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"Should I buy a DAC?" Unsolicited advice:

Discussion in 'DACs' started by dumptruck, Jan 30, 2013.

  1. dumptruck

    dumptruck Lunatic Member

    Messages:
    11,424
    Location:
    Minneapolis, MN
    The following situation seems really common on AK these days: "I have this modest semi-vintage setup hooked up to my laptop/tablet/office-PC/etc., and I think it sounds pretty okay. Should I invest in one of these DACs everyone's talking about?"

    This usually leads to a discussion involving what's really the lowest price bracket of DACs (<$150 or so), and mediocre-to-pretty-decent gear beyond the DAC. The consensus is usually a resounding "YES!!!!". I thought a less eager general response might be helpful, so I'm running my mouth as follows. If you have speakers worth thousands of dollars fed by high end gear, I'm not talking to you in this post - get a DAC, and get a good one. ;) That's not a statement of "you guys with your cheap crap can't hear what's good about a good DAC", I'm just acknowledging the spectrum between people with the a level of gear (and disposable income) that leaves them happy to pay thousands of dollars for a miniscule improvement vs. people with a few hundred dollars worth of gear considering spending a few hundred dollars to improve that same gear. It's a big difference. So...

    1. You've got a CD player you like, right? Hook that up to the same setup you're thinking about, and play whatever is a good reference CD for you.

    2. If you haven't already, rip that same CD to a lossless format and put it on whatever computer source is in question here. You can also just play it from the CD drive, if we're talking about a computer that has one. There are some issues with live CD playback vs. carefully ripped file, but I really don't think that matters for this. Now start playing it back from the computer source, and try to match the volume you listened to on the CD player. Once you get it about right, pause it. Do you hear noise from the speakers? If possible, play with the volume(s) on the computer and on the amplifier, and see if you can find a combination that hits the same volume but with less noise when you pause it. Make sure these volume settings aren't resulting in distortion when you actually play the music. Also, while it would be normal to have maximum or near maximum volume on the computer source, if any extreme volume settings other than that at any point are needed, it could be a problem.

    3. Now, with your new volume settings, play the lossless files again listening closely, and then go back and play the CD at the same volume. Do you think you can hear a difference? I promise you, even if taken to blind ABX tests or speaker measurements, it could be anything from truly dramatic, to something you can barely pick out in ABX with practice, to nothing. If a lot of people doubt this wide range exists, I'm pretty sure I could prove it with stuff I have on hand, but I think experienced folks would agree? Anyway, I'm guessing the most common difference would be pretty significant, but hey, how many setups like this have I really experienced this change in? Maybe five or six, honestly, so the only thing I really know is that there are enough variables to give wide ranging results for different setups, and that this simple test is reasonable, as far as subjective non-blind tests go.

    4. So, of course, the idea here is that if the CD player won, you should consider a DAC. However, is the DAC going to cost more than the speakers? That's a red flag right there. I might (and have) recommended a DAC anyway, just because it's a really really nice thing to have around if you're going to be messing with computer audio at all. Nonetheless, if we're talking about $100 vintage speakers and $75 vintage receiver, I'm not sure the priorities are in the right place if you're about to buy a $100 DAC for sound quality. It's still not a foolish purchase, exactly, but don't expect miracles if you don't have obvious problems currently.

    5. "But, what about hi-res files that my computer can't output without a new DAC?" Honestly, this is not something to worry about for the level of gear I'm talking about here. I'm not sure it's something to worry about for any level. Call it opinion if you like. There are huge benefits to recording and mastering with high resolution formats, when the gear is up to doing it well. Noise floor is lower, alterations in the time domain and other extreme processing options are less of a problem, etc. But, for playback? You will have a hard time finding a simple ABX test between a high res file and the same file downsampled to redbook. This is probably quite literally the easiest ABX test to do in a scientifically valid manner in audio today, but you can't prove a negative result, so.... Just keep that in mind, and more importantly, keep the cost of your setup vs. an entry-level DAC in mind.

    Summary? Stand-alone DACs are great, but spend the money on better speakers if you're talking about a budget setup that doesn't have any current noise issues or obvious problems with frequency response when compared to a competent CD player.
     
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2013

     

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  2. Bob_in_OKC

    Bob_in_OKC Addicted Member

    Messages:
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    I would add that there are no sure things. A $100 DAC might sound better to my ears than a DAC that costs 5 times that. There's a seller on Barter Town who is selling his DAC because he prefers the sound from his computer.
     
  3. BMWCCA

    BMWCCA AK Subscriber Subscriber

    Messages:
    5,427
    Location:
    Virginia
    Heck, I think a DAC improves even your existing CD or DVD player. That's how I use mine. The ability to play digital files is nice, too, but the improvement in my primary source is very gratifying.

    And, yeah, I'm in your category of multi-thousand-dollar speakers, but the DAC still works!
     
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  4. fhawk618

    fhawk618 Super Member

    Messages:
    1,294
    Location:
    Pittsburgh, PA
    I concur with the majority of the original post... after all, the overall sound quality of an entire system is directly limited by it's weakest link (component), whether that be source, pre-amp, amp or speakers. The addition of a $1K DAC to a $200 system is not likely going to produce a $1K improvement in the sound of the system, so that money would be better spent in other areas of the system. However, if you are using a computer as a primary audio source, the addition of even a modestly priced DAC is pretty much a necessity. The basic sound cards that are installed in most mass-produced computers are pretty much junk, so the addition of any kind of external DAC is most likely going to create a noticable difference.

    As for the "hang up on price", just remember that a $500 vintage system (current used cost) may be comprised of components that originally retailed at over $2K back in the day, so the price of a $150 DAC doesn't look so bad in the grand scheme of things, especially if you adjust that $2K into current dollars for new gear--begins to look like one hell of a deal.
     
  5. dumptruck

    dumptruck Lunatic Member

    Messages:
    11,424
    Location:
    Minneapolis, MN
    I think that's a fair assumption, but when the junk really is a problem, almost any stand-alone CD player should create a noticeable as well, hence my advice.
     
  6. GHilinski

    GHilinski Active Member

    Messages:
    151
    As an owner of three DAC's, I agree with the original assessment. A great DAC will make your system sound better but the money can be spent elsewhere to get improved sound. When I added a DAC to my computer based system, I heard a fairly large difference. Same with my streaming data. When I added a DAC to my main system with a decent CD player, the difference was noticable but not dramatic.
     

     

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  7. Salomon

    Salomon New Member

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    13
    This may not be the correct thread but I'll throw my 2 cents in here. I have solid components and a DAC I like but am seeing small to large chunks of music missing from my files which are fine (they play without issue on my DX-1A)

    I think the problem is related to the PC and Mac I'm using which I didn't spend much money on and from what I've read, maybe the combination of PC/Mac as well as I'm transferring files from one to the other....
     
  8. lilwing

    lilwing CAGE FREE AUDIO ZOO Subscriber

    Messages:
    1,179
    Location:
    Forest Grove, OR
    Mind_Blown.jpg Tomorrow morning I'm going to my audio friend Bills' shop to wire up a couple of 300wpc Class D monoblocks. He built a pair and says he loves 'em. (we have parallel tastes so I followed his lead).
    He's also gone on a DAC journey and owns about a dozen. I expect he'll steer me in a good direction.
    Pretty excited I am.
     
    awillia6 likes this.
  9. Bob

    Bob AK Subscriber Subscriber

    Messages:
    2,384
    Location:
    West coast
    lot depends on the music you listen to and the system you already have.

    DAC chips are made by several manufacturers and they tend to have designs that
    range from low-cost to TOTL pricing. and those low-end DAC (and DAPS that can act as a
    DAC) are the bests buys.

    they're under $100, and hard to find even upgrades (cables? stands? maybe) for speakers
    let alone speakers themselves for that amount.

    and DACs are so easy to change - as least compared to those tube power amps.

    I have an early dragonfly, a tube DAC unit, and some CDPs with good (for the then era)
    DAC chips, and some oldie CDPs, they all sound different, and different with different
    music.

    kinda like having a mini-van, an SUV, a corvette, -they serve for different reasons.
     
  10. Dr_Wu

    Dr_Wu New Member

    Messages:
    44
    I've been batting this one back and forth in my mind for weeks now. I listen to CDs and vinyl of virtually all genres; not computer/phone sources. I'm using a Sony DVD/CD player with a 24/192 DAC, and it sounds pretty darned good to me and my wife, played through Rotel amp and preamp and Polk SDA-CRS speakers. But, I keep wondering if putting the CD player through an external DAC (like Modi 3, maybe?) via digital coax would result in a noticeable improvement in SQ. What say you all?
     
  11. rwartner

    rwartner Super Member

    Messages:
    1,180
    Location:
    Scottsdale, AZ
    I think external DACs are made mostly for computers. To me it is about isolating or getting away from potential computer noise. Most bang for buck. CD players not so much because they may already have a good DAC inside and not as much going on. It then becomes personal preference comparing one DAC to another. There is a hobby / fun factor. Some folks like lots of stuff to play around with.
     
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  12. Dr_Wu

    Dr_Wu New Member

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    44
    Thanks, rwartner. That thinking is what's held me in check. But, the allure of more and better is strong.
     
  13. Hawkeye83

    Hawkeye83 Super Member

    Messages:
    1,851
    Location:
    East-Central Iowa
    Personally, I've never heard "much" improvement/difference between DAC's until (and this goes along with the original post):

    - my other gear was already fairly refined...speakers and amp (I'm not using a preamp right now, using the DAC as a preamp)

    - I bought a used $5k DAC. Yeah, it sounds good! Nice thing about DAC's, you can get one that was $5k for more like $1k.

    I heard a few lower-cost DAC's...they all sounded good, but did not hear a ton of difference between them. The more expensive one seems to sound more refined...more detail, etc.
     
  14. E-Stat

    E-Stat AK Subscriber Subscriber

    Messages:
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    It's a matter of overall system capability. In your case, I'd upgrade other components first.
     
  15. Dr_Wu

    Dr_Wu New Member

    Messages:
    44
    The amp is a Rotel RB-990BX, preamp Rotel RTC-940AX, Dual 1019 with AT12Sa cart/nude Shibata stylus, MoFi StudioPhono phono pre, and the Polk SDA have been re-capped and up-graded as recommended. ICs and speaker cables have also been upgraded.
    I get that it's not "audiophile" stuff. What is it you think I need to upgrade?
     
  16. E-Stat

    E-Stat AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    If you play much vinyl, the first thing I would upgrade is the turntable. The Dual is a venerable fifty year old changer, but you're not getting the most from the AT cartridge.
     

     

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  17. JJCalvillo

    JJCalvillo New Member

    Messages:
    46
    Location:
    Portlandia
    I just added a Schiit M3MB DAC between my Marantz CD-67se and my Pioneer SX-7 (early 80's) receiver. I can't say how it compares to other DACs, but I can say it has improved the sound of CDs through my system (Canton Karat 200 speakers). Could also play files from my laptop if at some point I want to do that.

    My question, though it may be heresy here, is how do I hook up an iPhone. Apple makes a Lighting to USB adaptor that quite a few reviews pan. This isn't a big deal, 98% of my music is on album or CD. Anyone have any ideas?
     
  18. JJCalvillo

    JJCalvillo New Member

    Messages:
    46
    Location:
    Portlandia
    External DACs could have been meant originally to solve computer sound problems. Seems to me that if you have an older CD player, that wasn't top end when it was new, a stand-alone DAC that has 20 years of tech advances in it is probably going to be an upgrade over the CD's internal DAC.
     

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