How much difference will a high-end DAC make?
Dec 31, 2020 at 12:27 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 274

rangerid

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I don't have any experience in desktop DACs since I've always been an IEM/portable set up type of person. I actually haven't been in the audiophile world since late 2013'ish and just returned in November this year when I bought the Stellias which I love and remain my favourite headphones. I was driving them from my iPhone 6 and iPod nano and they still blew my mind since I was upgrading them from some CIEM I bought in 2010.Then I found a massive improvement in sound when I upgraded my source to Sony WM1Z. At that point I was still reluctant to fully commit to a desktop setup.

I eventually decided to expand beyond the portable world and added an full sized tube amp (Manley Absolute) and now I am considering adding a full sized DAC to replace my WM1Z. However, I am really unsure to HOW MUCH improvement upgrading a DAC will yield considering I am in the believer that headphones > amps > dacs in importance.

To give an idea of how I hear improvements, since buying the Stellia, I've researched/tried open back counterparts including Utopia, LCD4, Empyrean, HD820, and Susvara. All of them except the Susvara had a major deal breaker somewhere in sound that I couldn't overlook. Susvara is the only 1 that did nothing wrong to my ears and I bought those to complement my Stellia. In comparison, the Susvaras are clearly a level above Stellia in every comparable category like sound stage, imaging, separation, detail retrieval, dynamics, etc... How much improvement I perceived in technical performance from Stellia to Susvara is what led me to asking the question in this thread.

The improvements were noticeable but it definitely wasn't night and day difference. For example, I heard small details in songs on Susvara that I never heard on Stellia, like maybe a bell in the background somewhere, echos, or small bass beats in the distance, nothing major, just little extras here and there. Images had a sharper outlines around them and so forth. It's hard to put a numerical value to these improvement but if I had to I'd say it's 10-15% improvement in technicalities.

So, if I perceive a 10-15% performance improvement from Stellia to Susvara, how much improvement will I perceive if I upgrade from WM1Z as my DAC to something like TT2+MScaler or DAVE?

I am aware of the diminishing returns in each dollar spent. However, is the performance gap between the DAC in the WM1Z and something like TT2 greater than that of the Stellia to Susvara, leading to more significant improvements overall?

Edit:

To expand a bit on what I am looking for, I enjoy WM1Z's rich, organic, laid back sound signature. I do NOT like forward, aggressive, analytical & bright sound signatures.

My "perfect" or "ideal" sound signature is warm, natural, slight bass/treble emphasis, wide & deep soundstage for EDM/Trance/Techno/Retro, hip hop/rap, r&b, and pop (I don't listen to any other genres). Extracting every last detail & technical precision isn't as important as overall enjoyability of the music
 
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Dec 31, 2020 at 12:44 PM Post #2 of 274

BassicScience

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I've listened to all of the ultra-high-end DACs and none of them are remotely worth the money, IMHO. The sweet spot for me is the Questyle CAS192D (Gold), which I own and consider the best DAC I've heard to date. The sound is super clean, tonally rich, and very musical. It's in the $2500 range. There are several other highly-regarded DACs for under $5K, and what's best is really personal taste. DACs do sound different, and it's worth the effort to find the one you like best.
 
Jan 1, 2021 at 5:22 AM Post #3 of 274

technobear

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I think the Chord Qutest demands a listen here. It will comfortably see off a WM1Z (or any other DAP). It also scales magnificently with an M-Scaler if funds allow. If you are happy with the sound of the Absolute then you don't strictly need a Hugo 2 or TT2 although they would show you what the word transparency really means.
 
Jan 1, 2021 at 7:17 AM Post #4 of 274

bluecar

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Sounds like Demo time!! There is plenty of satisfaction to be had from high-end DACs, but ultimately, it comes down to personal preference/will to spend money. Before I dropped the stack on the DAVE, I demoed many, many DACs - I kept going until I winnowed out everything other than the PS Audio Directstream and the DAVE, having discounted units costing much more and much less - spent many hours listening to both, then many, many days trying to rationalise my liking for the DAVE versus the $4000 saving for the Directstream, but I still bought the DAVE :D

As technobear says, the Qutest is well worth a listen, but there are plenty of other great choices - Schitt, Mytek, Metrum, etc. If you want a real treat, demo a TotalDAC unit with a tube stage (lush) - R2R Dacs (like the TotalDac or Denafrips is a blast with a tube amp - just gorgeous). Just keep trying different units until you find your sweet-spot. You may spend $2000, you might spend $20k - everyone has different systems and different preferences.

That said, my own experience was that the biggest step in enjoyment came from *not* using a computer as source :D Unless you want to keep the components separate, a high-end streamer, with integrated bridge, DAC and pre-amp would be a good solutions - lots to choose from here, and some great offerings from dCS (Bartok), Lumin (s1), Aurender (A10) etc. Something like a Bartok or an A10 will bundle the entire streamer/DAC/pre chain in one well-integrated solution, and I've never heard of anyone who demoes these and ended up preferring a sub-$5000 DAC :D . Some (like Aurender) provide the integrated server as well, so no need to rely on NAS or other mass storage, so an even more simple solution. There's a simple beauty in plugging an RJ45 in one end, and getting analogue out of the other (plus you save a stack on cabling). All expensive solutions, but as you dropped the dollars for the Susvara, I'm guessing that enjoyment is more important than budget. As you are not invested in upstream separates, an integrated unit would be a great choice.

I'm working on the upstream end of my setup at the moment, and I have a Grimm MU1 on demo - I was pretty happy with my previous source (Roon core on a mac, feeding an LPSU-equipped MicroRendu) but the Grimm literally blew it out of the water in every musical dimension. In an unscientific test, I also compared the Grimm pushing 176k to the DAVE via AES, to my Rendu pushing redbook to an MScaler connected to the DAVE. The Grimm sounded better for me. Grimm (passing native streams)+mScaler+Dave made no significant difference I could hear. Source *does* make a significant difference to my ears).

Buying into high-end DAC and source, for me, was great. I have always been a critical listener, but these days I spend hours listening to whole albums and getting really caught up in the music and the performance, rather than listening for highlight/deficiencies in my system - If high-end has delivered one thing for me, it's a more visceral connection with, and enjoyment of the music itself.

find a friendly dealer with. good home demo program and enjoy!!
 
Jan 1, 2021 at 8:24 AM Post #5 of 274

Redcarmoose

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Edit:
 
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Jan 1, 2021 at 9:16 AM Post #6 of 274

rangerid

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I've listened to all of the ultra-high-end DACs and none of them are remotely worth the money, IMHO. The sweet spot for me is the Questyle CAS192D (Gold), which I own and consider the best DAC I've heard to date. The sound is super clean, tonally rich, and very musical. It's in the $2500 range. There are several other highly-regarded DACs for under $5K, and what's best is really personal taste. DACs do sound different, and it's worth the effort to find the one you like best.
I think the Chord Qutest demands a listen here. It will comfortably see off a WM1Z (or any other DAP). It also scales magnificently with an M-Scaler if funds allow. If you are happy with the sound of the Absolute then you don't strictly need a Hugo 2 or TT2 although they would show you what the word transparency really means.
Sounds like Demo time!! There is plenty of satisfaction to be had from high-end DACs, but ultimately, it comes down to personal preference/will to spend money. Before I dropped the stack on the DAVE, I demoed many, many DACs - I kept going until I winnowed out everything other than the PS Audio Directstream and the DAVE, having discounted units costing much more and much less - spent many hours listening to both, then many, many days trying to rationalise my liking for the DAVE versus the $4000 saving for the Directstream, but I still bought the DAVE :D

As technobear says, the Qutest is well worth a listen, but there are plenty of other great choices - Schitt, Mytek, Metrum, etc. If you want a real treat, demo a TotalDAC unit with a tube stage (lush) - R2R Dacs (like the TotalDac or Denafrips is a blast with a tube amp - just gorgeous). Just keep trying different units until you find your sweet-spot. You may spend $2000, you might spend $20k - everyone has different systems and different preferences.

That said, my own experience was that the biggest step in enjoyment came from *not* using a computer as source :D Unless you want to keep the components separate, a high-end streamer, with integrated bridge, DAC and pre-amp would be a good solutions - lots to choose from here, and some great offerings from dCS (Bartok), Lumin (s1), Aurender (A10) etc. Something like a Bartok or an A10 will bundle the entire streamer/DAC/pre chain in one well-integrated solution, and I've never heard of anyone who demoes these and ended up preferring a sub-$5000 DAC :D . Some (like Aurender) provide the integrated server as well, so no need to rely on NAS or other mass storage, so an even more simple solution. There's a simple beauty in plugging an RJ45 in one end, and getting analogue out of the other (plus you save a stack on cabling). All expensive solutions, but as you dropped the dollars for the Susvara, I'm guessing that enjoyment is more important than budget. As you are not invested in upstream separates, an integrated unit would be a great choice.

I'm working on the upstream end of my setup at the moment, and I have a Grimm MU1 on demo - I was pretty happy with my previous source (Roon core on a mac, feeding an LPSU-equipped MicroRendu) but the Grimm literally blew it out of the water in every musical dimension. In an unscientific test, I also compared the Grimm pushing 176k to the DAVE via AES, to my Rendu pushing redbook to an MScaler connected to the DAVE. The Grimm sounded better for me. Grimm (passing native streams)+mScaler+Dave made no significant difference I could hear. Source *does* make a significant difference to my ears).

Buying into high-end DAC and source, for me, was great. I have always been a critical listener, but these days I spend hours listening to whole albums and getting really caught up in the music and the performance, rather than listening for highlight/deficiencies in my system - If high-end has delivered one thing for me, it's a more visceral connection with, and enjoyment of the music itself.

find a friendly dealer with. good home demo program and enjoy!!

Thank you very much for the recommendations. I am in a bit of information overload stage right since there's so much to look and research into.

To expand a bit on what I am looking for, I enjoy WM1Z's rich, organic, laid back sound signature. I do NOT like forward, aggressive, analytical & bright sound signatures.

My "perfect" or "ideal" sound signature is warm, natural, slight bass/treble emphasis, wide & deep soundstage for EDM/Trance/Techno/Retro, hip hop/rap, r&b, and pop (I don't listen to any other genres)

I live in Canada and unfortunately none of the music stores nearby have high end dacs for demo. They might sell them but only on a per order basis so any purchase will have to be a blind buy, granted I will be able to return it if I don't like it, so not really ideal.
 
Jan 1, 2021 at 10:48 AM Post #7 of 274

bluecar

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My "perfect" or "ideal" sound signature is warm, natural, slight bass/treble emphasis, wide & deep soundstage for EDM/Trance/Techno/Retro, hip hop/rap, r&b, and pop (I don't listen to any other genres)

If I just listened to electronica and pop, I'd have bought the PS Audio Directstream in a heartbeat. I went for the DAVE because I listen to a lot of Jazz, Rock, Indie and Metal as well. The Directream DAC with the optional streamer board is a great piece of kit.
 
Jan 1, 2021 at 2:42 PM Post #8 of 274

protoss

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@rangerid
Do not spend over 1K on a DAC! All that nonsense Totaldac and Dave are useless!
Get a balance $500 dac and your done! Anything, example, topping D90 and call it quits. If you want a R2R dac get Schiit Bifrost and that's it :)

if disagree and want to burn money, fine - https://www.msbtechnology.com/dacs/reference-features/
its only 100K, I think its a bargain of the century. The sound it produce will reach you to nirvana and right to the stars of Neptune, with a 360 backflip to planet Pluto. It puts the Dave to shame because I heard the drummer cough in the background in my music I didn't hear before.
 
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Jan 1, 2021 at 3:18 PM Post #9 of 274

SilverEars

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I thought DAVE as a DAC was very over-rated. The headphone out was bad with HD800, but was actually good with Utopia. For the price I expect much much more. As for the M-scalar, it seem more of a placebo tool. I didn't think the upsampling improved transparency, but made sound worse than original sampling. I'm on the camp of original track sampling.

There are good DACs out there, but lots of bad values. Just make sure to try out various DACs to be sure. Try various price ranges as well. In audio, there's a lot of overpriced stuff that's not worth it.
 
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Jan 1, 2021 at 11:03 PM Post #10 of 274

BassicScience

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That said, my own experience was that the biggest step in enjoyment came from *not* using a computer as source :D Unless you want to keep the components separate, a high-end streamer, with integrated bridge, DAC and pre-amp would be a good solutions - lots to choose from here, and some great offerings from dCS (Bartok), Lumin (s1), Aurender (A10) etc. Something like a Bartok or an A10 will bundle the entire streamer/DAC/pre chain in one well-integrated solution, and I've never heard of anyone who demoes these and ended up preferring a sub-$5000 DAC :D . Some (like Aurender) provide the integrated server as well, so no need to rely on NAS or other mass storage, so an even more simple solution. There's a simple beauty in plugging an RJ45 in one end, and getting analogue out of the other (plus you save a stack on cabling). All expensive solutions, but as you dropped the dollars for the Susvara, I'm guessing that enjoyment is more important than budget. As you are not invested in upstream separates, an integrated unit would be a great choice.

Buying into high-end DAC and source, for me, was great. I have always been a critical listener, but these days I spend hours listening to whole albums and getting really caught up in the music and the performance, rather than listening for highlight/deficiencies in my system - If high-end has delivered one thing for me, it's a more visceral connection with, and enjoyment of the music itself.

find a friendly dealer with. good home demo program and enjoy!!
I'm going to disagree about the integrated solution approach, especially for someone who is still trying to figure out what sort of DAC he prefers. Just make sure your DAC buffers and reclocks incoming USB data and nothing upstream of the DAC will have any audible impact. I built my current music server, but there are many off-the-shelf options available at very affordable prices. I also prefer using a (tube) preamp for volume control because I've always found it sounds better and more dynamic, and also because I have a turntable and an SACD player, neither of which have volume controls. Lastly, cabling doesn't have to be expensive to sound excellent (another audiophile myth).

I will agree that finding the right DAC is well worth the effort.
 
Jan 2, 2021 at 6:36 AM Post #11 of 274

bluecar

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Lastly, cabling doesn't have to be expensive to sound excellent (another audiophile myth).

Heartily agree with that one - both cheap and expensive cables can sound brilliant. There's little correlation between price and performance. That said, for digital cables, it does help to spend around $10-$20 on something that's been soldered properly - most OEM USB cables are woefully badly made.
 
Jan 4, 2021 at 7:53 PM Post #13 of 274

audioandy

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I haven't seen any evidence that a DAC quality matters in any audio system. Digital analog conversion is a solved problem. From my understanding, the main thing a DAC, and more specifically the "bit depth" of a DAC affects, is the "noise floor," which is distortion introduced into the output signal from the difference between the original signal and the quantized signal. The noise floor of DACs is not something to consider when buying one, because it's well below the threshold of human hearing, even for "low end" DACs. I also have seen no evidence that a separate DAC is "better" than any laptop or phone DAC. I also haven't seen any evidence that DAC clock "jitter" is a problem in any modern DAC, regardless of price. I wonder if audio / electrical engineers are _more_ biased into believing DACs add magical sound properties, because they understand all of the mechanics of how and where things can go wrong.

If a DAC changes the sound in any way, like increasing the sound stage, or making it "warmer," it's a bad DAC, because it shouldn't do any of those things. It's just converting a signal from digital to analog.
 
Jan 4, 2021 at 9:17 PM Post #15 of 274

Ciggavelli

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I’ve had a lot of dacs. Everything from a DragonFly to a Chord DAVE. I’m going to disagree with some posters in this thread. A dac makes a BIG difference. The increase in sound quality from a JDS Element (which I owned) to a Hugo 2 was very eye opening. There was definitely a very noticeable difference. Then I got the TT2, and it was another noticeable difference (even before adding the m-scaler). I then upgraded to the DAVE and the improvements once again were substantial and very noticeable. I’m considering upgrading again to a dCS Bartok or Rossini dac.

If you have revealing headphones you will definitely notice improvements with high end dacs
 
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