Can't thank you all enough for your input and suggestions...no really....thanks.
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Okay, fair enough: My original post included everything but an actual question.
Update: Now that Escient has finally created a simple way to access FLAC files from ANY networked device (besides another Escient product) I've added another 200GB of FLAC files to my library.
Unfortunatly, I haven't found the "right" DAC.
I did replace the tubes in my CAL LABS ALPHA (Some kind of Tesla tubes) -- result: Overall improvment but nothing remarkable.
I was restacking my "for sale" pile and found a Birdland Odeon Lite -- result: Huge improvements (soundstage, detail and clarity).
For those unfamiliar with the Odeon Lite, it features a volume control knob. If used with a preamp, they advise turning the knob to 12o'clock.
Unfortuantly the output of this DAC is VERY low. At 12o'clock it's barely audible -- at 3o'clock it's comparable to my NAD M55 analog output. BUT it lacks (at any o'clock).... well, balls.
I've compared and contrasted them for a few days now. The Odeon does almost everything better than the CAL Labs ALPHA.
Output level: The ALPHA output is full and a tad loud (good)
Low Freq: The Alpha offers more than twice the low output -- but it's muddled (good and bad)
Hearing the vast differences between the CAL Labs Alpha, the Birdland Odeon Lite and the NAD M55 in my own home -- with my own system -- has convinced me of a couple of things:
DACs are strange little creatures
I should be able to find one that fits my budget, taste & system.
FLAC files -
ROTEL Pre/Pro -
Rotel AMP -
AQ King Cobra Interconnects
MIT AVR2 speaker cables
Your comments & recommendations are greatly appreciated.
If you're looking for a DAC try a non-os variety such as Audio Note (assuming your budget allows). There are also some budget versions such as Audio Sector, Audio Mirror, the Lite DAC models, Scott Nixon and more. While I allude to these as budget solutions, I refer to their cost, not sound which happens to make them an excellent value. To me the non-os design philosophy produces a sound very close to analog.
Recently I purchased a Monarchy M24 ($980, converts 16 bit to 20 bit, will play 24/96 as well) and for the money it is an excellent tube DAC and linestage (you can bypass the linestage if you like). Also, there is a used Monarchy 22 DAC for sale here for $410 that is the predecessor to the M24.
Update: Escient E2 Fireball, Benchmark DAC and over 800gb of FLAC files sounds better than you'd think. Speed and ease of use is very hard to "put aside" in favor of an improvement that may or may not be present on each and every CD.
If accurary or detail is being compromised or unrealized in my meager system, these 2 components are not guilty. Now they may know a component, that hangs with cheap cables -- but I doubt it.