It’s been years since I heard AirPort Express. My gut feeling is that given improvements in digital over the past decade or so, and the fact that improvements tend to trickle down to the lowest price tiers over time, I suspect that something like the Schit will sound better
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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.
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