Buying a DAC when you can't try it first

this is a generic "advice please" post.
I'm driving magnepan .7's with a primaluna evo 400 with KT150 tubes.
Most of my music nowadays it tidal streamed via a chromecast audio (CCA) with the optical output going into the DAC of a MusicHall C-DAC (its a CD player with a DAC that can be used by external sources).

I'm planning an upgrade path and leaning toward getting a DAC like the SMSL SU-9 or Cambridge DACMagic Plus and running the CCA optical through the new DAC. But i have no idea if those DAC's or something else at that price is going to improve on the musichall DAC (which some reviews say is a decent DAC).

Or should I ditch the CCA and separate DAC go the streamer route....but I'm worried that tying a streamer and DAC together limits upgrade path. However i am not totally against it. 

I'm just not sure if i even will hear anything measurably better than what I have so thought I'd reach out to you people for your thoughts and experiences. 


Post removed 
I'm planning an upgrade path and leaning toward getting a DAC like the SMSL SU-9 or Cambridge DACMagic Plus and running the CCA optical through the new DAC.
No.  Just no.  You have a $5000 tube amp.  Time to put the $50 CCA and the $550 CD player night night.  Streamers and DACs matter — a lot.  At the very least get a Bluesound Node 2i streamer and then try either an MHDT Orchid or Audio Mirror Tubadour DAC, both of which can be tried at home.  You’ll be gobsmacked by the improvements and what you’ve been missing.  And while you’re at it, drop Tidal and get Qobuz — it’s cheaper with a better interface and doesn’t make you deal with MQA nonsense.  Best of luck with your upgrade. 

Thanks soix I'll go buy one now.
Soix said it all.
You can even start with an Allo USBridge Signature and any Shenzhen DAC.
Apps Audio has free returns and 30 day price match.
Happy hunting.

soix hits nail on head

nothing more to add
Ok. I've gone and bought it, plus some expensive interconnects. 
I'm not frothing about it actually.
Maybe a bit more resolving, the old setup in comparison sometimes seemed a bit fuzzy around the vocals but the bluesound seems to seperate everything a little better. 
So it's an improvement albeit quite marginal. 


be clear

what did you buy and are you claiming marginal improvement?

node 2i or mhdt orchid or both?

2 hours after you posted to soix ’you had just bought it’?
sorry....i bought the bluesound node 2i and some interconnects. No external DAC.
Yeah my local store is just 15mins away so BANG I lashed out.

i guess i need to spend more time with it but at this stage yeah marginal difference. I suppose the CCA output is close to bit-perfect and the musichall DAC must be ok,

on the plus side the BS2i is gapless and nicer to control
I bought Chord Clearway Analogue RCA's. 
Ha. And now onto step two!  I have an audio mirror and love it...
Forgot to mention, I could A/B test at the press of a button. Playing the same song through both sources and flicking the primaluna remote to select one input then the other.
In some songs the difference was negligible on others the bluesound was a bit more spacious, balanced, and resolving. 
I'm not disappointed, but I'm impressed by the low cost CCA and musichall c-dac combo.


i believe soix’s recommendation was to get a node 2i as a streamer, and then couple it with an mhdt or audio mirror dac... that combination would yield what we who support this recommendation believe will be a substantial improvement in sound quality from your current front end

it is well known that while the node 2i includes an onboard dac, that dac is poor in sound quality (dull, lifeless, smeared) so with only the node, using its dac, it is not surprising your perceived improvement is minimal

hopefully you will take the next step and add a good nos/tube output dac

good luck, thank you for clarifying
Thanks jjss49
Yes, the next step....
At the risk of thread jacking (with my first post nonetheless) I am in the process of setting up a new "mid-fi" room too.  Prima Luna Evo 400 and Dynaudio Evoke 50s.  
Planning on running Roon with a Nucleus to a Merridian 218 as the DAC.
Curious if anyone would support that front end or strongly steer me in another way.  Thought this might inform the OP as well.
There’s an audio science review testing site that offers good tech data on specs and how well chip is implemented. Some Topping, SMSL, RME DACs score well.

Benchmark is great choice too. I like it.

Also ditch the stock power cord on your Node as an aftermarket or build your own will make a difference and you don’t have to spend that much. The DAC in the Node is decent but adding a DAC down the road will be a big improvement. 
Cullen Cable makes a good power cord for the Node at a reasonable cost.
I upgraded from a Node 2 to Node2i, and later added a Cullen power cable. I noticed a big difference going to the 2i, and a smaller but noticeable difference adding the Cullen cord. WIth that said the Node2i (as a DAC) was still the weakest link. I upgraded recently to the Schiit Bifrost 2, and that was the breakthrough for me...natural, detailed, more extended bass. I can't compare top the pieces above as I haven't heard them, so they may be good or better, but I love the new Bifrost. Good luck. 
I have the .7's and drive them with a Parasound A21. I just purchased a RMR dac and I am using as preamp also. Love it.
@soix said it all. I second that.  I’ll add that we did a comparison of three separate streamers on the same system and the difference was quite remarkable.  Obvious improvement, well, the more you spend.
+1 On the Audio Mirror Tubadour MKIII SE DAC
For streamers, give Innous a look
Buying a DAC when you can’t try it first

Schiit Audio gives 10 days on their products the have some great dacs.
And their dacs are designed by Mike Moffat the man who made Theta Digital one of the best.
If going the GUNGNIR model go the Multibit option.

Cheers George
Topping D10 to replace my Philips CD630 refrence Cd player did read only the testing bought it compared it an found it in the lows way more tight an precies.
And it is no coincidence that this 79.- euro DAC had the same outcome in numoures independent test.
I think the streamer element of the Chromecast Audio is amazing, but it needs to be run through software like Roon rather than casting to it. Casting to CCA is not so good.  Remember they made these in their millions so the costs were stripped back through mass manufacturing.   The DAC on the CCA is not so good sounding. 

So streaming with the CCA via say roon then via a good quality DAC would be the best way of spending your money. If you are keeping the blue sound then just buy a better DAC.  

I was in the same situation as you I found the improvement from CCA streamer to better streamer (using roon) a subtle improvement but the leap from an average to a good DAC a large improvement.  
Another vote for Audio Mirror or MHDT DACs. I own the AM.

Keep in mind, these NOS/Tube DACs are somewhat the flavor of the day in a subset of the audio community. Some love them, some don't.  If you are going for that "vinyl" sound, then perhaps they are the right choice for you. If you are not, then keep your choices open.

Some things to keep in mind,

Supposedly, Tidal Connect now supports 24/96 on Chromecast and includes the first 2 unfold steps. That does not get you the full MQA support that the Bluesound Node2i does, but gets you a lot of the way there.

If you use the Node2i as opposed to the CCA to drive the MusicHall, digitally, it looks like the signal may be similar (24/96 - 2 levels unfolded).  Since you are going optical, there is no electrical interference transferred from either the Chromecast or the Node2i.  The Chromecast is obviously not a high end device, but it is not like the jitter is going to be wickedly bad (optical already is).  If you can use the coax output on the Node2i, that will probably be better, but it can introduce electrical noise.  You probably also want to disable the Audio Clock Trim and make sure you have MQA external DAC turned off in the Node2i since your external DAC is not MQA enabled.

TIDAL is pretty much it for MQA.  Qoboz no. Amazon Music no.  Will Apple, Spotify or Google use it if they go to an HD tier? Seems unlikely. I expect there are licensing fees to balance against data costs that are always declining.
As others have said, try another dac connected to the Node 2.

The Absolute Sound has recommended components in the latest issue, you can find some DACs to investigate. Or just ask in a new thread here about a good dac to add to your Node 2.

Shiit usually gets many recommendations. Chord Qutest is also popular if you are ok with spending more. 
I’m using Chromcast audio digital out to my DAC/ Preamp Michi P5 and also have different streamers including Cambridge Audio 851N ,Cocktail Audio X45 , naim Nac 172 , Naim Atom ,Auralic Altair G1 allo digi signature I can’t really tell the difference using just digital out to my DAC  I don’t know maybe I don’t have skills to tell difference 
I can hear little difference with internal DACs of those streamers 
I have both the MHDT Pagoda (with a NOS Bendix tube) and the Chord Qutest.  Both are fantastic sounding DACs but pretty different sounding. The Chord is more resolving.  Everything is crystal clear.  Bass is deeper and punchier.  Vocals are clearer and you can understand lyrics better.

The Pagoda is very smooth and analog sounding.  I find it sounds better on older recordings that were mastered to tape.  There's more of an LP feel to it.  The soundstage is a bit wider.  The midrange is to die for but the highs and lows get a little less emphasized.  Both DACs are very dynamic and lively.

I would say, if your system is on the analytical side, the a NOS R2R tube day might be the way to go.  If your system is on the euphonic lush side, than I would recommend the Qutest.

Both DACs are much better than the one in the Node IMHO
Love the discussion! Apologies for being verbose, but...   I too am on the hunt for DAC and amp combo with awesome sound quality and would appreciate any thoughts.  I have a 10x10 ft home office, which I spend many work and after hours in.  So, I have been trying to upgrade my sound, but am not able to invest gazilllions.  I stream Tidal MQA and HiFi via USB from my MacbookPro using Tidal's app.  

I want wide & deep soundstage, clarity, and great sound at lower volumes.  3D soundstage!

Here's what I have so far. (amps will be in a bake off)
Canton Vento 830.2 speakers (very "revealing")
Peachtree Nova 300 integrated (with internal DAC)
Cambridge Audio Azur 851A integrated amp (but no internal DAC)

I love the Peachtree so far, but want to give the Cambridge a fair shot, which requires that I buy a DAC (less than a $1000).  The loser of this bakeoff will be for sale as soon as I decide...

So, For DACs, after countless rabbit hole hours researching, I have narrowed it down to the Penafrips Ares 2 (cannot afford the Pontus) and MHDT Istanbul (cannot afford the Orchid or Pagoda).  Cannot afford the Chord QUTest either. 

I had considered the RME ADI-2 DAC but I am afraid that it would be too sterile/harsh/fatiguing with my Canton speakers... (I had the NuPrime IDA-8 which is awesome, but it was fatiguing and wimpy bass with my speakers unless turned up pretty loud).  So, not a match...

Hence my interest in the power supply of the Cambridge and the Penafrips and MHDT to compare with the Peachtree (class D).

Any comments and advice on this would be immensely helpful!



I just received a Denafrips Ares II this past Friday, and after two days with it, I’m really liking it a lot. It did not ‘blow my socks off’ initially, but the more I’ve listened to it, the more I like it. In my case the difference between my old DAC and the Denafrips seemed smaller than expected per the hype, initially, but I no longer feel that way after a couple days playing all types of music through it. It’s quite stunning actually in the subtle ways that add up to being a great DAC in many ways, the most important being tonality and making digital sources sound much more musical. Some say analog-like; perhaps, but as a vinyl addict, I’m not sure it competes directly with the magic of vinyl. But that in no way means I dislike it. I do, I’m impressed. It also creates a very nice detailed and spatial soundstage, but with very good definition.

The one thing I think the Denafrips has over the MHDT for you, (comparing it to the Peachtree), is that it has balanced outputs, as I noticed your Cambridge has balanced inputs. I don’t have balanced inputs to my pre, but wish I did, as I’ve read some owners of the Denafrips that say using the balanced connections raise it up another notch over using the unbalanced RCA connections. The other thing the Ares provides is switching between ‘no over sampling’ and ‘over sampling’. And two filters when you select ‘over sampling’. The MHDT, I believe, is strictly a ‘no over sampled’ DAC.

I considered an MHDT DAC myself, but not displeased with the Denafrips at all.
@bogbeat I think you should start a new thread.
bkeske, apologies for the belated response.  Your comments are very helpful and greatly appreciated!  

I may start a new thread as per headphonedreams's suggestion.

Happy Thanksgiving.
I’ll add my two cents, which might be helpful, since I recently went through a similar process. I am running a VTL S-200 amp into a BAT VK30 pre in to a pair of Vandersteen 2CE Sigs. I dipped my toe into the world of streaming with a Bluesound Vault 2i. It was fine and fun. But a year or so later when I demo’d a Chord Qutest dac into the mix, the experience became compelling and satisfying, and I had no problem writing the check.

I’m glad I checked into this thread, because now I am intrigued by the discussion of power cords for the bluesound boxes. I may have to mention one in my note to Santa!
Best, John
I am running a VTL S-200 amp into a BAT VK30 pre in to a pair of Vandersteen 2CE Sigs.
It’ll sound much better if you run the VTL into the Vandys.  Sorry, couldn’t resist. 


i am trying to plug my msb dac into my vandy 3a sigs but nothing is playing... can you please help?  :)

happy thanksgiving
i am trying to plug my msb dac into my vandy 3a sigs but nothing is playing... can you please help? :)
You forgot the amp silly.  Plug that into the dac’s input and you’ll be fine.  Thanksgiving Happy.

The dacs that soix recommended are entry level dacs and for a little bit more money can do better. Also, if you do get a quality dac, get 1 with mqa support, then compare qobuz to tidal masters with mqa. Tidal is so much better sounding with mqa music and equal to quboz with non-mqa music. I also don’t take recommendations from people that say to stay away from mqa when they don’t have the equipment to actually try it.
As for 3rd party streamers, you don’t need 1. The bluesound node 2 is an entry level streamer. I use Roon on a headless Mac. You can’t get anything close Roon’s GUI and its sound is equal to audirvana. All 3rd party streamers are computers and the only reason you would want to use 1 is if you want to hook it up directly to a dac which I wouldn’t do or you don’t want to support a computer. Why have a computer in your audio room? Been there and done that.
Get the best dac you can afford with a network interface and use your computer to run Roon. Then use Ethernet to hook to your computer. Don’t use usb, you’ll be spending money with 3rd party products to make it sound decent. For around $2000 or so, get a used ps audio ds jr dac with network bridge ii and mqa support. 
Since you mentioned interest in the Cambridge DAC magic why not look at the Cambridge Azur 851N. It's a streamer / DAC with Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify built in. Many digital inputs. You could decide to use its built in preamp or not.

I had one connected to my Primaluna Dialogue Premium seperates a couple of years ago.
I've been looking for a good price on a used one to put in my second system. 
dan wright (modwright) is now doing modded cambridge streamer/dac units - he has a very good ear and his mods have transformed many a digital piece (sony, marantz, oppo cd/sacd players) into some of the nicest sounding players out there for many years

check dan’s website to his ’circle’ on a-circle

no affiliation, just a happy customer of his for many years

otherwise, i would submit, from my own experience, that a bluesound node 2i streaming and a top notch (but reasonably priced) r2r dac would make streamed digital sound really excellent - dacs, for instance, from mdht, metrum/sonnet, audio mirror, even frank van alstine/AVA
That  TUBADOUR III Non Oversampling Tube DAC sounds interesting.  How durable are the tubes?  Are you replacing the tubes frequently?

I purchased a BlueSound Node 2i and was talked into adding a ProJect S2 DAC and I thought it sounded thin compared to just the Node 2i.  I also play Tidal and for some reason I think I hear a difference when playing MQA or is MQA just a gimmick?  I would think some remixes are better than the original?  Can your really hear a difference in DAC's?  That might be something to explore next.
I would second what most are saying.  Don't cheep out on the DAC.  Personally, I would have just gone with something like a PS Audio DirectStream Junior.  It has a built in streamer and wonderful paired with Roon.  The warm sound that it produces, brings it really close to sounding like analogue.  It nearly matches my analogue front end that cost 4 times more!

You might be able to find one used for $2-2.5k. 

The Lumin streamers are also highly recommended and come with built in DACs.  Only thing is most of them don't offer inputs, if that was a consideration.  I've not heard a Lumin, so don't know.  Just have heard they are highly recommended when a single box streaming solution is desirable.  

Outside of that, I might consider something like a Chord or Mytek DAC.  Once you want to go beyond that -- say a DAC of $4 - 5k -- you need a big price jump. And probably paying for the output stage.  The money might be better spent on upgrading amp or other. 
@larry5729 The stock tubes are rated for at least 5000 hours. I'm getting close to a year into daily use and my tubes sound better than a brand new replacement pair I have in storage. Replacements of the stock tubes are plentiful and something like $40 from Audio Mirror.
Chord Quetest is the Dac to beat under $2k . Add a good streamer like Auralic Aries G1 and whamo! And don’t forget some decent cables.
Just another thought: I replaced my older DAC with the Schiit Yggdrasil ($2,449) and was favorably impressed that it delivered so much for such an affordable price.   (plus fully balanced from input to output)  Highly recommended by Stereophile and TAS.