Buying a DAC: Know what You Need Page 2

OK, so you think you know which route you’d like to move along (all-in-one, dedicated separates, a combo thereof), what about circuit architecture, the DAC itself, the processing chipset (FPGA?), digital I/O, analog-output stage and power-supply schema? These are all important processes to understand and where so much money, engineering R&D, and industrial design gets focused on by manufacturers. Even if you’re DAC is integrated, the I/O is crucial not only for compatibility from a hardware perspective, but a software one too. You need to ascertain if you’re good with just having USB, or Ethernet, or need both. What about the aforementioned Coaxial, AES/EBU, TOSlink or optical. Wireless? Will you stream files via Bluetooth or wi-fi from a portable iOS or Android device? There are several DAC types. More common implementations in high fidelity include Delta-sigma, R-2R, Multi-bit. There are upsampling DACs, DACs that are fed oversampled-data streams, DACs that have no-up/oversampling of any kind, DACs that can handle limited file types/bit-depth/resolution, DACs that can handle every file type/bit-depth/resolution. Do you need 32-bit/384kHz DXD-decoding capability? MQA? Or are you simpatico with FLAC and DSD. Native DSD or DoP? Just Redbook at 16-bit/44.1kHz? What about DSP? Room correction? Do you want your DAC to have a tubed output stage? Solid-state? A Dual-mono power supply? Is a switching power supply OK, or must it be a linear one housed in a dedicated chassis? A separate board/power supply for analog and digital sections? Is internal noise damping, RF and EMI shielding/isolation key for performance in your eyes? Do you install your own SSD and HDD? I’m of a mind that any attention paid to preserving the delicate incoming electronic signal from interference of any kind pays big dividends in digital audio in part because a digital file has no inherent noise floor. Any sonic information that is masked by non signal-related noise is not generated electro-mechanically as is a significant amount of the noise floor in analog, but rather by EMI or RF interference or AC power-supply corruption. The difference between determining how great a DAC can be a usually comes down to “how black is your background?”

This brings us to software considerations, as a DAC is only as good as the music you’re feeding it. But how are you feeding it? Local-area network drives? USB attached storage? Cloud-based music-streaming services? A combination of them all? There are a lot of options out there from a software standpoint that can service your needs, with some segments of the hobby embracing new applications and applications-within-applications, and others still happy with offerings that have been around more than two decades. Software is probably one of the most subjective interfaces with hi-fi we have in the modern age. How you interact with your digital music collection is a huge determiner in setting up a DAC-centric sound system. And most importantly, in determining how happy (and less frustrated) you are in listening to your music. A clumsy app UI that seemed to work ‘well enough’ because it was free, can lead to hours of frustration. Figure out what software does everything you need it to and check out the company’s online user forums. Never ending message boards/threads about compatibility issues, reliability, crashes, etc. usually means it might be wise to look elsewhere.

Lastly, what type of sound do you need to be satisfied? I find myself drawn to DACs that are transparent to source (adding little to no coloration), possess low-frequency authority, are timbrally/tonally accurate, imbue realistic textures to notes, project impactful instrumental and vocal weight, do not sacrifice resolution for warmth and are musical above all else – I’m the same with turntables, cartridges, CD players, reel-to-reels, etc. How the manufacturers of all the DACs which have impressed me most over the years have achieved these ends has completely varied in their approaches. There is no ‘magic bullet’ to guarantee that if you include A, B and C in your approach to building and designing that your DAC will be amazing. I’ve heard tube-output, R-2R DACs that sound as impactful and emotional in their digital translations as 40x-oversampled, solid-state Delta-sigma designs… completely different signal paths, yet a similar flesh-and-blood presentation. So, you also need to figure out the kind of sound you’re after. If you love tubed phono stages for your analog rig, odds are you’d like a tubed-output DAC, but you may be able to get a similar sound from solid-state design. Look around, read up on reviews, use the Google. Remember, amplification is the beating heart of any sound system. It sets the tone. Choosing a DAC to compliment an amplifier is the only path that makes sense. Finding a DAC you love without knowing what amp you’re using it with is a recipe for trouble in building a sound system. Start with the building blocks; amplification, loudspeakers then sources. For newbies, one of the great things about choosing an integrated amp/DAC combo is they are voiced together, so you’re getting a holistic design by its very nature, saving you a lot of work.

I hope I’ve given you some things to think about that you hadn’t considered, something to research further, and most importantly, something that was helpful with your own personal snowflake. I didn’t get into naming manufacturers or brands because there’s simply too many and in all honesty, even with the amount of gear I’ve been privileged to hear and experience over the years, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there. I hope your journey searching for the perfect DAC is fun. That’s what this is hobby is supposed to be about: Listening to music and enjoying it.

– Rafe Arnott


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 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 ( 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.