Best budget DAC


Hi all,

I'm considering a DAC for my system and I have to keep the expenditure very reasonable (under $300).

DACS considered: Audioengine D1, Audioquest Dragonfly, Cambridge Audio DACMagic XS & Azur DacMagic 100, Musical Fidelity - V90-DAC,  Schiit Modi,

Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated, especially if you have actually heard or compared the DACs above, or others.

Also, if I do get a DAC, is there any advantage to ripping a CD and then playing the FLAC/WAV file through the DAC? Keep in mind that the DAC chip in my CD Player is listed as a "24/192 Cirrus Logic Delta/Sigma", but no specific chip number.

I haven't seen any comparisons of CD's to ripping and playing the file through an outboard DAC, so if you have seen such a comparison, your link to it would be greatly appreciated.

These are the components in my system:
Speakers - Elac B6
Subwoofer - Elac S10
CD Player - NAD C 516BEE CD Player
Preamplifier - Parasound Halo P5
Power Amplifier - Rotel RB-1080

 Thanks. Your help will be greatly appreciated.

edincleve
You might want to check out the Emotiva DACs - DC-1 and the Ego series.  30 day in-home trial and 5 year warranty...

http://emotiva.com/products/emotiva/dacs
Thanks, rlwainwright, for the info and the link.

I will definitely take a look at their DACs.
Peachtree Dac-itx,  Parasound zdac
Thanks jl35. Will check them out.

I've been happy w the MyDAC.  It accepts up to 24/192 resolution on coax and USB, and 24/96 on toslink. 
I second Emotiva! Great dacs for the money.

I have had nice performance from a Chord Qute with an upgraded power supply.

Another great option is the Concero from Resonessence Labs.

Thanks for all your responses. You've given me more DACs to consider,  and I will try to hear them before making a decision.

No one has responded to my other question about comparing the sound of a CD through a CD Player vs that same CD ripped and the file played through an separate DAC.

Maybe I should have posted this question by itself

If you have any experience with CD Players vs DACs please let me know.

Thanks again.
Playing redbook CD rips as FLAC, WAV of AIFF file can sound as good as the CD via a player, many think better. It depends on type of player vs. computer playback system and DAC. 

Are you planning to use a computer a playback? Mac or PC?  

"DACS considered: Audioengine D1, Audioquest Dragonfly, Cambridge Audio DACMagic XS & Azur DacMagic 100, Musical Fidelity - V90-DAC, Schiit Modi,"

I would really try to find a Schiit  BIFROST dac used if I were you. $250- $300. 
I run a Peachtree DAC I'm happy with.  It retails at $300.  It takes a USB feed from my PC as well as a straight fibre digital link from my CD player.  It's a decided improvement over using the on-board DAC in the CD player.
My first dac was the modi, i bought it expecting to have some of the bifrost, i dont know about the bifrost sound but the modi was very boring dac, small image, small sounstsge and lacking bass a lot! I still have it but inside a Box, i guess is made to use with headphones. Then i bougth the peachtree dac it wich i love the lively and centered image, enough forward to treak your brain as the singer is infront of you. I have compared it with 3 built in dacs: one inside my yamaha rxv 650(msrp 500)  one is from my anthem avm 20.1(msrp 3200) , and the third one from my oppo bdp 103, from all is noticible better the peachtree. I hope this help you.
Fausto
And about your second question, i have made some test ripping cd to 24/192 flac files and after comparing both by fast switching using the dac it, i found some very small lost of body, unperceptible msybe without fast a/b switching, but i thing in the audiophile madness every lost or improve counts.
Does the nad cd player have inputs so you can use it as a dac for computer files? If it does I would question if a stand alone dac in this price range would be better than the one in the cd player. Perhaps consider holding off until you can purchase a dac in a higher bracket? For me in your price range i love my usb halide dac hd which has a very small footprint and no power cable. But input is usb only. 

As to your question yes files ripped from cds can sound great. "Better" is a matter of your cd player vs dac vs file types - basically comparing your overall implementation for reduced jitter, good conversion, etc. Look at the threads on ripping software before you get started. 
Check out the iFi line if you just need to use USB from a computer.  No frills but very good sound using the Sabre line of chips.  

In terms of relative quality to using a CD player, it depends a lot on the CD player you have and the computer you use (and the software).  Check out computeraudiophile.com for a number of different excellent computer configurations for digital audio.  I have truly found that eliminating moving and spinning parts (drives, fans, pumps) and going with a low wattage/heat system can make a significant difference in the sound.  You also don't want that computer doing anything else than playing the music.  
I second the Peachtree.  I am very happy with it 
Second the IFI recommendation. Only one of their products uses the Sabre chip though, the Micro idac, and it's no longer in production. It's been replaced by the Micro Idac2, which, like the rest of the line, uses a TI( Burr Brown chipset ). I have both the Nano IDSD Dac, and the new Micro IDac2, and they both are big overachievers for the money. the new Micro is definitely a big improvement over the Nano. In direct comparisions to my Weiss DAC202 via firewire ( USB of course on the IFI stuff ), they were not embarassed. The weiss was clearly superior, but I could live happily ever after with either IFI. Some very serious and clever engineering and implementation going on.

Now my experiences of CD spinners vs ripped files. Unless you've got a SOTA CD playback system, a properly utilized and set up computer system playing uncompressed files will win the shootout every time. But it's not a trivial task to do properly. I have two computers that I use. A Windows laptop running JRMC and JPlay and a Mac Mini used as a dedicated music server with either Amarra or Bit Perfect. It takes a lot of time and work to get a good computer system w/ the proper software up and running, but the results, if done properly, will get you past what a dedicated CD player will give you.

Now the CD player vs. transport/DAC question. Unless its a very cheap CD player, in most cases you will do better sticking with the player vs a transport/DAC for a couple of reasons. In a dedicated CD player, the movements of the digital signals in the player have been carefully laid out and the layout designed by a competent engineer. In addition, all of the power supplies have been designed to keep noise down. Bad layout and noise in digital equipment increase jitter, which is the biggest bane of digital audio. In a separate transport/DAC set-up, getting the digital out from the transport to the spdif or AES/EBU receiver on the DAC also is no trivial matter, and is subject to the possibility of very increased amounts of jitter if done wrong due to impedance mismatches, mostly in the cable that connects the units. It's just not a plug and play option.

Just an FYI. When you convert CD files to a higher resolution you are performing very complex mathematical computations, and the resulting sound quality will greatly depend on the software used. Of course, YMMV, but , for me, I have found this method to produce superior results.

When you convert your files, don't do it on the fly, but convert first and store the converted file on your hard drive, then play back the converted file. It saves computer resources as the computer doesn't have to convert the file while its also playing it, and I have found it to make a difference.

Also, in my experience, and of course YMMV, always convert your CDs to files using a whole number multiplier of the sampling rate. I.E., convert your 16/44.1 CD files to 24/ either 88.2 or 176.4 files. My JRMC program has an excellent upsampler, and the converted files sound just very slightly smoother and less harsh to my ears on my IFI DACs. I can't tell the difference on my Weiss DAC202 nor my Auralic Vega. This is only a guess, but both the Wiess and Auralic use the Sabre chip, which internally upsamples all incoming signals to 1.5 megahertz, and I'm guessing that the chips high sample rate swamps any changes in the original files. The IFI units, on the other hand, perform no internal upsampling and remain bit-perfect, which is why I can hear the very minor changes to the upsampled files on them. A guess of course. I'm no engineer.

I agree w/ the observations of JJI666 above. For me a computer is the only way to go, and as he stated, the software is critical. Having it dedicated also helps, except that JPlay on a Windows machine greatly mitigates that factor. A Windows 10 laptop w/ JPlay is, in my opinion and experience, the closest you can get to a dedicated computer as a music server w/o actually having one.

Of course, the usual disclaimer applies here. I'm no authority or whiz-bang at this stuff, I've just been at it a while and tried a lot of different hardware and software variables to get where I'm at. It took a lot of time and work, but if you're willing to spend it, a computer as a source feeding a USB DAC, can very significantly outperform all but the best dedicated CD players.

Cheers, and enjoy the music.

Crazy Bill


It will be very hard to beat the Parasound Zdac for a budget product.  Should be able to get a demo with warranty for around $300 or perhaps less for used. 
I agree with the rec for a used bifrost, especially if you can find one with usb 2. The great thing about the bifrost is that it can be upgraded later if you decide to invest more. I started with the uber usb 2, and later upgraded to the multibit. It was like getting a new DAC for a fraction of the price (and it gives a new warranty if upgraded). I run both ripped lossless and CDs through the DAC and (not having done a carefull a/b) don't notice a difference either way.
I don't understand. The OP says s/he already has a Parasound P5 which has a decent DAC. I doubt that most DACs around $300 will be any better than the one he already has in the P5. I had a P5 not too long ago and it's a terrific one at that price point. If you want better than P5, you would have to look at a much higher price point, IMO.
I agree with arafiq.  The DAC built into the Parasound P5 seems pretty impressive, and I don't understand why the OP would want an outboard DAC for $ 300.  You'd probably need to spend a significantly higher sum than $ 300 (plus the expense of another IC cable) to improve on what's already in the P5.

From the Parasound website description of the P5 ..... 
"Burr-Brown PCM1798 DAC with USB, Optical and Coax inputs
Coax and optical accept all sampling rates up to 192 kHz, 24-bit
USB accepts up to 96 kHz, 24-bit
Incoming jitter on all three digital inputs is significally attenuated with an effective clock recovery system"
All out assault:SMSL "M8"DSD/DXD $250.00.DSD/DXD 32/384 off USB.
 Budget DAC:HiFiMeDIY "SABRE DAC2" UNDER $100.00.24/96 off USB...
Emotiva XDA-2 fit’s your budget $200ish and is very good.

With that said, I highly highly recommend the DC-1 at $400ish. That is not a budget DAC, it’s a top of the line DAC + great reclocker + top of the line preamp + headphone amp (never used it though). The bang for the buck is out of this world.
A few people mentioned the ZDAC and I disagree with that recommendation. I picked one up for $300 a while back and sold it after a few months. It was replaced by an Arcam irDAC which I purchased off Ebay for $409 (there was a seller in Italy who sold a bunch of them at that price). The irDAC smokes the ZDAC and there's no comparison. If you're looking for something you will simply enjoy listening to, consider a MHDT Paradisea+.

I found the ZDAC to be too bright on the high end.
I recently bought the V90-DAC and run FLAC files from a NAS drive via both Mac and PC. I also run a digital out from an excellent Sony CD player into the DAC. McIntosh and B&W Nautilus to give an idea of the quality of the sound. I did some blind A/B testing before deciding to keep the DAC. Conclusions: DAC sounds great. Brought extra airiness to the highs and substantially improved the depth and warmth of the bass - that's probably the biggest gain. Both from the computers and the CD player (you can run both line and digital out from your CD player and A/B test easily.) Buy from a reliable place that allows returns and try it out. I also blind A/B tested a high-end USB cable and sent it back - no difference. Regarding ripping CDs, use EAC or XLD and get bit-perfect FLAC copies. They should sound same or maybe better than live CD playback because of no read errors & reduced jitter, plus gives the infinite advantage of a digital library/player setup.
Schiit Bifrost Uber. It equals or betters my older Benchmark USB DAC1.
I had the Emotiva DAC, the Peachtree DAC  and ended up with the Schitt Bifrost. I found it to be better from top to bottom. Not to be self serving I am selling a Bifrost as I bought a Theta off a friend ($2,000). Don't waste your money like I did, get a Bifrost. Check out there reviews!
I want to thank everyone who responded to my question(s). It was all very helpful. I have a lot to digest and consider.

The response by wrm0325 was particularly helpful. If I could respond to you directly about a computer system, I would be very grateful.

Thanks again. You guys are so informative and helpful, and the reason I love this site so much.
Edincleve, perhaps you could mention why you are choosing to not employ the built in DAC of the P5.  Did you try it and not like it?  

I'd be cautious of the Emotiva products.  The DAC of their I had was not very good sounding in some applications.  Also their house sound tends to be somewhat bright, not organic.   The Schitt stuff is very well regarded for the money.
+1 runnin, I have been wondering the same. Another poster asked the same and we haven’t heard back on this. I doubt any of the DACs mentioned would be better than the that in the P5. Different maybe. Would require an additional cable. Which one?

Actually I have tried the built-in DAC of the Parasound P5 by connecting the digital output (coax) of the NAD  C516BEE cd player to it.  I found the P5 DAC to be slightly better sounding than the NAD DAC.

I think the P5 DAC is decent, but it is a DAC built into a good $1000 preamp. How much of that $1000 do you think is dedicated to the DAC. Since the sound of the preamp, and the quality in general, is pretty good, it's hard too believe that Parasound would expend much of their parts dollars to the DAC. I may be wrong, but that's my feeling.

I love the preamp, but that's why I thought I might be able to improve my system, without spending a lot of money, with a better DAC.

At this point though, I will probably wait until Elac/Andrew Jones introduces their new 3-way Uni-Fi speakers. They use an aluminum 5" woofer with a concentric mid/tweeter. Anyone hearing them at CES, liked or raved about them. The bookshelf will sell for $500/pair. I'm hoping that the weaknesses of the Elac B5 (high end roll-off and resolution of individual instruments) will be overcome by the UB5.
edincleve, the point is that the P5 DAC will still be at par if not better than most $300 outboard DACs. The Burr-Brown PCM1798 is a decent one and Parasound is known for building quality products designed to last for a very very long time.

I sold my P5 and instead bought a Cambridge Audio Azur 851D DAC which originally sold for $1600 but was marked down to $995. So far I can tell you that, at least in my system, it's not that much better than the P5. Of course, YMMV.
I agree with edincleve, and remember that the built in DAC likely doesn’t require its own power supply, analog output stage, and housing that the $300 stand alone DAC does. What percentage of cost of a stand alone DAC in dedicated to the D to A conversion? I believe that to get a stand alone DAC that would be more than ‘slightly’ better than that found in the NAD player (which has a DAC that likely equals many $300 ones) would cost about as much as the P5 does. 

I might suggest that you listen to your NAD via the P5 for some time and try to determine what you would like to improve in the sound. You might then be able to better find an external DAC that improves in the right sonic directions.  From everything I have read I believe you have an excellent full functionPre/DAC combo for your $$$. You can improve your digital front end, however you likely will need to save/spend more dollars. 

I might add that it my general opinion, given as a response in other threads, that I prefer an external DAC to having one built into a pre or integrated. I value the positives of upgrade flexibility, and isolation of devices over that of shelf space or simplicity. That doesn’t make me right/wrong, just my opinion.