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 guess some people do one thing then they die. Not me.   I started my career with Storage Technology and ended retiring from the DoD. 


@tvrgeek Congrats on the new DAC! Love SMSL and that has flagship performance at a great price. I'm loving my D-6 even though it's their entry level balanced DAC, sounds wonderful and fully transparent to my ears. I actually have my eye on the new D400 Pro, looking snazzy in silver. 


@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)

i would say 98% of this forum’s membership with their assortment of rigs (speakers/amps/rooms) couldn’t say for sure that a 80k MSB sounds superior to a ~1.6k Gustard R26 in a blind sonics comparison.

If a dude wants to hear distinct differences in dacs even in the 1k to 10k range, he will need serious speakers, amps and a room.

Speakers: High resolution speakers like TAD, upper end JBL synthesis, etc

Amps; Gryphon, Luxman, etc

A room with speakers pulled away from 7ft from front wall, 8 to 10 ft behind listener and back wall, i.e. a larger dedicated room and serious investment in treatments...(not 2 lil sht panels hung up for decorative purposes and some goofy dude claims his room is treated).

When such prereqs for high resolution are met, he can perceive all kinds of differences in dacs. He could start collecting dacs for different flavors like the vinyl guys collect different higher end catridges.


We have to remember that a good DAC has a good Analog section along with the Digital portion.  My Benchmark DAC3 HGC is a world class DAC with an astounding S/N ratio, (a key metric IMO), as well as the ability to resolve 21 bits of resolution, (currently at the top of that spec along with a few others).  It has enough digital and analog inputs to handle my system, although I do use a Parasound phono pre to rip vinyl to computer.  I think the advantage of having the DAC and the pre, in the same box allows for power supply and shielding to be incorporated in the genesis of the design.  That's a lot of kit for a $2400 MSRP.

I too have had a slew of sub-1k DAC's and the best of the lot was the Cambridge 200, and the worst was some unknown $50 iPod dock that was used in workshop system.  So in my case, the more money I spent, the better results I got.

Personally I think that if you've got $100k to spend on a DAC, you should have already spent that $100lk or more on acoustic design for your space.


I agree, the most important part of the DAC is the reconstruction and output analog, though from my listening I would have to give a lot of props to the digital implementation ( not the chip) as the Atom+ still holds it's own with a 3-generation old chip and generic OP-Amp output.  John seems to know what he is doing.  The same has been said about Geselli but I have not heard one.   One of the reasons I decided to try the D300es was their higher end output from their entry level. ( multi parallel OPA OP-Amps) and claimed better power supplies.  I also have a Schiit Asgard that has a very good discrete output.  Granted, Benchmark is , well the Benchmark.  If I had the bucks, ( $2200?) a Benchmark  might have been on the table.  Their literature suggests they have addressed all the issues I know about. At least with Benchmark, you are paying for the circuit, not the advertising. I was looking at an AHB2, but too much money.  I think of Bryston kind of the same way but don;t know if it is still true. 

The differences are slight, but maybe the SMSL does have a little sharper details compared to the JDS, but I am not sure it is as pleasant. The older AKM Schiit DAC was edgier until I reduced the JRiver output. They all got closer then. 

Unfortunately, we are dealing with new and re-mastered tracks post "loudness wars" and we are lucky if that 24 bit download is more than 12 bits.   Now as far as internal DSP, having many more bits to deal with for overhead allows more filter choices and then the ability to adjust the level without adding additional clipping. Another advantage to newer chips or stacking them. 

I agree an integrated DAC and Pre, or for that matter full integrated amp is a better engineering solution as it eliminates any cabling issues or other engineering tradeoffs by not knowing the following stage. It can reduce money spent on things like fancy cabinets and sharing things like the digital power supply separate from analog supplies.   After looking at several integrated amps, I chose to remain separates and picked up the Vidar. Of the very few that actually power up with AC supplied, I was not impressed with the DAC in any I could afford.  I am putting a servo remote in my Asgard, the Topping and SMSL both have preamp modes so the integrated preamp section is redundant. 

One trap I think we get into is "hearing new things" not because they are there, but because we are listening for them.  How many times has someone pointed out something odd in a track you ever noticed, but once noticed, you don't un-hear it even when you chill out and are just listening to music.  

So , one day only I am not impressed with the SMSL.  I may want a more artificially smoother DAC like an R2R.   Unfortunately R2R is an expensive technology to implement, so the "Equivalent" quality level is likely several times a chip DAC.  Spring and Pontius seem to be the suggested actual improvement.   Neither is available for me to borrow.  A Bifrost is about the only option. 

Alas, I am forced with my living room as it is as it is our living room, not a sound demonstration room.  Not bad, but a little bright.  I have tracked down all the little things that can buzz.  

I repetitive comment is criticizing  non-mega-buck systems.  None of those folks know mine.   At the listening levels I use, mine speakers are very resolving. Granted, in a bigger room and played much louder, there are better choices.  I don;t need a 1000W super amp as I never use mote than about 10.