DAC Selection

I listen to vinyl mostly, but with my recent speakers upgrade I found digital sounding quite good and have been thinking to invest in a better DAC. I use tube gear - tube preamp, SET mono blocks, etc. I am using big full range 3-way speakers, highly efficient, very dynamic, going almost flat down to 20Hz. Most of the gear I use is either DIY or highly upgraded commercial products with exotic parts. The DIY products are all built by me, either from kits or from well-known simple and good sounding schematics. Listen to all kind of music but mostly jazz and blues. 

Looking to get the best DAC I can for my system. My budget is $6K. I can try building one myself, buy a kit, or get a commercial product. Besides building one myself, three DACs have caught my eye:

  • PS Audio DirectStream DAC
  • Schiit Audio Yggdrasil 
  • Audio Note Kits DAC 5.1

I have listened to several DACs and found the Analogue Devices chips to sound more musical in my system than the newer Sabre chips. But that could be due to the DAC implementation rather than the chip itself... Never heard an FPGA DAC like the one from PS Audio. The Audio Note Kit looks great in terms of design, components, and quality, but I would never know how it sounds until I build it, so can’t really audition and return if I don’t like it like I can do with the other products on my list. 

Another idea going through my head is to try building one myself - get the cleanest regulated power, the best digital section I can find, and a high-quality analog section with the best components available. And I might end up with a very high-end DAC. But again, you invest a lot of money, not knowing what the end result would be.

Some days I wish I could not solder. With all the choices we have, it is already so difficult to make decisions, and when you add DIY in the picture you make the decision making process a lot worse. And when you open a commercial product that costs $5,000 and find parts for $450, that makes you think really hard if you spent your hard-earned money the best possible way. But let’s not go there… I am happy to spend $6K for a PS Audio DirectStream DAC if I am convinced that’s my best option. And I will certainly audition that 

Any comments, suggestions, recommendations? 

I would certainly recommend The PS Audio Direct Stream DAC as it is the most natural sounding DAC I have heard at the price. In fact the only DAC I heard that was better and not that much to effect the horrific price difference between them was the Gryphon Kalliope DAC but that is a wholly different story but the price is eye watering.My friend owns the PS Audio and I have to say it is a delight to listen to as it upsamples everything to DSD and of course DSD files sound phenominal on it . I know where you are comming from regarding the quallity of parts inside anything. I am of the opinion that mostly all pieces of gear can be improved upon and when the warranty was out on my Oppo Sonica DAC I opened it up and did some work inside it. I am not at the level of your knowledge but I put better specified caps in it and also inserted EMI and RFI chokes on all wire runs. Also another coup was putting liquid Graphene from Mad Scientist in New Zealand on the exposed pins when I had taken the plugs from the cicuit boards inside and then reinserting them with the Graphine coating on them and the difference was almost magical.
After saying all that I would still go for the PS Audio if I had the money. Also PS Audio give regular updates to their firmware and in all instances it has made a big difference to my friend's DAC. Do see if you can audition one if possible. Good luck , Jim.
I have enjoyed a PS Audio DirectStream DAC just a few weeks after it was introduced and though I've swapped out this-than-and-the-other component in my system over the last 4-5 years, the PS Audio is "a keeper".
Besides having great sound quality, one thing I've really enjoyed are the regular firmware updates made available, which provide improved sound quality with each update.
I also enjoy their DirectStream memory player (transport) and their new P15 power plant.  When I did the upgrade from the P10 to P15 power plant, I was pleasantly surprised how the DAC's performance improved, greater detail, better bass, a small improvement in the sound stage, etc.
I own the Mytek Manhatten and the Bryston DAC3.  Very different sounding, both really superb.  The Bryston has an interesting feature set in that it has 4 HDMI inputs.
@ejr1953 I find all digital equiptment responds to really good mains regulation. I use one on my dac and music computer and have to say it make a big difference to both.In the PC it really cleaned up the noise floor and now i can play at any volume I care to.

As a member of a thriving audio club with over 80 members who have spent many hours listening to a wide variety of systems from budget to SOTA, about a dozen members have moved over the last year or two to the Yggdrasil or Gungnir multibit. They punch far above their price points, are well made/supported and come from a company that is no nonsense in it's focus on putting their money into better design & parts, not marketing & BS. The only other dacs I've heard that really makes me want to grab my wallet are the Aqua dacs at much higher prices. Cheers,
Thank you for all the good suggestions.
Good to see owners of the DirectStream DAC providing positive feedback. My impressions after reading a lot about this DAC online was that it was not such an exceptional product when originally released but it got better and better with every FPGA software upgrade. Those free upgrades make it a good long term investment. Good model.
@mahler123 The Mytek Manhattan looks interesting, but their return policy does not seem very generous. I will audition it if I can. Need to do some more reading on the Bryston.
@sbank Interesting feedback about the Yggdrasil. I would really like to have the Yggdrasil and DirectStream in my system at the same time, and have them for a couple of weeks, so the burn-in process can take place before I compare them. That might be difficult with backlogs and different return policies, but I might be able to manage it. Those Aqua dacs look really nice but out of my budget.
I wonder if anyone here can provide some feedback about the Audio Note Kits DAC 5.1. Everything in this DAC looks really good and fits my taste - excellent power section, AD1865NK chips, tube analog section, good components, etc. But none of that tells me how it sounds :). 

Hello nenon,
The made in England SW1X Audio Designs DACs may interest you given your background and musical genre taste. It’s similar to the well regarded Audio Note DACs but with "perhaps" better part quality at a similar price point. It uses multibit chips (if that matters to you). Audiogon member wig has one and says it is genuinely sublime. I believe that any of the DACs you listed would probably satisfy you. Another possible contender is the highly touted Denafrips Terminator (comprehensive review by 6 Moons) and reviewed on Audiogon by member david_ten.
Best of luck
You sound adventurous* enough to consider one of the direct-order Asian DACs which seem to provide a lot of value.

Unless you're intent upon spending a lot you might research DACs like Holo, Pontus, LKS, Gustard, or Denafrips.  Costing a fraction of what some DACs mentioned in this thread cost, users are reporting that they outperform some of the VERY high priced ones.

Personally I would not purchase a DAC that does not play SACDs or (my preference) ripped .dsf files. Some of these are simply outstanding in SQ.

You might do a search here and elsewhere.

*Hey, you use a soldering iron!

I would not assume that every $6K DAC has $500 of parts in it.

The output coupling caps in my DAC alone cost more than $1K.  The 22 custom linear regulators are $4400.

The other thing about designing your own DAC is that it takes a LOT of experience and knowledge to design a good one.  You must understand how to minimize jitter, how to linearize non-linear analog sections, how to get really low noise floor, how to design low-noise fast responding voltage regulators.  You must be familiar with what are the best and fastest gates are, the latest technology.  Finally, you must have the knowledge to design USB or Ethernet interface yourself, or you end-up buying something from a third-party that is crippled (low sound quality).

This is not a cook-book exercise.  It's not sufficient just to make it functional. It must perform well.

Steve N.

Empirical Audio

@charles1dad Checking out the SW1X. My first thought is that it would be an excellent choice if I had a CD player. But I forgot to say that I would listen to digital via USB. They have an interesting USB to SPDIF solution, and I will read more about it. The Denafrips Terminator caught my eye!
@melm Very good suggestion. I reviewed the list and the Holo and Denafrips Terminator looked very interesting. I am adding the  Terminator to my list.
@audioengr "I would not assume that every $6K DAC has $500 of parts in it." - Of course not! I've seen many high-end audio devices with parts worth around 10% of their MSRP, but I would never generalize that for the entire industry. Sorry if I have offended someone, did not mean to. There are many examples of much higher ratio too. A lot of hard work, excellent engineering, and extremely time consuming R&D goes into many of those products, so looking at the parts cost only is not fair. Yeah, as an end-user I would like to see less of my money spent on marketing and dealer commission and hate to see compromises made with the part quality on expensive products. It drives me crazy when I see a product that cost over $5K that uses $1 caps in the signal path. I have even seen a very expensive product that used a CAT5 wire in the signal path. But let's not go there... I see that you offer your DAC with V-Cap or Duelund caps. Thumbs up for that. They are my favorite caps.
BTW, I never even thought about designing my own DAC. I meant "building" by taking one of the well-acclaimed digital modules available and combining with good power section and good analog section. Yeah, it won't be anything unique, but more likely a highly tweaked popular existing solution. Chances are I won't go there at all. If I decide to do, I will start another thread. 
I once bought the lowest of the low Audio Note DACs on the reccommendation of John Rutan of Audio Connection after he put it up against the Cary CD player that I thought that I wanted and was reviewed well. The Audio Note sounded so much more real to my ears, and much less electronic. Three years ago, I got an Audio Note Kits 2.1 DAC, and it is an absolute pleasure. I can hardly imagine what the 5.1 sounds like, because mine sounds so good as it is.
I say, if it is emotion and pleasure that is your first priority, go with the Audio Note.
The Audio Note DACs have a near universal reputation for a natural sound quality as opposed to a hifi/electronic character. Supposedly the SW1X Audio Designs is cut from very similar cloth. A direct comparison would be interesting. In terms of philosophy, design, circuit and implementation they have much in common. I suspect that both are very good in providing the crucial emotional connection while listening to music. IMO a mandatory requirement. 
Hi Charles,
I'm not familiar with that company, but I'm going to look it up out of curiosity. Thanks.
At this time, there are so very many companies making DACs, and the technologies are interesting, but they can also be overwhelming to read about. I am sure that probably the majority of audiophiles who are buying the Myteks and all of the other latest brands have never even considered an Audio Note DAC. For myself, after having gone through several good players back in the day, and then a couple of supposedly good DACs, the Reiymo 777 comes to mind, and being very disappointed, I have no intention of ever going with another brand. I will go up the ladder when funds permit. I know that they are the opposite of high-tech, and they don't measure well, but I am not ashamed to say that I buy into the whole non-oversampling philosophy. They just sound great.
Hi Charles,
I went to that site. Very interesting. The business model is obviously an homage to Audio note...nothing wrong with that, and I guess the prices are lower too from a review that I read on that site. It makes me want to upgrade to an Audio Note 3.1!
@ nenon

I own a SW1X DAC II STD and it’s an outstanding R2R/NOS DAC and has beat AN in a head-to-head review. See my review I posted on this site a few months ago:


Head-to Head review with AN 2.1X:


For the price range you are looking at, the SW1X DAC III STD would be a timeless DAC that would rival analogue playback and you wouldn’t have to send it back for upgrades unless you wanted more uber expensive Audio Note and Black Gate caps installed every where but you could get that done initially with the Signature or Special Edition...



Hi John,
If you were to upgrade to an Audio Note 3.1 DAC  my guess is that you'll be thrilled. I believe that Audiogon member Jond has this model and loves it. Again I think both of these companies (AN and SWIX Audio Designs ) focus predominantly  on music reproduction and care little about measured perfection. 
That's a good feedback on the SW1X DAC. The review above says that it was better than AN 2.1, not better than the AN 4.1, but there are also additional upgrades that could be made to the SW1X DAC. Are you suggesting it could be better than the Audio Note Kits DAC 5.1 then? I do like the AD1865NK used in the ANK 5.1. Will do some more research on the SW1X...
AN 5.1 DAC versus an upper tier upgraded SW1X DAC is only going to be a purely subjective determination. No doubt opinions will be all over the spectrum. Each brand offers such a broad range of choices and pathways. This is clearly a situation that requires individual listening. The main distinction I recognize is that SW1X Audio Designs has a more approachable pricing structure for their upper level signature DACs that would likely compete with AN 4.1 level and above. SW1X offers a custom (specific request only) level 4 DAC. Interesting choices from both brands.
@ nenon

It's going to be very subjective but you would be very happy with either of them. The SW1X DAC II Sig was not embarrassed by the AN 4.1X which cost $10K more and the DAC III Sig or the upcoming DAC IV could meet or exceed the AN SQ and save you a ton of money.

You would have ultimate analogue sound quality with either.

Chord Qutest DAC at 2k will blow away most if not all mentioned on this list

"Blow away" ? I realize mlapenta that's your opinion but it comes across as stale hyperbole. I honestly doubt that the  Denafrips, AN or SW1X Audio Designs would be outperformed (or blown away)  by the Chord Qutest DAC.   Again,  just an opinion. 
Ok, let me clarify, yes i heard all the PS-audio mentioned (owned a few) and the Denafrips.  All good to great machines.  my humble opinion is that given his 6k budget, the 2k Qutest will stand it's own or beat many at that price.   And any discussion on the highest end  would have to include the "Dave" although it's 10k so.....   
@mlapenta Which Denafrips DAC have you listened to? The only one I am considering is the Terminator. Thanks. 
I heard the Pontus and given how good that was, I'm sure the Terminator must be amazing.  
If your budget is 6K you should include the Metrum Pavane in your list to audition.  I have the Metrum Onyx and it is absolutely amazing.
@nitewulf Thank you. I will look at that one too.

For some reason, I am leaning towards the Denafrips Terminator at the moment, but I have some more research to do. Taking the Yggdrasil off my list. Not sure about the DirectStream DAC anymore. SW1X and AN 5.1 are still highly considered. Thank you all for your feedback. 
This has become a very interesting thread. 

Since the Chord DAVE has been mentioned, on an LKS thread here (I'm the OP) a contributor compares the LKS very favorably, and in great detail, to the DAVE at 7X the cost.  He goes on to say that, nevertheless, even at 3X the cost of the LKS he's settled upon the Denafrips Terminator  You might want to have a look.

And yes, I'm very happy with the LKS.
What I learned here is that there are as many opinions as people.

User @in_shore sold his Denafrips Terminator and replaced with Yggdrasil analog 2:

User @david_ten compared the Terminator and Yggdrasil and thinks the Terminator is much better:

Almost everyone who owns or has heard the Terminator is super happy. There are many raving reviews and posts, including this:

And then, just when you think that everyone agrees, there is this one bad review:

I wish more companies will offer audition at home, because that’s the way to go.

"What I learned here is that there are as many opinions as people."

Why should DACs be any different than any other component?

What you write suggests that the Terminator may have QC problems, or that it may not not interact well with certain other components in front or in back of it.

I am an analog guy who never before found a satisfactory DAC at a price I wanted to pay. I was willing to buy my DAC, without an audition, after reading all that I could about it, because it is a rather conventional design--just up-engineered (in China) beyond what domestic manufacturers are doing. So I had a very definite idea of what I would hear; I believe in power supply and discrete analog.  And, oh yes,the price.
Please try to evaluate the PSAudio Directstream DAC. You will not be disappointed. Read a little about it before you try it somewhere. 
I suggest you have a listen to the Resonessence Mirus Pro, retail list is right at your budget max of US$6000.  It uses the Sabre chipset, but the design team have come from Sabre itself.  

I have a lower model, the Concero HP, and have found it very good at the price point. I auditioned the mid-level unit, the Veritas (US$2800), but didn't hear a difference to justify the extra dollars.  Then, out of curiosity, I auditioned the Mirus Pro, which completely blew me away.  Extremely detailed, but without any cold digital signature.  The bass is quick and full; the timbre was spot on.  I know some people hate the word 'musical' when describing sound, but that's what it was.

I have some favourite audition tracks that I typically use.  Instead of listening to the critical passages, I got stuck enjoying entire songs. I found I just had to enjoy each track to the end.  

The only reason I didn't buy is it because it is far beyond my budget. However, I'm looking at selling all my secondary components to see if I can afford.  

I haven't had a chance for extended comparisons to the PS Audio, Schitt Yggy, Chord Hugo/2, Mytek Brooklyn/+, or Spring Kitsune DACs, which also seem worth considering.

I would recommend looking at Resonessence, Chord, TotalDAC, Aqua HIFI.  Chord does some unique things in their D/A that delivers excellent HF imaging.  Make sure you get the bass though.  Read the reviews on audiostream.

Steve N.

Empirical Audio