DAC upgrade or Amplifier


Which has more influence over the soundstage - the DAC or the amp? My sound stage is high and wide, but recordings sound 3 dimensional only rarely. My equipment is at best mid fi - Adcom 5500 amp and Cambridge audio DAC magic. Listening primarily to Tidal at their highest level available.  The rest of the system if Adcom Preamp 750 (the Nelson Pass design), Tyler Acoustic speakers, tributary cables throughout. Any advice or suggestions for upgrades for improving the "depth" of the soundstage is appreciated (let's say that an upgrade for less than $1500 is in the budget, and I'm comfortable buying used from reputable sources). Thanks!

philtangerine
Based on your equipment I would say... try a different source, and I would try some different cables from Kimber or Morrow Audio. The Adcom amp and pre amp are not the problem. Speaker placement is key as well for depth...Nothing in between speakers, and pulling them at least 2 to 3 feet from the rear wall will indeed help with depth.


Matt M

With all things being equal, the dac/preamp will generally have more of an effect on the sonic signature than an amplifier will.  However, they are not equal in your situation.

The Cambridge Audio stuff is generally know to be very detailed/transparent.  You could upgrade to a newer/different DAC, but if you want to keep working with your DAC magic, I would get an external linear power supply.  Go to ebay and search for "teradak dacmagic".  It comes with a cord that plugs directly into your DACMagic.  You can get one for about $180 shipped.  This will definitely improve the overall sound quality and soundstage of your DAC.

Your GFP-750 preamp is a nice choice.  There are ways to improve it:

http://bigskyaudiomt.com/ADCOM_GFP750.php

https://hoppesbrain.com/2017/03/11/adcom-gfp-750-upgrade/

If you have it upgraded, see if they can replace all the electrolytic capacitors as well.  With the age on this, the caps will have dried out.

Probably your weakest link is the Adcom amp.  My experience with the older Adcom amps is that they are warm sounding, but in a mushy/messy way.  They end up smearing the sound somewhat and I actually think they introduce distortion.  Definitely not a good option if you want a deep/wide 3D soundstage.  I would try selling it on ebay.  You can get a really nice high-resolution amplifier that would be superior, such as the following choices:

Parasound A23

Emotiva XPA-1L monoblocks (with fuse upgrades)

Rotel?

others... depending on your budget

The room.
A Tube amp!  Adcom is pretty benign gear, they add very little coloration to the music.  I would start with amp (s) then look at devices.  I use to own a Adcom 750 GFP pre-amp along with the GFA 555 amps.  The soundstage was very wide but it missed the depth and instrument separation. 
Does the DAC Magic have the ability to unfold MQA files from Tidal? I have found that my Bluesound Node 2 is able to give me the best hi-res sound via MQA albums, not ALL MQA albums, just ones well recorded.
Another thing, I have tried bypassing my preamp and connecting my DAC/steamer directly to the amp. I would research this to see if your DAC Magic is capable of being used this way. I was very surprised that my preamp was not allowing the clarity and soundstage to come through the DAC to the amp.

I have a DACmagic Plus and I know it does not support MQA. So in the OP's case, regardless of the streaming source, the output is not MQA'd (new verb).  I also did get an upgraded PS but a different brand from the one mentioned above. It did improve the SQ. In as far as soundstage depth is concerned, all things being equal, I've found the depth is directly proportional to the distance of the speakers from the back wall and how open is the area between them.
Thank you all who've commented so far. I'll start by pushing the TV back farther toward the wall to be sure the screen is at least 18 inches or more behind the speakers, and the speakers stay out at least 3 feet from the rear wall. @2psyop , Kalali's comments are correct. Even without the ability to unfold, MQA sounds to my ears like an upgrade vs standard CD, though I've read that you can't get the full benefit w/o an appropriate DAC.  I have gone direct to amp as you've suggested, but prefer the sound with the pre in the loop. @Auxinput, thank you for your thoughtful response. @vegasears can you suggest a tube amp (for under$1500)? 
Phil, I have not kept up with the latest and greatest in tube gear but I've alway liked Jolida products.  
I own the Jolida Fusion pre and enjoy it. There are others in that price range. I would consider Quicksilver and check out the Don Sach thread.



Hi.
Everything in a stereo system matters. Everything. The room too. The quicker I came to this conclusion on my own by experimenting in deference to my own biases, the quicker my system performance could be elevated.

There are a few ways to increase depth of sound stage and it does not mean one has to replace gear to accomplish it.

However, the fastest way to diminish it is to have highly reflective vertical surfaces or partitions between the speakers, ala, TVs, screens, wall units. Especially if these items are between the front plane of the speakers and the wall behind them. It/they will act as initial point of reflection partially or fully lessening the front to back distance of the SS and increasing the brittleness or hardness of the sound, depending on its size, and what sort of surface material that vertical plane is comprised. A softer material often helps with tV & screens. Experimentation shows vividly what kind of material you may need.

Diffusion is likely the best tact here. Uneven things with many irregularities.

I used draperies. Lots of pleats. Wall to wall. Several sorts of materials too before I found something I could live with. Reading up on managing room acoustics should help you a lot. Harder stuff equates to harsher tones. Softer fabrics suck up some highs. Etc.

Opening the curtains increases resolution and increases clarity yet the sound on the whole becomes a tad more edgy, though not at all strident, as the on wall 50 H x 110 W (116 diag.) screen is fully exposed.

Fully closing the drapes adds noticeable warmth and undeniable depth as the pleats and intermittent materials I’ve added onto the drapes combine to create diffusion and absorption. Along with a very light touch of reflection.

If no TV is needed during listening, then maybe simple paper egg crates glued onto a sheet of lightweight material cut to fit the TV screen could do something similar in your case. Set it behind the TV afterwards. Again, experimentation is key here. Materials matter!

Your costs here could be insignificant. $10?

There are alternatives to replacing devices. I would suggest trying some different power cables at the source or the amp before running out to buy another DAC or amp.

Certainly there are better devices about which might help, but still, a better PC will help not just your gear but later likewise upgraded gear too, so you’ll be that much farther ahead. Its likely the cheaper path now too.

Yeah. I’ve not always been in the camp of wires are the ticket. But I found out they matter a great deal. Not just every or any upscale PC will add depth. Some time back Elrod signature and Shunyata Python helix did excellent jobs in this area as well as in many, many other respects for the sonics. Better bass, better imaging, more coherent and natural tones. It was a fascinating revelation. You might get a pair of them and still have money left over given your proposed allotment. One for DAC. One for amp. Or not.

Check out the cable Co. ask them for current recs. Rent a couple and see for yourself.

Digital sources aren’t always the best path for obtaining great depth as you have experienced in your outfit.

I’ve listened to friends systems with DAC setups costing well into five digits. Berkely. Wavelength. Bel Canto. Mitner. DCS. Apogee. Lavry. Lynx. M Audio.

Depth was not always a given. The recording did have to be one which could yield that info too. As you are or have experienced so far in your own rig. And why I say first, try PCs. I’ve been there. Done that.

It could be difficult to get DACs & amps in the range of your available funds previously mentioned which will solve the issue of and by themselves Unless… you can find something in either category, DAC or amp, that uses tubes as was already stated. Eg., Quicksilver. . could be a crap shoot as to the outcome.

Apogee house sound had great depth and was very inexpensive. Lavry too had nearly as much. I chose a Bel Canto DAC 3 which had likely the least depth but in all other areas was IMHO the better more resolving unit. Depth came from using tubes in the line stage preamp. Later in the amp as well. Albeit the tube amp in my instance did not appreciably increase what was already evident in the sound stage dimensions. .

Tubes as well can influence depth width or height of the SS. Depending.

ICs can play a noteworthy role, though my EXP says start with PCs. PLCs may help too, but I would look there once I liked what everything else was doing beginning with the main IC ()pre to amp.

With $1500 or so, and a real desire to improve the system performance despite the outcome of what size SS occurs, I’d look into finding a nice tube preamp first. Otherwise or during that hunt   play with affecting the acoustics in the room with the focus around the speakers. First reflection points, diffusion. Etc.

Do remember, if it ain’t in the recording, it is impossible to hear it.

Another true concern is attempting to ‘contort’ the SS depth inordinately. Expanding it is one thing, pushing it this way or that too much always changes the impact and degree of believability IMO.

Folks debate SS size a lot. It concerns me very little. Having a life size recreation of the venue is improbable in more than a few cases. A 20 piece band arranged and seated occupys about 33 ft. of width. Nearly as much in depth but only 4ft of height. . symphonic orchestras eat up considerably more in each direction. Few folks have 4000 to 5000 sq. ft. of SS area at and behind their speakers.

Consequently we settle for seating perspectives Instead. Front row. Mid hall. Back of hall. Usually by thirds.

Very good luck I hope you get the answer you need.



I assume by your reference to Nelson Pass you have a GFP-750 (as opposed to a GTP-750) and that's a pretty decent preamp. I have had the same unit paired with a GFA-555 for over 20 years now in my upstairs system but I only use it with a turntable. Its a really good preamp with a great deal of resolution and detail but not a great soundstage. I realized it when I put a tube preamp that I bought a month or so ago for another system in front of the Adcom amp and all of a sudden the soundstage depth became apparent. It also gave the tone a lot more texture and layers. The only obvious tradeoff was a bit of the detail and some bass was lost but the overall size of the stage was more tangible. I guess all I'm saying is start with cheap solutions first but ultimately you may want to consider a tube preamp since for me it had the most contribution to the overall sense of being there, while all other things being kept equal. By the way, my budget was a lot more limited than your - ~$800, so I'm sure you can do much better. All the best.
Awesome. Thank you everyone for your thoughts here. I think the direction I'm heading is first to do what I can to position the tv further behind the speakers and dampen down some reflective surface throughout the room, and then experiment with cables and or components (though interestingly, no one has jumped out and said specifically that the DAC itself is the component to start with). Seems like there's still some love out there for the Adcom Pre Amp, though possibly some upgrades to it will improve it.  Thank Blindjim for your suggestions for room improvement, and thank you Kalali for your comments regarding the Adcom pre.

Guys, let's not get carried away with the chase for MQA.  I'm sure the bitrate and quality of MQA is good, but it is not the entire story.  You have to make sure your DAC and analog stages are good as well.  If you can ensure the DAC/analog are up to par, then MQA is a great solution for providing better resolution for streaming audio.

I know everyone is talking about room layout, acoustics, sources and tube preamps and such.  That's great.  I would like to re-iterate the limitation of the amp.  Like blindjim stated, "everything matters".  I 100% agree with this.

I used to own an Adcom 545 amp (100 watts per channel).  It was one of the first steps in my audiophile journey.  I did do some mods to it (blackgate caps, upgraded A/C to D/C diodes, hard-soldering all plug contacts).  The mods definitely improved the sound.  However, in the end, I determined that the amp just did not have the sound quality.  When I bought a Crown CTS 600 (Class AB amp), the sound quality went up drastically.  The Crown was just so much cleaner with much more detail and "separation of instruments".  It really showed that the Adcom was just messy/dirty sounding in comparison. 

While the Crown CTS 600 was an absolute amazing item for the money (less than $200 on the used market), there are definitely amps that are much better.  When I upgraded to Emotiva XPA-1 monoblocks, they showed that the Crown was definitely on the low end of sound quality.  The resolution, strength, punch of the Emotiva was a lot better than the Crown.

The Parasound A23/A21 amps will be much more refined than the Emotiva, which is why I put them on the list above.  The A21 is an awesome amp, but definitely much more expensive at around $1600-1800 used.  The A23 will be around $700-800.

Soundstage is definitely source, but that means not just the DAC, but the digital feed to the DAC, and something you are probably not considering; the preamp. 

The jitter of this feed is critical to achieving good 3-D imaging, in fact more important than the DAC.  Lower the jitter, the more 3-D it will be, the tighter the focus will be.  Both DAC and source feed are important however.  A good DAC will insure good dynamics and a liquid midrange, as well as crisp airy highs.

A poor active preamp can easily kill any chance at 3-D imaging by introducing distortion and compression. I have not heard any preamp less than about $10K that can do a decent job.  Passive preamps, particularly transformer-based, or direct from DAC to amps is a less expensive option.  If you are doing computer audio, using a good playback engine like Amarra, the S/W volume control will add very little distortion compared to a typical preamp.

If you are using an inferior CD player or a cheap computer audio solution like direct from a laptop, this can easily cause a jittery source stream.  For a CD player, there are reclockers that can resample the data and reduce jitter significantly.  For computer audio, there are USB and Network converters that reduce jitter or a good server, like the Antipodes or Aurender.

I would recommend to start with the source and source cabling and reduce the jitter of these first and then look to the preamp and DAC for upgrades.  Don't rely on the DAC to reduce jitter effectively.  99% of them don't.

I've been in the business 16 years and upgraded my own personal system for 30 years.  I have modded a LOT of DACs as well in the past and exhibited at shows for 15 years.  I've had a lot of opportunity to hear the effects that various components have on a system and determined where synergy even makes sense.


Steve N.

Empirical Audio

Another option for you if you are interested in doing computer audio, but want to ease into it is the Sony HAP-1EX.  Fairly low jitter and a decent DAC, all for an affordable price.  You can even drive your amps directly, so you save on the preamp and DAC.

I have heard $100K systems at shows driven by the HAP-1EX, and they sounded quite good.

Steve N.

Empirical Audio

 Steve @audioengr  - before I posted I did some reading on DACs and there seems to be some reservation  out there about a DAC with a digital volume control - that keeping the volume control in the analogue sequence is important to the overall sound. Aside from that, I was quite interested in a DAC that would be an upgrade to my existing DAC and Adcom Pre...do you have any concerns about digital volume controls?
Steve,
Are you talking about the Sony HAP Z1es?
There is no HAP1ex that I’m aware of. 

Phil - Each volume control technology has its deficiencies, so all of them are a compromise of some sort.  The best scenario is probably to do some reduction in volume using a DAC digital control, gain control and then additional drop using S/W volume control. You can do about 10dB with a good volume like Amarra has without any SQ impact.   If you can find a DAC with several gain settings, but no volume control, this is probably best.  Set it as a lower setting and then reduce more with S/W volume on a computer.

Like almost all design, its not so much the technology as the implementation that makes a good performing circuit.  If the digital volume control on the DAC is implemented well, you will get excellent results.

HAP-Z1es is correct.


Steve N.

Empirical Audio

Thank you Steve N.

Looking at the internal architecture, the Sony HAP-Z1ES is a significant/huge upgrade from your Cambridge DAC Magic.  However at $1259 used / $2k new, it uses up pretty much your entire upgrade budget.  It leaves nothing left (in your budget) for amplifier upgrade.  The assumption is that the Sony does use a digital volume (which means you can connect direct to an amp).  The digital volumes works by converting the 16/24 bit audio data to 32 bit and then reduce the bit height of the waveform before it hits the DAC chip.  There is controversy on whether a true analog preamp is better than this or not.  Personally, I think I would rather have full bit resolution at the DAC/output stages and run it through a true analog resistor-ladder volume control.  A high end passive preamp could be a solution (like the Khozmo or even some others that have a capacitor/transformer output), but passives do have their own challenges as well.

I have not heard any preamp less than about $10K that can do a decent job.

Steve's quote may be absolutely true from his point of view, but I caution the need to spend $10K plus on a preamp because everything is relative.  You can definitely get a better preamp with more transparency/resolution, but everything is relative to what you can actually work with (both budget and practicality).

Auxinput is correct, my relative comparison is at a highly rarified level.  I can easily hear the difference between and AIFF file and a wav file in my system.

It's the active preamp that is the bain of most audio systems.  Get rid of it or replace with transformer-passive linestage is my recommendation.

The Sony can be bought used on Audiogon for about $1K.  Make them offers.  This will be such a massive upgrade to what you have now that you will not believe your ears.  IF you have decent speakers, it will sound wonderful.  Upgrade your amps later after you save up.  Get some good used amps, even tubes if your speakers are efficient enough.  An old Scott amp with EL-84 tubes will sound amazing.  If you want to stay with SS, then try some digital amps, like Nuforce, Merrill or cherryamp.com.  Try to get used on audiogon first.


Steve N.

Empirical Audio