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?


You have received some insightful comments to your question.

My experiences mirror @mikelavigne (i.e., "most dacs are decent"), @czarivey's comments on "voltage output", and @ghdprentice regarding the presence of "distortion and high frequency trash".

Of the better DACs I have owned and/or auditioned for a time in my own system, they all sounded mostly "acceptable" yet there were indeed differences that in my world typically lean toward the perception of either greater resolution or tonal density.  I don't care for what some may characterize as "warmth," as I believe that indicates clouded clarity, probably resulting from distortion.  I want clarity that a high S/N provides, but the absence of tonal density and dynamics/impact are deal-breakers for me.  I do believe you can mostly have both but you may need to settle just a little on one side or the other and, if the DAC sounds good, you will likely forget about those nuances after owning it for a while.  The DACs I like seem to display a rich tonal density and dynamics/power fully across the volume range, i.e., you don't have to chase the volume control to achieve impact and tonal color.  My goals are more about getting the midrange and bass right, but the high frequencies need to sound natural without roughness caused by "distortion and high frequency trash" .  Clearly, the rest of the system needs to be able to keep up.

IME, there are certainly audible differences that you can notice upon first listening to different DACs.  However, in many cases with better DACs, the differences may be subtle so you may need to listen for a while and do some A/B comparisons to pinpoint exactly what the differences are and how they affect your listening enjoyment.

A good friend of mine (and A'goner)  did a dac comparo some time ago.  A Mytec Brooklyn Bridge, a Chord Cutest and a Bryston BDA-3.  The differences were easily discernable particularly on strings and cymbals. The Bryston came out on top as sounding very natural.

Same friend told me about a Wiim dac that was on sale on Amazon $175 because I I was looking for a dac for my garage system.  He calls me the next day and says "Don't even open the box, this thing is a piece of $&%*@!"  So, its on the way back unopened.

Yes, dacs sound different.  I would imagine that once you get to >$10,000 range the differences may come down to preference and not to explicit "better or worse".




Hi Mike,

I realize your playing in a different realm than I am, but I am curious what was better about the Wadax?  To paraphrase Good Fellas...Better, Better How?

Not asking for a detailed answer, just the nickel tour.  Thanks



Your hearing is fine. Darko admits that if there are differences, they are very minor. Any sighted testing is going to almost always produce a difference, as it does with everything. Only blind testing is valid to accurately determine if there is a difference in sound. 

That’s interesting that you ask this @audiodwebe as I did an experiment just the other day.

My system is a high-end system (Vitus amplification, top of the range Boenicke speakers). I have two identical SOtM sms-200 streamers which I connected back to the switch with identical cables. I then connected each with identical USB cables to two different DACs, one costs $1500 and one $25000. I grouped the two SOtMs on Roon so that my chosen music played simultaneously through both DACs. I attached these to two different amp inputs and volume matched the input, so it became possible to flip between them instantly from the remote, in real time.

Before the start I would flip between inputs at rapid speed so that I had no idea which was playing first. I made notes.

The result was that I could not reliably tell which was playing as they both sounded identical. At one point I was convinced the more expensive one one was flowing more naturally and had the a more realistic timbre of instrument. But when I tested myself I could not reliably pick out the more expensive DAC.

My conclusion is to spend your money elsewhere in the system.