I know everyone always blows away the budget number, but I had the Birdland and it was great for the money. I then tried a demo Reimyo DAP-777 that I got for about $2500. There is a new model now that you can get for $3000 or so so I bet the older model can be had for say $1700. I would try this and you will not regret it. Smooth and musical and I have had many people say they were listening to vinyl when I play a quality recording. All the best.
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I am using the Monarchy M24 right now that can be had new in your budget. It's a combined DAC/preamp but you can run it as a DAC only and bypass the linestage/volume control. It has been a pleasant surprise in my system. I have also had excellent results with non-os DACs. If you're inclined to go down this road you can find several brands new/used in your price range.
You'll get so many opinions about this it will be hard to find any consensus. FWIW, I would advise buying a used dac in your stated budget. I don't think there have been any great improvements in digital reproduction in the last couple of years. More than a few of us would argue that well executed dac designs approaching ten years of age are still very musically gratifying. Audiophiles don't have as much interest in dacs as they used to, so consequently very good values are to be had. If you buy used at the right price, you can resell it for little or no loss if your expectations aren't met. Sonic Frontiers, Assemblage, Timbre, Musical Fidelity, Audiomat, and more all made excellent dacs that you can buy in your price range.
For one review of the Monarchy , check this article in Positive Feedback.
Disclaimer/disclosure: the reviewer used my system for most of the evaluations.
Also, I might note that I too was very impressed with this DAC and will be purchasing one shortly.
Thom @ Galibier
I agree with Photon, bad digital has always been more about "bad" analog than "bad" digital. Reference digital gear of ten years ago always has fantastic analog output stages just like reference digital gear today. look at all the "mods" floating around, 90% have to do with optimizing if not completely gutting the analog stages of CD players and dacs that are compromised in this area.
I think you would be wise to look at reference Levinson, Classe, etc... of days past. They can be had in your price range and still outperform current midrange dacs and in many ways compete with the best still today. My favorite bargian of this sort is the Resolution Audio Quantum, tough to find but a giant killer from ten years back. Owning a great dac today makes more sense than ever, just get a Hagusb converter and have PC or transport based refernce sound. Don't believe all the hype.
Yeah, I knew it wouldn't be long before the "buy a one box player, dacs are passe" chant started. I'll agree that one box players have improved. However, to my thinking, in a search for the best possible sound, the transport/dac scheme still has merit. The separation of power supplies for various sections is more easily engineered in a two box solution which is a major plus. I'll agree that the transport/dac vs. one box isn't a cut and dried comparison. It takes more rack space and an interconnect to implement a two box solution. Plus you have to pay for two caseworks. In retort to these objections, the quality digital interconnect question is easily resolved now with something like the Stereovox HDVX @ $150.00. You have to decide if the question of space is relevant. I still think the addition of a dac is potentially a huge bang for the buck improvement. I've got about $2k invested in my digital rig utilizing a dac and it competes with one box players priced much higher.
A used Musical Fidelity TriVista 21 DAC is in the bugdet. I have had two DACs and the TriVista is musical, detailed, sparkling on voices, guitars, most horns and a joy to listen to. If you have access to listen to British hi fi gear, their market offers more DACs to choose from. Musical Fidelity stocking deals are currently discounting TriVista DACs modestly and can be finagled into discounting even more heavily. Good Luck!
This sounds interesting. I don't really follow digital so I could use some help.
I am using an Electrocompaniet MKI 24 bit with a 192 upsampling DAC. Could I improve my digital front end with the addition of an outboard DAC using the EMC as a transport?
Appreciate suggestions from the digitally aware.
Red Wine Audio has a variant of the dAck! that may be even better and possibly cheaper. At the price, it might be worth experimenting. My guess is it'll be an apples and oranges thing, but you might find you really like oranges. Non-oversampling filterless dacs and battery power are uniquely elegant, cost effective and seductive answers to the challenges of digital. The effect is a profound removal of hash, glare and other noise and phase related issues leaving you with a smooth, deeply transparant sound that draws you in rather than pushes you away. Not everyone's cup o' but a mind altering alternative to the bigger is better game.