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?


I definitely believe you can hear the difference in DACs.  In a perfect world, absolute conversion is a goal.  However, some of these DACs sound to "clinical" which is why I believe many DAC makers do "color" their units a bit.  For instance, I have always been a big Chord fan as to me they sound "warm".    imho

Hello lemonhaze.  When you find the right DAC, you will know.  I wish you success.  With a USB capable DAC and a good streamer, I find Roon and Qobuz opened up a universe of music for me that keeps me captivated almost daily.  With some effort- due to the technology not yet being mature, you can get streaming to a level that matches CD quality and Hi Res taking it even a step further.  And so I am happy to share my set up with you.  Many roads lead to hifi so I don't stand on my way being the best way.  It is simply one way.

The springs under my amp stands are from McMaster Carr.  They are 48 lb/in springs.  The weight of the amps are about 110 lbs each if memory serves, and then the stands add some additional weight.  It is a straight forward calculation as well as measurable to find the natural frequency of the amp, stand and spring combo which is 3.2 Hz in this case.  That keeps the amps isolated from the floor.  The only thing the amp stands are going to respond to is an earthquake.  Lucky for me I live on sand in SE Georgia- so not much chance of an earthquake here.  You also probably saw that my DAC, Transport and preamps are on springs for isolation.  It is very effective.  When I first added the springs, the detail and resolution was overwhelming.  It distracted me from the music.  I wanted to take the springs out but once the genie is out of the bottle...  Fortunately, I grew accustomed to the extra detail and learned to tune it out.  Still, I can't listen to my system in total darkness.  Just too creepy hearing sounds of people moving around in the room or little squeaks and bumps that are buried deep in recordings.

Now for the digital.  Not quite three years ago I bought the Ayon CD-TII and Stealth Xs DAC.  That replaced the ARC CD Player.  The Transport does upsampling to DSD and has an I2S port out as well as another option of 3 BNCs out (CLK, DSDL, DSDR)  The Avon DAC has the complementary inputs.  This set-up revealed the full potential of redbook CD for me.  I had no idea all of the detail and resolution that was there all along in CDs.  I was captivated with my CDs for a good while.  About 9 months later I bought the RS9 music server.  I also added the Keces power supply to the music server for improved sound.  At that point streaming sounded good but I could hear a difference vs CD or FLAC files.  Changed USB cables and FLAC now matched CDs- at least to my ears.  But I also had my two sons listen and they agreed with me.

I heard a fantastic stereo system some years ago in Asheville, NC.  He was using an Ayon SACD player.  That stuck in my mind and that's why I went that route.  I have not regretted it at all.  I just recently upgraded from the Stealth to Ayon's newest top end DAC, the Kronos.  Love it.  The Kronos takes the sound of the Stealth to another level.  Smoother highs and stronger bass with more clarity.  The bass notes have more texture and detail.  As in it is easy to tell that the lowest notes are either from a bass violin, bass guitar, drum, etc.  In addition, the Stealth DAC responded well to a better power cord, even with the AQ Niagara power conditioner.  USB cables also have a sound.  So several small steps combined with the hardware got me to a very satisfying sound.  

From there I did some work to improve the sound of streaming.  That got me to where I am today- using silver plated Ethernet Cables, a LHY SW-8 ethernet switch and my own Modem with low noise power supplies on the modem and router.  At this point I can stream hi res or play downloaded hi res files and I am not able to tell the difference.  CD, FLAC files of my CDs or streaming 44.1/16 all sound great.  Qobuz is very good.  The best sounding files I think, are 96/24 although 48/24 sounds very good too. 

Hi Tony,

Thanks for the considerate and detailed reply.

I have sent you a message.

There's as much difference between different DACs as between different amplifiers, preamplifiers... a DAC is not just a chip. The elements around it (input chips, clock, power supply, and last but not least analogue output stage) all have an impact on the sound.

If you don't hear differences between two DACs, it may be that 1) those two DACs have very similar construction and components or 2) your system isn't resolving or 3) you're deaf.