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? 


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

I think the conclusions that all "tier one" chip DACs sound almost the same are pretty close.  I do hear a tiny difference it the very top end "air" but it seems to be at the expense of vocal smoothness. Filter 3 smoother, 4 sharper .  Overall, I prefer my old JDS Atom+ for just enjoying music. It could be the differences are above the 17K or so range where my hearing is falling off. Or the "massive differences" from the You-Tube shills are all made up. Is it a shame that good hearing is wasted on the young who can't afford top tier equipment? 

The front knob is USELESS. One could glue a knob on it. But a desktop device you have to use the remote for is just plain stupid. On the plus side, Remote range is far better than Topping, it has XLR outputs, and does not really do anything wrong, so in a vacuum, most would be quite happy with it.  I think they did spend the money on the power and output, but it does not seem to be the determining factor. 

So the SMSL is going back.  Keeping the DX3pro+ in the main stereo for now and the JDS Atom+ stack on the desk.  I was considering a Denafrips/Ladder/Musician entry level R2R, but the horror stories about defective units or returning because they did not like them is preventing me. Not risking that kind of bucks for no support.  Jumping up to mid tier is even riskier! There may be great positive stories but I did not find any. As we know, do it right and you tell a couple people, do it wrong and you tell the world. That leaves the Bifrost or Mojo as the only two sub 1K  DACs that may sound different with minimal risk. I think I'll wait a while. 

I was thinking about the above article I referenced.  Do consider the test signal that stepped from 0 to max in one bit is an artificial situation that would never happen unless a corrupted file and it exceeds the rise time of a sine wave within the 20K spectrum.  It implies a single sample wide pulse.  So his comments on looking at the ripple seems reasonable.  Not sure I agree with his filter selection, but of course that is a "hearing" choice.   Looking at the response of the Schiit and JDS, it looks like both are close to "linear fast" but as these are older chips, the filters are custom and not the hardcoded  ESS numbered ones.  I also noticed the documentation in Topping and SMSL do not match the numbers as published in the ESS data sheet. They scramble the numbers a little.  You can figure it out looking at their published documentation.   

This is a complicated subject and I would like to track down more just for understanding. Bits are bits, but what you do with them matters.   Someone asked Mike Moffit which filter he used in the Schiit DACs. His answer was "The right one".  I suspect the filter is a large pert of why John Seaber's DACs are so good using older cheap parts.  It's the execution, not the parts.