On the search for a "musical" dac under $3k
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PointyFox

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So in other words you're looking for an expensive DAC with poor performance that colors the sound? Schiit makes those.
 
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robert766

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People will tell you to buy the (cheap) gear they own because they're more concerned about justifying their own purchases than giving you real advice.

Just take your time, visit different forums and do as much research as possible. Also don't trust anyone who can't tell opinion from fact.
 
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PointyFox

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If you care about performance, go to AudioScienceReview and see how the various DACs rank with actual measurement. If you want to figure out how good you actually need it to be, do some blind ABX tests offered online to test how many bits you can differentiate, how high of a sample rate you can differentiate, how much dynamic range you can hear, etc. You'll probably be surprised by how cheap of a DAC will fit those requirements.

Why don't you use the $3000 to buy a TOTL headphone that will be a large improvement in sound quality rather than a DAC for no audible improvement?
 
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lukeslens

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So in other words you're looking for an expensive DAC with poor performance that colors the sound? Schiit makes those.
I appreciate your concern for my wallet but it’s my money and I’ll spend it how I like. I came here looking for specific recommendations, not snarky judgement. Thanks.
 
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LCMusicLover

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I have two DACs:

- Denafrips Pontus R2R
- Oppo Sonica (9038-based) EVS modded

With my new preamp, I can switch instantly between the two DACs on the remote. Both DACs are fed (coax) simultaneously via my Singxer SU-1. Luckily, the Oppo has variable output, and at its max, it's slightly louder than the Pontus. So I can turn it down 2 dB and have perfect volume matching. Honestly, the difference is very small. I guess the EVS mod really improved the Oppo, but I didn't have it long before the mod, and it was before I had the Pontus, so ...

With some of my cans, I can barely tell the difference between the two DACs. With Utopia, the difference is there, but again, it's fairly small. Turns out to be a meaningful difference with Utopia though. I was trying to up the musicality of Utopia, and Pontus does help with that. Also helps the (very musical) Auteur be even more so. Although, honestly, I like Auteur just as much from either DAC.

I also still have my first 'big-boy' DAC: Ultra-Fi DAC-41. It's actually super musical. But it's USB-only, 44.1 only, so it doesn't really fit into my system anymore, as all my fave tracks are 24/96 or higher and I'm driving my DACs with the Singxer, which can't push USB out to the Ultra-Fi. Sad, really, as it is a wonderful sounding DAC. I still remember gulping at paying Six Hundred Dollars for a DAC -- LOL!

I had a Denafrips Ares before the Pontus. It definitely suffered from the 'R2R lack of resolution' issues I see mentioned in this thread. Pontus does not.

Bottom line, DACs matter, but once you get to a certain level of competence, you're not going to hear huge differences. For example, I hear more difference between my LP (with the right tubes) and BHA-1 amps. And I hear nearly as much difference when I change headphone cables (WyWires Platinum to Lazuli Ref) on my Utopia.

Personally, I think you should get an Onyx. I've been interested in it, and we need more impressions and reviews. :)
 
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PointyFox

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Isn't this just the effects of different impedances?
 
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LCMusicLover

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Isn't this just the effects of different impedances?
Sorry, were you asking me?

If so, what is the 'this' you're referring to?
 
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PointyFox

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LCMusicLover

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Yes, "this" being the perceived difference in sound.
Trying again. Which difference? Between different cans? Between different DACS? Between different cables? Between different amps?
 
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PointyFox

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Trying again. Which difference? Between different cans? Between different DACS? Between different cables? Between different amps?
Difference between DACs.
 
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LCMusicLover

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I doubt that output impedance (200 Ohms for Sonica, 1200 Ohms for Pontus) is the source of differences. My preamp presents a 10k load to my amps. Also, my cable runs are quite short < .5m. Plus, I heard the same differences with my active preamp in the chain.

But I’d be willing to be persuaded otherwise.
 
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lukeslens

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Bottom line, DACs matter, but once you get to a certain level of competence, you're not going to hear huge differences. For example, I hear more difference between my LP (with the right tubes) and BHA-1 amps. And I hear nearly as much difference when I change headphone cables (WyWires Platinum to Lazuli Ref) on my Utopia
Thanks for this @LCMusicLover! Really excellent insights. I also am trying to inject some musicality into my Clears, which I love partially for how well they receive sources so interested to move into the next level.

I think right now I’m falling between the Directstream Jr and the Onyx. Hard to find good comparisons between those two but I did find a really good one between the DSD St and the Pavane, both of which I know their younger counterparts sound very similar signature. The thing that keeps forcing me to lean towards the DSD is the features like the Roon Integration and upgradable firmware. And my library of DSD as well. But the Onyx sounds like a brilliant piece of gear and I still can’t make up my mind.

Here’s that comparison: “
I have a new PS Audio DirectStream DAC that I’ve been enjoying the last several weeks. Last week I found a great used price on a mint Metrum Pavane L1 and snapped it up. This is actually my second go-around with the Pavane after I regrettably sold my prior model back in October in a short-lived attempt to downsize. Soooo, all of a sudden I have a couple TOTL DACs that I can swap back and forth between in my setup.

Full system:
Intel NUC running Roon ROCK > Pavane or DirectStream > PS Audio BHK preamp > miniDSP DDRC-22A w/Dirac > Benchmark AHB2 amp > PSB Imagine T3 speakers

The DirectStream is running Red Cloud firmware, the Pavane being a L1 model. Both are being used with USB input from my RoonROCK server. My listening room is also fully treated with a ton of GIK Acoustics traps and panels and I’m using Dirac between my pre and power amp for room correction.

They’re very different sounding in some ways, and similar in others:

The DS has a stunning clarity and is the most revealing DAC I’ve heard, both in terms of microdetail but also in terms of imaging. There’s this pinpoint precision to the soundstage that I’ve never heard with any other DAC. It’s hard to describe, but other DACs I’ve had in my system throw a soundstage where musicians and instruments are three-dimensional but have a sort of ethereal quality that never lets you forget you’re listening to a recording. With the DS, performers have this uncanny tangibility and density that gives them an eerie physical presence in the room. The only way I can describe it is it’s the difference between having a hologram floating in the room versus a real person standing there.

Tonally, the PS Audio unit is neutral across the board, but has better treble reproduction than the Metrum. The Pavane is a bit laid-back up top and cymbal crashes can sometimes feel a bit 2-dimensional and indistinct. In comparison, the DS has this incredibly lifelike quality with natural ringing and harmonics galore to cymbals. Again, the DS manages to make cymbals just sound “real” and seem to hang in the air. The downside is that on some tracks the DS sounds a shade too airy, and you lose some tonal richness. It’s the difference in hearing a lot of pick surface noise when a guitar is strummed versus the more fuller tone of the strings and vibration. I hesitate to call the DS bright, but it’s certainly unforgiving on a lot of tracks, but this could just be due to my speakers and system synergy.

On that note, where the Pavane excels is with tonal richness, fullness and inner detail. It’s slightly more forward, but sounds more “rounded” and rich in the way that a close-mic’d acoustic guitar is, but it’s certainly not “soft” or lacking definition and detail. I wouldn’t call the Pavane warm, but it has more body than the DS. There’s this comfortable neutrality that the Pavane does so damn well that’s really addictive and musical but never feels like you’re sacrificing detail. There’s a “just right” quality that’s chameleon-like in it’s ability to convey appropriate rhythm and pace with slow- and fast-paced music alike. This is the least digital-sounding DAC I’ve owned and the closest analogue to a truly high-end vinyl setup. The DS sounds just slightly digital in comparison as it doesn’t have the same level of inner richness, but that’s not to say that the DS sounds even remotely digital compared to even the best delta-sigma DACs I’ve heard.

As an aside, the Pavane is also the quietest DAC I’ve had in my system. Putting my ear up next to my tweeter, the noise floor is barely perceptible while the DS is a noticeably louder. I read somewhere that this is a function of the FPGA or DSD conversion process in the DS, but I could be mistaken about that.

You really can’t go wrong with either of these DACs, and I’m honestly not sure which one I’ll keep. I’m leaning towards the PS Audio as the pace at which Ted Smith, Paul McGowan & Co. are releasing firmwares is impressive as well as the consistent improvements each firmware seems to bring. The PS Audio sounds more technically accomplished, but the Metrum has a magical “rightness” and tugs at me in a more emotional way. This is going to be a tough decision to make…”
 
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LCMusicLover

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Thanks for this @LCMusicLover! Really excellent insights. I also am trying to inject some musicality into my Clears, which I love partially for how well they receive sources so interested to move into the next level.

I think right now I’m falling between the Directstream Jr and the Onyx. Hard to find good comparisons between those two but I did find a really good one between the DSD St and the Pavane, both of which I know their younger counterparts sound very similar signature. The thing that keeps forcing me to lean towards the DSD is the features like the Roon Integration and upgradable firmware. And my library of DSD as well. But the Onyx sounds like a brilliant piece of gear and I still can’t make up my mind.
Two thoughts:

- DSJ probably better than Onyx for you from a features/usability perspective for exactly the reasons you mention (Roon, DSD)
- Nobody can help you figure out which device will get you further towards musicality in your system. You'll just have to listen.

Sorry :)
 
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lukeslens

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Nobody can help you figure out which device will get you further towards musicality in your system. You'll just have to listen.
Oh I’m fully aware, which is why I’m not planning to make any purchases until I do. But it’s helpful to get impressions. I wouldn’t have considered the DSJ had someone not mentioned it on this thread.
 
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