Is there *really* an audible difference between different DACs?
Apr 30, 2016 at 8:16 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 171

Alexium

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I was wondering for a long time how much DAC and power amp matter in the sound system. Or, more precisely, is there much audible difference between various good units. Because, clearly, poor engineering may easily lead to audibly bad devices, but that's of little interest.
 
So I bought and O2 headphone amp and pitted it against the built-in amp of my EMU 0404 USB using HiFiMan HE-400 headphones. There was no difference. Then I loaned a highly regarded discrete (transistor) DIY headphone amp. Also no difference. And I'm not very surprised because an amplifier is a reasonably simple piece of equipment, and if it measures right (THD, S/N, even frequency response and low output impedance) - it will sound right. But what about DACs? A DAC is a much more complex device, and judging just by the sheer number of different output stage designs for current-output DACs I was certain there has to be some difference.
 
The fist time I experienced sort of a shock was when I got a PCM2704 board just for laughs ($5 from AliExpress, free shipping), and couldn't tell it apart from 0404 USB - even if I used 2704's internal headphone amp.
Then I loaned a DIY DAC (based on either AD1852 or AD1865, can't recall). No difference.
And now I've got ODAC (Rev. A, ES9023 DAC chip) and spent hours yesterday evening comparing ODAC + O2 to EMU0404 USB + its internal amp. Guess what? I could hear no difference.
 
So what about all those people who rate and range DACs on "clarity", "airyness", "warmth" and other audiophile criteria? Are they imagining the difference? Are they using DACs so terribly designed that they indeed have audible distortion? Or am I just deaf? But then, I have no problem hearing a difference between various heaphones.
 
Apr 30, 2016 at 6:23 PM Post #4 of 171

HUM24H

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In theory well designed dacs & amp chips should be more than sufficient, to which a lot of dac & amp chips on the market today are well designed and are more than sufficient.
 
From my personal opinion once you get good quality audio equipment, spending more for even higher quality gives you less and less returns in regards to audio quality increase.
 
For example, I found that I prefer the sound quality coming out of my Samsung S6 Edge Plus over my iPod Video 5.5th Gen with Fiio A3 Amp. But then I prefer my Pioneer XDP-100R over the S6 Edge Plus and then I prefer the DAC implementation in the XDP-100R over the OPPO HA-2 despite both using the same DAC and in the end it boiled down to how the dac was implemented into the device and also what amp circuit was being used because the HA-2's amp circuit did not like low impedance IEM's and gave an audible hiss with my Fidue A83, where as my XDP-100R uses a different amp circuit and for me provided better overall sound quality and no audible hiss.
 
I mean I know I could not differentiate between the Fiio X5 and the Note 4 as well. So really its just down to how the companies are implementing these chips and in all honesty if all the companies actually implemented the chips and circuits properly then there would not be any audible sound difference, period.
 
But again all of this is from my personal experience over the past few years.
 
Apr 30, 2016 at 6:39 PM Post #6 of 171

cel4145

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I know, right? :D
Thanks a lot for the link, never noticed that section of the forums!

P. S. I can't believe my eyes, a no bullcrap audiophile forum? Is that even legal?!


I don't think it's actually encouraged on Head-Fi, but it's not illegal. :D
 
Apr 30, 2016 at 8:25 PM Post #7 of 171

buke9

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I did not find a lot of difference between the 0404 USB and Teac UD-301 as for DAC section. The amps I found much different. Now the Yggdrasil is a total different animal than the other two. There is a lot of difference in the sound from my Liquid Carbon between the UD-301 and the Yggdrasil a lot.
I can't believe you found the 0404 able to drive the HE-400's with any authority. 
 
Apr 30, 2016 at 11:33 PM Post #8 of 171

DangerClose

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I used the same amp with my motherboard's DAC and with other DACs.  The onboard ALC892 isn't bad, but it's obviously inferior.  I've seen other A-B'ing from even non-audio people in reviews/tests say similar.  They could pick out the ALC892 vs. a lower-end sound card of today.  ALC1150 is said to be better than ALC892, as would be expected.
 
I have a few sub-$100 DACs, and there is an audible difference.  I could say one is better than another, but it's not like one is bad compared to another.  And one may be warmer, or one might have a little more emphasis on certain frequencies.  
 
May 10, 2016 at 1:40 PM Post #10 of 171

pibroch

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Well Alexium,  I have just discovered DAC device differences (as opposed to DAC chips) can matter:
 
Using 16 bit / 44.1 kHz audio files (from an iPad2) the sound differences between the following two DAC devices were not subtle (going direct into a pair of Geithain RL906 studio monitors):
 
1. The asynchronous USB DAC function of the  Oppo 105D BDP.
2. The asynchronous USB DAC function of the Dangerous Music Convert-2 DAC.
 
The Oppo lacks resolution compared to the DM - it blends together the individual voices and instruments in the test recording. Using the DM the individual sonic characters and beauty of each voice and instrument are much more apparent and more spatially separated: it's like the musicians are there in the room with me! Quite unnerving at first but am gradually getting used to it.
 
With such a massive improvement in SQ, for me the law of diminishing returns isn't operating - the Convert-2 was only twice the price of the Oppo ($4,000 AUD vs $2,000 AUD)  and has many more DAC-specific user features / options.
 
BTW, I take no notice of the type of DAC chips used, the technical aspects of how they're implemented or the analogue circuitry and such because that's all way above my level of understanding.  I just compare how the devices sound with my speakers.
 
May 10, 2016 at 5:36 PM Post #11 of 171

delfine22

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I'm by no means an expert, but Ive heard 2 dacs. A schiit modi and a borrowed dac from a friend of mine, the name of it I cant recall. But I tried it with the same amp and one did seem to sound slightly more "open" and "separated". Im sure that comes at the cost of something else in the sound spectrum. So there is slight difference, but the slight difference may be a big different if it was the improvement you were looking for.
 
May 10, 2016 at 6:33 PM Post #12 of 171

boblauer

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You are dangerously close to being a heretic. You'll want to come join in the Sound Science forum where others of like mind will gladly discuss confirmation bias and other factors that influence people
beyersmile.png

If he really wants to be labeled a heretic express the fact that he can't hear the difference between D-S and R2R technology. That will start a war for certain. 
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May 11, 2016 at 12:46 AM Post #13 of 171

Alexium

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Well, I don't know if it's R-2R or not, but AD8162 that I've heard is NOT delta-sigma.
Anyway, there shouldn't be an audible difference between a proper D-S and a proper R-2R. There's a reason all modern DACs are D-S.
 
May 11, 2016 at 2:11 AM Post #14 of 171

Me x3

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This is a very complex topic although some assumptions tend to mask that fact.
 
There's a few (key) things that we normally measure (FR, THD, IMD, ... ) and we assume those measurements tell the whole story and we assume we are able to interpret them perfect.
(ie. to pick up all the information present on the measurements and relate it perfectly fine with human perception of sound)
 
Human perception of sound is very complex as well because it involves lots of brain processing, physical characteristics of each person and so on.
 
Last but not least, the nature of A/B testing is complex as well. First of all, you need to make sure you don't have weak links in the chain messing up the comparison.
DAC comparison: Find the best possible headphone, amplifier and recordings before starting.
 
Perfect everything + muffled recordings ----> muffled sound
 
More so, we don't normally compare A with B.
We compare B with our memories about A and vice versa.
And we aren't a hard disk, are we?
 
In my experience, the best way of noticing very subtle differences among different gear is through extended listening sessions.
Trying to avoid the critical A/B. Trying to interpret the music as a whole and not as a set of parts.
 
You'll find that some DACs can be drier, some DACs can bring clarity and layering in the sub-bass region, some DACs have smoother transients.
But that said, all of them are similar in the big scheme of things. (read, pick a random friend and best chances are they will all sound the same for him in a 30 minutes comparison)
 
Last but not least (2), DAC's performance can be affected by its source. Then that's one more link to consider.
Less than perfect USB, less than perfect setup, less than perfect driver, less than perfect enviornment and you'll get different performance.
 
So... yep, complex topic.
 

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