Not sure what you classify as a "giant killer", but as a Rega dealer, I have to say that the new $995 Rega DAC is outstanding for it's price.
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I've found the cheap "giant killer" DACs like the V-DAC and DAC Magic don't quite live up to the hype. Some here love them, and that's all fine and good. But let's be serious. My ca. 1987 Theta 307 DAC beat the supposed giant killers I had in my home.
I own the new Rega DAC, and it's a fantastic DAC. Far better than anything I've heard at or below it's price. I wouldn't call it a giant killer, as it doesn't do what the dCS priced stuff can do. But I'm pretty sure it'll be get quite a bit of good press. As much as the Apollo was loved by the rags, the DAC is quite a bit better to my ears.
And I compared a bunch of so-called giant killer DACs in my system. They didn't hold a candle to my Apollo. I don't miss my Apollo now that I've got a Rega DAC fed by my Apple TV Gen 1. I'm speaking from a sound quality perspective, not a convience perspective even though the convenience factor is through the roof.
The price range is pretty wide so I'm not sure which "Giant" you might want to slay. If you can find one, I really like the Audio-GD Ref. 8 DAC. The Ref. 7. is supposed to be a bit more revealing, albeit very similar otherwise. I have no direct experience with the latter (7). They both use 8 PCM 1704 chips, which I personally find quite musical and natural sounding when well implemented, as in these DACs (though my experience is with the RE8 which I use in my office system). The DAC in my main system also uses the same chip. The Audio GD have a rather large footprint and are quite heavy, so if that is an issue look elsewhere. If you have objections to Chinese-built components look elsewhere. The current usual suspects that come to mind are the Zodiac+, the Wyred4Sound DAC2 and the PS Audio Perfect Wave, as far as peak performance erring on the more revealing side. Seems to me the push-pull direction in DACs these days seems to be the ultra-revealing vs the more musical. My preferences seem to be in the realms of the latter.
Well you are most likely NOT going to find a sub $500 DAC that beats a full dcs stack but I took the OP to mean that he wanted something that gave him enjoyable sound from a computer based system while the technology continues to evolve. If I misunderstood, I stand corrected. I have the MusicStreamer II+ driving NHT M00/S00 set up in my home office and I find it always enjoyable. Inexpensive, small, no external power supply needed. Hook that sucker up to a netbook, a Ray Samuels portable HP amp and some Etys and you have great (maybe not SOTA, but damn good) sound in a package you can almost tuck in your pocket.
I've tried a few inexpensive USB DAC's in my office system, the Nuforce uDAC, the Valab, the Beresford 7520 with the opamp upgrade and now the Aune Mini. The Aune is as good as the Beresford at half the price and way better than the Valab or the Nuforce. At $160 shipped its a real bargain. It's beautifully made, can be used as a preamp and has a pretty good headphone amp built in.
I have ordered the Burson Audio HA-160D, which should be shipping in a couple of weeks. While the Burson isn't 'dirt' cheap it is relatively inexpensive for a head amp/preamp/DAC combo piece, and the comments and reviews I've seen have in general been very positive.
I think I read somewhere--Burson's Facebook page?--that Burson will also be releasing a standalone DAC in the near future, also very affordable.
I'm not sure there is such a thing as a 'giant killer' in digital, unless that means killing your ears after awhile.
The closest I've heard to giant killer in my travels is the MHDT Paradisea. At around 400 bucks used it's putting out some pretty good sound for the dollars. I personally sold off my Wavelength Cosecant after getting one. There is better sound of course out there but it hits pretty hard for around 400 on the used market.
Here's a link to information about the Aune Mini SE. Like Pdspecl, I bought the SE version with upgraded internal parts. The shipping from Hong Kong took about seven days after purchasing on ebay.
A consideration for some people might be that the Aune does not have an optical input, which means you're out of luck if you wanted to use it with an Airport Express. It has USB and coax digital inputs, as well as analog inputs in case you want to use it as a preamp rather than as a DAC.
I've been extremely happy with the sound of it using the USB output of an iMac, then to a Jolida FX-10 tube integrated and a pair of JohnBlue JB3 single driver speakers.
As an aside, I notice that a lot of these bargain basement USB DACs seem to also have headphone amplifiers?
Is this because they assume that a significant percentage of people using these USB DACs will want to use headphones?
As I go out of my way to not listen to headphones unless I am on an airplane or in the gym, its a bit like getting a DAC with a toaster oven to me.
Why don't USB DACs have a simple attenuator instead?
Then, I could use my bargain basement USB DAC with active monitors or just a power amp.
In the giant killer rankings, I also wonder why now getting pretty old Levinson DACs still sell for a few thousand bucks.
So let's hear more recommendations.
Cwlondon - it's possible I don't understand the functionality you're looking for but I think the Beresford TC-7520 does exactly that, as does the Nuforce uDAC.
Both have USB input and variable analog output controlled by a front panel knob that you can connect directly to a power amp or active speakers.
Yes, the Nuforce uDAC is a great device for what you describe, it really improves the sound from a laptop while traveling and it takes up almost no space. As a DAC, I wouldn't describe it as a giant killer but it is a real bargain, either as a DAC or a cheap preamp.
I would describe the Aune SE and the Beresford 7520 with the upgraded opamps as giant killers at their prices. I bought the Beresford after my local high-end shop salesman admitted he had a hard time selling any of his more expensive DAC's after customers listened to the Beresford. I'd like to hear some of the new, more expensive DAC's like the Wyred or the Burson but I'm pretty happy with the Beresford for now.
If you are looking primarily for PC audio, I'd suggest going with something that has async USB that can handle hi-res files (24/96 or even better 24/192). Otherwise you could invest in a USB-SPDIF converter, such as the M2Tech HiFace. Musical Fidelity just came out with a USB-SPDIF converter around the same price as the HiFace, and there are more expensive options out there as well.
Under $1000, I don't know of DACs with asynch USB other than the HRT Streamer line. I have tried all of the current models, and liked each one a lot. They are limited to 24/96 though.
Under $1000 without async USB, the below DACs are getting great reviews:
Eastern Electric DAC (you can choose between tube and solid state output. Had this in my system, and thought it was great for the price).
Wyred4Sound DAC1 (had the very similar $1500 DAC 2 in my system and it was only barely edged out by the Weiss DAC2 I currently use).
Musical Fidelity's new M1 DAC
Audio GD also has a devoted following as well. But not familiar with the different models available at the moment.
A number of these can be bought from online dealers who offer a 30 day or so trial period if you are not able to audition locally.