DAC Under $3000

I am considering the purchase of a new DAC. Budget is no more than $3000. I lean towards clear, detailed sound with good separation. In the past I have had PS Audio Stellar, Benchmark, and Merason Frerot. I thought all were good, but not necessarily "special". Suggestions please. Thanks!


Ayre QB9 Twenty, in fact any Ayre will outperform your previous Dacs.

Schiit Yggy comes a llittle bit below the Ayre, but still very good.

If  you can score a used unit, then you are well below $3K.

I hate to say it, but at $3K you aren't going to get 'special', but very good.

Unfortunately, you would need to increase you budget around 3x to get into the 'special' level.


@gnoworyta "In the past I have had PS Audio Stellar, Benchmark, and Merason Frerot. I thought all were good, but not necessarily "special"

You might get more helpful responses if you provide context around what you feel was missing from the presentations of the 3 DACs you’ve had; "not necessarily special" can be widely interpreted to mean anything but maybe what you are after sound wise/emotionally engaging


I like the Schitt Yggi+ Less is More DAC more than a 7x more expensive DAC that came before it. I also have the Benchmark DAC3B from your list. The Yggi+ is better.

I also stream via fibre optic cable and that is a big benefit.



+1 I must agree. I own an Ayre DAC and Auditioned a Yggdrasil and own a Gungnir. I would go for the Ayre. A more natural sounding DAC. 

When thinking about a component a bit over your price range… I always think about how long I have it and how many hours of use I get. The price becomes a little less important. The sound quality is going to be better every time you listen to it.

The Matrix X Sabre 3 is right on your budget. I have owned some vastly more expensive DACs, and the Matrix outperforms them all. Probably the best value in digital audio.

Sony has a proprietary FMGA processor they designed for their TZ-H1A headphone amp/preamp/DAC. It has filters to upconvert to DSD (which the invented with Philips). It is around $2K and if you stream or have non hirez files it is a great way to get DSD on a budget. I manly use it as a DAC in my system but the headphone amp is also great.



Try a brand called space tech. The guys name is Al and I had one of their streamer /DACS it was about $2500 and it sounded amazing. The only problem was I have been running my system without a preamp and this unit required a preamp. We found out because I had a little teeny weenie hum. We figured out that if I would’ve hooked it into a preamp it would’ve been nonexistent. I sent it back reluctantly because I was afraid that I would have a hard time if I sold it later on. I still think about the unit all the time it really sounded wonderful. 

Here is one I am eyeballing that fits the budget:


Weiss 204 $2,900.  Reviewers are gaga over this

DAC du jour. Gotta get in line now though.


The ANK 4.1x can be bought in kit form for $3k

and assembled for $3.5k. It uses 4 tubes and an

older AD 1865 chip. Very musical and detailed.


Good Luck!!

I've just bought a (second hand) Gustard X26 Pro.

It sounds fabulous at half your budget - but probably equals or betters DACs up to 3500, maybe 5000.

Wide image, incredible bass, dense and open mids, airy treble, great resolution. No ESS glare or "coldness" whatsoever, quite the opposite, in my system it sounds fluid and organic. 

since it is half the allowed budget, you can even add an external clock since t has a  10MHz clock input.

TEAC NT-505X is defintely worth consideration.  Nice built in streamer.  (also preamp and headphone).

DAC alone was a bit better to me in my system than my Schiit Yggdrasil A2 wrt detail and space.  Yggdrasil a bit better bass and perhaps dynamics.  (via iFi Zen Stream with ipower.)

Via its built-in Streamer, the NT-505X made a subtle improvement.

NT-505X will also accept a 10MHz clock (e.g. the TEAC CG-10M, which I use with my TEAC UD-701N and provides a very nice upgrade.)

I changed my Metrum amethyst Dac by an Gustard X26 pro, it's better!

I changed the Gustard X26 pro by an Audio-gd Master 7, it's really better and the sound is very natural, not natural with Gustard...

@facten :

Thanks for your response. I guess my answer would be that I am hoping to hear a bit more detail and spaciousness. I have seen comments in the past where folks have said their DAC allowed them to hear detail they had not heard before - "it sounded as if the artist was in the room". I have not gotten that with my current/past DACs. I realize you must take the whole system into consideration, but thought I would start by exploring a DAC change.

To everyone - thanks for all the feedback thus far!

I would recommend a space tech Lab dac with a super rectifier. I have a space tech Lab dac and there is no hum with or without a preamp. If you go to Canuck audiomart you can read all the user reviews describing just what you are after.

I resisted Chi-Fi as long as possible, but for under $2k, nothing I have heard beats my Denafrips Pontus II with 1.4 firmware.  It's a virtual Swiss Army knife of a DAC that is clean, clear, and never harsh or brittle.  Sound stage is highly source dependant.  Probably my last DAC.

Top choices besides the Schiit Yiggy would include:

Holo Audio Spring 3 KTE $3,000

Denefrips Venius II 12th $3,100

MUSICIAN Pegasus $3,200

Chord Qutest - it’s been on the market for the longest and has increased in price to over $2K but is available used for $1200 due to it’s time on the market

I believe you’d find any of the above DACs to be "special" sounding. I think the Holo Audio Spring 3 may be the best reviewed of all the above. Though the Qutest is probably the biggest seller still after 5 or so years on the market. Unfortunately, the step up from the Qutest is over $5,000.

I’ve had the Qutest for 4+ years and think it is super detailed and really special sounding with a huge soundstage and preciese pinpointing of instruments. I’m ready to replace it due to it’s age. But it’s so good it’s difficult to find anything under $5k that tops it. I may try one of the ones I listed above but I’m unsure if they’ll be better or just different.


@gnoworyta I’ve linked below a thread over on WhatBestForum relative to AbbasAudio DACs that may be in your price range and have the sonic quality you are seeking. I haven’t listened to one, but Audiogon & WBF member Charles1dad has one and you can consider reaching out directly to him via Audiogon pm. I find Charles pretty knowledgeable and measured in his assessments.



Based on your sonic priorities (clear, detailed, separation), look into a Weiss 205 (if you don't need the features of the 204). I would guess the "street" price for a NEW unit would be something like $1300. Based on my extended listening w/the bigger brother (501), the sound may be a touch dry, but it will take you "into the studio" if that perspective appeals to you.

I purchased the $2,399 Benchmark DAC3 HGC. This very small DAC has 4 SABRE 9028PRO chips, 2 per channel, and the signal is summed to reduce the noise and jitter. I am simply amazed at the sound quality of this small DAC.
BTW, I called Benchmark several times and was immediately transferred to their Sales Manager who answered my many questions. Their customer support is excellent. I also had some post sale question and they answered them very quickly.

Well, let me throw in another possibility, kill two birds one stone thing:  Marantz Ruby SACD player w DAC... brings everything to DSD.  In addition to its CD/SACD functionality, there are inputs for coax, optical, and USB... so just select the input right on the Ruby.  

I got one "open box" for about $2500... if you can find one.  Thus you have a lifetime-build cd player and outstanding DAC, all in one. 


For $1,850 a Denafrips Pontus II 12th cannot be beat, but I'd buy it with a Denafrips Iris DDC for $550......$2,400 all in with a nice USB cable. Will allow you to output I2S from the Iris to Pontus II.....an amazingly musical setup and, and what I currently own.....I also personally prefer the Pontus/Iris combination to the Denafrips Venus II DAC.

For a bit more money $2,800 (and as Soix recommended) the Musician Aquarius is a step up, and I can guess it too would sing with a DDC outputting I2S to the DAC. I did not have the Iris DDC with me when I borrowed to the Aquarius, but it is a great DAC. 

The Ayre DAC’s are an easy recommendation as long as you can live with USB only in the case of the QB9. The Codex has USB and an optical input. It’s also a wonderful headphone amp. They are both very natural sounding DAC’s. Good Luck!

I did get a the CEC DAC DS5 directly from Japan for $1,500 and it is a superb DAC

Plays DSD but not SACD.

Note,  it is a 110 volts I did get a transformer for it, even though some experts sat it does not  matter. Our “120” is seldom 120, right now my power regulator  indicates   115

In USA the same CEC DAC goes goes $3,000 and in Europe for more than 3,000 euros!

Good luck on your search.

Some Ayre DACs only support USB… but others support SP/DIF, optical, and AES. It depends on the model.

Both the new QX-8 and QX-5 support multiple digital inputs but they are not within his $3,000 budget.

I don't have any experience comparing external DACs in my system, but, based on how my set up compares to my analogue source, the Black Ice Tube DAC at $800 + $450 NOS Mullard tubes is really impressive.   

USA......Audio Mirror Toubadour.....R2R Dac with tube. If you want to listen to "music" and not "equipment".

The non-upsampling LAB12 DAC1 is a no brainer.  Read the reviews. Maybe a bit over 3K but well worth it!

Also a real beauty!


+1 Lab 12 reference DAC (bought Mint  6 mo used $1800) with 1960 French Phillips (Mazda, RT, Dario Miniwatt) e188cc tubes is fantastic.

+1 Also have a Black Ice Audio DSD Glass DAC with 1950 Rca 12AX7 Blackplate It is really good and plays way above its price and doesn’t get a lot of attention. Bought 3 years back $650.  

Love my LAB 12 DAC 1 Ref.    Bought new,  traded a preamp toward it ,cost about $1600 out of pocket.    One of my most musically satisfying components ever.  

I have a Musician Aquarius for sale on the “other” site for a really great price. It’s the best digital I’ve ever heard in my house. Haven’t heard the stupid price stuff by way better than the 1-1.5k dacs I had before.

Of all the DACs I’ve owned the Electrocompaniet ECD-2 best fits that description. To my ears it has the “layering” and lush midrange of an NOS DAC but all the resolution of the measurement kings like Benchmark and Chord. Its measurements are nearly SOTA but it also has just enough color and warmth to keep it from becoming clinical or glassy. It retails for $3K but can occasionally be found pre-owned for much less. 

I’ve had the Qutest for 4+ years and think it is super detailed and really special sounding with a huge soundstage and preciese pinpointing of instruments. I’m ready to replace it due to its age. But it’s so good it’s difficult to find anything under $5k that tops it. I may try one of the ones I listed above but I’m unsure if they’ll be better or just different.

There are many DACs under $3K that outclass the Qutest IME. I owned the Qutest twice (the second time bought it for a great price with the sole purpose of flipping) and while it does have good resolution, it’s relatively 2-dimensional, lean and edgy. That’s only relative to some other good performing DACs, a couple of which cost considerably less than the Qutest: the Marantz HD-DAC1 and Denafrips Ares II. 

I can imagine a Qutest making for great synergy with a Mac anchored system. So of course, things aren’t always apples-to-apples. 

I recently experienced an Hegel HD 30 used with Valve Pre-Power Amp's and Klipsch Jubilee Speakers.

I have been demo'd a selectin of SS DAC's in systems I am familiar with at a price range that is up to £2500.

I have been demo'd DAC's in unfamiliar systems with a value up to £?????, but some I am sure are north of £10K.

Out of them all the Hegel is the one that has left for me an indelible memory, as a result of how much of a good impression it made. 

Sometimes there exists different options based on the performance requirement aka, primarily for streaming, cd and/or sacd playback, or server playback.  I use a custom built DAC for cd only playback.  It has USB input and can do higher resolution but sounds best for CDs only.  

Look at either a Denafrips Venus ll  or a used Terminator ll.  You won’t be disappointed.

A used Denafrips Terminator II or a used La Scala MKII. 

Don't cut corners with the DAC. It's the core that the rest of the system revolves around.

You can gradually upgrade the rest of the system later, and you will be rewarded as you use better components that will better reveal the DAC true capabilities. 

In the future you will also need a DDC to improve the quality and clocking of the input to the DAC. This brings a big lift to sound. 

Good luck