Best Bang for your Buck DAC ?


I just realized I’m in the market for a DAC , I don’t want to spend a fortune on a DAC either . I picked up a drangonfly cobalt a while back and am unimpressed  so I moved it to my CPU and sounds really good on my system there which when I bought it figured I would do anyway since it was my first DAC purchase . There are so many DACs I have no clue , how high up on the returns chart can I go at say $1,000 before I run into heavy Diminished returns resistance. I’m open to buying used . I was thinking about a Schitt made in the states ? Anyone’s take on best bang for buck DACs? 
ngiordano
Depends, how many inputs do you need, do you want volume control, are aesthetics important to you ? Are you willing to compare DACs without knowing which is which? If you want 1 or 2 inputs, volume control, not interested in how it looks and accept the reality of blind listening and confirmation bias I'd say somewhere between $100 and $300. After that you're getting into exotic designs and coloration, added distortion and filters . If you want a basic DAC that will perform beyond human audibly you can find a lot of choices. 
George
I know you love Soekris but the only forum member I know of that auditioned one vs the RME returned Soekris to Mod House. The RME truly sounded as good.
Plus it has remote configurable EQ, etc.
He can setup his own remote selectable loudness contours for lower level listening.
Big bang.
RME is very nice. Best DAC I have owned although I never had a DAC over 1800 so maybe I don't know what I'm missing. Could probably pick up a used one for 900ish. I got a demo model from Sweetwater for $1,034 plus tax. 

If you listen at low to mid volumes the eq on the RME really enhances the experience. I turn it off once I get up in volume.  

Jolida (black Ice) tube dac is really nice well under a grand new. I wish I still had mine to compare with my RME. 
Khadas Tone Board dac from Wesion TEK. $99! Add a 5 volt power supply and a case. The result is a DAC that competes with any four-figure unit! 
Check out MHDT Dacs, hard to find used but several models under 1K, tube, R2R  very musical
The best VALUES are from Chinese manufacturers.  They know how to build great DACs with great parts and performance.  My own favorite for value is the LKS DA004.  But there are many others.

I'm not writing of US or European makers who manufacture in China.  I'm writing of Chinese companies. 
I don't think that the Soekris feature XLR outputs. May not matter to some, but it will to others.
I'm in a similar position (budget-wise) and, after much research, recently  replaced a 20+ year old Muse Model Two DAC with a Denafrips Ares II for around $750.00. 

I don't know enough to debate the procs and cons of R2R vs. other designs, but I've been pleased with the performance,  sound, and overall build quality.  I'm a tube guy - and I don't find the sound overly clinical.

Only drawback:  They're tough to find used - which may tell you something.

My .02.  As always, YMMV.

Terry
Schitt Bifrost 2. XLR and totally modular, so updatable in the future. Multibit sounds great and has a remote that allows you to change phase from your chair (something I am finding quite useful, shame so many recordings are in the wrong absolute phase).

I have the the first version (with Multibit, but not Unison USB) and it is definitely better than my Red DragonFly.
@ngiordano at your price point I'd recommend the following options in addition to what others have suggested. Some are over $1000 but you may be able to find them below $1000 used. They all sound different from each other, so it will come down to personal preference.

  • Soekris 1421 or 2541 (R2R design)
  • RME ADI-2 (AKM-based, DSP)
  • Prism Sound Callia (CS4398-based)
  • Neko Audio D100 Mk2 (transformer-coupled passive output)
  • miniDSP SHD Studio (AKM-based, DSP + Dirac)
  • Benchmark DAC2 or DAC3 (ESS-based)
The Soekris 2541 has balanced XLR outputs.
op

$800-1000 is a good cost range to spend for getting very very nice sound from a dac

it is good spot to be on the ’value curve’ for those seeking to maximize performance for $ outlay imho

going up from there further sound improvement certainly exists but becomes rather subtle and nuanced, and would best be appreciated on fairly expensive systems playing its output

don’t forget to get a good streamer too, don’t just run the digital feed out of a computer
George
I know you love Soekris but the only forum member I know of that auditioned one vs the RME returned Soekris to Mod House.
Well you need to read these reviews also, (and there are more) and it's not the top Soekris model, which gives these well respected dacs a real giddy up👌
  
https://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/soekris-dac1421-dac

https://audioaddictsforum.com/thread/1643/soekris-1421-dac-review?page=1

Cheers George

Love my RME , sounds great.....  its at that perfect price point where you get a lot for the money, great sound, etc....to better it will cost double. Nothing out there has its feature set.    Detail retrieval is excellent,  it has great bass, dead quiet, dynamic....works with any digital product.   Plug my iPhone into its,USB and it instantly recognizes it as a 768k/32 bit device.... same with my tablets, and PC.    Truly plug and play.

I view digital gear as " consumables" for lack of a better word.   Digital is  constantly evolving ,  I don't think I have the system to warrant a $4000 or $6000 DAC.... who knows, maybe something like the Bricasti DAC or dcs would elevate  my system to the next level. But  I doubt I have the associated gear to flesh out the differences.   Would be fun to try something high end in my modest system.
I think your instinct to go with Schiit is good. I helped a friend get his first high end DAC. It was a Yggi. In the process I bought a Gungnir multibit (for my office system). I highly recommend the Gungnir Multibit... it gets you close to the Yggi... all of which are simply screaming deals in high end audio. You would have to pay twice as much for another brand to equal the sonic performance. Check out the reviews.
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Just a word about really inexpensive DACs... you get what you pay for. Many years ago I poked around with a Dragonfly and a couple others... it was a complete waste of money for me. I finally bought a $4K DAC... holy cow... different experience completely. I made fun of Schiit a long time. Who would name a company that? But after extensive research and buying a couple... this stuff is the way to get into the high end.
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I recommend doing the multibit, in the long run stretching the extra $ is worth it. But if you can’t then the Gungnir is within your budget. It takes more than 200 (400) hours to break in... so it will sound good right away but not as natural and a bit flat until you get hours on... run music through it for the first month non-stopped and it will be broken in.
MHDT. Several models available
A excellent dac Black ice audio uses dual 12Ax7 vacuum tubes 
which I would put in NOS Raytheon Black plates 
brent Jesse audio, and a Synergistic 🍊 fuse decent power cord 
And beats dacs 2-3 x it’s cost .Underwood Wally sells them 
Retail $799,which you can buy for  less build quallity compact but very good especially the Rcore power supply Burr Brown dac chipsets. Rich involving sound ,even stock ,the tubes mentioned 
and fuse just add to the musicality and resolution .I started there 
then went much further modding it monies well spent IMO.
Blue sound! Best sounding for around $500
I have heard many of the Dac's mentioned above.  These are all nice sounding Dac's and some good recommendations.  I have had a dozen Dac's in my system and am just stunned with how the SMSL M500 sounds.  This little Dac is like $400 and has clearly outperformed some pricey Dac's in my system.  It does require a fair amount of burn in.  
Even though you may prefer another Dac from above, it is all personal.  I can promise that it won't be embarrassed by any of them. 
Denafrips Ares II. 

Under $1,000 CAD into the country. 

So sweet I bought a second.  

It really shines after a couple hundred hours of use. 
Emotiva DC-1 is a steal if you can find one. A great DAC plus headphone amp, balanced outputc digital inputs. Check it out. I’ve also been enjoying my Aune X8. I can swap opamps with ease, which has been enlightening. The Burson Vivid and Classic opamps are totally worth it. The Classic has really expanded the soundstage. 
You mentioned computer. Do you need DSD on the DAC? If not, then if you can find a used Massdrop Airist R2R dac. It took an MSB to better it from the musicality aspect. I tried against PS Audio Stellar Gain DAC and Mytek Brooklyn DAC, which was a close second, plus did DSD.
Surprisingly the S.M.S.L is really good bang for the buck.
Bought an SMSL M-400 for about $810 and it is amazing!  
It doesn't sound as good as my Chord Hugh TT2 but it comes pretty close in many respects and costs a fraction of the price.
I also own and agree with you on the Audioquest Dragon.

Chord qutest. About 1500. Very nice. 
The SHD Studio is a digital front end - streamer, DSP headphone amp, input selector - NO DAC.

George  
I don't need to read those reviews. 
Or reread them.
I only reported a NON reviewers experience.
I also highly recommend the Black Ice Audio FX Tube DAC.  On sale at times for $699 I was skeptical how good it could be atbthat price point but wow it sounds really good.  I liked the fact it used 2 12ax7’s and has built in wifi. Performs way above it price point.  https://www.underwoodhifi.com/products/black-ice-audio
Man that's a hard question without knowing what you want soundwise. If you want a safe bet DAC without a "flavor" per se, a used Benchmark DAC 2 or 3 would be a good starting point. 
Well you have to go pretty high up I guarantee you $1,000 dac will not sound as good as a $5,000 dac at that point you're hitting the point of diminishing returns.
Wyred for sound 10th anniversary dac. At 4,500 us it's one of the best dacs on the market right now at any price. I put it up against the Sim audio dac which is $15,000 Canadian and it left it in the dust. Very analog sounding and very accurate. The two reviewers were absolutely floored by it.
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I have had Schiit, Nuprime, Chord, MHDT, and a few others.  Hands down best Bang for the Buck DAC has been the Digital Amplifier Company DAC.  Preowned market, these can be had for $600-$700.  Like the other companies mentioned, they offer a few different models, including one that is “tube-like”.  Highly recommend you at least check them out.
Apparently the Okto dac8 Stereo is supposed to be the Schiit.
Musical Fidelity V90 DAC plus an S-Booster power supply to replace the wall wart sounds really good for the price. 
Another very happy Denafrips Ares II owner here, very good build quality, balanced XLR’s, r2r and there is a reason why you don’t see them on the second hand market. 
What is the highest resolution you will be listening to? If you don’t listen to hi-res beyond 96kHz/24bit, then there are some terrific deals to be found in older, higher end DACs (e.g., Ayre, Esoteric, Benchmark, Meitner, etc.) as people upgrade their gear.




You might check out these guys:  The review below is for a Gustard X16 DAC that received high praise from measured performance and low noise floor ... and others in your price range!


https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/gustard-x16-balanced-mqa-dac-review.17419...
JJSS49  
"don’t forget to get a good streamer too, don’t just run the digital feed out of a computer"  
  JJSS49   thanks for everyones input cause there so many to choose from , Im was playing my music thru my Hifi Tidal app on my apple device over an apple pigtail to Dragonfly cobalt over audio quest Goldengate RCA to my CD input cause thats what audio quest suggested. My CD sound field mirrors my Heos sound field and I didn't feel like there was a real benefit so I demoted the dragonfly to the CPU where it does do some Justice for my PC system. Im still new to all this , I did try a Bluesound node 2 out but didn't like the interface so much so I returned it cause it was night and day accessing Tidal like from my tidal app. I would like to be able to use my Tidal app on my phone not some intermediate device like a blue sound that just complicates things ergonomicly  , my wife and daughter have to be able to use it to I'm a family man. why is going from 00001111's to analog so difficult ?
Im looking at all these DACs some are small like embedded on your phone small to a dragonfly small to a 4x4 size to a Full CD player size with power cord, The more money you spend is there more going on than just converting 00000011111's to analog I feel like its augmenting the sound to make what's perceived as High fidelity , im just trying to understand it all
I just picked up the Schiit Audio Bifrost 2, and the difference in my system was breathtaking (literally)! I am using that mated to a Brennan B2 which I used to RIP my cd collection. It is my first DAC so I have not auditioned or compared to any others. I did quite a bit of research before purchasing and all indicators were that Schiit was the way to go. I absolutely LOVE this DAC! I too had the AQ Cobalt and ended up selling it - but only because I purchased the Brennan and no longer need the Cobalt...

Best of Luck!
I second the Musical Fidelity v90 dac, although I tout it all the time. It is a stereophile class A recommended component. It has many inputs, 2 toslink, 1 usb, and 1 coax. It has beautiful case work, small form factor and sounds terrific. You could change out power supply as someone else mentioned, but I do not find it necessary. 
Denafrips Ares 2. It’s a wonderful DAC. 
@bcdavid I agree. Denafrips make fantastic DACS. Have you also tried their Iris?
Check out the Mytek liberty. American company, does Mqa through spdif, coax, or usb, also a headphone amp. I couldn’t be happier with mine, especially since I added a linear power supply. This thing sings! Also if you should need service, it goes to Brooklyn not somewhere in China. Just my two cents.
Better look for good return policy.  Some are quirky to operate.   Apos audio sells several brands.  Audio Mirror, Gustard, Schiit, Topping, Chord, just to name a few are good sounding.  
For me it’s what’s up stream of the dac that made a significant difference in sound quality. However everyone’s experiences can be completely different chasing better playback by way of changing dacs focusing on the source will pay off in dividends.

Then to the other side member Djones51 comments above , I read enough of his comments to believe he’s some sort of self appointed consumer watchdog and advocate whom reacts with belittling others here that in his mind are waisting their own money .

This illusion of better sound quality is imaginary and doesn’t really exist , he paints everyone with with same brush like many are impressionable and naive 12 year olds .
Djones if your completely happy with your $300.00 dac and $3.00 Amazon power cord enjoy !