The odds are that it would. Whether it is significant enough or not will be what your ears decide.
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I agree with Onemug. I wouldn't expect huge differences, but your amp and speakers should be revealing enough for you to hear a difference.
Your amp has a great feature that you may want to make use of. The amp and preamp sections of your NAD are connected by jumped rca connectors on the back. That means you can use it just as an amp or just as a preamp. If you were to get a DAC with a volume control, you can bypass the preamp section in the NAD. Doing it that way would probably make a much bigger difference. If you don't mind a little experimenting, you can try plugging your Airport Express directly into the amp section and use the volume control on your computer. You may be very surprised with the results.
If you're not obsessed with a stereo that sounds good, sell your gear and buy a bose wave radio ;-)
It sounds like to me though, you don't care too much about your sound, simply because you said so, so yes a dac would make your rig sound better but is it worth the $ spent? Only you can decide. Try borrowing a dac or buy one that you can return if you don't like it, otherwise be prepared to spend $300-$600 on something that isn't going to "wow" you over.
"If you're not obsessed with a stereo that sounds good, sell your gear and buy a bose wave radio ;-)"
He didn't say he was obsessed with bad sound.
Actually, I think I can see why the OP was worded the way it was. I've read threads on this site were people would argue like its life and death over things like what kind of rca connector is best on a pair of IC's.
Oscarr, you have a great entry level system in the making. The express represents the weak link. A DAC would serve as an upgrade. The PS audio digital link III is often found used on this site for ~$350. Good DAC at that price, especially when avoiding the USB input. I play 44.1/16 bit files ripped from CDs.
The express outputs SPDIF?
"I am mostly playing 265kbps or higher from iTunes, but not 24-bit and so."
Thats the your biggest problem. It really doesn't pay to upgrade your equipment to play lossy files. I would first worry about re ripping everything you have to a format's like FLAC, WAV, or Apple Loss-less. Once you do that, you will be able to get the most out of whatever equipment you choose to upgrade.
Oscarrr, DAC will give you cleaner sound. You might not care but noise embedded in music will screw up other things like for instance imaging. Noise on analog side is caused by the jitter on digital side and is detectable by lack of clarity only (since it is proportional to sound level). Your AE, according to Stereophile measurements, has decent/average jitter (258ps) on digital out but really bad jitter artifact on analog out, equivalent to 2.4ns - almost 10x worse. Read this: http://www.stereophile.com/digitalprocessors/505apple/index.html
Even with 258ps jitter you would be better off to place reclocker between AE and the DAC. AFAIK jitter becomes inaudible below 50ps (peak-peak) but it is a matter of individual hearing. Studio engineer or symphony orchestra musician would be more likely to detect lack of clarity.
The DAC in the Airport Express is low quality. I agree with Mesch that it's your weak link. I'm sure your system is capable of showing an improvement, but whether you can hear it is the question. I was in your shoes a few years ago and I replaced an AE with a MHDT Paradisea. The Paradisea was noticeably smoother and more enjoyable. It wasn't a radical change, but the sound was less fatiguing and more natural. Initially, I continued to stream from a laptop to AE to DAC. I loved the convenience, but I continued to look for ways to improve things. I stumbled into a Stereophile review of the Airport Express that made me realize the AE was adding jitter and distortion. Eventually, I replaced it with a Mac Mini connected to the DAC with an optical cable. The change wasn't radical, but I noticed a more cohesive sound. Eventually, I realized the Paradisea was my weak link. I wanted more resolution, so I replaced it with a Bel Canto DAC3. That was a big leap forward, but at 4 times the cost of the Paradisea. I could go on with my personal experience, but my point is that improvements usually aren't huge. They are often subtle, but they accumulate over time and suddenly your system is at a new level. It's very cool to see that kind of change. You don't have to be OCD to hear the difference.
There are lots of great sounding, low cost DACS like Musical Fidelity VDac, Cambridge DacMagic, HRT Music Streamer, PS Audio Digital Link III, etc. That's where I would start if I were in your shoes.
A free thing you can do to get better sound is to rip your music in AIFF if you're on a Mac or WAV if you're on Windows. A good article on the differences: Whats the Difference Between All These Audio Formats?
I hope this helps.
Format cannot make any difference as long as it is lossless (bit perfect). Information is transferred as data in packets over Wi-Fi without timing. Timing (clock) is recreated in AE. If you ever decide to use lossless then perhaps the best format is ALAC since Itunes uses it to transfer data to AE, otherwise it has to compress to ALAC - additional operation but it doesn't make any difference because your computer is fast enough anyway (ALAC saves you disk space). I use jitter suppressing Benchmark DAC1 with AE but sound of Benchmark might be not to you liking (neutral and not warm). Combination is as clean as it gets.
I have to warn you that since clock is recreated in AE, without music clock drops. As a result of that some DACs "eat" beginning of each song with AE. Remedy is to use "crossfade" in Itunes. My Benchmark DAC1 is fast enough to sync again but you might scan this forum to find out if the problem exists with particular DAC that you have in mind before investing money.
>256kbps is very good and you'll notice big difference with DAC. Additional reclocker should give you a little more, even with 256kbps.
"Zd542: So in your opinion, a DAC isn't needed as long as I mostly play 256/320kbps files from iTunes?"
Maybe. I think a better way to put it is that you will get more out of a new dac if you are feeding it better quality music. Even playing mp3's through a new dac, though, will probably sound better just because of the fact that the analog portion of the unit will be of a much better quality.
In my first post, I recommended that you try bypassing the preamp section of your NAD. I would try it if you haven't already done so. Seeing how big the difference and what the difference is, may give you some insight on how to proceed.
You could always just try a DAC and see if it does anything for you. Amazon sells several, to include Peachtree, Schiit, Musical Fidelity, etc. Just check the return policy for the vendor that you buy from. I believe that Wyred4Sound has a home trial program as well.
If you have the money to spend, I really don't think that getting a decent DAC can be a bad choice. It's more than likely that you will get at least some improvement. The question is one of how much.
As has been mentioned, you have a decent integrated and good speakers. All it would take for you to really get a bit more enjoyment out of the system would be to get a DAC and rip your CDs in a lossless format.
I'm not an audiophile and don't chase incremental increases in quality (although I'll take them if they pop up), but I never realized how enjoyable listening to music can be until I heard it through a decent system.
MDHT Labs is the best Dac in 300-500 dolars price range.
You will be very surprise by the sound. Usually a 300-1000 dollars DAC will NOT make a lot of difference. BUT this MDHT Labs DAC is different.
I tried the Musical fidelity $800 DAC and had to return it the next day.
I tried the MDHT Labs and really surprise by its wider and larger soundstage.
Oscarrr, I have enjoyed this thread as I have many friends considering the same. You have garnished a great deal of input, most of which I agree.
1)Driving a DAC with the AE via SPDIF would be an improvement.
2)A computer playing WAV or AIFF quality files into a DAC would be additional improvement.
3)There are many DACs available (new or used) that would satisfy your needs.
As a further thought:
There are a number of DACs that came into the marketplace ~5-7 years ago that were and still are very good DACs. Their weak link has been the USB input if indeed one is provided. Given that the AE outputs SPDIF you can avoid the USB input on one of these older DACs. They often sell used for 30-50% of original retail. The Cambridge Dacmagic might be a place to start. Has 2 coaxial SPDIF inputs, which many do not, and this can come in handy for other sources. Should be able to get a used one for ~$250. The Musical Fidelity V-DAC could be bought used for less than $180. PS DL III for ~$350 - $400. You can keep a used DAC around for a year or two, resale it at a reasonable % of your cost, upgrading later after exploring the marketplace.
You might want to download free softwares to improve the sound - asio4all, and foobar.
A good DAC will improve the sound, but if you are happy with the sound, I would just enjoy it.
Your rest of the system is good enough for it to show the improvement had from a good DAC though.
If you can comfortably afford it, I would go for it, if I were you.