Which sounds best? Do any of you SACD players have HDMI 1.2 or above outputs?
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Why do you find it strange that a D/A converter can make so much of a difference? After all, CD players (largely due to differences in their internal DACs) can sound significantly different. Yours happen to have similar sonic characteristics.
I can't speak for your Integra unit, but it is possible that the Direct Mode bypasses any digital room correction processing that might occur when you use the digital input. Some processors will actually digitally sample the analog inputs, too, so for these even the analog inputs spend some time in the digital domain.
I would just use whichever combination sounds best to you.
I don't know that one sounds better than the other, probably more different than anything else.
None of the CD/SACD players have HDMI ouputs, I have not tried it with my blu-ray player that is HDMI so not I have an assignment to do. The only digital connection is toslink.
I guess I would have expected the sound of my two Integra D/A converters (i.e. CD player and Receiver) to sound more similar because they are, I believe, both burr-brown and the same model years than the CD player does compared to two others that are of a different brand and vintage.