Buying a DAC: Know what You Need

When I’m attending hi-fi shows I usually don’t wear a badge much, or I leave it backwards. I like to stay in the background and quietly take in the myriad scenes unfolding in the (usual) 100+ rooms.

To me, it seems that each room must be like a snowflake to the people who have worked for hours – even days – to create a listening space, that to them, sounds as close to perfect as they can make it within the context of the time and space they are given.

When I listen to the music in these rooms and hear the people who made the rooms come to life talk about their products, I hear a lot of valuable information. Less from most of the people in the room who are supposed to be listening. I see it too online, in forums on websites, where even the best-intentioned advice can lead to confusion. Or, if the trolls are out, a flame war.

It’s not that they’re trash-talking (some are), it’s just that the amount of poorly-informed opinions that get passed along as answers to questions asked by those who lack experience in hi-fi (but, who really want to know more) is rather disheartening.

These thoughts all came to me in snatches during the last week as I struggled to maintain anything resembling an upright position while battling the latest mutation of influenza which had insinuated itself into my body. Specifically, after a particularly horrifying and utterly exhausting fever-dream where I found myself running headlong in sheer terror through a record groove while trying to stay (just) ahead of the forever oncoming stylus of certain death. I was also carrying a box containing an expensive and heavy review DAC that for some reason I refused to drop in aid of my life. All I did in that dream was run as fast as my legs would carry me through what felt like thigh-deep water. I woke up deeply concerned about my unconscious digital and analog fixations and utterly spent. But, I’ve read that people have had flashes of brilliance strike them while in the sweat-soaked throes of fever… I’ve also read that people can babble incoherently while burning up. Let’s hope this turns out to be the former.

With that in mind, and amid a growing number of emails of late from people asking for advice about DACs, I came back to the snowflake simile: People’s home systems are like those trade-show rooms, each is just as unique and delicate (for some who constantly upgrade, they are also just as short-lived). So, I decided a piece on some things to take into consideration when buying a DAC to help make your snowflake last could be helpful. Everyone has a different hardware/software setup, spaces, different cables, different wants and different needs. I can’t address all of them, but I can talk about the building blocks of what I think is important in a DAC and that, I hope, will be of real value in the long run for readers.

You may find yourself wondering first what type of DAC you should want. There are many newcomers to the hobby who find it difficult to parse information about where a DAC or a streamer, fit in, exactly, to a hi-fi. Setting up a LAN? What? By type of DAC I don’t mean R-2R or Delta-sigma, but rather, the context of the unit itself within your sound system. Do you have a sound system? Do you want a separate DAC, a streamer/DAC, a pre-amp/streamer/DAC, an integrated-amp/streamer/DAC or an integrated-amp/streamer/DAC/headphone amp? Or all of those and wireless streaming support too? Knowing what you really want before you slide the plastic through the slot or start dropping Benjamins will save you endless hours of second-guessing, reselling, trading-up or adding unnecessary boxes to your system post purchase.

A separate DAC has the benefits of isolation and control. Isolation from multiple power supplies, amplification stages, processing platforms, wireless antennae, etc. that you would find the DAC sharing space with in all-in-one, or multi-tasked unit, because those are compromises inherent with such a design. Control of what type of renderer you’re using to feed the DAC (laptop, PC, specific-built digital-server options), or if it's used in conjunction with a CD transport. You also control I/O: Coax, TOSlink, Dual AES/EBU, USB, Ethernet, etc. – depending on who you ask, most seem to have a sonic preference (plus there are bit-rate/resolution constraints depending on your connection), never mind cable brand choices. All of this lets you maintain a huge amount of control over fine-tuning the sound. Someone who has spent several years listening to, and curating their system to bring it to a balanced point of price/performance is more likely to want a separate DAC because every other link in the high-fidelity chain has already been thoroughly vetted.

But in this day and age, the standalone DAC is less likely to be the mode of choice for a newcomer to the hobby because of another factor that has become ingrained into digital audio: convenience.

With convenience comes sonic compromise due to the nature of housing everything within the confines of an individual chassis, less so if you’re browsing in the high-four to five-figure price range, because there you’re likely getting a unit with isolated internal compartments for each of the digital and analog stages, power supplies and output. As great as an $8k all-in-one can sound, in the final analysis it will never match a stack of function-specific separates with dedicated external power supplies, upgraded cabling, etc. It’s not meant to compete at that level, it’s meant to offer a taste of high-end at an affordable price point in a package which offers convenience and space savings. Convenience tends to eschew heavy, cable-redolent separates in favor of svelte, compact industrial design, and an important point for gear heads to keep in mind is their connectivity. Particularly in the analog realm. It’s practically impossible for an all-in-one to be equipped with, for example, five balanced and unbalanced inputs, along with today’s requisite slew of binary ones. But, if you prefer a lower box count and an app-based interface to deal with everything, and you don’t need to connect disparate analog sources, then an all-in-one could be your Goldilocks Zone. A hi-fi veteran looking to streamline their kit might consider parting with bulky NAS storage drives, a CD-ripper, a streamer/server, their DAC and perhaps even preamplifier for an updated design that combines those functions into one chassis, but will this necessarily sound better? That’s a completely subjective call, but it will certainly clear out a lot of space, cabling and network maintenance.

This is also a great place to start for the neophyte too. There’s a lot to be said for the aural credibility a pre-amp/streamer/DAC feeding a set of mono blocs or a stereo power amplifier offers. You can do this for not a lot of money, or you can do it for a lot. There are options ranging from $5k-6k (or less if you know what you’re looking for), up to the $20k-$80k range if that’s your jam. Again, it all depends on what you want, what your budget is and ultimately, what your digital-audio goals are. Adding in a headphone amp of high-quality to the pre-amp/streamer/DAC chassis becomes a bit tougher, as options narrow there, but it, too, can be done.

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COMMENTS
Chuckles304's picture

Wish I could have read this 7 years ago, it would have saved my from buying an AudioQuest Dragonfly, Schitt Bifrost (subsequently Multibitted), and NAD M51, when what I really wanted/needed was the Holo Audio Spring Kitsune Edition I now have..... LOL

But seriously, excellent article. It's possible those super-swanky Lampizators and totalDacs might have ruined it for you already, but if you ever get the chance try the Holo Audio Kitsune. It's an R-2R but way more affordable.

Rafe Arnott's picture
I've heard of Holo Audio only in passing, so I'll be looking into the Kitsune this evening – cheers!
Chuckles304's picture

Make sure it's the Kitsune/Level 3 version - silver this-and-that, beeswax fuse, Mundorf, etc. Back in the day Lavorgna tested one and liked it (not trying to cause trouble by mentioning him).

Furthermore, make sure you have a bottle of Caol Ila handy (if you like peat) or Balvenie 12 (if you don't) whilst reviewing said DAC....my wife (!!!) got me a 3-pack sampler of peaty scotch for Christmas and the Caol stood out...

Rafe Arnott's picture
OK, thanks for the specifics, that always helps when you're dealing with different versions.

Mention Michael any time, he's my friend, it is in honor to continue the work here that he started.

You're a very lucky man to get Scotch for the holidays... who knew they came in three packs! Cheers!

Chuckles304's picture

She found some company in Britain called Flaviar (flaviar.com) that sent a little cardboard tube with three 45ml samples. Apparently you can sign up for a year and get a 3-pack either every quarter or month, plus a bottle of your choosing at the end of the year, all for like $300. Well worth looking into if you want to try new whiskey without shelling out for an entire bottle you may not like. I'm seriously considering it particularly in light of the fact that with my income a scotch habit is bad enough, but you throw in the audio......whoooooo

San Juan's picture

A few things a writer like you should always be mindful of :
1-- All snowflakes start like water regardless...And there is no life with out water, nor without the son ...
2--Did I SEE correctly that you wrote about trolls and their " flame war", and that you disregard the words of "the people who are supposed to listen"? Have you the inerrant Word of God, or something close to It? You wouldn't happen to be one the proud kind, always dishearten, and having UNJUST fever dreams ahead of a stylus of (un)certain death? You can call this reply a flash of sweat soaked brilliance, but you will resist agrreing with these written words. But (just and justly )remember that humans are mostly made of water after all,(just)like snowflakes ? Shema my people, Shema!!!

Old School's picture

Nice article, and somewhat timely, as I’m looking to do a DAC upgrade. I’m curious where you would place the DAC built into your McIntosh C2600 preamp in the pantheon of DACs you have reviewed? I have a C47 and am using the built-in DAC with an Aurender server.

PS I frequent Hi-Fi Centre in Vancouver every now and then ;-)

Rafe Arnott's picture
Happy to hear the piece resonated with you, thanks.

The C2600 has an ESS9016 SABRE Ultra eight-channel, 32-bit chipset/board used in Quad-Balanced mode with six digital inputs. This DAC and I/O offer a lot of flexibility which is a big plus for most people buying this preamp because the unit can handle almost everything you'd want to throw at it . As I wrote in my review this is a well-balanced DAC. It's neutral with a shade of warmth, it's got bite, good extension at frequency extremes, but ultimately the Chord Qutest did a better job IMO. Doesn't mean it's not good, but it's a compromise chipset as it's part of a holistic analog and digital music delivery system built into a pre-amp. McIntosh could include a better DAC, but pricing would go north fast and I don't think that's where they want the 2600/2700 to go. I found that if you're feeding the DAC section via USB from an Aurender it was very responsive to cable choices, allowing one to flavor to taste quite a bit. Hi-fi Centre is great! Yell at me if you ever see me there :)

Everclear's picture

McIntosh MC2700 comes with an 'upgradable' DAC module ........ May be Rafe could review the MC2700? :-) ........

Shp's picture

I have a C47 as well. How do you like it?

Old School's picture

I was deciding between the C47 and the C52, and decided that I’d better off saving a pile of money with the C47 and putting the savings towards the Aurender server. I think it’s a fine companion to the MC452 power amp driving Magnepan 20.7 speakers. But, I always had the feeling that the C47’s DAC would eventually be something to address, hence my interest in Rafe’s reviews and seeing which direction to go with the upgrade.

When I brought the C47 home, I plunked it into the system and did not do any A/B testing, as I’m no longer of the age where I fret over that kind of stuff. The C47 and MC452 were part of a big overhaul of the hi-fi, wherein my old Classe separates departed the house. The only other preamp in the house is an old Sonic Frontiers SFL-1, which is connected to a Prima Luna EVO200 powering KEF LS-50 speakers. I’ve done some indirect comparisons, when I switch things around and power the LS-50s with the McIntosh gear.

The KEFs powered by the McIntosh pre/power, have a relaxed presentation that allows you to crank the volume without listening fatigue. Powered by the SFL-1/EVO200, the presentation is more forward and lively. However, when I’ve used the C47 with the EVO200, I find the sound to be less forward, so the C47 helps to mellow things out.

DH's picture

As great as an $8k all-in-one can sound, in the final analysis it will never match a stack of function-specific separates with dedicated external power supplies, upgraded cabling, etc.

"Never"??? Way over generalization. More accurate to say "sometimes". I'd be quite interested to see how many people could pick the stack of separates every time in non-sighted listening. I bet with many devices and many listeners there wouldn't be a preference for the separates, and in fact in some cases the multifunction unit might be preferred.

Rafe Arnott's picture
I'm talking specifically about ultimate resolution in a digital-playback system. My preferences change all the time when I hear new gear and I fall in love with an amp, DAC, streamer, turntable, etc. all over again, but it would be disingenuous – from an experiential standpoint – for me to say that separates don't trump integrateds for ultimate detail retrieval.
Everclear's picture

May be Rafe could also review the new Revel Performa F328Be floor-standing speakers, $15,000/pair ....... F328Be are approximately in the same price range as Harbeth 40.2 speakers :-) .........

morrismrinak's picture

I know we can't always ALL get along... but thank you again for being a voice of reason. Those of us who can appreciate but can't afford killabuck systems still want to participate in this hobby to the best of our financial ability. Keep leveling the playing field.

San Juan's picture

While you approve my message, or not, let Rafe Arnott read it. It will cure his fever induced nightmares (is the cause of the fever influenza, or the cold? Maybe it's both) Truth is that a man's dream could be another man's nightmare. The same way that what might be trash talking to Rafe Arnott is gold to those " who are supposed to listen" . Anyways, Shema my people,Shema+++

Brown Sound's picture

Good info, sir. Thank you for the clarity and a lack big money name drops. It is always nice to have a basic upgrade path for my non-audiophile friends. Thank you, again.

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