The Emperor DAC has no Clothes

I currently use the Rega DAC in a system comprised of Merlin TSM-MXr speakers on Skylan stands. Amp is the Manley Stingray II tube amp. Oppo CD player and Mac Mini feeds the Rega DAC with Pure Music and Cardas cables. My friends system is currently using an ARC integrated with Vanderteen 5a's. He's had the W4S Dac II, EE Minimax Plus, ARC 8 DAC and is currently trying out another borrowed Rega because I won't loan him mine again!

In recent weeks we've tried these DACs in both systems, tweaked and tried various setups. I posted in another thread that the Rega won out against the Minimax Plus and the W4S 2 and that he was partial to the little Centrance.

So here's the thing. The Rega and the ARC sound pretty much the same. So does the W4S 2 and the Minimax. We STRUGGLE to hear the tiny differences between these units! And by "struggle" I mean we use top level recordings and LISTEN LIKE MANIACS again and again. 99% of the time we could not pick these units apart. 100% of the we find that we could be happy with ANY of them! Of course there was a preference for the Rega and the ARC, but boy was it slight! The smallest tweak could shift the balance. A different set of cables, speakers or higher ceiling could easily effect things.

Between the two of us we have something like 65 years of experience with audio. I find it absolutely hilarious when someone posts that a DAC sounds "much" better than another DAC. How is it that we can't hear the same thing, nor can ANY of our friends? We certainly hear a HUGE difference in speakers and amps and very audible ones with cables. But GOOD stand-alone DACs appear to be doing a very good job. MOST people simply list the one or two they've heard in stores as their favorites. If you're looking for a "safe bet" in a DAC you can go with ANY of the models I mentioned above or some of the other fine units out there. Unless someone has your exact system, in the same room and your precise tastes, try not to worry overmuch about DAC A blowing away DAC B.

This was most apparent in trying out the EE Minimax Plus. He tried various tubes and it always sounded best in SS mode! And in that mode it sounded quite like all of the others and about as good as the much less expensive Centrance. So the point of this is to put your efforts and money into speakers and amp/pre. That's 95% of the type of sound you'll get. They determine the character of the system more than anything else.


Thanks for your post. Appreciate the perspective it lends. I had the Centrance, and the EE Minimax Plus. I returned one and sold the other. Briefly had the Wyred DAC 2. I'm on the long list of folks waiting for an Audiolab MDAC. I do wonder how it would compare to the dacs you mention.

Thanks for the amusing post! First of all it depends on the resolution of the system and the acuity of your ears!

First all Vandersteen loudspeakers have recessed treble and are not as highly resolving as other high performance loudspeakers, I am not saying they are bad speakers, however, they are voiced on the soft and laid back side.

In my shop I can do similar comparisons and some of the differences are monumental:

I have compared many dacs from Bryston, Benchmark, Cary, M2 Tech, Hegel, Esoteric, AMR, Meitner, Naim, Rega,Cambridge Audio, and they all sound quite different! They all differ in terms of resolution, sound stage width and depth, bass definition and impact, and warmth or lack of warmth in the midrange.

What I will agree with you is that many of the dac's priced in the $1,000.00 or so range do sound similar, however, that is not an earth shattering concept, many integrated amplifiers in the same price range offer similar performance and differ in the above criteria as well.

Dudes buy a box of Q Tips, and pay me a visit I can demonstrate to you that your findings are only accurate in your limited set of circumstances: your system setup and your ears, extrapolating your particular biases and expectations to the rest of an industry is fallacious.

Do you think the market would bear so many different dacs at so many different price points if they all sounded the same? Do you also think that everyone else here is delusional when they post that they switched from brand x dac to brand y and heard a huge improvement?

Hey what do I know I have been doing this as a profession for 25 years.

Dealer disclosure
This surprises me because we have to remember that a DAC also contains a "linestage" at the output that can make or break the sound. This is usually where the tubes are in the circuit of a tubed DAC. Sometimes it is as simple as a no gain cap and resistor like in a modified Sony Playstation. Sometimes a more elaborate gain producing circuit. You may have compared a bunch of DACs that all sound good or similar, but, I'm sure you could come up with some others you don't like as much.
I, too, thank you for your post. I have yet to accept the DAC route. In my view, why have redundant components? Why have a DAC stage sitting idle in one's player? A transport/DAC setup would seem to make sense. However, a properly designed player--with a good (non-op-amp) output stage--would seem to provide the best, most straightforward solution for a digital source. Too bad these players are $3,500 and up (that is, if the "entry-level" Ayre did not go up in price this year).'s another rub:

The longer you live with a DAC the more it settles in. I'm not talking about break-in. I'm talking about our ears and tastes settling in with a new addition to a system. After the W4S 2 was broken in we still weren't in love with it. But after more time went by we found it better than our first and second impressions. The unit had not changed. We did.

The more I listen to the Rega DAC the more I like it. I bet if I had the EE or ARC living in my system for a while I'd also start to acclimate and appreciate the strengths as much or more.

So when folks gave me reviews and impressions of the Merlin speakers, I was happy to find them very in line with my own listening experience. The same can be said for the Manley tube amp. People were really on target, as they were with speaker wire and even the two power cords I tried.
But I've found almost universal "fail" when it comes to users and reviewers giving their two cents on DACs. No matter who it is I believe that such reviews must be taken with a LARGE grain of salt, unless your system is a very close match for the person writing the review. The DACs we listened to were tried on two systems and even that leaves a huge margin for error in our assessments.

If you kept the EE, try it with tube removed! This is it's most transparent configuration, at least so far as we could hear. The Centrance is truly terrific, but needed a long break-in before it gave it's best. Your findings may be completely different and just as valid!

Robert B
Post removed 

The problem is that many people write such comments in the same manner as they do any other review.

Example: I was told that the Merlins would create imaging and tonal accuracy far beyond what my excellent Magnepan 1.6 pair could manage. And those people were right. In fact they may have understated the merits of the Merlins.

But then I read peoples comments about the Rega DAC or EE Minimax and see things like "nothing comes close." It's laughable and just not true. The truth is they are ALL very close. Another friend of mine told me his new Oppo 95 "blew away the older modded 83." I went for a listen and the term "blew away" is just not applicable. I'd go with "small but nice improvement."

Even if someone thinks their DAC blows away the others it won't apply to your system most of the time. The real deal is that we've been blown away by the sameness of these units. I also have real doubts that people ever compare these units in their own systems. A few might, most don't. I sure don't! I have a friend who does, though he's finished worrying about DACs.


Thank you Rob for pulling back the curtain.

I like my Centrance enough to not go on that never ending quest.

All the best,
My DAC rules:

1) Almost all DAC's have to choose between a few main chipsets. Right now, Wolfson and Sabre tend to be two of the more popular ones. Find out if you tend to prefer one particular chipset over another.

2) Don't spend megabucks on DAC's. We are talking about technology that churns quickly. I view my DAC like I view my laptop.

3) Try and find a DAC that is flexible regarding tweaking.

I bought the EE Minimax Plus because I prefer the Sabre chip to the Wolfson, the price is affordable ($1100) and the EE DAC allows a good deal of tweaking (SS or tube mode, easy Opamp changes). I fully expect that I will probably purchase a new DAC in a 2-3 year time period.
I use the Calyx dac having replaced the original EE minimax. Must admit the Calyx is more open/airly than the EE. Also had a take home experience with the EE and the Moon 300d. Actually quite a different presentation via my iMac/pure music.

However, for TV watching i bought a little Brik DAC ($200) and hooked it up to my NAD blue ray player and Moon i1 amp. Wired up so that I could switch back and forth between the internal NAD dac and the Brik. Absolutely no difference. Then I hooked up the Calyx and did the same thing. Struggled to find a difference, although the Calyx was a little smoother.

My take is the source (player) and front end cables make a 'huge' difference in whether or not DACs sound the same or different.
as have said in the past, the placebo effect is alive and well. you can convince yourself that component a sounds better than component b.

someone else may come along and disagree.

however, i think that when it comes to tubes, there are differences.

i find it hard to believe that a ss piece sounds like a classic tube component.

one more thing, regarding the minimax sounding better in solid state mode.

no one says in what respects the sss mode sounds better.

in my opinion "better" is one of the more misued words in the english language. i think it means "i prfere". it's just a way of saying "in my opinion i prefer" . however, it leaves a sense of ambiguity because since better is so subjective, there is no communication.

so, all i ask, is when someone says a sounds better than b, describe the differnces, please.
To get to a certain level of resolution and quality I think you need to spend $1K for a dac or cd player. Any of the 10 or so popular items will do. Main difference is options you need. To get to another better level you need to spend at least two/three times as much. Then it's the stratosphere for small improvements. IMO
The only way to compare DACs accurately is using a really low jitter digital source IME. Otherwise, what you are hearing is the DACs ability to reduce jitter a little, not what the DAC can actually deliver.

Case in point:

A good friend of mine uses a modded NOS DAC based on the TDA1543. Drives it with I2S. With a typical CD player driving this DAC, almost any newer generation DAC will sound better. However, when you drive it with a really low jitter signal, such as a computer source, the NOS DAC takes the lead by a fair margin.

The point is that some DACs need a really low jitter digital signal to shine. If you dont have this, then the other DACs appear to be better. What you are hearing is just the jitter of the source.

Another case in point:

One of the conclusions here is that the digital source is actually more important than the DAC. I agree.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
It seems to me having followed DAC threads for a while and listening to a few, that a lot of the differences may arise out of connections. DACs and computer audio seem unique in having a plethora of connections, partly because many of them have real problems. These lie of course, in jitter, clocking, whether the clocks in the DAC or computer are utilised as in Synchronous and Asyncronous USB, for example.

May not a lot of the difference be in the care in implementing firwire SPDIF or USB connections and which connection is best to the source?
02-14-12: Audiooracle
First of all it depends on the resolution of the system and the acuity of your ears!
True, obviously, to some extent. However, it should be kept in mind that the ability of a system to resolve musical information, and its ability to resolve differences between components, while obviously having some degree of correlation, are two different things.

For instance, a digital transport that provides a highly jitter-laden signal to the DAC will be more resolving of differences between DACs than a transport that provides a signal having minimal jitter. A transport having an inaccurate output impedance will be more resolving of differences between DACs than one having an accurate output impedance, everything else being equal. A S/PDIF digital interconnect cable that provides poor shielding against emi/rfi pickup, or that has high shield resistance that can contribute to ground loop issues, or that has poorly controlled impedance characteristics, will be more resolving of differences between DAC's than a better cable. A preamp having low input impedance will be more resolving of differences between DAC's than one having higher input impedance, everything else being equal. A comparison between a given group of DAC's may turn out completely differently depending on the happenstances of the risetimes and falltimes of the output signal of the transport, and the propagation velocity of the interconnect cable. Etc., etc. A great many other comparable examples could be cited.

My point being that while it is easy (and very common) to blame the quality of a system when there is a reported inability to perceive differences, that is not necessarily what is going on. And in fact an inverse correlation may often exist between the ability of a system to resolve musical information, and its ability to resolve differences between components, cables, tweaks, etc.

-- Al
The founder of Musical Fidelity, which hawks the $300 giant-killer V-DAC, posited that "most high-end components offer incredibly bad value. . . about four to five percent of the cost of good value high-end electronics is in the actual electronics that do the work. The other 95% of the cost is in the metalwork and other items that don't contribute to sound production or sound quality."
I was intrigued enough by his viewpoint to buy a V-DAC, and it is in fact a very good product which to my middlebrow ears sounds as good as better as some much pricier, fancier DACs. I've also discovered some really cheap DACs (most recently the MCM/Behringer 50-774) which do remarkably well. Bottom line, I deduce, is that chips, opamps and the other little electronic bits which actually influence sound are very inexpensive, and most people shouldn't have to invest megabucks for sonic improvement.
So Audioengr, other than the renowned MAC Mini, what are some examples of reasonably price yet quality digital sources with low jitter? Any laptops besides the Macbook Pro?
To the fellow who has the're the first person I've heard say that the Vandersteen 5a's are not a highly resolving speaker. My Merlin TSM-MXr's are also noted for being fairly good when it comes to getting the details.

Naturally...My system, which costs 16K or so is not the end-all system. It's quite modest compared to some. My friends system costs close to 40K and I'll also admit that it's still not the highest end. If this level of gear is holding back these DACs then please stop the world cuz I wanna get off!

Mr.Tennis....I've posted elsewhere that we found the Minimax Plus more restricted in soundstage, tubby in the midrange and just less musical with the tube stage. The owner borrowed some nice tubes and was never satisfied the way he was in SS mode with tube removed. It just wasn't the top pick with our systems, but it could easily be perfect with others. Listening to the Minimax after so many raves is one of the things that started my skepticism.

Again, I do hear differences, but sheesh, are they small! Perhaps it comes down to language.

"one more thing, regarding the minimax sounding better in solid state mode.

no one says in what respects the sss mode sounds better. "

Mr. Tennis - In my system, the SS mode came across as having more detail and resolution. Tube mode came across a bit muddied or veiled in comparison. This is with the stock tube. Hope that helps.
From my years as a professional musician, I learned to never assume someone else cannot hear something just because I couldn't. That's like assuming someone can't read fine print because I can't. If you cannot hear a difference it would be silly to purchase the more expensive component, but to believe nobody else can is... ignorant?
Chayro - Excellent post. I'm not implying that you're implying that Robbob is ignorant though.


I heard a decent amount of difference between the W4S DAC1, Benchmark DAC1 and Rega DAC in my system (Bryston B60 and Audio Physic Yara Evolution Bookshelf).

They're harder to put into exact words though... The Rega just made better sense of the music than the others (and all others I've heard in my system). Music (not just sounds) was easier to follow and subsequently get lost in. My ears were constantly in analyze mode with the Benchmark and W4S (although not nearly as much with the W4S).

If I were to get technical with it, the differences wouldn't be that great. The Benchmark sounded a bit bleached, the W4S sounded yadda yadda yadda. In the technical aspects, their wasn't that much difference. In musical ebb and flow and musical enjoyment, the Rega was far better than anything I've heard at home. Sounds like a cop-out, but it's genuinely not.

Case in point - my wife tolerates my hobby. She doesn't criticize, but she thinks I'm a bit too geeky with this stuff (she's right, btw). I'm not saying even she heard the differences, but in a roundabout way, she did...

When I brought the Rega DAC home, unbeknownst to her, I had it playing a few tunes I love, but she's never cared much for. That was the first time I've seen her foot tap to the music. When I went to turn it off, she asked me to keep it on - another first. She enjoys music in our home more now than ever.

Wierd, huh?

For the record, I didn't sneek the Rega in. She frankly doesn't care what I buy, so long as we've got heat, electricity, food, and our daughter is fed. I just had it set up and running before she got home.
Chayro, I agree 100%. It's just that there are more ears than mine who listened to these DACs and no one heard a big difference. Over time the differences became smaller or at least seemed so.

The associated gear is quite good. The listeners are experienced. We HEARD DIFFERENCES, but found them far from impressive and variable depending on recordings, which in turn made some of the differences a wash.

It's also my belief that the average buyer chooses a DAC based on reviews and maybe comparison to 1 or 2 other units. Certainly we cannot evaluate the way we do with speakers. In spite of my carrying on about this, I also bought my Rega DAC with minimal comparison. I got a loaner from Signature sound and compared to a few units my friend had. That's not much of an evaluation against the 30 or more speakers I listened to before I bought Merlins. Show me the showroom that has 10 DACs set up for a clean head-to head comparison. Many don't have any.
I don't doubt people's hearing, but I greatly doubt conclusions made from a very narrow range of listening experience. Hooking up a certain DAC with perhaps the best reviews going, we were sad to hear it was "about the same" as much less expensive DAC. Changing a powercord brought about more significant changes.

My main point is that some sort of "scale" needs to be employed. When people claim the Bazooka 5000 DAC destroys the SuperNova 10 there needs to be a more accurate representation as to what the differences amount to musically.

Sibelius, sometimes tubes don't match tubes in other components. It's not very scientific, but they can sound tubby and muddy when synergy is poor. My friend sold his Minimax Plus to a fellow using a system using Revel speakers and SS power. He's pretty happy with the tube stage of the Minimax. It just didn't gel with my Manley tubes or the owner's ARC stuff.
I do think more and more people are getting turned on to the minimax plus sans tube stage. You just have to get beyond the "But I bought a tube DAC to use the tube!" angle and realize that it's SS stage was very well designed.

Robbob - I'm glad you took my post in the spirit it was intended. When I was studying music in college, one of my professors, an accomplished pianist, was astounded that I couldn't hear the difference between the sound a white key and a black key from across the room. I later learned that, because of the difference in the mechanics of the keys, there is an audible difference in the way the hammer strikes the strings. Brass players can hear the difference in Bach and Selmer trumpets from across the street and experienced drummers can easily tell the difference between Zildjian and Paiste cymbals. I'm sure that, in your tests, for whatever reasons, the differences might have been minimal. It was just the sweeping nature of the pronouncement that all dacs sound the same or minimally different that caught my interest. I personally have no experience with DACs, but a lot of experience with CD players and I have heard very large differences - mostly in the way they capture the sound around the notes. I have a cheap Oppo and an EAR in my system. The Oppo gets the notes just fine - it's the air, the reverb, the tonality of the instrument that lacks when directly compared to the EAR. In any case, enjoy and have fun. That's what this is supposed to be about, I guess.
Rob - agree with you. I was fully expecting to prefer tube mode, but ss mode just adds more to my system. The added detail and resolution is welcome, especially without the listener fatigue I tend to equate with SS gear. Having tube preamplifier and amp probably helps in that regard. For whatever reason, the tube mode just does not blend in well with my system. As you mentioned, tube mode may work very well in revealing SS system where the goal is to add some warmth at the source. As usual, there are no absolutes and individual system synergy tells the tale.
"So Audioengr, other than the renowned MAC Mini, what are some examples of reasonably price yet quality digital sources with low jitter? Any laptops besides the Macbook Pro?"

With the advent of Async USB interfaces, this has nothing to do with the computer. It has to do with the USB interface. This is the digital source I'm talking about. This is what impacts the jitter.

If your computer uses a soundcard, then yes, the clock and interface is in the computer and this is where the jitter matters. But if we are talking about high-performance playback, this is not about internal soundcards. It's about high-performance external USB converters and USB DACs. This is where the low-jitter master clocks are located and this is what determines the jitter.

Mac Mini and Macbook Pro are certainly a good place to start to get something reliable going, and installation of Amarra or PM etc.. will definitely help with SQ, but this is second-order compared to the interface and clocks. The computer is not what determines the jitter level.

People seem to be fixated on the computer hardware and getting the best one for audio with all of the tweaks. It's not about the computer if one uses the optimum interface. I use a stock 2009 Mac Mini myself. Nothing special. I may put a SSD in it eventually.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Loomis wrote:

"about four to five percent of the cost of good value high-end electronics is in the actual electronics that do the work"

That may be the case for the V-DAC, because that company has marketing and lots of employees to pay salaries. They probably have 3X margins so they can sell worldwide through distributors etc.. This is a typical model for consumer electronics.

Some high-end companies however have very few employees, dont advertise, and put a LOT of cost into the products, causing their margins to be small and their prices to be higher. Most of these are smaller companies that sell direct. There are actually much better components available, including connectors, internal cabling, multi-layer high-quality silver-plated circuit boards, low dielectric absorption capacitors, low ESR capacitors, low inductance resistors. Clocks (oscillators) that produce lower jitter are expensive, very expensive. When a designer uses these parts in the design, the result is much higher cost, but also lower electrical noise levels, better dynamic slam, more clarity, wider and deeper soundstage and less harshness in the audio output. More analog-like. The performance is definitely better than less expensive designs.

This is not about op-amps and IC's. What makes a really stellar component is the other "stuff", as well as the implementation.

BTW, Read the review of the V-DAC in TAS. You will learn a few things about jitter.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Very interesting, all. Rob, I've been following your experimentation with various DACs with interest, and, well, my interest remains. I suspect, in the end, however, that we're all more in agreement than otherwise. Marketing hyperbole aside, I submit (surmise?) that there are really a limited amount of variables in play that can meaningfully differentiate one piece of gear from another when it comes to sophisticated, well-considered DAC implementation. When one gets to comparing the differences among the sort of gear that we're all so fascinated with, the bottom line is that the differences are really not going to be all that earth-shattering. Put differently, and as has been observed many times, we’re likely the obsessive few dealing with vanishingly diminishing returns between the 99th percentile (above which most folks never imagine to venture) and the 100th percentile of very-likely mythical “true reproduction” of recorded material.

All that said, I do not for a moment mean to diminish the relevance (or importance) of these small distinctions. They are, after all, what we’re all about. Although I am admittedly guilty of having limited experience on my own digital safari, I certainly identified and developed preferences among various digital sources. My “reference” for years has been a Meridian 508.24. Hardly the last word in anything, but a relatively (and enduringly) nice piece of kit. When I first sought to make the transfer to a computer-based system, spent a little over a year with a MHDT Havana as the DAC. Also nice, but in the end just didn’t think it was in the same league as the Meridian. Warmth and bloom that I so chase after, yes, but clearly at the expense of resolving power, finer detail, and the more-complete sense of presence and recreation of space that these micro-details convey. Minor – very minor – distinguishing details, but on the whole details that convey a materially different experience. I’ve also had in my system a less-expensive Taiwanese DAC (a friend’s, don’t remember the make) that was significantly less impressive than the MHDT. Again, very minor details in the grander scheme of things, but the sum of the parts were materially less capable of conveying presence and the full experience. Following the day spent comparing the MHDT, the Meridian and the mystery DAC with said friend, I became obsessed with finding a more resolving DAC that could run with the Meridian – and to me this entailed moving from the non-up-sampling offerings to something else.

With that, I found myself in a shootout between the Ayre QB-9 and a Bel Canto 3.5 at a local shop (mostly Bel Canto electronics, higher-end Totem speakers, running Amarra on a Mac for a source). Yes, somewhat arbitrary, and arbitrarily limited, but there you go. The Ayre and the Bel Canto were awfully similar, no mistake. Both portrayed a largely indistinguishable soundstage and level of detail and were quite impressive. Ultimately, to my ears on that day, in that room, on that equipment, the Bel Canto was slightly more etched and “sharp” in its presentation, while the Ayre was a touch warmer and more relaxed. A very minor difference, but a material one in my book. Ended up with a pleasantly-cheaper Ayre.

Since then, spent about a year running bit perfect (through Bit Perfect, which is great) in integer mode with no upsampling. Then I started to acquire more and more high res material. Recently, I have converted to a USB 2.0 feed and begun upsampling (by powers of two) to either 176 or 192khz, depending on the source resolution (44khz x4, 88khz x 2, or 96khz x 2). Fascinated by the flexibility this gives one to change really material stuff with only the ticking of a box (on Bit Perfect, did I mention I like that program?). Still not sure there’s a clear preference – often changes depending on the material – but love the flexibility. The bits/transport end supplying what the DAC is fed makes a real difference. And absent a common language regarding that, I suspect that DAC comparisons may be at a real impasse. I will say, however, that the whole experience has severely damaged my belief that there is such a think as “truth” or a meaningful benchmark against which to objectively rate all comers. You can judge X against Y in-system and prefer one to the other, or not, but at least I don’t seem capable of going much beyond that. And one can make and perceive changes, but conveying them to others through words, much less convincing anyone that one may be “better” than another, is so fundamentally context-based and subjective as to be nearly impossible. I will say, apropos of the original premise, that the difference between a $200 Kimber USB cable and the free one that came with my RAID drive – especially running USB 2.0 – is exactly zero. Usual caveats, my system, my room, my ears, but I stand by conclusively zero. (And this from a true believer that cabling elsewhere in the system makes surprisingly significant differences.)

(And if you really want to damage your calm, get ahold of some analyzing software and an SPL meter and run some hard data on your room performance. I’ve had both a professional sound engineer and a world class ballet dancer graciously comment that I can generate some of the best sound they’ve heard outside of a professional recording studio – bless them both, does wonders for the ego – but, let me tell you folks, my room’s a travesty. In the interest of moving from strategic wild ass guesswork (“SWAG”) to actual f-ing data (“AFD”), I’ve seen the AFD and my room’s an unmitigated disaster. Makes quibbling about the finer points of DAC selection seems a total waste of time. Relativity and context is a bitch. Alas.)

Anyway, ramble aside, DACs have one thing going for them that no one can deny – they’re likely more portable than just about anything else in this “hobby.” I’ve got two (the Ayre and the Havana). Anyone in the NYC area interested in continuing the shoot-out? Can’t make any promises, but I could be game....
more detail and resolution, does not intrinsically denote that the sound is better.

but i appreciate that someone has indicated a reason for preferring the solid state path.

i think that the availability of a tube circuit provides the opportunity to vary the sound of the unit.
hi mezmo:

do you exclude the possibility that a tube dac , with a tube gain stage and a particular nos tube cannot sound very different than a solid state dac ?
"more detail and resolution, does not intrinsically denote that the sound is better.

but i appreciate that someone has indicated a reason for preferring the solid state path.

i think that the availability of a tube circuit provides the opportunity to vary the sound of the unit."

Agree with you that more detail and resolution may not be wanted for all systems. I also appreciate the option of both SS and tube modes. In fact, I have ordered a NOS Mullard 12au7 to see if my impression of tube mode changes with a different tube. Regardless, I think the very fact the DAC + offers so much in the way of sonic tweaking is a big advantage in my book.
Mr. T: absolutely not, wouldn't say that I'm in a position to exclude
anything. Just surmising and extrapolating from my admittedly limited
experience -- and hoping to learn and expand said experience in the
process. Way I see it, rambling on as I do at such unnecessary length is
meant as an honest invitation for explanation regarding why I may be
misguided. Best way to empower someone to point out where I may have
gone astray is to lay out exactly where I'm at and how I got there, no?
And, must say, I was also spurred on by your challenge to better
articulate "better." (That said, I've lived with both a tubed DAC and a tubed
CDP for several years, all told, through various iterations of tube-rolling.
Different? Surely. Mind-blowingly different? Wouldn't say that.)
more detail and resolution, does not intrinsically denote that the sound is better.>>>>

Some recordings are poorly served by the ninth degree of detail and resolution, but when the planets line up I prefer to have a system that gives me everything that was recorded, or as much as possible. I have stated before that the Minimax + is more forgiving and "sweet" at the top end. I liked it, especially on older recordings. But our general feeling was that the tube stage was not doing the rest of the unit any favors, perhaps coloring the unit. I did not hear it with the better tubes, but the owner said it never altered the issues we heard.
In SS mode the Mimimax retained much of the sweetness, gained detail and space around instruments. It really was no contest. It sounded more like live music in SS mode, if less polite on some recordings.
The W4S 2 was (and still is) the detail champ, but then the Rega and Centrance edge it out in midrange presentation. The Rega and Centrance soundstage is really impressive.

Any STILL...with all of these comments above many people would LAUGH at how alike the units are overall. I have to stop listening to music, disengage myself emotionally and listen to the DACs like a mental patient! That can be fun, but in the's the music I'm interested in much more.

Mrtennis, have you removed the tube and tried the SS stage for a while?

do you exclude the possibility that a tube dac , with a tube gain stage and a particular nos tube cannot sound very different than a solid state dac ?>>>>

I'd like to address this question, especially given the fact that I heard the Minimax + in two very different systems.
The answer is no. The Mimimax sounded pretty much the same. Extended listening revealed TINY differences in soundstage (weaker in the tube stage), slightly sweeter top end (audible mainly on older harsher recordings) and a bit of thickness in the midrange, especially on vocals. Going the SS mode retained the sweetness and improved other areas.
So the tube added nothing substantial, certainly not in the way my Manley amp does. I've also heard my share of tube CD players now and I'm well convinced that the tubes do little and perhaps even detract from the designs.
My opinion, shared by some and denied by others, is that tubes belong in amps and preamps, but NOT digital source gear. Of course folks will say they heard the greatest tube CDP or DAC, but I believe those units would be even better without the tubes.


audioengr, very interesting post with many valid points about the economics of small high-end manufacturers--you're clearly well informed. to be clear, the "only 5% is in the actual electronics" quote is a statement from the mf guy, not my personal view. i also have no absolutely doubt that, for the reasons you list, you'll get better performance from higher cost, better-designed DACs utilizing better parts. the issue, as ever, is whether the incremental improvement in performance is worth the extra cost. personally, i subscribe to the OP's original premise--that (unlike speakers or preamps) the sonic differences between good lower-cost DACs and good higher-cost DACs can be small and, subjectively, may not be worth the extra investment. others with better ears or greater desire for sonic nirvana will disagree. finally, i'd reiterate that cost is an imperfect measure of performance--hificritic (which is generally regarded as one of the more credible professional reviewers) tested the v-dac and rated it higher than a lot of other, much swankier products.
Well Rob, again we have to disagree on this one. I am going to give a different perspective. First off, my listening comparisons are over extended periods. As a matter of fact I still have the 3 DACs I have purchased over the past 11 months and also own the Oppo 95 which was purchased during that period. I have listened extensively to all of them in my system and one other system that is different than mine. There ARE differences. When doing a direct AB comparison the differences aren't as readily apparent but the CONCLUSIONS of those differences over extended listening, again two listeners two separate systems were the same and are now quite obvious, at least the DAC of preference, the Wyred over both the Oppo and the Minimax Plus all three using the same chip. The only thing lacking with the Havana is the detail of the other 3. Tonally it is more similar to the Wyred. What is important and was noted with particularly the OPPO, Wyred and EE Minimax Plus is that they require patience and time to break-in before doing any serious listening comparisons, this can't be overemphasized.

So while I do respect that you feel there are little differences between them and I would concur in a direct AB that this is true, if one is able, willing and inclined to do long term listening there should be a preference in a given system. It is quite clear to me which one is better to me, not just different but a better all around performer. I haven't heard all the DACs you mentioned so my comments are based on the 2 in your comparison that I have. Most importantly critical listening in a system to digest differences takes time. My initial impression of the Wyred is not even close to my impression of it now which was due to the break-in period required. Conversely my initial WOW impression of the Plus went in the opposite direction, go figure. I wonder how many people give up before they get a real handle on things? As a footnote I lent one of the DACs to another audiophile friend. He listened for over one month. I gave him absolutely no indication of my impressions of it just that I had purchased another DAC and he was free to listen for an extended period. When I talked to him about his impressions of it, he came to the same conclusion as both myself and my other audio friend that listened extensively to it,"detailed does nothing wrong that I can put my finger on but why is it so fatiguing?" I still don't have an answer other than I feel that tonally it is too light, lacking weight. I listened to it again last night after 2 months and the difference could be heard almost immediately, its that time thing and familiarity that it takes to make the right choice.

I agree with what audiooracle stated. I have what I consider a highly resolving system that has evolved over 12 years and been pretty much constant over the past 5 other than tweeks and vibration control experimentation. My friends system is also very familiar and has similarly evolved over the same period. Differences, if there are any, can be easily discerned. I would love to hear more but wouldn't you agree that four is enough if I am satisfied, at least for the moment?:) As further thought I would wonder now more than ever how much a system difference comes into play and how conclusions can be so different? Why collectively are three different listeners on this side in agreement on what we hear on two different yet familiar systems and others hear things so contrary. Is it taste or are the systems so different that the DACs in question complement one system over another?
Well then I guess I'm going to have to try the Rega just for the hell of it all to see how what you describe will play out in my rig, really curious now. Interestingly it isn't the extra detail of the Wyred that jumps out at me over say the Oppo or the Plus, in that area there are more similarities, it is tonality and the natural flow of the music plus greater weight, notably brass and piano and of course the bass resolution and weight as well. Those are the obvious differences so clearly discernable a reason I find comments regarding it sounding "analytical" baffling and wonder if system differences are somehow coming into play. Is there anyone else out there that hears these differences? Is is no subtle thing to my ears. On another note the characteristics in the Plus with every premium tube, without the tube in the circuit does not CHANGE the leanness of the unit although I agree that the top end upper frequencies are quite exquisite which is what I was initially drawn to. It is the overall tonal balance of the design, it is just too lean for my tastes and system based on what I suspect a compromised power supply.
My experience has also been that the impact of a tube in a CD player or DAC is rather minimal. However, I've heard several people state their preference for EE DAC + tube stage after changing out the stock tube. I've ordered a NOS Mullard to replace the EH. Will see how that goes.
Lots of interesting comments on this thread. I think there’s some truth in Rob’s observation that dacs in the same price range have similar sound quality. The same thing could probably be said of preamps, amps, and even speakers. The same thing could also be said of other consumer items. Cars in the same price range have a similar build quality and design quality, which largely determines their “drive quality.” Dacs in the same price range have a similar build quality and design quality, which largely determines their sound quality. Let’s treat this as axiomatic…

(1) Build Quality + Design Quality = Sound Quality

This statement is intended in the same spirit at Steve N.’s comment that…

What makes a really stellar component is the other "STUFF", as well as the IMPLEMENTATION.[emphasis added]

I agree with Steve, though my opinion about these things is far less informed than his. The point is that Rob’s observation that dacs in a similar price range sound similar can be largely explained by the fact that the similar price reflects similar design quality and build quality, and that results in similar sound quality. You get the idea.

Having said that, I think Statement (1) is true ONLY UP TO A POINT. That is to say, design quality and built quality are not the only determinants of sound quality. Another major determinant of sound quality is the SYSTEM in which a piece of equipment is heard. So, to revise…

(2) Build Quality + Design Quality + System Quality = Sound Quality

That’s more like it. Statement (2) is intended in the same spirit as Al’s comment that…

…while it is easy (and very common) to blame THE QUALITY OF A SYSTEM when there is a reported inability to perceive differences, that is not necessarily what is going on. And in fact an inverse correlation may often exist between THE ABILITY OF A SYSTEM to resolve musical information, and its ability to resolve differences between components, cables, tweaks, etc.[emphasis added]

I agree with Al. The system in which a component is heard is an essential (and somewhat paradoxical) determinant of sound quality. That would seem to be the end of the story. But it isn’t.

There is another major determinant of sound quality, and that is THE LISTENER. To revise again…

(3) Build Quality + Design Quality + System Quality + Listener Quality = Sound Quality.

You see where I’m going with this. The variables are increasing, the equation is expanding, and “Sound Quality” is becoming less and less easy to determine. But before I get into that, what do I mean by “Listener Quality”? I mean both the listener’s EXPERTISE and the listener’s VALUES, both of which vary widely from audiophile to audiophile. Statement (3) is intended in the same spirit as Audio Oracle’s comment that…

…pay me a visit I can demonstrate to you that your findings are only accurate in your limited set of circumstances: your system setup and your EARS, extrapolating your particular BIASES and EXPECTATIONS to the rest of an industry is fallacious.[emphasis added]

So where does this leave us? In a state of uncertainty, I’m afraid. Here is the reason: As you move through the various “Qualities” listed in Statement (3), they become increasingly subjective. In other words…

Build Quality… slightly subjective
Design Quality… a bit more subjective
System Quality… more subjective still
Listener Quality… largely subjective
Sound Quality… quite subjective

If sound quality were merely a matter of build quality and design quality, then estimates about sound quality would be quite uniform. But add into the equation different systems, which includes different rooms and different source material. Then add different listeners, which includes different expertise and different values. What you get when you add all that up are estimates about sound quality that vary widely, EVEN FOR equipment with similar build quality and design quality. Some will see the Emperor’s new clothes, and some will not. Some will find his new clothes beautiful, and some will not.

I generally don’t like to conclude something so Subjectivist, but I don’t see any way around it.

i don't see how one can generalize that tubes in dacs or cd players affect a minimal difference.

i have heard significant differences using my audio note cd2 (circa the 90's).

then again, what is considered by some to be a small difference may be considered a large difference by others.

i have yet to remove the tube and listen to the minimax that way, becuase i like the tube i am using, a brimar 13d5.

i suppose, i should experiment and remove the tube and then report my experience.
The point I attemped to make, aside from subjective impressions is that there ARE clearly differences that I contend can be readily discerned in a substantive manner, in my example, by 2 different listeners in 2 separate systems with the same conclusion over EXTENDED listening. When familiarity with a component in a given system has been established it is easier to discern the differences and can be done so in much less time than say in an initial AB comparison. What does that tell me? Whether or not the differences are better or not is irrelevant for sure. What is relevant is that the conclusion is obvious which raises additional questions regarding system differences and taste perhaps but NOT in my opinion differences in the components. I am not trying to prove anything other than to offer a completely different and hopefully :) objective perspective and conclusion than the OP. I have been at this a while as well and my system and ears are in tune from extended familiarity with one another. I couldn't disagree with him more aside from my value judgement which is totally subjective and irrelevant for the sake of this discussion.

Actually, we AGREE! I agree there are differences and certainly they bear out more in long term listening between units. What I'm trying to point out is these differences are VASTLY smaller than the differences between other components at the same price point. Yet we read reviews that seem to give the impression that the differences are big.

I can name plenty of speakers that cost the same, yet have HUGELY different presentations. And I can confidently say the same for amps and pre-amps. But the gap has narrowed down quite bit in the land of digital sources. This was very obvious to me when I compared a modified 300 dollar Oppo player to a Audio Aero Prima CDP and wasn't all that sure that the Oppo was the lesser player. In the end, after extended listening, I did like the Prima better. But I also noted that the little Oppo did nothing wrong, sounding just a tad thin on my system.

I think some folks will prefer the Rega to the W4S 2 and some will like the Minimax + or the far pricier ARC. They're all great DACs. But none are big improvements over the other. Changing the power cable on the Rega made a bigger change in sound than switching between the Rega and W4S 2, at least in the sense of it being instantly audible.

I'll say one more thing...hope nobody wants to shoot me for it! After hearing the pricey ARC DAC and a few others I feel you'd have to be crazy to spend more than 1-2K on a DAC. The leapfrogging may be small, but it's fast and the returns diminish too far for me. You can get so much more by continuing to improve other aspects of the system. I'll upgrade to Merlin VSMs WAY before I'll bother with another one example.

I do suggest trying the Rega DAC. It needs a long break-in, but has a solid soundstage presentation and is fairly faultless, at least with my Merlin TSM/Manley system. Other DACs would best it on one point or another, but the Rega is very solid overall and even reminds me of a turntable at times.

Cheers....and thanks for the good comments. This has been a nicely polite thread!

Nice post, Bryon. I can't resist commenting, though, that I think many audiophiles place too much importance on Build Quality. This is much more than slightly subjective, IMO. "Better" technology isn't much of the time, if "better" refers to sound quality instead of something else. Many audiophiles will refuse to even listen to a piece of equipment that they think doesn't come up to their often extremely arbitrary "build quality" standards. Many others equate Build Quality with Cost, and assume that higher cost equals "better." For me, the bottom line should always be, does it sound better or not? And of course "better" is almost entirely subjective, as Mr. Tennis has been reminding us alot lately.
I am going to break down my own experience over the years into DAC quality vs $ and note my observed threshhold for each level of sound quality (highly subjective and based on my own system or system I am familiar with)

<$2000 - obvious shortcoming in one or more areas (tried a bunch, benchmark, lavry, stello, dacmagic, bunch Chinese-made crap, etc)

$2000 < $10,000 - no obvious shortcomings, generally sounds pleaseant. However, the music does not sound real. Sometime you are trading detail for musicality, focus and solidity for wide-deep soundstage, holographic imaging for intimacy, etc. (also tried a bunch, ECD-1, BADA, Ayre C5XeMP (sub for QB-9), Bricasti, Akurate DS, Transporter (this I have), etc)

> $10,000 - now we are talking! generally superb sounding, not really trading any aspect of sound production, some DACs are voiced differently than others. Sound at this level generally sound real, musical, with all the detail, but presented in a natural and real way. (tried some, Esoteric K-01/2, PD MPS5, Klimax DS (I have this), dCS Puccini/uclock, Orpheus Lab OneSE, etc)

To OP, if all you do is dither around $1k stuff, I am not suprised you find no difference among DACs - perhaps you do get what you pay for?
Well Rob I certainly wouldn't disagree with your comment that the differences in 1k budget DACs would compare to differences in say speakers. We have been around on this before and I certainly appreciate you taking the time on various threads to give your impressions based on your listening experiences. What caught my eye is the following in your opening:

"The Rega and the ARC sound pretty much the same. So does the W4S 2 and the Minimax. We STRUGGLE to hear the tiny differences between these units!"

So far as the Rega and ARC units are concerned I can't comment but with regard to the other two units my point is I can now IMMEDIATELY hear the differences, within 10 seconds, so can my friend, there is no struggle at all. Of course the differences will be less apparent depending on the music but there is a difference in tonal balance that is quite apparent to me. Again, I do have a clear preference as it seems you have a preference for the Rega over the other three. My second choice in my stable is the Havana which clearly isn't as detailed but has that image density and weight that I hear in the Wyred. Of course others may come to a different conclusion as to which they might prefer as is the case in all things audio. We pay for the subtle differences, often times a lot more than a budget DAC costs. To my ears the differences are less subtle for the two in question than your impressions and so, here I am again to offer another viewpoint. I only wish I could hear the components in question in your set-up and you hear mine. Maybe at that point we would be in agreement? :) Cheers!

"To OP, if all you do is dither around $1k stuff, I am not suprised you find no difference among DACs - perhaps you do get what you pay for?"

This is earth calling. Your Rolls-Royce has been hand serviced and waxed and is ready for your manservant to pick it up.
I'm sorry...did someone just mention a DAC costing 10K is needed for "real sound?"

That's pretty funny! I've heard systems in the 70-80K range and never once did I hear one that actually sounded real, and they had turntables that were better than any DAC made today...and probably tomorrow.

I've heard some pricey DACs and I'm sticking to my a good one and spend your money and energy on speakers, amps and pre-amps. BTW, the Rega DAC did just fine against the much more expensive and well reviewed ARC dac. Why is that?

10K for a DAC? I own and sail a sailing yacht, which is a fairly useless indulgence, but 10K for a DAC would be a sure sign of my mental decline in the eyes of many.
And they'd be right!


Assuming you are not trolling. For someone who had spent few hundred thousand on a yacht you can just buy a sota player and live with it for a year (I would recommend pd mps5 or klimax ds/1, should go well with your Merlin ) You can always sell and go back to rega in a year if you want.

20k should be a drop in he bucket for you - just think of it as another watch or a handbag for your wife.
If spending a lot on hifi seems stupid, you would be stupid if you spent the money. But there are those who would rather have a 10K dac than a 10K... come to think of it, what can you buy for $10K? A nice vacation? An eight-year old Honda Accord? Once again, you are projecting your personal values and ability to hear onto everyone else. Just accept that others can hear things you can't and others may choose to spend their money differently.
Learsfool, I like what you said about "build quality." It bothers me when people don't provide much detail about what they hear from the addition of a component, but right off the top it's "build quality" that is promoted. "Build quality matters, but the most important aspect is always sound quality.