DAC That Punches Above Its Price Point

I’ll make it short. I’ve spent some hours reading the DAC threads on this forum. I am aware quality of digital matters as superior DACs usually the costlier ones will sound better than cheap DACs, making music sound more analog, lifelike, real, believable with all the soundstage and detail etc. All the good things. There are some who thought it’s the music that matters, and although different DACs may sound different it’s the music that makes the most difference. In other words, the differences that exist between DACs are not that important as it's all about the music. I can see the point that people are trying to make.

Back to the topic. I’ve read great things on the Denafrips Ares II and Pontus II, and other costlier high-end DACs. I’ve read about the Chord DAVE. I personally own a Chord QBD76 and have no urge to replace it with anything else since it sounds splendid in my system, for the money. I may be setting up another system and was wondering if there is a DAC in the lower price bracket that punches way above its price point, sounding close to if not better than the costlier designs.

I presume the Audioquest Black, Red or Cobalt are not worthy of consideration and sound noticeably inferior to the costlier options? FWIW I tried the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC and this one really sounded poor to my ears. Very digital sound and I stopped listening to it after a while. The Chord sounds a lot more analog, lifelike and real to my ears.

I would appreciate any advice. Thanks.

If you truly have spent the hours reading the DAC threads, and no doubt that you have, should you have not come to the conclusion, you are going to get a plethora of opinions on this?

Chord Qutest. Punches way above its price point in every category. Owned one. Very hard to beat. 
Topping E30 - $150.  Sounds excellent on what I consider a fairly high resolving system....nice improvement from the stock DAC on my Denon CD player.  
You'll get a ton of different suggestions on this one.
Here's mine...head over to audiokarma and search for the Musical Paradise MP-D2 threads. Mk2 version is the sweet spot generational-ly in my opinion.
MHDT DACs especially used are a great deal and punch above their weight class
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I can't think of anything I've heard that "punches above its price point".  The old maxim, "you get what you pay for" is true for most things.  Sometimes you're paying for something other than sound quality (audio jewelry), but a $150 DAC is not going to sound the same as the best DAC you can buy for $2,000 - $3,000.  Some in that price point might sound as bad as something that only cost $150 however. 

I've heard some things that sound really good "for their price", but they are always making compromises in way or another.  For example, I have a couple of sets of headphones that are in the $150 - $200 range that I really enjoy listening to.  They are super comfortable and easy to listen to and in the case of one, it's tipped down quite a bit and is really good for listening to EDM, but in terms of sound quality, they don't really compete with my higher end headphones.

Why don't you just tell us what your budget is and get some suggestions in that price range?
You said nothing about budget. 

If you're buying new, the best values are the direct import Asian DACs.
I did not state a budget because I’m not sure where the best value DAC lies in the price/performance envelope before point of diminishing returns kick in. From few posts here, it appears that giant killer options do not exist which is comprehensible. Ideally something up to $500 would be nice but if that’s not possible it can go up to say $2,000. New or used.
I stole a Lampi Amber for under your price target…… Codex is a great recommendation 
Consider also building or finding an Audio Note

IF you really are serious about value, consider a Aesthetix Romulus… it has the Pandora DAC in it….
I would not worry about getting a DAC that punches above its price point.
Many great DAC`s from $1000-$5000(seems to be the sweet spot).
What some, here, may claim PAPP, may not match your tastes. You need to audition a few, and settle for what you like best. That will be: "your best bang for your buck".
+4 Ayre Codex.
I bet you can get one for $750 used.
It performs as good or better than the Schiit Gungnir that I also owned.
+1"Maybe the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital priced at $499 as per your comment "Ideally something up to $500 would be nice".

I use one of these in my office system. It sounds great -- on the detailed side but not shrill in any way.  It works best with my headphones and has RCA jacks to connect powered speakers or an amp.
Schiit Yggdrasil @ $2.5K

Audio Research CD9se @ $17K

Both significantly exceed their cost at there given price points.
Though I have not tried it myself, I’ve heard good things about Questyle CMA12.

I love my Naim nDAC. You can probably find a used one for around $1,300 or so.
Just purchased the Denafrips Ares II, too early to give any deep insight/s but it seems to outperform my MHDT Lab Orchid, at least on some levels. Either one works pretty damn well-except I did I roll the stock chip to a Philips TDA Double Crown on the Orchid come to think of it and it has an input tube you can roll as well. 
I wish I had enough time to demo all of these suggestions. This is such a rewarding “hobby.” I sometimes feel uneasy calling it a hobby, it feels more like a lifestyle in a sense. I am currently building my dream system and cannot wait to finally get it all together. I hope the OP finds what he/she is looking for. Sorry for the rambling… 
I compared the Denafrips Ares II vs my MHDT Orchid. Orchid had, for me, a wider and more articulate soundstage. Also, has option for tube swaps. Also, had mine modded with better caps and resistors. My invest is about $1600 with tubes and mods and I bet it's punching at $2500 or more. 
I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the RME-2 DAC fs. It most definitely punches above its weight. It sounds great, It has a ridiculously robust feature set, but is also very simple to use if you just want to hook it up and go. Very favorably reviewed across the board and has a killer headphone amp section to boot. Very hard to beat even with products well above its price range.
@ryder you need to narrow this search down with 1. Budget 2. Do you need balanced outputs? 3. Are you looking for a more detailed sound or a more smoother analog sound? 4. Do you need MQA support? 5. Any other preferences besides the above? 
Have noted some, upgrading to the Gustard A22.
It uses 2 AK4499 chips.

Upgraded from Topping D90, LKS MH-DA004.

Unlike other audio components, I don’t think you’ll find a “bargain” DAC who’s performance punches way above their price point. I’ve been looking for audiophile component bargains for the last 5 years including DACs so I can get the best price/performance components for my audio system. Also, buying used usually saves you significant $.

If you like Chord DACs then you may be interested in upping the DAC sound with the Chord MScaler - although it can be used with any DAC there seems to be an even greater synergy when connected to the Chord Dave and likely other Chord DACs.
If you want to see punching, go to a boxing match..if you want the best DAC, I highly recommend the MSB Discrete, Premier, Reference or Select.

People have different opinions that are meaningless in the context of your sound reproduction system and your auditory system.

Listen to a variety of different DACS in your own set-up before you decide - do not rely on the opinions of other folks who mostly just post to a thread but do not listen to music!!!
When it comes to bargain components, everyone's selection needs to punch above its weight. It's a necessary precondition of budget audio.  :) 

The Musical Fidelity V90 dac at only $299 is a terrific value. Honestly, dacs costing much more will sound "different", not necessarily better. 
I've owned more budget DAC's than you can count.  Also built a couple from diyinhk.com..... For me without a doubt the SMSL SU9 is the best sounding thing that has hit my system under 1k.  
Beware,  I had to send it to SMSL to get a firmware update to eliminate a minor distortion issue.  This DAC has many settings, the settings seem almost imperceivable differences, but once you go through many and get a combination that works, it performs VERY well.   
the Wyred4sound 10th anniversary dac is extremely good, I put it up against the Sim audio dac here in Canada which cost $15,00 and it was much better, one of the reviewers put it up against his $9,000 cos1 and he said the 10th anniversary dac was better and then he also put it up against Bricasti,Chord and a few other high price dacs he said the 10th anniversary was better, and another reviewer put it up against his VPI turntable with a $5,000 Japanese cartridge and he said the 10th anniversary was every bit as analog sounding, and I have to agree this is the most analog sounding deck I've ever had in my system, and my system is worth $60,000 Canadian.The 10th anniversary deck is $4,500 US. I would love to put it up against DCS to see how good it is, but this thing is so good I don't think I'll ever need another dac.Please go read the reviews.
Audio GD "R28",a true balanced,resistor to resistor ladder DAC/Pre-Head amp with several user programmable Sampling settings including No Over Sampling(NOS) or  
ANY Burson Conductor 3...
Recently bought the Denifrips Aries II, could not be happier. The Denifrips seems to suit my system,  Audiolab 6000 CDT, Vincent Audio Pre / Power Amps and Audio Physic Sitara 25 speakers, with twin subwoofers. I compared several DACs, in my system including the Chord Cutest, could not say which is best but preferred the Denifrips. Mytech Liberty, much preferred the Denifrips. iFi Neo, much preferred the Denifrips. In my desktop system I use the iFi iDSD BL its nice and very useful with my MacBook. In that system I tried Audioquest Black and red, preferred the iFi and also preferred my Meridian Explorer 2 which I use on the go. Have tried both the Musical Fidelity V90, sort of OK and the Project Pre - Box, horrible.  So overall I regard the Denifrips as a true bargain.
As a diehard vinyl listener, I’ve actively avoided digital audio for the past 32 years until COVID struck this past year. With working at home for a year and a half now, the advantages of being able to change music without getting up became much more important than pre-COVID. So I built a front-end for listening to digital music both via local files and Qobuz streaming. As part of the process, I’ve listened to 8 DACs in the past year:

  1. Audioquest Dragonfly Red - already owned, but plugged it into my streamer to see how it would fare in my home system
  2. Rega DAC - loaned to me by a friend. Had it in my system for several days and then took it out.
  3. Denafrips Ares II - loaned to me by a friend. Had it in my system for several months.
  4. Simaudio Moon 280D - Listened at a dealer in comparison to the Qutest
  5. Chord Qutest - Bought one. Had one in my system for several months. Sold it after I got the Pontus
  6. Denafrips Pontus II - What I decided to keep.
  7. Chord Hugo TT / MScaler - Listened at a dealer
  8. Schiit Yggdrasil - Listened at a friend’s house
If you’re seeking a more analog and less digital sound, I can highly recommend the Pontus. FWIW, I was not at all impressed by the sound of the Hugo TT / MScaler. It was lacking in both pace and tonal color for my preferences. The Ares II was decent, but the Pontus is in a completely different league in terms of its sound quality improvement overs the Ares. The Ares has better tonal color and a more analog quality to its sound than the Qutest while the Qutest has better pace and timing than the Ares. The Pontus is better in pace/timing, ability to convey tonal colors, soundstage size than both the Ares and the Qutest. I thought the Pontus has more finesse than the Yggy. The Yggy was more forceful in how it conveyed rhythms.


That is the kind of comparison info that is most helpful. Thanks for taking the time! I was curious though whether or not you used a re-clocker with any of those DACs. Did you? I tried a couple of DACs and the one that came highly recommended by my very experienced relative was the Ayre QB9 with the Twenty upgrade. I thought it sounded great in my system until I borrowed an Innuos Phoenix USB reclocker. Wow, what a difference In soundstage and vocals. It took away the digital edginess, which was minimal in my digital setup but, was there.
@hysteve I did not use a reclocker, but I am open to the benefits that a reclocker can add. I tend to trust my ears on questions of that nature. Devices that provide more galvanic isolation to reduce RFI/EMI noise are another direction that I'm interested in exploring further as well.
Another that is rather cheap, but very good, is the Beresford SEG.

I have two, both with mods.
Stan ( the designer) offers these.