Should I upgrade DAC, speaker cables, ICs, or PCs?

I'm asking for your help in making up my mind of where to go next. I've asked this in the past and upgraded speakers first, later the amp, and lately preamp, and while the suggestions are never unanimous (nor should they be expected to be) they have been VERY helpful and I've been very happy with my upgrades.

Here's my current system:
- Rotel RCD1072 preamp
- Lamm LL2 pre
- McIntosh MC275 IV amp
- B&W 804S speakers
- dedicated power lines, and hospital grade outlets
- stock power cords throughout
- Nordost IC, the cheapest flatline ones (maybe Black Nights? not sold anymore)
- heavy gauge magnet wire for bi-wired speaker cables, an attemp to replicate Anti Cables
- room treatments: 2 16" dia DIY tube traps plus some panels.

Room treatment has brought great improvements and I'm still working on it with significant time spent there.

The weak ares to me are PCs, ICs, speaker cables and CD player, yet I don't have a budget to upgrade all of them in the near future. Maybe I can spend $1500, and used stuff is fine.

I know I'll be keeping the speakers and amp and pre for a good while, so upgrading speaker cables and pre to amp IC would be safe moves. On the other hand, if something is lost from the signal upstream, then it cannot be recovered, making the case for starting upstream...

I'm looking for opinions from more experienced "upgraders" who have gone through more iterations and have a better handle on how big an impact one or another upgrade MIGHT have. What would be the best next move, in your opinion?

Thank you!!

I would go for the CDP. The sound never comes out better than it goes in. I have a Shanling CD T-100 - around $750 used. The analog output has a nice mellow sound, unlike many CD players that tend to be somewhat on the bright side.

If you purhcase used and whatever brand, watch out for a player with an out of production drive.
I second the nomination of source. I gather your CDP is a Rotel? (You list it as a pre.) I've not listened to the Rotel seriously, but I'm betting it could be bested by 1500, especially with a used unit. A lot of well-regarded DACs could be had for that money (or considerably less) new or used; thinking strategically, that's the way I would go, since having the option to move to computer audio is a good idea. Thinking a bit further strategically, if you spend the 1500 on a source, you may very well come across used (or even new) wires down the road that would represent an upgrade for a few hundred bucks (esp. if the runs are short); and it might be easier to justify dumping that kind of money into the hobby here and there than another 1500. Good luck, John
for $1500 you could get a great DAC. You can take your time and go through several until you find the one that matches your gear the best.

With your pre/amp/speaker combo (should have an awesome warm,powerful sound) I would suggest either the Bel Canto DAC3 or the Benchmark. Although, there are a bunch of guys on here that have the Wyred4Sound that came out recently, and they love it, you may want to try that, I believe w4s has a 30 trial period.

Good luck.
I agreed with Jdoris. DAC with USB is a preferable option. It will be better if DAC will have balance output. In general Balance outputs are less sensitive to cable quality even if the receiving end is RCA.
I never really liked my Nordost Blue Heaven, they were a bit closed in and did not flow with the music. I would consider shopping around a bit and try different cables (if you have not done so already).

fwiw I recently tried the White Lightning cables talked about here in a 6Moons review:

It is a very good speaker wire that I paid $7 for. I never thought DIY could be so good but it really is.

Or you could try the Audioquest mentioned by several on AA:

I am not trying to rock the boat and think the DAC ideas are the next thing I would do as well.

good luck

I think it's time to begin borrowing cables from the Cable Co. and begin tuning your system... actually, enabling & refining your system.

Wires do matter. They ain't much fun and they seem like such a non player, but WIRES DO MATTER.... A LOT. If you want to see what your components are truly capable of.

Especially power cords.

Putting something like a Voodoo Black Dragon, Tsunami, Mongoose, Airsine, etc., on the CDP, and perhaps a Taipan helix Alpha on the Mac amp, should allow for some sort of DAC to be added as well if indeed $1500 is on tap for disposal. Lavry, Apogee, BC, all should help.

It is time though to investigate the cabling in your system. Power cords are more a foundation principle IMHO. I try to begin there first as a rule of thumb when I add or swap out a device… my next step is to add – replace it’s PC.

Blue Heaven ICs aren't bad ICs... Very spacious sounding, but that's about it. Put a pr of Cardas Neutral Refs in there as your main ICs and you'll hear every change up or down stream... better. The NR cables are IMO cables everyone should have on hand somewhere if not in the system, then certainly available. They're the pretty much, 'next ' step up from the BH's. More natural, more refined top end, and better mids. Nicer looking too.

Personally I’d get rid of those speaker cables “toot suite”, but that’s just me… then make other moves, like PCs, ICs, &/or DACs.

I know you’re going to do as you want… everyone does and many have their minds made up going into posts like this. They’re usually just seeking validation or support for their own ideas.

Of course as things are a DAC is the one item that’ll turn your head now. It’ll make a very big difference, if you keep your CDP.

Cabling however, and especially power cords first will enable what you have to perform better, hence SOUND better.

But trust me on this.. owning $12K of components or more, and using $200 - $400 worth of cabling is doing yourself an injustice. Plain and simple. Notwithstanding, the camp against upscale wires. …and why I said to ‘borrow’ some first, or do the Agon shuffle and try out some of the more popular wires and resell them if not well pleased.

PCs for the front end, and amp, plus a DAC can be had for $1500. A set of Audio art speaker cables for instance might could be added in there too. Thereafter… your main IC is a key to your system.

You wouldn’t run a Viper on skinny recaps and regular gas now, would you? How is this scenario any different?
Obviously upgrading your front end will make the biggest impact on your system. Bad in = bad out no matter how you look at it. So the better source you can start with the better off you are.

Remove the noise from your system and there lies the music... there's no magic there. I'd look at the Mojo Audio DAC or the Zardoz ultimo Transport, both are two of the best DACs on the market and easily competitive with the Berkeley Alpha and Stahltek vekian for right around $1500. I currently use a Prism Sound Orpheus for my front end.

If you're looking for cables Mojo Audio makes the most neutral, noiseless cables on the market. Ben does a good job from the standpoint of understanding that music comes from removing the band-aids in your system and removing distortion and noise. He's a good guy also. Send me an email and I'll hook you up with Ben directly if you're interested.

Just to add fire to the conversation here...

Interconnects currently make zero difference on my system. They used to make a huge difference. Interesting how things happen.
I agree with upgrading the source first in terms of biggest bang for your buck from the remaining upgrade areas you mention. I view speaker cables, ICs, and PCs as the last thing to upgrade once you have your main system dialed in as best as you can get it. Many people use cables as tone controls to correct something else upstream in the signal chain. I would try to get the best and most synergistic components first and then try to get the best cables you can afford that will do the least amount of degradation to the sound. So go for source first. Many options here: 1) upgrade to another 1 box CD, 2) upgrade to a 1 box CD/SACD or even unversal player (if you care about SACD, DVD-A and Blu-ray), and 3) keep the Rotel 1072 CDP as transport and get a DAC (many of the aforementioned are excellent but be sure to get something with excellent jitter reduction). Option 3 allows you the flexibility of also adding a computer as a source. My 2c worth.
If you're interested in a computer as a source then look at Spatial Computer. It'll trounce the other components I mentioned, and is currently what I am using. The website is all mumbo jumbo, but I worked in recording for a number of years and now in audio post for film so I can help you out if you don't understand the BS on the website!
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Great feedback!

Actually, I'm surprised everybody went for the source as the first step. It's unusual to get an unanimous answer in this hobby. Maybe the question was too obvious, not to me anyway.

Sorry about the typo: the Rotel is a CD player indeed. Don't know why I typed preamp there...

While I haven't been able to try how cables impact the sound, I tend to believe they do. Unfortunately I live overseas in South America so borrowing from the Cable Co is not an option, and there aren't many hi-end cables around here to try, let alone borrowing for in-home audition. So I'm stuck with educated guessing. The best way 've found so far is digging threads here and contacting folks with systems as similar as possible to mine (albeit different tastes) and get their input as to what worked and why/how.

From that I was thinking using the Rotel as transport for the DAC3 (mentioned), or Benchmark (mentioned), or MHDT Havana, to name 3 that come to mind now. I like the idea of computer audio down the road, but as another source as opposed to replacing the CD transport.

For cables I am surprised to get the feedback of PCs first, but this is part of the learning I am after.
For speaker and ICs I had good comments about Kimber 8TC and another model up I can't recall now, Purist Audio, Transparent, or Nordost. I know of two people with B&W speakers who swear by Nordost Frey and Valkyrja speaker cable, but those are close to $1200 used and I have a hard time justifying that for my system.

What I'm taking away then is use $1500 for: a DAC and a digital IC for transport to DAC, and do the rest as funds come up. Example: a DAC3 is listed for $1295+shipping, leaving about $200 for the digital IC.
Later, when funds permit get PCs for the DAC and Rotel transport, and even later ICs and PCs for pre and amp, and finally the speaker cables.

Am I making sense?
Thank you for the very good feedback!
I've owned the Havana, Benchmark, and DAC3... you can do better for the money.
OK Mintzar, looks like you want to be asked: what are your suggestions for doing better than those components, for the money?
The Zardoz Ultimo Transport starts around $1k and goes up to around $4k depending on the upgrades you want. It's a superb DAC and will also allow you to send music wirelessly from your Mac Mini (cuts off the source, feel free to message me if you don't understand how network transfer works).

The Other option is the Mojo Audio DAC, which I've been somewhat beta testing over the last 6 months. It's better than the Z, but it'll cost right around $2k.

There are other options in the pro-audio realm, the TC Studio Konnect 48 is a stellar piece of gear for $700-1k. If you aren't familiar with routing and using pro-audio I can help with that. But the TC is lower noise than the Mojo Audio and Z. We can get a little more expensive also into the $4k range and skyrocket into the $30k+ performance range.

Of the three units you mentioned the Havana is by far the most musical. The problem is that the tubes are noisy. The Benchmark is VERY bright and analytical. You don't want any oversampling DACs. They destroy the emotional content of the music and give an artificial sense of detail. Oversampling uses an algorithm to correct for information that either isn't there. That algorithm creates jitter, which means timing errors. So you may have a more detailed sound, but you loose the proper time tune and tone of the music.

So I'd recommend going with a good NOS DAC. All of the DACs I mentioned I have owned or had in my system for a good length of time. I currently own the Prism Sound Orpheus.

You can't go wrong with any of the DACs I mentioned. They are all in the top tier of performance.
I've owned all three of those DAC's, and many more, and I don't agree that they would be a bad match. Everyone is always trying to get the best sound from their system and that means balance.

My system tends to bright, so I didn't like the sound of the Benchmark in my system at all, or the Bel Canto after a while. Both were excellent DAC's but too bright for the rest of my gear. In other, warmer biased systems I have heard them, at stores and audio shows, they have been absolutely stellar.

I loved the Havana on the other hand. It was warm, and with the right tube in it, silky smooth and a great value. But it didn't have the last word in detail, so I kept searching. I eventually bought a Bryston BDA-1, which to me have been tremendous. Hard to find used, and a bit out of your current range, but it really has a complete warm yet extended, and detailed sound to me. I love it. I had a Berkeley Alpha DAC that may have been a bit better, but it was more than twice the $$, so I got the Bryston and no complaints.

I guess from looking at your gear, it has a very nice, powerful and warm tint to it. A Bel Canto, or Benchmark could match really well with that set up. The Havana might sound too syrupy in that signal path. But that's just my guess, since I haven't heard your set up. But I love all the gear.

I due use the oversampling on the Bryston, it just sounds better. Also, as far as DAC's go, the newer chipsets, jitter control, and power supply advancments are the reasons I don't think NOS DAC's are in the same league as current designs. It's literally like comparing a first Generation Mac computer with a current iMac and saying the original is better.
What NOS DACs are you comparing these DACs to? Because it's not entirely fair to compare the Berkeley to a $300 NOS DAC.

The Z and the Mojo Audio DACs are nicer than the Berkeley IMO. But the Berkeley is no slouch by any means. The Mojo Audio DAC is currently a NOS DAC. But Ben is doing tests on the Sabre 24/96 DAC chip that will allow you to natively handle files up to 24/196 without SRC. The Mojo Audio DAC sounds as good as it does because it has a beefy power supply... well 5 power supplies, one for each output, one for the DAC chip, one for the crystal oscillator/DSIX, and one for the digital input. Audio is fairly simple, it's us dorky audiophiles that make it complicated.

So I agree with you that the latest technology OS DACs are actually quite good. The Prism's oversampling and SRC is stellar. But the Prism Orpheus is a different animal altogether. I wouldn't go as far as to say that all modern OS DACs are better than NOS DACs. Your evaluation of the Benchmark, BC, and Havana are quite accurate. I just encourage people not to use components as tone controls. If you remove the bandaids from your system you will be much better off and have much better music.

Rather than getting a warm DAC to cover a bright amp, remove the bright amp instead. Brightness is a boost caused by distortion in the 2-4khz domain. It is often caused by mechanical vibration, cheap capacitors, or a weak power supply.

With live music there is no such thing as warm or bright. Music is just music. If you stop thinking in terms of "what will fix the brightness in my system" and begin thinking "how can I make my system more accurate" you will get much larger gains in enjoyment from your system. If you go listen to live unamplified music it will give you a benchmark to start from. Music is warm, it is bright, it is bold, it is intense and it is subtle... it is all of these things. Music is Music is Music is Music. It doesn't matter if it's tubes or solid state. If you do it accurately all components will sound the same. Listen for proper flow, listen for time, tune, and tone. Coherency and inner detail. EMOTIONAL CONTENT. Ok... sorry for the rant, gents!
I've never heard of Mojo Audio, or heard their DAC. Looking at their website, it looks like a startup, and I wish your friend luck.

I have heard, many, many DAC's over the years, and those that are new, including the one's mentioned above, and I would add the new PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC, are about as state of the art as it gets, unless you move into the 5 digit $$ range. Then my ears hear an incremental improvement that I don't find worth the cost.

Also, all equipment has a warm/bright bias especially when used together. That's just a fact, especially if listening to digital music, which is extremely bright compared to analog.

So, if you've got $1500 to spend, to go back to the original question, I would suggest one of the newer DAC's. Possibly a Bel Canto or Benchmark, or if you want to spend just a bit more I suggest the Bryston BDA-1 which has stellar reviews not only from publications buy from it's owners as well.
I don't think all equipment has a warm or bright bias when it is made neutral. Brightness or warmth are just distortions -- either attractive or otherwise.

I also disagree that digital is bright compared to analog. The better that analog gets the closer it gets to digital. The better that digital gets the closer it gets to analog. While entry level vinyl will sound considerably better than entry-level digital, to say that digital is bright compared to analog is just not true. I used to listen to a Walker Turntable and a DiVinci turntable, both stellar pieces of analog gear. But my digital has surpassed the performance of both of those turntables.

Ultimately it doesn't matter how you get there (vinyl, digital, tubes, solid state). Music is just music. If done correctly in any of these areas you will have accurate music that isn't bright or rolled off. It's non-fatiguing and has all the emotional content that goes along with it.

Fun FACT: Almost ALL modern vinyl recordings are just 24bit DIGITAL masters. I worked in recording for 4 years and now in the film industry.

It is also true that redbook CDs don't have any information above 15khz, and most have no information above 10khz. 95% of harmonic information is contained below 5khz.
LOL, it's classic reading your system notes, I now understand more your motivation with such postings. You really don't mean any of it, you are just trying to offend.
It's not offensive, it's really funny, you are like the Andy Kaufman of Audiogon.

LOL, classic, excellent job.
So I went back for some reading on the proposed units. A lot more reading still pending.

I decided to ditch the Zardoz and Mojo units. They are probably very good, but there is so little talk about these that is leading me to pass, as I'm overseas and auditioning or buying and selling is not a breeze.

Macdad: I decided to set the Havana aside based on your comments that it might become too much of a good thing with the rest of my system.

Seems like I'm down to: Bel Canto DAC3, Benchamark DAC1 USB, Bryston BDA-1, PS Audio PWD, Wyred4Sound DAC2, and Weiss DAC2 or Minerva.
I know, I know: several of these are beyond the $1500 I posted, even used...this frickn' addiction of mine!!! Maybe just get a Benchmark and good power cable and be done for a good while.

Quick question: my source will be my Rotel CD player over coaxial. Would any of these be a bad match?

Thank you!

as belated as this may well be...

aS Macdadtexas AND I HAVE BOTH SAID… IT’S A MIX. Try as many as you can. The more popular ones will be easier to both get and get rid of if necessary.. usually. Sometimes popular works against you in the Audiogon buy & Try shuffle.

I say again, the BC DAC III is a fine enough place to start..lavry is another. Both camps are engineered by top people and innovators in the digital to analog conversion racket.

I’d also disagree with some statements on how upsampled DACs sound. Normally, the higher the sampling rate the easier the top end will be on the ears and the better the ambient retrieval. Resolution and details are a part of the design and materials.

Not the result of oversampling per se.

BTW…. There’s a lot of artificial sounds when the original band isn’t right therein
the room.

My 2ch audio system isn’t what I’d call a warmly romantic affair. I would put it a tick or two onto the warmish side, but more than that I felt it needed two things done better… Bottom end resolution and greater resolution and detail overall, which lends itself to better imaging and gets you closer to reality, or at least the illusion of it.

Wether I use it with SS front to back, or a mix of tubes and SS, (either way T+SS or SS+T), the BC DAC III is NOT anything close to bright sounding. It’s about as neutral a device as I think you can get for the money that they are selling for lately around here.

Remember too… ‘bright’ is in the ear of the beholder, and can be accounted for by many factors. Jitter. Mismatching. Ground loops. Power line artifacts. Poor isolation and/or racks. The recording. The room. Your ears… And so on …

The BC D3 allows for a lot of value and flexibility for the $$$. I agree with Macdadtexas it ought to be a nice fit in your system as it is now. If there is resultant glare, hardness, stridency, etc., it’s not going to be the fault of the BC dac. Look elsewhere about your system.

I listen to all sorts of music. All sorts. I need speed, impact, depth, articulate bass, definition, spot on imaging, and balance in the bandwidth to accommodate all these various genres.

If I were to listen ONLY to Ella and Frank, maybe some other DAC would still be here. I’d not wish to hamstring my system though.

Upgrading the system is not a matter of it being a balancing act so much as it should be a step closer to the music itself, while keeping everything on a listenable and musical tilt. Involving. Enjoyable.

That’s where balancing comes into play. Not by compensating for errors or shortdcomings elsewhere.

I’ve played your amp or one like it in my home . … it’s not a bright amp.

The BC D3 might even become a step up over your current preamp as it has remote volume control too.. Add a highface 24 192 if going all PC all the time and you’ve got a real upgrade on your hands. Add a Oyaide T510 cable, or an XV 2 Ultra for abut $200 +/- and you’re in like Flint.

You’ll love you CDP all over again too Good luck..
Lewinskih01, first of all, what do you feel is missing in your system sonically?

In terms of upgrade logic and order of importance, I place speakers first. After that, its a wash. I used to think the source was next but after farting around with Dale Pitcher's latest PC offering with its proprietary filtering technology, I am less sure. I have had several friends with midlevel CDPs who had their system transformed by that cord. If source is where you want to fiddle, there is a myriad of ways to go. I own the Zardoz which is very nice. I have heard the Mojo Audio DAC and it also has a nice "analog" presentation. Another friend of my has been bewitched by a relatively inexpensive NOS DAC from VALABS ($200) recently. Whether to go NOS or with an upsampler is a whole other matter. It comes down to sonic preference. Another friend owns the Weiss Minerva and is in love with it. I will be doing a shootout with my Z and the Berkley DAC in July and that should be interesting. Anyway, your system is a living entity if you will and all the parts work together. There is no one right answer.
Blindjim: Thanks for the thoughtful post. I'm adding the Lavry DA10 to the list. Looking at your system I see you also have a tubed pre and amp.

After going through several threads I'm wondering about jitter immunity. For over a year until I can get into either computer audio or upgrade my transport I will need to use my Rotel RCD1072 CD player through coax as source to the DAC. Does anyone have a point of view in terms of jitter immunity from Lavry, Benchmark, Bel Canto, Bryston, Weiss DAC2, or PS PWD?

Thank you!
In terms of jitter, the benchmark and bel canto are much higher jitter than the weiss or PWD. The Weiss is a very nice DAC, but if you're looking in that price range you're better off going with a TC Studio Konnect 48 or a Prism Sound Orpheus (which is what I own). The TC and Prism are leaps ahead of the other DACs listed in terms of jitter reduction and clocking... granted, they will take a little more work to play audio (well worth it in my opinion). I heard the Stahl-Tek Vekian the other day, which is an awesome piece of gear and personally preferred my Prism's more natural, less "hifi" sound... detail retrieval was identical between the two units. I did not do a comparison side by side, however, so the comparison isn't 100% fair.


I thought I had posted reviews here on the ‘gon about both the Lavry DA10 & Bel Canto DAC III. Just now looking back at them, I see only the BC D3’s appraisal.

Apparently the Lavry article has gone missing or been deleted.

Read through that BC review and you should get a better feel for what it does, but also check out the other reviews online, especially the Stereophile review.

In the Lavry account I made the allegory between the two something like this::

I felt the BCD3 was the Dodge Viper, and the Lavry DA 10 perhaps a BMW 500 series. Both will get you there however the ride is different. The Viper being more exhilarating. the BMW being the more svelte.

My Knowledge base and equipment levels have both been increased since that two year old paper was issued. Other gear has come and some items are no longer here. The BCD3 remains.

Different software is now in use, a different interface as well, and I’m 98% PC based music via server. I don’t use USB or SPDIF, but BNC to feed the BCD3.

The Vaunted Sony 777 was sold. Why? I get as good and often far better audio now from the hard drive based arrangement I currently use…. IMHO. Otherwise, I’d sure have kept it.

The better the drive, the better the results will be when attached to a good DAC that controls jitter. BNC & AES are the least jittery interfaces. Consequently I use the Hiface as a USB to BNC converter with an Oyaide BNC silver cable. Things have not been better!

Shortly after my posting on the BCD3 Stereophile’s JA published his review and measurements on the D3. he counted the jitter from each interface too. Check out that article… in it he mentions that the BC DAC3 was at that point the best measured device he had yet to test.

Jitter is key. A very big deal! It’s not the ONLY deal though but it’s way up on the list. The BC d3 does a great job on jitter reduction. Given it’s current preowned selling price, the fact it can be upgraded by BEL CANTO to higher levels after the fact, I find it still a great value and now more than before.

But to frustrate you again, it is your call, and some other DAC might well suit your needs. So that’s your call.

If as with the Lavry, some of those mentioned herein have generous return policies, and you have the cash up front, I’d say go on and audition some. Trying a couple or three, costs then only the shipping, perhaps no more than $100 over them all…. If that.

I have made my choice and am fine with it. Still.

Would I be in the hunt for another DAC had I more funds?


But THAT price tag would be severely higher, literally by a few grand. As the review I read recently at CA on the Weiss 202 interests me…. But $6500.00?

Nope. Not here anytime soon.

There also would be no guarantee for better. Only the unspoken warranty for different. Which is always the case with audio gear and accounts so much for the exact same piece being in two different systems in two different peoples homes, and them both saying entirely different things about the same identical unit!... as you’ll see in my BC review if you read thru the comments too.

Good luck