DAC suggestions for a reasonably modest system

I have two systems currently fed by a SMSL SU-9n via Y splitter.  It's time to add a new/used DAC and get rid of the Y splitter.  New DAC will feed a VTL TL-2.5 + VTL Stereo 90 or a couple of different vintage SS amps (Sony TAN-8250 or Luxman 5M21), and just for fun, maybe a couple of Dyna Mk VI, running Magnepan 3.6R.  The SMSL does a great job overall, but seems to be a better fit with the ARC SP3a1 + SET or SEP amp into Altecs.  For those of you that have had the SMSL or similar level DACs in a similar system to mine and have moved up the chain, what gave you a nice step change?  The Maggies, however imperfect, are delightfully revealing and prior DAC changes were definitely more apparent with them.  Budget is $1000-1500, and I have no issue with buying used good quality stuff.  None of my system is less than 20 years old except the DACs.  


I don’t know what SMSL stands for, so obviously I don’t know the SQ there.  I would go for a used DAC to try and get the most value.  A used disc spinner would have concerns about laser life, but a solid state DAC should be good for years

SMSL is a Chinese brand.  The SU-9n was a step up from either of my Schiit Modi DACs (one a multibit, the other a 3E.  At the time I was DAC buying I needed a remote volume, and the SMSL had that feature.  Yes, I'm definitely looking at used DACs that haven't aged out technologically.  I had an Emotiva SDA-2 before and the Modis were a step up.  

This would be great and save you some $$$…

Here’s a good review that I agree with, and yes I own it.  Add a DDC like the Musician Pisces or Denafrips Iris and use the i2S connection and you’ll get a significant performance boost.


Best of luck.

Schiit multibit dacs (modi multibit, bifrost, etc) made in the USofA sound better than the Asian chip dacs though the latter tend to measure better. Their real competition are the Asian R2R dacs (Denafrips, Gustard, etc). 

Come up with $1900 ,without question the Denafrips Pontus 2 12th anniversary 

it is a excellent dac and I don’t own  but did ,I bought their terminator 2 ,

for a great price ,No dac especially a R2R dac is this musical for under $2k 

I have heard many I think it is the best dac under $3k,it’s that  good 

just read a bunch of reviews. It also has U.S service centers if need be .I have owned 4,of them ,my wife still has a older pontus 2 and never an issue.

Thanks for all the responses so far!  You've definitely expanded my field of consideration.   

Look for a Bryston BDA-3 on the preowned market. They come up for sale every now and then. Quality piece of equipment. Still on the Bryston website as their top DAC. 

The $2000 deal on PS Audio DirectStream Mk. I factory refurbished and with a warranty has got to be the screaming deal in DAC's. I got one and an AirLens and love it. You get this through The Music Room who bought up all the traded in Mk. I's when the Mk. II came out. Highly recommended!

PS Audio DSD +1  I just upgraded from an SMSL SU-9 to a PSA DSD and it was a huge step up.  I found one used with the bridge for $1600.

Denefrips Enya or Ares 12th should work for you at a little less than $1K, or if you are wanting to hit your max spend, the Pontus or the Gustard R26.


+1 on the Bryston DAC3.  It also has 4 HDMI inputs, which can accept the DSD layers from SACD players able to output DSD

More excellent choices.  Really appreciate all the input.  I had a friend's Ares II at the house for a few weeks.  It was nearly new, so not quite broken in.  I liked it but at the time I could not consistently choose it over the other DAC in my system at the time (can't recall if I still had the Modi or SMSL then), where I was able to pick the SMSL DAC out over the Modi consistently in an A/B comparison.  Since then he bought a Venus II and yes, I could tell a difference on his system without an A/B comparison, mainly with the soundstage.  Regardless, the Venus is out of budget.  

Look at the Ifi Neo dac with upgraded power supply. Amazing little dac for $1100.00 I have one out on my garage system.

I simply did not know what I was missing until I stepped up to a r2r. Suggest Pontus 

If you can stretch to $1,850 you can get a new Denafrips Pontus II 12th. If not then you can get a used Pontus II for about $1,300. The Denafrips products all have upgradeable firmware that is released free of charge, so updates are released once or twice a year. The Pontus is one of those rare products that performs way above it's price point. I'm heading into 3 years with mine, and never thought it was the weak link in my system.

As Soix mentioned, you can get even more performance from a Pontus (or several other R2R DACs with I2S inputs) by adding a DDC like the Denafrips Iris and going I2S out to the DAC. The Iris can be found used for about $350.

A used Pontus II DAC and used Iris DDC is about $1,650 for the pair, and is still a killer combination

@pickindoug i use the smsl su9 in my most-listened to system and i really like it--i will admit that my buddy's chord hugo 2 (which you can find used for around a grand) was better--i also heard a topping d90 in the same system and it was really good--wholly uncolored and less forward than the smsl.

Can't do much wrong with a musical fidelity v90 dac. Can still be had for about $299. I love mine.

I second the Musical Fidelity Dac.  I use the nu-vista.  Not as revealing as some, but sweeter than most.  It's one you don't get tired of.

I think that PS Audio DAC recommendation was a good one. They are pretty natural sounding, which in the price range you are looking in will be the issue. 

Appreciate all the input!  Now to see what comes along in the local market (Atlanta area).

I’ve been very pleased by the Merason Frerot that I purchased a few months ago.modest cost, high performance. 

I borrowed a lowly little Schiit Moduis from a friend and was shocked by how good it was for just $229.  So of course I one-upped him and bought the Bifrost.  I'm super happy with it.  

Then I thought I'd go even better for my other system, and got a Denafrips Ares II.  Ugh... not for me.  Maybe I got a bum unit, but I did NOT like the sound of the ARES at all.  What I heard did not align with all the glowing reviews.  I quickly resold the ARES, and I'm contemplating an RME ADI-2.  Great feature set, but I've not heard it yet.

+1 for bot the Modius and Bifrost, at their respective price points.

Schiit Yggdrasil Gs2 at $1699. Smokes anything near it IMHO.


I use a Schiit Gungnir Multibit A2 w Gen 5 USB in my main speaker system and like many others are VERY satisfied with it. Have to buy one used now as they're recently discontinued. About $800. 

There is a new model Gungnir coming soon, I may try one just because this one is so good.. Yggdrasils are better DACs, though it seems Gungnir Multibit works very well with speaker setups.

To wrap up, a few names I wasn't as familiar with, so that's very helpful as I narrow the choices.  Seems like the Pontus is the budget stretch choice, the Yggy right behind it, and a host of good choices from there right down to pocket change levels.  I have a Modi 3E and an older Modi 2 Multibit that were both bested by the SMSL.  Before I bought the SMSL a friend loaned me his recently purchased Ares II to "burn in" while he was on a long trip.  Even with a few hundred hours on the clock I really couldn't hear much of a difference vs the Schitts, if at all.  That led me to thinking a chip DAC was likely a better choice for at least the Altec system to add a bit of top end where needed.   Thanks again all, you've been most helpful.


New Gustard R26... Great R2R DAC and preamp

Used Musetec MH-DA005 could maybe be found for under 2k.

Used RME DAC, I know people love them.

Otherwise Denafrips makes good stuff in your price range (new/used)

A Audio Alchemy DDP-1 (dac/pre)+ PS 5 outboard power supply is available on US Audiomart. I have owned this combo for several years. Terrific bargain. Great review in March 2016- I think. It allows you to eliminate a preamp

A couple of thoughts:

  • Y cable is BAD. Before you even consider a new DAC, see if there's a way to connect to multiple systems without doing that. Looks like the SMSL has balanced and single ended outputs.  On SOME DACs, using both doesn't degrade sound (on some it does).  
  • There does look to be significant improvement possibility based on your upgrade budget.  But you need to decide what kind of sound do you like - the R2R sound or the SABRE DAC like sound -- and then there are options.

On the R2R side, the Schiit Gumby is a good option and I enjoy that DAC very much. The Mytek Liberty has an ultra detailed SABRE chip in it. Totally different approaches.

An OPPP 105D  Streams, 32 bit DAC, Play CDs, STREAM Netflix and more  great products 1K used.

Another very positive "yes" for the Gustard R26 DAC. Brand new it’s in your price and sounds great.


I had considered using the XLR outs with an adapter, but the balanced output voltage is twice that of the RCA, so I'd need to introduce some passive circuitry to attenuate.  And in the random bit of music studio work I've done, adapting XLR is a compromise at best. Given my choices in tube preamps, I don't see an XLR capable pre in my future plans, and the SMSL RCA output is already so hot that at full volume on the DAC both preamps are usually running around 9-10 o'clock.  That was also the case when I was using a Convergent SL-1.  And back to the original goal, both systems are very different and I'm not sure one DAC makes the most of each system's attributes.

I will second a couple of the recommendations so far. I have a Denafrips Ares(Jazz, acoustic) and a Chord Qutest(Rock, Electronic). Believe it or not I like one over the other depending on the music type. The DAC's feed an Orchard Audio Gan amp to an LTA MZA3 preamp. Going off of your budget I would think the Denafrips Pontus or the Gen 1 Chord Hugo TT would be good choices.

Whatever ever you choose, from my research and what others with more experience than I have stated, a reclocker seems to be a valuable addition whatever DAC you end up with.  Best of luck on your search. 

An out of the box suggestion, look for preowned Audio Mirror Toubadour III or Toubadour IV DACs. They punch way above their price range and give a beautiful analog sound. Vlad is very responsive and is always available for upgrades and repairs. Handmade in the USA.

I have the Toubadour V and it sounds great to my ears.

I see a few for sale on USAM right now.

Jeez, nobody’s talking about HiFi Rose? I had an RS250 inhouse for a few weeks last year, but at the time only had the chance to compare it to my old Oppo 103D’s internal DAC. Very solid improvement in soundstage, imaging, and detail, with a fairly smooth high-end (through Harbeth speakers). And the HFR had a TON of functionality & ease-of-use features, like a fancy touchscreen GUI & robust audio and video streaming capabilities that might help it fit into the OP's budget.  Not just a DAC.

Despite enthusiastic reviews, HFR doesn’t seem to get much respect on this forum and to be honest, I’m personally shopping for something a few steps above what the RS250 had to offer. But in the OP’s price range, Schiit and HFR seem to be the two most obvious choices.



I was surprised not to see HFR until your post.  But they are streamer DACs, so perhaps that was the reason.  If you were to isolate the DAC portion only, aside from the comparison to the 103D, where would you position it in the spectrum of available DACs?  It does look like the 250RS puts a lot into the GUI and streaming function, so I'm wondering if the DAC gets short shrift like in the BS Node.

Couple Wadia 321s on here for $1.7K.  Good implementation of ESS 916 chip. balanced , multiple inputs. 

negative: out of production and large foot print. 

HFR is a big topic! People either seem to love ’em or hate ’em.

There are only one or two other DAC/streamers I know of that have an iPad-style GUI like that of all HFR products.  Unfortunately, those units have gotten a reputation for being buggy, based on early shipments. My unit, however, was manufactured maybe a year after its initial announcement and was pretty much bug-free (and it supported online updates).  I did suffer a hardware failure, though, so I don't know if I'd buy one that didn't have a warranty.

Disclaimer: At the time, I had a modest digital system that didn’t have a higher-end DAC, or offer the SQ of my vinyl signal path. I listened to digital content mostly through my Oppo disc player, LG "audiophile" ThinQ phone, and a $2000 Marantz AV receiver. Today, having been bitten by the digital bug, I’m more interested in Aurenders and Ayres.

But despite all that, I could have lived easily with even HFR’s entry-level RS250A, especially given that an integrated streamer, large touchscreen display, and preamp were includded in the price. Its biggest selling point for me, however, was its connectivity, Android GUI, and impressive functionality. I had it streaming 4K YouTube videos to my 75" TV, and its huge array of I/O options made it easy to simultaneously integrate into both my audiophile stereo and my maybe-sorta-audiophile home theater.

I recently committed to spend four times the 250's purchase price on an Ayre DAC, but if that deal falls through, I’d still consider one of the higher-end HFR streamers or DAC/streamers. Once you have one inhouse, you get spoiled. The 250A might not the best possible SQ, especially when compared with the much pricier Denafrips, etc., that are (rightfully) popular here.

But the difference in SQ isn’t all that great on most mid-priced systems and, as much as I would have once choked on the words, this was one of those few instances where functionality, ease of use, and connectivity were just as important as SQ.  In aggregate, maybe even more so.

Yes, YMMV, but that was my experience.