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Guidance for a newbie in search of a DAC


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Hey there one and all. I have to admit I'm fairly new to the computer audiophile world. While I've certainly had an appreciation for hi resolution CD's and quality LP's, it was only recently that I discovered the computer side of things could go hi-fi! Damn that iTunes... LOL

 

At this time, I'm in search of a quality DAC to accompany my system. My estimated budget is capped at $3,000. My preference is something clsoer to the $1,000 range. But, I'm willing to spend the extra if it really will deliver the bang! My system will rely on digital sources from my disc transport, a Wadia 170i, and my Mac - possibly a MacPro or a mini.

 

In search of the most prudent choice of a DAC, I've done some research. I've seen reviews on a number of products, and have interest in the following currently released products:

 

Ayre acoustics qb-9

Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC

Weiss DAC2

Bel Canto DAC3

 

I'm also interested in an upcoming DAC by Wyred 4 Sound. From what I can gather, it will be based upon the 32 bit Sabre chip.

 

Any thoughts, comments, input, or suggestions on this would be greatly appreciated. I'm most interested in getting the biggest bang for my buck. Thus, if I can get 90% of euphoric bliss for under $1,500, I'd happily choose that over spending $2,000 or even $3,000 for the extra 5-10%. And I'd still likely do the same if I only can get 80-90% bliss for under $1,500.

 

Thanks in advance for any response.

 

Jonathan

 

Jonathan[br]-------------------[br]Still finding my way, but soaking it all up like a sponge!

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"Ayre acoustics qb-9

Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC

Weiss DAC2

Bel Canto DAC3"

 

This is only one man's opinion.

 

I think I could live quite happily with any of the top three on your list, and for a long time.

 

but, then again, I'm living quite happily right now with the Metric Halo ULN-2, which is easily found for $1495. If you are seriously considering lower cost alternatives, I can highly recommend it. It should more than hold it's own. There's also a thread here on CA which discusses it, among other things, although despite its title, it is NOT an actual review.

 

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/Metric-Halo-review

 

Please bear in mind, Pro audio gear suffers significantly less margins than audiophile gear, so it is often a better value. IOW, it will likely sound comparable to audiophile gear that costs much more. As an example, the audiophile version of the DAC2 - the Minerva - costs twice as much.

 

The DAC2 and the QB-9 are worthy candidates at the $2500 mark. Not sure why you've included the Alpha as it's $5000, and close to $6k when you add the Lynx card, but by all reports, it sounds great.

 

The 4th, the Bel Canto, wouldn't make my short list. Ditto for the Bryston, but you may want to consider it.

 

 

good luck,

clay

 

 

 

 

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While I've yet to audition, everything I've read indicates that the Wavelength Proton and Brick are strong and worthy of consideration. They use the async USB code that Ayre has licensed from Wavelength's creator. Chris has a great Proton review here and there are a number of Brick reviews around the web.

 

MBP13-128gb ssd using VoiceOver to hear the screen, iTunes, Ayre QB-9, McIntosh mx119 & mc207, Thiel CS2.4

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Ray,

 

agreed, I thought I had mentioned those as well. The Proton will likely be my next DAC purchase, even though I don't need one. :)

It takes the cake for ultra-portable high quality playback. Previously, the most portable was ULN-2 (and recently ULN-8) and a Macbook Pro, but now the Wavelength Proton with a Macbook Air offers amazing sound quality in a very low profile, low weight package.

 

Also, the Lavry DA10 was on my short list prior to selecting the ULN-2, and the DA11 has been introduced since, neither of which I've listened to.

 

I don't necessarily agree with all of Dan's views on digital to analog conversion, but I do believe his DACs are very good value.

 

FWIW, I do believe that DACs that process only up to 96kHz are quite sufficient for some time to come, given the dearth of 'actual' music available at 88.1k/96k sampling rates, let alone at 192. For those who don't know, Dan Lavry argues against the need for 192kHz sampling rates. None of his DACs provide more than 192kHz, by design.

 

clay

 

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I started with a Benchmark ($1k), after 2 years moved to (and still use dailly) the Lavry DA10 ($1.3k) and now use the Alpha DAC ($5k).

 

The Lavry DAC is excellent, and whilst the Alpha DAC is better; it is not (5k:1.3k) times better - maybe subjectively 50%.

 

Now you need to get the signal to the DAC. All of the above DACs need either a Lynx card in a PC/MAC or an outboard USB/FW converter (Hiface $150, Emperical USB $600, INT202 $1300).

 

An alternative is a DAC with F/W or USB - the Metric Halo ULN-2 or the Weiss DAC2 ($2500).

 

As a good starting point - MAC/PC (Some use a MAC OSX with Amarra, it is possible to use a MAC Mini as a PC) - a Hiface USB device feeding a Lavry DA11 (the upgrade of the DA10). This would be an excellent first step. I would then suggest that the next couple of thousand dollars goes into improving Room Modes (Room Treatment). It is my experience that massive gains (for relatively low costs) can be gotten by addressing room reflections/destructive interference etc.. (I am assuming that you have an amp and speakers/cables that you like).

 

/Paul

 

Serious Listening:[br]Intel Mac Pro 6G (SSD) -> Amarra ->Alpha USB ->Alpha I Dac -> Ayre KX-R -> Tom Evans Linear Class A -> Avantgarde Mezzo Horns (107db) + Basshorns-> Engineered Room (Power, Traps, Helmholtz Resonators, Ceiling Diffusers)[br]Computer Listening:Intel Mac Pro 6G -> Lavry DA10 -> Adams S3A Active Monitors

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Paul

 

"Now you need to get the signal to the DAC. All of the above DACs need either a Lynx card in a PC/MAC or an outboard USB/FW converter (Hiface $150, Emperical USB $600, INT202 $1300)."

 

 

The Lavry and the Benchmark have USB inputs - why use a converter in the middle ?

 

As for the Alpha Dac - why not just run optical from the Mac straight into it ? (Assuming 24/96 is ok)

 

Maybe silly questions but still i have to ask....

 

Sunil

 

[br]Mac Mini > Lio-8 > Graaf Gm-20 > Stax ESL-F83x[br]Ipod / Wadia Dock / Wadia 830 > ULN-2 > Krell KAV400xi > B&W 805

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Optical may be the least desireable possibility; it is likely to cause considerable degradation of the quality which, for a DAC of the alpha's quality, will be quite noticeable in many applicaitons.

 

The reason of using the converter is to avoid USB. Especially on Macs, there may be issues with audio quality on some of the USB ports. There is extensive discussion of this on the forum recently. Also, Macs do not have the excellent room EQ software that's built in to Vista and Windows 7.

 

I've got the Lavry DA-11 in-house presently, and will be testing it, in addition to USB, with RCA and TOSLINK S/PDIF. Their implementation of the USB connection allows full use of the Win 7 room EQ. Will know more once the calibrated microphone arrives :)

 

 

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"The reason of using the converter is to avoid USB. Especially on Macs, there may be issues with audio quality on some of the USB ports. "

 

While that may be true that does NOT mean that all USB ports on a Mac have audio quality problems. It is also well documented which ports can be used.

 

Another good reason for a Mac over a Windows based system is that you do not have to worry about frying your speakers tweeters. It can happen.

 

Alan B

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"While that may be true that does NOT mean that all USB ports on a Mac have audio quality problems. It is also well documented which ports can be used."

 

Agreed, I use Firewire, and can't claim direct experience here (not sure if Nicholas can either), but I don't think Gordon believes it to be much of an issue. Perhaps he'll chime in here. He prefers Macs for his SOTA Async USB implementations, as I understand it.

 

Choosing the preferred USB port on a Mac seems much preferable to dealing with versions of ASIO / WASAPI, etc. to get bit perfect output, that is, if we're going to get into an OSX versus Windows debate here at the OP's expense. :-0

 

just my two cents,

clay

 

 

 

 

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"The Lavry DAC is excellent, and whilst the Alpha DAC is better; it is not (5k:1.3k) times better - maybe subjectively 50%."

 

Wow, if that's really the case, please scratch my (admittedly unauditioned) recommendation to consider the Lavry devices, based on reputation alone.

 

Do not pass go, go immediately to a DAC2, or ULN-2, etc., as these do NOT require converters for best sound, and at least in the DAC2s case, some prefer it to the Berkeley flat out - cost no object. Indeed the Minerva (audiophile version of DAC 2, which sounds identical) was reviewed here by Chris. IOW, there is no "percentage" better, you're just down to system matching, and ultimate sound preferences.

 

clay

 

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I recall these are set and forget! Unlike the iTunes sample rate problem where you have to reset and reset and reset, right? Sure you can aways buy the Amarra sofware for 300 to 1500 bucks to solve that:)

 

Regards

Jesus R

www.sonore.us

 

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I will ditto many of the comments previously noted. I would include Bryston except for the fact that this requires a big box Mac and even if you go for the G5 that will set you back $500 + the Lynx card at $700. I am immenently pleased with that combination. Although the Bryston sounds super on the USB input to me to really get the best of this will require a better feed via ASE/EBU from something like the Lynx which again draws in a slew of additional expense. People seem to love the Ayre (it wasn't my favorite) so that would be an obvious one to audition if you can deal with in and your budget. I think its better to stretch a bit in lieu of feeling like you need to "upgrade" a year later. I avoid upgrade-itis whenever possible.

 

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"Optical may be the least desireable possibility".

 

I'd agree with Nicholas on this, with respect to ultimate sound quality.

 

"The reason of using the converter is to avoid USB."

 

I'd say the thing to avoid is the specific USB implementations in devices like these, as opposed to USB in general. Some (perhaps most?) legacy DAC manufacturers have not yet sorted out their USB implementations such that they are at the same level as their S/PDIF variant (AES, Coax, etc.) inputs.

 

WHile not everyone will notice this, there have been noted dropoffs in quality for non Async USB implementations in 'legacy' DACs. Some of these 'add-on' USB implementations have been referred to disparagingly in the audiophile press as 'convenience' inputs. The reputed quality of the Bel Canto 3's USB input is the reason it would not even make a short list for consideration, in my view.

 

clay

 

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the word "legacy" is not really appropriate!

 

According to the Wiki dictionary:

1. (computing) of a computer system that has been in service for many years and that a business still relies upon, even though it is becoming expensive or difficult to maintain

2. left behind; old or no longer in active use

 

Sure some will cut and paste what serves them, but it does not apply no matter what side you turn it on.

 

Regards

Jesus R

www.sonore.us

 

ps it's like me saying firewire is for the DIY recording studio....hehehe. Just Kidding!

 

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First, thanks to everyone for their input. This has been much more informative and helpful than I could have anticipated.

 

Second, it sounds like the consensus, of sorts, might be to go with either the Ayre acoustics qb-9 or the Weiss DAC2. Candidly, I can't help but to lean toward the Weiss, primarily because Kent Poon seems to (selfishly?) extol its virtues. However, this is about being objective...

 

Third, what's the set-up that we have? Currently, our transports are either an Oppo Blue-Ray player, a Sony 400 disc DVD player, a Wadia Transport 170i (for iPod/phone), or an apple extreme wireless (via mini-jack toslink). This is then run through our current pre-pro, which we are planning to swap out with our new DAC of choice (it's what we're researching). This then runs through a solid state pre-amp and amp, made by Wyred 4 Sound, and upgraded/modded by them, as well. The speakers are Zu Essence.

 

So, ultimately, the goal is to incorporate a DAC that be our central hub for digital conversion from USB or Firewire, as well as coaxial and toslink. And while I understand there are some issues with USB vs Firewire, we're still planning to go this route, since our goal will be to incorporate a Mac Mini into the system with a NAS, which means we are looking at an OS X solution.

 

I've also taken some time to look at the Amarra product plugin for iTunes, and will continue to evaluate other options. And I’m still not sure if Songbird is even a viable choice, but we'll look at that, as well.

 

Which gets us back to the DAC. We're really open to anything. But as I've seen over the years, there can be a huge leap in price without a huge leap in performance gain when comparing two products. Wyred 4 Sound is planning to release a new DAC later this year, and possibly in November. While they’re not big on aesthetics for their packaging, I think the reviews generally indicate their products deliver a lot of bang. However, I do question whether their DAC will be more like something from Benchmark or PS Audio. So I’m not pushing their product here. Just curious about anyone’s thoughts on their DAC and the Sabre 32 chip they will use. This came up, as I had once considered a Peachtree Nova, but decided to go for separates.

 

Of course, having stumbled upon Kent Poon’s Jazz Prologue has thrown a curve, when you start to consider his recommendations for the Weiss. And then the recent review on this site of the Ayre QB-9 threw me another curve. But it is limited to just USB, right?

 

Now, in fairness, I realize that at some point we have to jump on and purchase something. So I’ll look at some of these recent suggestions. And will continue to enjoy everyone’s input as I look to narrow in on a product that will allow me to

 

Thanks again!

 

Jonathan

 

PS - the Berkley was added more as a control, to see if people would have chimed in and said pull the trigger. Again, this is about bang for your buck.

 

 

Jonathan[br]-------------------[br]Still finding my way, but soaking it all up like a sponge!

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Based purely on specs and what is written elsewhere, the Weiss DAC2 may suit your needs better than the Ayre as you can use FireWire o the computer but also have SPDIF / TOSLink / AES3 for connection to other sources. As I understand it the Weiss also has a volume control hould you wish to avoid using an analogue pre-amp. With the Ayre you can only use a single source (computer via USB) and will need a pre-amp.

 

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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Always enjoy a post from you, JR. Keeps me on my toes.

 

"Sure some will cut and paste what serves them, but it does not apply no matter what side you turn it on."

 

I'm assuming you're referring to your own post with this comment - the cut & paste of the Wikipedia definition that serves your cause. :-)

 

I didn't cut & paste MY 'legacy' definition, I created it - to describe DACs that were developed during the transport to DAC era, when the S/PDIF (and variants) were the only available inputs. that's the precise context in which I use the term 'Legacy'.

 

The defining characteristic is that these DACs were not developed/designed with interfaces native to (most) consumer computers in mind, and therefore inputs that support connections directly from computers (i.e. without converters such as Lynx cards) are either non-existent or were added on later.

 

I can update Wikipedia, or I could even use the word 'dinosaur', if you like. :-0

 

I can't think of a better word to describe it myself. If you can, please advise.

 

clay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Clay and Jesus, can't we all jsut get along and help a newbie find a great DAC? :) And if I've misunderstood your exchange, my sincerest apologies. I just really want to get help finding a DAC...

 

Jonathan[br]-------------------[br]Still finding my way, but soaking it all up like a sponge!

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I actually find the term "legacy" to be very appropriate to describe DACs without a native computer (i.e. FireWire or USB) interface. Using that as a term doesn't denigrate them in anyway - just points out that you require additional interface (and therefore expense) to use them with computer and doing value for money comparisons this needs taking into account.

 

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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agreed, ELoise

 

The ULN-2 also has the requisite inputs - Firewire, AES, Coax S/PDIF, TOslink - as well as two possible Volume choices - MIO Mixer panel (software-based), and the Monitor (physical) output control.

 

clay

 

 

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Just before you all go and get back on-topic, I have a couple of suggestions for replacing the controversial 'legacy' description.

 

SNAFU - So No Audio (from) Firewire (or) USB

or

FOUL - Firewire Or USB Lacking

 

I quite like the second one. :)

 

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Clay

 

Would you mind explaining the differences on these two? If they sound identical why the huge price difference?

 

I know I could probably figure this out on my own but I wanted to add it to the forum so others can decipher it easier. I did take a look and it wasn't readily apparent.

 

Mojo Audio Mac Mini- 2.6GHz i7 quad-core Mac Mini, 500GB SSD, 16GB RAM, Internal Filter Module, Joule 3 power supply. Rogue Audio M180s. Revel F 52s. REFLink Asynchronous USB Converter. Bel Canto Dac 3.5 with VBS power supply. Rel Gibraltar G1. All Sain Line Systems cabling. Etc.... Etc... Etc.... Lol

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FWIW, my understanding is that the differences have more to do with target market and cosmetic issues, than substantive audio production. The Dac2 is, I guess, not as pretty, and marketed to professional audio folk - thus the lower price. But for me I wouldn't care one bit!

 

Out of curiosity, does anyone know of a consilidator switch or hub to allow multiple coaxial lines to be run through to one plug? I ask because invariably, I'm looking at having 2-3 coaxial transports to run through the DAC. From what little I've been able to read, coaxial is prefered over toslink, and I have, potentially, 3 transports that would run through it. I guess I may be able to run all into my pre-pro, but I wonder if I can consolidate and bypass its processing to then have it pipped out to the DAC.

 

Thanks,

 

Jonathan

 

Jonathan[br]-------------------[br]Still finding my way, but soaking it all up like a sponge!

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as I understand it, the actual differences between the DAC2 and the Minerva are cosmetic, as stated by Dan Weiss himself.

 

The prices difference stems from the different distribution mechanisms - pro audio (for which negligible margins are the norm) versus audiophile dealer networks (where large margins are the norm).

 

Pro audio gear is quite the bargain compared to gear catering to the audiophile community.

 

clay

 

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My initial impression is that the sound coming out of the DA11 (their new product, around $1850) is certainly very good. How good exactly, I don't know and won't for several weeks. However, it's about the same price as the Bryston.

 

My opinion is that the Bryston is more polished from the consumer perspective (appearance, user experience) while the DA11 is more of a piece of recording studio gear, with exact calibration, pin 2 or 3 XLR configuation and the like).

 

 

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