Musical Fidelity V-Dac. There are a few versions. I've seen the different versions at Crutchfield, Audio Advisor and Music Direct from about $99 - $300. I bought the newest V-Dac 24/192 from Music Direct on sale for $199. I was able to get better sound by using the Musical Fidelity V-Link connected to the computer via USB, then the V-Link to a DAC.
Shameless plug coming...I have a "spare" Kingrex DAC (USB-only) in perfect shape and would sell same to you for $150. I have box and all. This is the model UD01 Pro. It's very nice.
For that budget, the Schiit Bi-Frost would be hard to beat.
Spring for the Bifrost... I have it and I'm completely satisfied with it... I had the v-dac but returned it after all the recomendations for the Bifrost... You can check it out in my system pics...
look into Audioquest Dragonfly $250.00 new
I was thinking a little more about it. How much SHOULD I spend? My limit at $300 is pretty arbitrary. Would I notice a lot of difference if I spent say $500? or $700?
Make it an even 1k and find a Wadia 121. Everything else you've been thinking about won't come close. The Bi-Frost is a solid recommendation on the cheap however, so if you are sticking to 300 that's a safe bet.
But if you can spend more you can do better. Depends on the rest of your system of course. The Wadia is wide open and neutral so if you're looking to warm up your system it's not the ticket.
For $750 for the non-USB version, I purchased the Schiit Gungnir. Everyone who hears it is blown away. I have a very high resolution system: latest Merlin VSM speakers and ARS-Sonum amp. What I have now with the Gungnir is, without a doubt, the best digital sound I have ever heard.
There are excellent sub $300 DAC options at the moment. The new $99 Schiit USB DAC is one option, or the HRT Streamer DACs are solid in that price range. BitFrost and Dragonfly suggestions above are also solid. Used, you could get a USB only Tranquility DAC for a few hundred more. Really excellent sounding USB DAC, though it doesn't do hi-rez (24/92 or 24/192). Wyred4Sound also has some nice options in that range. I'd start looking at reviews of those, and hopefully you will be able to audition the ones that seem to best fit your preference and budget. A number of these are sold new by companies that have good return policies, or by online sellers who take returns (Music Direct for example).
Halide Design DAC HD is easy to use and requires no cables and sounds great. About $400.
The HRT Streamer II is a good start for entry level. If you like the tube sound, I recommend the Maverick Tube Magic with upgraded tube (GE NOS) and for $40 more, upgraded opamps. Around $600 used the Eastern Electric MiniMac DAC is certainly one of the best alternatives out there, roll the opamps as many do and you have a possible giant killer. There are many reviews on sub 1k DACs, esp on head fi dot org.
With the Gungnir, how would I set it up? I have a SPDIF connection on my motherboard but isn't that tied to the internal sound card that I want to avoid?
Thanks for all the suggestions - I have some research to do!
Any thoughts on the Ifi Idac?
Gungnir will reclock a digital signal, so I wouldn't worry as much about the SPDIF from your computer.
For 300 you might be able to get a MHDT paradisea + that is a really nice sounding DAC that competes with much higher priced units for about 600 or so you could get a Benchmark DAC1 that is a step up and comes very close to the sound of more expensive DACs such as the Bryston BDA1. As you move up the line with DACs I find it easy to describe the improvements as greater clarity. With each jump you remove another veil from the sound.
I was seriously looking at the EE MiniMax but then realized that the USB connection only goes to 48Khz. The new Minimax can handle 192khz but it's $1,000!
I removed the Bifrost from the list after reviewing the manufacturers comments on their USB implementation. They basically say they didn't put much into it.
Since I plan to use the USB connection, I've been looking at the iFi iDac and the Micromega MyDac. Any thoughts on those?
I ordered the Micromega MyDac and iFi iDac with iUSB. We'll see which I like better.
I listened to the ifi IDac at the Axpona Show in Chicago last weekend over headphones using the ifi iCan headphone amp and ifi iUSBPower. I will only say this... it was very very good. I am purchasing the dac and a second iUSBPower for my bedroom system. The iDac is very reminiscent of the DP 777 in sound. I know it uses the exact same in-house (AMR) disigned USB board and the Global Master clock system. You should be very happy with the sound from this unit.
The Micromega was on my radar a few months ago, if you get it please share with us your thoughts, if possible a comparison of both.