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Two “budget” DACs compared (+ a third one...sort of)


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I recently upgraded my computer speakers with a pair of Elac B6's and an Emotiva a-100 (for the insanely low price of < $450). I feed them digital files (Tidal and flac 16/44 and high res including DSD). This system is really a small room system, as these B6's are a bit much for 'computer speakers', but hey it's fun. I sit back in a better position for critical listening.

 

 

I have tried two DACs, the iFI iDSD Nnano and a Schiit Modi 2 Uber. The iFI uses the Burr Brown DSD1793 DAC and the Schiit uses the AKM4396.

 

 

The sound is definitely a contrast. The Schiit is “lean”, the beginning and end of notes from almost all instruments (is this “transients” in audiophile jingo?) are there, then gone. It has an “on/off” quality about it, that leaves one thinking that the music is not exactly “natural”. This quality seems to skew voices, but in a hard to describe manner that seems mostly related to the volume of the voice. It is mostly heard when the singer is singing “soft”. If I sit down and simply cue some music up that is “busy” (and loud), like modern pop, electronic, or rock it is not all that noticeable. If I cue up some small ensemble jazz, I notice it rather quickly.

 

 

The iFI iDSD on the other hand, has a much more natural and “warm” sound. Instruments/notes/voices begin and decay naturally, yet with even a bit more “detail” than the Schiit Modi. Voices in particular seem to be fuller and have a more “complete” sound and decay. I have read some reviewers who think the iDSD emphasizes the bass, but to me it sounds quite natural – it is the Schiit that is a bit lean or slightly emphasized in the treble IMO. I suspect the Schiit would pair better with a “warm” tube amp.

 

 

I also have JDS Labs C5D that does not have a line out, so I can't directly compare its PCM5102A DAC to either the iFI or Schiit, but based on switching back and forth between it's headphone out and the one in the iDSD, I would say that it falls right in-between the Burr Brown and the AKM4396. It is a bit more leaner and “digital” than the Burr Brown, but not to the point where it becomes a distraction. It lacks that “on/off” quality of the AKM4396.

 

 

So, I can't really recommend the Schiit Modi 2 Uber as there seems to be better sounding DACs out there in the same “budget” price range, such as the iFI iDSD Nano. That said, it is no doubt a good upgrade for someone coming from whatever their phone or computer out offers where it would be a significant improvement in resolution and instrument separation.

 

 

Question for everyone: Now that I have played around with 3 “budget” DACs, what would you recommend I try in the mid priced range? Seems to me that if I step up to something in the < $1000 range (such as the $600 multibit Bitfrost) it should offer something significant over the iFI iDSD and its Burr Brown DSD1793 DAC.

Hey MQA, if it is not all $voodoo$, show us the math!

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I recently upgraded my computer speakers with a pair of Elac B6's and an Emotiva a-100 (for the insanely low price of < $450). I feed them digital files (Tidal and flac 16/44 and high res including DSD). This system is really a small room system, as these B6's are a bit much for 'computer speakers', but hey it's fun. I sit back in a better position for critical listening.

 

 

I have tried two DACs, the iFI iDSD Nnano and a Schiit Modi 2 Uber. The iFI uses the Burr Brown DSD1793 DAC and the Schiit uses the AKM4396.

 

 

The sound is definitely a contrast. The Schiit is “lean”, the beginning and end of notes from almost all instruments (is this “transients” in audiophile jingo?) are there, then gone. It has an “on/off” quality about it, that leaves one thinking that the music is not exactly “natural”. This quality seems to skew voices, but in a hard to describe manner that seems mostly related to the volume of the voice. It is mostly heard when the singer is singing “soft”. If I sit down and simply cue some music up that is “busy” (and loud), like modern pop, electronic, or rock it is not all that noticeable. If I cue up some small ensemble jazz, I notice it rather quickly.

 

 

The iFI iDSD on the other hand, has a much more natural and “warm” sound. Instruments/notes/voices begin and decay naturally, yet with even a bit more “detail” than the Schiit Modi. Voices in particular seem to be fuller and have a more “complete” sound and decay. I have read some reviewers who think the iDSD emphasizes the bass, but to me it sounds quite natural – it is the Schiit that is a bit lean or slightly emphasized in the treble IMO. I suspect the Schiit would pair better with a “warm” tube amp.

 

 

I also have JDS Labs C5D that does not have a line out, so I can't directly compare its PCM5102A DAC to either the iFI or Schiit, but based on switching back and forth between it's headphone out and the one in the iDSD, I would say that it falls right in-between the Burr Brown and the AKM4396. It is a bit more leaner and “digital” than the Burr Brown, but not to the point where it becomes a distraction. It lacks that “on/off” quality of the AKM4396.

 

 

So, I can't really recommend the Schiit Modi 2 Uber as there seems to be better sounding DACs out there in the same “budget” price range, such as the iFI iDSD Nano. That said, it is no doubt a good upgrade for someone coming from whatever their phone or computer out offers where it would be a significant improvement in resolution and instrument separation.

 

 

Question for everyone: Now that I have played around with 3 “budget” DACs, what would you recommend I try in the mid priced range? Seems to me that if I step up to something in the < $1000 range (such as the $600 multibit Bitfrost) it should offer something significant over the iFI iDSD and its Burr Brown DSD1793 DAC.

 

The B6 rolls off the top to match with like prices electronics. The mid bass is a little muffled too. I do not know the Emotiva.

The weak link in your system is not the dac. Also try playback software. These can make a larger change than functioning dac.

 

2012 Mac Mini, i5 - 2.5 GHz, 16 GB RAM. SSD,  PM/PV software, Focusrite Clarett 4Pre 4 channel interface. Daysequerra M4.0X Broadcast monitor., My_Ref Evolution rev a , Klipsch La Scala II, Blue Sky Sub 12

Clarett used as ADC for vinyl rips.

Corning Optical Thunderbolt cable used to connect computer to 4Pre. Dac fed by iFi iPower and Noise Trapper isolation transformer. 

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The B6 rolls off the top to match with like prices electronics. The mid bass is a little muffled too. I do not know the Emotiva.

The weak link in your system is not the dac. Also try playback software. These can make a larger change than functioning dac.

 

I have read where the B6 rolls off pretty hard after 10k. This is "ok" with me as my hearing also "rolls off" pretty hard above 10k also! :) I realize this little combo is limited, but it is resolving enough (somewhat surprising to me to be honest given how little it $cost$) for me to clearly hear the differences in the DACs I compared. Thanks for the tip on software - I have so far stuck with JRiver simply because it does "bit perfect" and it seems respected enough.

 

Actually, my search for my next DAC is for my future system (waiting to sell a gun - anyone interested in Robinson Arms XCR?), which at this point (subject to revision) is a Rogue Audio Sphinx powering a pair of GoldenEar Triton 5's (I recently hear this setup and liked it - it is a $3k system). While I believe iDSD will sound good with it, I was wondering what a mid priced DAC will get me as far as SQ over and above the iDSD....

Hey MQA, if it is not all $voodoo$, show us the math!

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Question for everyone: Now that I have played around with 3 “budget” DACs, what would you recommend I try in the mid priced range? Seems to me that if I step up to something in the < $1000 range (such as the $600 multibit Bitfrost) it should offer something significant over the iFI iDSD and its Burr Brown DSD1793 DAC.

 

They aren't the easiest to get hold of, but I would recommend either an entry-level Eastern Electric DAC ($900?), or a second-hand 1st gen or 2nd gen MiniMax (though probably as rare as hen's teeth).

 

This DAC has a really smooth and detailed sound, but the main plus for me is that you can switch between tube and solid state mode ... and you can also roll the tubes if you like the tube sound. It means you can fine-tune the sound to fit your system.

 

You can also roll the op amps (no soldering required - just unplug the stock ones and plug in the new ones), but that's another story ... and another thread. :)

Front End: Neet Airstream

Digital Processing: Chord Hugo M-Scaler

DAC: Chord Dave

Amplification: Cyrus Mono x300 Signatures

Speakers: Kudos Titan T88

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My recommendation for budget DAC is iFi Micro iUSB as portable solution or a DAC from Gustard (look at ebay) as desktop solution.

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