I just knew someone was going to ask that...lol. So much I was on the verge of editing to state that ALL inputs have been level matched with test tone and sound meter app on my phone. While the actual decibel might not be 100% correct it is good enough to use to set all inputs to at least be the same.
The difference I hear is not volume but depth of field, clarity of vocals, they seem more pronounced on analog. Acoustic guitar seems to have more "zest" for want of a better word.
Your phone as a dB meter is not good enough, I am afraid. With such small but already important differences you really need to use a Volt meter. I appreciate that complicate things, but there is no alternative if you want a reliable answer.
There are three possibilities here, I think:
1 once the levels are exactly equalized the perceived difference disappears.
2 there is a gain mismatch between source and amplifier. This could be inside the amplifier, between the digital stage and the analoguie stage, or between the DAC and the analogue input. If the amplifier clips slightly, this may sound more lively and involving, even if in reality what you hear is distortion and compression.
3 one DAC is really better than the other. In this case, with two good ones, I doubt it.
Finally, why do you think that if the the inbuilt DACs of the Vault and the Oppo sound better than the DAC in the C48 you need yet another DAC?
Assuming that the volume levels are matched, there is no gain mismatch (likely not if you can use the volume control on C48 throughout the mid range for different levels), then it seems that you prefer the sound of the two sources via their internal DACs over the C48 DAC.
The question then becomes, "Is this satisfactory?'.
To answer the latter part first
I do not believe that the inbuilt DAC in either the vault or the oppo are the last word in DACs by far and if I prefer their sound to the DAC in the C48 then quite likely a true dedicated DAC could sound only better. To my ears in my system of course.
Are they satisfactory?
Probably an impossible question to answer in our never ending struggle to gain improvement...lol.
Yes I prefer their sound but as above, is it possible even better results await with a separate dedicated DAC.
Like a Schiit or something.
I guess that is my problem to pondering any suggestions to ones to trial would be worthwhile.
I don't doubt that an improvement can be made using an external DAC. With a budget of $2000, and the fact that your sources output SPDIF, I would consider searching for a somewhat older DAC known for possessing a robust power supply and excellent analog output stage. These can be had at a fraction of the original price.
Now, which ones to consider? I feel I am not one to make a recommendation here, for lack of hearing many (most) of the possibilities. I am using a Bryston BDA-1. It has several SPDIF inputs, and at the time of purchase I prefered the use of an external USB/SPDIF converter.
For $2k, I would absolutely recommend the PS Audio Perfect Wave Dac Mark II with Bridge II. This is a $4800 combination and can likely be had for $2k or perhaps a touch less if you’re lucky. You may not find them together, but the are compatible and the Bridge II is a current product. PS Audio recently upgraded the firmware on the PWD mk II, showing that the product, though no longer in production, is still properly updated and kept relevant and current.
I have this exact setup, I control it with Roon, which is really outstanding software. You can feed it with the bluesound if you like, but a direct connection via Ethernet to the DAC’s bridge unit from a computer will be better.
if you find a great deal on the PWD mk II, but not the bridge, you can forgo the latter for a while and just use the digital output from the bluesound to feed the DAC. However, I would consider trying a bridge 2 and Roon when you get curious. Roon is the best audio software I have experienced and the bridge II takes the DAC to higher levels of performance.
Some nice suggestions, I did think along the lines of an older model with large power supplies like Esoteric or similr.
One thing I steered way clear of when entering the digital realm, have a number of threads on this subject...lol, was total avoidance of ANY computer based music for a number of reasons for my situation.
My system needs to be fool proof to the extent that my wife and daughter can just come in and push a few buttons on the units and select the music they want from the Bluos app on their phones, iPad etc either from the vault direct or from Tidal via the Bluos app.
I appreciate there may be better SQ to be had going computer based but not going to happen in this household.
I hear that. It is certainly a hurdle. However, it can be easily managed. For example, I have an older mac mini, with no display, always on, always running roon, always connected to my dac. I have the timer on the mac restart itself once per day at 4AM to keep it happy and fresh. Roon auto starts on startup.
To operate the dac, one simply turns it on, and uses a smartphone to select the music.
I would have wholeheartedly agreed with your not in this household phrase a few years ago when this crap was way over complicated. However, it has evolved a bit. In your case, Bluesound provided a great solution. However, the method I just explained is probably a lot simpler than you'd though in earlier years.
Nevertheless, the PS Audio PWD II is an awesome piece! Worth a shot with the blue sound too.
I appreciate your reply which is very fair and actually good food for thought and future consideration.
Usually when I tell people I do not want to go the computer route they get all bent out of shape and holier than thou on me.
From the sounds of it they have made it easier for us mere mortals to setup and use, definitely something I will have to research a little more.
And yes the Bluesound while not the top dog in SQ by any means was and is a fantastic simple elegant solution and their customer support has been exemplary imho.
+1 on @robelvick recommendation. I have no experience with w4s DACS but am totally pumped on the mods they did to my Sonos zone player and the phone conversations were confidence inspiring. If I ever decide to change out my Wadia 321 this will be the first place I look.
This one is a little more than $2k but has the latest ESS Sabre 9028PRO
The Benchmark DAC has excellent output and excellent volume control especially the XLR outputs which are very powerful. So powerful you may have to install the internal jumper resistors to reduce the output to an acceptalble level for your power amp.The analog circuitry is all exceptionally low noise as the specs are industry leading.
So I would recommend taking the C48 out of the signal path not because it isn’t a good preamp but simply because every stage adds noise to the signal - shortest paths are best. And a good phono amp might be an upgrade in and of itself.
Alternatively a Mytek Brooklyn DAC has a built in phono and MQA decoding!
There is not so much to choose between in terms of the very high audio quality in many of the latest DACs so a choice based on features may be more cost effective.
You are exactly right and that would be the plan. Fortunately the C48 has 2 pairs of xlr inputs so I can compare say the oppo dac signal to the c48 and the "whatever" dac signal to the c48 both via xlr.
And the same with the vault, compare single ended direct from the vault to the c48 and same with the "whatever" dac.
Then I can remove the c48 and try the " whatever" dac direct into my BAT.
I am blessed in that 2k is not a huge outlay at my stage of life and the mytek and benchmark have a 30 day free trial.
Plenty enough for me to a lot of serious comparisons.
Tbh it will take something special to make me part with the c48
Of course Dave, I have not totally ruled out replacing the OPPO with a modwright OPPO yet.
However that only has an effect on Redbook CD replay.
Moving to a better DAC should improve CD replay, my ripped collection and Tidal replay so in theory I should get a broader music improvement on spending money on a better DAC.
Mind it was a lot easier years ago when I was much poorer....lol.
That made choices easy.....if it wasn't broke then don't fix it!
Sounds good. Up to recently, I recall that you were set on a one-box solution?
Since you brought an external DAC into the fold of consideration, I will give you my 2 cents. Having a MW SACD player and a pretty good DAC (Exogal Comet Plus)/Aurender N100H music server combo.
I have fallen hopelessly addicted to the Aurender/Comet combo because streaming music from Tidal is so easy and the sound is pretty good. Also listening to hi-rez downloads from HDtracks, etc. ups the ante to excellent sound quality. I mean EXCELLENT sound quality.
My MW5400ES still sounds better for critical listening, once the right tubes and umbilical/power cords are in place. Image palpability and soundstage size, depth, and layering are in another league. The intoxicating wetness and buttery even-order harmonics/richness of the tube sound can only be produced by tubes, simple as that. Friggin’ incredible dynamics and bass power/slam. Bye-bye grain and edginess. Music.
My MW player only plays CD and SACD. Speaking of that, I was confused by your comment above, "However that only has an effect on Redbook CD playback." ??? Anything you play through your Oppo (CD, SACD, other digital input) and output from its analog outputs will benefit equally from the Modwright power supply, analog section, and tube output section.
Bottom line: If you are planning to do a lot of streaming or need multiple digital inputs for using other sources, Keep your Oppo for other duties and invest the money in an Aurender/DAC-of-your choice combo. Way excellent streaming with the Aurender. So easy to build custom playlists.
If you do not plan to predominately listen via Tidal (I think the Oppo can do streaming via its USB input??), the Modwright mod to your Oppo is the way to go for ultimate digital sound quality IMO unless you get into the $$$ DACs.
The C48 preamp is around 100dB S/N. I think you will find the Mytek is closer to 120 dB. This is probably due to the very quiet switched Mode power supply versus the Mcintosh traditional linear one.
So it is possible that the C48 would dumb down the Mytek performance if it were in the audio chain. It is entirely possible that performance of many of the Class A or Class A+ DACs are being compromised by typical preamp performance...
The traditional purpose of a pre amplifier was to bring the different output levels of analogue sources to the same level (and add the massive RIAA equalization required by the phono input), to allow you to switch between these sources, to use tone and balance controls, and to control volume.
However, these days you do not necessarily need them anymore. Typical input sensitivity of a hifi power amplifier is now 2V, and typical cd red book standard output of a digital source is also 2V.
So what does one still need? Apart from tone and balance controls which you could also and better do with a mini DSP, you only need a volume control and a switch between inputs.
In a very basic system such as the system in my study, with just a computer plus ODAC usb DAC as a source, all I needed with my QUAD 405-2 power amplifier was a volume control like the Emotiva Control Freak.
With more digital sources like a basic streamer, a disc player, a tv, and perhaps a computer, one would need a DAC with multiple inputs and preferably a volume control. Examples of such units would be the Marantz HD DAC1, the Pioneer U-05, or various Benchmark DACs. Such DACs are in effect the modern incarnation of the traditional pre amplifier. Inserting a traditional pre amp after such DACs just adds distortion, noise etc. Pre amplifiers can only degrade the sound. And they are a waste of money.
There are definitely differences between DACs. Of course there are some DACs that sound exactly the same. You are looking at a device that generates analog waveforms. They will not all do it the same way.
The McIntosh preamp is going to be somewhat laid back, so there is the possibility that you may not have the resolution to hear differences between some DAC models.
Yes you can choose to use a favorite pre-amp as a personal preference tone control or not. Clean and accurate alone does not always cut it for all ears. Benchmark HDR DACs are in fact DACs built into a good quality pre-amp. You can swtich between both analog and digital inputs. No phono pre-amp though with BEnchmark. You have to add that still if needed.
I have a Bel Canto C5i digital integrated. It truly has it all. Digital, line level and phono inputs, 60w/ch. The most versatile and best sounding single device I have ever owned. If it did not work out, teh BEnchmark was next on the list but I have other Bel Canto amps that are top notch and I decided to give everything in a single small box a try first. Very glad I did!
I agree with you but with with a caveat: not all line level equipment has high quality output - so I would restrict my choice to go without a preamp only when using a very high quality DAC with excellent and powerful output circuits. Some power amplifiers and long cable runs may introduce a challenging load to a cheap line level DAC output and result in signal degradation (usually a loss of dynamics). So a preamp is just like an audio mixer in the pro music world - it buffers the line level signal by presenting a high impedance easy load and then has a powerful output that can often drive a more difficult load.
Schiit is not in the same ball park or league as Mytek and Benchmark and Bricasti and Bryston and a few others (lots of choice - Stereophile A and A+ is a good start)
+1 Ayre Codex DAC. I own the Ayre Codex DAC and it is outstanding and highly recommended (new or used). It has great performance and can be used as either a preamp/DAC or DAC only. Please see:
What about the Mytek Brooklyn DAC?
DIGITAL INPUTS: USB2 Class2 (OSX, Linux driverless, all formats), AES/EBU (PCM up to 192k, up to DSD64 DOP), 2x S/PDIF (PCM up to 192k, up to DSD64 DOP), Toslink/ADAT 2x S/PDIF (PCM up to 192k, up to DSD64 DOP), SDIF3 DSD up to DSD256.
If not, Google DAC with two digital inputs.
Sent from my iPhone 7
At present I have a very short list of two, both from prior suggestions in this thread
One is the Benchmark dac3
the other is the Mytek Brooklyn.
Both are about $1995 brand new and with 30 day free trial.
Still looking and hearing opinions but it may boil down to one of those and give it an extended test run, not much to lose bar return shipping.
I am thinking a used Bryston BDA-1 might be a good mate for your C48. They come up for sale used here often (as the USB input is substandard) and if it doesn't work out you could resell it for little to no loss. It doesn't have volume control, however has many inputs and a quality power supply and output stage.
Check out this plot (Fig 13) why you should always run line level preamp devices north of 12 oclock (when playing loud) and why you should not string multiple preamps together.
The measurements from JA indicate to me that the DAC3 is an excellent preamp (better than your C48) and that it is best to use this DAC directly into a power amplifier using the balanced outputs and with a jumper pad precision resistor attenuation setting at a level such that you are listening with the volume between 10 and 3 oclock.
I agree. Reasoning is a guide only on how to approach something. Reasoning can get you out of a lot of rabbit holes -
For example, why do some DACs sound terrible with one digital cable but better with another. Is it the cable? Is it the DAC? Reasoning says that bit perfect data into a jitter immune DAC should not be affected by the cable unless the DAC has build and design issues.
However, what sound is preferred is a personal judgement that the listener must make.
So I propose Reasoning AND Listening is the only way to know. Without both you can get stuck in a silly rabbit hole of mediocrity with a bunch of unecessary band aids trying to resolve equipment component issues and living in denial that a high $$$$$ item MUST work perfectly because the king of audio design built it (appeal to authority rather than reasoning).