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First Post! Cheapish DAC

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Hi people. I have been thinking about upgrading my computer sudio for a while. I currently have my laptop hooked up to my TV via HDMI and am sending the audio through that, and then using the analogue outputs from the TV into my HiFi. ( I hear shaking of heads! I know its bad) I did this as the audio of my headphone jacks gets a lot of interfearance (Dell XPS M1330)


So basiclly i am looking for a nice little USB DAC that will make my music sound better. I want it to work on both PC and MAC as im getting a Macbook Pro for uni (in about 18 months). I also dont want to spend anthing more than £80 (around $120)


I have just ordered some Audioengine A2's for use at my desk, so i want the DAC to be relatively portable so i can move it with my laptop, from my TV to my desk. I wouldnt consider myself an Audiophile, but thats mainly due to me having not alot of money (im only 17!), but i do like my music and spend almost all my money on home entertainment (i work in a sony centre, which is partnered with a REAL hifi shop, so i hear really good hifi sytems from the likes of Cyrus, NAS, Arcam, KEF, Monitor audio etc)


My music is mainly stored as 320kbps MP3's in iTunes but am slowly ripping everying in AIFF in another iTunes library, so eventually i will have an iTunes library for my iPod and one for home. I will be plugging it into my HiFi (Denon DM37 and Monitor audio BR1's (about £400 or $600 worth) and my desk speakers (Audioengine A2's £100 or $150 worth)


So in short:

- Portable (ish)

- Mac and PC compatible

- Under £80 ($120)

- Good sounding obviously


I have been looking at the pro-ject USB box which is a very new product on the market, and seems to be exactly what im after. I especially like this as it looks nice (sad i know), is a well known hifi brand, and can easily be upgraded with the same companies award winning pro-ject headbox. Links are here:





Sorry for the long post but i reckon its best to give too much info rather than not enough!


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When I heard an M-Audio 2496 some years ago I was astonished, parked in a PCI slot in a horrid old Dell, it sounded as good as the best CD players you could buy. There's no reason technically why it shouldn't do, it measures impeccably though not quite as well as the very best DACs. At the time I thought it highly unlikely that the tiny little Transit could be as good - But is most definitely is! I recently bought one out of curiosity and tried it, sure enough it's sound was, to me, indistinguishable from a current state of the art DAC. It doesn't have such a good Signal to Noise ratio, but this is at such a low level as not to be audible and it does have more RF on the outputs, so if you have an older or less good amplifier, it may not work quite so well, but nevertheless I recommend it to anyone needing a USB DAC to persuade a Laptop PC to sound okay. If nothing else you can use it as a reference when considering something more expensive. I guarantee it will be very difficult to improve on unless you're amp is a bit iffy.


I'm nearly 64 and deaf compared to a younger person, so to be sure that I wasn't missing something I sent one of these to a 23 your old friend with some top flight headphones, which is the best way to hear subtle differences. He is astonished and doesn't expect anyone to believe him. He's probably right because few on the hi fi side of things realise just how big and clever M-Audio are.


If you're considering a USB DAC then the M-Audio Transit is the best place to start IMO.




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I've been content just to read the CA forum for many months. Loving the debates about jitter, etc and always on the lookout for a possible giant killer. I'm acquainted with Empirical Steve's reputation vs Ashly James at AVI, etc, etc. Very interesting and educational. I appreciate everything you guys have to say about anything.


I'd think a regular reader of the CA forum familiar with Steve and his hardware would immediately wonder why he's bumping a cheap DAC on eBay. I'm also wondering how few regulars caught this little pitch because nobody has said anything about it in a week.


I read this thread a couple days ago, immediately Googled it then spent a bunch of hours reading 92 pages of forum posts at Head-fi about the evolution, trials, and tribulations of this eloquently simple $200 Taiwanese NOS DAC. I suggest anyone interested in DAC-related buzz should research the VALAB DAC. It may be very well worth the time you spend on it. I sure think so, anyway. I'm probably going to order one this weekend.


BTW, Chris... you might want to take a look at it too.




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The point is taken into consideration that Steve is a *very* bright entrepreneur selling relatively expensive computer audiophile hardware at Empirical... and he's saying the VALAB DAC is a no-brainer as the choice for inexpensive DACs.


The VALAB is a simple design using some ancient DAC components, very well implemented (better over many revisions) and it's said to be very, very musical. Of course the talk is subjective, but unless Steve has a hidden stake in the VALAB, just his suggestion that it's the only choice for a cheap DAC warrants a hard look. IMO, anyway. So I had a hard look and I was duly impressed. In fact, I think I'm going to go ahead and sign into eBay right now and buy the darn thing.


Note, it is a NOS DAC for 16/44.1 only. Priority reclocked USB into I2S, then Toslink and coax inputs. (It's primarily designed as a USB DAC with options.) Paralleling 8 TDA1543 DACs (20 year old technology.) NO opamps in the circuit.


If the DAC turns out to be as musically sweet as the guys at Head-fi say it is, it's worth a hard look here at CA. That's a no-brainer too.




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Oh. I thought there was something else. Yes, I agree 100% and am very curious to know why Steve likes it so much. Steve, PLEASE explain...



Let us know what you think when you get it.


W10 NUC i7 (Gen 10) > Roon (Audiolense FIR) > Motu UltraLite mk5 > (4) Hypex NCore NC502MP > JBL M2 Master Reference +4 subs


Watch my Podcast https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXMw_bZWBMtRWNJQfTJ38kA/videos

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Rand - the Valab is a simple DAC with no digital filtering. It literally has no output stage, just a stack of D/A chips. It is great sounding with a low-jitter input and even better if you upgrade the output coupling capacitors. For modding I recommend:


3.3uFd V-Cap oils bypassed with .22uFd Sonicap Platinums. These require some weeks of break-in BTW. This will be a world-class DAC with these caps. Not as good as my Overdrive, but beating most DAC's in the $10K range.


An I dont sell them either.


Steve N.

Empirical Audio


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.. it seems a very simple, clean and straightforward design. Interesting really, if all you want is a 16/44.1 dac. Take a look at the builder's description towards the bottom of this webpage link : http://cgi.ebay.com/Valab-NOS-USB-DAC-TDA1543-Low-Jitter-1ppm-TCXO-Inside_W0QQitemZ270359765470QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item270359765470&_trksid=p3286.c0.m14&_trkparms=72%3A1462%7C66%3A2%7C65%3A12%7C39%3A1%7C240%3A1318%7C301%3A1%7C293%3A1%7C294%3A50


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Listen to yourself Mike. You are wanting to mod a piece of gear that you haven't even listened to yet. Have you even considered the possibility that you will actually like the way the thing sounds 'as is' straight from the manufacturer? Relax and just try to experience things. Take it one step at a time.





EDIT: To answer your question sir, if you live in a town of any size, there are probably 50 guys (electronic techs) who would just love to help you out on this if you actually wanted to do it. Personally, I'd go to a local pro music shop (guitars, keyboards, amps, PA's etc.) that has a good reputation and chat up the tech there.


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markr -


I'm not really interested in the Valab - already have a good DAC. I would like to know who, if anyone, is doing mods on DACs. I know Empirical used to mod certain DACs. And Pacific Valve sells pre-modded, but they don't mod anything else.


Like, if I wanted to upgrade my DAC (and maybe my 10 year old Aragon amp) is there someone reputable who does this ?


Mike m


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Yeah, I see what you're saying. I guess that I feel that 'reputable' is a relative term. I would tend to stay with my answer from before in almost all cases though. Most any halfway-decent tech can do simple part swaps. You get into dicey territory if the components are 'surface mount' though. Those are more difficult --- to nearly impossible to do. Use internet search functions ( I don't like to say 'google' ) to see who does mods on your specific equipment with warranty. That is the best that I can recommend from here.


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I doubt I'm gonna get any mods done anyways. I just spent all my extra $$$ on those Quantum Clips. (Oh my God, I hope they work)


I just like to know about mods. I have friends who ask me if I can mod their stuff - they assume I know how to do this becuase they know its my hobby.


Mike M


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"Beating most DAC's in the $10K range" is a huge statement. Given your experience with DACs, modding, and a reputation to match. That's a big double thumbs-up as far as I'm concerned on a DAC that's nearly disposable at $200 USD delivered.


We may have found a bona fied giant killer. Within its limits. Maybe. We'll see.


Some of the talk at Head-fi suggests the VALAB modded is as good as some DACs costing much, much more. Modding the output caps on the VALAB as you suggest is pretty easy for anyone with a little soldering experience. I'll probably go with the suggestion.


When you say "bypassed" you mean replacing the caps? Just to clarify.


Thanks for the heads up, Steve. I hope others here at CA take notice about the VALAB.




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Here is a World Leaders retail DAC chip prices for you to compare with the eventual product.




Here is a list of technical support provided: http://www.analog.com/en/design-center/index.html


This give some idea how a typical Hi Fi Dac Manufacturer will be helped to do the best possible job.


$10K for a DAC is a little hard to justify IMO, especially once you've heard an M-Audio Transit from Pro Audio Giant M-Audio and Pro Tools who are leaders in their field. It's $89 in the US I believe and the size of a pack of 20 cigarettes.




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Check out the iBasso line, ranging from $109US-$179US. My first DAC was the versatile D2, since upgraded with somewhat more musical opamps, and still in use for portable chores! Can't say much for the headphone section, but the DAC feeding a tube headamp is a warm little singer.


There's a lot of activity in this end of the market as a generation of iPodders starts wanting better sound at reasonable prices. Check out the boards at Head-fi.org where you'll find no end of DAC advice, not to mention a used/trade forum.


Happy listening.


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Before you run off and buy this Chinese DAC being discussed here, please consider that:


1) Audiophiles love tinkering and spending money on gear, are extremely susceptible to psychological bias (hearing what they want to hear) and get a bit over-excited when they think they may have found a "giant killer." Two hundred bucks? They spend this kind of money on feet for their turntables (ie: record players).


2) The DAC in question is built around a 20-year-old chip from the dawn of digital technology. We may have made progress and some evidence of that may be that...


3) The companies making NOS (non-oversampling) DACs are typically about the size of your walk-in closet. There are no pro NOS dacs that I'm aware of. This is a fringe technology, plain and simple, and the science is questionable at best.


4) The guy who originally recommended this DAC manufactures and sells power cords -- yes, the 3 feet of copper from the wall to an audio component -- for $1200. Take that for what you will.


Caveat emptor.




I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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Any noobs reading through this forum would be well advised to take note of any comments made by the likes of Ashley James, tfarney and JCBrum. IMO they are the sensible, level-headed side of computer audio, who always provide a well-balanced, informative and constructive viewpoint. Basically they cut through the BS and try to prevent the gullible from being exploited.


tfarney wrote:

The guy who originally recommended this DAC manufactures and sells power cords -- yes, the 3 feet of copper from the wall to an audio component -- for $1200. Take that for what you will.


Anyone who pays $1200 for a power cord is in need of serious help! Who in their right-mind would pay such a ridiculous amount for a power cord? Actually, don't answer that! ;)







Intel iMac + Beresford TC-7510 + Little Dot MK III + beyerdynamics DT 231 = Computer audiophile quality on the cheap! --- Samsung Q1 + M-Audio Transit + Sennheiser PX 100 = Computer audiophile quality on the go!

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I can't thank you enough for your kind words, they come at a time when I most need them.


It seems that simple provable facts are all it takes to get a thread locked on this Forum right now.


One final point I'd make about the M-Audio is that is extracts 24 Bits from a USB socket and provides an optical digital output that isn't normally on PCs. This is very useful because it avoids electrical connection with a potentially noisy computer chassis and gives the opportunity to compare lots of other DACs with a cheap reference.


Chris argues, wrongly in my opinion that there are big differences between DACs but there is not if they are correctly implemented because they all measure so similarly. They are the best performing part of a hi fi after the noughts and ones from the computer. hi end.


The Chinese DAC suggest by Steve may be using the original Philips TDA 1541 which is fast achieving cult status amongst anacrofiles at the moment. We stopped using it in 1993/4 to switch to the very obviously better 20 Bit Burr Browns and each time we've found a better one we've moved on until we now use the Wolfson WM8741 that Linn claim is the best in the world.




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