New vs. old DACs - opinions?

I'm on the market for a new DAC. I've noticed that you can find used DACs from, say, 8 years ago that are heavily marked down from their original price. I just saw one sell for $400 that was originally $1500, for example.

So, correct me if I'm wrong, but the progression of DACs seems very different from that of amps... an old amp, like McIntosh, is still highly competitive today... but it seems that newer DACs are more evolved, refined, and use higher quality parts for less money, right?

Another thought is - before DACs were as widely used as they are today, perhaps the mark-up was much greater in the past...? Where-as now, with the influx of foreign manufactured DACs, there is a healthy bit of competition that keeps prices down by limiting the manufacturer mark-up. Correct me if I'm off here as well.

So, overall I'm wondering if I would be better off buying something new like a Keces or MHDT DAC or finding something older that is heavily marked down.
Buy a newer one... digital technology has always evolved quickly and some moderately priced more recent DACs should have an edge over older expensive DACs... not so much in power supply, but definitely in HF filtering and processor chips.

An old ANALOG amp like a vintage McIntosh is a different thing altogether.
Contrary opinion shared by some reviewers with which I agree is that the general level of decoders has declined precipitously . Parts have better specifications but sound worse. Very few decoders today are as good as, let alone better than, the best ones from the early 90s. Todays chips are not better but significantly worse. Some of the best decoders are using leftover older chips.
Hmm... interesting. Well those are about as polar opposite of opinions as could be :)
Stanwal's analysis is off base. The state of the art for digital playback continues to evolve and there is no way a SOTA player from the 90’s can compete with a SOTA player from today. The goal continues to be a moving target.
I agree with Stanwal. As someone who has, over the last year, had at least a dozen different DACs, (both very new and very old) in house to listen to, I think I can make a quality statement here. The three I have kept are older DACs. They sound more like music and less like computers. Maybe that's the problem. Way too much "computer" sound and not enough real hifi. Have ipods and their ilk redefined what we conceive as good and/or bad?
Wow, looks like I struck quite a controversial topic here, eh?
Mofimadness, which ones were keepers out of curiosity?
I don't know... I've had a bunch of the older DACs like the Monarchy D22B, Parasound 2000, EAD 7000 II, and even had a EAD 9000 in my system for a while.

The EAD 9000 was the standout (and most expensive) of that lot, the others were good, but not "awesome" by any stretch. I also have an old CAL Ikon II, which only sounds good if plugged into my Monarchy Audio AC regenerator.

Then I had a Modwright Perpetual Tech P-1A and P-3A combo, a Bolder Cable modified ART/DIO, a Benchmark DAC-1, a Monarchy M24, and a Rega Apollo, all of which delivered great bang-for-the-buck and likely better high-frequency reproduction than any of the earlier units.

One of my friends has an older high-end Wadia DAC and another an antiquated Sony former top-of-the-line one-box player, and the high frequency performance of those pieces is dreadful to my ears, although the Wadia DAC presents very solid bass and great dynamics. But I couldn't live with either of those pieces long term.

The bottom line is that I don't miss any of the older gear. I would take the Rega Apollo (by itself or with the Monarchy M24), or the Benchmark DAC-1, over all of the previously mentioned gear, with the sole possible exception of the EAD-9000. Another current DAC that interests me, but I haven't heard, is the PS Audio Digital Link III and I believe PS is introducing another new model sometime soon.

Regardless of all of the above, I've been getting back to listening to my analog sources lately -- a renaissance of sorts -- and I'm digging it big time.
Just experience with one old and one new dac: the old PS Audio SL-3 and the much newer Northstar Design Model 192, which is capable of handling 24 bits/192 kHz. The difference between these two is, in my system with my ears, extremely small. If I knew then what I know now, I would have kept the PS Audio and spend the money on something else.
in my auditioning, i listened to older dacs and the newer dacs, and the ones in my price range (< $5k), i preferred the older dacs. i have or have had audio research, manley, classe, cal audio, audio alchemy, and the adcom 600 & 700 dacs in my systems. i still have 3 of these in my systems today. i have listened to the newer 24/192 dacs, and have owned cd players with that capability, but just because they have 24/192 capability, it doesn't necessarily mean they are better sounding.
The generalization either way is flawed. As always, it depends on implementation, some old dacs sound better than some new dacs and vice versa.
I've found the newer DAC's to be more resolving, but they often sound harder and less liquid. The older DAC's seemed to emphasize that liquidness but had a lack of transparency.

As systems themselves have become more transparent I think we are hearing these newer DAC's and all their flaws - garbage in, garbage out. The older less transparent stuff therefore sounds more relaxed in an over resolved system, if not as detail perfect overall.

It's all a matter of balance and component matching.

DAC, after the D comes the A and C which is the analog signal coming out. Just because the digital part has the latest and greatest chip set doesn't mean the analog part of the signal is anything special. You still need a quality analog output stage. Some manufacturers (Zanden) even prefer ancient chip sets.

I like my mid nineties VAC 22.1 DAC just fine. I haven't done any side by side direct comparisons, but I am not blown away when I hear the same disc played on a CD7 at the dealer. In a side by side maybe the CD7 is better. I don't know. I do know the VAC outperforms my slighly older Linn Numeric which was a more expensive unit.
You guys are right: old computing-technology IS better. I just compared my Commodore 64 to my Macbook Pro, and it was way better! If I could only figure out how to install Itunes now.
It is hard to generalize about old vs. new, but, the generalization that new means more advanced technology is certainly NOT the case.

DAC manufacturers rely on microchip sets that come from a handful of manufacturers. Unless they stocked up on favorite chips (a handful of manufacturers actually do that), they MUST be using currently produced chips. The digital to analogue chips used in DACS are also used a whole bunch of other digital devices. So, an "improvement" that warrants the manufacturer replacing a chip with a new one is not necessarily an improvement in sound quality when used in audiophile gear. These days, an improvment means improvement in other functions the chip provides, smaller size, and lower power consumption (key improvements when used in cell phones, etc.).

People pay BIG bucks to get players and DACs that have certain vintage chips, such as Zanden machines. Naim also uses long discontinued model of chips in their premium machines.

Some DAC makers, particularly those that don't use any kind of oversampling, or even filtering for that matter, rely on careful design and premium parts in the analogue part of the chain. Even older models of these manufacturers sound great (to me, at least) today. I particularly like Audionote (uk) DACs and stuff from 47 labs, for example.
Some new DACs like Benchmark DAC1 do asynchronous upsampling with very strong jitter rejection. They sound great with any transport and any digital cable. It is very flexible (I use DVD player), allows long runs of digital cable or connection to less than ideal jitter-wise sources (computer card, ipod etc).

Since your intention is to buy DAC I would advise to get factory new one. Older versions of Benchmark, for instance, had some problems (they are at rev. G or higher now). I know of two. One was usage of Signetics NE5532 thin sounding OP-Amps until factory burned down (around 2001/2002)and Texas bought license for NE5532. They designed larger die and sound became fuller. Second problem was way to high output impedance on unbalanced (RCA) outputs. USB version has also better (stronger)output driver (LM4562) for XLR outputs allowing lower output impedance (important).
Additional factor is warranty - 5 years but only for original owner.
My own DACs are the Audio Synthesis DAX and Musical Fidelity TriVista 21, which sounds better at 96 than 192. This is also true of my friends MF 324. I have heard new DACs on other systems but not been motivated to purchase any. My own experience was reinforced for me by tests conducted by HIFICRITIC, which, like the early Stereophile, takes no ads. They found that the Zanden three box system was far and away the best with a rating of 105 on their scale. My 1992 DAX score is 45, the MF hasn't been tested. In a recent test of players the Moon Equinox RS scored 20, the Naim CD5i 11, the Bel Canto CD-2 25 and the Rega Saturn 29. They also tested a Rotel CD855 from 1990 and it scored 25. They also tested the MSB Platinum DAC 111 which is a very expensive DAC (10,000 pounds over there) and it scored 47. The reviewers conclusion was that "The current generation of DACs might have a great measured specifications, but they don't necessarily reproduce music as well as earlier technologies with less impressive measures performance. '24' bit DACs generally have excellent linearity, a low noise floor and the ability to draw power off low voltage supplies that make them useful in some applications, but musically I feel that they all gravitate toward blandness." He adds "the really good audio DACs in my opinion are all multi-bit types. Alas, few are now in production, and those few are expensive which means that you only find them in high priced players." This scenario should be familiar to you tube users [ I am not one] where a developed technology is discarded in favor of a new one that measures better and is cheaper and more convenient to build. The Zanden, Lab 42 and Audio Note UK are all multi bit chip users and sound very good despite inferior measured performance.
Your question is too general.

You need to compare specific DACs, old or new.

You also need to make sure the DAC, OLD or NEW, fits into you system well, for example, ratio of pre-amp input impedance to DAC output impedance should not be too low.

Another factor to consider based on you rcurrent system and listening tastes is whether you are going for "detail" or "smoothness" or some combo of both.

You also need to consider whether jitter rejection will be an important consideration for the DAC or no depending on your source(s). If you are not sure, then safer to go with a DAC that is more resistant to jitter from the source, like most upsampling DACS that must re-clock the bits.
How does the point system work? What are the factors and weights?
See the HIFICRITIC web site for info. Some of the ratings are there. They don't publish the articles as that is how the Mag is supported. As to Mapmans point, specific DACs will vary but whether there is a general trend upward or downward is a legitimate question.
You also need to consider whether jitter rejection will be an important consideration for the DAC or no depending on your source(s). If you are not sure, then safer to go with a DAC that is more resistant to jitter from the source, like most upsampling DACS that must re-clock the bits.

Although it doesn't directly address the question at hand, an excellent point was made by Audiogoner Tobias in this thread a couple of months ago:

DAC's that don't have re-clocking provisions that minimize jitter, and that don't have precisely controlled input impedances, will be particularly sensitive to cable length, assuming their electrical (not optical) digital input is being used. He has found that 1.5 meter lengths usually work better than 1 meter lengths.

The reason is that cable length will affect the re-arrival timing of signal reflections caused by impedance mismatch at the DAC input, after the reflections travel back to the source and then are partially re-reflected back to the DAC. Depending on the cable length, they may or may not re-arrive at the DAC input coincident with signal edges in the original incoming waveform. If they do arrive coincident, the resulting edge distortion could significantly increase jitter. And that would be pretty much independent of what source component is being used (unless the source component provided an essentially perfect impedance match at its end, preventing the re-reflection).

Something to keep in mind when comparing a jitter-resistant DAC with one that doesn't have that provision.

-- Al

The general trend has to be upward.

Its a legitimate question but I don't think the answer is very useful for determining which way to go other than if you shoot blind, the odds say you will probably find the right DAC sooner with new versus old.

Better to know what you need and then find the DAC that seems to best fit the bill.

If it doesn't try another.

In the end, you'll get to the right one faster by looking at other factors rather than whether a DAC is old or new.

If you limit it down to several choices, some old and some new, chances are you'll pay less in the end with an older second hand unit than a new one.
This question has been asked before, it comes up from time to time. You may find more information by searching the archives.

IMHO, I'd say go older dac. For one reason, yes, the newer dacs have newer digital chips, but these are relatively inexpense. What made, say for example the Classe DAC-1 so great was that it had a fabulous analog output stage. This was a $4K DAC back in the day, with more money going into analog than the DAC chips. That great analog stage will still beat any analog output stage on a $1K new DAC.

The second reason would be re-sale. Say you buy a used Classe DAC-1 (again, just using this as an example), you get a $4K DAC for $1K. In two years should decide to re-sell and move on, you'll still get about $1K for the unit. Spend $1K on a new unit, in 2 years you'll be lucky to get $300 for it.

I agree with Bob, in general, newer DACs more resolving and exposing of warts, older less resolving and more forgiving nature.

I just recently revisited a review from Feb. 1992 Stereophile of the ML No.30 DAC by Robert Harley. This was a state of the art processor priced at 14k in '92. Harley raves about this machine as head and shoulders above anything else available at the time, needed it's own category in recommended products. He describes precisely the sonic attributes I hear in my present digital setup, a newer and lower priced setup. I also hear these attributes in current more upmarket digital from Wadia and Esoteric.

My take is digital, at least at the top of the market is making real strides forward. Now, do these improvements trickle downward into the less expensive spread? I would think this can only be ascertained on a case by case basis.

I do think a lot of newer digital relies solely on processing speed and other parts upgrades without addressing other, perhaps more important aspects of performance. I certainly see a lot of newer digital with very low parts count, weak power supplies, just lots of empty space, selling at serious money. In this case, I might say the older digital with more guts may be better. Still, a case by case comparison would be needed.

My own experience has been that digital made some major strides in the reasonably priced spread somewhere around 2000. Generalizing, I would look limit my purchases to digital after this period. The highest priced earlier digital may also be a viable choice, if I could get a ML No. 30 or 30.5 at perhaps 4 or 5k (I don't know current market prices), that could be very enticing.
The specifications for D/A chips have improved over the years. The analog sections of digital players and DACs have also improved. Oversampling DACs avoid the brick wall low pass filters of old. The result is that the analog signal will be truer to the source.

Now whether this is desired or not is completely subjective.
"The specifications for D/A chips have improved over the years". But has the sound improved? Chris Bryant, whom I have already quoted, summarizes it like this.

To my mind there has been a general and continuing downward shift in the sound quality extracted from DACs over the past 20 years. DACs are produced by semiconductor manufactures and require large volumes to make operations economic as most of these will find their way into cheap products, there is little incentive to create good sounding components.
The DACs available for the HIFI designer will also be found in computer sound cards, personal digital stereos and televisions. As a result many modern examples have lost their audiophile verve, as the semiconductor manufactures prefer to make cheaper and lower powered devices better adapted to their principal, high volume customer's needs.
These mass produced low-bit converters do deliver excellent measured performance, but often seem unable to deliver the goods when real high fidelity sound reproduction is required."
This is the other side of the "if it is newer it must be better" argument. Personally, I have not heard enough decoders on my system to have fixed ideas on the subject. I only introduced these ideas to point out that there are differences between informed observers as to the general sound trend in CD. One distressing element is that the big Japanese audio companies who , with Phillips, were the driving force behind CD originally took their best designers off it's further development years ago. I think there are two things we can agree on: One , each DAC has to be evaluated on its own merits and Two, after all this time CD should sound better that it currently does.
Stanwall - you mentioned your DAC playing at 96kHz better than 192kHz. It is because every DAC chip has lower THD at 100kHz than 192kHz update rate. For that very reason Benchmark decided to update only at 110kHz output DAC chip that is capable of 24bit/192kHz.

As for multibit or one bit dilema they have specific sound. Most of converters now are one bit (delta-sigma) and even SACD is a byproduct of delta-sigma just before filtering. Most of people don't complain about sound of SACD or DSD recording maybe because it is not in priciple but in realization. It is very difficult to keep exact timing with high oversampling rates and delta sigma end-up not much better than multibit converter. Multibit is limited by tolerance of component to about 18 bit but there are improvements on the scheme. DCS makes RING-DAC where they shuffle components inside (ring of 5 if remember correctly) to get an average value. ARCAM bought license from them and used RING-DACs in earlier FMJs (FMJ-23 I believe). They had poor production yield and stopped but I believe DCS still makes them.
This is an interesting question that seems a bit too general.

One thing I can say is that in the last 20 years, transports have gotten a lot better. This is one reason I have a difficult time comparing old DACs I have had to the newer ones. I know my transport is tons better than older ones I have had. One does not know what their DAC can do until they hook it up to a killer transport. And 20 years ago, those were way WAY expensive. The cost of great transports has fallen a lot.

I always recommend getting a great transport first (I like a music server with an Empirical Audio Off Ramp Turbo device) using the best ripping and playback software). You hook this up to almost any DAC and you are going to have a great idea how that DAC performs. So many transports back in the day (10 - 20 years ago) were awful... And this did not contribute to the sound of older DACs in the least.

I didn't mean to insinuate that new DAC's have not improved over older DAC's, Many replies here are simply stating that current DAC's are better than older DAC's, technology has improved, I think there is no argument there. I was under the impression that we were talking costs vs. performance here.

Certainly a $1500 DAC today will sound better than a $1500 DAC from 6 years ago, however, in the marketplace their street prices will be very different. So let's say we compare apples to apples from a street price point of view. Since digital gear seems to depreciate fairly rapidly, let's assume that after 6 years the DAC is now selling for 25% of it's MSRP. So is a $1500 new DAC as good as a 6 year old $6000 DAC? Obviously, as in all things audio, there is no one right answer, only opinions.

A similar comparison might be would you prefer to buy a brand new Ford or a older used Mercedes. Each side will have it's advocates and detractors.

"I always recommend getting a great transport first"

- why would you buy transport first not knowing what type of DAC you'll end up with. Fancy transport with upsampling DACs like Benchmark DAC1 or Bel Canto DAC3 is a waste of money since all transports will sound exactly the same.

The only advantage of expensive transport over cheap DVD player is low output jitter. Benchmark DAC1 has jitter bandwidth of 3Hz and at the frequency of interest (kHz) reaches over 100dB rejection. If you take into consideration that jitter caused artifacts were at level of roughly -85dB to start with then it is virtually impossible to hear any difference between transports unless one of them is not bit transparent (DSP processing, digital volume control etc).
All transports do not sound exactly the same plugged into upsampling DACs. I know this because I have one of those DACs (MSB Platinum DAC III, ~$7k retail, upsamples everything 4x). I can plug my OPPO DVD player into it, and the sound quality goes down compared to my music server. And it goes down substantially enough that a laymen can hear the difference (as I have A and B'd this with friends).
I shudder anytime a DAC claims that it can be hooked up to any old transport and sound great (or the same). This is like claiming (to me) all cables sound the same. The do not.

On Benchmark forum people tried DAC1 with different transports and only few stated that they noticed faint difference (placebo effect?).

My point was to try first, before buying expensive transport and feeling stupid afterward when cheap DVD performs alike.

I read manufacturer description of your DAC. It states 16x and not 4x but it specifically says that it does not reclock (asynchronous upsampling). Without reclocking there is no jitter rejection and DAC is sensitive to jitter/transport. Upsampling by definition uses non-integer oversampling rates while simple oversampling (usually done by PLL) is always integer. So if it states 2x, 4x, 8x 16x oversampling be assure it is not jitter rejecting DAC (as stated on MSB website). Benchmark has equivalent of over 1 million times oversampling.
I say my MSB Plat DAC upsamples 4x because it upsamples everything to either 176khz ($ * 44.1) or 192khz (4 * 48.1). If you include the 24 bit upsampling, I would guess that is where the other multiple comes in.

You are right about it not re-clocking the data.

However, I do know there are lesser and greater re-clockers. And I doubt the Benchmark has the best re-clocker of data out there (Ultraclock?). My OffRamp Turbo2 coming out of the computer does re-clock the data using a Superclock4 (one step below Ultraclock).

Interestingly, I would guess the biggest differences people hear with transports that do not re-clock the data better than the Benchmark is probably in the differences in the different digital cables they use. I have heard big differences in digital cables... I cannot explain why these differences occur per se... I only can observe them. I am glad I do not have to deal with that anymore. Although people have touted the differences in USB cables, and I did recently move to a more expensive USB cable (Wireworld's Ultraviolet 5), and I did get some sonic improvements.

I still think that re-clocking is not the magic bullet that can make all transports sound the same. Error correction is important as well. And that is where most transports fail when compared to a music server. Exact Audio Copy has amazing error correction in it, and this just cannot be duplicated on the fly with a traditional CD transport.

Keith - I'm sure your DAC is great sounding and I noticed that it gained Stereophile class A recommendation. It just needs good transport to show its full potential (and good digital cable).

Benchmark has such strong jitter suppression that not only the transport doesn't make any difference but also digital cable is not important. Benchmark tested DAC1 with up to 1000' of cable and they could not hear any difference. There is no other parameter than jitter that affects the sound of transport or digital cable.

Reclocking is in a sens "magic bullet" but only for the jitter and other parts of the DAC like clock, power supply analog stages etc have to be great as well. In addition not everybody likes the sound of oversampling and upsampling DACs - many prefers sound of NOS (non-oversampling) DACs.

EAC is a great program but it doesn't come in version for MAC (I recently switched).

Interestingly, I just replaced the MSB Plat dac/dig preamp with a EMM Labs DCC-2 DAC/dig preamp. Just got it yesterday. It is quite a piece.

The main thing that has inarguably improved over the past couple decades is the fabrication processes by which monolithic ICs are made - and since the overwhelming majority of audio DACs are based on monolithic products . . . the palete of resources available to the IC design engineer has changed considerably.

That being said . . . just as everything else in audio (and life in general), the success of a design is very closely connected to how the designers/engineers work to reach their goals with the resources they have available. And in the late-1980s/early-1990s, the goals of most IC designers were probably more similar those of audiophile products than they are now -- there used to be many $10-and-up "statement" mono DAC chips available, that cared nothing for power consumption or single-supply operation, and assumed that the circuit designer had no problem spending extra money on separate circuitry to do the processing/upsampling.

Nowadays, a $4 audio DAC is VERY expensive, they're all at least stereo (if not multichannel), and have some sort of oversampling or sample-rate-converter built in - making the circuit designer's job much easier, if they want "off the shelf" performance. Most of them are also much more flexible in terms of software control, and place low power consumption as a priority. Translation: these days, the perfectionist audio business has very little part in paying the bills at Texas Instruments et. al.

It's true, the chips HAVE gotten "better" . . . especially if you're paying attention to the same parameters that most IC designers have. But all circuit architectures have their stregnths and weaknesses - and they're all ultimately dependent on the designers and engineers of the final product whether the parts fulfill the promise of what the chips themselves can do.
Kirkus - I have more experience with components than audio but components such as op-amp for instance made long journey in last 20 years. Currently they cost more than before but if you calculate price in dollars per MHz of bandwidth or offset drift or noise then new amps are at least 10 times cheaper. There were only few (unfortunately) intended for high en audio like very old NE5532 or very new LM4562 - not enough market for them perhaps.

I agree with you on responsibilities of designer. Designer can screw-up design of power supply today as easily as 20 years ago. Certain components like clock oscillators with extremely small jitter might be very expensive but it's money well spent. Designers often cut corners in places where they shouldn't. It is very sad to see piece of great equipment with one or two inferior components that somebody else (modding people) replaces to dramatically improve performance.
there is a lot of talk about clocking and re-clocking. in a normal transport/computer to dac connection, there is no clocking or re-clocking. except if you own certain esoteric or dcs components. to do clocking, these devices would have to work on a peer to peer basis and if the dac receives invalid data, it forces the source to retransmit or reread the data (esoteric calls that flow control). esoteric and others sell external clocks which are very expensive and they only work on certain sources.
here is a quote from Thorsten Loesch:
"In reality, it is relatively easy (i.e. low cost) to make a clock crystal with high precision (<0.5ppm). However, making a clock crystal with low phase noise (jitter) is much more difficult (i.e. expensive). Perhaps that's why the aftermarket so-called 'super-clocks' often quote the former and omit this latter and more relevant specification. Just as importantly, the use of more than one clock (even a 'super clock') if it is not synchronized to generate a master clock signal, will mean that the issue of all clocks being out-of-sync with one another has still not been addressed. Again, this leaves the other major source of jitter unresolved."
I think the basic issue is a clock is needed to convert the bits to analog at the right time otherwise the result is jitter and this typically occurs at the other end of the wire from the DAC, back at the source which feeds the DAC. Both clock and connection then come into play in regards to converting the right bits at the right time. If the DAC resamples and reclocks, then the the clocking function and DAC are more tightly integrated within the DAC and there is less to go wrong.
Kijanki, I'm right there with you on opamps being so much improved . . . thinking back to the "bad old days" of slow all-NPN types like the 741 just about makes my stomach churn. And I'm pretty amazed about the quality of diverse types of devices - i.e. high-quality JFETS and complimentary bipolars sharing the same wafer? Something we wouldn't have thought possible a few decades ago.

But an opamp example that would fit the example I gave above (for DACs) are those modern CMOS devices with an onboard DAC for trimming? Yes, their offset specs are impressive, especially so for inexpensive devices . . . but they're irrevelant for perfectionist audio. Ditto for rail-to-rail input and output capability, ultra-low quescient current, and single-supply "precision" operation.

Fortunately, in the world of opamps, it does seem that the bouquet of ultra-high-quality products available is more extensive than ever . . . but the fact that the attributes of most concern to most IC manufacturers (or at least the ones they spill the most ink over) aren't ones that matter most to high-end audio . . . is worth taking notice of.
Kirkus - You said it right. It is very sad that we don't represent any buying power.