IMO, the Havana is over rated.
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With the Havana the other SPDIF options do sound better to my ears. I don't agree with the previous post - I think the Havana is a damn good DAC for the $, but I would not use the USB input. Use optical or single ended. If you must go USB I'd look at the asynchronous implementation by Wavelength, or options by Empirical to get zeros and ones off your box. Both are more expensive. I think the inexpensive USB/SPDIF conversion in DACs at that price point just don't sound that good to my ears. That said, the PS Audio DLIII in stock form and various forms of upgrade might be a good choice if you simply must go that route and want to stick to that budget. I have a stock one in my office system and use the optical input - I have compared and it does not give up much via USB as the Havana does. Not sure how it accomplishes that...perhaps better jitter reduction? On the used market a stock one is half your budget, while you can get a pretty pimped out version for $1k. No experience with the flashier versions. Good luck!
The Havana with the Bel Canto USB link sounds absolutely awesome and beats anything I've heard up to 4000.00. There are other DACs that reveal more, show more imaging reverb trails blah blah blah but the Havana gets to the soul of the music and to me that is what counts. I hear more of all the audiophile things we talk about with other DACs but am always restless and find my mind wandering when I don't have the Havana in the system.
No_Regrets - what is the rest of your setup like (i.e. solid state amps, etc.?). Are you looking for detail, or to corrale digital and its tendency towards being bright? Do you prefer upsampling? There's too many options to just throw out a general question.
The Havana is a great DAC. With a tube'd preamp, the right set of ICs and a good power cord it could be just what you're looking for. If the damn thing had a built in analog preamp I wouldn't have sold my Havana last year. My setup is all tube and on the warm side with a Rogue Stereo 90 and a pair of Living Voice speakers. I settled on the 2009 TADAC with built in preamp for now, but most of the dirty work is being done by an Empirical Audio Turbo-3 and some pricey digital cabling.
For under a grand with nothing upstream addressing the USB jitter, you'll have a tough time finding very clean sound. Probably Benchmark would be your best option since it's under $1k used and deals with USB fairly well. It's very detailed in sound though (I used to own one). The Havana doesn't sound very good via USB compared to a clean SPDIF fed to it via it's RCA input.
Solid state dacs sound very different from tubed. I've owned 3 solid state DACs (all over $1k on the used market) and two tubed DACs (both well UNDER $1k on the used market). I'd take the simple tube DACs every time if given a choice but it's all down to preference.
I'm not a Benchmark fan and have listened pretty extensively to that DAC having owned a USB version and borrowed the previous version. I can tell you from my perspective I would have never thought to compare the DLIII with the Benchmark sound - they do not remind me of each other at all. I find the DLIII to be more natural sounding, not at all sterile or strident and very engaging. The Benchmark would always grate on me, especially in the upper frequencies...but overall it always sounded to me rather artificial and squeeky clean, and yes, sterile. I've heard it sound good in other systems at shows, but not in mine nor my friends. Anyway, I can't imagine what similarities it shares with the the DLIII in terms of sound qualities. Just my .02 cents.
I don't know if it's the tube that is the thing that makes me like it or not? Probably I guess. I have here on hand a Bryston DAP-1 DAC and I have been comparing extensively against the Havana. I really want to like the Bryston better. It has extra inputs that I am looking for. At first swap you'd think heck yeah the Bryston is clearly better even smoother than the Havana but there is something going on here that my finger starts to look for the skip to the next song button with the Bryston where as I'm more inclined to enjoy the whole song with the Havana. The Paradisea is the same way not the most spectacular but something very natural engaging about it. Personally I think even the Paradisea sounds better than the 3500 Wavelength Cosecant V2 and that uses tubes as well.
The Benchmark does a very good job on USB as well as the SPDIF. You just can't argue with their Jitter reduction. Some years ago some reviewer wrote that it was analytical sounding and so it seems everyone "Parrots" that review. It's system dependent, just like every other component. If you have a good system, it sounds good... if not, well you can answer that one as well as me.
I am feeding it to an ARC LS-26 preamp, and the combination is wonderful. Sure it's detailed...why would you want no detail and accuracy, but the music is alive and great! There are far more really bad recordings and poor quality files than bad DACs. I have just converted some Vinyl to 24/96 FLAC files and they sound incredible.
There's probably better DACs and worse DACs but the Benchmark does a good job... at least in my system. And that's coming from a 40 year analog guy.
I've got a few different systems that it may grace from time to time, all of them are vacuum tube based. The system that it would spend the most time in is in my den. There are times when I like to listen to Pandora Internet radio from my laptop as background music. I was thinking of going USB into the Havana then into my tubed electronics which drive a pair of vintage Tannoy Monitor Golds in custom cabinets.
I thought that using the Havana or something simalar would maybe enhance the sound of the Pandora. I don't know if the laptop has any other outputs other than the USB.
It sounds like the PS Audio may be one worth looking into, providing it doesn't sound analytical, sterile, harsh, etc.
Thank you to all for your comments. I truly do appreciate them.
[Agreed. It is great value. Of course it works best with very neutral equipment - so it only fits with a limited number of setups.]
I agree as well... everything works best on a limited number of setups. It's hard to think of a component that is "Universally Best", especially if you add the parameter that it's "Under $1000.00".
Listen to everyone's advise, take reviews with a grain of salt(the mags get paid from advertising), but when it's time to spend the money, only your ears really matter.
Tranquility DAC? I seem to recall a lengthy horn-tootin' post on that DAC over on AudioCircle - was that you on that trumpet as well? I haven't heard much else about it except [URL=http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?ddgtl&1258679140&read&keyw&zzdb+audio+labs+tranquility+usb+dac]thisvery tranparent shill post[/URL] here on Agon. I have not found sustain and decay to be missing in digital. Did you find it to be missing in those other DACs you mention comparing it to?
Yes I did on the DAC's that were mentioned because its not a characteristic of digital (good or bad).
Sorry, I don't think I understand you. Sustain and decay are characteristics of sound, so yes, in that respect they are certainly not a characteristic of the digital system that may be rendering them. How can they be "missing in digital", or present with one DAC and not with another? The way you have stated it, to me implies that when listening with an Ayre DAC sounds cut out abruptly, and the natural decay of the sounds that were recorded (and which exists on the digital recording) was just not there via your system... While that same missing decay was present with the other DAC you tried. And how was sustain missing? From wiki: Sustain level is the amplitude of the sound during the main sequence of its duration. How can this be missing from digital?
I was at the Lone Star Audiofest last month and listened to the Tranquility DAC. At the RMAF last year, I listened to the PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC. The PS group had better electronics and speakers with their DAC than dB Audio Labs did. I found the Tranquility more natural sounding. But the DACs were in different systems and at different times, so you have take my comments with a grain of salt. And yes as the above poster stated, the Tranquility does the natural decay of instruments better than any I have heard. I'm glad I got one for myself.
No_Regrets, if you can splurge an extra $300 ($1300 if you are an Audio Circle member, just sign up), I think this DAC will sound more natural and satisfying than anything mentioned on this thread. BTW, I have heard the ultra expensive dCS, Play Back Designs, and Meitners. In all honesty, I enjoyed the Tranquility more. But again, these were not side side comparisons.
Overrated??? I own the $5,000 Weiss Minerva. My friends own the $14,000 MSB and the $6,300 Weiss 202. I have a good amount of experience on all of them. All of these DACs are EXTREMELY detailed. However, what I've learned from listening to live classical and live jazz regularly throughout my life is this: Music is not EXTREMELY detailed. It is just music. Natural and organic. I've owned (and reluctantly sold), the MHDT Paradisea 3+. There is a "rightness" to the MHDT DAC. It didn't exaggerate anything. It just played music. I do not believe that over/up sampling is the answer. I think that is what the industry wants you to believe in order to sell crap that wows you in the begning to grab your attention, but in the end, doesn't connect you emotionally to the music. That is THE NUMBER ONE THING I'VE LEARNED. I don't care how much detail is there. If I don't emotionally connect with the music, then it's all industry propaganda.