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 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. 

I’m very happy with my current system and DAC I really enjoy the process of learning and then purchasing the equipment I feel should provide excellent sonics. I follow this process over long time periods due to budget and my thinking that newer equipment will improve Sonics over most products using this method. I rarely feel slighted or frustrated by and time period sonic flavor. 

works for me. -


Listening on my desk system is concluded.  Headphones and speakers. There might be a slight difference in upper treble detail, but insignificant to me. In about the same range as switching filters from minimum phase to Anodizing. I hear no differences from probably 6K down.   Not looking good for the D400es as an upgrade. 

More on the main system were first impressions were stronger. Detail, but at the expense of smoothness. Fine is a cymbals crash is cleaner but not if a vocal is edgier. 


nice article

a good read for those who enjoy understanding how these things work in some detail

at the end of the day though, i select the filter type (if offered) by ear