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Thoughts on a bunch of DACs (and why delta-sigma kinda sucks, just to get you to think about stuff)

Discussion in 'Dedicated Source Components' started by purrin, Dec 5, 2013.
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  1. KeithEmo
    First - thanks everyone for the kind words about my posts [​IMG]
    I'd also like to take a moment to expand on my standpoint on "science" and "magic" (or "aesthetics"): I don't think you can safely separate the two in the context of our discussions here. It's fine to say that Van Gogh's painting of the sunflowers is great art, and that my picture of daisies is pretty bad, and to then go on and talk about his great use of color, which is a lot better than mine. That's all a combination of art AND science.(It's art because his is much more "pleasing" than mine; it's science because, underneath it all, there's something in the way we perceive color, or something else about the picture, that CAUSES his to be more appealing than mine to most people.)
    HOWEVER, once we start seeing other painters claiming that their paintings are "as good as Van Gogh's" BECAUSE they use the colors he did, or that their competitors paintings are as bad as mine BECAUSE they use the same colors I did, a line has been crossed. We can't really evaluate their claims and make sense of them until we figure out whether the colors really ARE what makes the difference - because, if the colors are that important, then their claims may be true but, if it's not the colors after all, then their claims are bogus and can't be trusted.
    For a given audio signal, the signal with the biggest rate of change will be at the highest frequency and the highest amplitude. So, for a Red Book CD, the signal with the highest rate of change possible will be a 20 kHz sine wave at 0 dB. This is a simple fact; it is NOT in dispute. So, if a Delta-Sigma DAC has "tracking speed problems", as some people seem to be suggesting, then it MUST produce high levels of distortion with a 0 dB 20 kHz test signal. And, to turn that around, if a DAC can deliver a 20 kHz signal at 0 dB with 0.05% THD, then it DOES NOT have this problem. Therefore, if a given Delta-Sigma DAC can turn in THD performance of < 0.05%, from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, at 0 dB, then we know that this IS NOT an issue for that DAC. (And so, whether some D-S DACs theoretically have this problem - we can tell easily enough which ones do and which ones don't.)
    Now, as to "speed and pitch". All modern digital circuitry uses clocks that are pretty accurate and stable by human standards; a really crappy quarts clock is accurate to a few tens of parts per million (thousands of times more accurate than most turntables and most record cutters). No human is going to hear this error as a change in pitch, or as a difference in the tempo of the music. If you hear a difference where one DAC seems to have "better pace" or another seems to "slow down the music" - it's the acoustic equivalent of an optical illusion. If you actually measure the speed of the beats, or the tempo, you're going to find that they're spot-on ... or, at the very least, much closer than a human can possibly hear. Therefore, when you THINK you hear that happening, there's really something else going on. (And recalculating a sample here or there, when the samples are as close together as they are, isn't going to make a difference that you will hear as a time difference. A one foot difference in speaker distance produces a delay of about 1 millisecond, which is 44 full samples on a Red Book CD. If you dropped a sample altogether on a CD, it would alter the timing as much as moving your ear 1/4" closer to or further from the speaker. (Now, changing the relationship between the same signal in both channels may shift the image an inch or two - because our brains are very good at picking out such relative shifts, but it would still be pretty minor.)
    When we talk about jitter, we're talking about time variations in the range of several hundred TRILLIONTHS of a second. You absolutely, positively, aren't going to hear that. What you hear with jitter is changes in the output that occur because the jitter causes the D/A conversion to work imperfectly.... which creates distortion. 
    Now, there IS a type of "timing error" that occurs with DACs, but it's related to oversampling. The digital filters used in oversampling produce ringing - which means that, when you feed a NON-CONTINUOUS signal through them (like a drum beat), the filter "smears" the start and stop of the signal in time. Different filters produce different amounts of ringing, and different filters put more or less of it before or after the original (intended) signal, all of which can make it sound slightly different. This doesn't happen with steady state signals, like sine waves, which is why it doesn't show up on distortion specs; however, it's pretty obvious with transients, so it does show up quite plainly on transient response scope photos. NOTE that this happens because of oversampling; so an oversampling D-S DAC will have the same amount of ringing as an R2R DAC that uses the same oversampling filter. (But there are scientifically valid reasons why a given amount of jitter MIGHT cause different amounts of different types of distortion depending on whether it happens to the signal being fed to a D-S DAC or an R2R DAC.)
  2. BassDigger
    Does a D-S converter typically do more oversampling than an R-2R machine?
    As I understand it, there's some part of the process that R-2R does in real-time (all bits processed simultaneously and as a whole), whereas D-S can't do this; it has to process them separately and then put them back together. Does this make sense?
  3. Thenewguy007
    Someone asked this in another topic, but what is the benefit of an external DAC? Less EMI noise and hissing? Better sound quality altogether?
    I have a quality headphone with a quality amp & they sound fine coming from my PC & TV
    I know there are DACs that selling into the thousands.
    Exactly how much of a improvement will a DAC (entry level to high end) give you, especially if I don't notice anything wrong with my sound?
    Their entire purpose is to clean up the sound & not give any distortions or any noise from your source, correct?
  4. Hansotek
    Oh boy. I'll try to give you the short, over-simplified version, and hopefully people won't jump all over me for making too many generalizations here.
    The DACs in your TV and PC (though I don't know what they are... first generalization of many), are likely $5 components that were shoved in as an afterthought because most (non-audiophile) people can't immediately tell the difference between good D/A conversion and bad. The headphone outputs from your TV & PC likely have a lot of low-level background noise from the internals of those devices in the signal (oversimplified a little). One thing a good external (or internal) DAC will do is drop that noise to nearly undetectable levels (we commonly refer to this as a "Black background" or "Blackground"). This will help bring forward a lot of the low level detail, clean separation and microdynamics you lose with poor D/A conversion.
    Various DACs do various things well. Certain DACs offer better soundstage, extension, musicality, blackground, microdetail, punch, dynamics, etc. You've at least stumbled upon a good thread for learning about which DACs are good at which things. Chips matter, but implementation matters more. In terms of chips, Sabre DACs (Generally. Very generally!) tend to be a little better in terms of detail retrieval, space and extension at both ends, but they also tend to be a little bit harsh sounding. Another very common entry & mid level chip is the Wolfson, which (depending on implementation) is usually more musical, but often times a little less detailed and sometimes a bit rolled off on the far ends of the frequency range. (As I said, this is a very, very broad generalization, but a fairly common occurrence in the mid-priced uber-popular DACs. I have DACs I like with both chips (and others).) 
    In my experience, good DACs paired with higher quality source files (and good headphones) will start to give you a sound that starts getting much more akin to vinyl. Instruments begin to separate from one another very, very cleanly. Some instruments that always seemed buried in the mix may seem louder to you upon first listen, because you've never really heard them in a way that wasn't crunched up between everything else and buried in line noise. Sound images occupy their own unique space. You start to notice things like the settings on the bass amp or the size of the room in which vocals were recorded... things that are easily thrown out when you run a uber-compressed file through an afterthought component.
    As it says in the OP, a DAC is a very personal thing, and everyone's ears are different, so home much you value or don't value a DAC is really on you. No one can really, truly answer the question of how much it will improve your sound, especially if you don't notice anything wrong with it. The real question is, do you want to try and improve upon your current sound? If so, then an external DAC is certainly worth a try.
    I hope I answered your question (and didn't send anybody into a rage with a few broad generalizations for the new guy!). Good luck with your search!
    phonomat likes this.
  5. johnjen
    I'll take a stab at this…
    "Better sound quality altogether?"
    Yes, in spades…
    "I have a quality headphone with a quality amp & they sound fine coming from my PC & TV"
    If you have not experienced 'better sound quality' nor have any desire to pursue this any further then congratulations you have already achieved 'end game' performance.
    Your wallet will thank you, not to mention the hours and hours of time spent researching and pondering and playing with choices of different gear etc.
    And all of this is before you start swapping out gear, to make it better…
    "I know there are DACs that selling into the thousands."
    Not to mention those that cost tens and hundred(s) of thousands…
    "Exactly how much of a improvement will a DAC (entry level to high end) give you, especially if I don't notice anything wrong with my sound?"
    The operative portion of this statement is "…especially if I don't notice anything wrong with my sound?"
    This relates to your experiences and observations with regards to what is desireable for you.
    "Their entire purpose is to clean up the sound & not give any distortions or any noise from your source, correct?"
    This is only a partial explanation.
    This is where the saying 'Rediscovering your entire music collection all over again', steps up to the plate.
    Not to mention plenty of other differences as the Sound Quality increases, and the addiction (upgraditis) takes hold…
    In summary, if you are satisfied with your current system there really isn't any NEED to improve it.
    However it only takes listening to a 'better' system before the upgrade bug gets deeply seated in your mind.
    If you are satisfied with your audio system, my advice is to NOT go to a HeadFi meet and listen to other systems.
    That is unless you secretly really want to fall down the rabbit hole and learn just what "the benefit of an external DAC" truly can provide.
    But be aware that once you start this process (you've been infected with 'upgraditis') you can't unknow what you learn and this process can take over and remain with you for months and years and decades.
    And it won't stop at just acquiring an "…external DAC".
    You will be changing ALL of your system, and probably several times, before you once again reach 'end game' performance.
    Kinda like what you have now, only it will be completely different.
    Oh, and sorry about your wallet.
    But if you really NEED to find out "what is the benefit of an external DAC?", try a Schiit $99 dac and if it doesn't make a change for the better, return it (you have a 15 day 'trial period').
    It's a cheap 'experiment' and if you do get infected with the audio bug, this will probably be one of the least expensive audio experiment you may ever do…
    HAHAHAHAHAHahahahahahaha [​IMG]
    sorry about your wallet…
  6. jimvibe

    Do you hear any noise coming from your PC DAC? 
  7. Thenewguy007
    None that I can tell.
    Of all the research it seems searching for a DAC will be the hardest as there seems to be less reviews & even less comparisons when compared to headphones & amps.
    There are ton of people recommending the ODAC & Modi2 as entry level DACs, but what I really want from a external device to compliment my headphone is soundstage.
    I can't get enough of it. The wider & more separation, the better.

    Any DAC in the $300 range you guys know of with exceptionally well soundstage enhancement?


  8. johnjen
    Just a thought…
    (this unit doesn't have the 15 day return offer)
    with the full 15 day return option
    And for a bit more $$
    I've heard the MSD-192 dac, and was very impressed.
  9. jcx
    get a virtualizer, even the foobar crossfeed plugins at least do something to the sound - DACs that obviously audibly change the soundstage are broken, would have to have laughably bad crosstalk and frequency response errors
    I do "get" that the "advanced" commentators here want to go on (and on, and on...) about their subjective impressions - but most when pressed should admit when it comes to "soundstage" differences between DACs they are straining at gnats - the commentary is hugely amplifying minute details
    whatever your leaning I think even die hard no controls subjectivists have to recognize:
    if you want to really hear a soundstage difference look to binaural source, virtualization processing hardware or software and different headphones - DACs should be way, way down on the things that obviously and reliably affect "soundstage"
    soundstage changes from the above will be obvious on any competent DAC - even PC motherboard sound chipsets
    jimvibe likes this.
  10. jimvibe
    DAC's main requirement is to be transparent which means to sound exactly like the original master would sound. It doesn't "enhance" the soundstage. So if you are listening to a turntable and then throw in a reasonably good ADC/DAC in the signal chain you shouldn't hear the difference. In 2015 it's not that hard to create a DAC that will be sufficiently transparent for differences it introduces in the signal chain to be inadible.
    You might be reading all these amazingly detailed reviews of how different DACs sound and think the difference between them is huge. There are a lot of psychological factors at play. Soundwaves hitting your ear drums is just one part of the music perception. If you would listen to the same signal chain for several weeks without changing a thing it will still sound different to you every day - your emotional state, mood, environment will have an impact. The only way to hear the difference properly is to do an ABX test with the volume matched perfectly (check out Fletcher-Munson curves). If you would switch between A and B knowing which one is which you would clearly hear the difference. Ask someone to flip the switch for you randomly and the difference will disappear. That said a realization that you got a limited version of an expensive handmade DAC in a nice casing that got amazing reviews from most regarded audiophiles can really make your music experience different (sometimes better) but don't fool yourself into thinking that it really does something to soundwaves to make it seem better (or improve any of the areas like soundstaging). It's hard to argue that it feels nice to own some beautiful and well-designed gear.
    Which headphones do you use right now? Headphones will give you 95% of soundstage differences. The rest 5% would come from tweaking their position on your head, not changing the DAC :) If you are after a great soundstage get hd800s and MusicSteamer ii or ODAC for your DAC. Schiit stuff is good too. If you get these headphones you will also need an amp to provide sufficient power for them. I would look into JDSLab's new "The Element" which is a DAC and a headphone amp in one case.
    And keep in mind that even mediocre speakers will give you the soundstage unrivaled by the best headphones.
  11. Hansotek
    Also worth noting, the Mousai goes on sale on Massdrop for $300 quite frequently.
  12. Hansotek
    ODAC and Modi 2 Uber are both good recommendations, it's also worth noting that they both improve significantly with the Schiit Wyrd USB Decrapifier which help solidify the image positioning and blacken the background.

    Stepping up to the next level, I'm going to agree with JJ - Bifrost Uber with USB 2.0 is well loved and a really killer value around $500. The Mousai MSD-192 is an insane deal when it hits $300 on Massdrop. I haven't tried it, but I have tried the Questyle model it is based off of, and I loved it. Compared to the Questyle there aren't as many options, but for the price, it would be crazy to complain about the ability to get a scaled-down version in the Mousai.
  13. BassDigger
    What's the benefit of a separate anything? Why have you bought an external amp? Why doesn't everyone just use all-in-one entertainment systems? Maybe they should start selling all-in-one systems that include the headphones as well. Maybe they do.
    Many people, who listen to just as much music as me, are very happy with B*se type systems that I turn my nose up at. Or even 'worse'; they know that they're not getting the best out of their recordings; they think that they're making a real concession to quality by insisting that all their MP3s are at least 192kb/s! But they don't care; they have different priorities to me. (Fair enough).
    If you're truly happy with your sound system, then just be happy with what you've got.
    But the fact that you're here, asking questions, suggests that you're not; you've got the bug. It's gonna cost you money. The challenge is to get the most for that money (or maybe you have different priorities, such as trying as many components as possible, regardless of the final cost). But back to the point; separate usually means better quality, isolated and dedicated components, that will have multiple (positive) effects on SQ, whatever you're talking about. The dac is no exception.
    It looks like you've already got some helpful advice, detailed explanations and interesting suggestions. Enjoy your journey.
  14. Dalgas
    I am (or was)  in the market for a new dac. I have a NAD M3 amplifier and since the M51 has gotten a lot of good reviews, the M51 was my first choice. So I began searching the internet for information and Schiit kept coming up (sorry). I got curios and visited their homepage. A lot of fun, but also serious, reading. Since M51 is about $1K (used) here ind Denmark, the Schiit Gungnir seemed tempting. I began searching for reviews and stumbled across this forum - and purrin and his ninjas! Now this is what I call interesting and very informative reading. Comparing dacs across time - and not just the lastest hype. Seems that a lot here hold the Gungnir in high recards. I personally love dynamics and prefer that trompets – and female vocals – have a bit of bite! Up until now I have used a Micromega MyAmp, with an ESS sabre dac-chip, as a dac. Two weeks ago I got a Stello da220 mk2 on loan (still have it). Comparing the two I immediately noticed the artificial highs of the sabre. The Stello is overall far superior to the dac section of the MyAmp – perhaps not surprising giving the fact that the stello is a true stand-alone-dac – and almost $2K a new. I could easily live with the Stello - but then again the Stello is a “True 24Bit Delta-Sigma DAC”. I dont want to settle on the lesser of two evils :wink:. So the MyAmp is now sold and I have placed an order on the Schiit Gungnir (I know - also a Delta-Sigma DAC - but hopefully as good as they get). 

  15. Sonic Defender Contributor

    I have the M3 and I owned a Gungnir for three years (a year with the M3) and I opted for the M51 which I like more than the Gungnir (however the Gungnir was lovely, just a little warmish). The M51 and M3 are quite nice together.
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