DAC That Punches Above Its Price Point

I’ll make it short. I’ve spent some hours reading the DAC threads on this forum. I am aware quality of digital matters as superior DACs usually the costlier ones will sound better than cheap DACs, making music sound more analog, lifelike, real, believable with all the soundstage and detail etc. All the good things. There are some who thought it’s the music that matters, and although different DACs may sound different it’s the music that makes the most difference. In other words, the differences that exist between DACs are not that important as it's all about the music. I can see the point that people are trying to make.

Back to the topic. I’ve read great things on the Denafrips Ares II and Pontus II, and other costlier high-end DACs. I’ve read about the Chord DAVE. I personally own a Chord QBD76 and have no urge to replace it with anything else since it sounds splendid in my system, for the money. I may be setting up another system and was wondering if there is a DAC in the lower price bracket that punches way above its price point, sounding close to if not better than the costlier designs.

I presume the Audioquest Black, Red or Cobalt are not worthy of consideration and sound noticeably inferior to the costlier options? FWIW I tried the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC and this one really sounded poor to my ears. Very digital sound and I stopped listening to it after a while. The Chord sounds a lot more analog, lifelike and real to my ears.

I would appreciate any advice. Thanks.

herman, I agree with you on as not all measurements, performed on not always perfect testers are telling us whole story. Measurement equipment has many issues by itself, such as temperature drifts, noise floor, sampling accuracy issues, internal reference clock drifts, calibration, user’s training, and more.
I worked in recording studio on mixing some tracks in the past, and initially I was really surprised how coffee break can change the sound perfection! At some point in the studio we used simple radio to hear the sound, to make sure it sounds right to everyone. Therefore I am very pessimistic on relying on listeners type of sound quality tests.
I would love again to hear “blind test” stories, with more than two people participating in component brand A/B/C/D grading sound “quality” without knowledge of unit under test.
My point is very simple: excellent sound component manufacturers know how to test all components, including parts used in product’s assembly, and final product test, in production flow to ensure every unit “meets the spec”, and therefore they have in place all needed test procedures, equipped with accurate test equipment and provide training for staff.
I highly suggest listening to any DAC that you are considering. If you can't listen to a DAC locally, perhaps consider buying one used so you can resell it if it doesn't perform up to your expectations.

Contrary to what some others are saying that many DACs sound similar, I've struggled to find a DAC that doesn't induce listening fatigue for me. I think that managing EMI/RFI and the impact of both in inducing jitter is a key factor in listening fatigue. On the other hand, I have no such issues when listening to vinyl. But the convenience of listening to streaming music and digital files is difficult to deny.
Based on my recent experience, I believe that the Maverick TubeMagic D2 DAC with the op amps upgraded with Sparkos dual discrete op amps results in a DAC that performs well above its $500ish price point.  I think the DAC can be had for about $200 and Sparks accepted an offer for $65 (ea.) for three of the op amps.  Because the DAC has parallel solid state and tube outputs, you are likely to find something you like and the tube can also be rolled.

The Sparkos dual discrete op amps made a significant improvement compared to the burr-brown op amps that were the "upgrade" from Maverick Audio.  The DAC chip wasn't changed, so this was really an upgrade of the analog output portion of the DAC.
i cant begin to tell you my affection for my PS Audio DirectStream DAC.
I find the difference between Schitt Modius and their much more expensive stuff to be marginal. Use Dynaudio speakers. 
Generally though it depends on your overall kit. The likes of Hegel 190 already have a DAC built in, and modern streamers like Lumin T2 have stellar equipment inside. A standalone DAC is truly becoming a thing of the past.