Well, having recently taken the plunge, I'm happy with the Calyx usb dac. Previously had the EE minimax, had borrowed the Moon 300d and considered the W4S, Zodiac.
Heard the Weiss also, but found it a little too clinical for my tastes.
I'm sure you'll get tons of suggestions and preferences.
You are right it is a difficult decision, personally I tend to stick with the larger manufacturers as they have the resources to build class leading products and can invest much more in r&d than the ity bitty guys.
There are many dacs that are worth considering, right now one of the best sources is Computer Audiophile, and that will only be of somewhat limited use as there recommendations are not for your system.
You may be 200 miles away from a metropolitan area and the dealer or dealers you visit may not be able to replicate your system but you still may be able to hear something that might work for you.
Why don't you ask advice right here? List your gear and listening preferences and see what you get back. If you are so uncertain of what to do why not try a used cheaper DAC like the EE minimax or Benchmark or even a MHDT Paradisea or Havana. You won't get hurt much on it if you don't like it. I have had some pretty expensive CD players over the years and I've gotten as good of sound out of DACs costing much less. Or just get something like the DCS Debussy if you have the budget for it.
I have had the entertaining chance to listen to the following DACs in my system (Manley Stingray II and Merlin TSM-MXr speakers) and with my friends system, Vandy 5a speakers with mostly all ARC power.
DACs we've listened to...
Rega, W4S 2 Minimax, Minimax Plus, Centrance Mini, ARC 8, Dacmagic
Here's the bad news....
They all did great jobs and nothing was seriously dominated. Even the Dacmagic held its own just fine and sounded great. Most of the time you would need to check to see which was playing. After some very crazy intense listening we liked the Rega and Centrance best. The owner of the Minimax plus says he may end up ranking the Plus 2nd. But the reality was how much alike they all sounded. Of course they did! They're all chasing the same goal!
Buy a nice DAC (I like the Rega overall and the Minimax Plus in SS mode) and don't worry too much about it. You'll have more tweakability almost anywhere else in your system. Be sure to add good software and memory to the Mac and configure it right. To be fair, I should say that we have not done a serious comparison to the expensive ARC Dac.
Good luck....just jump!
You don't have to get into computer audio, take your time and enjoy learning. I did buy a Mach2 mini and a EE Mini max and enjoy them,but sometimes I think I rushed myself for no reason
Good luck with your decision
Thanks for the reaffirmation of pacing oneself, Abruce; I'll keep that in mind.
Yes, I have read Computer Audiophile on a regular basis to educate myself, and it does help me with the lingo. As far as choosing a piece of equipment, it (as well as other sites) have not been as helpful. Sure, they rate different dacs, but the reviews seem so subjective (as well they might), it is like auditioning a dac in a dealer's showroom on equipment/room far removed from your enviroment.
Ejlif, I am running a Hovland hp 100 (modded)->Bel 1001 mono's->Meadowlark Blue Heron 2's, with Audience 24e IC/Sword Supra speaker cable. Running Springs Jaco conditioner.
Appreciate the input.
Do some on-line homework. Get your feet wet with a DAC that's somewhat proportional to your setup's quality- don't experiment with something too "cheap" or extravagant. There's an element of risk to your initial entry into computer audio but risk can be managed by limiting your outlay, perhaps buying used (remember Moore's Law is in effect though- buying a used DAC is buying older technology). But you will have access to a huge amount of sources via the net and a new way to use CD's. I've experienced frustration but also a lot of fun.
I too am at a transition points with the new DACs, and not sure where to invest money. Another question is related to the Empirical Audio stuff. Is it more cost effective to buy an Offramp and put it in front of a good DAC, or to buy a much more expensive DAC. Steve Nugent at Empirical (and apparently Stereophile) say that the Offramp can be a significant equalizer.
abruce You advocate the Mach2mini over a stanard Mac mini. I presume because you have heard a sound advantage over an off the shelf computer. Can you give some idea of how big and what differences there are? Sorry to push into the thread with my questions.
With the plethora of DACs on the market it's very difficult to choose one just as it is with other high end equipment. (without being able to connect it and hear in your system) You can't know what a DAC will do in your individual system. But with the majority of maunfacturers, you buy it, you own it. If you are willing to go with a less expensive DAC there are a few manufacturers who sell with a 30 day money back through online dealer/retailers, otherwise you buy and try and have to resell here if you dislike your results. You might be able to resell and take minimal loss in some cases. If you want to go lower price DACs, Wyred has a 15% restocking fee on return, Centrance can be had on a 30 day audition, Rega has a 30 day audition. Audio Advisor and Music Direct have various DACs that you can audition and if needed return within 30 days. But if you go for the premium higher end DACs, in the majority of cases you will not have return priveleges. It's my opinion that you can come close to high end performance with some less-than high end DACs. Let us know of your experiences.
You should audition the PS Audio Perfect Wave Dac. There is a Mark 2 version coming out. What's nice, other than it's tremendous flexiblity is the ability to not be forced to upsample redbook cd's. Redbook cd's sound best when they are not upsampled...more natural,imo. The native setting (avoiding the sample rate convertor) allows you to avoid the sample rate convertor completely. It of course will accept wav input up to 24/192. PS Audio retailers do allow returns if you don't like it so you can audition it.
Depending on the type of sound you are looking for, here is the list I've listened to
Rega - decent solid dac. Has the Rega house sound if you are familiar with Rega gear. I liked it at first, but was wanting more.
Northstar USB - silky smooth, transparent, tight solid bass, highs not as extended, 3D soundstage narrow, but deep. With the right digital cable you can get the sound you are looking for.
Bel Canto 2 - nice starter dac. warm, detailed, musical. soundstage imaging is not as solid/3D, but wide and shallow. On complicated recordings, it can get congested, but the music is still enjoyable. this dac was in my system for some type. took a lot more for me to "upgrade".
Lector DAC - with the right tubes, you can get the sound you are looking for. the overall characteristic of the dac is that it is very transparent, detailed, solid 3D imaging. depending on the tubes, your soundstage, smoothness and the type of warmth will vary.
If you had me rank the 4 I just listed it would
4) Bel Canto
Based on the rankings, you can see the wide price range. Bel Canto being the cheapest currently in the GON market, but can hold it's own.
I don't use USB so with the Northstar and Lector, I could be missing out since I know some dacs the USB input is the best input. Forgot to mention, I didn't audition the Rega in my system, because I could tell at the dealer what it was going to sound like my system due to the Rega house sound so didn't pursue it furthur. Not knocking the Rega, but wasn't my cup of tea. I still recommend it for people to try out since it is a good dac and for the price.
I think you are right on about getting little help by auditioning a DAC or any other gear in the context of a totally different system at a dealer. If you were using a dealer they should just let you take it home anyway isn't that what a good dealer does anyway.
I like your system a lot. The Blue herons are awesome and love the hovland preamp. What is your current source components? I personally would buy one of these DACs that are being recommended here used and see what you think. I would personally recommend the MHDT paradisea or Havana as a great starting point.
I, too, would be interested in David12's question re: stock Mac mini and Mach2mini.
Source: Modded Sony SCD-1->Van Alstine Ultra Dac. Yes, I am quite please with my sound from this system at present. The little known, but tube like SS Bel 1001 MkV monos' from the late Richard Brown filled out the system and kicked the ARC VT130Se and a Musical Fidelity Trivista 300 into the boxes, then to the closet. But I still would like to move to the digital world, and will; dragging one foot slowly in front of the other.
Sorry i can not help with the difference between stock and modded Mach2 minis
I took a leap of faith after meeting and talking with Kevin, Mach2, at RMAF this year
talk with him about the differences, he will give a no bs answer
Bricasti M1 DAC, one of the best ive heard