Absolute top tier DAC for standard res Redbook CD

Hi All.

Putting together a reference level system.
My Source is predominantly standard 16/44 played from a MacMini using iTunes and Amarra. Some of my music is purchased from iTunes and the rest is ripped from standard CD's.
For my tastes in music, my high def catalogues are still limited; so Redbook 16/44 will be my primary source for quite some time.

I'm not spending DCS or MSB money. But $15-20k retail is not out of the question.

Upsampling vs non-upsampling?
USB input vs SPDIF?

All opinions welcome.

And I know I need to hear them, but getting these ultra $$$ DAC's into your house for an audition ain't easy.

Looking for musical, emotional, engaging, accurate , with great dimension. Not looking for analytical and sterile.
You're looking for music reproduced naturally.
1) One of current Lampizator DACs (level 7 with direct coupled DHTtube is their top model). A friend has their level 5 and it's excellent.
2) Concert Fidelity DAC, ( the latest has a battery powered chip version).I heard the prior model and it's excellent.
3) Yamamoto YDA-01 DAC and replace the output coupling capacitor with Duelund CAST. What I use and it's organic bliss.
I'm certain there are other very good options, but I can vouch for these three.
I'm not quite sure what you mean by "musical", "emotional" and "engaging", but as those terms are commonly used they are the antithesis of "accurate" reproduction (to be clear, I am referring to a general sound in reproduction across all music; alternatively, a particular recording can be accurate and all of those things). It sounds like what you want is some semblance of accuracy but with some coloration leading to increased emotional engagement.

In any case, you are already working with a good, but colored and "musical" preamp so you should be careful not to err too much to that end of the spectrum if you want to retain any semblance of accurate reproduction. From what I've read the Capri is even more colored than the Levinson.

Given your tastes and based upon my experience with the XDS1, I think an EMM Labs DAC2X is very much worth considering.

Good luck.
Since you are already using a PS Audio PWD II, why don't you wait for a little until more people hear the new PS Audio Direct Stream DAC? There is a kit available for retrofitting a Perfect Wave DAC for $3K. Paul McGowan claims that you will hear things from regular CD's that you didn't know were there before. It seems the people that he had at the launch of the Direct Stream were impressed.

I would sit on the new purchase while you shop around until there are more people that listen to the new PS Audio DAC. That will provide a wider range of opinions to prove or disprove marketing hype.
If you Looking for musical, emotional, engaging, accurate , with great dimension. You should buy any professional Asynchronous DAC with the newest technology and not the top dollar audiophile DAC. You must buy DAC with Asynchronous (timing clock and jitter Correction) inputs. I've been enjoying all kind of music without any tweaking with my Mac Mini 2011, Amarra and RME Asyn Dac for the last 3 year on my all tube Mcintosh system and B&W 802 Diamond speaker.
One of the best I've heard to date is the Ayre. I know it's not expensive, but it's musical and I've heard it in a few systems and it always sounds great.
Even though I'm redoing my system, I didn't spend that much on the DAC as there are so many advances right now and I want to see what happens with DSD. I think major changes are about to happen in digital.
For redbook any of the nos Audio Note transports and dacs can't be beat
Contact me offline and I can set you up with home demo on a couple do different units that I think would fit the bill for your needs.
Here we go again. Accuracy to audiophools mean lean and detail. Natural warm and organic is a coloration ha. How many times does it have to be said that live music not amplified is warm and organic. EMM Labs and Playback Designs are for sure in the lean camp.
I too find it interesting that when I listen to live music and then within a day to 'audiophile' components, there is a huge disconnect. I don't even want to sit and listen. Accurate isn't about lean and detailed. I'm going with Vandy's because of this reason. I get plenty of real detail, but even so many of the esoteric stuff I've heard recently is just so etched. It's subtle and most don't realize it, but I never see people putting on more than a few cuts to listen to.
The Overdrive SE DAC has earned several best of shows and just got a positive review from Audiostream:


This has the big advantage of eliminating the preamp as well as providing a way to insert other analog sources using the Final Drives.

You don't need to resort to tubes to get the analog sound, even with 44.1 tracks. This is due to the clean power, digital filtering, point-to-point wiring and simple analog section. Sounds like a NOS DAC only more detailed. Accepts up to 24/192 with both coax and USB inputs.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
If tubes are implemented correctly by a talented designer [Lampizator for example] they can provide fantastic natural sound. I agree with Steve that merely inserting tubes into a DAC won`t automatically yield good results, it isn`t that simple. Solid state analog circuits can sound just as superb with proper execution. I agree with Jwm and Ctsooner. The sound of live instruments have a degree of fullness,tonal warmth and harmonic richness that the "accurate" type components fail to preserve and thus sound relatively bleached and artificial. It`s all a matter of what type of sound a listener desires. I would personally choose natural over hifi accurate. There are DAC choices that satisfy one or the other groups.I believe that simple discrete analog circuits along with a high quality robust power supply have a significant impact on sound quality.
Charles - my last reference DAC was a tubeDAC, the Spoiler. Do a search and you will find it was excellent.

The problem was that the bass was never as tight as I can get with SS, even using Siemens CCA grey-plates. It is very musical, but leaves some parts of the music lacking. I still have yet to hear a tubeDAC that does everything right, top to bottom. I think the ultimate tube just does not exist. The new Chinese Psvane tubes are impressive however. I have monoblocks with these in them.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
I love true "accuracy". But I will give up "accuracy" to be engaged. If you want to call being emotionally involved and lost in the music - colored, then feel free to take my Audiophiles of America card away! There are many components that are accurate and engaging. I don't think it's too much to ask for both.

I didn't mean to imply that "accurate" meant lean or detached. But there is a style or voicing that emphasizes pure accuracy and detail that some people love. All I am saying is that is not my taste.

We all know what I'm talking about. I want a DAC that will make me forget I'm listening and just get lost in the music. The rest of my system gets me there. I want to find my toes tapping or hands conducting when I intended to critically listen.

My new Rowland Criterion pre-amp arrived today. My DirectStream will be arriving early June. I am trying to arrange for some other DAC's to be available to me for audition when my DirectStream comes in.

From a tubed standpoint, the Accustic Arts Tube DAC II mark 2 and the Concert Fidelity DAC-040 seam to be the two that come up frequently at the top of the game.

From a solid state standpoint I'm going to focus on 3; the Empirical Audio Overdrive SE, the Rowland Aeris and the new PS Audio Direct Stream. If I can get in an EMM Labs DAC2x for the shoutout I would be thrilled.
That is a nice list of DAC contenders you have. I wish you could hear a Lampizator DAC levels 5 thur 7. I think you would like them quite a lot.

I agree that there is no perfect tube. I will add that there is no perfect transistor either.
You should be THRILLED with the Esoteric K01. All else in the price class is lagging...

disclaimer-I wish I had one.
Transistors and tubes are as perfect as the design they are implemented within.
I agree with Steve on tubes not being tight in the bottom end, but my Lampizator Big 5 does everything else soooo good
And when you think about it is bass at a live event tight
Guys, this is the debate that we have always and will always have. I agree that the perfect tube isn't in place and never will be. I'm a tube guy. I'm selling off my Quicksilver stuff (I couldn't afford the AR or Jadis gear I wanted back in the day). I went with Ayre and and love it. I run an inexpensive Music Hall DAC as I didn't want to spend too much on a DAC with all the changes coming down the pike. I run it off the XLR outputs and it sounds fine for now. I've heard the Ayre DAC in a very high end system and it's sounded awesome. Just natural bloom where there is supposed be be bloom. I've heard a lot of the other higher priced DACs by now and honestly, the Ayre is as good as if not better. I still think it's impossibly to listen to components in different places on different days and compare them, but we all do it because it's our hobby, lol....or career for some of you.

Oh and that said, I have still yet to hear any DAC sound as properly done vinyl.
I suspect if anyone doubts tubes have deep, tight bass he hasn't been listening to very good systems. In addition, relative to solid state bass, tube bass has more detail, more "character" and more naturalness. Of course one can always find a mediocre system and try to draw conclusions.
If we are referring to acoustic bass heard in live settings, jazz or classical the bass is not tight. It is full bodied,richly textured and has a natural bloom to the sound. Some components introduce a tightness that actually does not exist when these instruments are heard live. I see no advantage to an over damped bass character if it deviates from reality. Go and listen to a live bassist perform and judge for your self.Electronica and synthesizer are a different matter. I am referring to un amplified acoustic double bass sound.
I agree with Steve on tubes not being tight in the bottom end, but my Lampizator Big 5 does everything else soooo good
And when you think about it is bass at a live event tight
EMM Labs and Playback Designs are for sure in the lean camp.

Puff, puff, pass.
Good bass (tight, taught or otherwise) is not predjudiced by either solid state or tubes. Its either good or it isn't. I have heard great tube bass and great solid state bass.

And I have heard both poor as well. Its not the wand, but the magician.
Hi Mattenshilp..interesting.. Here's my take. Stop worrying about the gear! First just wait for the PSA Directstream. I should have mine Tuesday ( I also have PWD MKII) I suspect it will be shockingly good from all accounts, and looking at more expensive Dac's it this point doesn't make sense.

From looking at the pics of your system you need to setup what you have correctly. The Vienna's are WAY to close to the back wall for starters, I can't tell but the spacing between them looks off.

You also need at the very least to get drapes or something over all the glass around and behind your speakers. Are there any carpets on the floor? Your room needs work much more than you need to buy more expensive gear. Just throwing money at better gear without addressing the room and setup makes little sense. I can 100% guarantee you that you haven't even heard just how good what you already own sounds!

You mentioned a Shunyata hydra av.. Good choice.. Have you done dedicated AC lines? Huge upgrade for small dollars, and the absolute foundation of a great system.

There are numerous tweaks you could do to get your system really dialed in.. Tweaks that would be fairly inexpensive..

Keep in mind it's Speakers/placement > Room> and then everything else!

I'm also in central-ish NJ glad to help if I can :-)

All well made points.
I am sharing the room with my wife as our office.
I have done all I can (there is now a carpet) with WAF being a major issue.
Speakers are as far out as permissible, window treatments will happen when in the budget and to her style and design, spacing is even.

Electrical is scheduled but I don't want to go too crazy since this will not be the system's final room. My AC is very clean as I live in the suburbs and have very few houses on my local grid.

I want to improve what I can. If I didn't compromise in the room I am in, I would have nothing at all.

Of course, room acoustics is much more impactful. But I have to make due with my restrictions and enjoy what I have.

But each and every point you made is correct, valid and accurate.
Look at the non upsampling, 44.1k, DACs, Ypsilon, Audionote... There are others. Beware, once you listen, you will be tainted, and it will be very difficult to settle for something lesser. The downside is the price. Good luck.
From the reports I have read, the Lampi Level & is off the chain.

Those DHT tubes seem to take things to another level, especially DSD. I am dying to hear one. I only have a L4, but with the latest tweaks. My buddy in NYC should get one in the next 2 weeks.
@Mattnshilp .. Wow that's a drag..Talk about WAF.. I can't imagine my wife dictating to me where in the house , my house, the freaking house I work my butt off to pay for.. where I can enjoy my hobby.... jeez it's not like you want to paint the walls black, hang porno posters and black lights.. good luck..
Erikminer -
It's not my house, it's our house and she works just as hard as I do, if not harder. So that thought process doesn't apply in my house. I have a ton of space in the house, but the dedicated room is neither in the budget right now, nor is their space until the kids are older and I repurpose part of the basement to my needs. That, and a wine cellar. ;)

I am not unhappy with my current scenario, and the system sounds f'in amazing already! I just want to fine tune my gear and then slowly make the room as acoustically friendly as I can. Eventually, I want to have someone come in and do a master setup. The side glass doors now have soft transparent drapes on them and the floor has a good size area rug. All it still needs is window treatments and something I can put on the center glass door. I can probably get the speakers out another 6-10 inches without issue.

I'm doing my best. She lets me buy whatever equipment I want, watches and cars. So I'm certainly not suffering….
Hey Mattnshilp, Cars and watches are good! Any distance more you can get off the back wall would help.. How far apart are the speakers and how far do you sit from them?

If you're gonna be in that room for awhile I'd certainly spend the $300. or so for dedicated AC lines that's a cheap tweak.. that has zero WAF effect..

I'm lucky my son is away at college so room isn't an issue, the $45K year that it costs, that is an issue! I sure could buy a lot of wine, watches and HiFi with that cash :-)
Listening Room:
Speakers are centered on the long wall, about 8.5' apart and 18" from front wall to the back of the speakers. I am seated 8.5-9' from the front of the speakers (essentially an equilateral triangle) and the rear wall is 3' behind my head.
Ypsilon, Audio Note, Concert Fidelity - all require a USB to spdif converter.
No issue with that, but $$$ for converter and cables.

I prefer to try something with a USB input first....
Mattnshilp - You will not need an external USB converter with the Overdrive SE:


No resampling. Beats all comers for accuracy and analog sound.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Hi Mattnshilp.. a couple of thoughts.. have you played with the toe in of the "head" on the Vienna's?

Also I'm not sure if you use the door behind the rack but if you don't I'd suggest moving the rack back as much is as feasible, and then if you can pull the speakers out even 8-10" I think it'l really help with soundstage depth..
I can push the rack back and pull the speakers out 8-10". I will try that tomorrow.

Steve N. - we have spoken. I am awaiting your return from the show for us to proceed to audition. You have my email already.

I have heard suggestions of Audio Note, Lampizator, Ypsilon and Concert Fidelity enough to take note. I have heard Accustic Arts Tube DAC 2 mk II less then I expected as it also has a very good reputation for tubed DAC's.
I think it'll help getting moved out and the rack back. Have you played with the toe in? It's nice that the head can be rotated.
Not yet. But I need to. That room needs SO much work and I have no time. Work and kids.....
Another DAC to ponder is the new Berkeley although I'm not sure it's available yet.
Rja, have you heard the Berkeley yet? I still find it difficult to spend more than the Ayre for what you get. It's only drawback is that it's only USB and for many they need more inputs, but the sound is freaking awesome. I've heard it on Vandy 5, Quattro, 3ASigs at Audio Connection and it just sounded right for digital. Gives you DSD too which is nice. For me, I just haven't heard any of the ultra expensive DAC's sound more musical than the Ayre stuff and if you ask anyone who has heard the Ayre, they'd probably tell you similar. JMHO