DAC for McIntosh MA252?


Hi all - would really appreciate your insight and recommendations.

I recently purchased a McIntosh MA252 to upgrade my Marantz PM8005 and get some tubes into my system, which is used roughly 50/50 for digital (tv, games, streaming Tidal) and analog.

Now I’m looking to upgrade my DAC and add a streamer (man, this hobby is like BDSM for your checking account). I’m currently using a $99 piece of Schiit (Modi 2) that is showing its limitations, at the very least from a functionality perspective. I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of research and have come up with a number of options I’m considering. I’m blessed that budget is only an issue to the extent I feel guilt about not throwing it in the "house down payment" pile....within obvious reason.

My current setup is:
Macbook Pro
Modi 2 ($99)
MA252 ($3500)
Goldenear Triton 2 ($2500)
Marantz TT-15 ($1500) w/ stock Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cart
Transparent speaker cable; interconnects are nothing special

Everything I look at seems to be a tradeoff with pros and cons, and even more fundamentally, opinions vary greatly on the importance and budgetary outlay for a DAC in a system. I hear everything from "functioning DACs all sound the same because technology" to "source is the most important component and amp/DAC should be in same budgetary ballpark," etc.). At the very least, I want to get solid streaming functionality and sound quality that’ll make this little amp shine to its fullest potential.

A few I’m considering with my pros and cons:

Bluesound Node 2i -- ($449)
Pros: Everything and the kitchen sink with streaming functionality (even Alexa & MQA); inexpensive
Cons: Most reviews say it sounds great "for the price"

Cambridge Audio Azur-851N -- ($1129 refurbished)
Pros: LCD screen for album art is slick
Cons: Tidal experience through Cambridge app is reportedly pretty janky; sound quality reviews are hit or miss

Chord Mojo/Poly combo -- ($1300)
Pros: Chord DACs appear to be very highly regarded
Cons: Not sure messing with batteries and recharging is for me. I’d like to plug it in and forget it

Auralic Vega -- ($2000 floor demo)
Pros: Sound quality reportedly phenomenal
Cons: Buying old tech; cosmetically clashes with...pretty much everything in my system

McIntosh MB50 -- ($2000)
Pros: Matches amp, well-reviewed sound quality, works with Alexa
Cons: Play-fi app livable but not well regarded; matching but unremarkable appearance

Schiit Yggdrasil w/ Bluesound Node -- (~$2800)
Pros: Reportedly great sound quality; Pretty future-proof with Yggy being modular/upgradable and the streamer in a separate box
Cons: Will the streamer do it justice? Is the DAC really a $2300 upgrade?

Auralic Vega G1 -- ($3800)
Pros: Universally great reviews; love the looks & screen
Cons: Price gets into guilt territory; streamer/dac combo is less future-proof than streamer/Yggy combo

A dealer near me sells Auralic but could only order the Mc with up-front payment and does not carry the other gear. Auditioning opportunities are limited so I’m relying primarily on research and expertise.

So, what to do?



bfjones01
You state the Modi 2 is showing it’s limitations in terms of functionality, but you don’t state what limited functionality it has.

If using a DAC, you don’t need spend $500 on a streamer. A ChromeCast Audio would sound the same (unless casting from the Chrome browser, which sucks; but casting from say Roon or say Hi-Fi Cast on Android would be bit perfect). MQA won’t take off, so I wouldn’t even bother (terrible philosophy as well). If you like the Node 2i that much, then sure.

Topping D50 & SMSL SU-8 are really where diminishing returns hits hard. Next step up is a huge price jump to the Benchmark DAC3 B (the Schiit Yggy doesn’t hold a candle to it; even Schiit says the Modi 3 is their best measuring DAC, which is because they finally bought measurement gear to use in the development process, this year can be upwards of $20K, so I don’t blame them for holding off, I also applaud them for having the measurement data publically available).

ESS is making the best DAC chips right now (AKM not far behind), and all three mentioned use them (the chip isn’t everything, but these are also measured and reviewed to be top of the line).
You say that you want to upgrade your DAC and add a streamer, but I’m not sure that you understand that these are two different functions.  The first piece of equipment that you cited, the Node2, is just a streamer that has an internal DAC, but can’t be used as a DAC with other equipment.,AFAIK.
  I was just listening to the Vault2 in my 2 channel system where it inputs into my Mytek Manhatten, and yet again I am amazed at how great it sounds.  The Bluesound products make excellent digital transports and don’t break the bank.
   My advice is to put the Lions share of the budget into a DAC, and then buy a streamer based on the features that you want (Tidal, MQA, Roon, Internet Radio, and most importantly for the streamer experience, the software app, because that determines the quality of the experience).  I suspect that most streamers will sound similar into the same DAC, although I am sure that this being the site it is, people will argue that to death.
   As far as what DAC, the usual suspects....Mytek, Bryston, Benchmark, Chord, Schiit...
@maer123 
 
Stremers with digital outs will still have varying degrees of jitter. However, if your DAC can’t reduce these to at least -100dBFS, it’s not a DAC worth buying (at least for high end systems).
Mytek Brooklyn bridge?
"I suspect that most streamers will sound similar into the same DAC, although I am sure that this being the site it is, people will argue that to death."

No argument from me but in my system Chromecast Audio and Node2 DO NOT sound the same feeding into the same DAC. Not saying its 15 times better than the $35 CA but better nonetheless. If you or mzk don’t agree, I recommend listening to a Lumin streamer to hear the difference much more clearly.
To OP, if MQA is not a requirement, I think the combination of a Node2 and the Benchmark's new DAC3B would be a good option for around $2200.
@kalali

How were you streaming to the CCA? There is proof that if streaming through say your Chrome browser, the audio is not excellent, distortion well within 16Bit range. However, if casting thru Roon or via an Android app like Hi-Fi Cast, then it’s bit perfect and distortion would be inaudible. So Google’s native apps seem to have issues for some reason, but apps/software using their API has no issues. So, I hope Google solves these issues.
@kalali

I have to admit that I haven’t sampled a streamer in the price range of Google Chrome; Apple TV is as low Fi as I’ve ventured.  However, I think that when you reach a certain lp rice point—certainly the $500 for the Node2 but possibly lower—that the sound will be determined primarily by the DAC
Refurbished node 2 for $399!
I stream Tidal Hi-Fi content using the Tidal app on my iPhone 6s. I then click on the “cast” button. Sorry but that’s the only way I know how to play through CCA. It does sound good, especially given its price, but Node2 sounded a little “fuller” when I did a quick swap for comparison. The optical cables used for the comparison were different but within the same price range. 
I borrowed a Lumin D2 from a friend for one weekend and it was definitely better sounding than my Node2 in the same system but much more money as well. Streamers do make a difference but I agree that the DAC makes more difference in sound quality. Some sound warmer than others and may be a better match for the rest of the system. 
Thanks for the recommendations and insights everyone.
I wound up finding a good closeout deal on a Mytek Brooklyn and will pair it with the Bluesound Node 2i. Both are on their way to me!
I was sold when I discovered the Brooklyn has a LOMC phono stage.  I want to dabble in those carts at some point in the future and now have the option (Mc is MM only).  Also gets me Alexa, MQA (if it takes off), and hopefully some great sound too.