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? 


You have spoken . Volkswagen better fire all of its Porsche & Lamborghini engineers.

Well Porsche USED to make useable sports cars. You could actually make it to work and back every day. They do make a re-badged VW SUV.  Drove a couple a few years ago. Bought an MG. Better car. More fun. 

I was going to compare the Lambo to a $140K DAC, but the DAC will actually sit on the shelf and do a perfectly good job while you brag how rich you are, where the Lambo is just bragging rights for rich guys  that if it does not catch on fire every time you rev it, won't clear a driveway apron let alone a speed bump and is darn right dangerous in even a light rain.  So it is not really a car and no comparison is valid. Not even a decent technology demonstrator.   But as I said, there is a point when more makes no useable difference and in case of super cars, more is actually less. 

Oh for the days of the Ferrari 400 or  the 330   Useable cars on real streets. Chord Dave?   Then the did the F40 and they have been useless ever since. The last useful Lambo was a farm tractor. Come to think of it Porsche made a series of very useful tractors too. Bill Scott had a complete collection. 


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As the consensus is the big step up is more than I am willing to pay, and my entry level chip based do not have an obvious defect, I decided to see what a higher end current chip based does within a "play" budget.    So Amazon, sale price SMSL D400es.   $800 list, sale $550

Well, ONE parameter that improved when going from entry level  (DX3pro+ I am using or the Sabaj that I sent back with the SMSL  is the remote works across the room!  Usability counts.  Thumb's down on the front spinner. If I keep it, it will get a knob glued to it. 

 It will take a lot of music to see if I can hear a difference. Main system speakers, desk system speakers, Desk headphones.  Amanda McBroom sounds great, but she always sounds great!  

One of the tests will be to see if this unit requires the decrease in player gain, or if by stacking the DACs they have sufficient bits to capture overshoot in the filter calculations and then scale before the conversion.  Going to have to dig into the architecture deeper.  For sure the Schiit and JDS did. It would be great if this was another problem recognized and fixed.  

Trying to think how to test with and without a galvanic isolator without opening the case.  Probably not possible. 

.Jumping to Spring or Pontus is more than I can do. I decided against the Chord at least for now.