound a hell of a lot better, it makes it sound fuller, clearer, and more natural by far over the stereo audio provided by that device, or onboard PC audio.

    Again, I know all about impedance and sensitivity, I am not concerned with this. I also know most headphones available have a range to choose from and match to whichever DAC and amp is used, so DAC/amp first, then headphones to match.

    What I am wondering right now is if the balanced output is worth the extra price over something like an E10K, or if I was willing to spend more if something like the Fiio K5, or O2 + SDAC device on drop would be the better DAC even without balancing. My budget is basically $300 for a new DAC/amp and headphones. But if a decent DAC can get me great sounding audio out of the SHP9500s I have now, I would wait a couple months and up my budget for the headphones.
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2019
  15. Chris Kaoss
    Well, if you can raise your budget why not heading for something like a schiit stack?
    Or maybe an all-in-one device like Topping DX3Pro?

    As your headphones are unbalanced, it doesn't matter of an balanced out.
    Just to secure your future hearing posibilities, i think. :)
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