Higher End DACs

I am looking for a DAC (potentially streamer&DAC) to be paired in a mcintosh system (c1100/611). Its my first foray into digital streaming and I have no need for a CD player.

I see a lot of love for Esoteric, however, most seems to be around their transports? Are they not as renowned for pure digital streaming and/or standalone DACs? I see DCS (for instance) often referenced for standalone DACs - how does Esoteric compare?
Given the rapid pace of change of both DACs and streamers I’d be hesitant to combine the two, especially at the higher end where budget is less of a constraint. Find the right DAC based on your tastes/system and then add a good streamer. I’d recommend looking at Innuos and Lumin for a streamer among others and then start a hi-res Qobuz subscription for 15 bucks/month. As someone who recently took the plunge, definitely enter the world of streaming asap. It will change your music-listening life dramatically for the better.

As for DACs, as mentioned above things are moving fast so if you haven’t done so I’d recommend reading reviews of the various models that interest you as well as the various DAC technologies (Delta Sigma, R2R, OS vs. NOS, tube vs SS, etc.) and their respective sonic traits to see which ones most do what you’re looking for and go from there.  Best of luck.

Ayre QX-5 /twenty or QX/8  depending on budget deserve consideration.
A little pricey but QX/5 was a game changer for me.

DCS has very well respected DACs  and priced accordingly.
thanks for these thoughts.  I had started to come across streamer brands like Ayre and Innuos.

I guess some additional points/context of where I am coming from and sorting though from a cross forum posting:

In general, it looks like there are 3-4 potential price points that I am looking at (+/- 5k, 10k, 20k, 20-30k). I am fairly comfortable up to the 20k point, assuming meaningful benefit over the lower price points. I suppose if there really was a marked difference in getting a true game changer at 20k+ or so that could be done, as well. I was just going to do a D1100 to fit with the rest of my system...but I am just hesitant about it. Not sure digital is the brands forte, the specs look decidedly less than other brands (even at significantly lower price points), not thrilled with some of the functional implementation (e.g. muting, popping, etc).

I should also add, the higher the price point the more interested I may become in getting a streamer/dac combination - again, unless the SQ benefits just dictate worrying about the streamer separately...in which case, i might be inclined to take a longer acquisition path (ie more expensive standalone DAC, interim streamer solution, upgrade streamer at later point, etc.).

I am not positive at what price points diminishing returns truly kick in, what point the context of my system would dictate not being worth going higher, and/or just given the rapid evolution of the segment it doesn’t make sense to outlay more.

These are some of the current thoughts running through my head (ie system context, meaningful gains in SQ, at least a decent period of time to ward off obsolescence).
Nice kit so far...  You probably owe it to yourself to hear a Chord Dave and the Hugo M scaler...  And have a look at the Lumin U1 or U1 Mini as a streamer...
You should audition a few samples of DACs and streamers to get a handle of the type of sound you favor.  Pick something in the highly detailed, accurate camp, such as the Esoteric, and then something at the other end of the spectrum, like Audio Note DACs (more lush and harmonically dense, but, not as detailed and clear sounding).  Then, you will be better informed by the vastly different opinions that will be presented to you here.
For a single-unit network streaming DAC, I'd recommend looking at the Bryston BDA-3.14 and Lumin units. Which direction between the two would be a question of which sound character best matches your preference.

I also really like Devialet Expert Pro units but those are best used as all-in-one directly connected to your speakers, which doesn't exactly match what you're looking for.
thanks for the thoughts, so far, all.

many of these brands don't have local dealers to me - when you get into this class, are dealers willing to ship units to you for you to listen in the context of your own system?  Curious how else one goes about narrowing the field and/or making a significant purchase decision, given I often see system synergy being a deciding factor for making an informed choice.
Dealer restrictions vary by brand, but in general manufacturers do want to make their product available to as many people as possible, as long as the means of doing so makes sense.

Your best bet would be to reach out to a non-local dealer you can trust, to see if something might be possible. Options may also vary based on the cost or size of the product.

The dealer may also be able to provide you with more specific recommendations based on what you're looking for in terms of functionality and sound quality.
Contact Crescendo Fine Audio for DCS Products, located in Wheatridge,
Some customers doing business are located out of State so do check into
what accommodations may be possible.
Also DCS does offer a Network Bridge as described at darko.audio.
i have a dac at the tip top of the dac food chain, the MSB Select II with mono powerbases. it has amazing performance and price to match.

but if i was wanting to get streaming at the top of the heap i would focus more on getting the tip top server; which is what i have.....the SGM Extreme server. you can match the Extreme with a number of great dacs not as spendy as my MSB and still get really fine streaming performance. i love how Quboz and Tidal sound on my system.

the Extreme is clearly the best performing server, and has excellent support and is very future proof.

not much on Audiogon on this server; but here is a link to a thread on another forum, and a link to the Extreme home page.



it’s awesome and has taken the top level server market by storm.
@mikelavigne thanks for weighing in, here!

so, that is interesting. I was under the impression that if one were to prioritize one component over another (recognizing the ’chain’ dependencies in play) it would be the DAC over the streamer.

But your direct experience suggests otherwise?
DCS Bartok maybe. DAC, streamer, and you can even get a headphone amp add-on. For around $15k you can get an integrated all-in-one system better for less than the sum of its parts.

I wish I could say I own one, but I have listened to the headphone amp out of one at a dealer and I was impressed with the all-around quality of the product.

This review really got me excited: 


I bought a Lumin U1 Mini to tide me over (feeding an RME ADI-2 DAC which also acts as my headphone amp) while I save my pennies for a Bartok.

Mike, I’d also love to hear your thoughts on the OP’s question above.

I’m not disagreeing with @mikelavigne here...however, I started a thread (linked below) regarding the question in the preceding post, and the feedback points to the DAC as being more important. [Note: this is a relative distinction]


I’ve been auditioning a ’higher end’ all in one and unfortunately I will not be able to test it with different server. My gut ’sense’ (with respect to this specific unit) is that the server is less critical (to go all out on) in this application. Hopefully I will be able to test and find out for myself definitively.
Check out Audio Skies website.  Importer/Distributor Michael Vamos in LA has a new line of DACS and re-clocker unit, Ideon Audio, from $3500 to $30k.  They apparently compare with and beat many of the ultra-high end, well known DACs.  Michael is a great guy to boot.
I don't  doubt that the SGM Extreme is a great server streamer but dual Xeon processors and 48 gigs of ram? All you're doing is storing and streaming music not 3D rendering and  VR design and video editing,  isn't this thing a bit of overkill? 
PS--I used to manufacture D/A converters in the 90's.  Stereophile, for some reason, just reprinted Jonathan Scull's 1995 review of my DAC in their November 2019 issue. 

Lampizator vacuum tube dacs make digital sound like real music ,not etched 
bright music like many digital products 
out there . World class Digital, check it out. With satisfaction guaranteed.
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I don't doubt that the SGM Extreme is a great server streamer but dual Xeon processors and 48 gigs of ram? All you're doing is storing and streaming music not 3D rendering and VR design and video editing, isn't this thing a bit of overkill?

high end audio and attaining suspension of dis-belief do require headroom and overkill. that is where ease and naturalness and escape from a digital signature come from.

please go to the thread i posted the link to and start reading. i don't have the techie chops to make the technical points, but every possible question and challenge is posted and responded to about servers in general, and the Extreme in particular.
DCS Bartok is by far the best DAC in your price range. It is the most affordable derivation of the Vivaldi stack. I really suggest you listen to the Rossini, just above at $24k, but that one is magic. The Ayre QX 5 Twenty is really nice at $10k. However, I don't think vocalists really sound human short of DCS. At these levels, you want a vendor who will be around in ten years, so think twice about the touted in forums only brands.
Ufguy - I am in a very similar situation looking to upgrade my DAC / streamer. I haven’t used a CD in probably 3 years and use Tidal HiFi and masters.

in terms of sound, for an all-in-one unit, the Linn Klimax 3 with Katalyst DAC is very good. The DSM version also has volume control and HDMI pass-thru so can also work some A/V scenarios vs just audio. It runs in the low $20s. I auditioned the Linn against dCS Rossini and I felt the Linn beat it (for my taste). I also auditioned the Klimax vs the Linn Akurate, which is next tier down for Linn. It took all of 5 seconds to hear the difference between the Klimax and Akurate (maybe $8-9k). The downside with Linn vs others is likely on formats they support. My understanding (others in forum who are deeper jump in or correct) is that Linn does not support MQA (masters). So, before you pull the trigger, it’s worth doing some diligence on formats and your music choices on the streaming service you choose.

I have been trying to audition the Aurender A30 ($19k), Lumin X1 (13k I think) and MSB Premier with renderer module, which allows it to stream ($19k for the DAC and then add-on pricing for the renderer module).

it is a PAIN to find a dealer that carries all of those lines. MusicDirect is an online option that gives you 60 day money back to try it. They carry Aurender and Lumin

good luck

I’ve been auditioning a ’higher end’ all in one and unfortunately I will not be able to test it with different server. My gut ’sense’ (with respect to this specific unit) is that the server is less critical (to go all out on) in this application. Hopefully I will be able to test and find out for myself definitively.

my viewpoint is the opposite.

the server is a larger roadblock to great streaming sound than the dac.

why? very simple.

line up 10 dacs from $5k to $25k, and try to tell the difference. blindfolded. it’s not very easy.

line up multiple servers.......including the Extreme......whoa......big difference. these days very fine sounding dacs are trivial to come up with.

the Extreme weighs 80 pounds. eighty pounds. why?

heat and noise. it’s just physics. and who is willing to go to that ’Extreme’? only one company.

the best sounding dacs are expensive, and can be crazy expensive. and they do sound better. all things being equal they will sound better. but all things are rarely equal. and the Extreme is a breakthrough product which has been a game changer.
@mtdining "However, I don't think vocalists really sound human short of DCS."

Really? Really, dude? So no digital playback whatsoever makes vocalists sound human other than DCS?

One of the most ridiculous statements I've heard in a long time.
DAC it OUT held last August in Scottsdale, Arizona blind tested 10 DACS.
See review at AZAVCLUB.com
I would completely agree with mike that many dacs today are pretty
good. No mention of the Denafrips Terminator above. Anyone have one?
The Chinese seem to be kicking arse and taking numbers in the
hifi world these days from a value perspective.

I would also recomend looking at the dCS Bartok. I just upgraded to one from the Chord Hugo TT2. We actually were able to do listening tests in my home with my Magico S1MKII. We compared the Chord Dave and mScaler, Bartok, and fully upgraded MSB premire stack. The MSB and Bartok was better to us than the Chord stack by a decent margain. They were more full bodied and did not give up any detail while presenting a larger more realistic soundstage. 

The MSB and Bartok we pretty close together. The MSB had a bit sweeter top end and the imaging was a bit more diffuse ina good way. The MSB also clocked in at over $35k with the network module and the rest of the upgrades. So that should be taken into account. For my money the Bartok is the better value of the three the Dave and mscaler are over $16k. 

Unless you have headphones that aren't hard to drive I would go with the Bartok without the amp. I prefer an external headphone amp with my abyss. 
Extreme. I will not get in the argument about overkill, but

Custom Windows 10 Enterprise LTSC 2019 OS, Roon and Jplay playback software

That's the opposite of future proof. Custom mods of OSs and Roon is a VERY BAD idea. Sooner or later you'll get stuck with unsupported, incompatible SW. Basically you are choosing to depend on a very small developer group opposed to a very large one; a very small user base against a huge one. Bad Idea.
As mentioned above, try Lampizator. They have a range but the Golden Gate 2 might be best for your price point. Often come out on top on DAC shootout forum threads. 
Audio-Gd R7 NOS Ladder DAC. Relatively cheap, use the HDMI I2S input from suitable streamer. Sounds very analogue and very good.
Vacuum tubes in a dac truly add to th3 realism of a bigger soundstage
and image depth especially when having a tube rectifier converting 
the AC to dc in the dac. Lampizator makes world class dacs starting at just under $3k their New Amber 3 which got a 5 star rating in enjoy the music.com to their $26k Flagship Pacicic dac and several inbetween 
depending on Your budget.and will give you 2 weeks to Audition in most cases. When needing a a Digital cable I have tried everything under $1500, the Final Touch Audio digital cable, and interconnects are the best as far as naturalness Ihave heard to date 
the dac cable is retail around $850.
at least check out the information 
you would be glad you did after 1 listen.
For DAC/streamer you must avoid expensive product like dcs and mbs and you should start with well engineered product. For amplifier you can stretch as they may sound deferent compare to dacs.

I would suggest matrix dac/streaming x https://www.matrix-digi.com/en/products/321.html

Or DAC only like Topping D90.
if you can afford dcs just go for it. there are other good brands(mbs, lampizator,chord) especially in that price range but none has the dcs consistent top position in the audiophile world. it’s always been the safest bet for big money dac’s .make sure to use a proper usb cable. since you are new to this sort of sound, ide try a tube dac like the lampi or add a tube buffer like the ifi itube 2 (350$)after the dac, it softens and opens the sound a bit to take the edge off .i’m using all the help i can in that case: ifi isilencer>ifi mercury cable>ipurifier 3 >idac2>itube buffer +6db>schiit loki eq all wired with cardas rca cables. the best digital sound ive heard is mqa through tidal . dsd is also great but i reckon analog oriented people will prefer mqa. you have a mac system and you ask about esoteric and dcs (which makes sense)and someone suggests topping...so yeah you can also use the current topping flagship with it’s generic ess sabre chip ,usb printer cable and smartphone power supply  and play mp3 files if you want to know which sound to avoid. btw does ess stands for extremely sterile and sibilant?
I use Bluesound Node2i for network streamer connected (optical) to the new version of the RME ADI-2 DAC FS. $550 + $1,100. IMO *any* competent network streamer would do. Competent: passing on FLAC bits w/o errors, and having a good user interface. Similarly, you don't need to spend more than 10 bucks on optical or coaxial connection (if they transmit the bits w/o errors). The heart of the system will be the DAC itself. The ADI-2 plays wonderfully for me and I am not sure if it can be beaten by DACs costing more. More important will be your amplifier, speakers, room acoustics. If the amplifier has balanced input: even better -- use it. My CD player has a digital output which I now feed into the RME DAC w/ a coaxial cable. CDs have never sounded better! I mostly listen to Qobuz HiRes, but I have some CDs they don't have.
Its a bit more coin, but the Emm Labs DA2 v2 gets a lot of review accolades for being one of the most analog sounding DACs in the market. 
@mikelavigne Thanks for your responses.

Let me clarify because there is an important distinction to be made and I want to make sure you and others understand my earlier post.

My question is regarding SERVERS. The Taiko Extreme is both Server and Renderer.

My position, is that the RENDERING functionality is the greater differentiator.

Mike, given my clarification, is your position the same or does it change?

It is something I will eventually test, however the current time frame for my ongoing audition will not allow for it. Should I purchase the unit I’m evaluating, I will be able to do so.

Here is a straightforward "definition" provided on the Antipodes website:

"SERVER – The Server organises your music, and displays your library, streaming services and radio stations on the Remote Control’s screen. When told to play a file, the Server pushes the music file to a Renderer.

RENDERER – The Renderer turns the music file into a digital audio signal to send to your DAC."

Here are ’denser’ definitions (of Server and Renderer) from the Absolute Sound:

"Some companies refer to their products as a “server” (or “music server” or “media server”). The term comes from computer science. A server is half of a so-called “client-server architecture.” This architecture partitions tasks between a server and a client, which typically communicate over a network. A server does nothing until it receives a request from a client to perform a service. NAS is a familiar example of a server. It receives requests from other devices on the network to provide the contents of files that it stores. Only a few of the products in Table 2 called servers are actually servers. A network bridge or network player is actually a client. Neither a direct bridge nor a direct player is a server because they do not respond to requests for samples; they simply present a stream of samples to a DAC (either internal or external) and assume that the DAC can digest them.

“Media renderer” is a term from the UPnP AV protocol, which specifies how devices connected to a LAN can cooperate to play a media file stored on one device (a “media server”) on another device (a “media renderer”). Although we are dealing with architectures in which devices are connected directly as well as ones in which they are connected over a network, it might have made sense to extend terminology meant for the network scenario if the terminology were brilliant. Unfortunately, it is not. “Rendering” is a term borrowed from computer graphics, where it refers to the process of generating an image from a model (e.g., a wireframe sketch). The samples that we want to convey to the DAC to produce the desired analog output are not a model of an analog signal; they are a digital representation of the signal. “Media converter” would have been a better description of the device. Note that this defect applies to video as well, so even in the context of UPnP, “renderer” was a bad choice. The term is also very techy, or as Neil Gader said in a recent review [TAS 248], “just a bit too Black Ops creepy.”"


[Note: Mike, are you using your MSB Select II with a rendering module? Taiko as server only or MSB as DAC only? Thanks]

The SGM Extreme  doesn't  even have a DAC for $20K and no DAC I don't  know. I read the thread posted on it and from what I gather he built the thing as overkill. The reasoning is this computer which could run a midsize  company  basically  runs in idle. Streaming music from your library which you're encouraged to move to the server or from Tidal or whatever  streaming services you use doesn't  even cause this machine to use 10% of it's power. The reason given is it cuts down on noise that is inherent in typical computer  systems and I am sure that's  true. Whether noise is actually  a problem in lesser priced solutions I saw no measurements  to back that up just subjective listening tests. I would have to think long and hard before I spent $20K on a massive computer with no DAC and software that will probably  be outdated in 4 or 5 more years. 
1--i have the MSB v2 Renderer module for my Select II, and when i first got it it was marginally superior to the USB. i could quickly switch back and forth and it was close. this was with using the 2015 SGM server as the Roon end point. but understand a renderer is a CPU inside your dac, so it brings with it noise.

2--then i got the new Extreme server, which was a huge step up in performance. and MSB introduced the Pro USB module, which inserted a fiber optic interface between the USB and the Select II. this clearly boosted the performance with USB beyond the Renderer. and removing my ’now idle’ Renderer module from my Select II slightly lowered the noise, since it’s a CPU.

3--then further i upgraded my USB cable to the Gobel Lachorde USB, another step up, and added fibre optic to my LAN which was another step up.

4--i moved my files from a NAS on my LAN to 32 tb of PCIe drives inside the Extreme. GAME OVER.

much more detail is on that very long thread.

the Extreme is not for everyone, and i’m not qualified to answer questions in detail about this stuff. but there is no doubt that the Extreme is better than other servers by a wider margin than the difference in dacs in the middle range of price. so get a decent dac and an Extreme instead on doing the dac upgrade merry-go-round. it’s a streaming world out there and servers do the heavy lifting in it. your dac can only be as good as what it's fed. the server performance is a limitation to that. 
One brand that you can definitely audition at home without any risk is PS Audio.  At the very least would be worth getting their stuff to pit against the opposition.
Servers do heavy lifting in heavy lifting environments, streaming music files is not one of them unless you're  Tidal or Qobuz. You’re better off keeping the server side completely away from the audio components connecting to a good streamer DAC like some mentioned here. Good DAC’s today filter noise and distortion and reclock the stream from the internal embedded clock as long as you’re not feeding it a garbage signal, use a decent NAS or server on a good strong network there’s no need to go bonkers price wise with the server side.
Servers do heavy lifting in heavy lifting environments, streaming music files is not one of them unless you're Tidal or Qobuz. You’re better off keeping the server side completely away from the audio components connecting to a good streamer DAC like some mentioned here. Good DAC’s today filter noise and distortion and reclock the stream from the internal embedded clock as long as you’re not feeding it a garbage signal, use a decent NAS or server on a good strong network there’s no need to go bonkers price wise with the server side.

your thinking is about 3 years behind the current bleeding edge.

which is perfectly fine if you are happy. if you are wanting the best possible digital music reproduction you have some work to do.
@mikelavigne, I do not understand your above post.  As you posted, if "your thinking is about 3 years behind the current bleeding edge.", what are you recommending?    Please update the post with more details.  Thanks..
The OP was asking about DAC's and streamers not an over built boat anchor computer running some modified windows OS. Anyone who thinks tossing a server computer in their audio rack is about 5 years behind stick the thing in another room. The only thing I can find on this thing is a bunch of fan boys gushing over how neat it looks inside and sounds better than anything at any price without any sort of objective testing or measurements and a few units have been sold in a poor country so it must be good. I am sure this is probably  one of the best, quietest servers out there, it should be it's  built  like you're  using it to launch a rocket to Mars. If the OP wants a 100 lbs boat anchor than I say go for it if he wants an actual streamer and DAC I would look elsewhere.  There have been some pretty good possibilities mentioned so far. 
Post removed 
I don’t have $30k to blow on the Extreme, but my curiosity was piqued when romaz jumped on the Extreme bandwagon saying that it’s better than anything he could possibly build. Now I want to hear it to see what it’s all about. 
After comparing side by side the different Innuos models, and comparing it to my ultrarendu and optical rendu, I suspect the server/renderer have more impact on sound signature than the DAC. 
I would buy one that can completely unfold MQA so you can take advantage of TIDAL.  I can hear the difference and sold a brand new DAC that was attached to my Bluesound Node 2i in order to hear the complete unfold of MQA.  The Bluesound sounded better by itself.  Kind of like the Emperors New Cloths,  If you don't think you can hear a difference after spending the extra money on a DAC, you think there must be something wrong with you.  You also need to not listen to dealers who tell you they can't hear a difference when hearing MQA.  They just want to sell something expensive to add to their sale. 
As one of the Taiko / Sound Galleries group that fathered, assisted in development of the boat anchor, I would like to give you my takeaways about Music Servers, digital equipment and obsolescence.

The Extreme is the 3rd Generation product, and the result of a lot of things we have learnt over the past 4 years.

Take away 1 - if you are happy to stick to foobar then you can get pretty good sound with a small and low power computer and operating it from the command line prompt.  We think Roon is the best Music Discovery software out there with excellent integration of Qobuz streaming and Tidal streaming.  Roon is a very busy piece of software that needs a 64 bit OS for it to run well.  The best sounding OS for roon is a carefully custom built and optimized build of Windows LTSC.  The kernal of Win LTSC is a very audible step up from the best audio tweaked Linux versions we have tested.

Take away 2 - To get the best sound out of a roon based Music Server, you need to have sufficient cores to have the key processes run on separate cores.  As in the good old MS DOS days, low latency sounds better, we find that is still true today, just achieving low latency is a lot more complicated than it was back then

Take away 3 - Digital gear have a lot of RF emissions which are basically impossible to stop.  These emissions have to be managed, and when effective hardware and software solutions are implemented you can hear the differences quite clearly.

Bughead Emporor is a leading example of how complex software routines can voice the sound.  This easily detectable effect is delivered by managing / shaping the RF activity generated by the software

Take away 4 - Digital gear is very vibration sensitive.  All crystal clocks are vibration sensitive, and clocks are also power supply sensitive.

Take away 5 - The quality and stability of the power supply is a key driver in the quality of the sound the system can deliver.  Both Inuos and Taiko use lots of Mundorf caps, because they sound better and well worth the extra cost.  There is a mechanism by which the mechanical properties and the electrochemistry of Mundorf caps affects the sound being by the DAC, even though just 0's and 1's are being delivered.

The Extreme takes RF management and vibration control to the extreme.  Everything cost reasonable that makes and audible difference has been implemented.  12 sticks of RAM, that utilizes the all of the memory bus channels, and you can hear the difference.  Custom ordered industrial RAM, we can hear the difference too

Take away 6 - Obsolescence of software ? Roon is getting better sounding with each update, we have no reason to expect that trend not to continue.  Windows LTSC has a 10 year support life from Microsoft.  The other choices are Linux with its dedicated volunteers and Mac OS which is orphaning 3rd party software with each update.

Obsolescence of hardware. The Xeon processors and the server mobo also have 10 year service lives

The most expensive part of the Extreme is the chassis, and Taiko is not going to orphan that. It has 6,000 holes for ventilation and RF emission control.  We can expect the Chassis to continue to do a great job for many years to come on these two fronts.

When an audiophile transitions from listening to 90 percent vinyl, to listening to 90 pct digital delivered by the Extreme, the boat anchor is doing something musically satisfying ;-)
I know roon needs a lot to run but I don't  think  it needs 40 threads and 48 gigs of ecc. I transitioned  from vinyl 20 years ago. Once again the OP is looking for a DAC and streamer not a 100lb block over built to the point of absurdity to do the job of delivering music.