Significant steps? (DAC)

Thought I'd get some opinions on where the significant audible steps are in DAC/DAC amp/stack are.   Sure, ESS sounds different from AKM, Op amps are different. Good discrete class A can be different. Tiny tiny differences.  Where are the big differences. Big for a Dac of course as there is little real difference from a Apple Dongle to a Pontius to insanity? 

Step one. The dongle. $12. Good for portable. Most would agree, not quite hi-fi but actually listenable on the move. 

Step Two. Real DACs made for hi-fi. $200 stack, DAC/amp. e.g Schiit or JDS stack, Topping DX3pro+, etc. These can be pretty good. Similar to respectable internals in integrated amps of respect.  Popular priced, high volume,  chip based.  They all sound about the same to me.  Maybe with $1000 headphones you can pick out differences. The better of them "do-no-wrong"  which is significant in my book. The Sabaj A20 and the Gustard A26 have the same chip set, both mass produced, op amp etc.  Why a 3X price difference? Just the streamer feature? Is this group, sub 1K maybe, where the "all DACs sound the same comes from?  Or like me, having heard an expensive but not very good one biased them into a steadfast spec chasers?  ( Bad experience, but my mind/ears are still open) 

Step three.  It gets harder. I would expect not just not bad, but something actually better.  Different moving to the cheapest R2R or higher end D/S.  Is the  difference from the DX3 to a D70 really significant? RME in here?  Better or just different to justify 2 to 5 times the price?  Every reviewer at this price claims every new one is worlds apart and the new budget champ. Really?  Higher price may be justified as more expensive chips, R2R are of course difficult, better power supplies, better output buffers. Without direct comparison, is this a level you can live with happily and just listen to the music? Are there still actual flaws in the performance? Do you need to have a system appropriately balanced components with speakers above 10K to hear the difference?  Can you hear it on an Audiolab integrated and set of Sonas Faber Illuminas? 

Step four. Expecting serious entry to high end.  Is it at the maybe Mearson or Gustard R26/A26 level? Qutest?  Or are these really small increments from less?   Is the real step having to go Holo or mid-line Denafrips?   2K or is it 3? 4? Where is that "real" step? Does dealer vs direct sale move things between steps? What would a Aris cost if it was through a dealer chain? Price difference and the need for a preamp would put it almost 4K.  Is that good?  

Higher?  After several grand, does it really cost more and justify higher prices, or are you buying the case and prestige?  I have probably not heard the right ones, as the upper end I have heard, the difference to my bottom end was very slight. Does a Birkman or Berkley really change things? What can they do in a box at DCS that is worth $140K that actually sounds better than one for 3 or 5K, or $200 for that matter? Maybe technically close to perfect, but how far above the studio recording and mastering makes any difference. GIGO. 

So, where are the dividing lines that separate significant performance differences?  What product is a bulwark for that tier? 


There are significant steps, giant steps, and steps into fancy cases and ego bragging rights.  Giant may be more than I am willing to do. There is a point somewhere in the giant range where there is not actually any improvement to be made regardless of price. I use a PC as my server so no streaming, no MQA, etc. Mostly redbook FLAC files. 

I guess I am looking upper significant, lower giant. It would have to something better as I have tuned the system to the do-no-wrong. I could stop probably. 

Chord ( both Mojo and Qutest) Pontus or Holo Spring would be in the list. Quite a stretch for me.  Bummer Holo wants $600 to add a pot and buffer and only the top end has the improved USB port. Brings it up close to 4K.   That should be universal as Schiit can do it in their $230 unit.  An AMD galvanic transformer costs $12 retail, so feeble excuses.  There should  be no need for a DDC any more for USB.  Band-aid for a bad USB implementation. Once upon a time and for SPDIF,  but not now on USB. At the multi-K price point, even SPDIF re-clocking should be built in. 

I wonder if the R26 is any better than a Bifrost or just full of features I have no use for.  I imagine a sub 2K R2R would sound at least different. My focus is speakers only, vocals and acoustic instruments as natural as possible.  Price jumps quite a bit if one needs to add a preamp. Kara is about the entry point so now $1500. 

I have see way too many horror stories about the lack of support from Musician. It is a shame when someone puts out what may be a great product, but ignores the owners.  Or like Topping, support seems to be one gentleman who answerers questions on the forums.  I wonder about all these Chinese brands that don't even have a corporate WEB site.  A $200 DAC is throw away. $2000 is not.  Geselli, JDS, Schiit, Chord, and RME you can get on the phone with.  

No, I have not posted my system. It is resolving enough I can tell the differences between the Muse, 4 SMSLs, 2 toppings and my JDS.  The Sabaj and the DX3pro+ sounded the same to me. The difference between my own amp and the Vidar were quite clear. Which is better I am not sure but I am sticking with the Schiit for now.  Detail vs dynamics. I have not heard a pair of speakers under 5K I would prefer, and a lot way over it I sure would not. Come to think about it, I have not heard a speaker that I "gotta-have" and speakers are way more important than the DAC. TuneTot wasn't bad. They have made a lot of progress since the Watt. I would like to hear the mid-line Sonas Faber. I could probably match it myself but it takes about 6 months to do a speaker. 

I stick with my beer.  With beer, it is the recipe. Wine the right mouse has to piss on the right vine on the right day....   Great, but too hard to pick.  I'll stick with my Amber ales and porters. Great for $12/6-pack. 

Oops, was just a Coltrane reference... wasn't trying to invent yet another phrase...

I know that the Chord Qutest has been well liked at the $1500k price point, but my personal experience with having both in my system is that the Denafrips Pontus II is a big step up in refinement, detail, naturalness of sound for acoustic instruments and voices, as well as musicality.

In fact, the relatively inexpensive Pontus has compared well to some expensive DACs I've heard in the past year including the dCS Bartok, dCS Rossini, Naim NDX2, and Chord Hugo TT/MScaler . I honestly liked the sound of the Pontus better than the Bartok for acoustic and vocal instruments. The Rossini is better from an audiophile perspective (resolution, detail) than the Pontus, but listening to music via the Rossini didn’t engage me in a visceral, emotional way as much I thought it would. The NDX2 and Hugo TT/MScaler were non-starters for me. I even like the sound of the Qutest better than the Hugo TT. I’m not sure from my experience that I can say that more expensive DACs necessarily sound better, at least to my ears.

The only expensive DAC that I’ve heard that I can 100% say sounds better than the Pontus is the Linn Organik DAC. Not only does that have detail and resolution, but it sounds natural and you can easily understand music played through that DAC.