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Best sub-$400 DAC for Mac


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Hi all,

 

First thanks to Chris and all posters for this amazing forum. I've read quite a lot in recent weeks and the quality is way up there. It is particularly gratifying to read posts from the guys who are designing/building the stuff.

 

Below (@Story:) is a very high level description of what I want to do, but at the moment I'm really in need of a DAC. Most important to me is that:

- it be a musically satisfying bridge to future acquisition of an asynchronous USB DAC a la Wavelength/Ayre etc.

- it leverage/mitigate as much as possible the strengths and limitations of the Mac and OSX.

- it let me benefit as much as possible from high-resolution downloads, and rips of my existing CDs

 

I'd rather spend money on the optimal gear for what I want to do now, than to buy a "swiss army knife

 

If anyone has success stories (or total failures) they care to share relating to the above I'd be grateful.

 

--------------

Story:

A month ago I had to give back the $40 used Sony CD player I had been using as a source for my home system. I thought "I'm not sure I need another CD player. I think there may be another way."

 

Since then I have been around the block from vinyl to Sonos to used SACD to Wavelength DAC and pretty much everywhere in between, all in a quest to replace, or improve upon a $40 CD player.

 

I still don't know for sure what I will do but (the core of it will eventually be some form of music server) In general though, I want to take a phased approach toward musical nirvana and media ubiquity.

 

What I have:

One room for dedicated listening

A couple hundred CDs

One Primare A20 integrated amplifier (1993)

Two Mirage bookshelf speakers on stands

One heavily used 'family' MacBook (2006)

One AirPort Extreme N spec. (no gig ports though) wireless router

One lightly used iPod touch belonging to my wife

 

Principal goals:

1. Pursue musical nirvana in 'listening room' (for me)

2. Pursue 'musical ubiquity' in other parts of the house (for everyone)

3. Consolidate media (CD, DVD, HD Audio Downloads)

4. Use sound and appropriate products and technologies

 

Phase 1 (listen to music again)

Buy a suitable sub $400 dac

Connect DAC to integrated

Rip as I go with ITunes (WAV or ALAC

Explore downloaded high res

 

Phase 2 (media consolidation)

Buy a NAS and/or MAC Mini with external drive

Buy backup drive

Move all media to this

 

Phase 3 (music ubiquity)

Buy a something easy and flexible for the family - squeezebox, Sonos etc.

Run against the 'media store' above

 

Phase 4 (video integration)

This is an il-defined lower priority item for the future

 

Anyway - that's kind of where I want to go. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Software: Rip for Mac -> FLAC -> MAX -> AIFF -> iTunes

Hardware: Mac Mini -> Lifatec TosLink cable -> Technolink TC-7510 -> Unity interconnects -> Primare A20 -> (basically lamp wire) -> Mirage 290is

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I'd suggest the Musical Fidelity V-DAC as a candidate for consideration.

 

In a Mac environment, USB and Toslink are the two most useful connection types for a DAC, unless you plan to consider pro audio dacs (in which case, Firewire is also important) and the V-DAC has USB and Toslink inputs (as well as coax S/PDIF).

 

 

The small form factor of the V-DAC is very appealing to me, ditto for the Wavelength Proton (which is outside your price range).

 

NOTE: the Cambridge DacMagic is apparently a subpar performer via USB (per the Stereophile review), so please entertain with caution the inevitable suggestions of this dac at this pricepoint.

 

You might want to consider an Airport Express eventually - for wireless playback via Toslink to your DAC.

 

Given your Extreme 'N', I doubt you'll be needing a NAS. I'd use Airdisk function of the Extreme, so long as you're using Apple formatted disks/files. Attempts to use Airdisk with PC formatted disks have been reported as problematic.

 

Once you get a mini, along with the laptop, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the 'ubiquity' of a setup with external (multiple, if appropriate) shared iTunes library accessed via multiple computers. YMMV

 

enjoy

clay

 

 

 

 

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Clay - thanks for the informative reply,

 

I will take a closer look at the Musical Fidelity.

 

I read that about the DACMagic also. Local retailer says the price of that has gone up several times in the last wile.

 

As to wireless, I was originally looking at Express-based solutions, but I heard some talk about them dropping signal. Local Mac/Audio shop (great combo) was also against. Finally Stereophile reviews of Sonos, SqueezeBox and AE solutions seemed to rank the AE third. I like SB and I know that the Sonos would garner a good degree of "domestic acceptance" (always helpful) The goal with the wireless part is to provide something simple and reliable for my wife.

 

Thanks for the AirdDisk suggestion. That is my preference although, again, I have heard some skepticism about its ability to stream higher resolutions without dropping. I will try it first however, and if it works out - great else the drive can become a backup volume.

 

 

 

Software: Rip for Mac -> FLAC -> MAX -> AIFF -> iTunes

Hardware: Mac Mini -> Lifatec TosLink cable -> Technolink TC-7510 -> Unity interconnects -> Primare A20 -> (basically lamp wire) -> Mirage 290is

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hi there!

 

I really have to drop a line, cubist, as I'm looking for a dac too and my rig is surprisingly similar to yours:

amphion helium2 bookshelf speakers

primare a10 integrated

a couple hundreds cds ;) I will rip to ALAC

a macbook pro

an iPod touch

and an airport express

 

I'm not interested in hi-res by now, but I think I will definitely test the Airdisk option before going for the macMini as a server

and for phase 3 and 4 I would consider this:

http://images.computeraudiophile.com/graphics/2009/0317/music-distrubution-two-way-100.jpg

(driven by the iPod touch)

and the AppleTV plugged straight into something like this: http://www.audioengineusa.com/a5_buynow.php#A5W%20Bookshelf%20Speakers

for the other room.

 

Having said that, what DAC for the main stage? :D

 

ciaociao

jacopi|!

 

|||quality music needs investment|||

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I've never encountered another Primare owner! It's not a popular brand, that I can tell, but is served me well these many years. We certainly do seem to be in a similar situation. I think the DAC question will drive you crazy if you over-think it. I'm considering just buying something decent and inexpensive from a local shop or used and jumping in. I think the Mac gives one a plurality of options DAC-wise with its native optical out. Although USB is where I think I want go, I see no particular need to start there. So do you have a DAC shortlist?

 

 

 

Software: Rip for Mac -> FLAC -> MAX -> AIFF -> iTunes

Hardware: Mac Mini -> Lifatec TosLink cable -> Technolink TC-7510 -> Unity interconnects -> Primare A20 -> (basically lamp wire) -> Mirage 290is

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I am quite happy with the Devilsound; at this price range I am really concerned about poor quality superfluous "options" in the signal path. The Devilsound DAC is about as simple as it gets and it sounds pretty good.

 

It is also on the CASH recommended list here at Computer Audiophile. I have also discussed my experience in detail in the following post you can search for at this site:

 

Devilsound v2 DAC - my preliminary thoughts

 

Good luck,

 

Steelman

 

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Just throwing out a $400ish.. DAC, the Apogee Duet. I don't own one and can't really comment on the sound quality but you may want to at least check it out.

 

Firewire based DAC and AD converter up to 24/96. Works only with a Mac.

 

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Ciao cubist, Primare is quite known here in Europe!

 

Regarding the dac, my list says used north star 192 mkI (but hard to find it in US at a decent price), the dacmagic, a moodlab maybe.

And I'm pretty sure I wont do without the optical.

 

j|!

 

|||quality music needs investment|||

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Hi Cubist,

 

I'm new to computer audio myself and faced similar questions to those you are asking yourself.

 

I had an imac, ibook G4, airport express and iphone.... so there was no real decision to make; i'd go with apple streaming aplpe lossless using itunes from the imac to the AE to the dac using the AE's optical out into the dac. Remember that you have everything you need to set up a wifi music system with only an AE unit; with sonos you are paying for fancy remote and hardware that duplicates what you already have to a great extent. You can always use the AE for other things should you decide to go Sonos down the line.

 

I eventually got a dacmagic. There are concerns about the USB... and you should read the 'stereophile' review on it and the musical fidelity V dac that Clay mentions, but otherwise, using non-usb links, the dacmagic was viewed as a superb performer in its price range. That conclusion has been drawn in several other reviews too. In the UK, the price of the dacmagic increased from £200 to £220; not a huge increase and certainly not enough to make a good deal into a bad one.

 

Anyway, i am very happy with mine going into cyrus 8 amp -> dynaudio 52 speakers. Stereo imaging and detail are very good indeed, i'm experiencing no drop outs in sound at all and the iphone remote is superb. once my CD8 returns from repair than i will write a more detailed comparison between the two sources, but as things stand, the sheer convenience of computer audio over CD is compensating for any slight drop in SQ that i may be experiencing.

 

Anyway, you have had several dac suggestions and i seriously doubt that any so far would be a terrible deal. Reading around, the concensus hereabouts seems to be that optical is better than USB anyway, not necc just for the dacmagic.

 

Why do you want to use USB?

 

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Thanks for your responses.

 

@Steelman:

I am aware of Devilsound, but have yet to examine it in detail. I will check out your review.

 

@lamarzocco:

I certainly have head good things about the Duet, if it is firewire only then it might prove limiting against furure sources, although I have noticed that there is currently a very strong used market for these. I also seems to me that the design of the protocol (RFC 1394?) is well aligned with the task of moving realtime data like music. (some may dispute this but that's my impression.

 

@jacopo:

I guess that's it. I believe mine is of Danish design (reason enough!) and sweedish manufacture. I'm in Canada and, recall that the shop I bought it from had to redo the power supply connection to conform with North American standards or something. Anyway seems like he wen to some effort in this regard. Of the dacs you mention I am familiar only with the DACMagic. I guess my concern is that with the DM, I'm paying money for what some say is rather a weak USB input. That and the price keeps going up!

 

@ajmcl05:

I first considered the AE for the wireless setup, but my concern was reliability and ease of use. The wireless piece, being for my wife (I'm not that interested) has to be dead easy and very reliable as in no dropped signals. Sonos from what I've read, ticks those boxes nicely. I take your point on the remote, I think I would actually buy the components I need un-bundled and just use the Ipod touch as a controller. I've spoken to people who say that is quite acceptable and my wife loves using her touch.

 

What are you controlling from the iphone remote?

 

I think that USB has, particularly with the advent of USB Audio 2.0, the potential of becoming a de facto standard for digital audio transmission. I think the ubiquity of the interface will drive innovation around it. (indeed it already has, Wavelength being the poster child) I'm not really looking for USB at all right now, because I think at the $400 price-point it may still be better served by the traditional interfaces. Given the MacBook's optical output, it would seem to be particulalry advantageous to go a dedicated optical DAC at this time.

 

 

 

 

Software: Rip for Mac -> FLAC -> MAX -> AIFF -> iTunes

Hardware: Mac Mini -> Lifatec TosLink cable -> Technolink TC-7510 -> Unity interconnects -> Primare A20 -> (basically lamp wire) -> Mirage 290is

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There is an aftermarket of tweaks available for the dacmagic (expecially power supply and also many other parts in the UK) which only indicated it is an interesting piece of gear. One comment on usb measurements in the Stereophile review is not the last word on this dac and should not be taken as the definitive judgment. JA has not even listened to the dacmagic. So this sentence should be taken with a grain of salt.

It would be interesting to read from people having compared V-dac/dacmagic/apogee/proton in a given system before deciding dacmagic is subpar.

 

 

 

Dac202/LebenXS/MagicoV2 Stealth cables www.bluedy.com

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@bluedy1

I guess the thing with 'professional' reviews is that they are so often positive, not to say glowing, (I attribute this to the structure of the hifi magazine business iself) that when I actually see something negative in a review I imagine that the reviewer and his editor have thought long and hard and decided that the downside is so obvious that to ignore it would be more detrimental to the magazines credibility among readers than to its relationships with vendors/sponsors. So yes, I put a fair amount of stock in negative reviews in the hifi mags, as I do in the opinions of people like you who actually own and like (or even dislike) the gear.

In a perfect world, we would be able to test out all the options in our systems and make decisions based on how it sounds, period. It is unfortunate that this is so difficult to do orchestrate. I suppose a group of like minded people could meet-up, pool their resources to buy some gear and ship it round to each member, but I the logistics, practicalities would hobble any such effort, I fear.

 

I'm increasingly of the opinion that it is best to just 'jump in' with the cheapest compliant piece and if you like it, be happy. If you don't, figure out why, unload it and find something more suitable. I think the odds are you will like the first thing you buy enough to stay with it - ignorance is bliss.

 

@labarum

I did like a lot about the Beresford - I take it you own?

 

 

 

 

 

Software: Rip for Mac -> FLAC -> MAX -> AIFF -> iTunes

Hardware: Mac Mini -> Lifatec TosLink cable -> Technolink TC-7510 -> Unity interconnects -> Primare A20 -> (basically lamp wire) -> Mirage 290is

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Yes, I own a Beresford 7510.

 

I moved to an area with marginal TV and radio reception, so I went with Virgin cable to get telephone and internet al in the same package.

 

My Quad FM Tuner was matched by the audio out from the Cable Box, so I decided to try an better DAC. I read around and choose the Beresford because of it's price, its reviews and its facilities - switched inputs and both fixed and variable output.

 

The 7510 took the Virgin Box up a notch. I was very pleased. Next I optical coupled an old Shuttle PC to the DAC and tried playing FLAC - that bettered the Quad 77 CD player by a significant margin.

 

Third step: I bought a Squeezebox 3 to stream my FLACs, but I spend most of my time listening to HiBit classical music radio stations. They are amazingly good with my Squeezebox and Beresford DAC directly driving an upgraded Quad 405-2 into to large German loudspeakers.

 

The latest Beresford 7520, as you will have read has a USB input and better anlogue output circuits. I have not heard it as I have not heard any other external DAC.

 

But yes, I like my Beresford 7510.

 

It should optically couple to a Mac very well - my son plugs his MacBook in when he is home.

 

PS

 

The Beresford Fan Club meets here

 

http://www.theartofsound.net/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=3

 

 

 

Brian

Squeezebox Classic - Beresford Caiman-Gator DAC - Quad 520f with Dada refresh - Quart 980s German Tower Loudspeakers.

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Well they certainly do have a following over there. Some interesting discussions too. Thanks for the link. Are you classical services part of your Virgin package?

 

Software: Rip for Mac -> FLAC -> MAX -> AIFF -> iTunes

Hardware: Mac Mini -> Lifatec TosLink cable -> Technolink TC-7510 -> Unity interconnects -> Primare A20 -> (basically lamp wire) -> Mirage 290is

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No, not part of the Virgin cable output - although I can get BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM at 128kb/s MP2.

 

I listen mostly on the Squeezebox at higher bitrates and with better codecs.

 

But you can tune in on your Mac:

 

Bartók Rádió (Hungary)

http://212.92.28.75:2008/

MP3 at 320kbps

 

AVRO Klassiek Beste NL MP3 256

http://opml.radiotime.com/Tune.ashx?id=s55517&Formats=mp3,wma,real&username=sampletime&PartnerId=16

 

BBC R3 WMA 128

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/wm_asx/aod/radio3.asx

 

BBC R4 WMA 96

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/wm_asx/aod/radio4.asx

 

Venice Classic MP3 128

http://www.shoutcast.com/sbin/tunein-station.pls?id=4975&filename=playlist.pls

 

D-dur (Czech Republic)

http://www.rozhlas.cz/audio/download/ddur_maxogg.m3u

OGG at 224kbps

 

Vltava (Czech Republic)

http://radio.cesnet.cz/cgi-bin/cro3-256-ogg.pls

OGG at 224kbps

 

Devín (Slovakia)

http://live.slovakradio.sk:8000/Devin_256.ogg

OGG at 256kbps

 

NRK Alltid Klassisk (Norway)

http://media.hiof.no/streams/m3u/nrk...sk-172.ogg.m3u

OGG at 172kbps

 

Radio 4 (Netherlands)

http://shoutcast.omroep.nl:8106/listen.pls

MP3 at 192kbps

 

Baroque Ottawa MP3 128

http://opml.radiotime.com/Tune.ashx?id=s65422&Formats=mp3,wma,real&username=sampletime&PartnerId=16

 

Classical Quebec MP3 128

URL: http://opml.radiotime.com/Tune.ashx?id=s96897&Formats=mp3,wma,real&username=sampletime&PartnerId=16

 

Radio Swiss Classic MP3 128

http://opml.radiotime.com/Tune.ashx?id=s25582&Formats=mp3,wma,real&username=sampletime&PartnerId=16

 

 

---

 

Radio Swiss Classic (Switzerland)

http://stream-1.ssatr.ch/rsc/aacp

AAC+ at 64kbps (sounds like MP3 at 160-192kbps)

 

Play Classical (UK)

http://audio3.playradiouk.com:8060/

AAC+ at 64kbps (sounds like MP3 at 160-192kbps)

 

 

Brian

Squeezebox Classic - Beresford Caiman-Gator DAC - Quad 520f with Dada refresh - Quart 980s German Tower Loudspeakers.

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I've seen them going for as little as $300 recently and the Mac integration is great. Off the top of my head, another good option in that range would be a used Parasound D/AC-1100, though they are a bit tricky to find.

 

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"I'm increasingly of the opinion that it is best to just 'jump in' with the cheapest compliant piece and if you like it, be happy. If you don't, figure out why, unload it and find something more suitable. I think the odds are you will like the first thing you buy enough to stay with it - ignorance is bliss."

 

I think you are probably right about this :-). It is neigh impossible to check out all the various suggestions yourself before buying; that mythical hifi shop doesn't exist.

 

The thing about computer audio is that you do get high quality sound fairly cheap with one of these dacs. Certainly cheaper than 5 or 6 years ago using CD players and while i agree with your sentiments about various hifi magazines and websites and their reviews, it may just be the case that pretty much all these dacs are good value for money. I'm begining to suspect that is the case.

 

Either way, the luxury of being able to directly compare one component to another in your home before making a decision is usually the preserve of making some fairly high expenditure through your local dealer... or spending 3 times more than you'd like from the net-dealers and then sending a couple back.

 

The bottom line is that sticking any half decent DAC between your computer out and your amp in (in my case the dacmagic) makes a very significant difference vs not using one at all, at least in my experience. In that regard it has been more bang for yerr buck than any single h-ifi purchase i have ever made.

 

Oh and to answer your question about what is controlled by the iphone remote - itunes on the imac a couple of rooms away from the hifi. The experience of others may be different, but i have experienced no drop outs at all using AE and ultimately what really pushes computer audio is its sheer convenience coupled with reasonable cost if you have decent components down the chain anyway.

 

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Thanks again everyone - I really appreciate the suggestions

 

@Labarum:

Thanks for the comprehensive list. Must be tough to choose!

 

@Strech:

Duet certainly has its following. Odd looking thing, but apparently very effective. I note also the mini dac by the same company is out of my range. I did in fact see used Parasound today for a reasonable sum.

 

@ajmcl05

Total agreement there. So why don't I just bite the bullet and do it??? I probably will jump at the first of these listed that I can find at a dealer or domestic website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Software: Rip for Mac -> FLAC -> MAX -> AIFF -> iTunes

Hardware: Mac Mini -> Lifatec TosLink cable -> Technolink TC-7510 -> Unity interconnects -> Primare A20 -> (basically lamp wire) -> Mirage 290is

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I'd be interested in your thoughts on the Beresford if you chose that one Cubist. It is also on my shortlist.

 

Edit: It might be worth while registering at http://theartofsound.net/forum/index.php It's a bit of a fan club for the Beresford and all things digital music. I read heaps of stuff there yesterday.

 

Intel iMac C2D, iTunes>ALAC>Airport Express, Audiolab 8000CD player, Audiolab 8000S amp, Dynaudio Audience 42 speakers, Chord Rumour speaker cable, Mark Grant Interconnects, Grado SR80\'s, Sennheiser PX100\'s, 5G iPod

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I have not heard Beresford's DACs, but do know that Stanley Beresford himself was recently banned from another large audio forum for posting rave reviews of his own products (and personally attacking anyone less than dazzled by them) under other user names -- after setting up a number of sock-puppet accounts for this express purpose. Not particularly edifying behavior.

 

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I read that too, but don't know where. Is it fact?

 

 

Intel iMac C2D, iTunes>ALAC>Airport Express, Audiolab 8000CD player, Audiolab 8000S amp, Dynaudio Audience 42 speakers, Chord Rumour speaker cable, Mark Grant Interconnects, Grado SR80\'s, Sennheiser PX100\'s, 5G iPod

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@Webby

Thanks I spent some time reading in Art of Sound - I'd not come across it before. There is indeed a lot of good discussion there too. Quite frank at times, which is good.

 

@Stretch

Its creator's apparent transgressions notwithstanding, the Beresford is rather compelling if only on the basis of what I hope are the opinions of actual owners.

 

 

Software: Rip for Mac -> FLAC -> MAX -> AIFF -> iTunes

Hardware: Mac Mini -> Lifatec TosLink cable -> Technolink TC-7510 -> Unity interconnects -> Primare A20 -> (basically lamp wire) -> Mirage 290is

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The published reviews I've seen have also been generally favorable to the Beresford saying (as I recall) that it's very good value for the money, obviously if you spend more (i.e. up to the Cambridge Audio DAC Magic) you see a worthwhile improvement, but pretty much unbeatable for the cost.

 

These thoughts are generally mirrored by user reports on forums I've seen. Some make over the top claims and some people don't like it ... but the "average" comment seams to be pretty impressive for the cost.

 

Eloise

 

Eloise

---

...in my opinion / experience...

While I agree "Everything may matter" working out what actually affects the sound is a trickier thing.

And I agree "Trust your ears" but equally don't allow them to fool you - trust them with a bit of skepticism.

keep your mind open... But mind your brain doesn't fall out.

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