Processor DACs

I am shopping for a new Processor. I’ll probably get an Integra DHC 80.3, so I am curious if anyone has ever compared the onboard DAC of their processor to an established benchmark DAC such as a W4S DAC-2. Since my music server has USB outs, it would require purchasing a USB to S/PDIF converter (such as the Anedio U2) to hook up the processor to the server. Before spending the money on a converter, I am wondering if people have tried this out, and what their experience with it is. It seems that most mainstream processors have solid DACs to do all the Dolby Digital conversion, so wouldn’t it make sense that they should perform excellent as a standalone DAC? I would appreciate your thoughts and experience.
First of all, I too am considering the purchase of the Anedio U2 for use in my PC-based 2 channel system, so I need to tag this thread. Second of all, the advantages of an outboard DAC over the DACs in a processor include the following:
Better output stage
Better power regulation
Better shielding from RFI and ground loop hum
I should note these comments are specific to 2-channel music. I run two systems, one Denon-based HT system, and one component system for 2-channel music only. My 2-channel setup mops the floor with the HT system when playing redbook audio. Another big difference is the pre-amp and volume pot in a component system, HT processors cannot compete with these IMHO, but YMMV etc.
I have a similar question. Currently have a Mac Mini as a source and an Anthem AVM 50v processor. All of my sources (Mac Mini, Oppo BDP 93, and DirecTV) are hooked up to the Anthem via HDMI only, and I am using the DACs in the Anthem for all sources. I have wondered whether it would be worth it to use an outboard DAC for my 2-channel music. I use the Mac running PureMusic almost exclusively for 2-channel music. How expensive of a DAC would I need to noticeably improve upon the Anthem? Opinions welcome.
I am interested in hearing people's opinions as well.
After much research trying to fix my own issues in my basement office's 2-channel setup, I recommend a DAC or a USB-SPDIF converter that has a specific clock for 44.1 kHz music (anything ripped from normal CDs). All of my music is Redbook. Most DACs/converters out there only have one clock, and that clock upsamples 44.1kHz music to 48kHz. This is called "clock synthesis," and obviously the math will produce rounding errors. The DACs and converters out there with 44.1 kHz clocks will brag about it, because very few pieces of gear have two clocks. The Schiit Bifrost's USB board has two clocks, the Anedio U2 converter and D2 DAC have two clocks, the Audiophilleo 2 has two clocks. Those are the cheapest ones I have seen that specifically say there is a clock meant to handle 44.1kHz data, and another clock to handle 48kHz data. april Music's Stello U3 is another converter that might have two clocks, cannot remember. If you are going from a laptop, a USB-SPDIF converter like this will improve your sound.
And Hifiguy5, if you buy a WFS DAC 2, skip your processor altogether and go right into an outboard amp. The DAC 2 has volume control. At least consider that as an upgrade path Maybe the processor you are looking for has inputs that go right to the amp section, bypassing the processor's volume pot?
without the benefit of heaving heard either the wyred4sound or the integra, it is very likely the stand alone dac will blow the processor out of the water on the basis sonics of the DAC alone. However, keep in mind that you will of course no longer have access to room correction and bass management in 2 channel mode. This may be a dealbreaker for some, and a total non-issue for others.
Edorr - This is an outstanding point that I already knew but somehow keep forgetting. In my acoustically-terrible living room, the Anthem Room Correction (ARC) makes a huge difference, so it is unlikely that an outboard DAC would make sense for me.
This is interesting. My room is treated but it makes me wonder if the 1% (or 5% or 10%) you give up with a processor, you gain back with room correction. Even the best rooms can benifit by Audyssey/ARC/Trinnov etc. It's time for an experiment!
In general, the improvements due to room correction are instantly apparent compared to the subtle differences among quality DACs.
You can have both (I.e. top notch outboard Dac and room correction) if you put a dedicated room correction / xover box with digital in and outputs in the chain, which is what I do (trinnov pro). It gets a little complex and pricey, but results are well worth the effort if you get over these two constraints.
Edorr is correct in suggesting this option but some people have a bias against incurring the additional A/D/A conversions, regardless of how well they are accomplished.

Kal, there is no A/D/A conversion when I play stereo mode in 2.2 setup. I run digital straight into the Trinnov, and digital out to an outboard DAC for mains, and trinnov analog out for the subs.

To integrate this with MCH you can use the Trinnov analog inputs and do A/D/A on the analog ooutputs of your processor (which is what I do).

Alternatively, if you have a processor with its own room correction, you could use this intead of the Trinnov for MCH sources. The problem is you would need an input switch for your mains and subs - one input comes from the processor in MCH mode, and the other from the Trinnov (or the outboard DAC if that is what you use) when you play in stereo mode.

Lot's of boxes, cables and expensive - much easier to do 2 channel and MCH room correction in a single processor.
Right. Somehow, I never think in only 2 channels. ;-)

Is it possible to output from a music server to an Audyssey equipped Processor to a DAC (somewhat similar to what Edorr describes) to take the Processor’s DAC out of the loop? If so, then it would be interesting to compare the Processor’s DAC (with and without room correction) to a standalone DAC (with and without room correction).
Dunno if any processor passes EQ-ed digital from its digital outputs. Never tried but, somehow, I doubt it.
If you expect a SS processor to peform at the level of even a $1K Dac, good luck. I have heard many processors playing music, and I have yet to find one the competes with a decent 1K DAC.

I use one, a Proceed AVP, but only for movies, and I'll be eventually modding this one. It is still one of the best sounding SS Procs.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Steve, a few years ago I used a modded Audio Note 2.1 DAC (about 2K I believe), that was bested by the Xtreme Card in a Theta Casablanca III, so a SSP is capable of beating a 1K DAC (the Theta Xtreme DAC card retails for 5K though). The Xtreme card was subsequently left in the dust by the PS audio Perfectwave, which was then trounced by the MKII upgrade. Inshallah I will have a chance to compare the MKII with your overdrive SE sometime this summer.

Kal, the only processors with room correction that I am aware of that has digital outputs would be the Tact TCS MKII, and the Datasat RS20i (currently in Beta version). Theta CBIII HD has digital output (with digi out card) but no room correction yet (Dirac has been announced, but Theta being Theta is and when this will ship is everyone's guess)

Cdj123, the problem with this architecture is that because of HDMI licensing restictions, the digital output has to be downsampled to 48/16 on high rez HDMI sources.
Well, you could add Meridian to the list as they permit such low res digital output, as well.
Steve N - so in a room with terrible acoustics, do you think it would be worth sacrificing the room correction for better DACs for 2 channel music? I know I could just try it, but every time I buy new equipment or make changes to the living room rig, my wife starts asking a lot of questions ; )
Another more realistic option I totally forgot about it this. If you can live without sub(s) in stereo mode, you can still have full blown room correction, an external DAC and integration with an SSP with its own room correction.

You would do this by running the room correction for 2 channel on your music server PC. Dirac now sells their software to run on a PC (I believe around $700), and there is also acourate, which is even cheaper. This is full blown 2 channel room correction with phase / time alignment. So you would run the music server (which also runs the correction) into the DAC over USB. If you buy the wyred4sound DAC2, you would run the SSP through the HT bypass on the wyred4sound. In 2 channel mode you use the wyred4sound volume control.

This would be a relatively cost effective integrated 5.1 and 2.0 system. With room correction in both modes.
Mateored, for two channel there are many more options that will give you both room correction and outboard dac. I mentioned running room correction on a pc. You can use PEQ in amarra on a Mac (something Steve is a strong advocate of). You can also use a dedicated box such as tact, lyndorf or trinnov.
Edorr, Have you experimented at all with Dirac or Acourate? If so, I would like to hear what your thoughts are and how the results compare to some of the mainstream products (given that they have a different implementation).
"Steve N - so in a room with terrible acoustics, do you think it would be worth sacrificing the room correction for better DACs for 2 channel music?"

Absolutely. Room acoustics will do little to improve detail rendering and dynamics if the source cannot deliver these. Good for eliminating bass resonances mostly.

However understand that it's the master clock in the DAC or the source that is more important than the DAC. If you are using a source such as Sonos, SB, Apple TV or a CD transport, get a reclocker to reduce its jitter. If you are using USB, make sure the master clocks in it are up to snuff.

If you are using an active preamp, get rid of it and replace with a DAC with a good volume technology or use a transformer linestage such as Music First or these others:

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Cdj123, I have no personal experience running Room Correction on a PC. You can however get 30 day trial of acourate and maybe Dirac offers the same. Only financial commitment is you need a good microphone to do the calibration.
OK - well I just ordered a Cambridge DacMagic+ for my office computer-audio system. Maybe I'll bring it home and hook it up to HT rig in a few different configurations to see how it compares to the Anthem DACs. I know the Cambridge is not the top of the line, but it gets sufficiently good reviews that it should give me a pretty good idea about the quality of the DACs in the Anthem and the importance of the ARC room correction and bass management for 2-channel music. I'll report back in 2-3 weeks.
Mateored, I am looking forward to seeing how you make out. It should be a good comparison.
Cdj123 - you're going to have to keep waiting. I just sent the Dacmagic back and ordered a Wadia 121. I'll report back eventually.
Well, I got the Wadia a couple of days ago. So far, I've only listened to it in my office system (described in detail in another thread). I want to bring it home to try out as mentioned above to compare it to the DACs in the Anthem processor. However, I'm not sure what to do about my subwoofer. My understanding is that if I put the processor in "Analog Direct" mode in order to prevent the Anthem from converting analog to digital and processing the signal internally, I won't get any subwoofer output. I would have to re-wire the sub directly to the external DAC or one of the line-level outs of my power amp. This would result in a poor comparison test. It also makes the possibility of using an upgraded external DAC just for 2-channel impractical for everyday use.

Mateored, you may have reached the flatter part of the cost-vs-improvement curve.
Maybe the only comparison between Wadia/Anthem DACs you can make is in true 2-channel mode; turn off your sub and your surrounds, and make sure the two fronts are crossed over below the bottom end of their frequency response.
Another possibility is to purchase a 2-channel pre-amp that also has bass management in the analog domain. Anthem has a great pre-amp that does this, the TLP-1, but this option adds another unit in the signal path and really wouldn't be an apples-to-apples comparison of DACs...unless you used a line-level analog connection from your receiver into the TLP-1...
This is one of the more interesting threads ive read in a long time. Also has a lot of info with argument. Lots of good points. Ill as one possible solution, although cost is a factor. The new bryston processor supposedly has a state of the art pre amp as well. Its a fortune but if money is no object may it could compete.

I for one am focusing on the lowly onkyo 5508-for mixed two channel-5. 1 use. Wish there were more choices in pre pros at this price level but its a bit of niche market with most consumers going with avrs.
I chose a long time ago to build a separate system for 2-channel. I have a Denon AVR and B&W 6 series speakers in the home theater system, and although I really need a 5-channel amp to finish it out, I'm not spending any more money on it until I am completely satisfied with my 2-channel system in the basement.
This is not a great option for everyone of course, because not everyone has a spare room for dedicated 2-channel. But most of the +/- $1000 pre-amps out there will best the pre-amp section in an AVR of the same or even slightly higher price point. This is definitely true in my case. And I almost bought an Onkyo, but found a great deal on a Denon at the last moment.
IMO, it is possible for a processor to compete with, or even best, a $1K dac. But it gets expensive. Very. I use a Meridian G68 which, in its stock form, competes fairly well with SOME of the $1k dacs I've heard. But it's current MSRP is around $12K. Ouch.

IMO, my modded G68 bests several of the $1K dacs I've heard, but it has a custom power supply, a Superclock 4, new op amps, new internal wiring, WBT Nextgen connectors, about 10 pounds of custom RFI/EMI shielding, none of the inessential stock circuitry, and an aftermarket apodizing filter. And my G68 is fed by a reclocker with a second(!) Superclock 4. Add all that up and you get... I don't know what you get, but it's a lot to spend. And no, it's NOT worth all the trouble or expense, unless you NEED a digital crossover and room correction. And even then there are better solutions these days than spending upwards of $15K to solve these problems. Those solutions include both hardware (e.g., Trinnov) and software (i.e. computer) alternatives.

IMO, some of the posters have not given sufficient recognition to the value of room correction. When implemented well, room correction can greatly improve resolution, coherence, tonal balance, PRaT, and overall musicality. "Implemented well" is no small task either, as the auto-corrections in several of the processors I know are flawed, to put it politely. Personally I use a professional microphone and Room EQ Wizard to set the room correction filters on my G68. But getting that dialed in took months. Literally.

Just buying a $1K 2 channel dac would save you from plunging down the rabbit hole that I call home.

Again, IMO, IME, YMMV, etc.

Mateored, It looks like the Wadia has both balanced and unbalanced out. You could run one set to you amp and the other through something like a Velodyne SMS-1 (then to your sub). It is an and older product but very flexable and you can EQ your sub with it.
I finally got around to bringing my Wadia 121 home from the office and hooking it up to my home system. The goal was to compare the internal DACs on my Anthem AVM-50v with a quality stand-alone DAC like the Wadia. As mentioned above, the main difficulty with this experiment is that there is no simple way to utilize my subwoofer when running the Wadia in analog direct mode through the Anthem. This means that an external DAC would not be a practical long-term solution for me, but I still was anxious to compare it to my processor.

For the comparison, I used my Mac Mini running Pure Music as the source. The HDMI out was run directly into the Anthem (using Audioquest Carbon), which did the analog conversion - with ARC room correction processing turned off. The Wadia was hooked up to the Mac via USB (Pangaea pure silver), and then to the Anthem (via Kimber Hero balanced cables). I disconnected the subwoofer to even the score.

I switched back and forth many times, while listening to a number of different tracks, including some hi-res tracks (Dark Side of the Moon and a Glenn Gould piano concerto) and rebook tracks (e.g. Jerry Garcia Band Live, Lyle Lovett, etc.).

With deep concentration, I could hear some very subtle differences in presentation, and a slightly more solid low-end with the Wadia. However, it was not obvious, and I would have a hard time identifying which DAC was being utilized under normal circumstances. This pleased me, since I was not anxious to figure out a way to upgrade the DAC around the Anthem.

The bottom line for me is that, in my system and in my living room, the ARC software and bass management make a much bigger difference than the external DAC. In addition, I added a PS Audio Power Plant Premier last week, which made an immediate and clear improvement in the sound -- much more than the Wadia.
Mat - if you are using a typical active preamp, then you will probably not hear much difference in ANY DACs. Replace this with a good transformer passive linestage and you will start to hear differences. Also, given that the jitter of the master clock in the digital source is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of any digital playback system, a cheap USB converter or CD transport will not cut it. You might as well buy a $200 DAC. It's more important than the DAC. The better DAC quality will be masked by the jitter.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Steve - are you commenting on the Mac Mini as a source or the Wadia as a USB converter?
Well I thought I would throw in my 2c worth. I've spent a lot of time and some $$$ debating the same issues.

I started off with a Integra 80.3 and tried a number of DACs including Rega, Burson, Musical Fidelity and settled on the Zodiac Gold. Each has a distinct sound and I can't emphasize enough the importance of listening to them. I found that in my system the reviews were often spot on, but not always.

Having decided to go with the Antelope, I debated going through the 80.3 or directly into the my Parasound amp (the Antelope has a preamp with analog ins).

From the Antelope straight into the amp without room correction was pretty much unlistenable-bass was overwhelming, imaging was poor. This was not the fault of the equipment, but rather my room (even with acoustic treatments). Going from the Zodiac to Integra with Audyssey was MUCH better.

It wasn't until I tried Dirac Live as a demo that I really appreciated just how good my system could sound. Removing the 80.3 from the loop opened up the sound stage, markedly improved the image and really impressed me (and friends who came over to listen).

I am currently struggling without a true home-theater bypass - playing with volume levels is a bit tricky, but well worth it.

The demo of Dirac is easy to use and worth trying.
Hey Mhp
It seems like Dirac has removed the beta version of the live correction suite from the website. Is it being discontinued or are they just preparing for the official version to be released? I am hoping it will be 24bit/196khz compatible. I mean even the Arc which is less than half its price is 196khz compatible.
If you are referring to the PC based version, it appears to still be there.