Ayre would be my first choice. You can probably get one used for under $1500.
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Thanks for the suggestions.
Who makes the DA 160?
I looked at the Ayre DAC. While universally accalimed, it has only one digital input: asynchronous USB. I will be using the better DAC I am looking for in my big rig in the basement listening area. The DAC will be fed exclusively by a Logitech SB Touch digital out, which happens to be SPDIF on RCA.
The Stello DA100 Signature has multiple digital inputs, so it is not an issue. However, I would like to use the "better" DAC in my big rig, not my home office head phone system (though the asynchronous USB out from my laptop does sound appealing).
I've heard the Stello DA200, on which the DA100 Sig is based, and really liked it. I doubt there's be anything to "blow it away" sub $1,000.
That being said, $1,500 is a bit of a dead zone for coax based DACs. The value curve seems to peak just below (up to $1,000), and the next step up comes nearer to $2,000.
Anyways, here's some ideas for auditions/research:
Bel Canto DAC1.5 - voiced similar to Stello
Anedio D2 - Sabre based; more contemporary sounding
M2Tech Young - as the Anedio
NAD M51 - outside your budget, but have seen people compare it to the Berkeley Alpha, suggesting it would be a step up from the $1,500 bracket offerings