How easily can you distinguish between different DACs?

When I read reviews or watch them on YouTube the reviewers talk about the vast differences between various DACs.  I haven't compared too many, but found the differences pretty subtle, at best.

Which got me into thinking:  Is my hearing ability really that bad?

Do you notice the differences as easily as folks make out?


Learning the nuances of sound can be a lifetime endeavor. To jumpstart it is helpful to listen to vastly different sounding systems and acoustic instruments and concerts. The former to expose you to differences, the latter to calibrate you to what the real thing sounds like. Personally my favorite is the symphony. I’ve had season tickets to the symphony for ten years. Often I will listen to the ambience… the sound of the venue before music, then the individual instruments, the attack when a bow hits the strings. Then in smaller venues the pitch and tonal balance of a sax for instance. Pianoes are great.


Then to other systems. Go to high end stores and ask to audition some of their systems. Be honest in that you are interested in high end audio and are trying to get your feet on the ground about the sound that appeals to you. Go when it is not likely other folks will be there. Maybe take Wednesday off and go in. Maybe call in advance. Find a dealer (person) you really click with. They will be ecstatic to be your guide. This is the kind of person and relationship you will want to build. Good high end dealers know that building a relationship now will result in sales later. Sometimes a lot later. I have had relationships with dealers for 20 years.


Oh yes, one other thing. Try and listen to the music… not the component. It is important to listen quickly when you swap to  detect major differences… but you want to let your subconscious soak up the sound… real important differences in musicality come out this way.


Also, if you are going to compare DACs… start by comparing vastly different priced ones… not similar. Try auditioning a $1K and $20K DAC. You want the differences to really stand out so you can become familiar with the kinds of things that are different.

Jusy my observations and your I’m sure YMMV.

Only the listener can determine if the difference they hear is huge or not - it’s all in their perspective. You can only go by your ears tell you and really, nothing else matters.

Reviewers on the internet are going for clicks. Kinda hard to get them if all they say is "Meh, I can tell a little bit of difference but not much"

I believe many people embellish their findings to insure they stay with the in-crowd. Especially if a lot of coin has been dropped to get their DAC - No one wants to look like a fool.

There are many DACs that can be grouped together as sounding very much the same. There ARE DACs that definitely stand out!

Listener’s seems to love arguing (discussing?) while comparing apple to oranges to peaches to pears. Everything is just so system dependent when you’re dealing with audio.

The higher sound quality of your system, the more you’ll be able to hear the difference in DACs

I’ve improved my system over the years and in doing so I’m better able to discern differences in components. Many time the improvements are small but noticeable, other times it hits you like a frying pan in the face.



It is quite easy to discern the differences between DAC's. Even moderate priced DAC by Schiit easily show how moving up the product line affects sound quality.

It would be easiest if you had the DAC's side by side, but once you have listened to one DAC for a while, you will note the differences easily. All this is subject to how resolving your system is. 


I find it hard to tell the difference between DACs. I took this test and couldn't tell between a 90dB SINAD and 120dB. That was a super cheap trashy one vs a SOTA performing one. Some DACs add coloring of their own, and I don't think it should do that. I prefer my color to come from my choice of speaker.

So, I got a cheap DAC but it has killer features such as balanced outputs and DSD Direct bypass. Transparent beyond audibility with a 117dB SINAD. I have no complaints with the thing and DSD Direct mode sounds wondrous. So much juicy detail yet smooth and warm, this is the sound of analogue master tape. My digital side has never sounded this good, sounds like my turntable minus surface noise, achieved at like 1/30th the budget.