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? 


I'm totally on board with technically perfect DACs. I have 2 of them, one ESS and the other AKM. I prefer the AKM chip, mostly because it supports DSD Direct, which does sound better to my ears. Great performance at dirt cheap prices, works for me and I love it.

First, I have found that in the very low cost realm (say <$500 - $1,000) the technology does make a difference. I have had, for instance, a number of different ESS implementations, and in the low-end there is a sound. But as you move up, designers craft the sound by overall design and component choices. As you move up, the basic technology becomes unimportant… it is all about the overall design and execution.

As far as buckets. There is low cost <$1,000, budget <$5K, near audiophile <$10K, <$25K mid tier audiophile, and >$35K upper tier audiophile. I just came up with the buckets. let’s not argue over what I called them. But I have heard a lot and owned a lot in the bottom four buckets. There are very large changes in the first three categories, each bests the lower category by a lot. By the time you are over $10K the differences are subtitle but important, and finally at the top, every aspect is polished to perfection.


A note on specific components within categories… some are overperformers, some are under performers, particularly in the bottoms two categories… they are really temperamental on the associated equipment used with them. Then, as you go up… there is much more consistency. There is a lot more well experienced eyes and ears on these and the phonies get weeded out quick.

Of the Topping, JDS, Schiit and a Sabaj I tried, there were differences. Tiny and not very significant. Without A/B, I would say none. Only in direct swapping. I consider these to be well executed in their class. Agree, not all are. Several others went back to Amazon. 

Absolutely, execution matters. Chips not that much. But a billet aluminum case does not actually shield 60 Hz better than stamped steel. I can't hear a color display. 

So, is there a step up that is significant?   Are the improved circuits, code, the analog and reconstruction filters really better? Does Chord know something?  Does the R2R sidestep the worst of the filtering problems?  Are the interfaces well designed so as not to have compatibility issues?  Or is this all a joke playing off our egos.  Why does HOLO make you pay $1000 more for a decent USB. Schiit does it for $250 and it includes the DAC.  An Analog Devices transformer chip costs about a buck in quantity.   What's the excuse?

From my manufacturing experience, there is not much you can actually do above a few K. Which products take that money and actually do a better job?  As an example in an R2R, one can build a single ladder with SOTA .01% resistors, or select sets in parallel and get .001%. Better except thermal drift tosses it out the window. Better caps?  More processing power allows more complex filtering.  There are things you can't do for $100 in a DAC. Toss in useless interfaces, data rates exceeding anything available, licensing for MQA and you are up to $400. Add low volume production and a nice case it is  $800. Drop it into a dealer network and up to $1600  A few You-Tube reviews and audio shows, it is now a $2000 unit.  Same circuit.  

So what units are actually an audible step up. Focus on midrange smoothness. Then maybe dynamics. Don't want to go into adjectives that describe the source, speakers and room being applied to a DAC. Just not there.  Oh, the "midrange sounds forward"  Translation: small hump in the eq.  Would I actually hear a difference between a Pontus and Biftost? Three times the price, is it twice as good? Only slight?   A Qutest over my JDS? 16 times the price? How much better? How much more would I enjoy a few hundred more CDs over the electronics?  Goodwill for 69 cents each!  With discounts at B&N, around $7. I am willing to pay more if it matters. What step to what matters?

I wake up the PC, drag several covers to the queue and walk away. Playing music need not be like a Japanese tea ceremony so not searching for on buttons inside a cabinet. What it looks like I don't care as my electronics are for listening to, not on display as industrial art. Electronics are not part of a craftsman/Asian decor. 

"Would I actually hear a difference between a Pontus and Biftost? Three times the price, is it twice as good? Only slight? A Qutest over my JDS? 16 times the price? How much better? How much more would I enjoy a few hundred more CDs over the electronics?"

No one can really answer this question for you only you can by listening and comparing them in your system. If you are skeptical about will there be/can there be added performance with the extra dollar cost then your choices are to either directly assess and conclude for yourself , or find the most satisfying unit that you can within the price range you are comfortable with/can afford and enjoy. It seems the criticisms about more expensive units and how you view them are superfluous to your intended outcome as you have no intention of spending the money on them. Personal time and energy wasted is never a good thing

Problem is getting them to listen to.  I can borrow a Qutest, but that is about it. 

Having a background in engineering and manufacturing, I know there is a limit where you exceed marginal improvements and transition into magic.  There is just nothing left to do. Sorry if you have one, but $140K for a DAC is not perfection, it is pure bragging rights. Hopefully as good as one for 1/10the price.  3K? 5K? Within the real engineering realm audible or not. Maybe even a little more. My biggest gripe is at that level, they have left out important audible features. No excuse.  $100 or even 1K depending on technology is cost constrained. Not 5K. 

I was hoping for some units I have not heard of to search out. Not everything makes it into You-Tube shills glowing reviews.