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al2813

DAC/Preamp upgrade - novice question

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My current setup uses a Topping D50s DAC connected to a power amp hence also acting as a pre amp. A Raspberry PI is used as a Roon bridge connected over USB. 

I have just upgraded my power amp. My initial idea was to move to a more traditional integrated amp, but ended up finding a good priced Hypex nCore dual mono power amp. I am looking now at upgrading the DAC. After reading and talking to people who are into this a lot more than me, the D50s is an excellent DAC - going up the ladder will not bring a dramatic improvement in SQ. However, it seems that when moving up the ladder on the cost side, what is significantly improved is the pre-amp section. On another forum when people ask about the difference between the Topping D90 and RME ADI-2 DAC that uses a lower end DAC chip, people point out to the pre amp part as bringing the real difference. 

 

Would love to get some explanations and recommendations. Where do I have to go in my DAC upgrade? 

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Do you have a budget?

IMO, if you are talkng just about the DAC section, you will have to spend a lot to get a big improvement.

If you are talking about a pre-amp, there are lots of possibilities. Or are you set on a DAC with a preamp section?

Don't worry about the DAC chip itself. It probably has very little influence on what you actually hear; other aspects of the DAC design are what matter and account for most of the differences in sound. 


Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>CAPS IV Pipeline Server + Sonore 12V PS>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>RPi4 (dietpi)>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Listening: (1) CAPS Pipeline>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)>Schiit Freya>Kii Three .(2) CAPS>ifi iDAC SPDIF>Kii Control.

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup. Living Room/Kitchen: RB Pi 3B+ running RoPieee to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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You may be confusing a "preamp" with a gain control.  A true preamplifier increases the signal voltage generated by a low level analog input like a phono cartridge so that it can drive a "power amplifier", which then increases the power of the signal (i.e. wattage output, which equals EMF in volts x current in amperes) so it can drive speakers.  There is no preamplifier in a digital signal chain because there's no voltage in need of amplification.  The line output from your DAC in volts is in the same range as the line output from an analog preamplifier, which is why you can connect the DAC directly to a power amp.  But there has to be some way to control playback volume.  If it's not in the DAC or the amplifier, you need a third device.  An integrated amplifier has a volume / gain control - it's called "integrated" because it has both preamp and amp.

 

Your DAC has an output level control, which is absolutely necessary unless your power amp has an input level control.  A DAC with no volume control will pump its full rated output into the amplifier uncontrolled,and you do not want this to happen.  So if you want to drive a power amplifier with no volume control using a DAC that also lacks one, you have to add some kind of adjustable voltage control stage between the two.  These can be called many things - a "zero gain preamplifier" (which, to me is an oxymoron), a unity gain buffer stage, a plain old volume control, etc. The way volume is controlled can affect sound quality, and you can read up on digital vs analog volume controls etc.

 

If you want to add other source devices that have line level outputs, you need a DAC that also has a preamplifier stage with analog inputs (like my Emotiva Stealth DC-1).  But if you're purely digital, you don't need a preamp at all.  Some DACs have "better" volume controls than others - search AS and other web sources and you'll find out a lot about it.  Most current DACs with gain controls (like yours) do it well, so I'd be surprised if you could improve your SQ without spending a lot more money.  Personally, I'd stick with your Topping and enjoy your new amplification.

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8 hours ago, AudioDoctor said:

What’s your budget?

 

Up to a 1000 euros. I am starting to get the impression that for my setup:

 

Rpi 4 Roon bridge USB out to DAC

Topping D50s

Hypex ncore 2 x NC250MP Amp 

KEF LS50

 

Not sure if swapping the DAC will change things dramatically as Bluesman posted above. 

 

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1 hour ago, al2813 said:

 

Up to a 1000 euros. I am starting to get the impression that for my setup:

 

Rpi 4 Roon bridge USB out to DAC

Topping D50s

Hypex ncore 2 x NC250MP Amp 

KEF LS50

 

Not sure if swapping the DAC will change things dramatically as Bluesman posted above. 

 

 

Just as a ballpark statement, you're  going to have to go to the $1000-2000 level or more to get a significant DAC improvement, and even that may not do it. It depends on your hearing/taste and what you audition. Just because a DAC costs $1000 doesn't necessarily mean it will be an improvement over the D50s.


I wouldn't do it without auditioning some DACs - Mytek, Benchmark, Schiit, etc,, and compare. You may or may not hear a big difference. Another option would be a once expensive DAC on the used market. 

 

If you decide for any of the reasons already mentioned to get a pre, Schiit makes some nice ones in your price range. 

 

I'm sure your present system sounds great and is very good value for the money.

 

I don't know what your taste/orientation is in SQ, but if it was me, I'd invest in room correction software-microphone or acoustic panels or a sub. I think any of those might make a bigger improvement per Euro of investment. 


Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>CAPS IV Pipeline Server + Sonore 12V PS>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>RPi4 (dietpi)>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Listening: (1) CAPS Pipeline>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)>Schiit Freya>Kii Three .(2) CAPS>ifi iDAC SPDIF>Kii Control.

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup. Living Room/Kitchen: RB Pi 3B+ running RoPieee to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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15 minutes ago, firedog said:

 

Just as a ballpark statement, you're  going to have to go to the $1000-2000 level or more to get a significant DAC improvement, and even that may not do it. I wouldn't do it without auditioning some DACs - Mytek, Benchmark, Schiit, etc,, and find out what you hear. You may or may not hear a big difference. 

If you decide for any of the reasons already mentioned to get a pre, Schiit makes some nice ones in your price range. 

 

I'm sure your present system sounds great and is very good value for the money.

 

I don't know what your taste/orientation is in SQ, but if it was me, I'd invest in room correction software-microphone or acoustic panels or a sub. I think any of those might make a bigger improvement per Euro of investment. 

Once again I disagree. I have found that many DACs have markedly different signatures, doubly so for the lower cost ones. What one one prefers can be a crap shoot. I am not suggesting that the OP needs to do anything, but I have played around with some low cost DACs that impressed and some that disappointed. Coupled with the knowledge that the OP is going amp direct makes this even more valid IMO. YMMV.


Forrest:

Win10 i9 9900KS/GTX1060 HQPlayer4>Win10 NAA

DSD>Pavel's DSC2.6>Bent Audio TAP>

Parasound JC1>"Naked" Quad ESL63/Tannoy PS350B subs<100Hz

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1 minute ago, 4est said:

Although I agree with you in general, I do not so much in this case. The D50 uses a bottom rung Sabre chip and the D90 uses a top AKM one. Sabre chips definitely have a house sound that some love and others hate. I say this as a DIYer that has played with them extensively with multiple IVs, analog sections and power supplies. I would look into direct comparisons of the two DACs before I discounted the differences.

The poster has the D50s, which has a pretty advanced implementation of Sabre - better than some more expensive DACs. And I don't really agree with the idea of a "house" sound of the chip - I think different implementations of the same chips can sound different. I'm pretty sure in blind testing I could get a few DACs and listeners couldn't tell me what chip was in the DAC. 


Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>CAPS IV Pipeline Server + Sonore 12V PS>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>RPi4 (dietpi)>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Listening: (1) CAPS Pipeline>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)>Schiit Freya>Kii Three .(2) CAPS>ifi iDAC SPDIF>Kii Control.

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup. Living Room/Kitchen: RB Pi 3B+ running RoPieee to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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1 minute ago, 4est said:

Although I agree with you in general, I do not so much in this case. The D50 uses a bottom rung Sabre chip and the D90 uses a top AKM one. Sabre chips definitely have a house sound that some love and others hate. I say this as a DIYer that has played with them extensively with multiple IVs, analog sections and power supplies. I would look into direct comparisons of the two DACs before I discounted the differences.

 

This was my idea before I started this I started this post. I was just trying to decide between the D90 and the ADI-2 (with looking at the gustard as well). Key reason for hesitating was that the ADI-2 is described in forums as having a much better pre-amp analogue section, but does not have the latest AKM chip. 

I believe that indeed without working my room acoustics and even with (I suspect my hearing may not be sensitive enough) there's no point in going further upstream. 

 

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9 minutes ago, 4est said:

Once again I disagree. I have found that many DACs have markedly different signatures, doubly so for the lower cost ones. What one one prefers can be a crap shoot. I am not suggesting that the OP needs to do anything, but I have played around with some low cost DACs that impressed and some that disappointed. YMMV.

Once again, all I said was that he shouldn't assume spending $1000 will get him a DAC he likes better. Or that it is enough better that  it will be worth 4X the price of his D50s. There are a lot of very happy users of that DAC around. That's one of the reasons he should check out a separate pre. That may make more of a difference than changing  the DAC. Topping has a god idea of what to do with ESS chips. I'm guessing a DAC with a better pre section or a pre separate would be a better use of his money. 

But as I said, I'd work on the room or get a sub as a more cost effective use of limited funds. 


Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>CAPS IV Pipeline Server + Sonore 12V PS>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>RPi4 (dietpi)>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Listening: (1) CAPS Pipeline>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)>Schiit Freya>Kii Three .(2) CAPS>ifi iDAC SPDIF>Kii Control.

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup. Living Room/Kitchen: RB Pi 3B+ running RoPieee to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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1 minute ago, firedog said:

The poster has the D50s, which has a pretty advanced implementation of Sabre - better than some more expensive DACs. And I don't really agree with the idea of a "house" sound of the chip - I think different implementations of the same chips can sound different. I'm pretty sure in blind testing I could get a few DACs and listeners couldn't tell me what chip was in the DAC. 

$250 doesn't purchase much by way of power supply and the Q versions are the bottom tier AFAIK. The Sabre chips are known for being power supply sensitive FWIW, but of course you are welcome to you opinion.


Forrest:

Win10 i9 9900KS/GTX1060 HQPlayer4>Win10 NAA

DSD>Pavel's DSC2.6>Bent Audio TAP>

Parasound JC1>"Naked" Quad ESL63/Tannoy PS350B subs<100Hz

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3 minutes ago, firedog said:

Once again, all I said was that he shouldn't assume spending $1000 will get him a DAC he likes better. Or that it is enough better that  it will be worth 4X the price of his D50s. There are a lot of very happy users of that DAC around. That's one of the reasons he should check out a separate pre. That may make more of a difference than changing  the DAC.

And I suggested that the OP should look into direct comparisons of the two and not assume anything. Unlike some here, I have found marked differences in some inexpensive DACs.


Forrest:

Win10 i9 9900KS/GTX1060 HQPlayer4>Win10 NAA

DSD>Pavel's DSC2.6>Bent Audio TAP>

Parasound JC1>"Naked" Quad ESL63/Tannoy PS350B subs<100Hz

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8 minutes ago, al2813 said:

 

This was my idea before I started this I started this post. I was just trying to decide between the D90 and the ADI-2 (with looking at the gustard as well). Key reason for hesitating was that the ADI-2 is described in forums as having a much better pre-amp analogue section, but does not have the latest AKM chip. 

I believe that indeed without working my room acoustics and even with (I suspect my hearing may not be sensitive enough) there's no point in going further upstream. 

 

My best advice would be to get loaners or return privileges for what ever you choose. Your system is of high enough caliber to make auditioning important.


Forrest:

Win10 i9 9900KS/GTX1060 HQPlayer4>Win10 NAA

DSD>Pavel's DSC2.6>Bent Audio TAP>

Parasound JC1>"Naked" Quad ESL63/Tannoy PS350B subs<100Hz

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14 minutes ago, firedog said:

The poster has the D50s, which has a pretty advanced implementation of Sabre - better than some more expensive DACs. And I don't really agree with the idea of a "house" sound of the chip - I think different implementations of the same chips can sound different. I'm pretty sure in blind testing I could get a few DACs and listeners couldn't tell me what chip was in the DAC. 

Once again, the D50s uses the lower tiered Q version of the chip. Its not a stretch to think that the same company is producing two different products at two different price points. If the D90 was no better than the D50, shame on Topping for asking 3x the price. I would love to suggest that there are no differences in devices as they increase in price. Ive said about all I have to on this.


Forrest:

Win10 i9 9900KS/GTX1060 HQPlayer4>Win10 NAA

DSD>Pavel's DSC2.6>Bent Audio TAP>

Parasound JC1>"Naked" Quad ESL63/Tannoy PS350B subs<100Hz

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Only issue is that loaners are hard - Stores are not that keen to offer them and in any case I don't know of any physical store carrying the D90 for example. So option will be to buy online test and return. Even that is a challenge. Audiophonics allows a 14 day return policy and you have to ship the box back at your own cost. Amazon has currently no stock in Europe. 

 

Hence am trying to get as much feedback and advice as I can from people who've been there and tried that. I went through very few devices (the D50s is my first dedicated DAC on my hifi setup) hence have very little experience to rely upon. 

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6 minutes ago, al2813 said:

Only issue is that loaners are hard - Stores are not that keen to offer them and in any case I don't know of any physical store carrying the D90 for example. So option will be to buy online test and return. Even that is a challenge. Audiophonics allows a 14 day return policy and you have to ship the box back at your own cost. Amazon has currently no stock in Europe. 

 

Hence am trying to get as much feedback and advice as I can from people who've been there and tried that. I went through very few devices (the D50s is my first dedicated DAC on my hifi setup) hence have very little experience to rely upon. 

Sadly that is the state of affairs where brick and mortar stores have fallen. If this is your first dedicated DAC then you should definitely audition some others. As to paying for return shipping, that seems only fair, no? You cannot expect a company to be willing to absorb everything, which basically increases the cost for the next person.


Forrest:

Win10 i9 9900KS/GTX1060 HQPlayer4>Win10 NAA

DSD>Pavel's DSC2.6>Bent Audio TAP>

Parasound JC1>"Naked" Quad ESL63/Tannoy PS350B subs<100Hz

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In this case, I’m going to suggest a Schiit Freya+ preamp ran in active tube mode if you want a significant change in sound. 


No electron left behind...

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3 hours ago, al2813 said:

Key reason for hesitating was that the ADI-2 is described in forums as having a much better pre-amp analogue section

Once again, I have to suggest that you explore your concern over the preamp issue.  As I recall, the ADI-2 does not have analog inputs.  Do you have any sources with analog outputs that require a line level input into your system, e.g. disc player, phono stage, tuner of some kind etc? If you do, you’re clearly not using it/them with your Topping because it has no analog input.  You’ll need a true DAC / preamp to connect them, so the Topping will have to go - but not for an ADI.
 

If you don’t, the only “preamp” function you have and need in a pure DAC is the circuitry between the DAC chip and the analog outputs, which is usually in the chip and often even includes an integral headphone amp.  Apart from the question of variable vs fixed output level (i.e. with or without a “volume“ control), there’s actually little attention paid to this specific function in comparison with almost every other part. Debate rages over which chip is best, which implementation of each chip is best, which filter sounds best etc just as it does over the best sounding approach to output volume control. 

 

If you do not need analog inputs, I’d spend the money on music and enjoy your excellent system as it is now. I doubt that you can improve your DAC’s sound quality without spending a lot more than you want to spend. And I’m not at all convinced that you’d notice any clear and definable sonic benefit even then. You may notice differences similar in magnitude to those among digital filters.  But any qualitative judgment would be pure personal preference. I suspect that differences attributable to the analog output circuitry of most DACs, apart from implementation of variable level control if used, are also minuscule and largely preferential.  
 

Parenthetically, the output stage of most DACs is a simple op amp, so it certainly could affect SQ in a meaningful way - but it seems that no one chooses a DAC on this basis. I’m surprised we don’t see more discussion about this, apart from use of discrete op amps rather than chips.

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2 hours ago, AudioDoctor said:

In this case, I’m going to suggest a Schiit Freya+ preamp ran in active tube mode if you want a significant change in sound. 

 

If you're dead set on a DAC upgrade, I would suggest a Schiit Gungnir Multibit and using a good digital volume control, carefully.


No electron left behind...

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1 hour ago, bluesman said:

Parenthetically, the output stage of most DACs is a simple op amp, so it certainly could affect SQ in a meaningful way - but it seems that no one chooses a DAC on this basis. I’m surprised we don’t see more discussion about this, apart from use of discrete op amps rather than chips.

 

Most? You think so? I believe this is true at the low end of the spectrum, but not much higher.


No electron left behind...

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2 hours ago, bluesman said:

 

If you don’t, the only “preamp” function you have and need in a pure DAC is the circuitry between the DAC chip and the analog outputs, which is usually in the chip and often even includes an integral headphone amp.  Apart from the question of variable vs fixed output level (i.e. with or without a “volume“ control), there’s actually little attention paid to this specific function in comparison with almost every other part. Debate rages over which chip is best, which implementation of each chip is best, which filter sounds best etc just as it does over the best sounding approach to output volume control. 

 

If you do not need analog inputs, I’d spend the money on music and enjoy your excellent system as it is now. I doubt that you can improve your DAC’s sound quality without spending a lot more than you want to spend.

 

Many thanks  this is a clear and necessary explanation which I probably needed in this journey of self learning. 

For now Analogue sources are not planned. I have been debating for a long time about going back to Vinyl (a painful discussion as I lost due to a life circumstance a collection of more than 600 LPs, I bought from the end of the 1970s to the end of the 1980s). For now I am focusing on getting my digital sources right and my amp/speaker combo. 

 

I still want to try a different DAC (and probably an AK) and see for myself. The only debate I have now is at what price point I should enter. 

 

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