Five DACs Every Audiophile Should Hear

Five DACs Every Audiophile Should Hear… Hyperbole?

Perhaps to some, but I’m being serious because every digital-centric music lover has been there at one time or another.

Doing our best to not look too interested in a DAC or some file-based accoutrement at a show or hi-fi shop. Usually failing.

Eyes darting fleetingly over the unit’s polished silver, or black lines, (those seem to be the default two choices in this hobby) brows pinched in a pensive arc as we do the mental calculations of how many children we’d have to sell to buy this digital object of our desire.

I exaggerate because this hobby tends to extremes and exaggerations and that is, obviously, not always the case, as many of the best DACs (or preamps, speakers, turntables, etc.) are not excessively dear. Several designs have made them themselves felt through their affordability that turned the industry on its head giving an entrée of audiophile sound for the price of an hors d'oeuvres.

But, it is no stretch to say that as you climb the ladder of quality for digital hardware, the audible returns can exponentially increase, most often this happens on the separates side. Audiophiles as a whole tend to lust the most after those manufacturers whose wares creep into the four or five-digit price range. Why? Because it’s the same way people tend to lust after a Jaguar E-Type instead of Ford Escort. They’re both cars… buuuut.

Does that make this lust wrong, or is this perfectionist audio pursuit flawed because of ever more expensive gear? That’s your call. In my experience the market bears what it can and I’d doubt the watch or camera collectors out there would raise an eyebrow at dropping $10k for an objet d’art or just something they plain really wanted. YMMV.

It is also my experience that sonic differences between DACs – even in the same price range – for high-fidelity playback can easily be as drastic as the results of swapping phono cartridges on a turntable. Which is why it can be just as difficult to settle on a digital front end as it is an analog one. So, if you thought you had your ultimate DAC choice narrowed down to two or three options, I’m going to give you five more to ponder.

This is not necessarily a list without budget constraints, it’s a list of DACs I feel very strongly that you should try to arrange a listening session with – even if you cannot afford them. Yes, my picks are prohibitively expensive for the average music-loving mortal, but that’s part of the perks involved with writing about high fidelity: you get access to all the best gear. But, it is this access, this exposure to the upper echelons of audiophiledom that got me thinking about ringing the bell for these DACs again to begin with.

These are DACs that helped both change and shape my critical and musical opinions and observations when it comes to digital-audio over the last couple years and it is my hope that if you seek any of them out to spend your valuable time with, that they will have as positive and as deep an impact on your understanding of binary music playback as they have mine.

These are not my be-all or end-all choices for all time – and this is certainly not a definitive DAC list at all price points (that will come another time), but for right now these DACs are the cat’s meow in my playbook. Listed alphabetically with some descriptions lifted from previous frantic scratchings and repurposed here because, to be honest, good prose should be re-used when possible and if appliciable.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with my choices and there will undoubtedly be those who will protest the lack of inclusion of this or that DAC in this short list, but that’s fine. Add the ones you think should be must-listen-to choices in the comments section. I look forward to hearing from readers.

Audio Note DAC 5 Special, approx. $24,400 USD (depending on exchange rate)

So, what makes the weighty (50 pounds) DAC 5 Special so special? Well, for starters it doesn’t do DSD64 or DSD128, DXD, or 24/384 PCM files, in fact it maxes out at 18-bit/96kHz. It doesn’t have a USB connection (Digital RCA input or XLR only) has no over-sampling, no jitter reduction and no noise shaping/filtering or re-clocking of any kind. It uses an older (by modern standards) and no longer available (AN has bought a prodigious amount of stock already and has them squirrelled away) Analogue Devices AD1865 18-Bit (Multi-bit) stereo chip because the design team found it to be the best sounding chip available. Period.

The lack of ubër high-res capability in the DAC, while a non-starter for many, to me matters little as I do 90 per cent of my listening at 16-bit/44.1khz anyway, and I have to say there is a certain poetry in a design that eschews up/oversampling and a conformity to being a slave to playing every type of digital file known to man: Keep it simple. That simplicity, that purposefulness, that focus on doing one type of file format and doing it to the very best of one's ability, is to me, special.

dCS Rossini DAC, $23,999 USD

I’ve written previously of what I would describe as the dCS “house” sound: open, organic highs and a midrange that draws you as a listener into every cut being played, with equal parts warmth and resolution, and deep bass without masking any critical frequency information between the lowest octaves. Let me put it this way; they make it sound like this level of sound quality is easy, when I know for a fact it isn’t.

The Rossini uses dCS’ proprietary Ring DAC technology which oversamples all incoming data to 5-bits at 2.822 or 3.07MS/s. It has a plethora of digital inputs including Dual AES EBU, 2x SPDIF, 1x RCA Phono and 1x BNC and Asynchronous USB (Type-A and Type-B USB handles 24-bit PCM at up to 384kS/s plus DSD64 and DSD128 in DoP), a Network interface handles 24-bit 384kS/s as its native sample rate, plus DSD64 and DSD128 in DFF/DSF. It has adjustable output (2V or 6V, preference is yours), balanced and unbalanced outputs, and a full-spec MQA decoder along with multi-stage power regulation. ‘Auto-clocking’ architecture (minimizes jitter, said to significantly improve sound quality) and the latest dCS Digital Processing Platform that is used in the company’s flagship Vivaldi digital-playback system is also included in its sleek, weighty chassis.

Having gotten exceedingly familiar with the dCS sound, I can say without pretense that it is a standout among heavyweight DACs I've heard. Fair warning: Acquiring a dCS Rossini puts one in peril of physically succumbing to the heartache, melancholy and rapturous beauty that the best recorded musical events are suffused with.

LampizatOr Pacific Balanced DAC, $27,000 USD

The LampizatOr Pacific is one of a handful of DACs I’ve encountered that makes me feel as if its dropping a stylus into the high-velocity stream of digital playback. The ability to present the 3D-image of a recorded vocalist like Frank Sinatra in a startlingly realistic spatial and timbral manner was one of many sonic impressions that, like harshly-lit craters on the lunar surface when viewed from the Earth at night, helps the Pacific stand out in bold relief when compared to the presentation of other DACs I am familiar with.

The Pacific is arrayed with a plethora of digital inputs (Ethernet, USB, BNC, AES/EBU, SPDIF), analog inputs (RCA and Balanced) and outputs (RCA and Balanced). It can also cater to a variety of Directly-Heated Triode tubes (300B, 101D, PX4, 242 or 45) via a rear-panel selector switch. It utilizes a zero-feedback, zero upsampling and zero oversampling DAC architecture which can handle PCM conversion of up to 24-bit/192kHz files via SPDIF, up to 705kHz DXD/512 DSD native via its FPGA asynchronous Amanero Combo384 USB digital interface and PCM 32-bit/356kHz via LAN (auto-sensing, auto switching), so there’s a lot of overhead for the exotic-file type crowd, but there is no MQA hardware support. The output voltage signal of the Pacific is 3V pp (adjustable by request), but in my unit with volume control it is preset to 6V pp.

What matters most to the Pacific seems to be what the binary-obsessed in us all covet more than anthing when it comes to our bits: that they sound analog.

Naim ND555 DAC, $16,495 USD

Snap. No, not the ‘90s Eurodance group with hits like “The Power.” I’m talking about the sound your fingers make. That satisfying crack of speed as your finger smacks into your thumb base after a ‘Eureka!’ moment or when the music just begs for accompaniment and your synapse unconsciously responds by telling your head to bob or fingers to, well, snap.

This is an apt way to sum up the Naim house sound to me and their flagship 555 network player and DAC epitomizes this visceral musical presentation perfectly. I’ve only spent time with this DAC and network player at one of my local bricks & mortar, but taken with the other Naim gear in the system, this holistic set-up was utterly convincing in its sonic fidelity to a flesh-and-blood source. No matter what was played, the system never revealed a weak link, which would have stood out like a sore thumb.

With the latest Naim digital-streaming platform, the 555 houses a SHARC 40-bit processor, low-voltage differential signalling (LVDS) for routing the integer-oversampled circuit architecture into the 32-bit/384kHz, DSD128 playback-capable Burr-Brown PCM1704 R2R ladder DAC. It also features 13 Naim DR regulaters for clean DC, a suspended sub-chassis and a completely separate housing for the toroidal power supply.

To say I want this in for a full review is an understatement.

totaldac d1-direct, $19,580 USD (depending on exchange rate)

The totaldac d1-direct sprang forth from the mind of French high-fidelity electronics guru Vincent Brient, whose creations have a bit of the dark arts within them. They are possessed of mystery when listening to them in the sense of I don’t really want to know (or care) what’s going on under the sleek casework. More alchemy by candlelight in their build than fluorescent lights and sterile laboratory to my mind, I sometimes wish I could be ignorant of the electronic machinations occurring within that is turning digital bits into analog waves. I like the whole “magic in a box” idea. Sometimes I get gear in (like the d1-direct) that just simply creates sound. Summarized more as physical musical instrument or organic entity which I imbue with human traits, than a processor and translator of binary information: a silver box traversing this mortal coil if you will.

The core of the totaldac designs is the R2R ladder itself, which in the case of the d1-direct contains 288 hand-matched 0.01 per cent VAR Bulk Metal Vishay Foil resistors and direct unbalanced 1.6v outputs which feature newly-configured offset management and optimized filtering.

Utilizing the aforementioned custom DAC technology developed in-house for conversion and a custom FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) for processing, along with proprietary anti-jitter clock, output stage and massive copper-plate chassis damping, Brient wraps it all up within an unique trapezoidal-shaped enclosure to ensure totaldac designs look like no other. This is a DAC capable of striking that rare balance of lifelike playback between silicon-based hardware and carbon-based musicians.

Ejlif's picture

My thoughts initially were whoa audiophiles have no idea wha they are missing. I was so awestruck by the thing and what it did with music I knew so well. It's sad to say you have to spend this much money to get something so great but like all of the finest things in life they come at a price.

Everclear's picture

PS Audio DirectStream DAC ........ $6,000 to $7,000 :-) .........

sirwilliamlee's picture

you couldnt pry away my DirectStream DAC

BlurRhino's picture

I recently have the entry level MSB Discrete in my home setup for trial and I chastised myself for not listening to it before I got an Aqua.

tom68's picture

Which DAC?

British HiFi's picture

Would like to hear your thoughts on the Chord Electronics Dave, seems reviews of highend dacs always seem to not include chords Dac's

brw's picture

My experience with the product and the people behind it can only be called fantastic. Pride of ownership "over the moon".

ErikM's picture

So every Dac you like costs about a small car.. or really nice motorcycle. I have a Chord Qutest Under $2K too cheap I guess. This is the BS that gives Hi End Audio a bad name. How many folks do you think that are out there that have the ability to going drop $15 LARGE on a Dac..I'm not complaining about prices but your list is like a list saying the 5 Cars you have to drive.. MB GTS, Porsche 911 GT2 RS, Koenigsegg, Ferrari, Bugatti.. Come on pal..

Rafe Arnott's picture
About the pricing. If you read the entire piece I state: These are not my be-all or end-all choices for all time – and this is certainly not a definitive DAC list at all price points (that will come another time). And BTW... just like the cars you mention, shouldn't every car lover try to drive them? Come on yourself pal.
ErikM's picture

I had a Smiley face :-) after my last sentence, not sure were it went.

arthurdross's picture

Recently I had the opportunity to evaluate 3 DACs currently in the line of Lessloss Audio, a company from Lithuania with a solid reputation for producing products that really, really perform. The one consistant comment I have heard from their customers is to the effect that each new product never disappoints. I AM NOT A PROFESSIONAL REVIEWER, but I know good life-like sound reproduction and I challange you to give their products a try. You may be surprised.

AcidTest's picture

to point out that even if, like the majority of audio/music enthusiasts, you can't afford these uber DACs, you can discover what is POSSIBLE and what they do that you like, and then take that down to the $2k or whatever level for comparison. If the Rossini sounds amazing, look for the "poor man's Rossini".

Rafe Arnott's picture
there is just a fun list of five DACs that I shared and that I think anyone who is serious about hearing what the state of the art in digital is today, should try and audition themselves. That's it. There are certainly other DACs out there that could be on this list, but I had room for five... The good news is that it seems a lot of people enjoyed the piece!
DavidL's picture

Adding a dCS Network Bridge to the PS Audio DirectStream DAC lifts it to a whole new level, as I've just found.

Echolane's picture

Enjoyed reading your article. Just thought you might have missed a DAC for your list, the Berkeley Audio Design Reference Series 3. I just purchased the Reference 2 and it’s companion, the Berkeley Alpha USB. The latter was purchased used from a fellow who had auditioned the dcs DACs, but passed them up in favor of the Reference 3, remarking that “I knew within 15 seconds of listening to the Reference 3 that it was way better than dcs DACs priced two and three times higher”. Just sayin’.....