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Are DACs even necessary for good sound?


In your experience you found that:  

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This likely goes against the flow, but after listening to two DACs (the Apogee Duet on a MAC and the Audiolab M-DAC on my Windows 7 PC), I did not find a good reason to keep either product - despite excellent reviews from the press... I wanted to hear a dramatic improvement in sound, but it was not there.

 

After these experiences I see three possible explanations:

 

  1. my system's quality is too low, or
  2. my hearing is unable to pick the subtle differences, etc., etc., etc., or
  3. the emperor is naked; let's agree to move on with our lives.

 

Before you reach for pitchforks, tar and feathers, let me address each of the above points:

 

1/ System quality:

  • My PC system: Windows 7 64 bits, Asus Xonar Essence STX, Focal Solo6 Be, stock cables throughout
  • The Mac: MacBook Pro, Focal CMS 50s.

While not bleeding edge, I think that both systems are adequate for music enjoyment (performance wise)

 

2/ My hearing: I am in the mid 40s, my hearing is likely not as good as 25 years ago, but subjectively... I feel I'm OK. Also, I should say (if it's not clear from 1 above) that I did not hear any difference in my system when using somewhat pricier cables...

 

3/ The emperor is naked.

 

  • We know that (to a certain degree) the industry is built around perceptions. We further know that how much one pays has a positive influence on how much one enjoys the product, so at a minimum , I think we can agree that there are incentives in promoting yet another miracle product...
  • In TAS, a few years ago, the CEO of Simaudio (a company which at the time was selling a CD player for $12,000) innocently stated that at CES, they used a laptop for playback - because the PC sounded better. We can argue about someone's opinion vs. facts, about the progress made in the last 5 years, etc., but still...
  • Nearly every reviewer (few exceptions, for particular products) notices a dramatic improvement when a new DAC is inserted in their system... Really? reliable bang for the buck, as long as you're willing to spend anything from $100 to $40,000? Better dynamics, better soundstage, better definition, better everything?

 

Now, if the emperor is naked, I think it's time to move on: go back to enjoying the music: I have great news for you: there's no need to spend the extra money on a DAC. Give that $1,000 you saved to the needy - you will feel better afterwards.

 

Please keep your comments polite: I am trying to figure out this paradox, and we all can benefit from an intelligent discussion.

Gabriel

Desktop: Windows 7, Xonar Essence XTS, Focal Solo6 Be

At work: HP laptop with Denon AH-D2000

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Gabriel-

 

How did you connect the DACs? Spdif from your soundcard? USB?

 

A different DAC with a different interface may sound very different.

 

When I upgraded my DAC the sound difference was obvious. But I will say that my experience is that the mid level DACs are not far off from the high end DACs, and without a very revealing system you will have a hard time hearing the difference.

Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>QuietPC Low Noise Server>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>Stack Audio Link II>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Path: Server with Audiolense RC>RPi4 or analog>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)>Kii Three .

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup.
Living Room/Kitchen: Ropieee (RPi3b+ with touchscreen) + Schiit Modi3E to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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3/ The emperor is naked.

 

  • We know that (to a certain degree) the industry is built around perceptions. We further know that how much one pays has a positive influence on how much one enjoys the product, so at a minimum , I think we can agree that there are incentives in promoting yet another miracle product...
  • In TAS, a few years ago, the CEO of Simaudio (a company which at the time was selling a CD player for $12,000) innocently stated that at CES, they used a laptop for playback - because the PC sounded better. We can argue about someone's opinion vs. facts, about the progress made in the last 5 years, etc., but still...
  • Nearly every reviewer (few exceptions, for particular products) notices a dramatic improvement when a new DAC is inserted in their system... Really? reliable bang for the buck, as long as you're willing to spend anything from $100 to $40,000? Better dynamics, better soundstage, better definition, better everything?

 

Now, if the emperor is naked, I think it's time to move on: go back to enjoying the music: I have great news for you: there's no need to spend the extra money on a DAC. Give that $1,000 you saved to the needy - you will feel better afterwards.

 

Please keep your comments polite: I am trying to figure out this paradox, and we all can benefit from an intelligent discussion.

 

Hello g_iordache!

 

I agree with you in some points: reviews greatly exaggerate the degree of change perceived in their systems. What is "game changing" to reviewers can be a moderate change to me...

 

But please account that your systems are at a desktop level (no offence intended).

 

What I suggest you do is a paradox, apparently:

Take a high resolving / transparent system and test any two different dacs, at any price point. It will be very easy to discern differences; in sames cases it sounds you hear different systems (for example one dac you hate the voices with too much sibilance, you change dac in same system and now you loved it)....

 

You can take the same M-DAC (not my cup of tea by the way) and take for example a Rega DAC...In a very resolving system you will immediately notice the difference in voicing, in sibilances, in bass...they have opposite sound signatures...

 

Then, at your system, the same comparison will not necessarily give you the same result.

 

Ah the end of the day, what matters is what works well for you in your system. Just don't assume that dacs sound similar...

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Have you ever heard an audiophile sound system ?

 

Can you cite the tas quote specifically -- it's inconceivable that its accurate.

mac mini 2011, Transparent audio usb cable, bryston bda-2, hegel h300 integrated amp, audio physic virgo 25 speakers, transparent audio speaker cables interconnects and digital cables.

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wow

 

He is saying they said that a pc straight out (not using an external Dac) was superior to the CD player . I suspect that If they were using a pc then a Dac was also used, which is a very different statement, and undercuts the purpose for which the quote was cited.

mac mini 2011, Transparent audio usb cable, bryston bda-2, hegel h300 integrated amp, audio physic virgo 25 speakers, transparent audio speaker cables interconnects and digital cables.

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In order to write that, you did have to conceive of the alternative.

 

Is it absolutely impossible that a computer's internal DAC is as good or better than some commercial DACs or DAC chips in CD players?

 

Everyone seems to take it as a given that a computer's DAC chip must sound terrible, but what is the evidence?

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Hi g_iordache, and welcome to CA.

 

My experience has been different from yours - you'd have to take my preciousss dacses from my cold dead hands, but I listen to them through speakers which are (mostly) less expensive than yours. Older certainly. Not that price is any guarantee of quality of course. But whatever, you hear what you hear, so if you don't think an external dac has been any improvement on the built in one... fair enough.

 

One piece of the puzzle you haven't told us is the source of music that you use. As in, streaming from internet via youtube / mob / spottily, or mp3 downloads, or ripped cds (and if so, what format you rip them to). All of which might account for something.

 

I'm also quite interested in how you arrived at your choice of speakers, what with them being studio monitors. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just intriguing to know about your 'journey' into computer based audio. For example do you / did you have old-school hifi gear and did you ever experiment with connecting up the computer to that, etc.

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I would choose a fourth option on the poll that I don't know objectively if my new dac sounds better than my old one (the $2 chip in my computer). What I do know, is that I am enjoying and listening to my music more often and at the end of the day that is what makes me happy.

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I agree with some points from OP. Since most of reviewers make their living writing reviews about product, they have to make things out of proportion to emphasize the pros and cons on of a product. Will you buy a new DAC which was reviewed as a little bit better in the high frequency range and you have to focus really hard to notice the differences? I'm sorry to say but in my opinion I don't trust reviewers and I rather read posts here for personal review of ones own equipment.

 

It doesn't matter if you have an excellent DAC but don't provide good input and your speakers can't reveal all the information from it. I don't have much knowledge about DAC comparison but experience shows me that you should listen for the new DAC for a while the. Go back to the old one. Then you'll notice the differences very clearly. Switching back and forth in a short period of time does not reveal much.

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Ugh- tough question. Assuming of course, you are aware that there is *always* a DAC or a DAC equivalent involved with digital music, and mean the quality of the DAC.

 

I think that the DAC makes as much or more difference as the amp, preamp, or bit-perfect source (i.e. computer). That is not a popular point of view perhaps, but it is what I believe based upon my own experiences. I conclude that a DAC makes or breaks a digital chain faster than anything else I can think of.

 

Think about it, the source computer and the DAC can be thought of as "drop in replacements" for a turntable, a tapedeck, or a CD player. Surely there is as much variation between DACs as between any of those components.

 

-Paul

Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat DAC.

Robert A. Heinlein

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Ugh- tough question. Assuming of course, you are aware that there is *always* a DAC or a DAC equivalent involved with digital music, and mean the quality of the DAC.

 

I think that the DAC makes as much or more difference as the amp, preamp, or bit-perfect source (i.e. computer). That is not a popular point of view perhaps, but it is what I believe based upon my own experiences. I conclude that a DAC makes or breaks a digital chain faster than anything else I can think of.

 

Think about it, the source computer and the DAC can be thought of as "drop in replacements" for a turntable, a tapedeck, or a CD player. Surely there is as much variation between DACs as between any of those components.

 

-Paul

 

Agreed.....and very well put I might add.

 

I'll add that the differences between DACs with proper delivery of bit perfect material are very subtle......and should be. The DAC should neither add or subtract any information or noise to the source file. Do I think paying up to $2k for a well engineered, quality built DAC with full connectivity is acceptable.....absolutely. Beyond that price point there's nothing but diminished returns on the investment as there's no need for the excess costs. If I had to derive a list of excess costs, i would place the boutique mfgr in the line of fire first as low production runs increase costs but do not incrementally increase performance or quality. The rest would be a combination of over-engineering, a poor understanding of the market and perceived quality through exclusivity. All of which damage the credibility of this industry as a whole......self evident in the lack of interest and availability of said products.

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I will address a few of the of the comments made so far:

 

* All my music collection is saved as flac files, on my computer, using the Xonar Essence STX card from Asus.

* When I tried the various DACs, I connected them to the PC via the USB port - as most reviewers recommend.

* I only had about one week for each evaluation - and during the week I did mostly A vs. B tests, I didn't have time to get familiar with the sound of the DAC...

* At the time I was using the MediaMonkey audio player on my PC (Moved to JRiver recently) and iTunes on the Mac.

 

wgscott:

 

I remember paying ~$200 for my Xonar card, which is a good card (made the CASH list on this very web site), so it might be that I was comparing a decent DAC with one four to five times more expensive - and saw no difference - in what the Audiolab was concerned. The Apogee sounded a bit better than the Mac, but the difference was not worth the money.

 

 

audiojim / mav52 / Paul.Raulerson:

 

The quote is from TAS #181, April 2008: Jean Poulin - the CEO - said "We were able to produce better music in our room using a laptop than using CDs in our own drives." I think that at that time a DAC would have been advertised as a major way of improving the sound… I don’t recall DACs being mentioned in the press until late 2009, so I think it’s safe to assume that the set-up was laptop to preamp/amp etc (although one cannot be 100% certain that this was the case).

 

souptin:

 

I had 3 criteria:

 

1/ I wanted a good system; I wanted the desktop to replace my main system - after realizing that I spend a lot of time at my desk. My main system has the Paradigm Refence 20s, ran through some vintage Rotel preamp/amp (gifted by a friend), the music being streamed from my PC through a Logitech Duet (when it works... - this is another story). Money was not really an issue (I would have spent double if I could have gotten the same sound from a smaller set-up, for example).

2/ I have done a lot of research and the more I've learned about active speakers, the more I liked them. I think the pro market is much more sensitive to "performance for the money" than the audiophile one (where, once again cost is at times a proxy for quality). Also, the set-up (nearfield listening) calls for a monitor...

3/ When I learned about the clean set-up afforded by an active speaker, there was no way turning back.

 

 

... all in all, the only beef I have with the Solo6s is that they are quite bulky.... but I love the sound.

 

Thank you all for your comments,

 

Gabriel

Gabriel

Desktop: Windows 7, Xonar Essence XTS, Focal Solo6 Be

At work: HP laptop with Denon AH-D2000

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The quote is from TAS #181, April 2008: Jean Poulin - the CEO - said "We were able to produce better music in our room using a laptop than using CDs in our own drives." I think that at that time a DAC would have been advertised as a major way of improving the sound… I don’t recall DACs being mentioned in the press until late 2009, so I think it’s safe to assume that the set-up was laptop to preamp/amp etc (although one cannot be 100% certain that this was the case).

 

There is much in this discussion to commend to a reader, but on this, I would have to disagree. DACs have been around for quite some time now, including in the audiophile press like TAS and Stereophile. While anything is conceivable, I doubt seriously the speaker was asserting that a laptop feeding a preamp or amp directly from a high-level output was superior to a $12k CD player. As quoted, it sounds to me like the speaker was saying files on a hard drive sounded better than discs in a transport. Two very different assertions. And still leaves open the DAC issue. In fact, depending on the transport and whether it fed a separate DAC, it is entirely possible the computer files were fed to the transport or to the same DAC the transport fed. In any case, I think the notion that this quote supports the assertion that a laptop is just as good as an esoteric transport/DAC combo is thin.

All the toys are in my profile.

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Are DACs even necessary for good sound? it depends. You can have the best made DAC and a poor set of speakers or an inefficient amp or pre-amp. My opinion., it's depends on the make up of the complete system and the matching of components to get "that sound". And then of course you have the material, it doesn't matter how good your system is if the material is just inferior to start with and presented to the DAC with an inefficient source (PC/NAS/Mac etc..) As they say, 'garbage in, garbage out.

The Truth Is Out There

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Yes! Without a DAC (in the digital world) you have no sound. So it becomes a case of where in the signal path it resides (computer, portable player, AV receiver, cd player, iPhone, stand-alone converter, digital speaker, etc), and how much do you want to spend for it. In many cases, you can't play certain music without it, so if a buddy gives a 24 bit recording, you can't hear it (natively) without a 24 bit converter. It's all about tradeofffs; but to make an argument that says "I heard two DACs, didn't like either one....Therefore the stand-alone DAC industry must be a ripoff" is a faulty argument with several holes, and misrepresents computer audio to the fullest. Sorry.

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Check out:

tape project

 

A guy out my way is part of the Tape Project and has one their upgraded tape machines that I heard cost $60K. It blows away any any other source I have ever heard - sorry vinyl guys its better than even the highest of high end vinyl.

 

What I suggest you do is see if someone out your way is part of the tape project and go over and listen to it. That is your reference. If after hearing that you cant tell which of two DAC's is better count yourself lucky. After hearing it many peoples reaction is how can I get that sound from a DAC. It can be done - or at least you can get very close to it - but I think before you put the time and effort into doing it you must first experience it.

 

Thanks

Bill

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mav 52: You make the issue too general, and that allows you to apply GIGO as a way out... I provided as much clarity as I could about my circumstances (I am using good source material - flac files from my PC; I have good speakers - the Focals, etc), to prevent the discussion from going into such a direction.

 

The forum helped me realize I have been exploring two aspects of the same question: how much DAC is enough? Here's my take:

 

Based on my PC experience - where I was using a good DAC to start with (the Xonar audiocard), I discovered ( be it with a sample of one) that it was not worth upgrading to a 5 times more expensive (and 3 years newer) DAC, which was widely praised in the press.

 

On the Mac (which is likely using a cheap DAC), I decided that the Apogee was not making an improvement worth the money - and I returned it.

 

Based on these 2 instances, I think that a good/ basic DAC is all I need. I am trying to avoid spending another $2-3000 on a DAC only to find out that I should return it - hence my thought of starting this thread.

 

I do not make any claim of running a controlled, scientific experiment here. One would need much more time and money that I had available... I am just surprised that with decent systems, I didn't see a dramatic improvement.

 

G

Gabriel

Desktop: Windows 7, Xonar Essence XTS, Focal Solo6 Be

At work: HP laptop with Denon AH-D2000

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As people have pointed out, it doesn't matter if the DAC you are using is on a soundcard in a PC or in an external enclosure, you are always using a DAC. You seem to understand that now and are asking how much DAC is enough?

 

Obvioulsy, however much you are happy with and no more. But a $500 DAC is most often going to beat any soundcard that costs less than that, and pretty much all the motherboard sound cards in PCs. You may find that you think different though, and that is okay.

 

I think in your situation, you might try different players to see how they affect your sound, and you might have a lot of fun with that. But honestly, in your system, a good DAC should make a lot of difference in what you hear.

 

-Paul

 

 

mav 52: You make the issue too general, and that allows you to apply GIGO as a way out... I provided as much clarity as I could about my circumstances (I am using good source material - flac files from my PC; I have good speakers - the Focals, etc), to prevent the discussion from going into such a direction.

 

The forum helped me realize I have been exploring two aspects of the same question: how much DAC is enough? Here's my take:

 

Based on my PC experience - where I was using a good DAC to start with (the Xonar audiocard), I discovered ( be it with a sample of one) that it was not worth upgrading to a 5 times more expensive (and 3 years newer) DAC, which was widely praised in the press.

 

On the Mac (which is likely using a cheap DAC), I decided that the Apogee was not making an improvement worth the money - and I returned it.

 

Based on these 2 instances, I think that a good/ basic DAC is all I need. I am trying to avoid spending another $2-3000 on a DAC only to find out that I should return it - hence my thought of starting this thread.

 

I do not make any claim of running a controlled, scientific experiment here. One would need much more time and money that I had available... I am just surprised that with decent systems, I didn't see a dramatic improvement.

 

G

Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat DAC.

Robert A. Heinlein

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I have to say that digital audio is a quagmire and, like audio in general, requires a lot of experience to get good results (or you just duplicate the system of someone who has already made all the effort). That being said, I wasn't impressed by the Apogee Duet 2 when I owned it. I thought it made music sound dull and flat.

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