High end vintage vs contemporary DAC's - are sonic improvements real?


The vintage DAC question seems to arise regularly, more or less along these lines:
     "I can get an old XYZ for $2000 or a new ABC for the same $$.  What to do?" 
The answer almost always seems to be "go with the new ABC, the XYZ is older technology," "digital has improved enormously," etc etc. 

Obviously digital technology HAS improved enormously in the last 20 years (or even 10 years, or the last week depending on your belief system).  Sampling rates have marched upwards (though many will say that anything over 24b/96khz is a waste, and I agree) and everything has gotten cheaper and smaller.  Music servers have evolved and storage is cheap.  We have streaming now and use phones as remote controls to manage infinitely large music collections.  The list goes on and on.  Yet in my mind it's really THIS stuff that's embedded in the assertion that "digital is much much better than it used to be."

But how many people have actually compared a high end DAC from, say, 1996 (now selling for $1500), with a new DAC for the same $$?  Sure, features won't be the same - the old unit won't have USB anything, higher sampling rates, etc.  Yet for all that, I can't recall any conversations on actual apples vs apples comparisons of new vs old, especially on the **same** source material, specifically on a Red Book CD or a lossless CD file rip.

Example: In 1992 the Mark Levinson No.30 DAC was sonically at the top of top for Red Book CD reproduction (feel free to substitute your favorite DAC of that era).  Fast forward to the present. How much better does today's DAC de jour sound playing that same CD?  Sure, source file X recorded and mastered at 24b/192khz will likely sound better than the same file downsampled to 16b/44.1khz when played on a decent system.   But will a Red Book CD played on a new DAC sound better than the same CD through that ML No.30? 

To be clear, this isn't about sampling rate or format wars.  Think of it like this:
Let's say I have 15,000 CD's, that's all I ever want to play, and I've $3000 to spend.   What would I get for the same $$ that would sonically do as well as the No.30 playing the same CD?  Is the answer "almost anything, because sonics have improved so much"?  Or maybe it's the $10k such-and-such.  Hopefully this illustrates the question.

Comments and thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
raueda1
Well, I have a Meridian 563 DAC.  It's quite good on Redbook CDs; obviously it won't decode DSD or higher sampling rates.  I've had a chance to compare it to a Naim DAC (the larger case, not the shoebox nDAC), and the much newer and more expensive Naim is quite a bit better - more extended, better grip, more transparent, etc.  It retails new for something like $4500 and I wound up with the 563 for less than 10% of that. 

I also thought the Meridian was decisively better than the DA section of the Oppo 105 (I had one in home for the 30 day trial). 

On the other hand, the Chord Hugo was quite a bit better, and new retail in the US is, IIRC, about $2500.

Moving down pricewise, the only other modern DAC I've tried was the Wyred $1500 version.  I'd give the edge to the Wyred, but not by much, and not in everything - the Meridian has a better sense of ease - things flow better - but the Wyred offers more clarity and transparency.


raueda1

Most of the vintage high end dacs used Multibit dac chips, today these are very expensive and hard to get, some dac manufacturers are even making discrete version Mulitbit for their costly dacs.

If you want just to get the best from your 15,000 PCM Redbook cd’s then go either new age Multibit, which will cost you, or go used vintage hi-end.

One vintage Multibit cdp I can particularly point you to, would be the Mark Levinson ML39. good luck finding one, as they need to be pried away from their owners.
http://www.stereophile.com/cdplayers/292/#QmLYpoGWQvrRLq9m.97

Cheers George
I have been buying and listening to cd players and dacs since digital started. Recently I came across an old Phillips cd player which used the very famous 1451 or is it 1541 multibit chip. The unit sounded very nice and very musical. I now own an Audio-GD Master 7 dac and it is way beyond the Phillips sonically though more money. Digital today is much better than it used to be. Even a few years ago. Even yesterday. I am a big fan of R2R, Ladder or multibit dacs especially if they are NOS (non oversampling)
Alan
My own experience, having owned a Theta Casanova long after it’s prime, is that it’s sadly very much still touch and go.

More than a decade after the Casanova was out of production it was still better sounding than a lot of mass market processors I tried to replace it with. This wasn’t just me, this was also done with music lovers who came to my home and didn’t know brands at all. They clearly preferred the Theta.

I’m not able to afford modern Theta, or really been able to listen to it, so it took me a long time to find a DAC I thought was actually better, and affordable.

This is actually a shame to me. Usually over time technology trickles down, so that what is "high end" in one decade becomes common in the next. What HAS trickled down is features, what has not is sound quality. The Casanova did 96/24 (believe it or not) and while 96/24 decoding has become quite common and mass produced, the quality of the sound is still inconsistent at EVERY price range.

One oddity I discovered when examining test results from vitamin suppliers via Consumer Labs is that the vitamin quality was WORSE at the very top and the very bottom. However, vitamin suppliers within the median range of pricing tended to have the most consistently good quality. I’ve observed this to remain true in audio gear as well. These are generalities, not absolute guarantees that any product, given price X will have quality Y. It has however kept me from aspiring to gear I can’t afford anyway.

What I will say is that you have to have an open mind and open ear. If you do, you can find some really nice bargains. Like the wine bottle analogy I use. I don’t want to find a $300 bottle of wine that tastes great, I want to find a $20 bottle that tastes great. :) And unfortunately that takes work as well as an iconoclastic disposition, so when I find it, I grab on tight.

Best,


Erik

Most of the vintage high end dacs used Multibit dac chips, today these are very expensive and hard to get, some dac manufacturers are even making discrete version Mulitbit for their costly dacs.

If you want just to get the best from your 15,000 PCM Redbook cd’s then go either new age Multibit, which will cost you, or >>go used vintage hi-end.<<

One vintage Multibit cdp I can particularly point you to, would be the Mark Levinson ML39. good luck finding one, as they need to be pried away from their owners.
This gets exactly to the core the issue.  I take your comments to suggest  that >>>SONICS<<< have not really improved, at least not against the $5000+ DAC's of the 90's.  In features and connectivity the old stuff is clearly primitive, but this isn't about that.   As it happens I'm running the once-legendary combo of Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 MKIII + Assemblage D2D-1.  [see system here https://systems.audiogon.com/systems/6097]

By my reading the SFD-2 MKIII starts where the ML39 leaves off:  PMD-200 filter (upgraded PDM-100 with HDCD and more) vs PDM-100 in ML39 and 8x PCM1704 D/A's vs 4 in ML39.  SF said at the time: "These chips are placed in a fully balanced topology with 2 converters in parallel per channel per phase."   It's fully balanced throughout (of course ;-) and goes up to 24b/96khz with lots of other technical bells and whistles that I don't understand.

So, if the ML39 qualifies as superb vintage high end kit then the SFD-2 MKIII certainly would too - though it's even more obscure and was produced in tiny numbers. All the tech stuff wouldn't matter if it didn't sound good - which it does!  Superb in fact.  It has no sonic shortcomings that trouble me, my concern was that advances had left it behind.  I'm not interested in all the hassles of researching, auditioning, shipping, yada yada if the odds aren't good that I'll find a major audible improvement for less than $3000 (kind of arbitrary budget).  

Elaboration or  rebuttals welcome.  Cheers!

Ive heard the modded trivista from parts connection it hits wayyy above the cple g investment
and it 10 yrs old
All you guys are convincing me that trying to improve on the SFD-2 MKIII - which is "free" cause I already have it - would be very expensive at best and maybe not result in meaningful improvements anyway.  That's a happy outcome cause it makes my life easier, thank you very much!  Thanks for saving me a lot of money and effort!

[sidebar - interestingly the SFD-2 MKIII uses the same OPA627 op amps as the modded Trivista.  Those boys at Parts Connexion do know their stuff.]
@raueda1 I can't find much online about the Mk3 but the Mk2 version of your dac looks pretty killer very robustly built with a serious looking power supply! And some great reviews as well. Assuming the Mk3 is built along the same lines it's undoubtedly a very fine dac that might indeed give modern dacs a run for their money. Here's a thought rather than improve on it perhaps improve it? Parts Connexion does mods on SF gear, why not see if there is a mod they recommend for your dac?
@raueda1 I’ve often wondered the same thing. My Redbook NOS DAC was fairly hi-end in the late ’90’s. Replace, upgrade or what?  Since I’m comfortable with a soldering iron, I decided to replace all of the caps with really good ones recommended by fellow Audiogoners. Wow!!! It’s sounds amazing. Being local to T.H.E. Show in Newport Beach, I can easily reference it to other systems on display. Mine still holds its own quite easily. Yet, even before the cap swap, I’ve always been a firm believer that tweaking the cabling, power and isolation can change the sound of a component. My jaw nearly bounced off the floor when a WyWires Gold PC was plugged into my DAC. If I had been blindfolded, I would have sworn that somebody substituted a totally different component. As we all know synergy is king. The fun part of this hobby is trying to find it.
raueda1 -

The short answer to your question is easy: No.  You will not get better sound from Redbook CDs than what you have now without spending more than $3K. 

I use a Meridian 598 DP as transport into the 563, and the combination sounds very good, and on Redbook CD is competitive with most of what's available today. 

So stick with your SFD. 

I can't find much online about the Mk3 but the Mk2 version of your dac looks pretty killer very robustly built with a serious looking power supply! And some great reviews as well. Assuming the Mk3 is built along the same lines it's undoubtedly a very fine dac that might indeed give modern dacs a run for their money. Here's a thought rather than improve on it perhaps improve it? Parts Connexion does mods on SF gear, why not see if there is a mod they recommend for your dac?
The MK3 was offered as an upgrade to the MK2.  The main thing was a new digital board and input modules compatible with the D2D-1 (which was thought of as companion piece). I think they only built a couple hundred boards so they're rare as hen's teeth, hence very little info in the larger audiophile community and not something Stereophile would review. SF claimed that the MK3 digital module blows the MK2 away. When I did the MK2 ==> MK3 upgrade Parts Connexion did indeed offer several further upgrade packages.  I actually did spring for one of them but I can't remember exactly what it was - some fancy new caps and direct output coupling maybe.  So it's like an MK3 Gold Edition.

In any case this thing is very serious hardware.  It sounded great in 2001 and it sounds great now.  Yet there's this mantra of "digital has improved greatly."  The farther this thread goes the more I'm convinced that it's much more nuanced than that.  Maybe something like this:
  • New(er) gear has far more features and flexibility than in the past.
  • At the low and medium end things ARE much cheaper than earlier and perform far better than their counterparts 15 or 20 years ago at a similar price point.
  • At the high end this doesn't follow.  To make a sonic improvement I'd have to spend a bloody fortune.
So, this is all wonderful!  I keep it, quit worrying and just enjoy it.  For tweaking I'll look at cables, room treatments etc. Thanks to all!


Sounds like a great plan to me! Happy listening!
Room treatment will also be jaw dropping , easily one of my best upgrades . I use gik 
Next to speakers, room treatment is 2nd most important component! Cheers,
Spencer
I'd say room treatment was more important than speakers. :)  In the sense that once you have good room treatment you won't swap it out, but you may change speakers a dozen times.

It's also a bit of a chicken and egg problem though.  Consider for instance, that with room treatment, smaller speakers seem fuller, and larger speakers don't sound muddy and boomy. So, in fact, good room treatment changes what speakers you may be happy with.

Best,


Erik
I've had a Classe DAC 1 with a PS Audio Lambda transport for 5-6 years now; I find no reason to "upgrade" to anything else, and I am so glad to see that others share similar views. This pair is the only component remaining in my system and now I can be glad I have let my ears lead the way..

Well, I wouldn't say there's been no improvements.

One thing I've noticed with the latest batch of DAC's (Schiit, Mytek) is they handle Redbook tons better than older DAC's. The difference between 44/16 and 96/24 to my ears has all but disappeared. That's new.

So, I would say listen to those, or a BADA or an Ayre Codex and pay attention to two things. How they handle redbook, and bass.
I have 20 years old EAD DSP 7000 I purchased at pawn shop for $45. For red book CD or HDCD it's giant killer with very solid built quality.
One of my favorite budget CD-players Pioneer FD907 has 1-bit DLC converter. I got this one of the yard sale $15.


I had a Mark Levinson No 360s which did up to 96K music and really was very happy with it. They can be had today around $2500 so I compared that to the OPPO 105d that I bought for my theater system and I have to say the Levinson was much better in almost every way with everything up to 96k. I kept it for another year then recently auditioned the Audio Research DAC 9 and well ... it's now at home and my Levinson No360s is in another home! The really high end components like the Levinson had such good analog output sections and that's where many lower prices players just can't complete and a reason that many times you have to spend a decent sum of money to better them even today. I'm NOT saying other less expensive DAC's than the DAC 9 won't do it I just haven't heard one I liked better. Good luck! And yes ... even redbook CD is MUCH better on my ARC but then it glows on the inside so that's part of it! :-)
My Sonic Frontiers Mk2 was/is making scratching noises...so I started using the Dacs in my lecicon mc 1
The SF uses a 1996 vintage 20 bit 8x oversampling UltraAnalog D20400A (1 Dual) ... while the Lexicon MC 1 uses a 2000 vintage 24 bit 96K Delta Sigma DAC

I am on a very tight budget these days and was just assuming that any modern dac would be superior to my vintage pieces. Not worth putting more money into them. It sounds like, I should re tube the dac because it would take about 3K to equal or do better. Is that about right??

What would be a good USB to spdf converter to use these days with either DAC??
@tcatman

There are a number of $2K dacs you should consider. Especially if you have a lot of Redbook to play.

Mytek/Schiit/Ayre

iFi makes well respected USB--> SPDIF converters.
Also Wyred4Sound makes well made USB to S/PDIF converters
I think the biggest common misperception is that the type/model of the chip set in a DAC (or a CDP) makes the most difference in its SQ. Aside from the choice of components, e.g., capacitors, resistors, etc., the main reason these "older" DAC/CDPs still hold their own is because of their uber quality power supplies, analog sections, and mechanical isolation/damping in the transports sections. Chip set (designs) come and go.... and keep getting better. The current multithousand dollar DAC/CDPs are the ones that have the best of the stuff used in the older gear plus the best of the current (chip) designs. More power to the folks who can afford them.
Exactly kalali. The fallacy that the D/A chip is the major determinant of sound quality leads folks to the wrong conclusions/decisions regarding the sound quality that different DACs provide.

I just bought a (used) Hegel HD-12 ($1400 MSRP) and have spent 2 days thus far listening to it. I find it to sound very good streaming Masters from Tidal. Before I bought it, I researched the D/A chip (AK4399) utilized in the HD-12. It was AKM’s top D/A chip two years ago and was also used in the Esoteric D-02 ($23,500 MSRP).

The AK4399 D/A chip itself can be bought for $22.50 and complete DACs with this chip are being sold on eBay for <$200. Does anyone expect these models to sound like the Esoteric D-02 or even the HD-12. I hope not.

So, what’s the difference in the <$200 DAC and the $23,500 Esoteric D-02 that both utilize the same AK4399 D/A chip? The number of chips utilized, the processing algorithm, the filters chosen, the segregation of digital and analog circuitry, the buffer amplifiers, the power supply/power regulation/noise rejection circuitry, the quality of components other than the D/A chip (especially in the analog section), the flexibility of input options, the enclosure, etc.

Dave



Ok.  Point taken... How much should you spend then on a USB interface for one of these classic Dac's.     The game seems to be to find an electrically  well isolated interface that uses a "good" asynchronous  protocol to stream from a USB output.
Post removed 
Here's a start, but a few years old:

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/f6-dac-digital-analog-conversion/15-universal-serial-bus-industry-...

Dave

You mean a USB -> coax S/PDIF adapter? I have seen USB -> BNC (110 ohm) adaptors out there for game boxes but not sure how good they are. Try places like part connextion or monoprice.