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What makes one DAC better than another

Discussion in 'audio' started by Netley, May 16, 2019.

  1. sunbeamgls

    sunbeamgls pfm Member

    There are somethings that seem logical, others not so much.
    So dCS use a discrete component ladder DAC - why would that be better than a standard chip based DAC?
    Chord do much of their own work based on FPGAs
    Naim have used the same DAC chip for years (they have their own stock of this that has been end of sale for a couple of years now). Its in the older NDS and the new ND555 but the newer streamer is musically much more enjoyable - its about the new implementation as the chip hasn't changed.
    Linn went with dual-differential use of stereo DACs in their higher end stuff. They've just changed to using stereo DACs as stereo DACs in Katalyst but the new DAC has many discrete power supplies for each stage. The new DACs and PSUs to feed it sound far more musical than the older dual-differential approach.

    So, in brief, the OP question doesn't have a straightforward answer.

    But please ignore those who say they all measure near perfect and therefore will sound the same.
  2. Netley

    Netley pfm Member

    How about some specifics - putting aside all comments as to 'its personal' and 'depends on lots of other stuff' - any experience with either




    or this, it has a well reviewed phono stage


    An added point - I don't want to pay for what I don't need. These are all 'headphone amps' - the Naim Nait XS2 I'm using it with has a headphone output - so are these DAC based headphone amps superfluous or superior to the Nait?
  3. Purité Audio

    Purité Audio Trade: Purite Audio

    Should you decide to compare DACs, ask someone to swop the units for you while you remain unsighted , imagination is very powerful.
    JTWzen and Netley like this.
  4. Joe P

    Joe P certified Buffologist / mod


    Not everyone can afford an invisibility cloak. How about donning a bed sheet and remaining very, very still?

    Last edited: May 18, 2019
  5. FireMoon

    FireMoon pfm Member

    Dave G and Netley like this.
  6. Netley

    Netley pfm Member

    Thanks @FireMoon - quite pricey...

    Looking c.£2k and under - ideas recommendations really appreciated
  7. Cereal Killer

    Cereal Killer fourhundredandthirtytwo

    The power cord, but really its in fuse inside the mains plug.
    MattSPL likes this.
  8. Yomanze

    Yomanze pfm Member

    There’s a spare Audial AYA4 unit, built by Pedja Rogic available for 850EUR: https://www.audialonline.com/blog/aya-4-second-run/

    “The project itself remains the same. Ergo, we have a DAC with USB (up to 192/384 kHz) and S/PDIF (up to 96 kHz) input stages, optional I2S/PCM (U.FL) direct input, a TDA1541A based D/A conversion stage, and zero feedback OPA861 based I/V and output buffer stage. It is all fed by eight separate supplies, with low noise, mostly discrete regulators.”

    If I didn’t use a Model S I would have snapped this up. Glorious non-oversampling TDA1541A DAC, now with an excellent USB front end.
    Netley likes this.
  9. MattSPL

    MattSPL pfm Member

    Power supply design and layout matters a lot in a Dac. Use of individual supplies for different sections etc. Isolation from vibration matters too.
    radamel, Netley and Cereal Killer like this.
  10. Netley

    Netley pfm Member

  11. tuga

    tuga European

    This is Charles Hansen of Ayre on DACs:

    The thing that I see over and over and over (...) is an irrational belief in the importance of the DAC chip itself. Just about everything affect the sound of an audio product, but when it comes to DACs, I would rank (in order or sonic importance the general categories as follows:

    1) The analog circuitry - 99.9% of all DACs are designed by digital engineers who don't know enough about analog. They just follow the app note. The specs on the op-amps are fabulous and digital engineers are inherently seduced by the beauty of the math story. There are minor differences in the sound quality between various op-amps, but it's kind of like the difference between a Duncan-Heinz cake mix and a Betty Crocker cake mix. 99.8% of the op-amps are used a current-to-voltage converters with the inverting input operating as a virtual ground. This is probably the worst way to use an op-amp as the input signal will cause the internal circuitry to go into slewing-limited distortion. http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/anablog/4311648/Op-amp-myths-ndash-by-Barrie-Gilbert

    With discrete circuitry, the only limit is your imagination. You are free to adjust the topology of the circuit, the brands of the parts, the active devices, the bias current in each stage - anything you can think of. Think of this as going to a world-class patisserie in Paris and seeing all the different things that can be made.

    2) The power supplies - 99.9% of all DACs use "3-pin" power supply regulators, which are pretty much op-amps connected to a series pass transistor. Everything in #1 applies here.

    3) The master clock - jitter is a single number assigned to measure the phase noise of an oscillator over a fixed bandwidth. It is far more i important to know the spectral distribution of the timing variations and how they correlate to audible problems. 99.9% of all DACs use a strip-cut AT crystal in a Pierce gate oscillator circuit. It's pretty good for the money but the results will depend heavily on the implementation, particularly in the PCB layout and the power supplies (#2).

    It's hard to rank the rest of these so I will give them a tie score.

    4) The digital filter - 99.9% of all DACs use the digital filter built into the DAC chip. About a dozen companies know how to make a custom digital filter based on either FPGAs or DSP chips.

    4) PCB layout - grounding and shielding, impedance-controlled traces, return currents, and return current paths are all critical. For a complex digital PCB, 8 layers is the minimum for good results.

    4) The DAC chip - almost everything these days is delta sigma with a built-in digital filter. Differences between different chips is one of the less important aspects of D/A converter designs. Both ESS and AKM have some special tricks to reduce out-of-band noise, which can be helpful, but not dramatic.

    4) Passive parts - the quality of these can make a large difference in overall performance, especially for analog. Not many digital engineers sit around listening to different brands of resistors to see what sounds best.

    These are just a few of the things that make differences in the way that a DAC will sound.
  12. Netley

    Netley pfm Member

  13. Mr Pig

    Mr Pig ^'- -'^

    I don't pay the slightest notice of technical specs or the choice of parts. I have found little correlation between particular types of architecture and good sound. All I care about, in any component, is what it does when you plug it in and play it. It stands or falls on the music, nothing else.

    Which is why my DAC is connected to my CD player with a cheapo eBay video cable and not one of the expensive cables I've tried. Trust your ears and not your ego or intellect.
  14. sq225917

    sq225917 situation engineer

    The Brooklyn is very good, versatile and the phonostage is a real bonus. I have one for sale with psu in the classifieds.

    I'm building a new dac/server/nas all in one so mines up for sale, £1000, mint boxed, all docs and packaging inc two stage dual regged external psu.
    Netley likes this.
  15. Sloop John B

    Sloop John B pfm Member

    Life of Bryan?

    sunbeamgls and deebster like this.
  16. Netley

    Netley pfm Member

    Interested! Couldn’t find it, please link or PM me
  17. pjdowns

    pjdowns Living the Hifi dream

    I have an interesting perspective on this one.

    A couple of years ago I bought a Beresford Caiman SEG which is a stunningly good DAC for the price and to my ears bettered many much more expensive DACs.

    I then made a decision to have it upgraded internally by having all of the caps replaced with better quality components and the difference was light and day, but it still did all of the excellent things it did before but just more of everything.

    What am I getting at, well the original base design and firmware are clearly pretty good to start with, and by upgrading the internal components it just released its potential.
  18. Thetiminator

    Thetiminator Painfully virile

    Digital audio is all about clocking and noise suppression, digital sources are inherently noisy and usb is a terrible way of conducting a musical signal. The best dacs (and transports/pc’s) are all about the clocks, power supplies and quality of the output stage....
    Cereal Killer likes this.
  19. Ibbots

    Ibbots pfm Member

    I have a DAC+. The thing it is least used for at the moment is a DAC, but that's only because I'm in one of my record obsession phases. The phono stage is fine for both MM and MC but limited configuration. I found the MC noisy, and preferred it with a headamp or SUT. Now have a Whest TWO and just use the DAC+ as a headphone amp (which is excellent, certainly with Audeze LCD-XC - perhaps a little flat with more demanding 'phones). Used as a DAC it is very good, I also have a Chord TT and would pick either.
    Netley likes this.
  20. Bourneendboy

    Bourneendboy pfm Member

    Are you using this with a Pi?

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