What’s your budget?
The iFi Zen DAC v2 ($199) gets good reviews as punching well above its weight, and even if you add their iPowerX power supply (that you should) you’re still at only $308. Hard to believe that combo wouldn’t significantly outperform whatever cheap DAC (I didn’t see any info on a DAC) and power supply are in the Airport Express, which was a $100 “lifestyle” product and not an audio component to be taken at all seriously. Best of luck.
My Hidizs AP 80 pro under 200 bucks is my best purchase among dac...It is so tiny i use only the touch screen... 😁 It is a dap but i dont recommend it as a dap... It is fixed on my desk...
Very good purchase then on par with my warmer last french dac TDA1543 NOS...
---It is a battery dac.... Then you are out of the electrical grid...
---It contains a huge internal bank for your musical files... No computer noisy link...
---It give a very good basic equalizer and i need one to make my K340 more balanced...
--- It gives a radio i used sometimes with pleasure...
Name me a dac as good under 200 bucks ?
The sound is clean and my K340 need a very clean source ... If you need a warmer dac buy a NOS or R2R one ...
I just upgraded yesterday my Sansui alpha with a new preamp to use for my other Sansui AU 7700 as a pre for the K340 or i will use the microzotl 2 as headphone amplifier with this dac...
I am already in sonic paradise without the zotl anyway... It is my birthday gift... 😎
The only upgrade for this dac will be one with the BACCH filters nothing else...but it will cost many times all the cost of my actual system with the zotl...
Any costly dac without the BACCH filters of Dr. Choueri is a lost of money... It is revolutionary , inform yourself...
Dac technology is mature, all is synergy for sure , but at low cost a very good dac is available...
I cannot fault this dac with the K340... And the K340 is one of the best designed headphone in history...
The 2 DAC’s mentioned by @pmm are an excellent idea. I purchased an early edition Schiit Uber Analog DAC as my first. I used a stripped down laptop with an external power supply and a Cardas Clear usb cable. I upgraded to a Schiit Yiggy, and later added a Project Stream Box Ultra II and ditched the laptop. I also have a Cambridge DAC Magic 200. I gifted my son the latest generation Blue Sound Node to replace the Bifrost I had given him when I upgraded. He runs a simple system of a vintage Marantz receiver and Klipsh KG speakers. Switching from blue tooth to an entry level streamer like the Blue Sound was an huge improvement for him. Also consider switching to a source that’s not blue tooth. If you don’t want to get an additional streamer, get the Node or something from IfI. Having your system hardwired to the router and the cable that feeds the DAC have a significant influence too. Happy hunting, Mike B.
I have a Bluesound NODE streamer and a Denafrips Are II DAC.
Given your budget, I would suggest that a used NODE (which has a built-in DAC) would give you the most bang for the buck. Especially if your hearing or system isn't top-notch, you'll find the NODE's DAC quite satisfactory, and you can continue to stream via wi-fi--the NODE is really designed to work well that way, and it does when you give it a strong wi-fi signal. The smartphone app for the NODE can also tell you the wi-fi signal strength it is receiving, so you can know whether it is strong enough to stream high-resolution files or just CD-quality files. And I can hear that hi-res files sound better than CD on the NODE, even using its DAC.
FIRST, look at your player configurations. Where do you adjust volume, buffer sizes, and host based processing? If you have any over-sampling DAC, be sure to test reducing the player gain or if it has any soft clipping features. ( read that "peak compressor) Some have found software like host based oversampling to be better than the DAC's, though that may be with older DACS. It gets complicated and can make bigger differences than the hardware.
I find clear differences in DACs for a specific problem I am sensitive to. So far, the very best DAC I have found for midrange smoothness and not producing "digital' sounds that for me show up as sibilance in vocals and horns is the JDS Atom +. It is $99. The Schiit MODI is also about $99 but for my ears, the JDS is smoother. ( I have the ESS card in my Asgard). I do not hear, nor necessary believe , all the "instrument separation, stage width, bass weight, air", and other hyperbole that reviews are full of. Those are normally attributes of first the signal, then the room and speaker. What I do hear, but does not show up in any A/B testing is fatigue. I can listen to the JDS all day. The older AKM card in my Asgard was not as smooth long term.
DACs have improved greatly in the last few years. What used to be pretty well revived like the Cambridge is below mid-pack today. Yea, even the CI-FI have gotten pretty good. DAC chips spec better, but it is the USB input and reconstruction side that have the biggest effect on the sound. Newer USB inputs have just about eliminated all the jitter and noise issues. Some have even improved the PCM inputs.
I am very interested in the newest low end ( relative) R2R such as Bifrost, Aries, Soekris, Musician, Gustard R26, etc. I may like the added distortion from the R2R just as many like the distortion from tubes. Please do not read "distortion" always as bad. It is a parameter that can be used to make the music more enjoyable.
Also looking at the SMSL DO300, RME, Gustard X16, and for what I consider very very expensive, the Cord Qutest. The differences between my Topping DX3pro+ and the JDS are very very small and in all truth, may be more my frustration with the poor range of the Topping remote and some sub-conscious bias against cheap Chinese products. One I have not heard is the Geselli. Specs not great for a chip DAC, but it may sound better than the spec as the R2R DACs may.
Do consider the JDS. Too cheap not to try. FWIW, I found bigger improvements by switching to JRiver and making several player configuration changes. The -3dB issue is as real on a Mac as on a PC. Far more real that I realized before making the adjustments. The RME feature set is fantastic. I do wonder if it holds up to newer implementations.
Many of these have direct sales and return policies. Many are available on AMAZON with return policy. Only YOUR ears will tell you the truth. You may find an Apple dongle to be as good as any. It is not a bad DAC.
Consider the features and if a decent headphone amp, balanced outputs, remote control volume or in the case of the RME, a parametric eq, are important to you. Do you need preamp function? Headphones etc. That can greatly shift the end price point. An Aris gets a lot more expensive if I have to add a Topping P90 or Schiit Frea on top of it where the RME looks like a lot better deal, and my DX3 may actually be all I can hear. I use the Atom Amp+ on my desk and it is as good as I can hear as preamp or headphone amp.
FWIW, I do hear differences with burn in. It is a valid issue explained by the laws of physics on how dielectrics "form" with some use. Not just caps, but possibly even circuit boards and wire insulation. It has not been my experience it takes longer than a few hours. They can also reverse if left without charge over long periods.
I also know that out brain will change our interpretation over time and we process out issues as "environment" . This may explain why some things get better over longer times. The devoice may not have changed, but you get used to it. A good thing actually. Mechanical devices, speakers and cans, can take much longer and change over time. Plasticizers leach out, bonds break etc. They can keep changing forever.
Finally, ( coffee is ready!) R2R is very difficult to do well. The overall cost to quality puts a $1000 R2R on about the same level as a $100 D-S. Same basic level in build, packaging, power supply, analog stage etc. That does NOT mean they sound the same and the traditional measurements of the D-S will be far better than the R2R. We do know that the traditional measures are not the entire story. Helpful, but we have no idea what is the "musical" parameter is to measure. The question is, at any given price point, which do you prefer, and for any step in price, is is worth it to you? I may be willing to buy a Qutest if that is what it takes to really tame Joni Mitchel, Judy Collins and my big band CDs. Or, my new tweeters and crossover may have fixed it by better control of my woofer breakup.
A few assumptions first:
1) DACs are following Moors Law. Therefore;
2) Today's DAC will be tomorrows flip phone.
3) It is foolish to buy a high-cost DAC unless you have money to burn.
ChiFi DACS are the best value in disposable tech for now.
I have noticed that many of the ChiFi DACs share components- even cases! I bought a Suncoz LA-QXD1 as my first DAC based on a review by Thomas & Stereo last year. It was so cheap ($199) that it didn't matter if it was an antique in 90 days- It gave me a chance to play around with my old CD collection and stream music through my laptop for poots and gigles. It was a lot of fun tweaking analogue sound out of ones and zeros.
My advice is to get the latest under $500 unit and have some fun with it.
Soon- I think un the next 18 months or so there will be VERY high quality Audiophile grade streamer/DAC/Preamp all in ones that will make our Turntable, expensive pre amp and DAC separates relics. I'm seeing amazing pre amps like the REF5 SE and The REF 10 Anniversary taking 50% asking price drops. The ARC DAC9 are down 40% and falling. Now we know why- relics.
Before some old crabs get all in a huff here I happen to love old ARC gear. It's not contempt for old school Hi fi that motivates me to conclude what I have- it's just that we are (finally) in a MASSIVE techno-shift in HiFi now and the hand writing is on the wall. My beloved tube gear separates are coming in second place now- and slipping fast.
I own 4 low cost dac...I use them all
Two Hifime mini one , a-sychronus one ( the better ) the other is a sabre one...
One is used for my computer headphone as a dac , one is used as transport ( a useful added function of Hifime dac ) from USB/optical to toslink for my main computer dac : the french designed battery dac by Christophe Mariac , a TDA 1543 chip, NOS, and very organic sound that work well as a pairing for the mid range of the self powered speakers M-Audio M40 which became now "audiophile sound" modulo my acoustic corner 😁...
For my microzotl 2 and for my AKG k340, my main system, i used the Hidizs Ap 80 pro as i described above...
All these dac sound different completely, but all are good with the right coupling synergy...
Dac technology became mature few years ago...
+1 @yyzsantabarbara Schitt is a great low cost option, also a great option is the iFi signature DAC and their new streamer. The pair will give you all the FLAC and DSD native (not converted to FLAC) resolutions you need. I have the pair for a vintage system and it’s fantastic for the money. I also looked at the DAC magic and I’m glad I went with this pair. I’m very pleased. Good luck to you!
iFi and Topping make very good budget DAC's. I have iFi in the shop and Topping in the library. I am not an Apple fan so wouldn't know how they stack up. My hearing is no longer as good as it once was. Even so, the appreciation is still there. I have a used OPPO in the main system. Cambridge Audio could go on your list as well, new and used.
I would buy a low cost one from Amazon (or other easy return site), keep or return it.
IF it improves things, then perhaps do research on the next step up, no rush.
btw, Amazon has ’free returns’, no return shipping costs.
In my case, real lofi, I was using the PC headphone adapter, rca cable to line in. Advised here to use USB out, to DAC to line in, I bought an inexpensive DAC,
Topping D10s Mini USB DAC, $110.
it made an obvious difference including increased signal strength/volume.
Years ago I used the optical out on an Airport Express to stream to a Schiit Bifrost Multibit DAC, which I thought was an improvement over the Airport's internal DAC.
I swapped out the Airport for an Allo DigiOne Signature with Shanti linear power supply, total cost less than $500. That was a very good improvement over the Airport and I still use it today.
I recently upgraded the Bifrost Multibit to a Bifrost 2/64, which is definitely better to me than the original, tighter bass, more accurate sound overall.
That means I have the Bifrost Multibit available for sale, offered at $250, please message me if interested. This is the version without the USB card, so please make sure you don't need that or plan to get one from Schiit.
The Bluesound Node seems to be a popular all-in-one solution with updated tech that likely will outperform your Airport and has the DAC included. I've read that adding an external DAC to the Bluesound is more improvement still if you ever want to go there.
If you keep the Airport and use any of the DAC's recommended above, fiber optic cable is the only way to connect to it, which of the DAC input options that include USB, digital coax, and BNC, people seem to find least desirable from a sound quality perspective.
Thank you all for great information. I did confirm tonight the Airport Express is limited to 16 bit, 44.1kHz stereo, which isn't bad, but like a couple of you, I'm thinking "old technology" so I'm going to start out with a Schiit DAC.
I'm also very intrigued by the JDS Atom+............thinking about using it in my garage system, but it doesn't have an optical input, which I understand is needed to bypass the DAC in the AE.
I'll report back once I have had a Schiit DAC to compare.
Rather than focusing on the architecture of a dac I just listen to see if sounds good to me or not. I have found some inexpensive dac’s that do sound very good. My ifi Zen Dac Signature (original version) sounds really nice through both balanced and single ended configurations. I purchased it used along with a Zen Can Signature HD6XX headphone amplifier. I paid around $400US for both, which included the X power supplies, the 4.4 mm to 4.4 mm balanced cable and two headphone cables (se and balanced) for my HD6XX. It’s a very nice pairing with the HD6XX headphone.
The Zen Dac Signature also works very nicely with several other headphone amp’s that I have. I have not heard the Zen Dac V2 or Signature V2 but have read positive reviews in regard to them.
I also recommend the original Schiit Modius AKM 4493 which I also own. Another dac that punches well above its weight. I have not heard the later Modius E, but have read some good reviews on it. It’s also priced under $300US.
Schiit is a great solution for this situation. After using Apple products for audio, I always recommend avoiding using a computer or similar device that is not dedicated to audio. The differences are obvious, and seems these devices will generate all kinds of little gaps and noises in the audio as they are trying to be a computer, not primarily an audio source. I own a few DACs including a Schiit Modius, SMAL SU-9, and a few devices with internal DAC including disc players, and my McIntosh MX122. The Schiit is well reviewed and a great value from a US company and sounds great. The SU-9 is also great just a few more features but sounds the same overall.
Hello tbick! I'm currently using an SMSL M500. I have 8 dacs under $1000. Maybe I should have put all that $ into some expensive DAC. However . . . I hear very little difference between a $1000 Sony DAC/HPA and the SMSL models or the Dragonflies. Have very good amps, cables etc. The input cable you use to connect your DAC to some signal source DOES have a HUGE effect! That was shocking to me. As usual, different DACs reapond differently to a particular input cable. I have many cables and the best overall is Zavfino and comes from Canada. I can't see puttng $5k (even $2k!) into a DAC unless all your music is coming in that way. All this fuss about streaming is just a way to get access to a huge music library. The sound isn't as good as a good CD. If you have a computer, it can feed your Dac. You don't NEED a streamer unless you want the convenience it offers. Enjoy the Music! Happy listening.
@boomerbillone Big +1 there! I recently switched from a decent yet well-regarded budget digital cable to an Acoustic Zen MC2 (used), and WOW!!! Night and day difference — not even in the same ballpark-level performance.
Well, here we’re just gonna differ. First, having access to a virtually unlimited music library, and much of it in high res, is not a small thing. Second, it’s simply not true that CDs sound better. Too many variables to address there, but they both can sound incredibly good when implemented well.
We’re gonna differ here too. In general computers are an awful source for streaming music, and a dedicated streamer is almost always significantly better sound wise because of its lower noise floor and parts that are dedicated solely to maximizing sound quality and nothing else. The prime reason for using a dedicated streamer is for far better sound quality, not convenience.
I have owned the DacMagic 200 that you mention as well a Denafrips Ares II and Schiit Bifrost 2 mentioned by others. The DacMagic is the least expensive of the 3 and can be found for under $500. The Ares and Bifrost will cost a little bit more, over $500 even used. All 3 will beat the pants off what you have. The DacMagic has many more features than the other two, sounds decent, but not as good as the others, imo and in the reviews I’ve read. Quite frankly the market is flooded with inexpensive DAC’s and most will sound very good coming from the Apple. I think you’ll be very happy with any of them again when compared to the Apple. As already mentioned you should add the cost of a streamer to get the full benefit of any of them.
I use an Aune X8 with a Sparkos opamp and found it slightly outperforms my D70s on RCA outputs on fixed outs in my system. Geshelli also allows this upgrade I believe. Can add an Aune linear PS and will cost under $500 retail, less if all bought on sale.
Using the Aune as a pre works but not as well as the fixed outs IMO but it has that option if needed utilizing both RCA and XLR outputs but I don't expect it to be fully balanced in XLR. Cheap but more than expected performance on fixed/full output.
Okay folks, got a Schiit Modius yesterday and did some "A/B" testing with a couple friends using a laptop as the music server.
Hooked up the DAC with an optical cable from a 2nd Airport Express, and then RCA cables to the amp. That way we could go back and forth between the Schiit DAC and an Airport Express over wifi feeding the AMP.
After about an hour of listening & comparison no one could make out a discernible difference.
Next, thought maybe going through the Airport Express is a limiting factor. So hooked up the Schiit DAC directly to the laptop via USB and then did the comparison with an Airport Express over wifi. And once again no one could tell a difference.
So there are only two conclusions that can be made. The signal from the laptop is so bad the Schiit DAC can't do anything with it. Or the Airport Express DAC is pretty good as Ken Rockwall's testing indicated.
So, being part of the CLAC (cant leave it alone club) I'm going to get a streamer to go directly to Qobuz/Tidal, etc. and see if that is the key.
Is the Modius new? If so, you need to give it at least 100 hours of play time to break in before it can begin to perform to its potential. Also, using a laptop as a source and the Airport Express as a streamer with an optical connection are also big drags on performance. A dedicated streamer is a very good idea and should help a great deal. Stick with it — you’re on the right track and good things should follow.
According to Ken, the internal Dac of Airport Express (AE) seems decent if what you have is the newer 2014 model. I am not an expert on measurement. Just to compare several key parameters such as (1) SNR on AE 103 dBA vs 120-130 dBA on the most of entry-level DACs that Topping / Smsl has; and (2) jitter level, it seems AE’s digital out thru Toslink is not as impressive. I do not wish to get into the debate whether we should place the judgement solely on measurements. Since decent entry-level DACs are so affordable nowadays, you might want to just grab one and take a home audition to see if you like them better.
If you want to limit the budget under $500, consider two DACs: Topping E70 Velvet and Smsl Su9 Pro. Very good performers for their price point, good dynamics, soundstage dimensions, bass slams and airy trebles. Detailed but not analytical. The soundstage on almost all Topping/Smsl Chinese Dacs prior to these two DACs in this price point sounds flat. If you like Schiit housesound / tembre, pick a Modius ($200). At these already lower price point, I do not recommend used products because you never know how previous owners treat their gears.
I’m sorry, but the DAC in the Airport Express is not decent. It was a $100 multipurpose “lifestyle” device from Apple, which is not known as an audiophile-level company by any stretch. If a device is $100 how much of that went into the DAC section? How much went into the power supply? How much went into shielding and noise reduction? You gotta be kidding me. The “DAC” in the AE is a relative joke and a toy. Period. Stop trying to promote it as “decent” because it is not, and if you think it is you’ve absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.
"The “DAC” in the AE is a relative joke and a toy. Period. Stop trying to promote it as “decent” because it is not, and if you think it is you’ve absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.".................
Okay.... I'm not an expert. And you might be right.....and Ken Rockwall and a few other that measured the output can be wrong. And remember we are comparing low end equipment. Anyone can have a great sounding system for thousands of dollars.
Bottom line...... we still couldn't hear a difference.
But there is good wisdom here and I'm going to keep plugging forward... especially with giving this DAC time to "burn in".
It’s simple economics. You cannot build a “decent” DAC into a $100 multipurpose device. The parts quality and overall implementation from power supply to output stage are just not there. It can’t be. I will say this though — differences in DACs are more nuanced and subtle than those of, say, speakers that are far more immediately apparent. But, the subtle nuances can make all the difference in the ultimate quality of music reproduction, and details missed at the source can never be recovered. You’re on a very worthwhile path and goodonya for daring to take it, so keep an open mind and open ears and you’ll ultimately be rewarded.
+1 Geshelli Labs J2
Their customer service is second to none. I have experience with Ayre, Conrad Johnson, VAC, Audio Research, and more. For $260 you get an excellent DAC. If you want USB connection, it's $300. Go to this review, https://youtu.be/USbDI8OQP7s
Pair it with the WiiM mini or WiiM pro ($80, $150 respectively). See cheapaudioman YouTube review of them. Out performs the Mode.
I can't say you'll hear a difference from your setup, but this is as good as it gets within your budget. The Denafrips Ares II is a better DAC but it costs 3x more. That said, I'm not sure your overall system warrants the extra cost. Best of luck to you.