Benefit of a Newer (Used) DAC - "Bang for the Buck?"


Despite having a SO who fails to understand why anyone would spend more than $100 on a “radio,” I’ve managed (over several years) to covertly assemble a fairly decent home audio system.  (My prize acquisition being a $500 set of LN Belle Klipsch loudspeakers off CraigsList).

At any rate, relying on quality used equipment that is past its technological “expiration date” has, under the circumstances, served me reasonably well. However, I’m now to the point where I’d like to (again) update several components – namely, the DAC.  

I’m currently running a Cambridge CXC transport through a Genesis digital lens and a Muse Model Two DAC – both of which, while fully functional, are fairly dated.  Realistically, how much noticeable impact can I expect from a newer (used) DAC – like a Bryston BDA-2 or MHDT Pagoda (for example)?  FWIW, my current setup does everything I need it to (i.e., play Red Book CDs).

In advance, thanks for any advice/feedback.

tds3371
Tough to say.  I use a (new) R2R dac with an obsolete Analog Designs AD1865N-K chip.  I've found this unit (an Audio Mirror Tubadour IIIse) to outperform a number of modern dacs including things like the PS Audio Directstream and Matrix X-Sabre Pro.  The latter is one of the best measuring dacs currently in production.  All depends on your ears and system.
I bought a Benchmark DAC 1 PRE, and couldn't be happier with it. For me, it's all I'll ever need. Best $500 I've ever spent.

Dan
Thanks for the feedback, guys - much appreciated.  I'm just trying to determine the best way to expend my limited funds - not an easy assessment, so be sure.

@cal3713 - The AM Tubador III (and IIIse, in particular) caught my eye, but my current budget for a new or preowned unit is around $1K.  If I need to drop a few more bucks to get a marked improvement, I'll just have to save my pennies for a little longer. ;o) Still, your suggestions are good ones.

@islandmandan - It's reassuring to hear it's not entirely a matter of spending > $$.  I'll definitely check out the Benchmark.
I'm not really trying to sell that dac, just noting that you may or may not find anything new an upgrade. Defintely don't assume it'll sound better just because it's based on a new chip.

I'd look for a good power supply first if I were guessing about outcome.
Unfortunately, it is like asking us if you will like Mutsu or Fuji apples better. I have no idea and no one else will either.

If you are looking for near the most accurate and uncolored sound possible, your current CD player into a Qutest or Benchmark DAC would be a significant step up from where you are now. Heck running the Time Lens with the dither off into a $150 Topping E30 would be a big step up in performance from what you have now.

If you love the sound of vinyl no matter the genre or performance, then there are probably better options out there that will more closely replicate that vinyl sound.

If you are looking for where to spend money, it is almost always acoustics.  Another area in your case, though, is the crossovers in those speakers. Belle's are from the early 70's. If those crossovers have not been updated / upgraded, then they are well past their time. The electrolytic capacitors specs would have changed considerably over that time to the point where the crossover points could have moved quite a bit.
Maybe read up on the RME ADI-2 . I've had demo model for a week. It's real nice. 
Great very transparent PEQ as well. 
Actually, @audio2design, you've answered my question:  Is money expended on replacing an old DAC likely to result in an audible upgrade?  Sounds like it will - even it the replacement is an entry-level version. That's all I needed to know; I can now move forward re: model specifics.

For the record, the Belles I own were manufactured in 1984 - and have new Crites AB-2 crossovers.  The original Klipsch AB crossovers in these speakers were not particularly good; Bob won't even rebuild them. Production of the Belles was phased out in ~2005.
There are a lot of excellent DACs below $1K (new and used). In addition to the ones mentioned, I'd look at the Denafrips Aries II (new for about $800) and the Schiit Gungnir MB (used for about $950).
If and when I can travel again, I want to get a high end "travel DAC" for headphones.  Was looking at the RME ADI-2.
As always, just look for items you can home demo, or buy used so that you don't take a loss upon resale. 

If you're set on buying a new dac, I'd recommend trying to hear as many contenders as possible in your own system.  Especially with the pandemic, many places are offering no question returns, and getting 4 or 5 different dacs in the system at once can be an illuminating experience. You can do a bit of blind testing and it'll show you how much (or how little) the different designs matter in your system and to your ears.  Plus you'll learn a bit about what reviewers hear things as you do and who to trust for any future purchase recommendations. No shame in blatantly copying those who have ears that hear the same way yours do.   

If you're looking for brands, I liked the iFi iDSD pro dac that I tried.  Might be worth demoing one of their models that's in your price range.  Good features, engineering, and sound quality. 
I think my RME ADI-2 is quite handy because it serves a number of purposes, making it obsolesce less quickly. I currently have it running minor DSP (loudness and 5 band EQ) for my main system, operating as a headphone amp, and, of course, acting as the DAC. I know that when I eventually upgrade it, I’ll be able to shift it around to other systems or keep it in the current system more easily because of its multi-purpose-ness (totally a word.)  A hawkish and thrifty audiophile could find one used in the $600-$800 range pretty easily. Worth the money. 
The RME is a killer DAC....its really an amazing unit.   Although it has a very good headphone section I use it as my systems DAC.  All of my digital sources go to it.   I listen to phones with the RME as the source and the Quicksilver headphone amp.  

It is really hard to beat for the price.  What I like about it is it's ability to connect to anything without a driver.  Plug a phone, tablet, or computer and it recognizes it immediately.    Its not cheap, but its far from expensive in the context of what some dacs cost.   Worth every penny
I am sold. Even new it's not too bad. Seeing it for as low as $1,150.
I can second the Denafrips Ares II.  I have considered most of the DACs mentioned in this thread and decided upon the Ares II.  I like it so much I have a Denafrips Pontus on the way to me right now.  Check out the reviews for the Ares II.  Many of the DACs mentioned are very good but the R2R Ares II does it for me.  
All RME ADI 2fs owners really need to spend the money and throw out the switched power supply and get a linear supply. The very first evening with my RME I switched out the power cable with one I built with Furutech plugs and cable I purchased from VH Audio and was pleased with the improvement; was the PC I was already using on my Bluesound Vault 2 so I ordered more parts and built another.  Was probably a month later I was watching a YouTube video off Kevin Deal on the Sbooster supplies and made my mind up to change out the PS regardless of what the manual claims as it will not make a difference. After researching a little I settled on Teddy Pardo from Israel. Shipped to the States only took a couple weeks and with shipping it was under $400. The improvement is well worth the cost, actually a bargain and a must in my opinion. With the Teddy, the RME is more open, stage greatly improved in both width and depth. The bottom end even with the switched supply is very good, but with the Teddy it digs deeper and tighter. The sound overall is fuller more open, lower noise floor with greater PRaT. It’s just hands down superior with the Teddy

 I run mine balanced out with Nordost Frey 2 and PC is a WyWires Silver Juice II Digital Series. The combination of cables and Teddy on the RME is very natural, not at all bright or fatiguing. Top end is exceptionally clean but not bright, or soft, but honest. If you’re looking for a DAC to roll off the top end or color things then this is not it, but I suppose pick another filter and mess with the EQ. and you’ll can get there. I run the Sharp filter and don’t mess with the EQ and find it’s not at all bright, edgy, or exaggerated running direct. Can’t give the RME with Teddy Pardo enough praise.
I own a Topping and it is quiet, high clarity very dynamic, no rolloff.  I paid 630 for it with price match and 2 year warranty.  Apos Audio has several brands.  30 day return policy.  Schiit is another company.  Starting at less than $200.  Their units come delta sigma or R2R.  So in short lots of new and used for your choice.  If I changed brands, I might be inclined to try one with tubes such as the Tubador.  This would pair well with your speakers.  PS.  I too have horn speakers. 
MHDT even the lower cost models will raise your SQ. These are Tube, R2R
@cal3713 I saw your ad for the Holo May but it sold before I could reach out. So if you could only pick one would it be that or the AM?
-Alex
@rareace I think it's going to come down to personal preference (and system/ears) as both dacs are outstanding in their own way.  

I kept the Audio Mirror T3-SE because it provides the most real, natural, 3-dimensional sounding image I've heard in my system.  

The May, however, produces the most accurate and extended frequency response I've heard in the system.  It's really striking how it seems to perfectly reproduce every single piece of the spectrum.  It also produced the largest soundstage, both in width and height.  It was super clean and detailed, without sounding digital or harsh.  There was a touch of brightness, but I do believe that would have gone away if I'd been able to put more than 200 hours on it before being forced to pack up my stereo to prepare for a move. If I were more concerned about accuracy and/or details, the May definitely would be the winner.  It's a great dac.  Wish I'd been able to fully complete the break in process.
@cal3713 Sounds like you kept the more emotionally engaging DAC. I recently tried the Mojo Mystique EVO and it was phenomenal. As you put it technically the better DAC. But I feel that my Border Patrol was slightly more "musical". Just made me stop analyzing and just listen...
-Alex
@rareace  Interesting. I have the Mojo on my radar. Could you tell me more about the comparison? (and the models you have/had on hand)
op

bang for buck - get an mhdt nos r2r tubed unit (all current units are, but some of their past units are not) - that plus an upgraded tube will be the most natural dimensional lovely un-digital sound for $ spent

i went through almost 30 dacs in the past year to learn what the well reputed suspects have to offer, and that is my conclusion - not the best dac, but the best sounding ones for the $ to my ears, in my system (under a grand)

and good job managing the s.o. :)
@cal3713 Well at 5x the price difference between the two DAC's I just wasn't blown away. I purchased the EVO B4B with a slew of upgrades to the analog sections. The Mojo had better micro details, cleaner dynamics, and slightly larger soundstage. But the BP was just so much more organic sounding for the type of music I like. No doubt the Mojo is better in many ways but not enough to justify the huge price difference. Honestly I just like the way the BP presents music. An analogy is like driving an old, manual sports car vs new sports cars. The new stuff is very impressive at first but I'll take the vintage stuff all day any day. Just so satisfying. I guess at the end of the day the law of diminishing returns was just constantly on my mind so I sent it back. Don't miss it one bit.
-Alex
Interesting.  Thanks so much for the information. 

I've been slowly working on a conspiracy theory that I prefer equipment with a 2nd harmonic distortion profile.  You can read about Nelson Pass's experience with 2nd vs. 3rd dominate equipment.  He designs both and says that a negative second harmonic creates the perception of slight warmth and 3-dimensionality while the 3rd creates the perception of increased detail and clarity.  He even has designs where you can change the balance between two transistors to vary the distortion from 2nd to 3rd and listen to the change in presentation.  I think it was his finding that about a third of audiophiles prefer each and 1/3 don't differentiate.  

With a triode based output section, I believe my Audio Mirror presents a 2nd dominate profile and that the accompanying warmth and 3-dimensionality makes the music sound more natural and real on my system.  Being a balanced design the Holo May eliminates all even harmonics, so it's 3rd dominant and indeed sounded very clean and detailed, but loses a touch of that warmth and dimensionality.  

I tried to ask Ben at Mojo about his dac, but he wouldn't tell me what the distortion profile looks like.  I tried looking at the layout, but was a bit confused about the op-amps and how the different OAs related to the single ended vs. balanced outputs. I guess he's just moved to a pure class A output section, so maybe once I see a picture of that I'll be able to tell if it's a fully balanced output stage or not. 

So, I began this thread, and feel compelled to offer a brief update on my thought process thus far.  Incidentally, I truly appreciate all the good feedback folks have provided; it's a little troubling to make a purchase without personal listening experience, but that's kind of the reality of things for me (and perhaps others) right now.  Still, there is a lot of "research" that one can do in hopes of providing some guidance (although finding consensus is entirely another matter).

First, I'm generally a tube guy - which has tended to work well with my horn loudspeakers.  For this reason, I've found the Tubador, MHDT, Black Ice (Jolida) and Border Patrol DACs to be most interesting.  However, they all lack balanced outputs - which I would like.  (At an added cost, these can be had on the Tubador and MHDT models).  Upgraded tubes, if required, are yet another expense to consider.

Among the non-tube alternatives, the Denafrips Ares II and Pontus (the latter is outside my current price range) seem to be among the most "analog" sounding non-tube DACs.  Since both my primary and dedicated headphone amps are both SETs, I figure these will probably sound OK in my system (indeed, the added virtues of "layering" harmonic distortion is intriguing).

For me, one attraction of the Ares II is price.  At ~$775 (USD) for a brand new warranted unit, it packs a lot of risk-free performance into a relatively small package.  The fact that there are currently far more audio ads seeking than selling Denafrips DACs also suggests it might be fairly easy to upgrade to the Pontus at some future point. (Yes, I know. We're a notoriously fickle lot - and this could easily change overnight).

I would add the RME ADI-2 into this same group offering > "bang for the buck."  However, it just has a lot of features I'd not likely use - and I don't need the pre- or headphone amp function.  Otherwise, this unit would be further near the top of my non-tube DAC list.

It all continues to be a learning experience.  All in all, the number of fairly affordable, high quality DACs now available is a not a bad "problem" to have.

Terry

@tds3371 Thanks for the update.  One thing to think about in regards to the balanced outputs.  As I noted above, if the dac has a true balanced design, it may not produce the sound profile you're used to with your SET amplifiers.  Single-ended triodes produce second harmonic dominant distortion profiles (although the 3rd can become dominant as they are pushed to the top of their operating point). 

If the dac you're going to audition has been tested by ASR, that can be a good source to check and see what the distortion profile looks like and see if it's similar to what you're used to with your SET amps.
@tds3371 I agree with @cal3713 Don't sweat the balanced design and go with the DAC that sounds the best to your ears.
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@cal3713 - My intent is to run the balanced DAC outputs to a balanced headphone amp and the single-ended outputs to the integrated power source - both of which are tubed-based. While the addition of a properly configured preamp (for example) could offer other connection alternatives, your point is well taken:  A truly balanced DAC could alter the sound "profile" I've become accustomed to in my current setup. I'll certainly check into some of the ASR measurements.

@rareace - True.  I may be unnecessarily limiting myself based on "logistical" concerns.

I agree with @cal3713 Don’t sweat the balanced design and go with the DAC that sounds the best to your ears.


i too support this ^^^ - chasing balanced output over SQ is tail wagging dog

if you must have balanced, try ayre codex or dena pontus

even better (and more expensive) are sonnet and metrums with true balanced outs
Bricasti DACs are differentially balanced.

I use mine in a system with balanced preamp, and parallel SET amplifiers.

The Wadia 321 and di322 can be had for a song and are a purdy good value.  Of course Wadia is no longer but support is available. 
@tvad So glad you put up a system and your last post got me to check it! Thanks and good work (especially on the diffuser panel), super impressive.

Interesting that you’re mixing distortion profiles in your gear (odd only until amplifier, then 2nd dominant)...

I’m still not sure I fully believe myself when I say I prefer 2nd dominant, but as I look back on some of the excellent amplifiers I’ve tried, I preferred those that fit that profile (Coincident Frankenstein 300b, First Watt F4) over those that had a 3rd dominant (Atma-Sphere M60s, Pass Labs XA25). Once the same thing started happening when I began demoing dacs, I decided it was something real.

and @tds3371 I think you’ve got a very good reason to want two sets of outputs and have one be balanced. Sorry if I missed that reasoning earlier. (And good number choices in the username, btw!)