To DAC or not to DAC

I have somewhat of a dilemma. I got an Amazon gift card for Christmas and had forgotten about it. I just ran across it and have to spend some money. I kind of got all up into doing the digital thing, starting off with a Sonos unit, but I think that I want to run down the road of some quality CD music.

I'm currently running an XDA-1 DAC. Right or wrong, I kind of view it as being a budget solution, but it's doing fine as the converter for my Sonos and Apple TV. My dilemma is whether I should get something along the lines of a decent CD player in the form of a Cambridge Audio 550C and either run that through my XDA-1 or get a better DAC. The second choice would be to get something like the 650C which has dual DACs and just run that straight through the analog outs.

I guess what I'm asking is, will I get better results with the 550C and an external dac or with getting the 650C using its internal DACs.

My next question is whether something like a DacMagic would be an upgrade from the XDA-1, if I go the route of the 550C and external dac. For that matter, would the internal dac of the 550C be better than either the XDA-1 or the DacMagic?

I'm just lost.

Musical Fidelity V-DAC is what you are looking for. Better than the ones you mention and dirt cheap on top of it.
I haven't heard the XDA-1 but have heard very good things about it. My bet is that the options you're considering might sound different rather than better (and maybe not that different). I'd go for a cheaper transport (Cambridge Audio 350C or Marantz CD5004) with the XDA-1.
All of the options are just mind numbing. I do appreciate the responses.

Since my primary source these days has been my Sonos, I guess I'm gonna try to get that sounding better first. Then I'll get a good transport or CD player.

Stan, I'm glad that you had the positive comment about the V-Dac. I ordered a V-DAC II last night. It'll be here tomorrow. I had given some thought to the DacMagic, but something just made me pull the trigger on the V-DAC. Looking at the specs, the DacMagic should be the better unit, with twin dacs and all, but the V-DAC is going to be easier to integrate into my system.

In any case, I can get a DacMagic locally. I might go by my local shop and see if I can audition one and do an A/B comparison.

Of course, if they both sound better than the XDA-1, I might just sell it and keep the V-DAC and DacMagic.

Thanks again.
Just my experience, but I love my V-dac with my AppleTV. I sent a DacMagic back. V-dac is much warmer and is so smooth. Now running it with a Pyramid power supply and it has a higher level of solidity and balls.
Man, I debated on whether or not to get the Pyramid power supply. I didn't get it, because I read that it didn't make a difference and chose to stick with the convenience of the wall wart.

It looks like I have to order something else.

Your experience with the V-Dac is very similar to what I've read elsewhere and was the major reason that I went with the V-Dac instead of the Cambridge to start with, although I'm still going to go and see if I can audition the Cambridge today.

As it stands now, I hooked the V-Dac II up to my system this morning. I don't know if it needs any burning in, but so far I'm seeing more highs without it being bright or shrill, but the bass seems to be less prominent than it is with my XDA-1. I had to turn my sub up a couple of notches to compensate. Still, I do believe that it has an overall better sound than the XDA-1 does. No final verdict yet though. I still need to do some more listening.
I've been busy since this morning. I was able to get my hands on a Cambridge unit to try out as well.

I spent a couple of hours going back and forth listening to some of Cyndi Lauper's slower stuff. I like her voice, but it can be shrill sometimes and can wear on you. The selections that I listened to also have some nice bass in them.

In the end I found that the V-Dac is not for me. What I initially perceived as more highs turned out to be too much of a good thing and listening this afternoon proved the V-Dac to make long term listening a hard thing to do with this sort of material. I also found that using the V-Dac made the use of a sub woofer necessary. There was no way that I could do without it. The V-Dac just seemed to suck the low end out of my system.

The Cambridge just left me unimpressed. It was smoother than the V-Dac and the bass was better than the V-Dac, but in my system, it was kind of like the XDA-1, but less so.

With the XDA-1, I got no shrillness, no matter how loud I played it. It was just plain more comfortable to listen to. There is also the matter of the bass. I've heard the bass characteristics of the XDA-1 described as bloated. I don't find that to be the case. In my system, I find it to be where it needs to be and I've spent much of my time listening to my system with the sub turned off.

In the end, the XDA-1 just made music more fun to listen to, not to mention that it has six inputs and a remote. Apparently I'm going to have to spend a lot more money to get something better than the XDA-1 and up sampling isn't necessarily something that is needed.

For reference purposes, my system consists of:

NAD C162 pre
Emotiva XDA-1 DAC
Sony CD
Aragon 2004 amp
System Audio SA505 speakers
REL T3 sub crossed over at 55 or so hz.
All Blue Jeans interconnects and speaker cables made of Canare 4S11 cable.

BTW, I've just gotta mention that I love the little SA505s. For a 10" tall speaker they eat up everything that the Aragon can pump to them and they make a lot of music. I don't miss my 685s at all.

To get better sound quality than your current DAC, you're going to have to up the budget a good amount, as I'm assuming you just found out. I haven't heard your DAC, but I've heard a lot about it. I've heard the V-DAC and DACMagic many times. At this level, you'll get different, not better. Different can be better matched to your system, ears, etc., but there's going to be tradeoffs like you've mentioned.

If you want a solid improvement without tradeoffs (relative to what you've got), I'd look at the $1k new retail DACs. Used will cost you less than that, but I think you know the usual suspects - Rega, W4S, Eastern Electric, MDHT, etc.
I posted this experience over on AA. A friend who's been using a new and very popular USB DAC found what looks like a DIY DAC housed in a generic aluminum chassis dated 2005. My friend says the output stage seems way over built.

By comparison this old DAC with one coaxial input sounds noticeably better than the modern design.

Musical Fidelity's V-DAC II might be a perfect example. An asynchronous 24bit 192kHz USB DAC under $500 seems to be the current goal. While the V-DAC II now passes 192kHz through its USB input I still question their definition of asynchronous.

Unfortunately, the ability to make these claims does not automatically mean it's going to actually sound good. As with many of the components we already use the overall circuit design and the analog output stage have a great deal to do with the sound of a DAC. Tonyangel seems to have found out first hand that there's no free lunch.

The one thing I lose sight of is that 99% of my digital listening will be of ripped CD's which are 16-41kHz limited just how important is the future of hi-res downloading to me.

Not exactly in the sub $1K DAC market but some interesting reviews regarding overall sound quality.
Not trying to steal your thread but was wondering if any of you have compared the DacMagic to the PS Audio DL III?

A lot of people focus on the chip being used - especially if it's an ESS Sabre chip - and asynch. The power supply and output stages are critical in a DAC. I own an old Theta Cobalt DAC that's about 15 years old. Using coax or optical and redbook files, it sounds quite a bit better than these entry level DACs. People keep saying digital gets far better everyday, and I think it's a load of crap. The Theta DAC was a sub $1k DAC back then. The power supply is pretty big for a DAC, and their are no op-amps.

I think the only areas where newer DACs have seperates themselves from the older ones are jitter reduction, high-res capability, and USB input. High-res is gaining more and more titles, but hardly anywhere near contending with redbook. I highly doubt high-res will be mainstream and/or the standard any time soon. People get way too hung up on it.

The budget DACs all have wall wart power supplies and op-amps. IMO it doesn't matter what features/gimmics they have. In the DAC, the digital bits get turned into analog. Just as in amps or CD players, better power supplies and output stages flat out sound better.

No such thing as a free lunch, indeed.
Well, I took the DacMagic that I borrowed back to the shop last night, and the guy was like, "so soon." I told him my experience and he didn't question it. He simply asked about what I was trying to do, and, of course, I told him that I wanted to make my system sound better.

He told me that, when upgrading, you should always do it from the perspective of attacking the weakest point in your system.

I told him what I had and what my listening habits were and he flat out told me that I'd get the biggest bang for the buck by getting a better preamp. He suggested an Audio Research LS-3. Once I do that, then I'll turn my attention to first my digital source and then the DAC.

He suggested that, with my budget in mind, the Aragon/Audio Research combo will take me a long way before either is the limiting factor in my system.

I hope he's right because all of the equipment swapping that I've done in the last few months is starting to be a PITA and I'd really like to get to a point where I'm listening to the music rather than the equipment.
Up-selling at its finest
"up-selling" What does that mean?
Tonyangel, when Jt_to says, "Up-selling at its finest," he's implying that the guy at the shop's suggestion that you get a better preamp is an attempt to make money from you by upgrading to to one of his preamps. But, the Audio Research LS-3 the guy at the shop is suggesting, is an older preamp that can only be purchased used. Unless the shop has one, I would say the guy at the shop is simply trying to be helpful and not "up-sell" you.
I have an Audio Research LS-3 pre that I bougth about 17 years ago; it still works like new and I use it in my second system upstairs.

It is an execeptional unit and is one of Audio Research's best SS preamps ever offered. You cannot go wrong with it; it's a fine piece.
Foster, that's what I thought he meant, but didn't want to jump to conclusions.

I really believe that the guy was trying to help me. In fact, he actually had ( I believe) a Cal Labs DAC that he was willing to let me have for something around $350, that was when the subject of the preamp came up and he recommended the LS3. Unfortunately, he didn't have one.

Really, as far as customers go, I'm just small potatoes and it's pretty nice of him to take the time that he does with me. Honestly, he hasn't led me wrong yet. I should have gone and talked to him before I started my swap fest.
Try this...a DACMagic with the $99 Pangea P100 power supply. I've been a fan of the DACMagic for a while using the balanced outs and high quality cable all around (a key factor in my experience)...even after schlepping it to a friend's house to compare it to much pricier stuff. The P100 really kicks it up into another level (Sam Tellig raves about P100 in the new Stereophile) my case at total cost of around $400 for both (used DACMagics are plentiful) I'm blown away with the sound.
Wolf, I thought about trying that, but I just don't know what the purpose would be. The addition of the power supply would have to make a pretty big difference to make the DacMagic sound better than the XDA-1 in my system.

From a practical point of view, I just can't see spending $400 to wind up with something that sounds as good as what I have, but does less, for more money.

I know that I have very limited experience with this stuff, but I think the XDA-1 is a heck of a bargain.
The DACMagic was improved by the new power supply but since I've never heard an XDA-1 I really can't say if it would do anything for you, other than make you more like me and nobody needs that! I do think Emotiva is a pretty hip company...and the XDA-1 seems like pretty cool design for 249 bucks!
Unfortunately, it is the 249 bucks that has me second guessing the XDA-1. When I did the A/B comparisons with the V-Dac and DacMagic, I only compared the units themselves, without doing any cable swapping. I was very surprised that I not only liked the sound of the XDA-1 better, but a lot better.

I'm just having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that such an inexpensive piece of equipment compared so favorably in my system.

At this point, I don't think that I'm ready to take the plunge into a $1K+ DAC (considering my primary source), but I am toying with the idea of giving the rDAC and DAC*it a try as well.
This an older thread but had to put in my 2cents...the only "budget" dac that I have found that can outperform the Emotiva XDA-1 is the PS Audio DL III. All other budget dacs that I have tried, including DacMagic, MF, Peachtree, and several others failed to sound as good to me as XDA-1 in my McCormack/Hales/Wadia/Oppo setup. The DL III was just a tad smoother and more coherant in it's presentation of the music.