Curious about older "world class" D/A converters

Good day, all.

Recently, I’ve become a little obsessed with the idea of purchasing/employing an older DAC. The few that’ve been swirling in my mind are the Mark Levinson 360s, dCS Elgar and Spectral SDR-2000/Pro. Here’s what I have in place now (and I’ve been through many systems over the years):

- MacBook Pro / SSD / AIFF’s, over the air
- ModWright Transporter (Emission Labs 5U4G / 50’s Sylvania 6SN7’s)
- Duelund DCA20GA
- Line Magnetic 218ia (Shuguang 845B’s, Gold Lion KT-77’s and 12AX7’s)
- Kimber 4PR
- Omega Super 7XRS

I listen to all types of music (99.9% of my digital library is Redbook), favoring acoustic anything - as much as possible, I attempt to get the effect that the instruments are in the room. As is, everything is dialed in pretty darn nicely, but I feel as though I could use just a bit more focus - if I could have a sharpness dial... Anyhow, you get what I mean. And just so you know, I chose the Transporter over a Berkeley Alpha 2 (had both in the system for 8 months or so, with the former feeding the latter via AES). In the end, I feel there’s just something organic about the Transporter. The Alpha certainly did everything right, but the Transporter just seemed more "natural" (for lack of a more elaborate description). I will say, though, that in some cases, depending on the material - if I’m being completely honest with myself - I wasn’t able to tell them apart and actually got them mixed up in my own exhaustive comparisons.

So, all that said (and sorry for the long-windedness) would any of the three I mention above be worth a shot? I will admit that I’m smitten with the engineering, design and build quality of these pieces without even having an idea of what they might sound like.

Thanks for your time,
Mark (ballywho, since 2003)
Hi Mark,

I used to really enjoy a Theta Casanova. Tended to knock a lot of newer DAC's out of the park. However over the last 5 years or so a lot of DAC's that serverely outperform has come up. In particular, these new DAC's play Redbook amazingly well.

I see the appeal of vintage here, but I really suggest you listen to the latest generation. Mytek, Shiit, Ayre, and even the little Parasound Zdacs keep me from looking at older DAC's anymore.


Thanks for the comments and suggestions, Erik. I appreciate it. I’ve read about the Schiit Yggyrasil and am quite intrigued.

Take care, and have a wonderful weekend!

An original Chord Hugo used, or the new Hugo 2 would be an excellent choice.  Price range depending on new or used 1200.00 to 2400.00.  Hugo is battery powered so no need for a special power cord plus you get a headphone amp.  Chord does not use off the shelf dac chips like most manufacturers.  I listen to my digital and analog setups every day and find both equally satisfying.

The Hugo easily outperforms my VAC vacuum tube dac with the PMD 100 dac chip.


The best "real world" system I've heard contained a Theta "pre/pro" DAC (far from mega-bucks price). I believe it was designed by Mike Moffat who is now at Schiit Audio.
Hi Mark I recently dropped a new, to me, Audio Note DAC-3 Signature that was built in 1995 into my system. It is by far the best sound I've ever had in my home. A good design and good execution will always come through regardless of whatever the latest "chip" is that's popular. I saw that Spectral you mention on here for $1500 looks like a great deal to me!

jond -

I'll add it to my list - thanks!  And you know what? - it's the darn Spectral that got me going again on this whole thing.  I was checking AudiogoN from my phone (for the heck of it) as I was getting up yesterday - by the time I was able to get out to the computer, it had been snatched up.  The cheapest one I can find now is $2700.  Someone got one heck of a deal @ $1500!

- Mark
Hi Mark,

I think older DACs have gotten an unnecessarily bad rap in this age of higher resolution audio, and a number of these older DACs, on 16/44 CD quality recordings, still sound quite wonderful.  To give an example, my reference DAC is a Stahl Tek Vekian Opus.  However, I also have both an EMM Labs DCC2 and a Dodson DA-217 MkII.D.  While the Vekian is clearly the highest performer (at $35k retail, it better be), both the EMM Labs and the Dodson acquit themsleves quite well, and I in fact prefer them to a number of the newer DACs that are getting a lot of print these days.  

Of the DACS you mention, my experience with them is quite dated. I was not a big fan of the Elgar at the time, finding the EMM Labs superior (more natural presentation with more air surrounding instruments, for example).  I really did like the Spectral combo when it came out, but this experience goes back more than 15 years.  I don't recall hearing the ML 360s, but did hear the 30 / 31 combo on a number of occasions, which I enjoyed as well, although I recall preferring the Spectral combo.

In short, I think there are some great older DACs out there, and encourage you in your search. The EMM Labs in particular, at their current prices, are ridiculous bargains.  (And don't get me started on transports - if you are still spinning any discs, most of the actual transport mechanisms still in manufacture today are poor quality).

Best of luck.

rzado -

Thanks so much for the thoughtful response.  I really appreciate that.  The Spectral is the most fascinating to me, as I guess I see it as being the most "pro" unit.  And speaking of EMM Labs, I've seen that the DAC6e SE is now in a palatable range - I may need to be looking in that direction, as I've heard nothing but good things about anything they've ever done.

Have a great weekend!

- Mark
My comments would be towards the build quality of the DAC.  What is inside would be what matters.  Plenty of opinions on different products but what parts are inside and can you upgrade the units with newer parts.  Someone mentioned higher resolution but my thought is what sounds good.  For example some of the newer DACs have R2R discrete designs but they all don't sound the same.  What are you looking to improve in your system.  Soundstage, separation, instrument tone, air, etc.  IMP only a few DACs actually can do all of them.

Happy Listening.  
In real only 16 bit base TDA1541 and TDA1545
  and1545A and denser bit you are less.
bigkidz -

This is what I’m getting at: these older "world class" DAC’s were built to such a robust degree, that I’ve become curious as to whether that equated to a sound that has simply been forgotten, but possibly betters modern designs. And I don’t need or want a device that can process anything higher than 16/44.1 (when it all comes down to it).

As I said, I had the Alpha 2 (I also had the 1, for that matter, a couple years prior) - I ran some Reference Recordings through it and was actually quite shocked at the level of detail and air I was hearing. I really got the sense that the proverbial veil had been lifted - it was genuinely fascinating! However, with the other 99.9% of my material, I felt (and feel) the Transporter just sounded more real/natural - there was more of a presence, if you will. 2psyop above attached a link to a YouTube review of the latest Shiit DAC that included some of the reviewer’s thoughts on older designs. He goes on to bring up the fact that he grew up with a piano in the house and so "knows what that sounds like." We have a grand at one end of the room and our system at the other. So, I’ll put on the likes of simple solo Gould recordings and then match volume as best I can, and then take note of what I’m hearing - that is, how close is the one getting to other (relatively speaking, of course). Going back and forth I felt the Transporter had the more palpable sense of a real object in the room - pretty cool if you can get it right. Well, as much as I was able to "achieve" that (or as close as I felt I can come with the equipment I have), I feel that I just need a tad more resolution. Of course all things are subjective: Some of you might sit down and go, "What else could you possibly ask for?" Others might say, "This is pretty darn pedestrian." Now, I realize that this conversation went from "should I check out an older world class DAC" to a more general "what improvements are you looking to achieve" in a hurry. I guess I would ask, "Can I achieve what I’m looking for [in my above terribly long-winded ramblings] in one of the older ’world class’ designs? Or should I ditch any such thought and go for something modern, such as the EMM (etc) mentioned?"

Thanks a ton for the responses.

- Mark

I just read the following on another forum:

"I sold my DCC2 2 years ago and regret doing so. At the time the DCC2 was far better than any DAC I auditioned. I had both the DCC2 and my current Modwright Transporter at the same time and while the DCC2 presented more detail, I kept the Transporter for financial reasons. I doubt DAC technology has improved to the point where the DCC2 is inferior to any DAC except the most costly."


- Mark
Thanks for muddying the heck out of the waters, teo_audio!  ;)  That's some list!
Snatch and grab time, I gave you the keys to the kingdom.

Other than one of these dacs in that list (the correct Dac or player), you'll have to go to multi-bit discrete to beat them. Which start at over $10k, except for the ones from china. and the newer DIY dac boards that are being designed and released.
Yes, the PCM63-k is a 20 bit ladder or r-2-r dac.

my day to day streaming dac has a pair of PCM1702 dac chips, of similar design and spec. Although almost every single part other than the dac chips has been changed. Very non-stock. For 16/44 it would be difficult to beat - more sideways than anything thing else.
I think the coloration of the sound from any digital source component has to involve many factors. Of many factors, these four are what I think about most.
1 The ability and expertise of the designer/engineer. (I think Mike Moffat of Schiit audio and Ted Smith of PS Audio are examples of good designers). 
2 The chip itself. DAC chips are getting better, and some older versions are surprisingly good too.
3 How well the product uses the chips. How good is the overall design? The implementation of all the components.
4 What kind of sound (coloration) appeals to each person?
Some specs of various products only tell half the story! The other half is the sound. I always liked the saying, "we see what is in back of our eyes, not what is in front of them". This same observation applies to one’s ears as well!

^ Agree , Listen to 10 dacs and you will hear ten different frequency responses . The trick is to find one that suits your ears and system . The slightest change in frequency will get your descriptive terms like detailed (more highs) Warm (juiced mids and bass) lean (less bass) . All these can be tweaked by the designer with  caps, resistors ,ect...  So what really is the improvements in the newer dacs ?
Well, friends, I ended up going with an EMM Labs DAC6e SE.  Not quite as old as the ones I initially mentioned, but certainly a world class product.  I don't do SACD - and I won't need all six channels - but apparently the thing does Redbook quite well (the SE upgrade supposedly adding more to the equation with RB than SACD, and quite dramatically so). I'll report back on my impressions once it's been in place for a bit.  

Thank you all for your comments and suggestions!

Warm regards,
Curious about older "world class" D/A converters
 For doing D/A conversion of PCM 16/44 to 24/96 (RedBook cd), I and many others believe the older dacs that used properly implemented Multibit d/a converters chip are the best way of doing pcm conversion.
Those Mutibit dac/chips have ceased being made because of the very high cost of manufacturing these chips.
Good older examples of properly implemented ones are the Linn CD12, Mark Levinson No.39, Naim CD555 ect ect.
Todays Multibit ones are as above but done with discrete components because of no chip manufactures making ready made ones anymore, EG: Total dac, MSB flagship models ect ect.

Cheers George   
Mark congrats and enjoy your new DAC and please do let us know your impressions! And happy listening!
Good day, all.

I received the DAC6e SE (in absolutely perfect condition, with all the original packaging - someone really took care of this unit), got everything set up, with the word clock in it being master, and...loads of crackling, primarily in the right channel.  The thing locks to the signal, reporting no errors at all.  If I make the Transporter (running the very latest LMS 7.9.1) master, the crackling vanishes.  What a buzz kill.  This defeats the purpose of having this thing in the first place; that is, placing the clock 1.5 meters away (my AES cable's length) and then however much the boards, etc. add, will introduce jitter, not remove it...which again, defeats it's purpose and negates it's use.

I've left a voice message for EMM Labs (their online support query page has a problem on it that puts me in a loop of being unable to submit anything), so we'll see what they come back with.

If any of you have any suggestions at all, please let me know.  Again, everything is set up correctly.  All I can figure is that this is a firmware thing...but 7.9.1 would/should have the latest.  Maybe I need a much earlier one?  Who knows.

Thanks for your time,
Just read this on the Slim Devices forum:

"Also try lower the brightness level of the display. My Transporter feeding to my Emm Labs DCC2SE produces the pops/clicks if the display brightness is above level 2 on wireless and wired. The phenomenon is less pronounced on wired but definitely out of control on wireless. This only occurs if I set the Transporter as slave and the DAC as master using clock input/output."

I kinda had to laugh as I tried this; of course it didn't make any difference (if it had, the DAC6 would have some serious shielding issues - ha).
FYI, I was able to locate SqueezeCenter 7.0.1 (2008), but I'm not going to install anything just yet.
Install failed; not compatible.  Installing 7.7.5 straight from my (the one I had prior to 7.9.1, which also crackled).  

Yep, still crackling

- AIFF, WAV, ALAC are all affected.
- 88.2kHz is unable to be processed by the DAC6 (sound slowed, as to be expected; crackling persists)
Did you contact the seller? Do that and sit tight and wait to hear from EMM and if you have a different transport you can try with the DAC you should try that. And sorry you're having issues that's never fun!
jond ~

Not yet, but he sold it as part of an estate sale, so I doubt (though I will contact him) that he'll have much to say.  And no, I don't have anything else to use as a transport (particularly to truly emulate the conditions).

Thanks for the reply and support!

~ Mark