DAC for $1800 or less?


For you rich guys it's time to put away the check book but for us poor guys it means TAX RETURN MONEY! I have most of my system in place and I'm ready to go after the source. I'm a Redbook CD lover and I have a few HDCD's as well.

So here it is :

I'm running an old(er) Rotel RCD-1070 with no outboard DAC. My plan is to spend now on a solid DAC and run the Rotel as a transport. I'll tell you ... the 1070 is built like a tank, it's media friendly and even takes a standard aftermarket power cable. I like the transport. In the long run I might step up and upgrade transport but that’s a ways off.

I need some suggestions on a used DAC - my top price is $1800 and I have been looking at Levinson 36s or 360. I might need to add a few more hundred to make it happen but I wanted to get some of your thoughts before I throw that much money around. Anyone out there love the Levinson DACs? Anyone hate them? Remember - it's mostly Redbook and the occasional HDCD. I'm going to play with SACD and DVD-A later but not with this system. Any preference between the 36s and 360? I have picked through some reviews but it's like reading reviews on Microsoft software ... it's a little glossy. I have yet to get a detailed list of the differences. The 360s is out of my ballpark. If you have other DACs in this price range ... lets hear it. I really love my system as it sits but I think the analog out of the source needs some love.

My current setup is a Modwright SWL 9.0SE Linestage, Mark Levinson 23.5, Paradigm Signature S4's ... cables are mostly Signal Cable Silver Resolution and the speaker cables are Signal Cable Ultra double runs. I am considering bi-amping the Paradigms with a second Mark Levinson amp - ML 27.5 for the upper end. I am waiting on a couple of cables from Frank - I will eventually replace ALL IC's with Silver Resolution and maybe even try out a set of Silver Resolution speaker cables. It's about the best cables that I can afford.

Let me hear your thoughts ... you all have been a lot of help in the past.
I'm getting very impressive results out of a Benchmark DAC1. One Stereophile review said it was comparable to his Levinson DAC with the ML DAC edging it in the low bass.

I also use the SignalCable interconnects -- You've got to try the Silver Resolution speaker cables! I think you'll be very pleased with them if the ones you have now are the heavy-duty copper. You'll hear a lot more detail and still maintain a neutral, musical balance.
For this price range you can get a "new" source single CD player (unless your rotel is a multi disc player and you want multi disc capability). Why not get a used meridian 508.24,cary or wadia 301 cd player or a new modded eastsound E5? You will save the expense of buying a good digital or toslink cable out from your rotel. However, if you stay with the rotel transport you might want to add an ultrajitterbug between it and whatever dac you pick (unless it reclocks the signal) as reclocking and a good coaxial cable tamed a lot of harshness out of my system. There are plenty of fine dacs for $1800 or less that appear on audiogon; Dodson,Kora,etc.
The Bel Canto DAC-2.
I second the DAC1 in that I use it and it has made my system sound better than much more expensive systems I have auditioned in stores (I have nice speakers and rel sub, but my other electronics and cables stink). I did not compare it to anything in terms of auditioning at home, etc. Read the reviews (not that they are a substitue for your listening) as there are several reviews on the web comparing the DAC1 to MUCH more expensive and exotic DACs. I believe they still have a 30 day money back guarantee too.
Not sure what you are looking for sound wise, but if you want to come close to the sound of analog with your digital set-up, then a non-os DAC is the way to go IMO. You can get one in your range very easily, with an excellent digital cable to boot. Check out the Audio Note and Sakura Systems (47 Lab) websites for information on non-os design. Right now there is a new 47 Lab Shigaraki here for $1000. I have the Audio Mirror DAC that I purchased here on Audiogon new for $500. Then I sent it to TRL for their mods ($550). It is an incredible sounding DAC for the money (see my review here).

Good luck with your search.
You could go with a used Theta Digital DS Pro Generation V or Va for less than your budget.
I'm with Clio09 on the NON OS DAC for the most analog presentation in redbook. The designer of the Audio Sector DAC uses the ML360S as a reference while he designed his DAC.The last time I checked the price in the traditional chassis was $750.00 new. I'm not affiliated with the company . Just want people to know there's still some great values out there that aren't overly expensive.You can send me the rest of the tax money you saved. ;-)

I would strongly suggest the NorthStar 192 DAC. It is by far the best I have heard under $4000. They retail for $2500, but are often available new for less. Great DAC.
Sonic Frontiers SFD 2 MK2.Northstar m192 is also terrific.
Good luck with finding a 27.5.I got one and was looking for a second one in a 9/10 condition for at least a year and a half.Not such luck however.$$$$$$$$ so I gave up and bought a Rogue Zeus .
Make an offer on the Dodson 217 MK II-D this is up for sale. It makes redbook sound that you will live with happily.
There is an Audio Research DAC-1 listed here for $495, a 20 bit. I have one and like it alot, but haven't heard others in my system except for a Meridian 566 which was first rate too. The ARC is Stereohile A rated and listed for $3500. It accepts various inputs, even AT&T glass which has some proponets. Can't imagine it will ever lose value from $495. I paid $300 for mine on ebay but the seller wasn't sure it was working, it was.

I had Signal Cable make me up a RCA/BNC cable, hard to beat their quality/price ratio.
Strongly suggest the Ack dack 2.0 for only $890 new. It is the real deal and you will be so very pleased with it. Another great DAC used is the tubed Metronome C20 signature Dac. They come up for under 41000 used.

Both are outstanding.

Nobody has suggested this one. The Rakk Dac. It is a DIY dac, but they will build one for you. For that price you could have them build it with an active tubed output. I had compared a friends Rakk Dac to my EastSound E5 cd player, which is suppose to be as good as some $2000 players and my old Jolida. The Rakk Dac has the warmest sound and most nuanced. Brass had tremendous goose bump factor. My Eastsound was a little more dynamic and slightly brighter. The Rakk Dac that I listened to was the base version with transformer outputs. Very musical. (The active output probably would be as dynamic as my Eastsound) I have read it out did a Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista tubed Dac, which is one of the better dacs on the market. I would get in touch with this company. They can tell you which version would best suit your system. And no, they aren't paying me anything to say this. I just think this company puts out such an excellent product, (at a resonable price) that it need to be made known! Happy listening! http://www.kandkaudio.com/digitalaudio.html

Thanks all...

Looks like I have some reading to do. I will call around town and maybe take a trip up to Seattle for the weekend. If it keeps raining maybe I will just paddle my canoe! I want to audition as many DAC's as I can mostly just for the hell of it. I'm thinking about dragging the Rotel with me.

Any opinions on tubes vs. SS? I can’t tell you how much difference my tubed linestage made; but do I want to carry it on to my source components? I am also considering the Cary CD 303/300 and/or Audio Research CD3 MKII and skipping the outboard DAC completely.

If I sell the Rotel I should be able to get an additional $400 so my budget would be at $2200. At the risk of re-directing my request to you all; is there a CD player out there that would yield a better result than investing $1800 and keeping the Rotel as a transport? I'm thinking the Levinson would be an investment in reputation and build quality as much as a sound improvement. I just can’t swing a 360s ... but maybe if I go with a very solid CD player now I could grow into a 360s in the future. I'm not real interested in a multi-format player right now. I want a Redbook playback system that will knock me back.

Can I do it?
I second the Ack DAC 2.0. This battery powered DAC has found a permanent place to reside on my audio rack. I have compared it to my previous $3000 player, and also to some even higher priced combos. It is a real eye opener, and may make you re-think your priorities.
I'm in the same boat as i have rotel rcd-1072. The only play i think i would is Cary 303/300, but it is expensive player. I would try rcd-1072 as a transport and get Benchmark DAC-1. This is what i will try after tax time...:) I think Benchmark has 30 days trial.

The next one may be Arcam 23 cdp. But i am sure if it's a big different from rcd-1072 as i have never heard of it.
Go for a Kora, Stay far away from Bel Canto, lacks in every sense. So over rated, Levinson is not a good choice either.
Sonic Frontiers is also not the way to go.
All three have bought their reputation with marketting and advertising.

The Kora hermes beats all of them. Audio Aero also has very good dacs. Good Luck.
look into the Grace Design m902
The Muse 296 is another possibility. I acquired one here recently on Audiogon for just over $1k. It is true 24 bit, built like a tank, is a true balanced design (multiple DACS), has both XLR and RCA inputs/outputs, and was Stereophile class A+ (if that means anything to you) a few years ago. Oh, and it sounds great!
I own a Dodson 217 Mark 2 D DAC with upgraded 218-like software, and I love it. Got it for about $1850 total, I think. Best purchase ever on Audiogon for me.
How about some input on the Levinson models in this price range...from those in the know....
I would look into the Audio Logic 24MXL -- a tube unit designed by Jerry Ozement; one of the great digital designers that did work for Thor, Altis, and many others. I used one as a DAC being fed by an ARC CD3 MKii which was and is a very fine sounding CD player in its own right. The AL was a signifcant step forward and would probably be the best DAC you can buy used at the price point you mention. This DAC was the reference DAC for two of the sixmoons reviewers. I think there is one up for sale at about that price.
I have a very nice audio research dac 2 for sale $1500.00 and I have more vintage equipment Yamaha amp that is in excellent condition it ways 48 pounds vintage