Differences between models of expensive vs inexpensive DACs

For those who have tried many different DACs from very inexpensive to very expensive, do you find that the lower end DACs all sound similar in the same less than optimal way, or is it that the more expensive DACs all sound more similar in the correct way? In other words, are the better DACs starting to converge on the same good sound, or are they actually diverging more in their sonic presentation?  In recent times I've only worked with relatively inexpensive DACs and those all sound the same to me. 


Whether it's a DAC, cable, preamp or whatever you need to have a half decent system to reveal the differences.

That being said some people really can't hear differences between a cheap or expensive DAC.

 are the better DACs starting to converge on the same good sound

Good question. I am curious to hear what people say. 

We certainly would not say, "Are the better cuisines starting to converge on the same good taste?" Excellent foods taste different without converging.

The question raised, for me, is whether that is true of sonics. My guess is "yes" but the degree to which the DAC is a large contributor to those divergent cases of excellence is an open question.

@lordmelton  I assume you have a half way decent system and can hear differences between DACs. Have you ever listened to entry level DACs through your system? If so, do you notice similar issues with them? 

@lordmelton 503 posts

“ … Whether it’s a DAC, cable, preamp or whatever you need to have a half decent system to reveal the differences.

That being said some people really can’t hear differences between a cheap or expensive DAC…”


(A) ) +1 on the prerequisite for a high-end system actually capable of having the advanced audio resolution threshold where differentiation starts and matters.

(B) In my experience, the clear differentiation between DACs starts at about $3K and going north from there. That’s the point where the design and the build quality starts to separate the contenders from the pretenders, with a step-up in audio performance.

for example:

  • Robust linear power supplies and isolation from the signal path.
  • Steel chassis and metalwork. Machined and anodized aluminum dress panel.
  • Dual high-end DAC chipset used in in dual-mono configuration Balanced mode for improved SNR.
  • The output is sent through the high-end unit’s custom discreet and fully balanced Class-A output stage.
  • Most have an upgraded design before the incoming digital signal even gets to the DAC chips. The high-end units remove the embedded timing information from the incoming signal and re-clocks the data against its own proprietary master clock, thus minimizing potential jitter issues.
  • invariably, they have a clean and well thought out layout with high quality parts and construction used throughout.
  • You will expect a large toroidal transformer, connected to robust power reserves and filtration on the main control PCB, that powers a series of individual boards. If it has anHDMI board, it is separate from the dual-input USB board which is separated from the DAC / output-stage board as well.

- here’s a further blurb to read:

Cheap DAC vs Expensive DAC – What’s the Actual Difference?









In general, I would have to say yes high quality DACs are converging on a similar good sound. About 20 years ago this was occurring rapidly between tube and solid state gear (particularly preamps and phonostages) where the issues with both were getting mitigated and the sounds converged.


I had a Berkeley Alpha Reference DAC along with my Audio Research Reference CD9SE DAC/CD player. I was able to route the digital signals through both at the same time and compare them directly with volumes matched by my preamp. These two DACs were so incredibly similar it was amazing… for High Rez files and CD or streamed content. Amazingly similar. After comprehensive comparisons I liked the Audio Research I tiny bit better… it had a slightly more fleshed out mid range. But very seriously good.

I also spent time with a top of the Line Linn DAC. Also, outstanding.

One thing to note is the sound coming from my digital end that it is very much at the same level and character as my really good analog end. That does not mean that every high end system will sound the same since differences in the amp, speakers, and preamp will have a different character depending on the musical objective of the company who makes them. All of my equipment is Audio Research… so, swapping just the DAC is a good test of this component. Had I swapped amps (say to Pass) there would have been a huge difference…


@asctim Yes, I have a decent system but it's not just down to that.

Musical instruments have specific sounds a Gibson is going to sound different to a Fender.

I can tell differences between entry level and very expensive DACs based on sound quality not just on price.

To me I look for realism, does a piano really sound like that?  Does the artist really have that accent?

I think so because I've upgraded from streamer/dac twice.

Started with the Node2i, moved to a Moon 280D and upgraded again to a Moon 390.

The preamp/amp and speakers have a big impact...those have been upgraded as well.

Post removed 

I'd bet that the difference between a Topping DAC and a Border Patrol DAC is clearly audible and quite significant.

Just picked up LAB 12's DAC 1 Reference  and it's really nice.   In a direct A/B with the RME it replaced the difference is not subtle .

Thanks for the responses. It seems like there may be convergence among many designs as they reach the performance limits of the DAC chips they're based on. There may be some outliers going for a specific modification to the sound in the output stage. I'm getting the impression that I'm not hearing differences between dacs because it is a subtle thing compared to things like how a different amp might sound on any given set of speakers. I've definitely heard that effect. Or the same speakers in a different room. I've had situations where I couldn't believe my ears, thought the speakers were broken or something they sounded so different  from one room to the next. 

Years ago in the 1900s I had a Sony ES CD player that I thought had a  flat, lifeless sound to it. Easy on the ears but boring. So I spent $800 for a Theta Cobalt DAC. That was a lot of money for me at the time. The Theta had plenty of oomph to the sound so I was happy with it's added zest. By  the early 2000s I compared the Theta to a cheap CD/DVD player's analog output and to my ears the Cheap DVD player bested it. Since the early 2000s either cheap DACs have gotten better than my ears, or they've gotten better than the rest of my equipment, or both. 

Thanks for the responses. It seems like there may be convergence among many designs as they reach the performance limits of the DAC chips they're based on.

No, there’s much more to a DAC’s ultimate sound than the DAC chip — the power supply and analog output stage just to name two major factors. 

Since the early 2000s either cheap DACs have gotten better than my ears, or they've gotten better than the rest of my equipment, or both. 

Yup, in general they have gotten much better, and there are meaningful differences if your system (and ears) is up to it as others have mentioned.


@soix I agree there’s more to a DAC than just the DAC chip but won’t the chip ultimately be the limiting factor assuming everything else is executed to perfection? I’m of the understanding that the companies who manufacture high end DACs are not capable of making their own chips. Or perhaps there’s a synergy between the characteristics of the chip and characteristics of the rest of the unit that counteract each other's deficiencies, the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

in my travels through several dozens of dacs since 2020, i would say there is definitely more variation in s.q. among lower priced dacs, as each are making cost-driven tradeoffs in the various elements that affect sonic performance and trading them off against features, ultimate retail selling price etc etc

more expensive dacs (good ones $6-7-8-9 grand and up) tend to converge in sound quality i m e - one exception to this is are some well renowned pricey dacs with vacuum tube output stages and rectification... those can sound notably tubey, an overt design choice...

usual caveats and contextual points apply, your system needs to be revealing enough, you need to have a good clean digital in-feed, etc etc...

and yes, as others have said, all aspects of the dac affect the sound, not just the actual d/a conversion mechanism/chip/ladder what have you... search my old posts on the subject, won’t repeat here

@jjss49 That's what I'd expect - the cheaper dacs would be more colored in various ways while the more expensive dacs would be approaching the same ultimate standard. Years ago I saw a comparison of the exact same studio shot made with two brands of lenses at the same spec. One was much more expensive than the other. The shots looked identical until they were viewed side to side, in which case the higher contrast and deeper black of the more expensive lens became evident. It controlled blooming better. It's really hard to notice that when not viewed directly against each other because our eyes adjust contrast.


How you use the DAC chip… how many… power supply etc… determines the sonic output. So, while the DAC chop as limiting factor, it is not… just one of a myriad of factors. Which is why long strings centered on R2R or ESS chips really just detract from the real issue. Even inside a DAC component… it is a system and making it sound correctly, it is a matter of all the components together. 



old post below, fyi - perhaps a useful summary of the topic

jjss49 2,132 posts

09-01-2020 10:44pm

as to what matters in a dac, let’s make this simple, even though it isn’t...

a) the digital (bitstream) input signal needs to be received and timed correctly for d-to-a conversion, so clock circuit and jitter reduction is key, this is done by electrical isolation, reclocking as needed

b) then the actual d to a conversion / filtering needs to happen with low distortion both in freq response and in timing (phase response) - this is done by the internal dac chip/circuit or discrete ladder network, depending on design

c) then the analog output (post conversion) needs to be prepared for output to the receiving device... this is done by internal amplifiers, or transformers, or some other method... very rarely is the output ported straight out of the dac chip (there can be impedance mismatches with preamps/amps/whatever device is to receive the signal to amplify to drive speakers/headphones you listen to)

d) all the above needs to fed clean and strong power so they do what they do without added noise, so internal individualized power supply design and quality (and power supply isolation of the analog from the digital sections) is absolutely key

so when knowledgeable people correctly say, "it isn’t just the dac chip (akm, burr brown, ess sabre, wolfson...) or the ladder chip (philips tda, etc etc) or fpga (custom circuit) that makes a difference, it is the IMPLEMENTATION of it", that means ALL THE ABOVE designed and working in concert to produce good analog sound, as a holistic system

’what goes into a dac to make it good’ class 101 now in recess

hope this helps

I have owned 3 DACs in the 5K range that sounded very different from each other, and also 4 DACs in the 1 K range or below that also sounded different from each other


I have owned 3 DACs in the 5K range that sounded very different from each other, and also 4 DACs in the 1 K range or below that also sounded different from each other

curious... please share which 3 expensive dacs you tried... and what front end fed them their input signal... and if you don't mind, rest of your system, for context

many thanks

Sound is analysed and understood in the field of acoustic and psycho-acoustic...

There exist a definable convergence of what and how can be defined each acoustic concept by listening experiments ....Timbre perception for example...

Then acoustic is not cooking, at some point tastes converge, because they are educated by experiments correlating objective and subjective aspects...It is true in music in general like it is true in sound experience...Preferences are not gross tastes but educated taste....

It is so true that it is the reason why my basic audio system, astoundingly good for me, is not the better systems/room possible at all...And it is the reason why and how i know the limits of my system, which is one of the best possible in the S.Q. ratio price scale, but absolutely not one of the best possible of i look at the virtual system pages here....It is my experience and experiments in acoustic that taught me that not my tastes...

My system is low cost...Optimizing a system in his three working dimensions, electrical, mechanical and acoustical transformed it completely but do not erase the difference between some other electronic design higher qualities construction and my system itself ...

But there exist a minimal acoustic threshold of satisfaction... I am there, and it is the reason why i am not obsessed anymore by any possible improving upgrade, even if i could afford them...

The dac cannot be evaluated for his S.Q. contribution alone, he must be included in the system....Dacs differ a lot like amplifiers and speakers...

They must be electrically, mechanically, and acoustically embedded together in an optimal way to be able to reveal the better acoustic qualities possible  in a specific room...It is not a taste matter but a process of acoustic optimization....

But at the end, with no limit of money, S.Q. converge to an optimal acoustic experience which differ like two Music Hall theater would differ: by acoustic characteristic related to geometry, topology, and acoustic content....

If you place an orchestra in a great hall and replaced it by an audio system in the same Hall but created for this specific  Hall, the results will converge but in these case will always differ, not mainly because of "taste" but because of the irreducible acoustic difference between , lived and play back experience...But even this difference will be suppress to a greater level and replaced by a convergent experience by a future  A.I. control  someday...

Tastes are only the first walk and the starting point in art and in science, education transform our taste in knowledge and modify them in transforming us completely... Children are not grown man.....

My tastes has been transformed in some  educated preferences and also has been modified with time...I remember when i listened Indian music the first time, Bach was more my taste....But now i cannot put Indian music over Bach anymore, Bach is my preference but it is this preference understanding that help me to appreciate Indian music and put it at the same level...It is the discovery of Indian music also that help me to understand Bach better...Preferences are not impediment to listening, "tastes" are....

Between many bad rooms, tastes will decide which one you prefer, but in the acoustic optimizing process of any room your tastes are replaced by preferences ordered by experiments and experience in the mastery of acoustic concepts...



i want to correct my sentence in the post above read it replacing over by under :

But now i cannot put Indian music under Bach anymore

My journey with DACs has taken more than several years now and each step was an improvement in sound quality.

From Bluetooth into a inexpensive amp
Raspberry PI with a Allo Piano DAC and reclocker board
MHDT Orchid with multiple input devices

  • Chromecast Audio
  • Allo DigiOne
  • Dedicated computer USB 

and then tube rolling with the Orchid with the final being a 6922 NOS tube with adapter

I just purchased a PSAudio DirectStream DAC that I'm currently driving with the same USB input that I used for the Orchid.  I no longer believe that the DAC is the bottle neck in my system and I'm ready to look to upgrade other components to equal the DAC's capability.

I upgraded from a Schiit Yiggy to a PS Audio Directstream.

The Yiggy was an excellent DAC, however the Direcstream is significantly better.

In all fairness the Yiggy is 2300.00- The Directstream is 6000.00

I was actually stunned how much better the Directstream is.

I have had a Lumin U-1 mini, D2, A1, and X1.   I can tell you each of these DAC's was a definite step up, especially the X1.  The D2 was so average sounding compared to the X-1.  The level of detail for each DAC was easily heard.

I then decided to go to an all-tube system and now have a Lampizator Pacific.  To be honest there was not a major step on in SQ between the Pacific and the X-1.  However, once I added a Lucas Audio Music Server, the SQ jumped 3-fold.  The advantage of the Pacific is that you can tube roll to change the sound.  That is a major benefit.  I have already ordered the Lampi Horizon and I have done A/B comparisons of the Pacific and Horizon.  Again, the level of detail is just accentuated.  

So IMO there is a major difference in the sound of DAC's as you go up the ladder.