The Ayre QB-9 is an excellent choice and fits within your budget.
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No one knows as no one has ever bought more than a few of the dozens of DACs available. Asking your question is like asking for a miracle.
If ANYONE claims they know the answer, they are either confusing what they bought as having to be the best because, naturally it is the one they bought, or because they are just being a shill for some brand either they like, or have a vested interest in.
If you what at least a reasonable chance of any sort of answer, read reviews of DACS by Googling the brands and reviews.
Asking here is a total crap-shoot.
PS: USB still seems to be a bit flaky, and maybe in the next year or so some may arrive with the sort of performance you want. As is, there is only one well regarded USB device which was reviewed in Stereophile. Since then, several companies have better (than their prior) USB implimentations in the works..
Hang in there..
There is no definite answer since it depends so much on personal preferences and system synergies.
But to my ears and in my system the best DAC I have heard in that price range is my Level 2 PDX:
The only thing I have heard that bests it, and I have heard and owned quite a lot, is my much more expensive Playback Designs - and then only by DSD - the PDX still bests it with PCM.
Although I haven't heard it personally people whose ears I trust tell me the AMR is up there as well.
But really what you should be doing is trying to do is hear as much as possible in your system and making up your own mind. I know the Tranquility DAC guy offers a free in home trial and you should avail yourself of that - I own one and its very good. Other quality manufacturers like Empirical Audio have similar offers.
If you were out in Australia I would lend you my PDX but I am afraid sending stuff overseas is a bit too expensive and the risk of damage quite substantial. I lent a speaker I own and wanted to sell to a guy in the US and when it came time to return it (he didn't want to buy it) decided to send it to a magazine to get reviewed first just to see what they thought. On the way over one of the speaker terminals got bent. That meant I couldn't on-sell in the US and will have to pay a large sum of money to get it sent back to the manufacturer to be fixed. You live and learn.
I have also been privileged enough to be at comparisons of a battery powered Hiface directly feeding the DAC chip on the PDX. A number of top quality transports such as Wadia were tried against it - it MURDERED them all. Right now, when done correctly, USB is the way to go - but it must be done correctly - unfortunately most aren't - however the PDX, Tranquility and Empirical Audio's Overdrive DAC is.
This one only has a USB input so not sure it would work for you, but it's also "only" 900 bucks and seems to possess many of the qualities you're looking for if you put any credence at all in reviews (I know, I know). I think the reviewer bought the review sample, which at least says something, and I believe it was also positively reviewed in Stereophile. I thought the Ayre recommendation was a pretty good one too if you're looking for a smoother, more analogue kind of sound. Anyway, best of luck.
Thank you very much for your suggestions because truthfully that is all I can ask for because I do understand it will vary from system to system. I have heard the Weiss and Auralic on my system and on my friends system; truthfully I was surprised at how close they sounded because they are not close in price. I will look around my area and try and find an Ayre dealer and a couple of other DACs that were mentioned.
Should I step up another $1000 and look at more expensive DACs or does it make that much of a difference? According to several friends of mine you will get in to the law of diminishing returns.
another vote for PSA's PWDII. it's the best sounding dac i've ever heard at any price (although i've never auditioned a dac above 10k USD so grain of salt might be required here).
this months review in absolute sound also gave it a thumbs up, even when compared to units costing 2x and 3x as much. it's great for redbook but where it really shines is hi res imho.
forget about usb. i'm not a fan and am yet to hear a usb hook-up that comes close to using the PSA bridge.
best bet is buying a used PWDI and upgrading it to II status and getting the bridge. you're still well south of your budget limits but sacrificing nothing regarding sound.
It is interesting to hear all the positive comments on the PWD but then I have read the Zodiac Gold + Voltikus when combined is slightly better and this is what is driving me crazy. I am always concerned when spending this kind of money that there is a new flavour every month. Is that the problem with dacs; are they just strictly preference and money really doesn't buy you a better dac?
I did a shootout of my original PWD against the Zodiac gold + Volitkus. It was close to a toss up but I would say the Zodiac probably won by a hair. However, I knew the MKII was in the works at the time, so I held out for the upgrade. The MKII took the PWD to a new level, and to my ears it is now materially better than the Zodiac. Throw in the benefits of the bridge option and the ample supply of very affordable used PWDs and the choise is clear (to me).
Not many people have heard many DACs in the $2-4K range, with the possible exception of a few dealers. There is a thread on Audionervosa that describes a shoutout at a regional meet of DACs in the $3-5K range, including the Perfect Wave (not sure if Mk1 or Mk2), the AMR DP-777, and the Zodiac Gold. Everyone had slightly varying opinions and rankings, but the conclusion was they were all good and fairly similar in sound. You might want to search for that thread. It certainly dissuaded me from thinking about swapping out my Perfect Wave MK2 for something in the same ballpark in terms of retail price.
I would avoid buying any DAC that is not well-known in the audio community unless the manufacturer offers a trial period, because digital equipment depreciates in resale value quite fast, and I suspect you would have a hard time selling a DAC that very few have heard of.
Another vote for the PWD MKII. The TAS review is dead on. You really have to reach the $10k summit to beat it. In fact, the reviewer said it occasionally beat his $25k EMM Labs player on some high resolution recordings. Things are changing rapidly in digital right now and I think spending a great deal more than $4000 on digital playback is pretty risky.
I have to disagree with plosive. IMHO the USB integration on the WFS is very ordinary. It is improved considerably with an Off-Ramp (the best but unfortunately most expensive) or an Audiopilleo 2 (probably the best bang for buck). I did not like it much at all via its internal USB but with the Off-Ramp - very good - very good indeed - although still a touch analytical to my ears and I prefer DAC's that aren't - but that is a personal preference sort of thing.
Bhobba: I purchased a Metrum Octave a while back and love it. I am running Pure Music in my Mac Mini. I purchased a Mach2Music HiFace 2 USB/spdif converter. While playing music into the HiFace 2, I would here "clicks" and "pops" during playback. I ultimately returned the converter. Did you ever experience this with any converters? Do you have any idea as to what I may have done wrong?
Audioengr: INSTRUCTIONS?!?!? INSTRUCTIONS?!?!? Are you kidding me? Mach2Music is without a doubt the most user UN-friendly company I've ever dealt with. There were no instructions with my converter. Also, emails take months, yes, MONTHS to get responses to. I couldn't find any information about how to properly set up the converter. I've asked this earlier: How do you set the buffer size larger? I am in full support of computer audio and I believe it can surpass cd players if properly set up. However, in order for hard drive based digital to work for the masses, THERE MUST BE MORE INFORMATION AVAILABLE TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC REGARDING PROPER SET UP SO GUYS LIKE ME DON'T HAVE TO POST QUESTIONS IN AN AUDIOPHILE "CHAT ROOM" TO GET ANSWERES. I've been saying this forever. This thread is the very first time I've ever heard the word "buffer"...ever...anywhere. Why? This is exactly what I'm talking about. This information should be available to everyone buying a device like this converter.
Devilboy, this link works for me, using both Firefox and Internet Explorer on Windows 7 and Windows XP computers, with Adobe Reader versions 9 and 10. The download seems kind of slow, though, so you might have to wait for a minute or so before you will see anything:
Thanks Almarg, but the same thing happened. Nothing but blank pages. I have a Mac. I don't know if that has anything to do with my inability to view the pages. Also, I sent an email to Mach2Music a few months ago. After a couple of months they finally replied back but mentioned nothing about a buffer. Why didn't they say anything about it?
Again, Audioengr: How do you increase the buffer size?
Almarg: Thanks again but I couldn't find anything. I'm using PurMusic for playback. I went through PureMusic's menus in "preferences" and couldn't find anything about buffer size. I'm not that knowledgeable about computers and software. I don't want to be a pain here, but can someone describe it step-by-step?
Can't go wrong with the PWD II. It sounds great and has received excellent reviews, one can get significant discounts or buy used here on Audiogon.
Streaming with the Bridge is simple and sounds better than most USB solutions. Paul McGowan is one of the good guys in the industry seeking to provide great sounding equipment at reasonable prices. PS Audio is to be commended.
In my system and this may only apply to me but after trying 5 different dacs I keep going back to the Auralic ARK MX+. I will tell you straight out some of the other dacs were better in certain areas but I just could not push myself to spend 3 times what I paid for the Auralic to gain small improvements; sorry I am a little cheap that way. The Auralic is breaking in nicely and at $2000 I like how it works with my system.