Help me pick a Dac

Budget 4000

I currently have the latest version of the Bluesound Node and a PS Audio Stellar Gaincell Dac for the digital Frontend. I stream qobuz and flac from a networked drive.
The rest of system is a Backert Lab Rhumba 1.3 , Schiit aiger monos and Zu soul 6 speakers. Also have a Nottingham horizon turntable, Hana cart and Lehman Cube phono pre. I think the modest tt sounds more natural and holographic compared to my digital frontend so I think I can do better.
Also I’m pretty isolated as far as audio goes so I’ve only heard my own system and likely will have buy without an audition.





I have carefully listened to 6 DACs in the last 6 weeks in a system set up to do level matched A/B or in one case A/B/C comparisons.  The differences in DACs are generally small so any "upgrade" you make may not provide you with the improvement you are looking for.  Having said that, the Eversolo A8 was equal to or better than some DACs costing 4x as much.  The software is a bit funky but it should meet your streaming needs and if you have a lot of stored music then adding a SSD internal drive is going to provide you with the best quality it is capable of.  I would buy it used for about $1500-1600.  If you buy it new just know that it will need several hundred hours before it achieves its best audio quality.

I can highly recommend Audio Research DAC2 for you. Currently there two units available, one here in Audiogon and the other other at High Performance stereo. I believe unit from High Performance Stereo has new caps installed. 

AR DAC2 is a solid state DAC built around Ultra Analog D20400A DAC chip, one of the best that has come to the market. If you are wondering, some of the top of the line DACs from  Stax , VTL, Manley, Mark Levinson, Sonic Frontier, etc., were designed and built around this particular chip. It is one of the best DACs in addition to Burr Brown PCM63 another best performing DAC chip. Both are 20 bit implementation and multibit DAC chips.

You can get AR DAC2 for $1,300, well under your allocated budget. Keep the rest for software.  

Owned an ARC CD2 years ago and was very familiar with the DAC 2 and 3 which was a tube DAC. I would be really surprised if the old ARC DAC 2 is going to better your current DAC. I own a Bluesound Vault 2 and for the money it’s good. I would explore a better streamer first. If you have a CD player with digital out try that into your DAC and compare to the Node. The CD or Blueray player as transport is likely going to show you the Node is good but you can do better. 

As far as the older Audio Research  CD2 I owned, I sold and went with a Cambridge 851C which is a far better player. I use both the Bluesound and Cambridge into my DAC and the Cambridge is noticeably better. I just picked up a Airlens which I haven’t thrown into my system yet so we’ll see how it does. 

@adg101 AR CD2 is based on Crystal semiconductor CS4329 – 1 bit DAC. This Delat-Sigma chip is no comparison to the UA D20400 and they are universes apart. But I get your point. I think D20400 is so out dated people who owned Stax X1T, ML 30.5, etc., DACs were dumped to the second hand market and gone with the new latest and greatest DACs. There are so many of these DACs now available in the used market, one can buy those under $100 bucks!

But even the new DACs still have to work with the old geezer limited by 44.1kHz sampling rate and 16 bit word length subjected to quantization errors and what not. I get it, they have new clocking mechanisms like accurate for femtoseconds with >120 dB channel separations. I guess it was my bad that I didn't know OP could hear these differences.

@pwerahera Back when I had my CD2 - purchased new, My Dad had the CDT1 and DAC 1. To our ears my CD2 was better, more open where the DAC1 was pleasant but did not have the resolution or bottom end of the newer player.


I used to work part time at a store that carried ARC so I knew those pieces fairly well. We also carried CAL, California Audio Labs, and we all felt the little Alpha DAC more than held up to the ARC DAC’s of the time for a heck of a lot less money. Hate to say it, but back then by far the brand we sold the most for DAC’s was EAD, Enlighten Audio Design. My CD2 was a nice player but compared to the much newer at the time, Cambridge it was a much bigger improvement.


I’ve not listened to the PS Audio Gaincell DAC, but I do own a Direct Stream MK1 and I would bet the Stellar can probably hold its own. I definitely know how the Bluesound sounds, both on its own using the internal DAC and using only as a streamer. I use a Nordost Silver Shadow SPDIF, and a custom power cable so I’m getting pretty good sound out of the Bluesound.


My system is down at the moment as I’m moving things around so I’ll report back on the Airlens I recently picked up which I will be running I2S between the two.


@stu20 I would hope you’re using coax out and not toslink? If you are running toslink, I would make that change first. I’m guessing you probably started running your Node direct before you added in the Gaincell? Would think you heard a noticeable difference there. When I first purchased my Vault I ran it direct to my preamp which was ok, but then went into my Cambridge 851C which has digital in and it was clearly better. Later I had a RME ADI2fs/Teddy Pardo which was a big step up. Power cables make a difference on my Vault so try that too if you haven’t on your Node. As mentioned it will be interesting to hear how the PSA Airlens compares to the Bluesound.


Lastly if you’re running single ended RCA IC’s maybe experiment with balance from your DAC to Preamp. I bet you’re already doing that,  it if not give it a try.