Happy with USB DAC? Some rambling included..

Here's the deal, a few months ago I was at a few local hifi shops looking for some monitor speakers and was shown some pretty slick music servers. I got the bug and started doing some research into it and got going.
First I figured I would get a 192k/USB dac to replace my old one that really was getting long in the tooth(and doesn't have more than 44.1k). Since I was just giving it a try, I went with one of the Chinese ones on ebay. I was able to pick out a Burr Brown chip set that seemed to have the most consistently good reviews, and it was shipped to my door in four days.
I pulled out my laptop to give it a try. Boy, did it sound mediocre. I gave it up to being a 150 dollar dac and a cheap laptop. Though it worked pretty seamlessly. But it sounded like a tin can compared to my transport/dac.
So, we ordered some back-up HP desk-tops at work that had some pretty good spec for about 300 each. 6 gig ram, 500gig HD, etc. When they showed up, I though something was wrong with them because I couldn't hear the fan. I tore one apart and found the most unbelievably quiet fan I have ever seen. First thing I though was this would be a good candidate for a music server, then I saw that it had a digital rca-out on the back. No I was intrigued. So, I took it home and gave it a try with the cheap dac. The usb input was still pretty weak, but windows 7 was nice to use compared to what I was used to.
Then I hooked up the digital out on the sound card of the computer and was blown away! Now, there was something worth listening to! I actually thought it was better than my cd setup that costed me much more.
So, has anyone here really been impressed with the USB route, and also compared it an actual digital out for sound quality? I listened to a Music Hall USB DAC that sounded pretty good, but A couple others I heard really sounded like crap.
Most of the DAC manufactures just threw the USB on their dacs to make them compatible with computers. The implementation is mediocre at best.
Ayre, Wavelength,and dCS utilize asynchronous USB which is incredible. I have an Ayre DAC and it totally outplays my $5000 CDP.
Hoff48 hit the nail on the head. I have a Wavelength Brick, and it sounds great. Implementation is everything.
My experience with USB DACs is that they are generally not very good. I've used Benchmark, Nova, April/Stello. I have had much better results simply using the RCA coax out from the motherboard of a desktop (or even the toslink).
Better still is the new Logitech Touch, which has other nice features like Internet radio and remote control.
Best (for me so far) has been a dedicated pro sound card (RME) which is not particularly user-friendly, but the SP/DIF out sounds great.
The best USB I've heard is using an Empirical Audio Off Ramp, which is quite expensive to simply get the bits out of the computer to the DAC.
Bottom line: USB takes a lot of special work to sound great, and those solutions (asynchronous like Ayre, or Empirical) cost a lot. Going directly out of the computer is mighty good, and better is a dedicated sound card.
I second the Wavelength line of DACS. Replaced a Wadia 861 with a Brick Silver & am happy I did.
Starting out with Chinese units on ebay is the correct approach.Its all going to get better which is win/win.YMMV,Bob
I agree that the Ayre USB/DAC is an excellent product. I have been researching the best way to build a high quality computer based audio system. So far my plan is to go with a MAC Mini, 2 TB Mercury Elite-AL External hard drive - dead silent (The Mercury Elite-AL Pro uses a separate power brick that connects to the case via a DIN-style connector. Normally, I prefer cases with integrated power supplies, however in this case, an external power supply eliminates the need for a noisy fan to keep everything cool) and the Ayre USB/DAC which would be connected to my Rowland Synergy II Pre Amp. My only reservation at this point is based on the fact that there may be a better music management format then Apples i tunes for transferring high resolution data from CD's and for basic management of music files.
Any advice here would be appreciated.
Also look into the dB Audio Labs Tranquility DAC. It uses USB only but it's a different implementation than Ayre or Wavelength. Whatever it is they're doing something right.
I have an Ayre QB-9 and love it. The key to using a computer as a front end is to make sure the audio source is not modified by the software before sending it out the USB port. I use a netbook with external USB drive and the free Windoze based Media Jukebox software and ASIO (or whatever it's called) driver.
Get a M2tech hiface and send your USB signal out to spdif. I was floored by the difference in my system.
Don't know if anyone is still reading this thread. But I am wondering if any of you have ever heard of the Music Streamer II+. It is a great USB DAC which uses asynchronous protocol and costs less than 400 dollars.
Async is a PLUS.
If it has any chance of great success, that is what will make it.

Firewire would be my 'cost no object' choice.
if you don't have a great DAC or a $1000+ budget, buy an HRT Music Streamer. If you do, buy a Hi face Evo or like converter to feed your good DAC with low jitter digital input

Computer sounds cards are a waste of time.

Use Foobar2000 with the kernel streaming option

Be prepared to shell out money online for 96k/24 bit recordings when you get to this point and can hear what the copyright pundits have blocked you from hearing with SACD and DVD audio digital signal locked inside your old player..
I am absolutely delighted with my new HRT Music Streamer II. I'm an old fashioned "tube and vinyl guy," but I gotta tell you, computer audio through the Streamer II sounds really good. The music is mighty fine.
I think USB is a real dog. To say it is medeocure is kind. I use an all digital sysem based off a mac mini and have used several "good" USB DACs.

In my system i have both the USB and toslink hooked up (HDR-DAC1) and can change a computer setting to switch bwteen the two. It is night and day, USB sounds bright forward and compressed, toslink is neutral open and detailed. The best computer audio upgrade is to dump the cheap PC and get a Apple... Why spend to much time and money on USB when a mac mini is $600 and puts out 96/24 over toslink stock?