DAC finalist please help


Hi all,
hope everyone is doing well this holiday season.
I’m back on the DAC hunt and I have narrowed down to these different but compelling DAC’s.
Unlike a lot of you guys on Audiogon I’m not a millionaire : (  My budget is only 1,500 bucks but I think there are some good choices in that range.
If any of you folks have experience with any of these pieces I would greatly appreciate your thoughts.

I’m replacing a McCormack DAC-1 that I have owned since new.
I still listen and continue to buy Redbook CD’s so something that would be kind to those is important.
I’m trying to make the determination on overall what would work and sound the best.
NOS with tubes is intriguing as is R2R as is just a good chip set.
I’m looking at a Aragon D2A used $600 for redbook playback and maybe teaming it up with a Xiangsheng 05B to handle modern formats DSD etc, less than 500 bucks the two together would be just north of a grand.
On the NOS front the Audio Mirror Tubadour III NOS w/tubes, new $1,500.

The Denafrips Ares II R2R used about 800 bucks, or the Musician - Pegasus, new around $1,100.
And then there is the Line Magnetic 502CA tube, used 700-800 dollars.
I love the look of the LM and it's got a great tube stage, I definitely have a bit of a crush on this one.

I realize I’m a little bit all over the Map here, but again if anyone has thoughts or has /had one of these DAC’s I’m all ears...Many thanks and Happy Holidays!HG
grossman616
for the money it is very hard to beat an mhdt tubed dac for sheer musicality - they are well below a grand used, and allow tube rolling to tailor tonality

if you go denafrips i suggest you wait for a used pontus rather than an ares 2... for all its strengths the ares 2 in my system had a troublesome sibilance, which the pontus' added level of refinement avoids

the other dac not to overlook is the ayre codex... well less than a grand used now... so lovely sounding warm dynamic sophisticated yet with life and drive
Take a look at Audio Mirror Tubadour iii. Excellent for the money. Made in USA. I have one and really like it. 
Whatever you get, stick to post 2015 models.  Best clocks and anti-jitter systems.
I still listen and continue to buy Redbook CD’s so something that would be kind to those is important.
I’m trying to make the determination on overall what would work and sound the best.
NOS with tubes is intriguing as is R2R as is just a good chip set.
Go R2R discrete for PCM RedBook 16/44 24/96 or DXD.
Delta Sigma just doesn’t cut it in comparison so far, but it is better for DSD but it's loosing ground to the newer discrete R2R’s that are out.

Cheers George
+1 on jjss49's comments on the Ares II. It does sound very good, but ideally I want a bit more refinement. The Ares II sounds great overall, but I do feel that its sound quality has some harshness when listening for an extended period of time. I am considering getting a Pontus to retain the strengths of the Ares II (detail presented with ease, natural presentation across the frequency range, transients are easy to understand but not etched in sound quality).

One potential way to reduce the Ares' sibilance is by using different power cables. An Audience power cable seems to cause more harshness. A Shunyata Venom power cable seems to sound smoother to me. I might do a comparison of Ares II sound quality with these two cables this weekend.
I greatly enjoy my audio mirror and from everything I've read it seems the mdhts @jjss49 suggested are also beautiful sounding. After getting an r2r nos dac and enjoying my AM T3se for the past year, I am heavily biased to stay within this typology. The AM I have just sounds more "right" and less electronic than the chip solutions I've tried.
I'll second the MHDT Dacs just got a used Stockholm v2 and love it R2R, Tube and very musical, detailed and not fatiguing
I love my MHDT Orchid. Still, lots of options. You might watch the recent video from A British Audiophile. I always come away learning something. https://youtu.be/bb-O8JF24PI

(Oh, and if you’re spending $1500 on a DAC, you have much more than most people, so don’t feel too bad. FWIW, money is not typically a sign of virtue.)
I just wanted to say there is no need to get two separate DACs for Redbook and higher rez formats. Get a good one that does both.
i mentioned the mhdt’s and codex due to the op’s stated budget

the top audio mirror tubador (3se i think is the designation) is $2500 it is ever so slightly more refined/detailed than the mhdt orchard/istanbul/stockholm but the presentation is very very similar - certainly not 2.5x better, maybe 3-5% better on a good day

the am is one of the pricier dacs i have kept, along with the sonnet morpheus, so i am not knocking vlad’s dac at all

finally i shd also add metrum dacs as another wonderful r2r candidate - a touch warmer and smoother than the denafrips with no loss of detail presentation - just tremendous sound for the money in their lower models, and absolutely top decile sound for their higher ones (jade, adagio, pavane) of which the sonnet is a close relative...
Thank you one and all!
Nice to hear from real people who have the gear I'm looking at.

The MHDT is something that caught my eye too but didn't know much about. There is one on US Audiomart's  site I think so thank you for your suggestion. I will look into the other choices as well.I appreciate the comment about the Ares II.

I have been talking to Mr Bazelkov, at Audio Mirror about changing to 9 pin tubes because I need higher output, passive pre-amp -Maggie's you get the idea.Although it's at the high end of the range new is nice as is dealing with the owner, American made etc. NOS is very interesting to me. I'm a minimalist at heart, and grew up with a vintage Scott tube set up.

As always, good advice found here!
So again, many thanks one and all.
Happy and Safe Holidays!!!HG
@grossman616

you can remove the mini tube tube adapter to run 6922 tubes in the tubador - this doubles your gain at the dac output... you can then tube roll and that is fun and good to manage tonality to your preference

Tubes used in the DAC are 5977 subminiature tubes. They are mounted on a special tube adaptor, which is plugged into a regular 9 pin tube socket. You can just unplug the adaptor and use regular 9pin tubes, which can be any of the following tubes: 6N1P, 6DJ8, ECC88, 6922 and 6H23P. After experimenting with many tubes we found that 5977 is the best sounding tube for this application. Second best sounding tube is 6N1P. After all it’s a matter of taste. All the 9pin tubes mentioned above have almost twice the gain of 5977, therefore you will have twice higher output level from the DAC - around 2V. Expected tube life for 5977 subminiature tubes is  >5000 hrs.

good luck
Hi,
I heartily second the AM T III
@cal3713's post is spot on.
I have the base model. Paid under 1500.00 from Vlad.
He is a pleasure to deal with.
There is always the option to upgrade to the SE, but at this point I'm extremely happy with the base.
Good luck.

Kind regards,
PB
in your price range you should also consider Schiit Audio, they made their name on bang for buck DAC’s not to mention they have one of the all time hero’s in DAC designers designing them, Mike Moffett. I tired a few in your price range a year ago and settled for the Schiit Audio Gungnir Multi Bit ( R2R is multi bit) $1299. but I’d look at YGGDRASIL GS $1599. its Schiit’s top model at $2499 with their older analogue card 1 they are selling for a dam  good deal IMO. 

Schiit Audio: Audio Products Designed and Built in California


I have a Metrum Jade in my second system and it sounds good. I can also say I just this week purchased a McCormack DAC-1 that is on its way to Steve McCormack so he can perform his magic. SMc is currently way backed up and the cost will probably be north of $2K and, as you know, the end result will only be an 18 bit DAC that doesn’t do any sort of high res, but some people with pretty good ears like how those upgraded DAC-1s sound, so I am going to find out. In the meantime, I am enjoying a Mojo Mystique V3, which sounds really good but is more than what you want to spend. The Schitt DACs should be a good fit for you and a nice balance between price and performance at the price you are looking to spend.  Maybe also consider DACs from MHDT Labs.
Another vote for the Audio Mirror Tubadour III.  They are hard to find used but you can pick up the base model new for $1,500 and then upgrade later if you want. Or wait it out and snatch a used one for $1,000-$1,200.   

One of the best values out there IMO. 
+1 Audio Mirror Tubadour III DAC.  Call Vlad direct.  You might get a deal on the SE model, which is an excellent DAC.
I second the YGGY GS.  I’ve had mine about 6 months, sounds great and if you get the itch it is upgradeable.  Schiit is great to work with.  If I want to upgrade my YGGY all I need do is call an make an appt date.  Then ship to arrive the day before, they will do the upgrade and it will be headed back the next day.   Good people to work with..
Hopefully I don't sound like a used car salesmen since I originally recommended the dac, but I may have a used AM-T3se for sale in a month (upgraded with solid core 99.999 silver signal wire, wbt pure silver rca's, and copper shielding for the analog section). I've got a Holo Audio May on the way. Double the retail and most certainly not double the sound quality. Very curious to see how they compare. One of the two will be up on usam by the end of January. Just thought I'd mention in case you were getting frustrated by the lack of used AMs for sale.
+1 on the British audiophile youtube channel

Also, I recently found this channel, and I believe that the following video is one of the best DAC shoot-off reviews I've heard: https://youtu.be/sCP63G8MYOI

First time listening to this youtube channel. He does a great job talking about the differences in these DACs. I once heard someone describe audio gear as a spider graph. Sometimes you can get improvements across the board, like when moving up in price point, and other times you give up some some traits for other traits, like when deciding between competing gear at the same price point. I haven't heard such precise descriptions for the trade-offs in DACs as I have in the above video. See what you think!
Like you, I'm all over the place in my search. Chip based DACs have been great so far, but I think the future of DACs will move toward FPGA units and R2R arrays. 
You could do a whole lot worse than that MHDT Atlantis post on USAudioMart.  
Chord cutest. 1500. Lights out awesome. 
Fpga will never need updating. Such a full, analog sounding dac. Love mine. 
I have a Denafrips Aries II, and surprised by some having a sibilance issue. I had heard rumors of this being a possible issue, but I do not have that problem, and have tested it with many recordings. Perhaps my cables, or something else in the chain.

For the money, I think the Aries is tough to beat. Really improved the music from my digital sources. 

That said, yes, the Pontus, I’m sure, would be even better, but at twice the cost of the Aries. No regrets with the Aries here.

And to the OP, you should be able to get a new Aries for right around $760 US. $800 for used seems a bit high.
Schiit Gungnir multibit. $1299 and you can try it out for 15 days.

You won’t find better for the price and you’ll easily find worse for twice the price.
I have seen that Aragon D2A here on Audiogon for $599, so I think we're on the same page. This ad has been re-run a few times. Unfortunately, it is being offered for twice the Audiogon Bluebook price. That's typical for that seller. Also, that's a pretty dated piece. DACs have evolved quite a bit since then. I think your $1,000 would be better spent on a used Benchmark DAC, but it's your money so you decide. You have a lot of good suggestions from other members already. I just don't think the Aragon is a step up from your McCormack DAC 1.
about once a month, every month,  a new 'what is a good, natural sounding dac' thread comes up... obviously, this is ground that has been previously covered... 

i did a 30-dac shootout earlier this year and in prior threads i reported the following -- i repost these 2 comments i made in the past couple months for the benefit of newcomers who don't search back to slightly older threads covering the same subject matter

remember the search bar above is your friend...

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of the dacs mentioned so far which i have tried i would break into the following groupings - for your benefit in system matching for tonality

smoothest/most analog/warmest mids-midbass: mhdt, audio mirror, a-n - bear in mind these dacs can have tonality tuned with tube choice as well

slightly brighter: denafrips, schiit mb (gumby and yggy)

brightest/leanest/’fastest’: rme adi2, mytek bb

others to consider which are exceptionally natural sounding and great sq for $ -- metrum and ayre codex (fitting in 1st group), ava valve dacs (second group)


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i won’t say which is my favorite, it so depends on rest of system and synergies desired - but here is what i have kept vs gone (have 3 systems across couple homes so lots of duplicate gear)

kept:

audiomirror tubador 3 se
sonnet morpheus
metrum jade and amethyst
mhdt orchid stockholm paradisea istanbul w mods
chord m scaler and hugo tt2 mojo
van alstine fet topp/hybrid dac
jolida black ice glass fx (upgraded)
dena pontus
auris d1d
ayre codex

sold:

chord 2qute qutest
neko d100-2
schiit bifrost mb gumby yggy
border patrol se-i
psa directstream
topping d90
rme adi 2
dena ares 2, term
metrum octave
mytek brooklyn
benchmark dac2
w4s dac 2-2
smsl vmv d1

many of the dacs sold are good, just didn't work for me tonally, or didn’t seem better to me than less expensive ’relatives’ or alternatives for a similar sound signature

a few others out there i will try over time, like a holo, a lampizator... not in a hurry, as the ones i have all clear the bar for being very listenable with the tonality and resolution i seek to enjoy streaming and files served

I have the Gungnir multibit 5 and I love it.

Warm and big sound stage, with very good detail.

Could not be happier.
Yet another vote for the beautiful sounding Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE. 
@jjss49 Thanks for reposting your summary slides, its always good to get that content in a new thread and even those of us who've seen them before benefit from the reminders... Your experience is a great resource and I can tell from your results that I can trust your ears. 
RME ADI 2 fs DAC (current model) with Teddy Pardo linear power supply. It’s not going to butter things, but it’s accurate, musical and will keep you up real late rediscovering music you thought you knew. Give it a great shielded power cord, coax with balance out and never look back.
I too have an MHDT Orchid with the upgraded tube - costs $1,200. Lovely sounding DAC, very high quality build and look, great customer service from both MHDT and the dealer. They are a steal for their quality. I recommend also considering their Pagoda balanced.
https://www.lineartubeaudio.com/products/mhdt-labs-dacs?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI8IqXsr7Z7QIVxZyGCh3y7A7fEA...

https://6moons.com/audioreview_articles/mhdtlab/2/
I recently bought a Schiit Bifrost...a future proof upgradeable great sounding multi-bit Mike Moffat DAC for 700 bucks.
I third the Schiit Yggdrasil GS. Unbelievable deal! Smokes anything near it I have heard 


Border patrol dacs are very nice and well received and have a Tubed power supply. That’s what I’ll get when money allows. For now my musical fidelity v90 dac does the job @ $299.....😁, a border line class A recommended component in Stereophile. It is an amazing little box for the money. I still got a new in the box Jolida glass dac 10 I’ve yet to try. That one too is a well received and reviewed dac. Especially if you replace the stock tubes with the Tung sol 12ax7 gold pins...and maybe a AQ nrg z3 power cable, thata my plan for that one.
616Man,

Many the new R2R DACS are getting great reviews. Sadly
the Chi-Fi gear is a one way sale as will any used gear.
So the chance to compare is not an option.
I just sold my Oppo 205 and bought an Innuos Zen 3 streamer.
No DAC inside. I also just bought the Denafrips Ares 2 direct from
Vinshine. $750 all in. Reason I chose it? They resell at full boat in 1-2 days. That is as good as a trial period. Which one of the top 10 above
is best for you? Does it matter anyway? You will likely trade up and out of what you buy now in 1-2 years. Anyway that's how I see it. 
Denafrips offers a 3 year transferrable warranty and just arranged for a US service center.  Border Patrol has a tube sells for $1250 and has a 1 year warranty.

Our club held a shoot out Aug 2019 with 9 DACs. See AZAVCLUB.com  for full review. 25 people blind listened and rated 1,2,3 as that was the input max. We repeated this 3 times. If you added the 1st and second place votes, Yaggy won. Strictly on first place the Jolida won. Chord was up there too. We added the new LM model at the end and it was preferred by those still in attendance. Biggest loser was PS Audio Direct stream which no one voted for! 

We had a lot of top brands mostly $1,500-$2500. RME, HoloSpring,
Chord, IFI, Schiit, Line Magnetic, Jolida ice, PS Audio and others.

What do I think of the Ares 2? A full upgrade in terms of fullness and
clarity. Still getting hours on it. My wife sat down the 1st day and immediately said "Wow, this is better"! 



Good luck!
The Minidsp SHD HiFi is a great tool with dirac, crossovers (to sub) and dac to enhance your listening experience. And to learn about sound and room. More useful than just changing dac.
Thank you one and all! A lot of votes for the AM Tubadour III. The SE is beyond my budget rt now but the the standard III gets good reviews and I think it's upgradeable...??? MHDT Atlantis is another. I could not find a AM used, if I did I would buy now. MHDT however...

I have my current DAC for 25 yrs from new so I don't swap around much.

Thanks again so much for your advice!!  Happy Holidays!!




Yes, it is upgradeable, and AM offers an in home trial period if you want to try with minimal risk.
I think you will really love the AM Tubadour III dac.
You can always upgrade it to the SE later on.
I have The SE version and love it. I used to have a Terminator which is twice as much and I like the AM better. It is more musical and just sounds more natural to me.

Go for it, you won't be sorry! 
Playback Design if your after smooth fatigue free sound. Not only is it musical it never gives headaches.
Musician Pegasus r2r DAC is more than comparable in sound and build quality to Denifrips Pontus II. Listened and compared them both and saved over $1K by going with the Pegasus. Internals are nearly identical. What an incredible find! The Pegasus replaced my Schitt Yggdrasil V2 with a lower noise floor, better detail retrieval, wider soundstage and better dynamics. I was quite surprised and pleased to discover this lovely, truly balanced DAC.
Have a recently purchased Musician Pegasus R2R dac for my exercise room system.  Ampzilla mononblocks, Musical Fidelity X-Ray CD player (used as a transport), Black Ice F-360 preamp, Maze Audio Interconnects, and Silverline Sonata Sonata speakers.   I had an excellent modded Aurilac Vega DAC dac the Musician replaced.  The Musician is simply better.  Huge soundstage, muscular sound, crystalline clarity is how I  
would describe it.  1100 bucks for a superb dac.  Disclaimer: there are many dacs out there that I have not heard.  I am inclined to believe that there is some magic in the R2R technology.  I have a Holo dac that I have yet to get operational.  Finally, the Black Ice preamp is stunningly good.  Spatially, it does things in a good way no other preamp has done.  It grips the low end like a vise grip.  Soundstage and clarity are superb. 
toronto jay is not the most articulate video reviewer on yt, but he is quite honest

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qH0MY044X8Q

i think caution is called for...
I was set to get the AM tubiedoor  : )  But then they stopped returning e-mails. It's OK I saw some "under the hood" pics and no thanks, yikes.
for now, just to get a taste of the whole NOS thing, I bought a VERY NICE bespoke little DAC. Built by a retired electrical engineer ( and patent holder)  using a TDA1541A with Philips Forum 10th anniversary board. Still breaking it in but on the whole very nice. Tons of air and space and detail. As far as something for higher rates I am looking at maybe the Woo DAC or ??? Some of you will hate me but I just can't get past the clock radio look of the Mhtd products Maybe the Schiit??Many many thanks for ALL the useful info folks!
@grossman616 

i have vlad bazelkov's tubador dac as well as his set45 6c33c mono amps... they are both superb in their performance and value ...  perhaps what the wiring looks like 'under the hood' isn't as neat as some, but the performance of his gear is absolutely top notch in my experience and he is there to support and answer questions - a true audiophile small scale designer/builder with excellent sonic sensibilities

hope you have found what pleases you...