Dac recommendations for computer audio

I have recently made the decision to retire my Cal Audio Labs Alpha and Delta combo. I have purchased a new version of the Mac Mini to go Into my system that consists of Salk Sound HT2-TL speakers, an Audio Mirror T-61 preamp, and a Counterpoint NP100 hybrid amp. Now, I need to add a high performing Dac that will deliver an analog-like and organic presentation. The ability to deliver killer midrange with female vocals, a large soundstage and clearly defined instrument separation are must-haves. I am very new to the computer audio world and my head is spinning from trying to keep up with available Dacs in the market. This will be my only source, so I want to get it right. I have an affinity for tubes, but I will keep an open mind and consider SS Dacs that meet these qualifications. My budget is 3k and under. Thanks in advance for your assistance.
I use a Blue Circle Thingee,which is acceptable as a stand alone DAC and also converts USB to SPDIF.That will allow you to use any DAC with a 75 OHM digital input.There are so many great sounding affordable DACS that do not have USB inputs that can be used with the Thingee.I currently use a Perpetual 3A with my Thingee.

Well that's enough "Thingee" talk.I also have a great sounding Citypulse DAC that has a USB input.It is suppoosed to be a "Benchmark beater." I use it in a dedicated 2 channel system and have not tried the USB input,but it sounds marvelous through the 75 ohm digital input.
Try the Tranquility here www.dbaudiolabs.com for a great USB DAC.
I've been using Macs and iTunes in music systems for several years. Here's what works for me....

1. Don't get caught up on USB. I do not think that USB is better than the optical output on all newer Macs. In fact, I have more consistent quality from optical than USB. Some USB DACs have better interfaces than others, so don't count USB out, just keep your mind open and keep it simple.

2. MAKE SURE you import to AIFF or Apple Lossless, and MAKE SURE you to turn off "sound check" and "sound enhancer". When people say they have bad experience with iTunes, it's usually because they do not have the "preferences" set correctly.

3. If you are using just CDs and 16/44 material, take a serious look at NOS (Non Over Sampling) DACs with no filters. They are affordable and can make music sound very good. Some have an "analog" character. The 47 Labs and Audio Note are some of the best I've heard. I've also built several based on the 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC design. Brilliant design!

4. If you want the best DACs for 16/44, 24/96, 24/192, etc....there are several, but the new Naim DAC gets my vote. It sounds SO GOOD, with the true signature Naim sound. Foot tapping, head bobbing....good stuff.

Let me know how your adventure goes. I'm always eager to hear about other people's experience and solutions. Hope this helps.
Balkan gives some great advice here....I'd like to add:

I agree toslink from Mac is excellent. I highly recommend you buy a glass cable however- the difference is not subtle. I like and use both the VanDenHul Optocoupler II and Wireworld glass cables.

For Dacs, I want to add that the MHDT Havana delivers what you describe, and really works well with the Mac Mini.
Danlib1 is correct. If you choose to use optical, get a good polished glass cable. The VanDenHul and WireWorld glass cables are excellent.
PS Audio Perfect Wave is 3k, 2k with a trade in. Many people here, including myself, enjoy theirs. John
I got off the DAC merry go round once I heard a Weiss DAC2 in my system. I owned a MHDT Paradesea, and the Weiss smokes it. 3k new @ Vintge King.
Wyred4Sound DAC2 is an excellent DAC, and has an asynchronous mode DAC input that accepts up to 24/192. This would be a terrific unit at 3x the price, even though I find it ugly.

Thanks everyone for the recommendations so far. I have a couple of follow up questions regarding two of the recommendations. Ballan, I have not heard Naim gear. How would describe the Naim sound? 4est, would you describe the Weiss Dac2 as leaning more towards extreme detail and an analytical approach? I know it costs much more than the Paradesea. But, I'm curious to know, besides price point, what makes it overwhelmingly superior? Thanks.
A used dCS Delius - ~$2k without FireWire - can be fed direct by either toslink, rca, Aes, or Bnc This affords some freedom to experiment with interfaces, giving the option to go direct or through a converter. Personally have strong experiences with lynx hd26 to aes ($800) and empirical audios off ramp 3 (USB to Aes,$1k), but you might well find a mac using toslink works for you.

Also dcs has an excellent guide to computer audio on their website, within their support section, www.dcsltd.co.uk/page/support

If you do go this route, strongly recommend that the Delius is running the latest firmware
Optical Interface is not that good on Mac's! Its an inferior interface to begin with! USB is the best solution unless you can spend $6000 on a Weiss DAC and use firewire. USB is the best solution for 99% of people trying to build a music Server. also check on http://www.computeraudiophile.com/ and they will validate my claim.

There are two options for using a Mac or any PC with the USB Interface!

I have a MacBook Pro and have used both the Streamer II+ and Streamer Pro and the PopPulse 1796 Mk II USB/SPDIF 16/44 on USB $289.00 Jaw dropping Good! a good Audiophile USB Cable will make a world of difference and everyone who's A/B a generic USB Cable compared to a Locus Design Polestar and Axis aggree its better to spend less on a DAC and budget for a Locus Design Cable Lots of great reviews on PFO Positive Feedback.

Most USB DAC's that support USB and SPDIF are not providing speeds greater that 16/44 on the USB interface until you spend more than $1500.00

1) USB to SPDIF converter. There are several units out there the best is the SonicWeld Diverter $1299. Can be seen at www.kaplanhtdesign.com

2) USB only DAC's like the Music Streamer II+ at $349.95 are the best value bar none with Asynchronous to reduce jitter on the USB buss. Speed supported 24/96 (16/24 bit word lengths) and (44.1/48/88.2/96Khz resolution). Great Reviews from www.avguide.com/review/hrt-streamer-ii-and-streamer-ii-hi-fi-72

3) USB/SPDIF DAC's not as good as a USB Only DAC's and there are many technical reasons why.

Streamer II+ assures that jitter performance exceeds that of conventionally connected (bi-phase) converters inherently have more Jitter! these are AES/EBU and S/PDIF in Coax and Optical formats.

Good Luck with your search
Naim sound? I can not describe the sound. Words are meaningless. It's like describing food and wine, the words can be said, but they don't replace listening for yourself. Sorry....

All I can say is that certain DACs have the analog (vinyl) sound. Warm and lush....rhythmic....see, I can't do it. Have a listen for yourself. ;)
The optical out on a Mac sounds better than people give it credit, and I do not feel the toslink interface is "inferior". While it has some weaknesses, it also has some benefit. I have setup many iTunes/Mac music systems and the optical consistently provides very good performance when executed properly.

It you want to dive in deeper, the FireWire interface using a Weiss INT202 can sound amazing. The INT202 converts (and reclocks) the FireWire out into SPDIF. The best thing to do is have a listen for yourself. A Mac (or any computer) can make a extremely top notch digital music source when setup correctly. Take it one step at a time and don't forget to have fun. ;)

Thanks for the follow up. Ideally, I would love to hear several of the contenders in my own system, but I know that is probably not going to happen. I'm looking for a a dac that delivers a liquid smooth midrange... I don't want any dac that would fall in the category of being considered analytical, cool, bright or harsh with certain music. I guess I have a fear that some of the SS dacs would fall into that camp. Please keep the feedback coming. Thanks.
@Houstonjazzfan: I look for the same thing in a DAC. I've enjoyed good analog playback, but want the convenience and flexibility of digital.

The NOS DACs give me that sense of presence and air. The Shigaraki DAC (which is simple enough that I can build my own) is one design I really like.

I also like the Altmann Attraction DAC, but it's battery powered, so not as convenient.

The Naim has the sound that I like, is very flexible, upgradable with Naim's power supplies and processes way past 24/192. It also sounds great with my Mac, which is what I prefer to use for digital playback.

Another option that I like is the Wavelength DACs. They sound very good, with an "analog and tubey" sound. (I don't think "tubey" is a word.) :D

I own the PS Audio combo that has been recommended, but I'm thinking about selling it. It's a great piece of kit, but I prefer the Naim. The PS Audio is very detailed and clear, but that leads to a more analytical sound. It's not a bad thing, just not my thing.
1) The Optical Output on a Mac is a non-Standard size, with that said! I'm not aware of any high end Cable vendors making high end Optical Cables with the small connector to fit on a MAC Since its a non-Standard Interface.

Yes I'm sure you can find an adapter! ever time you use and adapter it changes the sound and not in a good way!

Here's the link to amazon to buy it for one penny!

More forums: http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=696269

Check out the discussion threads on the Apple website! Not good News! http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?threadID=1808555

2) USB is the only viable alternative to Firewire Fire Wire DAC are few and far between. There's Apogee DAC's Pro-Audio!, Most DAC's that support Firewire are pro-Audio DAC's and not really intended for home Audio use since Firewire is standard interface for Pro Audio.

Every DAC out there will sound differently on every system!

The Best Value is a USB DAC is the Music Streamer II+

Its also important to bring music to a store that you know, but once again that showrooom may be using mismatched cables in their system and it will cause their source components to sound bright, harsh etc..

Check out the reviews! for $349.95 its low risk investment! I've sold over 30 and no one has complained that it sounds bright or harsh! With that said there's a lot of cables that can sound bright and harsh. I heard a pair of speaker cables recently that provided a lot of information that were very bright and harsh these sold for over $8000 a pair!

Good luck!

You say that you want "analog-like and organic presentation... killer midrange with female vocals, a large soundstage and clearly defined instrument separation".

Before shelling out $3K on a new DAC, you already have a well-regarded DAC that embodies many of these qualities. I own an Alpha. Perhaps the most cost-effective upgrade could be new tubes for the Alpha. I personally found the NOS Sylvania 5751's to be my favorite.

That said, I got an Audio Horizons DAC that bests the Alpha in many areas, although the Alpha definitely sits on the warmer side and is well-suited for music that benefits from that. The Audio Horizons satisfies your "clearly defined instrument separation" better. At half your maximum price closeout, the Audio Horizons would be a good possibility.

Yes, DAC's have come a long way over the years, but the Alpha remains a solid contender with the right tubes and associated equipment.

Just my 2 cents.

@Kaplandesign: The VanDeHul and WireWorld glass optical cables have custom polished mini terminations. They sound great and are very well built. The "mini toslink" connector is standardized and has been widely used by Apple and Sony for several years.

There are also some great glass mini toslink optical cables starting to be made by companies using them in medical applications. I might even argue that the mini toslink connector is better than the standard toslink. The mini can have a tighter fit.

I agree... My 16 bit version of the Alpha is extremely musical. By the way, I have Sylvania 5751 Gold Pins in my Alpha as well! I want my next dac to provide a similar sense of sheer musicality while providing a bit more inner detail to the music. I'm not great at conveying this in words, but hopefully that makes sense. I will definitely take a look at the Audio Horizons Dac. In the meantime, I might benefit from grabbing a better toslink to mini toslink cable than I am currently using... a cheapo cable from Micro Center. I may take a look at the WireWorld cable since my interconnects are WireWorld Eclipse 6's.


The earlier post about the "inferiority" of a Mac's Optical Out connection is not valid in my experience. The individual didn't even realize that numerous companies make very high end Toslink to Mini-Toslink polished glass cables just for Mac usage, so how could they have such an all-encompassing knowledge of that output's "inferiority"?

I've used both Toslink and USB out of my MAC mini, into very high quality DACS. I can tell you that Toslink holds it's own in the better built DACS I've employed.

As usual, opinions vary :)
I would use a monarchy dip to convert the toslink to aes/ebu and go for the Berkeley DAC. I'm sitting here listening to one and it definitely does all you are asking.
Danlib1 is correct. Like I have stated above, the "mini optical" output is much better than some people give it credit for. With the correct cable and DAC, it's my preference for listening to music with the Mac.
If the Mini has a firewire ouput, I highly suggest the Apogee firewire DAC
PS Audio PWD and later you can add the Bridge for a full music server system. W4S Dac, Berkley if you have the $$$.
my front end is also computer based, and my wants paralleled yours - "The ability to deliver killer midrange with female vocals, a large soundstage and clearly defined instrument separation are must-haves". i would strongly suggest the Wyred 4 Sound DACs.

i've had a Wyerd DAC1 running for about a week now - previously, i owned Weiss Minerva and Musical Fidelity Tri Vista... the Wyred is my favorite of the three. seems to combine the best traits of my prior DACs - has the detail and resolution of the Weiss, while maintaining the extraordinary soundstage and realism of the Tri Vista. it's a fantastic DAC, and a ridiculous bargain at its price.

If I was working with your budget, I would strongly consider the Metric Halo LIO-8.