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? 


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. 

I replaced a Denafrips Ares ll with a very well reviewed and tested SMSL DO100 , as part of a downsizing. I felt the Ares ll was significantly better, though the SMSL a good value at it's frequent Amazon sale price...

@tvrgeek  "Sorry if you have one, but $140K for a DAC is not perfection, it is pure bragging rights.".  I don't have one ,  don't seek out listening to one because it isn't in my realm of spending on one piece of audio equipment, don't presumptuously judge what I haven't heard ,don't begrudge those who choose  to purchase a  Wadax ($140K DAC) .

From the engineering and manufacturing perspective while the part cost goes up with higher quality DACs the engineering cost goes up much faster. It isn’t simply a matter of choosing “a better quality” part, it is a mater of choosing one that sounds better and synergistic with the other components… so one would evaluate a dozen different kinds of one part… say resistor. Every iteration of the design must be broken in and compared sonically with other versions. This is why a new DAC will literally take more than a year to design by highly skilled engineers (only those that have the skills to design, but also to hear nuanced differences in sound and the patience to work towards a very specific outcome.

In the inexpensive DAC arena, one can go to a parts supplier or contract manufacturer in China and say, I’d like you to build me a DAC… they will give you a standard design for free… you choose the color, the insignia, and if you would like any parts upgrade packages. Then they will make them for you. This is how we get such cheap electronics. I have been to most of these contract manufacturers in China.


Then as far as is the sound worth it. That is entirely a value judgement on an individual basis, and also subject to listening skills and experience. Audiophiles value better sound. Better sound at higher levels is more and more about nuances and consistency across the entire audio spectrum. I, as most audiophiles appreciate better sound as each aspect gets better… it approaches the real thing at the macro and micro level.

Most normal people think anyone is crazy and wasting their money for buying separates of any kind and would not do it. For them, they have the right level of investment and sound quality. I have always worked endlessly to get the very best sound for the absolutely maximum budget I could afford. It makes me very happy. I am very happy and satisfied with my current system: average component cost at $20K. If I could afford it I would take a couple years and upgrade my system to $40K average component cost and my system would sound significantly (and well worth the investment to me) and make me even happier. Arguing that there is one “right” investment level for everyone or there is an absolute “right”  is simply wrong and quite honestly just egotistical.

Good point on separates. For my last round of upgrades, I considered going to a better integrated amp. Looked at SIM, Hegel, Atoll, Audiolab, Rega, Exposure,  etc.  I thought the internal DACs were no improvement to my JDS. ( took it with me to A/B a couple of them)  In isolation, only the Moon seemed to be not as good so  one could live happily with a ton of 50 to 100W A/B integrated amps. But I don't need all the extra switching, headphones, or as it seems, the internal DAC.  None had the level of analog tone control I wanted. and most had the stupid power on to stand-by issue. ( Andiolab and Exposure did not)  So I bought a Vidar and Lokius for less than half the price. I was almost going to buy some Sonas Fabers, but the  upgrade to mine pushed them to their level at least.  That's the only reason I can get past the wife the idea of another DAC. 

And very true, a big part of boutique products is sales in the hundreds ( they hope) does not amortize as well as in the hundreds of thousands and engineering spread over many products.  As an engineer I may understand that, but as a consumer with limited or maybe just rational means, what do I get for my buck? What do I get from the brick and mortar distribution?  No one is going to show up and install a $900  DAC like a set of Wilsons. 

So I have an approach.  It seems once above the mass produced bottom tier, DACs that garner some interest seem to be stand alone requiring a preamp.  More money. So I ordered an Alps servo pot remote board from China-Inc. I hope it is a real ALPS. I am going to stuff this into my Asgard along with a little mixer to give a buffered mono sub out. So a very good remote control preamp and phones for under $100 outlay.  Single ended but my cables are all very short. 

That puts into the cost range the Mojo, Bifrost, Ares entry level non D/S chip wonders. Better or not, probably different. It still leaves open the better of the all-in-one that may be worth a try like the SU-9pro. Returnable if I hear no difference.  

I just can't get excited enough to do the big jump to the Holo Spring full version, Pontus, Hugo range.  Maybe that is the real step up as most have suggested. I hear you. I just can't go there.  There does just not seem to be anything of real improvement value between sup 1K and close to 3. I look at something like the R26 and can't help but to think it is a $500 DAC with $800 in features I don't need. A good one, but no better. 

I think a point I made was miss-understood. At some cost, there is nothing else you can do from a strait engineering improvement.  Above that, there may be value to some for exclusive, visuals, etc. but there just isn't anything known to make it sound better. Hand built does not make better sound. Mono-block billet machining does not sound better. Actually a stamped steel case has better shielding. ( OK, who is advertising Mu-Metal shielding? You want high end, use better materials! ) If it is a value to you, fine.  There is also the diminishing returns way below that level where the home system electronics is far superior to the studio.  To put it bluntly, at some point you are transporting a load of manure in a Rolls Royce hoping it will smell better. My quest is only sonic performance.  A Bugatti won't get me to the store any faster than my GTI and considering real roads ( like the music source) the GTI is a better match.  It is a big step up from a Yogo but above it, there is not really much more you can do in real performance.