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.  


Online empirical research? That’s oxymoronic. "Researching" online is the exact opposite of empirical research.

finally, a serious post in this train wreck of a forum thread LOL

Listening to music is a subjective experience. Measurements of meaning should significantly correlate with the subjective experience or at least some component of it. This, for me, is where the measurement argument runs out of steam. Measurements don’t tell me what I hear. I like certain sonic representations thru my stereo systems that are different. I have four systems that all sound different yet each is musically satisfying to me though I do like my reference best. I trust a few reviewers ears based on my listening to equipment they have reviewed. There is at least one Audiogon retailer who has yet to steer me wrong on a purchase. I could not tell you very many of the measurement specs on my equipment nor could I tell u what measurement explains why my PassLabs amp sounds different than my Ampzilla monoblocks.

@batvac2 Good to know but beyond my skill level at this point. 😀

Thanks for all the knowledge sharing here. Now, on to the experiments...

So...I have tested dozens of DACs ranging from $300 to $30K.  What you really need when matching to an amp is to ensure the electrical properties (impedance, voltage, etc...) are a good match for the amplifier you are connecting to.  

It does not matter how it measures or does not measure if the output of the DAC is not well aligned with the amplifier it is connecting too.  A big advantage of a preamp is that it is going to alter the source signal and ensure it is well suited to the amp it is connected too, assuming that it is properly matched to your amp.  

In general, DACs have a fairly high output level and tend to work best when directly connected to amplifiers that have a low level of sensitivity.  You can have an amazing volume control, full preamp stage, etc... but if it is a poor match it will sound like crap.  

The right way to judge whether a DAC is a good fit or not is to start with what amp you have and then what speakers.  After that, in general, DACs with true preamp stages tend to outperform those with simple volume controls.  

Finally, reviewers tend to always be positive about performance of units.  You need to get what is driving positivity around a particular unit.  For example, one DAC you have mentioned excels with the use of HQ Player.  If you aren't going to use HQ Player, it is average. This helps eliminate buyers remorse. 

I can't offer advice on what to buy. I can offer advice on what to audition but need to learn a lot more about your listening habits and rest of your system.  

Good DACs cost a lot of money

I don't think this is the case in 2023, Thomas talks about an approach to DAC's that is "good enough" and I tend to agree with him. FWIW I do own a Sony Signature DAC that is their SOA, but the DAC in my Bluesound Node streamer is certainly "good enough":