The big DAC decision


One of the challenges of building an audio system is trying to make sure that all of the individual components of that system have equivalent and compatible technical specifications. For example, it doesn’t make sense to purchase speakers that are capable of producing sound in the 5Hz to 20kHz range if your amp is only capable of sending audio signals in the 30Hz to 15kHz range to these speakers. Unless, of course, you hope to upgrade your audio system such that it can properly drive these speakers someday.

In my desire to build an audio system that has the proper balance of individual component capabilities I’ve found myself struggling over the choice of a DAC. Basic technical specifications aren’t necessarily applicable here. The foundation of my system is a Woo Audio WA-33 headphone amp and Focal Utopia headphones. My music files consist of standard CD 16bit/44kHz resolution to Hi-Res DSD files. What I’m struggling with is choosing a DAC that would allow me to get the most out of this amp and headphone pairing. From the research I’ve done so far it is clear that the $23k Meridian Audio Ultra DAC would bring out the best of any system it is connected to. But does it make sense to purchase a DAC of this quality (and price) for my humble headphone system? Or would it be more appropriate to get the Chord DAVE (setting the MQA format compatibility issue aside for this discussion)? I’m currently using an Oppo 105D as my DAC and the music sounds pretty decent, but I know my system can sound better.

So I was hoping to get some input from fellow audio enthusiasts out there to make what may be the most important decision of my system build. I’m also looking at getting a PS Audio DirectStream Power Plant 12 to power this system. Anyone out there have any suggestions or thoughts on this issue?


slvrsrfr
I've been extremely happy with a Mytek Brooklyn DAC with an external power supply. It does native DSD and it's quite small. 

I have found the DAC's in Oppo products to be really variable in quality from product to product. 
There is a heck of a lot of DAC choices between the Oppo 105 and the 23K Meridian Product.  And yes, spending 23 K for your current setup, even with premium phones, strikes me as goofy in the extreme.
  I would sell the Headphone Amp and get a de ent Headphone Amp/DAC combination product.  The Brooklyn Erik mentioned is a solid recommendation. As is the Mytek Manhatten that I own.  Also Benchmark and several other companies make products that would fit the bill in a variety of price ranges
Thanks for the input Erik.  Have you had an opportunity to compare your Mytek Brooklyn to the Manhattan II?
Now that I think about it, I think my basic question is whether a high end DAC is really appropriate for a system built around a pair of headphones.

LOL,

Maybe if they were really high end.

JD
I do not listen through headphones so this may be advise that may not help you.  IMO the source is critical to hearing what a system can do.  The DAC that I build reproduces music that most people have never heard before in that the separation and tone of instruments really comes through like I have never heard before.  It does not matter what the other components are, the DAC changes the sound in everyway.  Same goes for my phono stage and preamp.  I know some of the DACs mentioned above and they cannot reproduce music the same way.

Happy Listening.  
Buy a MSB Analog DAC.  Recently MSB has discontinued the Analog DAC so you may have to pick up a used one.  I have heard, auditioned, and researched many DACs in the last five or six years and I haven’t found one that plays music as “beautifully” as this DAC.  

Recently MSB released the modular Renderer card/module for the Analog DAC and it’s excellent.  It’s a Ethernet module that connects you to web streaming services (ie TIDAL) and you can run ROON too.  

The Analog DAC is current even though it was initially released six or seven years ago and it can play just about any file format/sampling combination you’ll find.  


Sorry I haven't had a chance to compare any more. I spent about six months listening to DAC's in person. Ordered the Mytek after I bought an ARC DAC 8 and could not be happier. :)
I will say I have tried it as a preamp, and it's pretty exceptional. I used a Parasound P7 only for the HT connectivity I needed. I'm now in the process of going back to a 2.1 channel setup with the Brooklyn as the pre.

Best,
E
I agree with you bigkidz.  After all, a sound system can only be as good as its weakest link.  As a consequence, from a cost to benefit point of view, you want your individual system components to operate within similar technical specifications.  But, at the same time, you really need an optimal analog signal to achieve the best sound your amp and speakers can hope to produce; regardless of whether the source is from a phonograph, tape, or digital file.

As an aside, I get the impression that some of the responders to my question have never listened to any of today’s state-of-the-art headphones.  I’ll just say you don’t know what you’re missing.
Check out the RME ADI-2 DAC.
Lots of very very capable and revealing cans out there - very worthy of fantastic front ends

i use a set of Stax in my mobile recording and edit work and benefit greatly with both excellent Wadia and Ayre A to D and D to A converters.

there are a ton of great DAcs out there above $3k is, including the MSB mentioned
my list would also include ARC, Berkeley, Aesthetix, DCS, Lampizator, etc....

have fun
The Focal Utopias are good headphones. If I were looking for a high end headphone amp, I would be sorely tempted by the Viva Egoista - http://vivaaudio.com/en/products/egoista/. It uses a compliment of 1 x 6N1P, 1x 6SN7GTB, 2 x 845, 2 x EH5U4GB tubes. so you could have fun tube-rolling to get the sound you want. If I was going solid state, I would look at the Wells Audio Headtrip - http://www.wellsaudio.com/headtrip/ That is a musical sounding amp & is probably the way i’d go if I were setting up a serious headphone rig right now. And it costs a whole lot less than the Egoista to boot.

Re: clean power. I respect PS Audio who make some solid products. In my system I use and have been very happy with the Gigawatt PC-3 SE Evo conditioner which has now been upgraded to the ’plus’ model - http://www.gigawatt.eu/produkt/power-line-conditioner-gigawatt-pc-3-se-evo/I wont go over all the detail, suffice to say It is an outstanding product. Personally I would only consider either Gigawatt or Synergistic Research, though Running Springs Audio make some good products also. Short of us using mil-spec batteries or something like an Equitech balanced iso transformer, that is the the best solution I could recommend, and would compliment running dedicated 20a lines into your rooim.
Thanks for the suggestions melbguyone, I’m extremely happy with my Woo Audio amp though.

I really appreciate the clean power suggestion.  I have no doubt that it can have an appreciable effect on my system’s performance.  It’s been frustrating trying to find a consensus pick for a power supply or “conditioner.”  Along with the accolades for any given power component there always seems to be a “but” that gives me pause.

Cheers,

SlvrSrfr
YW SlvrSrfr, In my case I bought my apartment off the plan, and due to the layout of my apartment It would have been a messy and expensive job to install dedicated 20a lines into my audio room, or a balanced Iso transformer. And due to being a Strata development, I didn’t have the option of installing solar PV into mil-spec batteries, so the Gigawatt was a no brainer. If I was starting out & building a new home, I would probably go all out on solar PV, mil-spec batteries, dedicated 20a lines running into audiophile wpo’s, and overvoltage/surge protection. But the Gigawatt gives you most of those benefits in a single box.
There are many superb dacs out there and your headphones are excellent.

The easiest way to know is to borrow a great dac and then listen to the improvments it makes in your system if you can hear and appreciate the difference wether or not it is a speaker or headphone setup it doesn't make a difference then it is a valid upgrade.

We have heard the Merdian Dac nice piece you can do better for less money. 

You may want to consider a Lumin X1 the previous reference the S1 has been considered to be one of the best sounding streamer/dacs out there and the new X1 is reported to blow away the S1, at $13k it isn't cheap but for a world class Dac and streamer the price is reasonable the Lumin products are very musical and extremely well designed.

We are also not huge PS audio fans in terms of power products, in our tests the Passive conditioners were better.  Look at the Isotek Sigmas fantastic performace for the money. 

We have tested many brands of power conditioners from Audience, Shunyatta, Running Springs, Exact Power, Isotek, Audio Magic, Synergistic and a few others.

Best overall Isotek for the money, best performance Audio Magic.

Dave and Troy
Audio Doctor NJ
Thanks Dave and Troy.  I genuinely appreciate your and melbguyone’s input.  I don’t have the option of trying different components on my system.  So the information I obtain from various reviews and forums like this one are all I have to go on before making what I consider to be once in a lifetime purchases.
slvrsrfr 
I don’t have the option of trying different components on my system.
If you're truly contemplating a $23,000 DAC, you need to find a dealer who will accommodate you.
cleeds1,458 posts07-17-2018 12:20am slvrsrfr
I don’t have the option of trying different components on my system.
If you're truly contemplating a $23,000 DAC, you need to find a dealer who will accommodate you.
+ 1. If you're investing that much money, it's worth even buying a plane ticket If you can't swing a home audition or find a local Dealer & go on a weekend break interstate.
No, I can’t say I’m seriously considering buying the Meridian.  No more than I can seriously consider buying an Aston Martin.  It would be nice though, on both fronts.

The Chord DAVE might be a possibility though.  But, based on the input I’ve been getting, there are good alternatives to look into that may not be quite as expensive with similar performance attributes.
Seems DAVE has many things you don’t need, like a headphone amp and digital preamp.

why not find something more purpose built for what you are looking for?

how did you land on the Meridian Ultra?
I discovered the Meridian while doing a generic search for audiophile DACs.  The specs and reviews are very impressive, but I can’t say I ever seriously considered it for my system.

And you’re right dubulup, the Chord DAVE has extraneous features given my current setup.  From what I’ve read, however, it apparently provides an excellent quality analog signal, which is what I and everyone else is hoping to get out of their DAC.  This really gets to why I’m here looking for input from all of you.  Is there a DAC out there that can provide an analog signal on par with the DAVE without the additional built in amp baggage?

Some of the best DAC's to consider in this price-range are:

1) DaVinci 2

2) Aqua HIFI LaScala MkII

3) Resonnessence Invicta Mirius Pro

4) TotalDAC

so you wanna bigger one?
Thanks audioengr, I wasn’t aware of these DACs.  

Czarivey, I’m just looking for a high quality DAC that will provide me with a lifetime of listening enjoyment.  I don’t want to look back five years from now wishing I had spent a few dollars more now.
DACs had all been developed long time ago. Wheather you pick up today's or prior technology, you won't miss. EAD DSP7000 MK2 is still my favorite. Some vintage 1-bit DLC ones can also kick S of bigger DACs.
The Vitus Signature series dac is analogue sounding & can be ordered as a pure dac without the drive. I own a Vitus SCD-025Mk2 and can personally attest to its sound signature. Build quality is also superb.
I want to thank all of you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with me.  After following up on pretty much all of your suggestions I thought I should at least share my current direction on this.  Well it’s my current direction until someone points out that I’m making a grievous mistake anyway.  With that said, my DAC will be the Lumin X1 and, as soon as I can swing it, I will be getting an Audio Magic Oracle power conditioner to go with my Woo Audio WA-33 amp and Focal Utopia headphones.  I can’t think of a better way to spend time on my death bed when that eventuality arrives.

Cheers everyone,
SlvrSrfr
I have a DAVE and I’ve never heard anything remotely as good. I haven’t auditioned the Meridian but I’ve heard the DAVE compared very favorably to it by those that have. With headphones I use the direct out and it’s wonderful. 
You could also check out Denafrips, they have many respected models. And Lessloss, PS Audio and HoloAudio. All these have been mentioned around the forums the last year. I haven't heard them myself but they seems worthy of investigation.

If you are looking for something more like the Meridian then you can check out TotalDac, dCS and MBL.
Moving from PS Audio Directstream DAC to Lampizator Golden Gate Balanced, I think you should at least audition any Lampi DAC. They sound amazing. :)
At these price levels most of the DACs are state-of-the-art and it's really a preference of choosing the type of sound that you want or which DAC pairs best with the system you have. There is a very real point of diminished returns once we move past the $6000-$8000 price point.

My suggestion would be to try as many DACs as possible and chose the one which sounds best to you. A lot of the DACs mentioned allow you an in-home trial or can be listened to in-home from a good dealer. 
If you compare dacs, the ps audio DS dacs are far superior than most of the typical dacs for a number of reasons, IMO of course.
i think a dac that uses FPGA technology is the future and both PSA DS dacs use FPGA.
A dac that uses a network bridge is the best connection to use compared to USB/toslink/coax.
The PSA DS dacs are highly rated along with a couple other dacs that are many times more expensive.

Here is my reasoning for FPGA type dacs:
I get a free upgrade to the dac every 6 months that sounds better than the prior release of the code. 
When MQA got supported, it was a software upgrade to both the dac and bridge.
I have friends with your typical dacs and they are spending thousands to get a card to implement MQA and I don’t know of any dac that can significantly increase the SQ of the dac with just software.
Again, just my opinion
Look into Mojo Audio Dac 
money back guaranteed
most analog sounding Dac.
Boy , here’s a subject that most will not agree on . Besides you will have to find out for yourself . First I have an Oppo 105, and I don’t use its DAC. I currently run a Schiit Yiggy . So I would audition the Yiggy and 2 others to start . They include the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, the Border Patrol DAC and the Gumby/ Yiggy . All 3 can be had with an in home trial . All three are excellent for the money. And all three are different . Also if your gonna do headphones , audition them with different cans too . Try a Grado, an Audeze and a Seinheiser . Happy Listening , and my the VIBES BE WITH YOU , Mike. 
Imho MQA is a gimmick. I know that Vitus Audio have no immediate plans to support MQA. And i'm not in any rush to buy a new dac to jump on board.
Some great comments to consider!

I really have tried to do my homework for this decision.  But as some of you have already pointed out, there are several different technologies that have to be considered.  Then you have to consider that the DAC may come with a built-in headphone amp and/or pre-amp of its own.

I ended up choosing the Lumin X1 because it is basically a chip based DAC.  The R2R ladder approach, for example, from what I’ve read, requires very precise and balanced sets of resistors.  It may just be a misunderstanding on my part, but I’m not all that confident in the resistors maintaining their required performance characteristics over time.

There are other DAC design philosophies, and I’m not going to try to summarize all of them here, but it just seemed that the Lumin design takes a more “tried and true” approach, as opposed to the still evolving FPGA method mentioned by rbstehno earlier (I’m not sure that I want my firmware upgraded every 6 months). In addition, a positive, for me anyway, is that it’s not encumbered with any redundant amps.  Another selling point for me is that the Lumin X1 is also a server.  Which means I don’t have to buy another computer to act as a front end.  An added bonus is that I won’t lose my Audirvana playlists in the event I update the computer’s OS.

Last, but not least, I read nothing but accolades for the Lumin S1.  And the the new X1 is expected to be an appreciable improvement to the already impressive S1 performance characteristics.  

In the end, however, it simply comes down to what sounds good to you and/or what you’re willing to live with.  For me, I’ve come to expect from myself that I will always be looking to move up to something better.  As a result, I tend to go straight to the high end these days to avoid the wasted time and expense of getting there incrementally.

SlvrSrfr
I can’t speak to the Lumin DACs, but their iOS app is outstanding. After trying out several DNLA control points for iOS along with Sonos, the Lumin app easily takes 1st prize (I use it to control a Rasoberry Pi based server running Volumio, which is compatible with the LUMIN app).

Incidentally, Hegel makes some wonderful DACs as well (the HD25 is at your price point)
COS H1 headphone DAC/AMP
I have tried several (more expensive) solutions to drive my HifiMan 1000, the COS is the best of all. 
"Moving from PS Audio Directstream DAC to Lampizator Golden Gate Balanced, I think you should at least audition any Lampi DAC. They sound amazing. :) "

In Poland Lampizator is subject to total criticism by audiophiles.
It is mainly about the unsightly performance of the first models at the beginning of the company's operation.
And above all, jealous that someone has succeeded. It is such an ugly Polish feature.

"Re: clean power. I respect PS Audio who make some solid products. In my system I use and have been very happy with the Gigawatt PC-3 SE Evo conditioner which has now been upgraded to the ’plus’ model - http://www.gigawatt.eu/produkt/power-line-conditioner-gigawatt-pc-3-se-evo/I wont go over all the detail, suffice to say It is an outstanding product."

I think so too.

I have PS Audio and I'm very happy with it, but Gigawatt is a different league.
Especially PC-4 Evo.
bona683 posts07-20-2018 7:07pmI have PS Audio and I'm very happy with it, but Gigawatt is a different league.
Especially PC-4 Evo.
I agree. Though I think the new PC-3 SE Evo+ model is sufficiently good for my simple system, hence if I upgrade, I'll most likely go for that model.
Best I’ve heard is T+A DAC8 DSD and at $4k it’s a relative bargain.  I upsample to DSD512 through Roon.  I had the DirectStream Dac in house as well and sorry to PS Audio but in my system it wasn’t nearly as good as T+A.  It really is an exceptional sounding DAC at any price.

Hi,

We have A/B 74 different digital front ends including Chord Dave, all Aqua Acoustic dacs, Total dac and basically everything up to 50K. Our conclusion was the Rockna Signature was the best dac when accompanied with the Rockna WD Net server via i2s connection. Rockna is the designed by the same designer that worked with MSB, PS Audio and Goldmund.

Rockna builds 2 dacs, Signature (non balanced version) at $11000 and Wavedream Edition at $6000 (our 2nd favorite dac). The Rockna WD Net server was the best server we tested and it retails at $9100 with a 1 TB SSD drive built into the server. Rockna does build fully balanced dacs but they use twice as many parts and do cost more.

If you are looking for a very knowledgeable high end store that sells Rockna then I would recommend;

Bob Visintainer

Rhapsody Music and Cinema/Goldmund New York
27 West 24th Street, Suite 506
New York, NY 10010
Website- Rhapsody.audio

212-229-1842

Lots of choices for digital but after our extensive A/B testing, Rockna was another level above all other digital products we tested.

Dealer disclaimer, we are the North American distributors for Rockna and other audio products below our signature.

Cheers,

Robert Neill President Worldwide Wholesales

519-619-9924 

www.worldwidewholesales.com 

www.piega.ch/en
www.horns.pl/en
www.tuneaudio.com
www.in-akustik.de/en
www.akikoaudio.com/en
www.rockna-audio.com


As has been mentioned, in the price range mentioned most DACs will sound very good.  The OP said he wants one that he can keep for years, so he or she might want to look at features.  I have a Bryston DAC 3 that has 4 HDMI inputs besides every other connection except Blue Tooth, and it doesn’t do MQA.  I use it primarily for the HDMI inputs:
1) to output the DSD from my SACDs using an Oppo 203 as a transport;
2) to connect Apple TV
3) connect a cable box
i also use the USB from my MacBook Air which is connected to my NAS.
Anyway, just a demonstration of how the features on that DAC are used.  They OP may want to evaluate what features are important to them
"I agree. Though I think the new PC-3 SE Evo+ model is sufficiently good for my simple system, hence if I upgrade, I'll most likely go for that model."  

I honestly recommend. Earlier I also had a PC-3 Evo.:-)
@bona68, sent PM so as not to derail this thread.
It's possible the Kitsune version of the HoloSpring would sound as good as the $23K DAC and save you $20K.
Loving mine, best DAC that I've heard. Check out the reviews at the bottom of the product page...
https://kitsunehifi.com/product/springdacgreen/
Guys the Lumin is an excellent choice.

In one simple elegant box you have everything you need. 

The X1 is both a streamer and a Dac.

It accesses everything you could want and it is backed up by a very large stable company. 

Sonically you would have to spend $7k or more to get a complicated multi box setup which might be better.


The older S1 has been a benchmark for years the new X1 brings the Lumin hardware up to an entirely new level.

Dave and Troy 
Audio Doctor NJ Lumin dealers