Could we relate to DACs performance somehow like to a fall afternoon’s beautiful cloudy sky?
I assume It may lie in the eye of the beholder which picture carries more beauty for him or her while obviously there are objective criterias to define a picture's qualities.
For example, I’ve selected 2 fall sky images I took with my then smartphone in
2016 and 2018
The technical quality is limited, the impression may suit you or not. But is as much in line how I saw the sky as I could capture it.
It may be as the sky has inteded to be seen or even better ...
We may have to note different schools of thought and beliefs when it comes to converting a digital signal into an analog one. Worlds collide and we’ve seen friendships ending about that dispute.
I haven't got a final solution for this problem, however I’ve tried to create an approach for me that is workable for reviewing audio equipment for enthusiasts without suffering the maelstrom of the subjective/objective divide.
As a rule of thumbs, I'd generally agree to the argument that - given all variables (DAC chip, implementation, components, signal path) are equal - equally measuring DACs should sound the same - transparent - and in possible cases the small but measurable variations are beyond most DAC's owner threshold of audibility.
Nevertheless, the devices that convert our high quality digital signal show often differences like numbers and types of digital inputs, power supplies, functionality, comfort (Display/Remote/Menu & submenu), design of analog stages, network and streaming functions, DSP function and Upsampling options, software certifications along with their implementation, signal path design, case design, power supply design (internal/external) and on and on ... you name it. These differences - in my opinion - establish the markets for DACs and may have great importance for many of us.
I assume most people allow themselves to have a personal answer to the question if it sounds different when the device has i.e. black PCBs, dual DAC chips, a 4k display and a 5 digit price tag, while design wise and proven by measurements another device under 1k may show equal performance & sonic qualities.
In my opinion, even if it shouldn't be always like this, the personal reception is king.
On the other hand it is usually quite critical when that personal reception subsequently evolves as the baseline for generalization for the audio hobby ... many of us are accustomed to avoid that trap...
I for myself am aware that my bias, this untamed beast, all too often eats my objective findings for breakfast and remunerates me with toxic pleasure when listening to music with my system feels like bliss.
There are the moments I notice clear differences, for example when I've sent back the MOON Ace loaner in September, an All-in-1 device that has an ESS Sabre 9010 DAC chip implemented, a service which I ceased to use as the ACE sounded clearly better using the analogue input and external DACs with Burr Brown (iFi) or ESS90382qM (ALLO Revolution) chips.
Important note: I had almost 500 hours of burn in for the unit (about 400h advised by the manufacturer) before it opened up for its best performances. Sounds like a crappy phrase, but happened to be reality with this unit. I remember that in contrast to the Moon, the S300 allowed me from the first second to perceive a different presentation from other amolifiers. However, the step back to the PS Audio S300 Class-D power amp which I've appreciated for a long time proved extremely difficult for me because I sensed the absence of some sound quality in an unknown - quite physical - manner. This immediate lack of listening pleasure shocked and surprised shocked me somehow. The Stellar amp isn't a slouch, although subjectively warmer with less details and different in its form of presentation. It occured also as less pronounced and musical. Consequently, in the first weeks after my "loss" I went continuously to HiFiShark looking for MOON power amps …
You may have noticed one thing or another implied with that anecdote:
DACs may sound different to us, and amplifiers sometimes too. Bias is a beast and without DBTs the world may offer more romance and emotions. I can imagine that precisely this romance and emotions are the key for the entry door into snake oil and salesmen phrases, for sure. Your choice to take it or not. What's my approach then? I'll try to balance it out, somehow.
Firstly, and most importantly I am looking at technology&features and their implementation. Secondly, giving an attempt of subjective impression & advice based on personal experience.
If you are only interested in objective information, feel free to scrap that, it shouldn't be important to you.
Hint: the subjective reading is always in the 2nd part.
However, I feel that many readers like to read subjective impressions too, at least people often ask after perceived differences for orientation. Most of them - I would assume - are educated enough to take such descriptions with a pinch of salt.
In my view, DAC markets are already saturating with new "price/performance" champions every other month, so the risk of buying too early is permanent. Having seen this week a fully balanced DAC with dual ESS chips going at 380 Euros with everything the LA has to offer PLUS remote, volume knob, display, an easy understandable menu and stellar measurements should give anyone some food for thought.
It reminds me a lot about the market for android smartphones, where you'll get a very good performing processor like the one used in the latest Google Pixel 5 (Snapdragon 765G) with almost every feature you may need between 250 $ up to 800 bucks (Black Friday offers included). To relate the performance of 765G in comprehensible numbers for audiophiles, as a DAC it would be an ESS9038q2m with DSD256-512 while the ToL Snapdragon 865 chip may be the equivalent to an ES9038PRO doing DSD1024.
BBK, the parent company of Oppo, Realme, 1Plus, Vivo and IQOO, alone had 14 entries in that list of 28 phones I found at dealntech.com sporting the 765G. Buy one now and next year you will peek again about what may keep you interested and perhaps makes you happy. sound a bit same/same for DAC/smartphone, however use cases imho look a bit different.
I had been back in the smarthone game in the last weeks shortly before the Black Friday madness.
I could sense that I was getting very excited about getting one of my "dream" phones for less than 400 bucks instead of 800 last year. Thus, after a thorough reality check I bought a sub 200$ phone, which does everything very well and allows me to check again next year in November ... perhaps for a 5g phone then ...;-)