I haven't seen your budget, but Grace M903 might inspire you. http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/741484-REG/Grace_Design_M903_m903_Reference_Headphone_Amplifier.html
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The Ayre QB9 is plug and play with extremely little setup. Ayre also provides detailed setup for Mac based systems on their website. The current unit is 24/192 and with your setup should adjust on the fly depending on the source content specs. Plus Ayre is pretty good about adding any upgrades for cost of parts/software in case HiRez bumps up to 384 standard (unlikely in near future). There happens to be a virtually brand new one for sale right now.
Full disclosure: The one I mention for sale is mine.
I currently own a Bel Canto DAC 3.0 w/BC USB Link, and an Ayre Acoustics QB-9. Both are IMHO incredibly good source components, with very different approaches. Connectivity is not a daunting issue with either.
But if I had your budget of $5K, I'd go as far up the Wavelength Audio foodchain as possible, until it's shown that something betters Gordon Rankin's asynchronous mode solutions, and then spend the rest on your high-res library.
Yea, its becoming an increasingly target-rich environment when it comes
to USB DACs. Just so happens that I got the Ayre, after spending a bit of
time comparing it to the new Bel Canto 3.5. Theyre both right nice, but
the Bel Canto with all of the extra fangles, optional battery supply, and a
proprietary USB to something-or-another glass converter will run you
close to twice the price. To clarify, Bel Canto does not have a USB input,
and you need a special converter to use a USB output into it. Now, this
converter is supposed to be special in its own right, but itll cost you an
extra $500. To my ears, preferred the Ayre, but a very subjective
Regarding Wavelength, they are indeed meant to be very wonderful. I
didnt compare them, though, (although it was sitting right next to the Ayre
and Bel Canto when I was listening) because I had decided that I was
done with tubes and thus didnt really want to know one way or the other.
For what thats worth, which is admittedly not much.
Also for what its worth, the proprietary Wavelength asynchronous USB
clocking bits are exactly the same bits that drive the Ayre. Wavelength is
strictly tubed gear, and they have for the first time licensed their tech to
Ayre for use in their (solid state) DAC. So, as far as that goes, the Ayre
and Wavelength likely share more in common than you might otherwise
find in comparing tubed and solid state gear. (A little more background: all
the fuss is over jitter messing with your digital signal coming from the
source to the DAC. The Wavelength / Ayre asynchronous USB tech is
meant to be one state-of-the-art means of licking that issue. The Bel
Canto USB converter is another solution designed for the same issue.
Each among others has its share of proponents. Fortunately, or
unfortunately, you get to decide which you prefer.)
There are many others, to be sure, just beyond my ken.
One more thing to consider, though, is how much functionality youre
looking for in a DAC-like package. Some (more and more it seems) can
do multiple inputs, source selection, volume control, etc. So, the
functionality / connectivity package is also important. Returning to what I
know, for example, the Bel Canto has multiple inputs and volume control (I
believe), so you can run more than one source into it, use it as you might
a pre amp even in place of and so forth. You could, for instance, run
a CD transport and a computer into the same DAC. If thats of use, then
its of use. The Ayre, on the other hand, has a single USB input and thats
it. It can sit there passively between one USB source and an amplification
stage, one or both of which must have their own volume control as the
Ayre doesnt do volume, full stop. If you want anything more, Ayre doesnt
make the DAC for you. (And if you are looking for more, hear that Naim
has made a recent foray out from is Naim-incestuous world with a well-
received multi-source DAC that I meant to, but never did, hear).
As for NOS DACs, spent about a year with a MHDT Havana before
moving to the Ayre. Its right nice, really sings with some volume behind
it, and theres something inherently and undeniable sensible about running
redbook CD material (assuming thats what is at hand) at native
resolution. But, I ultimately found myself wanting for more detail and the
Havana seemed to require some real volume behind it before it got to
swinging could be a little flat of lower volume levels (which is the end of
the volume range I tend to play in thanks to the old living arrangement).
So, if youre already inclined away from the NOS world, I wouldnt be the
one to convince you different. A great option, but ultimately not the
answer for me. Best of luck.
I have been doing some research for a new dac also. I came across the Anedio Dac1($1270 + shipping) I belive it has a high rez USB input that they claim is idiot proof. It has the new ESS Sabre 9018 chip in side, that so many feel is the future of digital audio. Then pocket the rest and go on a nice vacation, purchase music, or go to a boat load concerts. :-)
PS: I will be purchasing this dac as soon as I have enough to do so.
I'd buy the W4S Dac 2 for $1500.00 and use it as a baseline to compare others too. When you find one that's better.. really better, you'll probably be able to get 80+percent back on the W4S, and you'll know, really know, that you got the Dac that suits your ears and system. All the Dac's out there sound different from one another.. buying by the label is always a bad idea.. just my $.02
"The problem with the W4S are the proprietary drivers needed to run on the source machine vs. the native OS drivers used by Ayre/Wavelength.
Changes in operating system framework may require these drivers to be updated which could become problematic."
I personally wouldn't really consider this a "problem." You could say the same thing about device that a computer uses which requires drivers. Every single PCI/PCIe sound card, graphics card, network chip, ... all fall into this category.
Sound related OS updates that require driver updates for a dac are going to occur few and far between, if at all, and if/when they do happen, assuming W4S is still around, it would be pretty safe to assume that they will be able to update their drivers.
Mezmo my experience with the MHDT Havana could not be more different than yours concerning detail at low listening levels. I feel no need to turn up the volume, all the music and low level information is there along with natural dynamics and the amazing tonality of this unit at very moderate listening levels. I can expect as with any product that it may be system dependent but for a NOS DAC with USB and tube output, this is one hell of a performer and less than 1K to boot and worthy of consideration.
@Face: Nobody said there was an issue with the existing drivers and to be clear it's an issue with all USB DACs right now for anything above 24/96 on Windows and Mac OS X < 10.6. Only Snow Leopard has native USB Audio Class 2 drivers which allows 24/192 without additional software. So Ayre/Wavelength/etc all fall into this category not just W4S, sorry for sounding like I was singling them out.
@Marakanetz: This assumes you keep the same music server forever and never ever want to upgrade which is a rarity in this hobby. We all strive the latest/greatest/best so if an upgrade gives additional capability at the expense of broken drivers you'll find your self in a pickle. Is this scenario super likely...probably not.
@Goatwuss: And a lot of older PC hardware (especially those you mention) have legacy issues on newer OS builds so you've only confirmed my comment but yes as you point out as long as the company is around and the challenge is not insurmountable (or expensive) it's likely an update will be possible.
Tubegroover, don't mean to suggest that the Havana isn't fantastic, 'cause
I think it is and thrilled that it scratches your itch. Listened to mine all the
time for a year, and was perfectly happy. What ultimately sent me looking
for more (at admittedly three times the price) was a comparison with my
old CDP (Meridian 508.24). In particular, friend brought over the full Miles
Davis live at the Plugged Nickel set and we spent a fine afternoon
switching back and forth between the (upsampling) Meridian and the
(NOS) Havana. Through the Havana, it sounded great. On the Meridian,
it sounded like you were in the audience in the club. And it was all in the
smallest ambient details: glasses on tables, murmurs among the crowd,
the scrape of a chair, a sense of space created by the hint of an echo.
Once you knew it was there and listened for it, with enough volume, you
could make out all of this info through the Havana; but with the Meridian it
was just there, effortless like.
It was this one afternoon that spun me out of the NOS camp and off on a
frolic that ended with the Ayre. But, definitely, an entirely system-
dependant, subjective thing. Given the rest of my gear (largely Rowland
and Thiel), I'm (self-diagnosed) prone to come out on the side of detail
when given the old "detail v. musicality" tipping point choice
with gear. All my idiosyncrasies -- well, not actually all, not by a long shot
-- confessed, this was just one of those times.
True that. It's always something, though -- even if just the desire for simple stuff like, you know, food -- that draws one back out into the world. And one you're out there, you never know when those insidiously irrational upgrade gremlins are going to pounce and make you their bitch. Think the single greatest upgrade / tweak for any system would be the equivalent of garlic-a-la-vampires to keep the spiteful little bastards at bay. Let us all know if you find their magic bullet (although I suspect it's just a mental fortitude which I seem to demonstrably lack...). Meantime, enjoy.