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 use a particular recording to compare components in my system: She's the One from Born to Run.

Once you get to know a particular recording - it's good areas and it's bad areas - it is easier to compare components for differences in sound.

I use this recording because it has particular good qualities and bad qualities and I know where they are, and I know how I would like them to sound.

If I were to try to compare DACS using random recordings I did not know well, I think it would be very difficult.

from tvrgeek: Maybe folks should look these terms up in the dictionary.  Differences YES. Important enough to spend money on? Personal but probably.

This I challenge: Even current chip based entry level the differences are barely discernable. About the same level or less than different filters. If one left the room and "reset" their ears for an hour, could you come back in and identify which was which with certainty?  I doubt it. 

from akg_ca: For you or anyone else  to capriciously assert we cannot differentiate the audio differences between the dacs -much less consistently- is frankly preposterous and a. grossly flawed assumption …full stop.


I like above statements. They are so diametrically oposed that the use of both alongside each other is sensical. Why? Because I believe that a lot of topics regarding audio are highly individual (varied hearing, different starting positions like room acoustics and different components) One might 'hear' something (differences) others do not. Others might think to 'hear' something others do not.

Fine for me, whatever it is. I respect the opinion of both sides as long as I cannot prove the opposite. What is never going to happen. Of course, if everybody would think in the same manner like me, there would not be a lot of things going on in this forum as there would be mutual consent.

Could be boring, wouldn't it.




Thanks, duckworp, for sharing your testing results.  

I think most audio gear is so good nowadays that the "diminishing returns" thing kicks in real hard sometimes.

Your post reminds me of a time years back where I bought a new pair of speakers (JMR Trente) and wanted to burn them in for a while.  My main rig at the time was all tubed and was in the $20-$30k range back in early 2000's.  And not wanting to waste tube life I decided to pull out an old, 1970s Pioneer integrated for the burn in purpose.

The speaker cables I used was one of the thinner gauge copper wires bought at radioshack.  And this thing was a mess!  All wadded up making it hard to find the ends.  When I finally found them and hooked up the speakers, it looked like a ball of yarn a few cats had a heyday with.

I had a Marantz 63SE CDP.  I put a disc in to let the speakers break in.  And since I was already there, thought I'd read an audio magazine and listen to the music as a background.

But to my astonishment, the music sounded pretty darn good!  A sub $500 rig was holding its own.

For shitz and giggles I put on a few test tracks being confident the rig would not be able to pull out all the nuances from the tracks that my main rig could.  After a few tracks I stopped, disappointed all that extra money bought so little in return.

At that time I told myself it's ok because I like the audio toys and that had I actually done a long term comparison, I would have noticed the differences right away.

But I didn't do the long term comparison just in case!  ;-)

in an A/B test with a switch, anyone can easily spot the difference between DACs.  When listening to them at different times and further removed, this can be more challenging and there are specific things I look for.  Width of the soundstage.  Instrument separation.  Brightness on certain songs.  Sibilance on certain songs that help you identify the differences.  Best thing to do is take detailed notes of what you hear when listening to different units.  It changes how you evaluate gear.  

+1, @verdantaudio on how to evaluate gear. 

IMHO @duckworp comparison between $1500 and $25000 DAC’s is deeply flawed. How does one expect to hear differences between the two DAC’s with a sub $500 streamer. IME, the source (streamer) is just as important as DAC in the signal chain. One wouldn’t install a $12K streamer ahead of $1500 DAC and vice versa. Both of these components are equally important if you truly want to exploit a high resolution DAC or Streamer. It’s a balancing act, once you achieve this balance; you are in for a royal treat. 

No matter what streamer used, assuming it is of good quality,  which can easily happen for just a few hundred dollars these days , absolutely comparing a common dac to an Uber expensive dac is absolutely a valid thing to do.   If you don’t hear a bigger better difference between a super expensive dac and a more common one there is no reason to buy the way more expensive product that is a bad value.   Once you have a good DAC, if you want to play with streamer sources then more power to you.   There are many ways different streamers might sound different.  With digital and DSP anything is possible.  


I believe you missed my point…you can buy a streamer / DAC for few hundred dollars nowadays and be completely happy with the result. The point I was trying to make, if you are going to go through the trouble of comparing two DAC at extreme ends (atleast in dollar value), use a better streamer to exploit its full potential. A $500 streamer is a definite bottle neck for a $25K DAC. Now if you believe spending beyond $500 on a streamer is waste of money then by all means one can conclude a $25K DAC is a bad value cause you never going to hear differences that can justify spending $25K especially when paired with a $500 streamer or if your entire system is around $30K…It’s all relative! 

Hmm well I would likely not recommend a $500 streamer and a $25000 DAC.

Having said that what evidence is there that spending more necessarily means better sound? You would hope that would be the case but price alone assures nothing.

Has anyone attempted to use say a ~ $500 Cambridge mxn10 with various dacs at a wide range of costs and compared to other more expensive streamers. I have not but I do have that Cambridge and I would not rule it out without evidence to the contrary.

I have seen at least one published case where a $10k dac was objectively measured to perform worse than many DACs for 1/10th the cost.  Ouch!

So price alone assures not much. But I agree it makes no sense financially to even think about dropping $25k on any one component then cheap out on others. That’s not to say it is assured that the total investment in both might not outperform many other pairings.

@lalitk  +3

It's like buying a Ferrari, then putting regular gasoline and the cheapest set of tires on it. Then you complain that it didn't really corner well on the track, and therefore, there's no difference between it and a Corolla.

The assumption is it’s like buying a Ferrari. But it’s a DAC not a car. It may or may not in fact be like a Ferrari DAC. The devil is always in the details. Generalized analogies based solely on price are theoretical and not necessarily backed up by facts. Just saying. A $25k DAC may or may not outperform the rest significantly.

I heard a pricey and well regarded DCS player and DAC sound exquisite on an overall $100k plus system (VAC and Magicos) once. This was a few years back when DAC technology overall was not as mature as these days so I can cite that as a supporting example of a pricey DAC that I would say clearly earned its price and reputation in the day, but it means absolutely nothing when other gear is substituted merely based on price. Especially these days when dac and streaming technology overall has matured greatly compared to just a few years back.

How does my pretty new $2500 4K TV deliver such a great picture compared to the almost 20 year old plasma set it replaced that I got a good deal on back then for ~$1800? It’s because the digital streaming technology is that much better now. There are even better pictures available for a premium but the differences are very marginal. Same true for digital audio technology these days. It’s harder than ever for premium cost gear to earn its keep because the technology on most merely good quality products is so much higher to start with. So be careful whenever making decisions based solely on cost. It may or may not pan out. Smart buyers should be able to outperform most for less. Or not. I will not make any absolute claims. The devil is always in the details


@mapman I used the analogy to make a point. Obviously it's silly to think that a DAC is the same thing as a car. The analogy was never meant to be taken literally :)

Secondly, I don't think anyone here is advising to make a decision purely on the basis of price or brand name alone. The point is that for higher end gear to shine, the rest of your chain has to be good enough to let the gear show what it's capable of, and there must be synergy amongst the components.

BTW, I agree with you about plasma TV. My old Panasonic plasma (over 15 years old now) can still hold its own against newer LED TVs. The black background (resulting in better contrast) provided by my plasma tv is still superior.


With hifi systems I agree a system is only as good as its least performing component, whatever that is and whatever it’s cost may be. 

@mapman +1. High prices guarantee nothing except perhaps a very high level of salesmanship.  I wish things were that simple, then we can all just save up for a dcs or MSB and everyone else can just go home. But that's simply not the case. That's the great thing about DACs, you don't need to spend a lot for audible transparency these days. And measurements can tell the story with these mathematical machines and keep high end sharks in check.

It's a great time to be a frugal audiophile, getting nice components on the cheap, which wasn't possible just a few short years ago. My one indulgence is a posh turntable because hey, it looks awesome. I know what good analogue sounds like and if you put aside your prejudices, a cheap DAC can take you there.

Agreed Drew.  The one in my Samsung phone is surprisingly good!

I can hear heads exploding.

Direct wired into the preamp playing Spotify it sounds great. As good or better than any of 5 different lower end dacs up to 600$ that I’ve tried. Including SMSL and Toppings and the onboard dacs of a Technics DVD-A and an Onkyo 7030.

They do sound different though. For instance the Onkyo is warm and a little dull, and I have a cheapo Fosi Audio DAC-05 that’s open and brighter. The Wiim Mini is indeed bad but through the DAC-05 it sounds good.

I am curious about the sound of higher end ones up to maybe $1500. Can’t see spending more than that as I am unconvinced that any digital will sound as good as my vinyl. But Spotify is a wonderful thing for discovery and I tend to listen to new music and then get bored of it all and move on. My old records don’t interest me much anymore. Spotify fills that need.

Yes DACs sound different. I think the resolution of the speakers is important. My Maggie LRS are very transparent and present.


If preamps sound different, why would DACs not sound different? Arguably, there are more factors influencing the sound of a DAC than a preamp.

I don't hear vast differences between modern dacs, except for the ones that won't reliably lock on to my digital source. I'm very sensitive to the music randomly cutting out. 



Speaking of Corolla Ferrari comparisons, I think what has to be kept in mind is that when you take a cheap and expensive dac "out on the track" you find out that the Corolla dac with it's cheap tires and regular gas is keeping up with the fully decked out Ferrari dac with it's premium fuel and tires just fine. So the difference would be that the cornering somehow just feels better in the Ferrari and so is a more enjoyable experience that justifies the cost. On the test bench, these cheap dacs are performing brilliantly.


yup, you got the answer - try in own audio chain to see if you “subjectively” like the change. Audio chains, power, rooms, and especially preferences are so unique that it’s best to try in your own audio chain.

DACs use similar standardized chip sets. So the differences will be in the analog conversion, which in theory is also a standardized algorithm. However, some manufacturers don't follow the standardization and do their own inaccurate conversions. According to the book Schitt Happened, Schitt used to program their analog conversion by ear. In effect, turning their DAC into an immutable tone control, which IMO is definitely not the purpose of a DAC.

Having been a programmer who has written conversions in other areas, I understand that there isn't anything magic about it. It's either as accurate as the standardized algorithm allows it to be or it's inaccurate. Which means you shouldn't hear a difference between properly programmed DACs.

True, looking at this as software. But ever subcomponents… resistor, capacitor, and turn on the circuit board… the distance between the power supply and all the other subcomponents, the resistance to vibration from the outside world makes a difference in the sound. So, any given chip set can sound very different given the circuitry and environment they are dropped into.


+1, @ghdprentice on implementation. I’ve heard some of the perfectly measured DAC’s and they choke the life out of music. 

It is necessary to have the good audio gear to begin to hear differences in DACs easily. Common audio gear like Denon, Pioneer, etc do not have the resolution to bring out the differences that we can hear.

If music is background then common audio gear is sufficient for enjoyment of music and most DACs produce decent enough sound.

But if you are really into music and listen to music as a main activity (not doing anything else and focused on listening to music) then it is worth it to seek out better audio gear and better DACs.

@mapman - the A/B test I did was not from two vanilla $500 streamers.  The actual SOtM streamers were both SMS-200 neo SE ($1000) both connected to a Sean Jacobs DC3 dual-regulated PS ($2000). Both streamers connected to an SOtM sCLK-0CX10 ($4000) (it has 4 outputs) itself powered by a Farad Super3 PS ($700). So, if using $ as a measure of quality each streamer cost around $8000.  This is a good piece of streaming kit. It should be capable of discerning differences between an expensive and cheap DAC, if they exist. 

Well this appears to be going well? Is the OP satisfied yet? 
For me it’s easy…







Timbre and tonality.



Judgement,  mine or yours?


Logistical challenges








Nah there’s more

Lots more, but hopefully, you get the idea.


Reminds me of a story. My wife was rummaging around and found a bottle of wine. Opened it and I suppose enjoyed it. I noticed it on the counter and let her know this was a grand reserve 20 year old Rioja. 50 bucks a bottle. After that she just went on and on about how delicious it was and how much she enjoyed it.  I don’t deny it was good but if she didn’t know would it have been all that memorable? Having heard lots of systems, most sound mediocre to me.  If one change or another makes it sound less mediocre, so what? I think the room, the speaker placement changes everything, so why leave that in place and mess with one part?

I have found that DAC useage is just another overkill like cables and wires. It’s about quenching your listener satisfaction and it’s about self-control. Can you be satisfied? And… save your money.

It’s about quenching your listener satisfaction and it’s about self-control you only live once. 

Compair them on a very revealing system.  In  some systems, you may not notice and significant differences.  

Compair them on a very revealing system.  In  some systems, you may not notice and significant differences.  

So the difference would be that the cornering somehow just feels better in the Ferrari and so is a more enjoyable experience that justifies the cost.

Really? You think that's the only thing setting a Ferrari and Corolla apart? I don't have the means to own a Ferrari but I have driven one on a track every time I get a chance to go to Vegas. The acceleration, the way the steering wheel communicates the road to the driver, the way it sounds when gathering speed, the braking ability, and the overall exhilarating feeling you get every time you get behind the wheel ... there's nothing even remotely comparable to a Corolla.  All these are factors (or nuances) that collectively contribute to making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The same holds true for higher end DACs as well. You simply cannot isolate a few measurements or one or two aspects of performance. You have to evaluate them as a complete package.

Have you had your hearing checked by an audiologist.  I know I have hearing loss and have an appointment next week.  Still I can readily hear differenced in DACs.

I have found the more I invest in AC and electrical noise control the easier it is to hear the DAC's sound.  The first thing I notice is the fullness and clarity of the low end.  After that I hear the separation of notes and instruments.  And then timbre and tone.

I have settled on a balanced DAC with a good tube DHT output stage.  I am looking for a relaxing sound.  Along the way I have learned to recognize the fatiguing digital characteristics of DACs with jitter issues.

I will say 5 years ago I could hear differences in DACs but maybe couldn't readily tell which I preferred.  I would listen to one DAC for a few weeks then change to another for a few weeks.  Eventually after getting over chasing the shiny stuff like low end clarity or soundstage or midrange presence and holography I would find I just liked listening to one DAC over the other because it was more relaxing/engaging.

As I moved up the DAC ladder price-wise I got more of the shiny stuff and more engagement at the same time.  However,  I am not sure I would appreciate a lot of the differences without the level of AC noise control conditioning I have.

I have found with each addition of noise control the performance of my system improves readily and changes in gear becomes easier to hear.

I find it very easy to tell the difference between DACs and I am not some golden ear guy. But as you read in several replies, some can and some cannot tell the difference. Would save me a lot of money if I couldn’t, but I can. 

Post removed 

Been listening to a Qutest compared to my other generic entry DACs for a week now.  In very focused listening for a difference, yes, there is a tiny bit of detail in the Chord.    Detail over maybe not quite as smooth vocal sibilance or trumpet glare? $1600 worth?  There by remains the questions. 

Real test on how significant: If I walked out of the room and a DAC was swapped, or not, when I came back in could I tell which was which?  No.  Even when I am just sitting my chair listening for the sake of enjoying music and not digging for differences, I don't hear a difference. Those differences are ONLY on a very few of my CD's and only in fairly quick repeating of a short segment of music.  Older DTD, some newer ones.  That extra information is flat not there on say, Rubber Soul. Probably 90% of my music was recorded pre 1980. Quite a bit earlier.  If you were streaming DSD or some newly high end mastered high bitrate, there may be more of a difference.  Some folks seem to like very bright speakers, not me, so maybe there lies more differences.  So it depends. 

Funny some recordings.  I have a Stern/Ma recording and the cello moves around with the note.  But if you just sit back to enjoy the music, it sounds fine.  Message is, after I pick the end game, I am not going listening for flaws or differences, just listen to the music. 

The technology behind DAC is way more advanced than it was 10 years ago. You can get a DAC with a 120 dB signal to noise ratio no larger than a thumb drive. It is at the point were all dacs operating at the same rates do exactly the same thing, accurately crunch number. Any sonic difference is in the analog section and all sorts of Tomfoolery can be done there to produce a "house" sound. Personally, I do not want the house sound. I want THE sound without any pontification. 

@mijostyn  so you just choose the DAC that has the output stage built on the chip because it measures great, would you buy a preamp that uses an opamp output stage because it measures better than a discreet output stage?

One time at Axpona , I am listening to all Denafrips DAc from Ares to Terminator. As you move up sound and performance changed. They all sound good. In that set up the Ares sound bigger, but the Terminator sounds is more sophisticated. I end up buying the Ares. I still have it.

Bigkidz agree if can’t hear the difference stick on what you have, until your listening skills improve.Thats what I did by the way.

despite my having tried so so many dacs in the last few years, i would say that a decent dac in the $1000-2500 range will quite fully please most folks here with good systems in, say, the $5,000-$25,000 range... yes there are a few bad ones out there (sonically) but most sound quite good and the differences in sound between the good ones can be rather subtle to most... please see my original thread for further comments on specific dacs

i pursued the vast dac trials mostly out of interest (and sheer boredom during the covid shut-in period), and a desire for learning just what the span of sonic performance is among dacs.... in the last few months i have done no new dac trials, and i have left a gustard r26 and a chord qutest plugged in, with my high dollar dacs put aside (msb, weiss etc)... i am just listening to music, not the gear, and i am very very happy enjoying ith either the chord or the r26

i would say among good dacs, the feature set and form factor should drive the choice, once you have decided if you want a dac that is sonically in the sharper vs smoother school of presentation...


The best way to determine the ability of the digital portion of a DAC is the signal to noise ratio. I would go with whatever DAC had the most neutral analog section be it discreet or an op amp. There are some pretty wild chips out there today and the only thing discreet will do for sure is cost you more. 

Because I require more DAC channels than most two channel people I go for digital preamps that have the DACs built in. I require 6 Dac channels. The unit that I will have shortly has 8 DAC channels built in along with room and speaker control, bass management and high resolution digital EQ. I digitize my phono stage.  

I can sympathize with this question, as well as the various responses.  Because I was unable to distinguish in double-blind listening over a couple of weeks a Weiss 502 from the DA2 built into my C2700, I sent the Weiss back (shout out to The Music Room for being super easy to work with) and instead went back to the source for improvement, adding an Aurender N200 to my system (replacing my PC running Roon as digital streamer/server).  I believe this will allow easier distinguishing of DAC quality, as the rest of my system would be judged as "reasonable" by most (MC462, C2700, B&W 802D4).

One more thing - I think double-blind tests are interesting and certainly good data to have as you make a judgement about how new gear sounds (or doesn't) to YOU (even you capricious folks out there LOL) - but long-term listening in a relaxed (not analytical) state is the real tell for me.  After all, listening in that state is where most of us want to experience magic.


Congratulations and good call on improving the source by switching to N200. Now if you bring a high quality DAC, you should be able to appreciate the nuances (or not) over your integrated DA2. I also like your approach of long term listening before forming any conclusions.

I believe the main issue with DAC costing 2x, 3x or 4x times is not whether they sound better or not. It’s the added cost that doesn’t quite commensurate with the perceivable differences in SQ. Most folks are quite content with a $1500 DAC that gets them close to 80-85% performance of a DAC’s costing, say $5K.

Not sure if the hearing test question was directed at me, but in my case I did have one done a few months back.  I don't hear past 13k or so, I think.  It might have been even lower.

mhwilliford, have you noticed differences in sound after going to an Aurender?  

I didn't realize what was used as a server had an impact on the sound.

@ invalid, 

I offer you should rethink your chip vs discrete preamp blanket bias. It was very true back in the days of TLO72's.  By the time of the NE5558 ( POOGE, biased into class A) it got a lot fuzzier. With modern OPA series chips, it comes down to execution.  Just picking OP-Amp vs. discrete is no guarantee the discrete was well executed either. Some can be of course. So "it depends".  An inherent advantage of discrete is higher current so the possibility of cable impedance matching at the load end may have some possibilities.  Paralleling op-amps can do the same thing. 


... just choose the DAC that has the output stage built on the chip because it measures great, would you buy a preamp that uses an opamp output stage because it measures better than a discreet output stage?

Many fine preamplifiers use opamps. For example, it’s how Audio Research configures its balanced differential preamps. Fully discrete. I don’t understand the prejudice against them just because they’ve sometimes been badly implemented in ICs. You could say that about virtually any audio circuit.

@audiowebe  Yes - the N200 made an audible difference, a little cleaner, a little more solid.  Particular improvement in Hi-Res (with regard to sampling rate) content for some reason. I also noticed a big jump in the playback quality of my ripped CDs - best I have ever heard them, and I did own the last of the top-end OPPO players.  The minor downside to the Aurender for me has been the UI.  It is not as feature rich as Roon and does not offer a PC-based platform.  That said, the UI (Conductor) is super-reliable and supported by real people who actually respond to your questions promptly - you are never lost in a crowd-sourced feedback morass.  There is talk of Aurender being a Roon endpoint soon, but I do not know how much of the Aurender sound quality advantage will be lost by operating in that mode.  Sorry - I went off for a while there.