A topic of nearly infinite debate. If you have no interest in computer audio, i will say that DAC quality in my experience is all over the place...huge variances. In general the trend is clearly that price/performance is improving dramatically. the Oppo105 is a great example of this.
That said, my favorite digital remains the Zanden 4-box which is now nearly 6 years old, and this is in comparison with DCS Scarlatti, Wadia s7i, ARC CD8, Metronome Kalista Ref/C2A, Stahl-Tek Vekian (original), Puccini. Just one man's personal opinion.
I have heard one reason is the NOS (non-oversampling) approach that Zanden, Audio Note, Ypsilon, Concert Fidelity and AMR use. Near infinite debate about this one as well. its kinda old school but has made a big resurgence.
In a word? As with all audio, some of the best products from a few years ago are still SOTA...and newer is not always better, even if the overall trend is going that way.
Your Cambridge Audio piece gets a lot of respect, and i suspect you could get a newer DAC that you prefer...the question is how much are you willing to spend to do it?
That would help give some parameters for just how far you are willing to stretch to beat what you already have.
"So the question is: How can you know whether a recently released DAC (say around $1000-$1500) will be a useful add-on? I'm not looking for the flippant and unhelpful try-it-for-yourself-and-see response."
I understand that you are not looking for that answer. Given the question, though, I can't possibly think of any other answer that's accurate. There are so many factors involved, there's just no other way to do it.
I can think of one thing you may want to try. That is to stop reading equipment reviews. It may sound like an odd suggestion, but I'm being serious. You just don't need them. If you really want to learn about audio and become good at selecting components, getting rid of the reviews is probably the best way to do it.
If you want greater musical realism, get better speakers.
My personal experinces:
I own a Sony SCD777ES. Using that as a transport into my Adcom DA700 (about 12 years old, bought used 7 years ago for $250) I tweaked it with antistatic foam, and NOW (after this comparison test) run it off an AC source at 110hZ instead of 60hz
My Adcom DAC is about the same sound quality as the SCD777ES direct.
The SCD777ES NOW (after a few tweaks to the system, sounds just slightly better, but just barely)
I own Magnepan 3.6 speakers, Bryston 4B-SST2 amp, Bryston BP-26 preamp, VAC Standard preamp used as a glorified tube buffer for digital stuff Furman REF20I conditioner. A PS Audio P600 conditioner set to output 110Hz instead of 60Hz A/C for the digital stuff.
So I have decent equipment.
Anyway i bought a Bryston DAC, the hot new (at that time)DAC raved about Stereophile class A, and TAS recommended DAC. It was $2,200. So I tried to compare the new DAC to my old one. I could not note anything better about the Bryston DAC.
Finally I wondered if some shortcoming in my other (Then) new stuff was holding he DACs back?
I got a Bryston BP1.5 phono box I had to order, and was relieved to hear a spectacular sound, So at that point I knew it was not the pre, amp and speakers holding the DACs back.
I retuned the new DAc for a refund.
So that is MY experience. with damn fine equipment, I could not hear any difference between an over ten year old DAC and the hottest raved about new DAC.
All these 'flavor of the day new little statup company DACs claiming to be the hottest thing since whatever.. ?
So I doubt you (the op) will note much difference adding a DAC. It may have a slightly different flavor, but it will not actually sound 'better' in any meaningful way.
You would be better off buying some other doodad. like a power conditioner. or some better wires.
This is my experience.
I was using a Sony 5400 as my digital source. Then purchased an Audio Note Kit Dac 2.1b for $1750 using the Sony as a transport. Major inprovement over the Sony especially in information retrieval and frequency extension. I have now replaced the Sony with an Audio Note CDT Two/II transport. Another major improvement proving to me that the transport is just as important as the dac
I agree with Elizabeth. Newer isn't akways better and there are other factors involved in how a dac sounds besides the chip used. It's like a quality 100 watt amp sounding better than a crappy one that's rated at 1,000 watts. I can't hear a difference between my parasound z-dac (which got and is getting rave reviews? And my musical fidelity a3.2 cd player (that got ok reviews). Buy a dac that you can return once you've heard it then you can decide for yourself!
Although one may experience improvements from one DAC to another, they are usually quite small and subtle. The best chance to enhance that "greater musical realism" you've requested is to buy much better speakers than what you're currently using.
I have the same question as you regarding DAC vs CD and am to this point:
I decided that I like to touch and read about my music rather than listen from a computer which I more readily associate with either work or mindless entertainment.
That being said, I have an Audio Space CDP 8A with tubed front end that I like. It is smooth with quite a bit of detail but my Technics table with AT 150 cart beats it hands down because vinyl sounds more "live" in my setup.
All the reviews talk about needing to be in the $5K and up league to get the "live" performance from a CD player.
So.... off I go to the audio store and listen to an Esoteric for $6K and an Electrocompanient for about the same price.
Sort of waste of time, because while I could certainly tell a difference between the two units, played through maggie 1.7's by the way, I could not tell that either sounded better than what I already had.
The store was open to letting me bring in my player to compare to the Esoteric and Electrocompanient through maggie 3.7's (I have 3.6's).
That seems like a good way to proceed.
And the store claims to be willing to let me take home one of the players if my in store listening test indicates that i like the sound of one more than my cd player.
So...does this all make sesne - forget the opinions and listen yourself. $5K or $1K is a lot of money and unless you can give it back you are screwed on new gear.
sorry - I hit submit instead of preview first.
Did not want to sound dogmatic, but given the cost of this hobby, hearing is believing.
Oherwise, it is a bet where the best odds are that we are 50% wrong and it goes further wrong from there if we miss hearing a less expensive piece that sounds better than our new toy that we think is the best.
Please let me know where I have missed the point.
"I'd genuinely like to know A) whether modern-day DACs really are superior to those from five or ten years ago, and B) whether someone with a large CD collection and no interest in computer audio is better off forgetting about a DAC and investing instead in a better CDP, like Ayon or the like."
A) Yes, certainly - but perhaps not in ways helpful to you. USB DACs (computer audio) have come a very long way. i2S is pretty darned interesting. Then there's high-resolution audio (NOT upsampling). As for s/pdif and aes/ebu, and redbook only - I don't know... probably?
B) Like others, I'm really not trying to be flippant - but only you can tell if you like the sound better from one over any other given component. If it were my money, and I didn't want to go computer audio - I'd think about both the transport and the DAC, and maybe try to crank my budget up to $2k. So for my part, I prefer your Ayon suggestion.
I guess the best advice I can give (and I'm already parroting others here) is to find a local dealer you like that is willing for you to demo equipment in your home. Try some stuff out with your equipment, your cables, your acoustics - and pick the thing you like!