Need help choosing a new DAC


With so many options for DACs these days, I'm having a hard time deciding on a new DAC.  Currently considering a MHDT Orchid or Pagoda, Denafrips Pontus II, Benchmark DAC3,  Schitt Yggdrasil, or Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE.  I don't need any options such as volume control, BT, or MQA.  I also prefer musicality over measurements.  I'm currently using a SMSL SU-9, which will be moved over to my office system.  I'm tired of moving it back and forth between systems. My bank account prefers the cost of the Orchid since the other options cost up to twice as much, but I can go as high as $2500.  I mostly steam Qobuz thru a Raspberry Pi 4, but also use a Cambridge Audio CXC v2 CD transport on occasion.  My preamp is a Don Sachs DS2 tube preamp going into a D-Sonic m3a-1200s amp feeding "Gunned" MMGs.  I mostly listen to the Grateful Dead, rock, jazz, and acoustic music. Which DAC should I get and are the any others I should look at? 

terrapin77

It doesn’t look like you care about balanced output or native DSD either.  

Or remote selection of inputs. I will not do hifi without any of these.

@fuzztone The Don Sachs preamp has a balance input but the output is RCA.  I don't think I have ever listened to a DSD file so that isn't a concern for me.  

Some have some features but not all pieces under consideration. That makes it unconcerning.

Never experienced a SACD? The originalpocommercialization of DSD.

Better through a good DAC than a Sony BDP.

I'm just making the point that I'm not worthy of assistance.

If you already have tubes in your audio chain, it might be overkill to go for a tube-based DAC like Audio Mirror or MHDT. I owned an Audio Mirror Tubadour III (non-SE version), and it was a great dac when paired with SS equipment. When I moved to a tube integrated amp, it become too much of a good thing. I felt that it was homogenizing things too much for my liking.

By the way, I'm surprised to see Benchmark DAC3 on your list. It is great DAC no doubt, with a lot of fans. But sonically it is quite different from almost every other DAC on your list. If you're after utmost neutrality then go for it. 

My vote is either Denafrips Pontus II or Yggdrasil. Both are highly regarded and provide great bang for the buck. They also keep their value better than many other DACs. I also agree with @fuzztone about DSD playback. Listening to DSD in either 128 or 256 format is quite an experience. For this reason alone, I would pick Pontus II as my first choice.

I highly  recommend the Musician Pegasus.  

@arafiq is there a good site on the internet for DSD?  I haven't seen any DSD files on Qobuz, but TBH, I haven't looked for them either. 

Hello, terrapin77.

 

I'd like to chime in with my thoughts. I think your list of candidates is a pretty decent selection of DACs to choose from. Based on what I've either read or actually heard in the past couple years, you'd likely be happy with any of them. Of course, some will make you happier than others, but the only way to know for sure is to try them. Like you, I own a Don Sachs Model 2 preamp. My main amplifier is Don's Kootenay 120 KT88 amp while my backup amp is an IceEdge 1200as2 Class D amp (more or less similar to your amp).

 

Here are a couple points to consider as you research and audition different DACs:

Even though streaming is very convenient and offers a kazillion titles to listen to, you will not get the same sound quality as you will get from a dedicated CDT. It took me a while to realize this because I didn't have a CDT until this year, so I didn't make comparisons on my system till this year. Depending on the recording and the CDT, the differences can be profound.

 

There are two (at least) camps on formats. One camp declares DSD king while the other camp declares NOS king. Your listening preferences and ears will eventually inform you which camp you prefer to join. [Potentially boring personal story coming. 😀]  A few years back, I got caught up in the DSD excitement ("the wave of the future!") despite my having very few DSD songs to play. I purchased a Gustard ESS9018-based DSD capable DAC more for its reputed DSD capability than for its good sound. Eventually, my enthusiasm wore off and I recognized the DAC needed to find a new owner. That was when I 'discovered' the existence of NOS DACs. I purchased a used dB Audiolabs Tranquility SE DAC with upgraded Jupiter Cu caps. The caps needed 100+ hours to burn in, but even so, I heard MUSIC coming out of my speakers. That DAC got me hooked hard on the NOS sound. I no longer had to worry about acquiring DSD tracks, and could content myself with Redbook CD quality and/or hi-res up to 96Hz.

 

Once I knew I wanted NOS DACs, I was better able to focus on DACs that would please my ears. I believe you're heading in the direction of choosing NOS over DSD or MQA, yes?

 

From your list - " Currently considering a MHDT Orchid or Pagoda, Denafrips Pontus II, Benchmark DAC3,  Schitt Yggdrasil, or Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE.  I don't need any options such as volume control, BT, or MQA.  I also prefer musicality over measurements. " If I were in your shoes , I'd try to audition the MHDT Orchid, Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE, and the Benchmark DAC3." I base this suggestion on my own research over the past year or two. The other DACs may well sound wonderful, but these three would be my first choices to audition. I very nearly bought an Orchid last year, but instead chose to upgrade my SW1X DAC. [My SW1X DAC is above your budget, so I am not recommending it to you.]

 

With a good quality, well designed NOS DAC, your PCM files/Redbook CD music will sound wonderful. Streamed music will sound VERY good as well, but not as good as music from a CDT.

 

Does this help? 

 

Do try to audition DACs and accept that you may need to spend a couple hundred dollars on restocking fees while you search for the DAC that makes you happy. Enjoy the journey!

 

 

@mresseguie Thanks for the reply!  I definitely don't need MQA or DSD.  I went on a few sites to see what was available in DSD and nothing I listen to is in that format.  I'm leaning towards auditioning the Orchid since it costs less than the others. The money I save would be put towards finishing treating my room.  I currently only have some corner bass traps from GIK. 

It’s not an either or choice when it comes to NOS and DSD. For example, Pontus ii supports both. I still maintain that tubes in a dac are not a good idea when you have more of them down the chain. Either way, all the dacs in your list are excellent. MHDT has a loyal following and for good reason. Good luck!

BTW, when buying DSD it’s important to buy from a place that gets it from the original source or as close to it as possible. For that reason I prefer NativeDSD. But yeah if it’s not a priority for OP then it’s a moot point. 
 

Just rip SACDs. The source is ALWAYS orig.

@arafiq I'm going to audition the DACs before I buy.  As for a tube DAC paired with a tube preamp, I've read a few posts on the forums where the Audio Mirror was used with the same preamp I have.  They loved it!  

@terrapin77 ,

95% of music is recorded at redbook quality. You can find higher rez music on Tidal and Qobuz, but much of it is simply 'remastered' works from an earlier recording.

Auditioning DAC's is probably the best way to find out what is good.

That being said, I would recommend adding the Ayre QB-9 Twenty to your list. You should be able to find one used within your price range.

Bob

@terrapin77

I believe that @mresseguie made some very insightful points. Given your description of what type of sonic presentation you’re seeking the non over sampling (NOS) DAC approach make a lot of sense. As mentioned above the overwhelming format available is Redbook CD. Much of it is well recorded.

 

I would focus on good quality DACs that strive to extract the musical beauty and naturalness good CD playback is capable of. There is a well made/engineered Swiss made NOS , Merason Frerot DAC. Not a common brand talked about on this forum but worth checking into. It fits well within your budget target. @soix mentioned the Musician Audio Pegasus , also worth investigation.

Charles

I recommend a Schiit Yggdrasil. I helped a friend research a DAC, in the process I bought a Gungnir multibit as an experiment (for my computer system), and we got him a Yggdrasil. The natural and detailed sound compares with DACs of much higher cost. Since a DAC is so central to digital sound, you don’t want to skimp. This is a very high caliber DAC for the money.

Noting your budget I must share that I purchased a Sonnet Morpheus with MQA for $3,200. I think you can come in at @2,900 without. This component transformed my system and will pretty much make any recorded production sound good with proper adjustments between it and your preamp. 

You left out max $$ budget 

@jimob ​​​​​​My max budget is $2500

@charles1dad I will look into the Merason Frerot. 

 

@scottya118 I will check out the Sonnet Morpheus, but it is slightly more than I want to spend at this time

You know they'll all be decent but a little bit different to each other. If you can't try them in your own system you really have to roll the dice to a certain extent.

I have the MHDT Orchid. I like it. The tube gives a little bit of scope to massage the sound presentation.

Just go off the features you desire I reckon. 

One think on your list an uptone audio Ether regen ,hub makes Everything sound better, your budget $2500  button the multi review winner Denafrips Pontus 2

you order it within a week delivered ,I have one ,as well as their new Terminator2

i sold my Bricasti 3  for the terminator a Big step up in realism .

the Pontus around $2k then you can buy that uptone Eyher regen and Wireworld starlight Ethernet cable and usb Excellent low cost buys ,being in a multi state audio club I hear a ton of nice equipment for all budgets.

Good inexpensive DAC Border Patrol.

I auditioned the Ferot it was nice but no better than my Bel Canto 2.7 DAC.

My suggestion is to consider the Aqua LaVoce. This is a DAC that is a keeper, long after all the other flavor of the month DAC's have come and gone. It's relaxed, effortless, analog-like, highly resolving and with the right streamer-capable of maximizing the performance of your existing system. Even when you choose to upgrade your speakers, amplification and preamplification, the Aqua will remain. You don't see many of them for sale because their owners stay put. The LaVoce is a Ladder DAC made in Italy, not some Chi-Fi product. It's also upgradeable by Aqua HiFi who has a history of offering excellent upgrade options to their customers.

If I were to choose a chip-based DAC, I'd consider a Teac UD-701. It's Roon ready, supports Qobuz and offers two analog inputs, which means you can connect a turntable to it as long as you have an outboard phono stage. It also has balanced outputs, so if you want to connect directly to a very good power amp via it's own balanced inputs you can. There's nothing that the Teac can't decode natively, and I mean decode well. It's no Aqua LaVoce, but it offers high value and can compete with anything at the $3000 price point, and gives you a very good linestage with input selection and volume control in the analog domain as well. 

But you should get the LaVoce. When you spend vertically, you are less likely to suffer buyers remorse. If this your forever DAC, step up to the plate and get it.

I like the DAC chips Hyperstream makes. Japanese PCM chip. The CEC DA5 is in your price range. It can be used as a preamp eliminating the need for a preamp. I use it in my home system. It is in your price range. I have a demo you can purchase for a little less.

You need to look at the Gustard x26 pro at $1,500. Great filters all adjustable via the remote. All possible connections available. I moved the Denafrips Ares 2 to my secondary system.

Agree with audioman85. .. you can’t beat the Pontus (which also does NOS) and is the best value here. Amazing R2R architecture, high quality parts, and built like a tank. There are some really experienced members here who recently bought it and can’t stop singing its praises. 

But I think OP has his heart set on tube-based dacs, in which case Audio Mirror Tubadour iii se is also a great product and it’s made in USA as well. I had their non-SE version which was a great match with my SS amp. 

A warm low-ish cost DAC is the Gustard X26 Pro. I owned it for a while and loved it.

I also owned the AudioMirror (top model). It was pretty good but I preferred the Gustard for my warm DAC types.

I currently own the Benchmark DAC3B. It just does the job and I like having it around. It is a little hot on top. I was told by someone with some audio experience that the DAC3B is a little shy on the bass and that makes the top seem hotter.

The best DAC I own is the Musetec 005, ($2965 - $3300). It has the perfect warmth, detail, and really dense sound. I would like to get a second 005 to replace the rather good Topping D90SE DAC in my living room system.

Two years ago I went through the same task of trying to find a DAC that made a difference to SQ. Like you I have an all tube system but found that Denafrips Pontus, and the Orchid and Pagoda made absolutely no difference. The distributer for Denafrips who loaned me the Pontus said I would need the Terminator to notice any improvement in SQ. I eventually went with a SS DAC in my price range which did provide greater dynamics and clarity, This was the Pure Audio Lotus 5 which used the ESS 3089 chip. The fact I liked it surprised me because I have generally hated ESS products finding them way to bright but the implementation in the Pure Audio was extremely musical and a great match with tube amplification.

+1 Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE. I owned one for about a year paired with a SS amp; it is a wonderful sounding DAC.  The non-SE version has been discontinued.      

Why not another SMSL?

I would add the Ayre Acoustics Codex to your list. It’s $1,995 new and has both USB and optical inputs. It’s somewhat comparable to the Benchmark in that it’s very neutral sounding and highly resolving, but unlike some solid state gear not edgy or overly bright. It’s something to which you can listen for hours given its clear, smooth sound. Also Ayre provides great support for their products. If you can audition the gear you are considering you will hopefully find one you like best. 
 

Happy listening!

@arafiq ​​​​​​I'm not 100% certain I'm going with a tube DAC. In fact, tube DACs only recently came on my radar as I have been doing research.  The other components in my system aren't leaving anytime soon. Just trying to find the right DAC for my system and keep it within my budget.  

I’ve never heard the Schiit Yggy but have the Bifrost 2 and think that it’s incredible FWIW. I found this video as a good resource. Guy goes into details with a lot of popular DAC’s (he does mention audio science review but goes off of sound, not measurements).

DAC Comparison - MidFi Guy

 

 

If you are willing to purchase used equipment I would add the Ayre Acoustics QB 9 or later QB 9DSD to your list. These are USB only DACs which were more expensive new than the CODEX, have both RCA and balanced outputs and are available used on Audiogon and other sites for $1,000 to $1,500. Ayre offers a major upgrade to Twenty status described in the link below. You can do the upgrade later. I thoroughly enjoy mine, which has been upgraded. I’ve listened to others costing twice as much but have had no reason to change horses.

 

I’m what I consider a medium to low budget audiophile. I just added a MHDT Orchid to use primarily with a CD transport. I’m quite happy with the improved sound out of my CD player. Seriously looking forward to purchasing a better transport. I have a Jolida Fusion 6802 integrated amp if that matters.

Normally if the DAC is sealed in its original box, it will be new.

Buy a Denafrips Ares 2-$800.  

Way too many choices.  Just pull the trigger and get one.  Then like the rest of us, put it up for sale and move up the food chain.  Do it once or twice, and your significant other will think you are hooked on fentanyl.  Trust me on this:  I’m now using the Brinkmann Nyquist DAC.

Benchmark dacs sound great and look at used Dacs here on Agon and get a great one for 30-50% off. Mytek, Ayre, Benchmark you cant go wrong. Read Stereophile Dac reviews which will clear things up some. 

I’ve had a Chord Qutest for a while and recently bought an MDHT Orchid because I was curious how an R2R with tube output would compare to a Delta Sigma FPGA. It was much closer than I thought it would be. I didn’t use the stock tube for long on the Orchid, opting for an adapter and a NOS Amperex 6DJ8. It gave it a little more body. There’s a thread all about tube rolling Orchids that might help you tailor your preferred sound. The biggest differences to me were the Orchid seemed a little more rolled off at the top, but not in a way that made it sound incorrect. I actually ended up changing from the incisive to the warm filter on the Qutest. Before hearing the Orchid I hadn’t even considered it. The Qutest still seems a little more detailed and with a slightly larger soundstage. With some hi-res tracks off Qobuz the Orchid got confused and emphasized some tape hiss from old masters. If I limited Qobuz to redbook the Orchid was actually a little quieter than the Qutest for the same tracks. Very minor, but the whole reason I got it was to compare. Though I plan on keeping both, if I had to give up one I’d keep the Qutest. I think I have a bias toward detail. Comparing the two DACs made me realize this. I do have the Orchid connected to my CD transport though. My point is you may not figure out what you want until you try it. I think if I had bought the Orchid first, I would have been disappointed by the Qutest, but mostly as a value proposition. Need to save up my nickels to try a Sonnet Morpheus next.

I’m a diehard Yggdrasil fan, and listen to a lot of live Dead recordings on Quboz. This is also not a flavor of the month DAC, and is made in America to boot. Schiit stands behind their products, too.

I have the Pontus ll running XLR to my Hegel H390 and love it! 
All the best.

JD

Hey Terrapin,

Fellow Deadhead here.  While you’ve gotten some excellent advice here so far, I’ll put in a vote for a vintage DAC that support HDCD.  All of the official releases, new box sets, Dick’s and Dave’s Picks releases are still encoded with it.  Does it make a huge difference?  I don’t know, but there’s a reason they still master these tracks with it about 20 years after the heyday of Pacific Microsonics (pre Microsoft).  There’s maybe something a bit psychosomatic about seeing the HDCD light illuminate when you pop on a disc.  I’ve only heard the PMD100 version DACs, never the PMD200 version.  Not many DACs or disc spinners have that option.  You can find killer DACs for 1/4 your budget too.  I’ve owned modern DACs, but none sound as good to my ears as the UA20400 or BB PCM63 based DACs.  I live quite happily with my mid-90’s era DACs with cutting edge technology of the day.   I may be a little out of step, but man they bring a smile to my face.  Favorite DACs include the Proceed DAP, Parasound 2000, Classe, Sonic Frontiers and many others.  Magnificent imaging and soundstage depth.  Give them a try!  The money you save can buy you the next 10 years of Dave’s Picks.  :^)

@marlin38 I'm actually thinking about getting a HDCD compliant CD player because I have so many Dead CDs. My CXC V2 isn't HDCD compliant. And the Dead CDs are about the only discs that get played in my system. 

I want to say thanks to everyone who replied to my post. As for the DAC, an Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE just popped up for sale on another forum and I  emailed the seller that I want it since I would save $1k vs buying new.  If I don't like it, I will sell it and try the Yggdrasil next.  

Agree with clockworkcreep5, the Aqua Voce is incredible. I bought the Aqua La Voce S2 DAC and sent it back to Italy for a $1,500 upgrade to S3 (the current version). This made all my CDs sound more organic with just the right balance between detail and an analog sound. This S3 version sells new for about $5,000. Last week my dealer had a pre-owned Aqua Formula DAC which sells new for $17K, and I bought it for $10K as an upgrade to the Aqua La Voce S3. I do hear improvement but no dramatic difference from the S3. If interested, I’ll be selling the La Voce S3 for $2,800. Take a look at the reviews on these. 

Excellent choice! Please let us know what you think once you get it. 

The best dac’s I ever had/ heard are :: Ear Yoshino , Metronome Technologie, , Eastern Electric, Mola Mola Tambaqui ,…don’l like DCS, SMB, ( to expansive for what you get)

@thebingster I have been reading up on the La Voce S3 and it definitely is a great DAC.  New, it is way more than I want to spend. Your price is more to my liking. 

Marlin38 and Terrapin77. I love my Arcam FMJ 23 HDCD player. I was in need of a second DAC and demoed a highly regarded Wadia ( about three years ago.) cost at $4800. I spent two weeks with it comparing to my Arcam which cost about $2300 new. I sent the Wadia packing, found a used Arcam FMJ 23 HDCD and am so happy. Was not a value decision, the Arcam blew the Wadia away, despite half the price. My previous DAC was Enlightened Audio w a Proceed transport. The Enlightened was great for shitty recordings, but when the Dead starting releasing HDCD, I went for the Arcam..Check out the reviews on this Arcam. It’s a shame that new DAC are not available decoding HDCD.