If you go optical then I'd suggest (in this price range) to go with something that has a solid track record like Benchmark (hard to find used at a significant discount - kind of the Bryston of DAC's - good value for money). Unless you have to be on the bleeding edge it is probably a safe bet for many years of happy listening.
I think apogee fac with firewire connection is the best possible solution. It accepts up to 24/192 from PC or Mac. As far as quality concerned, it equals EMM Labs dac.
Yep. Benchmark and Apogee are on top of my list!
USB can do 24/96, it's just that many of the current crop of USB DACs are not designed for it. Bel Canto will be offering a new "add-on" to their DAC3, which will allow it to handle 24/96 from USB. I believe the Wavelength USB DACs can handle the higher rez files also.
How about any TUBE-based DACs? I have not seen any good reviews about them..I wonder why.
I am currently evaluating an Apogee Mini DAC with FireWire option. I bought it from Guitar Center because they have a 30-day return policy. This DAC will give you all the data connection possibilities, USB, Toslink, SPDIF, and FireWire. While I have been using it for about a week, I have to say the sound is rather involving and not at all sterile or bright as often the impression is given to pro audio gear. The flexibility is also a bonus on this DAC as far as the sample rate that it will handle.
While not the eye candy of the more expensive audiophile DACs, I am rather impressed on what this DAC does, and I believe regardless of that, it can stand on its' own.
Take a drive since there is a 30-day trial offer from Guitar Center. You also may want to try Channel Islands' DAC. They have a Toslink connection and a 30-day money back with a 10% restocking fee. It got a great write up in Tone Audio Magazine.
As far as tube DACs, check out positive feedback online. They did a review of the MHDT Paradisea DAC in issue 31, I believe. Got heap-big praise.
I am planning a similar digital setup. In the meantime I have a Benchmark that I use with a Thule CD player (Phillips drive unit). I had Steve Balliet modify the DAC. It has a bunch of Bybee devices and some other improvements. Benchmark liked some of the internal wiring changes so much they used them themselves.
Before anyone asks me what changes, I am a sound guy. That is I like the sound more than knowing how it ends like that. I home demoed a stock Benchmark, liked it but was not totally convinced. Steve dropped off his modified demo unit, which I never returned. So anyway, when ever I can get around to the wireless computer project I will have a great DAC. Until then I have outstanding digital. Price new with mods is around $2000.
I did a careful comparison of the Benchmark DAC-1 with the Apogee Mini-DAC, in a pal's system using GamuT electronics and Gradient speakers. The transport was by Sonic Frontiers.
The two DACs sounded quite different. Although both could be lyrical with female voices the Apogee sound seemed more concerned with musical flow whereas the Benchmark with the musical moment. The Apogee sounded more natural to me, although that's a matter of taste. With the Benchmark, the music sounded 'ripped', on steroids with all its muscles defined.
I'm sure that if you can audition the two, you will have a clear preference.
I also use a reflection audio modified benchmark and the results have made me very happy.....I use an RME foreface clocked to an isocrone antelope and then to the dac....I am very happy with this after owning many expensive single and two box cdp's.
The firewire Apogee would likely be my choice here. Think of the modded Benchmark as a double the price Apogee wannabee, lol. Gives you more punch, but needs a grand worth of mods to add some musicality.
That said I have a Paradisea+ which is uses a tube and gets plenty of good press on the Net.
Think of the modded Benchmark as a double the price Apogee wannabee, lol.
I agree. If you don't like the precision of Benchmark and want something more "musical" then why buy a benchmark and mod it? Lavry DA10 is another less precission sounding or "smoother" DAC option that has some people who prefer it to Benchmark - its in your price range without mods so try that too (with 30 day return).
Thank you so much for all the ideas!
Vdg, you may also want to check out MHDT Labs new Havana DAC, the big brother to the Paradisea. Reviews are saying it keeps the Paradisea's smoothness while adding extra detail. Modding the Benchmark to take away detail and add softness would take you in the same direction, but cost more. You'd have to listen with your system to see if it would be worth the extra. Stock Benchmark and my detailed system is not a good a match.
I've also heard lots of good things about the Lavry, but have never listened to one personally. Do yourself a favor and give the Apogee a try as well.
The Havana DAC is right on my alley, but it does only 16 bit, and I have a lot of music in 24 bit and 20 bit.
So far VDA-2 from CIAudio is on the first place followed by the Apogee mini-DAC.
I will try to get both on trial and make an audition on my system.