Analyzing DACs

As I am new to the hifi hobby, reading various product reviews and noting the details of the test environment have made me very confused.  I understand Stereophile is the hifi bible. In the publication’s DAC published tests the reviewers almost always tested the DAC connected directly to the amplifier. I think I understand why—nothing in the chain influencing the DAC sound. Is that the correct assumption? If that’s the case why incorporate a preamp if the DAC has a preamp section that is a common feature even on high end DACs? I’m in the market for a new DAC. I’m trying to avoid unnecessary components if possible. Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks.  


What a wealth of great information despite different views on components. Thanks for chiming in.

I like the advice to test in my own environment and trust the ears. Reviews and measurements have their place but a poor room set up and equipment matching might matter more.

I currently have a fairly entry level set up:

Bluesound N130>Brooklyn DAC>Parasound P 6>Parasound A21+>Revel M106 speakers.

My concern is that a $3k-$5k higher quality DAC requires an equivalent or better separate preamp. It sounds like the jury is out. Whether the preamp section is good enough I'll have to determine the best set up for my room and tastes.

Also, from my experience with my current equipment, some tracks are mastered at high levels. I assume the double gain (eg from the DAC and the preamp) exacerbates the loudness. Some tracks sound like screaming vocals. I assume that won't allow me allow to realize the full potential of the amplifier if I have to listen at low levels.

I won't even spark the debate about cables and power cords!

@mastering92 : why not level the same charge at the scribes that write for Stereophile, TAS, HiFi+ ...? All those glossy ad pages ...


Because they all use descriptive language to describe what they are hearing with a new system, audio component, headphone, speakers etc. they have in for review. What HiFi does the same thing. So did the legendary Tyll Hertsens, former editor in chief of a now defuct site called: innerfidelity, the same domain is now "stereophile" He was the best reviewer in the world for headphones!

We could easily say that they are "subjectivists" rather than "objectivists" but then we start sounding too much like the minions at ASR; and I don’t want that.

Descriptors are necessary...just like someone trying to describe a personal experience, a food critic explaining what to do better next time, or even in the workplace when describing standard operating procedures or internal documentation regarding the skill or difficulty level. Therefore, using such language does not automatically turn someone into a subjective reviewer with no basis in the objective realilty of their review/testing.

The measurements on ASR are easy to replicate (if you know how to do them) and do not correlate with what we hear as humans. Extremely low THD specs for example; since achieving lower levels than is physically possible to hear is a rather pointless pursuit. But these brand keep doing it....because all that negative feedback in the circuit is dumbing down the performance; while making the specs look amazing on paper / online marketing material. And people buy in to it.

For example, the THX 789 sounds dreadful. I wrote an amazon review that you may want to check out. It explains why...

If Amir and his followers were the prophets of objective truth, many sectors in the audio industry would have collapsed by now..everyone would be buying ASR recommended gear, and ignoring the rest. People like to save money. So they would likely opt for cheaper components that measure well.

Like I said in previous posts, a null-test that allows us to see the actual ouput in a waveform is not done on ASR. In other words, using an ADC (analog to digital convertor). We can even use software that tells us if the ouput files are alike or indifferent with percentage match software. Run the same test track (30 seconds) through 3 different DACs or CD players - get different output each time...

He has not consulted real manufacturers or even veteren brands insofar as regarding how they measure audio gear; or even why their measurements are poor or just average; according to him and his pink panther figurine. He simply produces rash and impulsive reviews that do not depend upon proven or reliable testing methods. There are videos on YouTube where an employee working at audio precision explains why measurements don’t always translate to improved or even superior sound quality. His measurement system that costs as much as a half-average car, is made by that company: Audio Precision.

I’d much rather have Amir and his friends send their test results to Audio Precision, have them replicate the same test, along with null tests, comparing output files for their percentage of differences, wow, flutter, gang errors (between circuits) measuring the tolerances and voltage outputs inside the gear to see if it meets the engineering spec, reliability, circuit design carried out properly,  etc. I could keep going....but by now I think you and (perhaps others) get the point.