Where to invest the most in the "digital chain"?

Dear All,

I'd love to get everyone's opinions on where best to invest/invest the most, in the "digital chain".

Using my current "basic" system as an example I have very good Internet service into a very good router with the stock PSU on a dedicated power conditioner strip with an ifi AC iPurifier. From there I have Audioquest Pearl Cat6 to a Cisco 2960G with an upgraded Russ Andrews Power Cable. There follows another AQ Pearl Cat6 to an English Electronics 8Switch with an ifi iPowerX. From there I have the Chord C-Stream Ethernet to my ifi Zen Stream with a 15V ifi iPowerX. Then a Wireworld Chroma 8 cable to an ifi iPurifier3 into a Zen DAC v2 also with ifi iPowerX. The EE8, Stream and DAC benefit from a power-conditioner/surge protector and a pair of AC iPurifiers.

I've got a SotM iSO-CAT7 on order which I am intending to put between the EE 8Switch and the network transport with a dCBL-CAT7u into the network transport.

Phew, that was a lot of words!

My question is, and this applies to all systems as a generic question, where is it best to invest the most? Should the best Ethernet cables and/or switches and/or isolators be first in the chain (i.e. from the Internet source) or at the end of the chain (into the DAC/Music Streamer/Network Transport)? Similarly, where should the best power supplies be placed? Or does it all matter equally?

This is purely about the digital chain, I'm well aware that great speakers and a great AMP with good power and speaker cables make all the difference too!

I'm interested in opinions and I will of course experiment for myself.


Mostly the DAC.  If you have to spend 90% of your digital budget on the DAC, do it.  You can get by just fine on a $300 streamer and a $200 digital cable.  The upgrade I did from a $300 streamer to a $4500 streamer was the least cost effective money I've spent on my system.  It was an improvement, but not much.  

If money is a consideration, then I agree with @carlsbad - spend enough to purchase a streamer that provides the services you want and that operates reliably, and then spend the rest of your budget on the best DAC you can afford.  Digital cables and add-on filters/enhancers will do next to nothing compared to optimizing the streamer and DAC. 

As my streaming experiments continue, I'm discovering simple better than excess complexity. Start with best dac one can afford, next is matching streamer/server to take advantage of dac's optimal input, ie, dac usb optimal, likely separate streamer/server setup going to be best, optimal rendering is next in importance to dac. Then comes network, this is area of my present experiments, my take is keep it simple, all the filters and add ons haven't been effective for me. Get a broadcom chip modem, power with lps, quality switch or wifi router (not both IMO), again lps power and good to go. Cables important, but best can wait for last upgrade.


Once dac chosen, which server/streamer to choose becomes paramount, likely most confusing single aspect of streaming, thing to keep in mind is quality of rendering.  You can have a great dac, devoid optimal matching rendering,  potential of whole chain diminished, often greatly.


Based on my observations and experience, dac/streamer/server has to be considered as package, I've seen wide variables as to distribution of funds on each component within package.

Great stuff so far guys.

DAC first, digital path second.

I am definitely in the camp of keeping components separate and dedicated to the task at hand which is why I am using the Zen Stream as a dedicated Network Transport. I don't want anything with superfluous components such as Bluetooth that require core complex circuitry and create more noise.

Any recommendations on the best DAC that is just a core DAC?

You never mentioned the rest of you system, so I’m going to say, DAC first, analog interconnects from the DAC to amp/preamp and Ethernet  cable last. 

All the best.


Good point, I was trying to keep the scope of the discussion to the digital aspect of the system. The DAC connects to a Zen Can as a pre-amp/headphone amp with an ifi pentaconn connector. From the Can connects to a Topping PA5 with a pentaconn to TRS cable (very hard to find....limited options, therefore). The noise then comes over Audioquest Rocket 11 to Wharfedale Diamond 12.3's - and a great noise it is too!

For me  filtering the USB power from the source made a huge difference,  maybe as much as changing from the MHDT Orchid DAC to the PSAudio DirectStream.  I've never heard a Zen Stream but my experience is that the source feeding the DAC has a huge effect on sound quality.


Any recommendations on the best DAC that is just a core DAC?

Price range?





Magic question! My current DAC is under £200 and being realistic I can't justify spending over £1k anytime soon.

After being disappointed with two streamer purchases ( Roon Nucleus, Aurender A10)  I have to agree with others spend the most on a DAC and buy the streamer that has the output you need and software you like to use.

I found very little (more different then better) improvement going from an optimized PC based system to the Aurender A10 and an actual down grade in sound going to the Roon Nucleus.  

A consensus seems to be forming around investment in the DAC itself and good power and clean signal to the DAC. This is interesting

First the best DAC that you can afford. Then an equivalently high quality streamer. They both matter, and should be of similar caliber to your preamp, and amp… meaning , well chosen and of equal investment.


My theory based on my experience with lots of streamers and not a lot of experience playing with exotic switches and cabling is that you have an opportunity to get spectacular streaming sound quality ether by getting a top notch streamer (I have owned: Aurlic Aries G2, Aurender N100, N10 (auditioned and with many friends that own) and W20SE. Or a slightly lessor one and playing with your networking infrastructure.

 Streamers are critical components. You can then get small increases in sound quality by playing with infrastructure (like interconnects and power cords). Or you can get a slightly lessor streamer and fiddle with your network. From my experience with streamers… you want a really good one.


Yes , I believe a great DAC needs an equally good digital front end.   I just ordered a streamer to go with my DAC.  The Vault sounds good but I question the quality of its coax digital out.   I will find out Thursday if this line of thinking is correct   

I really like my current DAC but I can trade up within a year (June) and I might just do that


Yes , I believe a great DAC needs an equally good digital front end. I just ordered a streamer to go with my DAC. The Vault sounds good but I question the quality of its coax digital out. I will find out Thursday if this line of thinking is correct


Yes, it seems intuitive that a high quality streamer is a necessity as it’s the front end source of the digital signal path. How can that not matter? I believe you and @ghdprentice are on to something. Anyway you’ll find out for yourself in a few days and make direct comparisons between your 2 steamers. I look forward to the outcome of your listening.


Loving this, thanks so much for the insights. I'm particularly interested in the thinking that having the highest quality streamer at the front end negates the need for as much tinkering in the Ethernet chain (though I also wonder if that can only help a high-quality streamer reach greater heights?)

For now, I need to remain within my self-imposed budget which is why I can tinker with the Ethernet and USB chain. To be fair the budget kit I've got sounds really good (to my ears) so I should get a decent period of use out of it before I look to replace the network transport/streamer and DAC.

That said it's not stopping me from reading about better DACs already! :)

I was told by someone in the industry to spend the money on the DAC and AMP (electrical path) and that the output from various streamers was pretty much the same, assuming a properly implemented streamer like $400 plus, but even a few for less and assuming the dac has proper clocks/jitter control.  For the streamer he said focus in reliability, interface, features, ongoing support, apps . . . 

@carlsbad You honesty is refreshing. And you could have almost made it there simply with PS improvements and/or an ENO etc. FOr $4500 you got snob appeal.





I was told by someone in the industry to spend the money on the DAC and AMP (electrical path) and that the output from various streamers was pretty much the same, assuming a properly implemented streamer like $400 plus, but even a few for less and assuming the dac has proper clocks/jitter control. For the streamer he said focus in reliability, interface, features, ongoing support, apps . . .


“Someone in the industry “ and there are many in the industry ​​​​​​, each with their own opinions and experiences. You’d find quite a few in the industry who strongly advocate the critical role a quality digital source provides.

Streaming is a very popular audio forum topic and many users have testified the significant improvement heard with insertion of a high quality streamer replacing entry level units. They will not represent everyone, but many who stream would acknowledge that quality matters.


The DAC is 99% of the end result. 
slso look at small green computer fiber converters.

I have the iFi Zen Stream with their upgraded SWPS.  I added fiber ethernet right before the iFi and switched from the good DAC in my McIntosh to an incredible DAC and for the first time my digital sounded better than my analog.  Here is the problem..this whole thing is a money trap and the sky's the limit.  If I had limited funds I probably would skip power amp and speakers and on the used market buy a well rated DAC with volume control and headphone out..Great pair of headphones and your iFi will shine.  Mine sounds glorious.

Over the decades it has been proven over and over to me through experience that every part of the digital path is critical… and the more logically something shouldn’t matter, the more it does.

Of course, I didn’t learn this. I just couldn’t get myself to “waste money” on a streamer. It’s just a computer in a box, right? Until, I bought a good one… for me the Aurlic Aries G2 ($5K)… followed shortly by the Aurender N100 and quickly I bought the $22K Aurender W20SE… which I was petrified was a waste of money. Until I received it and within 30 seconds (yes, 30 seconds) I realized it was a bargain! It catapulted my digital end ahead of my analog. The holy grail. Finally digital that sounded fantastic.


HI guys I'll start out by admitting I'm an analog/vinyl guy. I am how ever wanting to listen on multiple systems without have to reproduce my expensive system in every room and also want to travel with music.. So I have been playing around and have the same questions as posed here. I have serval inexpensive digital sources a Hiby r6 DAP I started with this for travel witch got me started down the digital path. I also then did a Raspberry PI into a IFI Zen dac and also own a Bluesound NODE 2021. So the test I ran was to take my digital and put it on 2 USB drives one on my router as a network drive the other plugged directly into the NODE. I hear little to no difference between the two setups. I heard a bigger difference in sound quality with the changing cables between the NODE and my Pre-amp. So my next step will be to buy the best DAC I can afford with the best analog section. I do think the streamer makes a difference but less than the DAC. IMO   

I would argue that if you mostly stream , the streamer’s quality is just as important as the DAC.   It’s a “Transport “ in the sense that an optical drive is.  It’s job is tougher than a transport because it has other issues aside from error correction like an optical drive has.   

I almost got the Aurender A200 but I got the N200 instead because much effort went into giving it clean digital outs.  I’ll always have an external DAC so I figured why not. Plus the features and display.   Also most importantly is that it is a caching player.  It loads the data to a SSD memory buffer and then plays it.   In addition it has user removable drive bays.    There is a lot of tech packed in there.   

The key to streamers is that they isolate vibration, electrical noise… etc. the signal sent to the DAC is incredibly important. They make a huge difference. Keeping the DAC and streamer separate (as long as they are both high quality) also makes an important difference.

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I'm also on the DAC camp being the most important. Then that the DAC uses ethernet as the conduit- it's the most direct route to the 1's and 0's.Then Roon to organize the 1's and 0's. After that, it gets subjective. I did put in a non-audiophile grade network switch on the advice of my workplace IT guy who agrees that separating what's going to the audio outputs from the rest of the router noisiness was a good idea but I could get that for $200 rather than $800, or even much more. As for cables, I moved up to Blue Jeans uncut and borrowed some tools from my IT friend to attach the RJ-45 plugs. The switch and the cables together did indeed make a difference, but nowhere near as much as a DAC with an Ethernet card. 

It's good to learn from the virtues of setting up camp on a dry river bed while watching the rain clouds unleash upstream. 

I see the DAC as the hub of a great digital system.   I have had a DAC long before they were in fashion.  Obviously the DAC's quality is of great importance,  but what feeds the DAC is equally important.    I really like my current DAC but in the spring I am going to bring home a few DACs and most likely upgrade within my one year window.   I want to get the most of of that DAC, so this streamer makes sense .

Well since records make noise

since CD sound sterile 

Since tape stretches 

FM is noisy 

speakers are unpredictable 

and the internet sounds ok sometimes 

my recommendation is to invest in a great chair

at least you will be comfy!




we have more experience here than most we have tried almost every major streamer out there and the sound improved dramatically from one device We started with Auralic then Aurender then Innous then the 432evo servers.


we also tried the roon nucleus and Sotm computer and a Baetis server

On a good DAC the differences were quite noticeable even the USB cables produced different results.


Dave and Troy

Audio intellect NJ

us importer 432EVO music servers

@larryro2 - best comment of the day! you are absolutely right that a good chair is one of the most important listening tools!

@audiotroy i'd love to drop £4k+ on anything, in fact I'd love to have £20k+ to play with full stop. But, I'm on the budget end of the enjoyment of music so this will have to wait a while!

@vonhelmholtz - I'm really pleased with the Zen Stream and the Zen DAC too. There are a lot of top-quality components in there and upgraded iPowerX and AC iPurifier's really make them shine.

I actually like the challenge of getting the best out of "budget" hardware (there is cheaper out there) by tweaking cables, power and switches - it appeals to the techie in me.

I highly recommend you try an iPurifier3 from the Stream to the DAC (you can get them on Amazon with free 30 day return) - I'd be interested to know what you hear but I'm hearing a marked improvement.

He dac fr sure since it’s the sourse that can make or break your audio system .

once the signal is lessened say by a lower expensive  dac the signal or fidelity cannot made up down stream, depending on budget I recommend $2-$6600 

i hav3 been a big Denafrips fan lately I bought the Aries 2 dac, then Pontus2, then The Excellent Terminator2 , I had the Top Terminator + in my system for 2 days .

that is worth the extra $2300 upgrade IMO better speck over control clocks, 

.005 ladder resistors ,and further better filtering  more inner detail low level 

detail lost in my other more expensive dacs and never harsh a Excellent piece of technology , the Pontus2 best value for $$ spent around $2k.

@roadwhorerecords - whilst Tidal is more expensive than Spotify it's not a significant cost (compared to Roon!)

(I know what you mean though and I'd love to justify starting a Vinyl collection but I can't)

At the OP budget it would be very hard to beat the Cambridge Audio CXN 60. For about $1200 you get a vey good DAC and a great streamer. It has a much beefier Power supply than the Bluesound Node..  It does Chromecast and AirPlay, and Chromecast sounds spectacular.  It’s really good with Internet Radio and Podcasts.  And you won’t need a cable to connect the streamer to the DAC

I spent a lot of time and money swapping out different speakers, amplifiers, cables and DACS all while using a Bluesound Node. In my experience the biggest noticeable change that allowed me to hear what my gear was actually doing was changing the streamer to a Lumin. All my gear came alive. Depth of sound stage, the whole holographic sound stage that everyone talks about. After that I changed DACs and lots of other gear but I felt every piece had a fighting chance  once the Lumin was up front. I had a friend who thought his Mcintosh DAC wasn’t very good and wanted to sell it. We plugged in the Lumin and even I was shocked how good it sounded after we took out the Bluesound. My friend ended up buying a Lumin T2 a week later.  I also had a Zen streamer and it was an improvement over the Bluesound but nowhere near the Lumin. While using the Zen and Bluesound I did notice and improvement with Ethernet connection over wifi, Ethernet being better. Cables in my opinion do make a difference but I’d go there last. I’ll add on one more thing not digital related but after swapping out gear (15 pairs of speakers, 6 amplifiers, 4 preamplifiers including Mcintosh tube amps ect.) if you don’t treat the room first you may think all this gear doesn’t sound good.Most of the time it’s not the gear. If I were to do it all again knowing what I know now, do room treatments first, blow your brains out on speakers then work backwards from there but almost no one, including myself ever does that.

@mahler123 - agreed the CA CXN60 does look rather lovely at that price point though I do like the idea of keeping the streamer and DAC separate there are virtues to have them integrated whereby there is no cable to attract interference between them. I also like the idea of having "bare bones" no Bluetooth or other superfluous (to me) components. I'm sure the perfect DAC and Streamer are out there for me!


i have a Vault too. Going into Aesthetix Romulus DAC   The USB input in the Romulus is supposed to be the optimal connection but the Vault is only spdif. I’ve been considering Node 130, Innuos Zen III, Auralic Aries and other used higher end streamers. I’d be very interested to now your impressions of you new streamer once you’ve had a chance to listen to it in your system. 

Currently I’m using a wired Bluesound Node 2, with filtered power from a Shunyata Hydra 6. The Bluesound is feeding Qobuz to a Schiit Yggdrasil GS via a Harmonic Tech Truth Link digital coaxial cable. Then, single ended Truth Links to Rogue 99 preamp with Truth Links to Rogue m120 monos feeding Totem Forests with H/T biwires. My dedicated basement room is 12x14x6’-6” with GIK 244 and 6 ASC tube traps,(ASCs’ are wonderful). I’m trying to resist the urge to upgrade streamer and focus on just tweaks, such as cables and isolating components. I feel my system, albeit modest, could possibly be nearing its peak performance capabilities. I must say, as a testament to my Forests, they have revealed almost all changes I’ve made, which has kept me impressed with them. 
  I guess, keeping a system balanced is something to aspire to. I think we need to prepare ourselves for the consequences of changing a major component such as streamer, dac etc. For now, I’ll keep resisting the urge and focus on the details.

Invest the most (for max bang-for-buck) in: the ANALOG parts of your sytem (including your room)!

I own a BlueSound Node 2i.  I am using a Synergistic Research Level One power cord an a Synergistic Research Level One digital cable.  I was thinking about upgrading my BlueSound to a better streamer such as a Aurender.  Are you saying you should buy a high end DAC instead?  If this is the case, it seems like the DAC inside the stream that creates the sound difference.  I hope this isn’t a dumb question to ask.

I think there is a mixture of opinion. Some are saying that the DAC is all that matters and others are saying that DAC and Streamer / Transport are equally important. 

Note, I'm deliberately not discussing the analogue chain as it is well known that you need great speakers and a capable amp. 

On which note, I really like the look of the Lumin U2 Mini!

I've said many times the Vault is good but I have my amplification sorted out , along with a recent DAC purchase.  That said , it's time for something next level for my system.  

The modern day "Transport" is a streamer .....   


This is the problem with an open forum like this. You are going to get lots of contradictory posts based on people with different values and limited experience. You have to look at each and make a judgement on the posters values and experience.

This can be very valuable or not, depending on your experience and ability to read between the lines. Examine the posters comments, their system shown under their UserID.

If you find this confusing. Go to professional reviews: Stereophile, The Absolute Sound, and HiFi+. Read Robert Harley’s book, The Complete Guide to High End Audio. With this foundation, it should be easier to separate the people who do not know what they are talking about or have vastly different values from you with those you should believe.

I have a Cary Audio DMS-500 that I love.  They have newer iterations now and there are plenty of professional reviews you could also read.  It is basically a high end DAC with the streamer built in.  It has a display such that you may enjoy seeing cover art or track times and is Roon certified and plays nice with Tidal & Qobuz.  I mostly stream from NAS drives via Jriver or Roon and it is super reliable as the technology is mature now.  Let us know what you decide.

@ghdprentice - absolutely, the beauty of forums is that you get many different opinions. Sometimes people with less experience can bring fresh insight to the table and folks with more experience might be a bit "stuck in their ways". So, it's all helpful context!

The wisdom of crowds here is to invest thousands of dollars into a streamer and DAC (combined or separate).

I've approached things from a network perspective and right now my system sounds superb with an optimised digital path and "budget" separates. So it's interesting to consider potential investments in better components to see how good this could be!

As always ... the system will play as its weakest component "plays", so everything should be in balance - DAC, streamer, power supply, treated ethernet, etc.