Are "vintage" DAC's worthwhile, or is this a tech that does not age well


Hello,
whether it’s worth looking into old dac such as
Spectral SDR 2000,
Mark Levinson No.35 (36)
or so Sonic Frontiers Sfd-2 Mk2 DAC.

Digital audio is the fasted moving, now improving category out there
Because to this day they have no usb connection or other options.
But is it necessary?
Or is it better to still focus on a truly time-tested sound?

(sorry for my English)
Previewmiglos
All competently-designed DACs will sound alike. This applies to ones from 20+ years ago to the present. There is NO ever-upward increase in sound quality. The proliferation of ever more expensive DACs is a marketing ploy based upon confirmation bias to get the gullible to spend more!
Clever marketing psychology drives the market for new DACs. In controlled A/B tests nobody can distinguish a $100 DAC from a $1000+ one. The loudest complaints against this will of course be from those with the most money invested. 
Back in the 80’s the first test done was comparing the Theta DAC (designed by Mike Moffat) against the Sony Discman. Electronics used were by Boulder and speakers were Quad 63’s. After many trials the final scores were no better than 50/50.
I would not buy a vintage dac simply because of the service issues.  Some companies just have lousy or hyper-expensive service costs, not to mention the possibility of obsolete parts.  I'm not saying the newer dacs necessarily sound better than the best old ones, but they are certainly a safer bet.  As to the new ones, there are so many dac threads here, I'm not even going to get into which ones you should consider.  
Count me as one who can definitely hear the differences between (at least some) DACs.

Having said that, I’m not suggesting that "new is always better" or that there aren’t vintage products that are competent with red-book CD (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) audio. But count me as one listener to can attest that not all DACs sound the same. When I bought my first stand-along DAC (Audio Alchemy back in the 90s... along with their DTI Pro Jitter Filter and 16->20 bit converter), I brought my stereo to the university where I was attending as I wanted to host an audio "demo" for some folks in the music department. The goal was to demonstrate basic principles of high-fidelity audio to people who "love music" but tended to have very little understanding of music reproduction... so one by one I sat each person in the sweet spot and played a Billy Joel track to demonstrate "imaging" which on its own was a big eye opener for lots of listeners. When I was about to pack everything up someone asked "hey, what does all that stuff do" pointing to my stack of audio alchemy gear. I said "oh, that’s the gear that takes the digital data for the music and converts to analog" and he asked "well what would it sound like without all that, just using the CD player?" So I moved a couple of cables and we played the same track that we had just been listening to via the analog output of my Pioneer CD player. WOW. The sound transformed from the lush, airy, liquid character everyone had just been hearing to flat, lifeless, and harsh. Without any coaching from me this fellow said "Yuck! Yeah, that equipment you have really makes a difference!"

In any case... to the caller at hand... there is good sounding vintage gear if red-book CD is your music library and you don’t need DSD, MQA etc. though with D/A converters, as with all things... personal taste and emotion come in to play (i.e. is detail more important than an organic midrange? Or is imaging more important than dynamics and bass slam)? Whether new or old there is never "one right" sound that everyone would prefer. Let your ears be the judge!
Count me as one who can definitely hear the differences between (at le
ast some) DACs.

Having said that, I’m not suggesting that "new is always better" or that there aren’t vintage products that are competent with red-book CD (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) audio. But count me as one listener to can attest that not all DACs sound the same. When I bought my first stand-along DAC (Audio Alchemy back in the 90s... along with their DTI Pro Jitter Filter and 16->20 bit converter), I brought my stereo to the university where I was attending as I wanted to host an audio "demo" for some folks in the music department. The goal was to demonstrate basic principles of high-fidelity audio to people who "love music" but tended to have very little understanding of music reproduction... so one by one I sat each person in the sweet spot and played a Billy Joel track to demonstrate "imaging" which on its own was a big eye opener for lots of listeners. When I was about to pack everything up someone asked "hey, what does all that stuff do" pointing to my stack of audio alchemy gear. I said "oh, that’s the gear that takes the digital data for the music and converts to analog" and he asked "well what would it sound like without all that, just using the CD player?" So I moved a couple of cables and we played the same track that we had just been listening to via the analog output of my Pioneer CD player. WOW. The sound transformed from the lush, airy, liquid character everyone had just been hearing to flat, lifeless, and harsh. Without any coaching from me this fellow said "Yuck! Yeah, that equipment you have really makes a difference!"

In any case... to the caller at hand... there is good sounding vintage gear if red-book CD is your music library and you don’t need DSD, MQA etc. though with D/A converters, as with all things... personal taste and emotion come in to play (i.e. is detail more important than an organic midrange? Or is imaging more important than dynamics and bass slam)? Whether new or old there is never "one right" sound that everyone would prefer. Let your ears be the judge!
Dear, thank you for such interesting story. Yes I agree with that, your ears have to decide which sounds right.

well the DAC in my Emotiva CDP doesn't sound as good as my MHDT DAC
In general I wouldn’t buy a DAC older than 10 years or so.

Maybe older DCS ring dac or similar if well cared for but only for the right price.
jasonbourne52
In controlled A/B tests nobody can distinguish a $100 DAC from a $1000+ one.
Please tell us about the tests you’ve conducted that led you to this conclusion. I’m also interested in why you confined your efforts to simple A/B tests. For those interested in the most valid scientific blind audio testing, A/B/X is the gold standard.

I have no particular faith or allegiance to blind testing but if you’re going to undertake such work, it makes sense to engage the best protocols.
yep, good dacs from way back when will sound as good as good dacs from today

usual concerns about aging internal components, as for any aging electronic gear, should be checked out

then the add’l concern is input signal compatibility, esp. w r t higher res feeds used in more recent times

examples of mine in hand -

1 - 1997 vintage van alstine fet topp dac, with its lovely philips tda1545 r2r nos chip and 12ax7 output stage.... sounds as good as any $1500-2000 dac today - but it will only accept 44.1 khz input due to its crystal semi input chip of the day

2 - 2003 vintage modded musical fidelity trivista 21 dac w bb1792a dsd converter and 5703 mini tube output stage - it accepts all inputs and sounds as good, if not better than the current high dollar dacs out there - in fact better than psa ds, dena term, schiit yggy in terms of imaging timbre and holography


I don’t know how much of that truth, but audophiles say that the old (for example) Sonic Frontiers dac, is so well crafted that creating a similar-sounding dac would cost a lot of money to this day. Is there as much as it is true. Because these three I mentioned dac’s- are well known in the world, legendary. Or I’am not right?
You can be sure vintage DACs are good simply by the state of the huge vintage market, all the refurbished vintage DACs, the small cottage industry of artisans making beautiful wood cabinets to show off fine vintage DACs, and by looking at how many decades old DACs sell today for more money used than they cost when they were new back in the day. People just can't get enough of that vintage DAC sound, and they are willing to pay for it. 

Oh, wait a minute, sorry, my mistake. That's turntables. Vintage turntables. Old DACs people throw away. Sorry. Nevermind.
Oh, wait a minute, sorry, my mistake. That's turntables. Vintage turntables. Old DACs people throw away. Sorry. Nevermind.
Very “interesting” explanation about vintage DACs. Oh, wait, sorry, about vintage turntables.
MC you're a peach. :-)

LOL, I'll tell you what, I have a Krell 5.1 same time most of the HT preamps were both a HT system and stereo playback..

That HT unit has a DAC and stereo playback that will match a LOT of the newer units..  The gain stage is all class a, they are different..

Like my buddy says (All Krell and Martin Logan) "It's a Krell" he's not kidding.. I got my HT 5.1 from him for 200.00 12 years ago..  They have one of the best remotes EVER made. CnC from aluminum billet. I got to dig that out.. Great 3 speaker playback with sub control on the remote..
The remote sold for 350-500.00 LOL GOOD Buddy..

Regards
I had a CAL Audio Labs DAC and Pioneer Elite DAC/DVD player from the early 2000s that I was using for years.  When I decided to upgrade to modern DACs in the $500-1000 range a year or two ago, the differences (improvements) were noticeable.  I now use even more expensive DACs, one a modern design and one in production today but based on a vintage R2R chip.  Both exceed the $1000 DACs in sound quality.  Lessons learned: (1) not all DACs sound the same.  (2) vintage DACs, properly implemented, can sound great.  With respect to (2), I suspect we've learned a lot about handling digital signals in the past years, making older implementations more suspect.
On the digital front, who knows? But the analog conversion and the analog amp do make a difference. Very rare to have a good sounding cheap amp. 
Very rare to have a good sounding cheap amp.
Call me i will give to you a list of cheap very good amplifiers....my sansui AU 7700 is unbeattable for the price: 100 bucks and 6th year of working in my room 12 hours each day....

Try to look for a very good and low cost dac? This is HARD, good luck..... 😁




I bought a NOS french dac which use only one old chip TDA 1543 in a minimalistic design... Sold on EBAY by Starting point systems...Christophe Mariac designer...

He is so good i want to buy another one used in case...If someone want to sell one call me.... 😊😁😁😁😁😊

I will bother no much ever for a dac, because in my actual acoustical settings i sense NO limitation at all coming fromt it...

And my audio system for his price is so well embedded that i dont listen to my 7 headphones anymore, i dont like NO other system i listen to more andi dont to want to upgrade or buy another one....

It is not the best system there is at all, but when all music is there filling the room without heavy limitations, we listen music without thinking about a new component....

Then my greatest purchase luck what the luck to buy one of this dac....

A good dac at LOW price is perhaps the harder piece of gear to discover and bought....harder than even buying low price good speakers....

I am born under a good star.....


Then yes, old designed cheap could be more good or than dreamed of because most people has never listened to their own system at his peak working potential at all anyway.... Often the real causes of theor unsatifactions unbeknownst to them, comes from the bad embeddings controls and less than from the gear they already own.... Then instead of adressing the more complicated questions like vibrations controls, electrical noise floor controls or more importantly acoustical controls, they search for an easy solution: an upgrade....And the more evident one : a costly DAC....


I think it is not the vintage chip TDA 1543 which only explain the result i listen to but more the MINIMALISTIC way and  the low noise which is associated also with the internal battery....I connect it to a good power supply also: IPOWER ...

Older DACs will still sound as good (or bad) as they were originally, but there have been significant advances in DAC implementations. So I would recommend at least listening to some newer DACs before deciding to go with an older one.
To this day, the Audio Note Level 5 Special is a state of the art, sought after DAC. MSRP in 2008 was $80K! It can only be used to play Redbook and SACD only having a SPDIF input. I feel fortunate to own and enjoy a 3 Dimension Audio DAC which was inspired by the AN 5. Like it, a fully tube DAC. It is in my office headphone system with a Theta Compli transport, Bakoon HA-1 and ZMF Verites. I listen to it daily and feel, “Wow, that sounds great”. But when I listen to my TT main system I feel, Wow, I am speechless”
Not to open up that Pandora’s box...
As far as aging digital, for sure 16/44 is not going away and still sounds great!
Older DACs will still sound as good (or bad) as they were originally, but there have been significant advances in DAC implementations. So I would recommend at least listening to some newer DACs before deciding to go with an older one.





Improvement of technology in amplifier or dac are not synonymous with an automatic improvement in S.Q. in your own room, gear and electrical grid.... And a change on some aspect of sound is NOT an improvement in itself just a change, an improvement is a change on all aspect of sound simultaneously: details but also natural tonal timbre, imaging but also soundstage, listener envelopment but also source width....Any change on only one or 2 aspect is not necessarily an improvement, but only moving the unadressed problems around one upgrade after an another....Most people call a change from warm to more details or the reverse an improvement and it is not an improvement AT ALL just a moving around of unadressed problem....







The real question is with the least money possible how will i make my actual dac sound great? Is it possible? if yes why upgrading at all?

Some vintage dac can probably sound so good in the right "environment" that upgrading them will look like silliness.... It is my case....

But people dont know what is an environment: a mechanical,electrical and acoustical environment.... The words "embeddings" here is replaced by environment for a best understanding....New words are terrifying it seems... 😁😊

a change of a piece of gear is often  only a "change", a moving around of the problem, not an improvement....
@miglos,
1 High quality good sounding vintage DACs can hold their own against many of the current generation DACs. A lot of the very good older DACs were well engineered and have very good power suppliers and analogue output stages. What they'll often  lack is modern connectivity and flexibility.  If your main listening is Redbook/16/44 you can obtain excellent sound quality. 

2 I can appreciate differences in DACs as easily as I can with different cartridges or other audio components. I reject the "all DACs pretty much sound the same" not by a long shot.
Charles 
@charles1dad +1.

My current DAC and the one in my friend’s system (Michael Spallone, who modifies the Synergistic Research MPCs here and the other site), both have NOS DACs with older chips and we’re thrilled.
Michael’s system is the most three dimensional and holographic system I’ve ever heard with unbelievable depth.
Oh, and he doesn’t even have a standalone DAC, he has a CD player.
You did not say how much you were planning to spend. I would not invest in a old dac though 
but a nice R2R dac like a Holo springs May dac,
Denafrips R2R dacs ,even black ice  audio burr brown tube dac ,Topping 9
many options depending on budget to spend ,many prices and different flavors depending on your audio systems sonic signature.
I have found that at least on the few dacs that I have tried that you can put a very good modern USB to SPDIF converter in front of it and get excellent up to date USB performance.  Also,  I purchased a SMSL M500 Dac and was pleasantly surprised at its performance.  It definitely out performs the other in expensive DACs that I've had in my system. and believe me, I wasn't delusional.  The differences were very audible.  I have now owned 11 different inexpensive DACs,  many were similar, but some varied wildly.  
I am listening to a Dac built in 1995 and it sounds sublime. There's a lot more to Dacs than the latest digital technology.
FWIW I tried a few of the top DACs recommended by Audio Science Review from Topping and others.  Thought they were clean and measured well, to my ears, they were completely uninteresting and added nothing. To many that’s exactly what they want and I can’t fault that. However, I ended up with a MHDT Orchid using a “vintage” NOS DAC chip. It captured more of the “analog” and “vinyl-like” smoothness and life that vinyl has and added something to the music which I enjoy and which the Topping DACs did not possess. An engineer or a measurements fanatic might cry heresy but hey, it’s all about what sounds good to you. 
Agreeing with above. There’s only so much you can do with A/D conversion of 0’s and 1’s, as proven from being in studio sessions hands-on. 
Different DAC chips and different implementations leads to different sounding DAC, sometimes it's subtle, sometimes not. I experienced enough that I cannot take seriously anyone claiming the opposite. For example the W4S DAC-2 and ifi Pro iDSD sound very different, and the difference is easy to notice within seconds. One is neutral-cold while the other leans more on the warm side.
Perhaps some people start to have enough of cold and analytical modern DAC and think that vintage is the only way to go. But some modern DAC do sound musical and engaging and are not that expensive.
The job of a DAC is convert the digital signal to an analog signal without loss of information and adding audible distortion and noise. There are DACs from fairly inexpensive to outrageously expensive that can accomplish this and have been able to for quite a while now. It is possible to hear differences in DACs but it isn't easy unless the DAC has been purposely built to distort the signal or the DAC is simply junk. The reason it isn't easy to tell DACs apart is they generally measure better than your other components. Amplifiers, pre amplifiers almost always will have more distortion than a DAC, even ones that measure well. Speakers are the weakest link they swamp everything else. Add your room acoustics to the speakers and it's very unlikely anyone hears differences in competently engineered DACs. If they tell you they can ask if they listened with their ears only or their eyes and ears in other words did they pick a DAC better than chance without knowing which one they were listening to. 
If you can't distinguish the sound between a $100 dac and a $1,000 dac you better get your ears checked and get the wax taken out, and you're an idiot for saying that, obviously your system isn't good enough to be able to hear the difference. LOL
Heavily modified MSB Link DAC and outboard power supply here. Very, very nice sound. Picked it up for a song. Only downsides are 2 inputs and missing input switching via a switch or button. Sound quality wise, it is unbelievable. 
I own 6 DACS of varying shapes sizes and usages, ranging in price from $100 to $500, and I sheepishly admit that I can't hear any differences between them.

That said; I can hear the difference between a budget DAC/amp and a pure DAC paired with a decent amp.

 My most recent purchase was the Gustard X16 because I wanted a decent DAC with Bluetooth for my YouTube friends. 
dacs definitely have distinct sounds... obviously one needs a good, resolving, proper set up system, decent recordings and some listening experience (and good hearing, of course)

dacs are not just about converting 1’s and 0’s to analog waveforms (even this process has several discrete steps)... they also generally contain an internal line level analog amplifier (and thus, also, a power supply to that amplifier)... these output buffers and/or amplifiers, just like all amplifiers, have output impedance which must work with the input impedance of the receiving device -- this is why they sound different, just like different active preamplifiers/linestages sound different

the sonic differences are certainly more subtle than differences between loudspeakers, or phono cartridges, but are more distinct than among, say, different solid state amplifiers or phono preamps
I currently own the Denafrips Ares II DAC and it sounds very good. More 3-dimentional, wide and deep soundstage with good separation of the players. And it has a phase reversal switch for those discs that were recorded in reverse phase. I listen to classical and operatic music where its strong points can be appreciated. I've had many DAC's in the past and I feel their entry level is very good. Don't forget the SPDIF cord; it's  quality is very important. 
The current generation of DACs are all measurably better than their predecessors, but you may not feel that is important.
There is better understanding of clock architectures including phase behaviours. There is also better understanding of how noise is handled.
For Red Book discs and files (44100Hz), how the "brick-wall" filters are implemented should have audible impacts.
DAC chips age well, in fact many of the best DACs made today employ old chips. My personal favorite is the CAD 1543 MK ii which uses 16 of the old Philips 1543 chips. 
Advances in understanding of power supply isolation, usb integration, and EMI/RFI, mean that new DACs using the old chips is often the sweet spot. 
I have also heard dacs sound different from each other. I even had an old dac upgraded and it became much better.

Regarding the question I would guess that something like a ML dac that was very advanced for its time still sounds good. Maybe not as good as the latest equally advanced and expensive dacs. If you can get it for a good price it may be worth it.

On the other hands there are now dacs for $1k - $2k that are said to sound great. You would probably have to compare the old and the new next to each other to hear which is best and which one you like the best.

Here is an example of a somewhat affordable dac:
https://www.stereophile.com/content/okto-dac8-stereo-da-processor

If you for some reason don't trust Stereophile it also got a great review at ASR
https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/okto-dac8-stereo-dac-review.14705/
Apart from ageing parts i do not see any reason for not sounding excellent in redbook. I bet a SFD2 can show a clean pair of heels and then some to modern dacs. And yes there is a big difference between a 5k to a 0,5k value dac.

G
Firmware Updates to CD/SACD/Blu-Ray players.

I typically update my camera's firmware, but for audio use of these?

I just bought a 2009 Oppo BDP-83SE (special edition, improved audio).

https://hometheaterreview.com/oppo-digital-bdp-83-universal-player-reviewed-1/

It has Firmware Updates, I suspect only for minor video issues. 

If all the initial reviews said very good audio, never found an audio 'problem' mentioned, why do/risk it?

Any recommendations?

thanks, Elliott
Why would it not age well? If you bought a cd player 10 years ago of good quality, it also contains a dac inside. If it still works, then what is the issue? Honestly, the only dac you need is the musical fidelity v90 dac. $299 and worth every penny. Sounds just as good as a $1000 dac. Small form factor, well designed, plenty of connection options, a burr brown chip, and it’s a stereophile class A component. To spend much much more on a dac is ridiculous. I've owned my v90 dac for 2 years now, it sounds wonderful. I use it in conjunction with both a Marantz hd cd1 cd player/transport, as well as with the audiolab cdt6000. I also have my grace digital internet radio connected to it, as well as my topping bc3 bluetooth module. Great versatility. 
Myself and two buddies had a DAC "listening test" at one of their homes.
All Rogue tube gear and Martin Logan with a USB feed from Roon.
Three DACs: Chord Qutest, Mytek Brooklyn+ and Bryston BDA-3.

Honestly didn't have to go past one track (Linda Ronstadt: What's New) the difference was so obvious.  Please don't bother trying to punch holes in the test or say it wasn't fair.  If your ears work you would have had to agree. BTW the order of DACs above was the way they sounded from
good to better to best. 

To the OP,  If you like the sound of an older DAC and you can be assured that it can be repaired if needed, then I say go for it.  Can't comment on any one in particular as I have no experience with them.

Regards,
barts
Post removed 
DACs sounds differently. Depends on chips used, codec, technology and resolution supported. DACs r different animals... DSD, MQA, tubed or R2R... all of them sounds differently and vintage too. 
I own 4 DACs- a mid-90’s California Audio Labs Alpha (tube amplification), a circa 2010 Halide Designs, an Audioquest Red Dragonfly, and a Schiit Yggdrasil GS. The Cal Alpha was renowned in its day for being analog like, and it’s sound remains pleasant. The Yggdrasil totally smokes it in all regards, it is profoundly more transparent with better dynamics and imaging, while remaining musical. I would be astounded if the average person off the street wouldn’t immediately notice the vast improvement of the Yggdrasil.

This thread is reminiscent of a certain Julian Hirsch, possibly the worst and most deluded audio reviewer of all time. His ears seemed to be filled with lead. His “Hirsch-Houck Labs) in his basement lacked equipment to measure dynamic features of amplifier performance, so he likened the measurements of slew-induced distortion and TIM distortion, both major advances in addressing how amplifiers actually perform, as “belief in the Easter Bunny.”

I guess that I am really tired of the willfully ignorant who claim no differences in gear when any modicum of listening or testing will show that they exist.
Testing shows most DACs don't have sonic signatures as long as they conform to basic engineering principles. I'm tired of the willfully ignorant who dismiss standard testing protocol and crown themselves golden ears. 
I own several DACS . Some current and some Vintage.
Not to promote one against the other. i.e. My Krell SBP 32X sounds way better then some of todays moderately priced DAC's.
The ones you're considering are very good. If you can get them at a reasonable price (Check some of the reviews behind them) you will be very satisfied.
Testing shows most DACs don’t have sonic signatures as long as they conform to basic engineering principles. I’m tired of the willfully ignorant who dismiss standard testing protocol and crown themselves golden ears.
I apologize for being in total opposite side from the "gold dial" side...

Dac dont give the same sound in all environment, like amplifier or speakers...Dacs are not like one another at all like other piece of gear...

The only way to test a dac is creating the rightfully controlled environment, and in this environment a good dac will disapear to some degree....Like other piece of gear to some varying degree related to the quality of their design...

My 20 bucks dac bought with a bid on Ebay give me ALL qualities associated with great dac: imaging, details, holographic sound, even analog flavor and is so good that upgrading it seems silly and dangerous idea...For those who think my S.Q. because of the lowest price of my gear limit my experience, my system for his price rival anything which top him for sure but not being so distant behind that most would think...

I deduced from that 2 things: there is difference between dac, and a good dac COULD or CAN cost peanuts and give a totally satisfying acoustical experience if the environment is under control in his 3 working embeddings dimensions : mechanical,electrical and acoustical....

I know most will not believe me....

Pricing a design means that often it is a better one but there is a ceiling where the implementation of the design begins to be way more important than the electronic design sophistication itself....

A controlled room is the more precious part of any gear at any price...


I wouldn’t put much money into an older dac.  I had a lovely theta basic and had it serviced because the power button and a sources selector button were inoperable.  I don’t recall the price but it was very high including shipping:   Also a notice that they would no longer support  the device.  The chip will last forever, the supporting architecture will not.
The problem is solved for me because my contemporay dac include only one vintage chip Tda 1543...

😊
Doesn't matter what side you're on it has no affect on the DAC. It either measures beyond human audibly so you are hearing the other components in your system or it doesn't. DACs have been a solved problem for a while now of course this doesn't mean some companies create filters or add tubes to create what some term pleasant distortion.