DACs: Airport Express vs waveterminal vs mini-dac

I know this is impossible to quantify, but with a good stereo system (Cayin TA30 tube integrated amp & Green Mountain Audio Europa speakers), what's the magnitude of difference using the following dacs?

Airport Express (I already have the AX, and can connect it to the integrated amp with RCA's [analog])

Waveterminal U24: computer to USB to waveterminal to amp (waveterminal does the DA conversion)

Inexpensive DAC like ART DIO with waveterminal: computer to USB to waveterminal to ART DIO to amp (ART DIO does DA conversion)

Apogee mini-dac: computer to USB to mini-dac to amp


What's the best bang for the buck?
I would really love to hear the answer to this myself because I have been trying to find information on this exact situation. Can't seem to get many answers.
Thanks Dschea_32665. I know it's all subjective, but without the equipment for my own comparison, it's hard to know if spending my hard-earned bucks (graduate student) on various DACs would reap the rewards of improved sonics.

So far, my GMA Europa speakers has made the biggest difference. The SACD player made a nice improvement. Having it modifled also was a nice addition. The Cayin amp also improved the sound and dynamics; I had an old NAD receiver before. I've also heard an improvement with better interconnects.

Will adding an external DAC with my computer HD as transport and music jukebox improve the sound even more? If so, at what price point? What equipment is needed to have that "better" sound? For the buck, where will I hear the most noticeable improvement?
We sell the waveterminal. It's used with our professional test kits. I use the waveterminal on my PC. It's very good and I've had others buy it and exclaim it's the most fantastic thing ever. I don't know about it being that fantastic, but there is no comparison to the sound cards in my computer--it's in a totally different league. Unfotunately, I can't offer you direct comparisons to the other options you mentioned.
I have been doing research on this as well. The only way I could figure to get the information is to start throwing money at the situation.

So far I have used the the Monarchy Dip/DAC, Edirol UA-25 feeding a Mcintosh MDA1000, the M-Audio Transit, the Waveterminal, and the MiniDAC. (Also compared them to high end McIntosh CD transport - the computer won).

I set these up on two identical systems (one is mine, one a friends): Apple Mcintosh playing Apple Lossless files to DAC to Mcintosh MC1200s to Mcintosh XRT 28s.

The only real standout so far was that the Transit sounded BAD on several different Apple Macintosh systems, and the MiniDAC drops the USB signal about six times a day (Apogee says it is my computer). I will do more in depth listening next week.

The consensus seems to be that it is best to avoid SPDIF and toslink connections. Does anyone know of a high quality USB device that will supply digital output via an XLR balanced connection?
The Edirol is probably the best choice for iMac. An AES/EBU interface can easily be added to the Edirol with mods, as well as improving its jitter performance. Just a short cable hanging from it with a XLR connector attached.

BTW - Edumke - Did you try iTunes with the Transit with an iMac?

Steve N.
Empirical Audio

I tried the Transit on two separate Apple systems myself, and had several friends come to the same conclusion on different systems.

My tests were on a Powermac dual 1.42 G4 to the Transit, then in to a Monarchy DIP/DAC.

Also a Powerbook G4 to the Transit, then to a McIntosh MDA1000 DAC.

In both cases the music sounded like it was castrated.

If I were using the analogue out for these cards, I think the quality and what you pay would pretty much determine it.

Where I am unsure, is if you are just passing the signal through to a DAC, can these units make that much of a difference in sound quality? It sounds from Edumke that the answer is definitely yes. I love the description of the Transit as castrated, that's a good one :)

Edumke I am glad you are able to do some testing for us, how would you describe the waveterminal and edirol sound, as compared to the M-audio? (I would assume the mini-DAC would blow these away because it is five times the price.) I like the sound I am getting now with my Transit, because I don't know anything different, but I would love to get a little more space in music. I mainly listen to classical music. I am getting great detail now but would love a tiny bit more soundstage.

If we were there, would you think that we would throw up our arms, disown our Transits and immediately order an Edirol or Waveterminal? Is this a fairly no brainer upgrade?

Sorry for the length, but you are the first person I have found that has had access to these units and has been able to do some comparison.

Right now I have two systems set up. One with the MiniDAC, the other with an Edirol UA-25. They both sound fantastic. Both are fed by Apple computers playing Apple Lossless files through iTunes.

We thought the Transit sounded great until we compared it to a high end CD transport. We then realized that much of the music was just plain missing. It is not subtle. We replaced it with the UA-25 on one system, and the MiniDAC on another. We are using anolog out on the MiniDAC and digital out on the UA-25. Both sound devine and easily compete with (if not exceed) the high end CD transport. I was surprised that it could make that much difference.

The Waveterminal is still in the box, but I will set it up late next week when I return from travels.

This is incredibly exciting to get this quality out of a computer. I am sure the traditionalists will stick to one CD at a time, swearing that it sounds better than a "computer". Lets face it though, these days most CDs are mastered on computers.
Thanks for the information Edumke! What adds so much to it is that you said that initially you liked the Transit. I recently plugged my headphone amp and AOS Piccolo DAC into a Nakamichi CD player (although 10 years old), and noticed the same thing. The Transit was good, but when I heard the standalone CD player, the laptop setup seemed to be missing a natural and musical sense of space. Not a huge difference but definitely a difference. This is what has inspired me to see if I can upgrade the system. My amp, cans are good, and the Piccolo DAC is source dependant and a great little unit for the money. It seemed that the Transit was the weak link.

I would greatly appreciate it if you could setup your waveterminal when you get back. I really think I am approaching the point where I will buy one of these two units. Could you also give us some impressions on the size of the two units. From the pictures, it seems that the waveterminal might be smaller. Since I like to throw my audio gear in my computer bag when I travel and when I go to and from my office, portability is a nice bonus.

Thanks again for your insights.
I have a friend who switched from the Transit to a Waveterminal. He is using a powerbook and a MSB DAC. playing Apple Lossless files.

After switching to the Waveterminal he said "So that's what the music is supposed to sound like, it's like unfogging your glasses."

He also said he liked the way music sounded with the Transit, but he really likes how it sounds now.

One thing about the Transit - I use it with Foobar player and ASIO plug-in. These are critical on a PC to get the quality out of it. I also playback exclusively with 24/96 through my DAC. This makes all the difference. Leaves all transports in the dust.

I am thinking hard about buying an Airport Express and modding it to have a S/PDIF coax out. This might be the best solution for iMac, although I prefer a wired USB connection.
Bought an AirPort Express and I will be modding it soon... I will let you all know if it is as good as the Transit on a PC.
Thank you. I look forward to your review.
Folks - first many thanks for taking the time to share your findings - it is much appreciated.

I am also looking for a great sounding solution to go from iTunes on a iMac G5 to my Ack!Dak DAC. The S/PDIF modded Airport Express seems like it would be just what I need technically - but whether I go this route primarily depends on the sound quality.

Audioengr - I'm really looking forward to your experiences with this.

Many thanks,
That is great information from your friend Edumke. Thanks. I also look forward Audioengr to your findings. By the way, Audioengr, do you have a Mac laptop to test your mods on? I would think there would be a great market for Mac specific needs, since we have less flexibility that the PC people have.
Unfortunately I dont have a MAC laptop, and I probably will not buy one. I will look into borrowing one for this.
I use the UA-5 and it sounds pretty good for its price and never causes crashes...
Where do you live? I'm sure someone hear that lives near you will let you borrow their Mac.
FWIW the m-audio audiophile firewire has worked flawlessly from my iMac. Sound is not as good as from my CD player, but is fine for background music use. One day I'll upgrade it, but, it works fine. I've also been using it to slowly import my LPs into iTunes.
I live in the mountains in central Oregon. 7 miles to the nearest town of 1000.
Surely someone with a Mac can make the drive. Anyone?

I'm in Colorado now, occassionally in the Bay Area, but not anytime soon.
I have listened to the McIntosh MDA1000 DAC.

The MDA1000 is a bit "smoother" sounding than the Apogee MiniDAC. I love the way both DACs sound, but if I had to pick one to listen to for extended periods, it would be the MDA1000. The MDA1000 also upsamples to 768kHz, and it also cost 8 times more than the MiniDAC. The waveterminal seems to do a great job passing the PCM data to the MDA1000. I did not listen to the Waveterminal built in DACs, nor did I try the Waveterminal upsampling.

I did not do a blind test, so my thoughts are purely subjective.

The set up is: Apple G4 playing Apple Lossless files, USB to Waveterminal, Toslink to MDA1000, McIntosh 1201s, McIntosh XRT28s.

Sounds absolutely fantastic.
Thanks Edumke. It looks like I will be purchasing a waveterminal in the near future. Very cool. My DAC will be much more modest. However, I don't know anything different so I will still enjoy the upgrade.

If you can recall or could do a quick test, do the Edirol and the Waveterminal have pretty much the same quality when passing the signal through to the DACs? They are about the same price, but if one is definitely better than the other I would pick it.

If they are similar, I like the Waveterminal because it is smaller and doesn't have extra features I don't need. However, quality comes first.
Dshea_32665, I have set up two nearly identical systems. One I set up for my friend, the other is mine. The only difference is that I am using the Waveterminal, and he has the Edirol UA-25.

Since the systems are set up miles apart, I cannot give you a side by side comparison, but after hearing both extensively, I would say that there is no difference.

What is fascinating to me is the difference between the MiniDAC and the McIntosh MDA1000. Switching between the two, the music sounds much different. The MDA1000 does just what they advertise; the music is smoother, less harsh, much more pleasant to listen to for extended periods. I have read numerous reviews that describe McIntosh as "musical", and that is precisely it.

Having said that, the MiniDAC might be described as ultra clear.

Both are fantastic. If I had to pick one, it would be the MDA1000.
For passing the signal through to my DAC, I've been using the waveterminal and like it a lot.
Great guys thanks. Off to ebay to buy a waveterminal. Then I can start thinking about the higher end DAC. I am using a portable AOS Piccolo DAC which is a fantastic unit for the money, but it is nowhere near the price range of those being described here.
Having some trouble getting my PC laptop to talk to the AirPort Express....

Looks like I will have to cut it out of the case to mod it - no fasteners.
I received my Waveterminal. I very much agree with the improved quality that has been discussed here. Wow what a difference. The clarity is very much improved, but without digital fatigue. The details at the soft dynamic levels are fantastic. There is also a much greater depth in the sound stage. I wrote a review of my comparison between it and the Transit on head-fi. This is the thread: http://www4.head-fi.org/forums/showthread.php?t=94520

Thanks Edumke for being the catalyst for my to get this unit. It really is amazing!

Hey all,

Newbie here..so bear with me.

I'm currently sending musci from my older G3 PowerBook laptop to the Airport Express unit, and than out of the AX unit via mini-optical to toslink into my HT receiver (Onkyo 502).

This sounds pretty good at this point in time, but I'm interested in how I could improve the sounds.

After looking at products like the Waveterminal, it seems that I have to power that unit via USB. Since the whole point of this (for me) is to be wireless, that's not an option as I don't want to run a USB cable from my laptop to the Waveterminal device.

Can any of you guys recommend an entry level solution that would be able to take the toslink optical output from the AX and convert to digital coaxial, and also hopefully allow me to improve the final sounds quality coming out of my Onkyo 502?

As a further fyi - for speakers (not that it really matters) I'm using a 5.1 system with Polk 35/25RTi for the front and back, a Mission center and a HSU sub.
Thanks for any help!

View the following thread:

Is there any consensus regarding this question? Which is best and why?
"I tried the Transit on two separate Apple systems myself, and had several friends come to the same conclusion on different systems.
....the music sounded like it was castrated."

I heard back from M-Audio and they have verified that "in order to match levels of the MAC to PC, the MAC digital out must be set to +8."

I recently tried the comparison of MAC to PC using my Off-Ramp at CES, and initially it really sucked, but after turning off all of the DSP functions of the MAC, it got a lot better. The dynamics and loudness was lower though. I think the +8 setting explains this. M-Audio said that the driver fro the Transit for MAC is actually superior to the PC version.
In looking at Gordon Rankin's website discussion of setting up his Cosecant USB DAC he recommends setting the internal volume control on PC's at 50%; but on MAC's he recommends setting the volume control to full output. Seems the PC will add gain to the input signal but the MAC does not.

Perhaps setting the MAC to full output and turning off all DSP functions will help the sound quality of the MAC - Transit (or "Off-Ramp" for Audioengr) - DAC sound quality match that achieved on a PC - Transit - DAC system.

Anyone able to try this?
I am about to construct such a system. I am starting with a G4 laptop, and external hard drive and a U24 Waveterminal. I will connect the waveterminal directly to my integrated. I will let you know how it goes.
I was interested enough in this whole topic to buy an Airport Express and check into it for myself. I followed some of the info on Audioengr's website and used the Exact Audio Copy software for ripping CD's uncompressed to my PC HD (Compaq tower, fairly new). I bought a compatible USB wireless device and also the little Apple remote that plugs into the AE USB port.
I use the Monster mini to Toslink cable and run that into my Audio Alchemy DTi Pro32, where I messed briefly with increasing the word length from 16, 18, 20, 22 up to 24 bit. The DTi then goes into an MF A3 24 Dac which upsamples to 192khz.
We had a club meeting on Sunday at my place, so we spent a little time comparing the PC playback with playback through my transport.
The main drawback with the PC front end is on busier passages where the music seems to collapse a little (compress). In most cases it comes fairly close to the sound quality attained via the transport, but has never sounded better, only similar or slightly inferior.

I wonder if there are improvements to be had at the copy stage, perhaps some of the many parameters in the EAC software need to be set differently?

Has anyone using a good transport had better results with the AE and a Mac or PC server?

I'd be interested to hear if it's possible to improve the performance using the hardware that I have.

Well the whole project has, thus far, come off without a hitch. They system sounds excellent and I love having music at the scroll of a mouse. Now for the long, arduous task of importing all my music to iTunes....

I was in on this thread earlier on and wanted to let everybody know where I am now. I did buy a U24 to use with my G4 iBook. I purchased the Apogee Mini DAC and have my Sennheiser HD650s connected to the Apogee via XLR outputs through a balanced Zu Mobius cable. I listen almost exclusively to classical music and am a professional musician. This setup is astounding. I can't stop listening.
I am using the U24 as well, with nice results. But I want more. I am trying to decide between the Apogee USB Mini DAC and the Benchmark DAC 1. Any opinions or experience?
I just figured out that I can get lots of great radio through my computer/internet as well. I can now sell my changer and tuner if I want. I am thinking about putting my money towards a really good DAC since my computer is turning out to be the heart of my system. Now that I have ripped my 500 cd's to computer, and have all the album artwork loaded as well, I can't believe I didn't do this sooner. I am rediscovering my music collection and listening to stuff I haven't listened to for years. It would not surpise me if we begin to see a lot of USB DAC's on the market very soon.
I answered this in the Digital thread, but I have the same setup as you and I think you can't go wrong with either the Apogee or Benchmark. I own an Apogee Mini DAC and it produces an incredible sound. I am using it with Senn HD650s with a Zu Mobius cable which has been terminated with XLR plugs to go directly into the DACs XLR outputs. If you are using headphones, I recommend the balanced plug. However, the 1/4" headphone out on the Apogee is really excellent as well, I was surprised.

PC, wireless to SB2.
SB2 -> External DAC or Analog out. Up to you.
SB2 will server as a bit accurate transport.
Wslam: what is an SB2?
Just as a follow-up: I find myself astounded at the sound quality of my G4 laptop out to the Waveterminal U24 into the preamp section of my 6900 integrated. I preferred the sound of this combo to the Apogee Mini-DAC (used both as a stand alone DAC and direct drive into amp). Don't get me wrong, the Apogee was excellent and I learned a lot from it, but it was not a significant enough improvement over the Waveterminal set-up to justify the 1K price-tag (I got the Apogee from Sweetwater, they are a GREAT dealer and had a 30-day money back guarantee). It was mostly different.

I am now auditioning the Benchmark Dac-1. Too early to say but I will follow up once I have logged some hours with it both stand alone and direct drive into my amp section of the 6900.

It has been fun!
Sent the Benchmark back to Audio Advisor today. I am almost ready to give up and just stick with the Waveterminal itself. I don't know what is inside that little box but it must be pretty special. I just got a great deal on a used Dodson 217 MK II-D DAC (with 218 software and upgraded BNC digital input). We'll see. Does anyone know what kind of D/A is in the Waveterminal? At $159 it has to be considered an absolute bargain.
I am in the process of setting up a database with Foobar and output from the PC to a Music Fidelity TriVista 21 DAC. I am feeding this to the Bryston Bp25 PreAmp and 4 7BST monoblocks to my Kappa 9's or RS1 B's. From the PC I also send a signal to the Electrhome 8500 CRT procector for 2 channel home theater. The sound is excellent as compared to using the analog signal from the onboard sound card. The TriVista DAC has had excellent reviews from many sources and am quite pleased so far. I've also tried this with my DVD player for the transport and the results were about the same.

I am wondering if the music might be better if I use a quality sound card?? Right now the output is from the Realtek 850 chipset with the latest drivers available to the DAC.

Any responses are appreciated.
I assume the TriVista handles jitter reasonably well. That leaves the question whether you are getting bit-perfect output from motherboard. Are you?

There are many external USB to S/PDIF converters, stock or mod, that can do a good job feeding your TriVista from PC.
Kenn39: I am aware of the Waveterminal as a device than can take USB out of the computer and convert it into S/PDIF or coaxial. What others are there and are some better than others?
Pardales: I was referring to the various stock models from M-Audio and Edirol, and mod versions from Empirical and Redwine. Many have been mentioned earlier in this thread.

I have not tried any other than the stock M-Audio Transit. Pairing with a Benchmark DAC1, I was overjoyed when using Secret Rabbit Code upsampler with Foobar2000. I think Waveterminal does not have the option to output 24/96.

Reading the marketing info on the mods, I think they have the potential to be better. I may look into them seriously in the future. At this point, I am just enjoying music.
Racerxnet - forget the sound card. Use an external converter with it's own power supply, or a USB DAC.

I am using an external DAC. I bought the Music Fidelity TriVista 21 DAC for this purpose. I still need bit perfect output from the sound card at 44.1 Khz. I have reverse enginneered the driver for the Realtek 850 with IDA Pro so that I get the correct sample rate. It would have been easier to buy a new card, but would not be a challenge!

The DAC I bought was quite expensive at the time it was released. Sounds very good to me with my current set-up.