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've owned the following DACs - Audio Note 1,1, Blue Circle 509, April Music Stello MK2, Aqua LaVoce S3, Modwright Elysee, and MojoAudio Mystique V3, none sound the same,  and it was easily discernible 

One more point to add about the Aurender N200 as a source and what it brings to the table (I assume most mid-high and above server streamers would do the same to a similar extent).  In my response above I said "a little cleaner, a little more solid" and I'd forgotten about the subtle but very satisfying sound layer reveals that have come with the N200 replacing my PC running Roon.  A good example is the Local Hero Soundtrack (Mark Knopfler).  The very first track - The Rocks and the Water - used to be somewhat of a throwaway for me - but with the Aurender the sonic subtleties coming from the various blended synth effects is like listening to the quiet in nature - at first you hear nothing, then the sounds build in and around each other.  This is an extreme example - I am not trying to say it makes all music sound stupendous - but it certainly reveals subtleties in a very pleasing way.


Really? You think that’s the only thing setting a Ferrari and Corolla apart?

No, and you are emphasizing my point for me very well. There are huge and easily measurable differences between a Ferrari and Corolla. Nobody would confuse them even if they were blindfolded, riding as a passenger. The Ferrari accelerates faster, corners better, and sounds and feels and smells different in easily distinguishable ways that are very well known to be within the bounds of what humans can detect. When you get a dac that’s the equivalent of a Ferrari in terms of price and status, and compare it to a dac that’s equivalent to a Corolla, that’s where you find that there’s nowhere near the same difference. The cheap dac does everything as well as the expensive dac in any way you can measure. Often better. If you blindfold someone and have them listen to two different dacs, unless one of them is intentionally non-linear in its response, and the volume level isn’t matched, it’s going to be super tough for anyone to tell them apart. Maybe some people can, but it’s nowhere near the kind of difference you get between a Ferrari and a Corolla. It’d be more like spending 10 times as much upgrading a Ferrari to slightly increase the acceleration and braking so that you can complete a 5 mile curvy course on average 1 second faster. That might be a meaningful difference to a few very savvy drivers.

All dacs are Ferraris these days, except perhaps for some very cheap or expensive stuff that's poorly designed and implemented.

In terms of systems that are "resolving" or "revealing," those terms are not clearly defined. I can make a highly revealing system by making it ultra unstable, or accentuating its response at certain frequencies. Such a system will reveal differences in connected equipment because such a system is way out of spec. It only reveals how well some components can cope with or synergize with its oddities.

but long-term listening in a relaxed (not analytical) state is the real tell for me.

This statement nails it. I have often noticed that a quick switch between streaming services tells you very little to nothing. But if you relax and "take it in" in your regular listening mood, differences are easily felt OR missed. Applies to almost everything in listening tests.


Over the years I've been allowed to compare various brands including Theta, Wadia, Mark Levinson, and more recently Benchmark. These all sounded fine to my ears, but nothing has ever leapt out at me, even after extended periods of listening. I've heard some beautiful systems in showrooms, and was even allowed to bring in and hook up my cheap front end. Still sounded fantastic. I've lost track of all the different types I've heard at shows and in various showrooms. I've never done controlled blind tests because I never had a claim of a difference to make. I don't know of any controlled tests that have confirmed anything and that doesn't surprise me. Of all the systems I've heard and owned over the years, there seems to be no correlation between the dac and the sound quality. Some of the best sound I've heard at shows involved self powered speakers with their own dacs, or in one case a dongle dac from a Macbook air. I've noticed that even in the 6 figure systems, I still hear the basic issues with the standard 2 speaker configuration in rectangular rooms dominating the overall presentation. 

I'm not going to make a general statement that nobody can hear differences. I'm just saying I can hear a lot of stuff but I can't hear a difference between reasonably competent dacs. If people can hear a difference it just means they are very tuned in to specific aspects of the sound, while able to ignore or adapt to other, louder issues. Decent dacs at all price ranges perform extremely well, and very close to the same. That's not the case with speakers and amps, which are made for all sorts of different listening situations, so they have different power and bandwidth ratings. They also just plain differ a lot in their response characteristics. 

Speakers and amp combinations and rooms and speaker configurations - those make very significant differences to me. Some pre-amps seem to do weird things too. If I go way back to the early 1990s I recall that a Theta dac had more oomph than the analog out of my Sony ES CD player, but that could have just been level matching. I bought it and enjoyed it. 15 years later I still had the dac and compared it to the analog out of a new cheap DVD player and it had nothing on the DVD player. Hard to say why I thought I heard something earlier but I could see how in some cases you could have an output/input mismatch between a dac analog stage and pre-amp input stage. 

Cases where I have heard a difference is things like hooking up a pro-level dac to a consumer level pre. Output is too hot. I then modified the output by bypassing the op-amps and using a cap and a resistor. That's not to spec, and that had audible problems, but even then, not enough to make or break compared to other factors. I was forced to use digital attenuation, which seemed to clear up unpleasant audible issues but then I lost headroom and max volume. I've also tried some crazy output filterless and non-upsampling dacs. Apparently my downstream equipment didn't have a problem with the signal and I can't hear past 20kHz so nothing about it bothered me, which I thought was interesting, supporting the idea that dacs are generally better than they really need to be. 

@asctim No right or wrong just different experiences, I have always found that DACs do not sound the same, and with some the SQ might be relatively similar while others not at all. And, they each have an impact on the overall system’s SQ. I don’t stream, but I have found that CD transports also impact the SQ performance of the DAC and hence the overall system SQ. Some transports impacting more so than others. For that matter, which connection is maximized within the same transport has a definite audible impact. All of that aside, come the end of the day everyone should make their own assessment and select whatever gear brings them the level of listening enjoyment and engagement they seek.

@asctim Let's agree to disagree. I found the differences between DACs as meaningful as Ferrari and Corolla. But I was only able to hear that once my system had evolved to a certain level. However, I agree that if your modus operandi when comparing DACs is to evaluate with the help of measurements than a $1000 Topping or SMSL is just as good as Lampizator Horizon. In fact, the Lampi is far worse as per the measurements.


Thanks for sharing what you hear the differences to be.

Appreciate it.

DACs do two things.  1) They decode a PCM or DSD digital stream and convert it to analog.  2) They amplify that analog signal to a level that feeds into a preamp or to a level that can feed directly into an amp.

The digital side decoding process can take many paths such as R2R ladder D/A or various D/A chips produced by various manufacturers.  Some listeners can tell the D/A chip in use by their sound.  The quality of the power supplies and noise rejection plays a role in producing these delicate voltages that are the musical signal.  And on the analog side, the design can take many paths such as tube, solid state, op amps, ICs or discrete components.  All of these considerations have an impact on the sound quality.

To say all DACs sound the same would be to say all preamps and amps sound the same.  Then we could say all speakers sound the same- and so on.  And beyond that we could argue that musicians do not need to spend thousands of dollars on their musical instruments because a $500 guitar or sax will sound just as good.

When you stop hearing a difference, stop spending money and enjoy the music.

“When you stop hearing a difference, stop spending money and enjoy the music.”
+1, @tonywinga 

Good points by all. Some musicians want top notch instruments, others will perform on whatever is available and adjust their style. If any piece of equipment does something you really like, and you can manage the cost, then get it!

James Booker made some recordings at Paramount that have now become an album called The Lost Paramount Tapes. Apparently they had a bunch of great pianos for him to choose from, and he chose a little spinet that was just a set piece. In the eyes of the producers this amounted to James ruining the entire session. When I listen to those tapes it’s obvious to me that James knew what he was doing. There’s nothing inferior about a spinet. It’s just knowing what to do with it.

One of my favorite memories was a PBS concert back in the 1980s.  The concert featured a famous flautist who was interviewed by the PBS announcer after the show.  The interviewer handed this flautist a cheap plastic recorder and asked him if he could play a tune on it.  He made incredible music with that toy.  I was amazed.  It’s true:  95% talent and 5% instrument.

From my experiences it was easy to hear differences between under $500 DAC and $1k or higher. And the differences manifested themselves in the detail of the playback. BUT this was not the case with the grouping of $2k to $10k DACs. The only thing I was able to hear with this wide range of gear was a quieter blacks / lower noise Floor.

How easily can you distinguish between different DACs?

It depends. Listening for differences on any component will not be obvious or even heard if there are no room treatments in place and also the quality of the rest of the system.

@ghdprentice 1st post makes good sense. Quick a/b comparisons are not really helpful. Best is to ignore measurements and listen to a DAC for a week then swap over and  listen to the other for a week and you'll easily hear which one brings more fun and enjoyment.

Starting to appear on these forums is the idea or reasoning that all new DACs including the cheapest are better than anything made more than 10 years ago (some even say more than 5 years ago) This is abject nonsense.

I have a 30 year old Wadia 15 that plays redbook only and have been biased in the opposite direction. That is to say I have been expecting to find something to equal the Wadia's wonderful redbook quality but also with hi-res capability and the convenience of USB etc. etc.  I have listened to a few including the stratospherically priced dCS and still own the Wadia. I certainly do not buy according to measurements. I do not have specs. of the Wadia and I have no desire to obtain them. I'm sure a cheap Topping will have specs an order of magnitude better but have you ever heard one in a decent system in a room properly sorted acoustically? I rest my case, it weighs 15Kg 😁

I'm sure the Wadia is something special, however the state of the art in digital audio has progressed since then.  I was using my ARC CD player from 2006 up until the beginning of 2021.  I thought it was a good redbook player until I heard my new DAC/Transport in my system.  The sound blew me away.  Until then I had no idea CDs actually had so much detail and resolution built into them.  The music from my new DAC was sensational.  Before, I would listen to one or two CDs and then switch to vinyl.  With the new DAC/Transport I listened to CDs for hours.  Then I got a streamer and my whole music world opened up to millions of songs.  It's been quite a journey.  Good thing I retired because I might never have made it back to work.  

I just recently upgraded my DAC.  Same brand but moved to their top of the line model.  I gained sweeter highs and stronger bass with more resolution.  The bass has texture and detail that makes listening even more intriguing.  Do DACs sound different?  Yeah, they do.  They do by a lot.

Hi Tony, your set up and room looks great which I'm sure is very rewarding. I hear what you are saying about progress and it to this end I needed to do a sanity check so compared my Wadia to some supposedly top DACs. Some I heard that I thought might reveal the shortcomings of my unit did not happen. We at the 'Old Farts Club' heard a comparison to Bryston, Rockna, dCS and Chord Dave. There were a few others but we ignored them. Our score sheets placed Wadia and Rockna at the top and Dave at the bottom. All comparisons at redbook standard of course.

 I was hoping to replace mine with a modern DAC that played hi-res and had USB for convenience and for the need to get rid of boxes, but not found the right one yet.

Looking at your digital system I see a few boxes on the shelves, could you please briefly list what you are using?

Lastly, what springs do you have under the power amps?

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.