Long list, wowee. Haven't heard anything like all of them. For my 2 cents you won't go wrong with the Apogee, but it costs more than some of the others. Good luck.
73 responses Add your response
Thank you for posting.
I just realized that the Apogee may well be out of my price range unless I find a good deal on a used one.
I understand that an increasing number of people are considering this sort of approach, so I hope that this thread may be of use to others as well as to me.
--Patrick a.k.a Music Doc
Holy cow! That's quite a "short" list. It makes me wonder what the "long" list from which it was culled looks like. I'm going to make a suggestion. How did the short list come out of the long list? If people know that, they might have an idea as to what is important to you and could then advise accordingly.
Both of you make an excellent point about this list being somewhat long. I wish that I could provide a cogent argument for the inclusion of each item on the list, but the embarrassing, sad truth of the matter is that I have no idea of what I am doing.
What is important to me?
1) Quality of sound with a budget. Clearly, the former is quite subjective while I can specify the latter (<$350 or thereabouts). If it helps, some of my favourite speakers include the KEF 105 reference series, or on a budget, the Kef 103.3 reference pair. The best amp that I ever owned was the Classe A1 (magnificent for the money). I have three amplifiers at the moment: Music Fidelity B1 integrated, an old Luxman receiver (back when they were a decent choice) and an Harmon Kardon reciever (vintage between when they were okay but earlier than when they became pieces of dung). By far, I like the B1 best.
I listen to a wide variety of music but am most critical when listening to Jazz or Classical. A clear sound stage, mellow but accurate highs, crisp and controlled (even at the expense of range) bass, and lack of listener fatigue rank top among my concerns.
2)Versatility: My computer has both firewire and USB outputs, so I could go either way. I also have an HK CD player with RCA optical out, so if this device could serve double duty, that would be a nice plus.
Thank you to both for asking questions to help me to clarify what I'm trying to do.
Given the price range that I have in mind, I'm leaning toward new rather than used. The Cambridge Audio DACMagic has received favourable reviews, even edging out the Musical Fidelity V-DAC. Peter Daniel's USB DAC continues to receive high praise, but I haven't seen direct comparisons with the DACMagic. Ditto for the KECES DA-151 USB DAC.
From your description of the kind of sound you like, and judging by your preference for the MF B1 and the KEFs, I'm sure you would like the Apogee very much. However you would either have to luck onto a used one already equipped with a USB card (Apogee have discontinued the card) or get a FireWire card for your PC, and then a Mini-DAC with FireWire. That would be well over your budget.
Your tastes are well-defined. Can you get a listen to any of these units? I owned a couple of earlier-model Cambridge DACMagics a while ago and I thought the version 1 was not good while the version 2 was good value. The new DACMagic may be very good, but listening is obviously what will tell you. Alternatively, try to get a 30-day return option if you can't listen before you buy. Failing these, you may need to be prepared to buy and then sell on any units that don't meet expectations.
If you're going to try to choose by user reviews and comments, search the archives here and also try Audio Asylum (the Digital-General and Digital-PC Audio forums ) and Head-Fi. And since you like your Musical Fidelity amp, you might want to add the new V-DAC to your list... ;o)
Wish I could tell you a killer in your price range...
For pure goofiness, go with the Blue Circle "Thingy" and save a lot of money.
If you want to stick with something built in the US by a fellow Northern Ohioan, buy a used Ultra Fi iRoc. Another nice thing about the iRoc is tha Larry Moore still lives in Ohio (Cincinnati) and service or upgrades would never be an issue. He also typically allows trade-ins toward his newer product. Plus, you can call Larry up on the phone most any time and get product engineering details or other information about his products.
http://whathifi.com/Review/Musical-Fidelity-V-DAC/ offered a positive review but indicated that the latest Cambridge Audio DACMagic offered better value.
Of course, I would love to have an A/B comparison.
My computer does have a firewire output, but it appears that the Apogee mini-dac runs about $1000. Do you think it possible to find one used in my price range?
1) I know that I am asking for a lot for a little
2) I really appreciate everyone's input; since I can't listen to all of these options, it is great to have opinions from those who have had the opportunity to listen to some of these items.
Thanks again to all,
Given that Mr. Moore lives within driving distance from me, that is quite attractive.
A little searching makes me think that his products even at a used price might fall well outside my price range. I'll keep an eye open just in case!!!
I suppose it wouldn't hurt to drop him a line either...
Considering the dozens of choices that is a bit of a "short list". ;)
I've considered several possibilites as well over the last year or two. So what did I end up with? A pro rather than consumer audio piece in the Focusrite Saffire Le which connects the computer via firewire. I also have a NOS tube DAC in the Paradisea+ (non-USB version).
I have a piece of hardware similar to the Focusrite--an M-Audio Fast Track Pro that I use for dumping midi and misc. audio into ProTools. While I find this to a useful piece of hardware, I never considered the output to be that good. I suspect that the DACs with the M-Audio aren't quite as good as those in the Focusrite.
The M-Audio does offer digital output, however. I wonder if I could use that with a non-USB DAC but remain concerned that it would be one more piece of equipment (and an extra variable) in the line.
I placed an offer for an iRoc that's listed on this forum, but I doubt the seller will consider it as it is worth much more than I can afford to offer for now.
I just visited the Audio Magus site, and I don't see the MagiDac listed. Is that a discontinued item? If so, perhaps I can find a used one at a good price.
I am both excited and riddled with indecision as it seems that there are a number of possibilities, even buying new, that match my budget.
I'll keep posting as I move forward just in case someone else is considering a similar purchase.
At the risk of perseverating, thank you once again to all for your valuable advice.
OK, since the OP has generously undertaken to inform the curious of his discoveries... there are two DACs at the low end which interest me. One is the Beresford, from the U.K.
and the other is the VALAB mentioned above, which is made by an outfit in Taiwan and sold on eBay.
I would use such a converter with a computer-based portable system if its sound were better than that of my M-Audio Audiophile USB external.
I tend towards the VALAB DAC because their description on eBay is wonderfully enticing. The unit is said to be "sweat sounding", and I'm sure that would be great for rock.
Here is a little more information--I'll have to fill in some blanks....
AudioSector USB NOS DAC Peter Daniel
Bersesford TC-7510 MK6/4
US twin WM8740
Blue Circle USB
Cambridge Audio DacMagic
DIYEDEN SVDAC05 USB DAC
CS4398 / PCM2704
KECES 151 USB DAC
NOS PCM 2702
NOS Philips TDA 1545A
USB / toslink / coaxial
Musical Fidelity V-DAC
Musiland MD 10 Bit Select USB DAC
Styleaudio Carat HD1-V
Burr Brown 2704
Vintage Audio Lab DAC
NOS TDA 1543
Yulong DAH 1 USB DAC
I have much more to do, of course. I've dropped the Apogee Mini-DAC from my list as it is too expensive, the Beresford as it hasn't a USB or Firewire input, and the Squeezebox Classic as it is not what I thought it was. I'm likely to remove the Blue Circle and Fubar as I don't think that they compete with the others for my intended purpose.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic seems to get slightly better reviews than the Musical Fidelity V-DAC, but I am still open minded about the the latter. If it is anywhere near as good as their other products, it has to be worth consideration. Finally, I'm finding it difficult to learn more about the AudioSector USB NOS DAC by Peter Daniel. I remain interested though...
My so-called short list is about to get a good deal shorter.
Thanks again to all for posting,
Get a Keces 151 USB DAC dor $250, and quit worrying. It will deliver what is on the CD.
No matter which DAC you choose; part one is to rip it right. Part 2 is to amplify it right.
Part 3 is to place your speakers correctly.
At the end of the day a DAC should have no character. It is simply a converter.
BTW forget about Firewire - the universe has chosen. There is no need for the bandwidth.
The Keces 151 USB DAC is definitely on my short list.
At the risk of being contrary, while the DAC is simply a converter, it does seem that the implementation of the conversion is somewhat important. For example, NOS vs. up sampling DACs sound somewhat different. Within each of those categories, some work better than others (for example, my M-Audio FastTrack Pro is a DAC, but I find the sound to be less than ideal).
At the moment, if I can spend more, I'm leaning toward the Musical Fidelity, Cambridge Audio, and Musiland DACs. Otherwise, the Keces, and Vintage Audio Labs seem like good choices.
* In each category, what will sound best?
* Do I need inputs other than the USB? Not at the moment, but someday perhaps?
* Are there differences in reliability? Will I receive good support in the off chance that there is a problem with the product?
* I own a pair of Grado SR-120s: perhaps I will want this to do double duty as a headphone amp?
I am going to look around a little more and update the listing that I started above.
Hi Prof -
yep, they do all sound a bit different. Function of the way the wiring is done, chip used, power supply etc. as well as the designers choices about how to voice it.
What we pretty much know is that coming using a hard drive as a transport greatly improves sound quality by eliminating the problems that are inherent in a 40 year old realtime electro-optical-mechanical design.
And that second to the problems of variable spin speeds and lasers reading pits; the second biggest quality problem to date has to do with poor SPDIF implementation.
SPDIF and Toslink are legacy systems that will fade away over time - though that is probably a decade due to the lifespan of much of this gear.
Yes you can get a Toslink capable DAC and link it to your old CDP - but what's the point - the CDP is inherently quality limited and to buy a Toslink DAC now is to make a dead end investment.
What drives the consumer electronic market is volume. What has unprecedented volume right now is iTunes, iPod and iPhone. In the past 5-6 years, over 100 million consumers worldwide now have some or all of their music on a hard drive. Many only buy downloadable music. This is what is going to drive the technology going forward -
Keep in mind that 2 channel redbook format audio needs very little bandwidth - the current standards and technologies provide plenty.
That makes future proofing difficult since it is most likely that the next file transfer technology will be designed for broader bandwidth media and to be wireless.
Following this logic, for 2009 a DAC with USB and WiFi would be the ticket. To see beyond that wait for the next CES and the next Intel Developers Forum and Apple Developers Forum.
But in terms of what you can buy today with your budget, go USB. You are safe for at least 3 years which is darn good in this day and age. The market is just too big to move any faster.
ALSO As you point out, there are many headphone users. Keces just introduced their 152 for this market which combines the DAC, preamp and power amp functions in one small form factor. I am sure it sounds great; and I am equally sure you will see more of these kinds of designs coming from Taiwan and China.
Using Keces as an example most people are aiming at one market or the other - the issue of course being that headphone users don't need the kind of wattage that people need to drive speakers.
It will take some digging - look to the east.
As far as support - its tricky since shipping a product back to Taiwan for a repair and then shipping it back will cost a disproportionate amount of the initial purchase price. Coupled with the construction techniques used, outright replacement is probably more cost effective.
This is a situation where you query the supplier/manufacturer first about his policies. Chance are that if it runs for a week after it arrives, it will run for many years.
Its also a you pays your money and makes your choices thing - by giving up the traditional importer/distributor model and dealing with the manufacturer you get a lot more for your money. But you don't get the same kind of service that someone who manufactures in the US and has a dealer network can provide.
IMHO, the hot ticket soon will be an integrated amp with a USB DAC built in, sufficient wattage to drive the average speaker (whatever that is) and enough niceties like remotes and headphone jacks to compete with the other integrated amps in the market place.
Eliminating components saves money and improves sound quality. It also uses less space which is important in every culture but ours. And it is greener which sooner or later will make a difference.
What a great post! Apart from confirming what I have always thought to be true (my Musical Fidelity B1's specs aren't any better, and indeed are much worse than many Sony, Pioneer, & etc. components) you raise important issues regarding cost vs. service. For $150, I'm likely to discard and purchase a new DAC should it fail. On the other hand, if the $400 Cambridge Audio DAC failed, I'd be quite reluctant to toss it.
Having flexibility of inputs is not a bad thing. As you note, many will become obsolete, but I suspect that USB has a good deal of life left in it, and should it be replaced, that adapters of one sort or another will extend the lifespan a touch. I tend to keep older equipment when it works well, so that might be okay.
Putting aside the truly inexpensive options, I wonder how much difference I would hear between the Keces, the Audio Sector and the Vintage Audiolabs NOS DACs--probably much less of a difference than between NOS and up sampling models. If I take the NOS route, the Vintage Audio Labs offers a variety of inputs (I'll use USB primarily, but on occasion the digital in from my rather harsh sounding HK CD player). If I take the up sampling route, I'll have to spend a good bit more.
I am learning a good deal from all of the input offered here, and once again, thanks to all.
The upsampling is a beast of a different color entirely - my only extended experience with it was with the TriVista. It was very smooth with no obvious artifacts but one day I just got up and turned it off. I just didn't like it.
Since that experience I have noticed that more and more people divide into two camps - NOS and upsample.
I suspect that this is one of those YMMV issues - either on the hardware side where the issue is how resolving your system is and what is your room like; on the software side where the issue may have something to do with what kinds of music and recordings you enjoy; and finally on the wetware side - how much have you listened and what do you listen for.
If there ever was a situation where GIGO applies, upsampling is it LOL
I tend to agree with you that it is unlikely you will hear much difference between the three DACs you mentioned. If you can, compare the DAC and Op Amp parts, and also try to get a sense of the power supply.
All things being equal it sounds as though you have done a good job in matching your system needs, budget and technology with the Vintage unit.
Give it a go and let us know what you think!
>>If there ever was a situation where GIGO applies, upsampling is it LOL<<
I can't help but think that this is a terribly important consideration for USB DACs. I suspect that I would enjoy the Cambridge Audiolabs or the Musical Fidelity when listening to lossless sources or when using a CD transport. On the other hand, I have well over 200 gigs of digital music that is not lossless, and with that or streaming sources (I use the online classical music library for my teaching), the NOS might actually be a better choice.
I am on creating a final short list soon...
It's not enough to simply have a USB input on a DAC. Implementation is tricky and only a few manufacturers are doing a really good job of it. (I've ordered a Keces to check it out.) For example, with my Bel Canto DAC3, I prefer Toslink out of my Mac Mini to USB out to the Bel Canto's USB input. Bel Canto has just introduced an accessory box to convert USB to S/PDIF. They claim superior sonics as well as 24/96 capability. You are definitely not hearing the Bel Canto at its best when using the USB input. And they are not alone in this regard -- most manufacturers are not doing USB right.
A little more information:
Model Price Type / Chip Inputs Outputs Other
Cambridge Audio DacMagic
USB, Coax, Optical
KECES 151 USB DAC
US/Burr Brown PCM 2702 ME49710 OP-Amp
RCA (No Headphone)
Musical Fidelity V-DAC
USB, Coax, Optical
RCA (No headphone)
Some reviews prefer DacMagic
Musiland MD 10 USB DAC
USB, Coax, Optical, BNC
Styleaudio Carat HD1-V
US/Burr Brown PCM2704
Headphone output weak
Yulong DAH 1 USB DAC
$280 US/AD1955 SPDIF, Coaxial, USB, analog input (RCA)
RCA / Headphone
Remote Control / Superior headphone amp
Giga Lab Moon DAC
USB, Coax, Optical
RCA (No headphone)
Vintage Audio Lab DAC
$180 NOS TDA 1543
USB / RCA /Coax/optical
RCA (No headphone)
capacitors for each DAC may not be what is claimed in literature: http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f7/valab-dac-first-impressions-378459/index5.html
So, if I go budget, I'm leaning toward the Vintage Audio Lab; if I splurge, I think that the Cambridge Audio may be the way to go.
If anyone here owns any of these products and would like to comment....
I've thought about taking that route but wondered if having one more converter in the line would be a plus or a minus. Do you have an idea how much the Bel Canto accessory box will cost? A product like that would open a wider range of DAC options.
While I realize that getting the USB connection set is tricky, I wonder if the new crop of DACs have the wrinkles ironed out? The DacMagic is getting pretty good reviews.
Most of the USB DAC chips used are not up to the task at hand. There are only a handful of DACs that "properly" implement the use of USB, i.e. the Benchmark DAC-1 (which has other deterrents). You'll repeatedly see chips such as the PCM2702/4/7 and CS102-108 turning up in these products. Bel Canto is a fairly expensive DAC that is looking to better the USB connection, however I'd prefer it in one box not two. Not to say, as an above poster, that having everything in one box improves sound quality. If it's done right it can. A poorly designed or built integrated amp will suffer as ideally these units will have separation between them. Still less expensive when built properly?
>>The Bel Canto box is $500. Includes a short length of Stereovox digital cable. I don't believe they are gouging us at this price. Rather, it shows what it takes to do USB right.<<
Just to clarify--that is the price of the connector and the DAC is a separate purchase? If so, this product may be out of my price range.
Ouch! I am sure that it is worth it (rave reviews) but that places this option way out of my price range. I'll have to wait until later in life to purchase that level of quality.
What I am looking at is nowhere near the level of the Bel Canto, but it has to be better than using my M-Audio FastTrack Pro as the DAC.
The USB to SPDIF box need not be an arm and a leg. There was a brilliant small device called the Waveterminal U24 which helped launch this whole evolution a few years ago. Trick is that it got its power from the USB cable which carries 5v - ergo no costly power supply, no big case etc.
Then Hagerman came out with one.
The hot ticket now for under $200 is the BlueCircle USB Thingee.
All these devices take the data from the USB and move it over to SPDIF. Neat, simple and compact. I can tell you from experience that I found that it took a very good SPDIF cable to make this work its best.
I do not believe that USB implementation is all that difficult. What I believe is that most audio manufacturers have their head in the sand hoping that the whole computer thing will go away.
That is why companies like Keces (and there are many others, just my current fave) who have a global perspective on the mass market are investing in figuring it out and evolving it.
What is wrong with this picture? USB/SPDIF conversion box $500, SPDIF cable $500, DAC $2500, allowance for power cords and tweaks $750... You don't need to spend $4,200 to get great sound from a $100 hard drive and some free software... think about it.
I didn't see it on the site as a product, but there is the odd review, so they must be in some level of production.
On a different note, has anyone done business with the Pacific Valve & Electric Company? They have a few options worth consideration. I am also thinking about Scott Nixon's offerings: http://www.scott-nixon.com/dac.htm
Well drubin - I don't know - I am not flogging the Hagerman (always upfront about what I have owned or tried) just trying to provide some historical context.
If you have spent the time and money messing with two box systems you know just how hard it is to achieve a satisfactory SPDIF implementation.
That is the main reason I recommend bailing on a USB > SPDIF solution and going straight USB. Plus going direct is much more cost effective which is a major concern for the Prof who started this thread.
I doubt that you will argue that you can get a great two box solution for $350... the SPDIF cable will cost more then that... I am prepared to say that he can get a great direct USB solution for that. (No, not reference but that is a silly game since he is not in that market)
Prof - Pacific imports some very slick gear from China (not Taiwan)
Scott Nixon was the first guy in the water with a tube dac which has had the dual virtues of being well regarded and very reasonably priced. Plus there are enough of them out there that you can probably pick one up used - and you can definitely sell it when you want to try something else.
As Steve would point out products like the BC Thingee, and HagUSB use the same PCM2704 USB chip already used in many consumer DACs. So the benefit of one of these would be negated. That's where the Bel Canto converter box is superior... not quite to the Empirical level but an improvement over the common units.
I believe the old Waveterminal U24 used the TAS1020A chip, though details are sketchy. A newer version is available as well, though again details are lacking. It's closer to $200.
Scott Nixon's site indicates that he is in the process of revamping his USB line. I dropped him a line to see if he has anything in my price range.
I agree that I won't be able to afford true audiophile equipment in my range. Given that money is a real concern, I'm looking for that sweet spot of intersection between price and value. I purchased by Musical Fidelity B1 for about $200, and while it isn't perfect, it is awfully good value. My speakers ran about $600. As such, they have many, many shortcomings, but for the price they aren't bad.
Given that the interest in USB DACs is relatively new, I wonder if the next year or so will bring reasonably good budget audiophile products to the market. I am heartened by the enthusiastic reviews of the Vintage Audio Labs, the Keyes, and the Giga Labs Moon DAC.
I was mentioning the Pacific Valve Company as they have a US-based operation out of Chicago. Perhaps that might have quality control / customer service implications?
Given that the interest in USB DACs is relatively new, I wonder if the next year or so will bring reasonably good budget audiophile products to the market.I think there's a decent likelihood of that. But as Musicman suggested, the more expensive chipset seems to be a key ingredient, as does some firmware that has to be licensed. Both of these imply steeper price points. Take my comments with a grain of salt, they're just my impressions based on investigating this topic for the past few months.
Pacific Valvel certainly does put a US face on the product. The primary thing that came up when I researched them is that the products they sell have been properly specced and built for the US market - 117/60.
At the time one could order the same products directly from the factory for less money but apparently some people did not get US optimized equipment.
Prof - service is expensive - the product has to provide the dealer and the manufacturer margins...
And of course since this is a digital product, Moore's law more or less applies - someone will build more performance into a piece of silicon for the same money within 6-18 months.
It is axiomatic with these kinds of products that whatever you buy will shortly be rendered obsolete or at least old hat. It is equally true that it will always perform to its design level.
So it comes down to buying when you want or need something, knowing that something better or at least slightly different is coming.
So, this is where I am now:
1) Purchase the inexpensive Moon DAC from the US-based Pacific valve company
2) Wait a couple of days to hear what Scott Nixon has available in my price range
3) Discuss purchasing the CA DacMagic with my wife.
Even though things are likely to change over the next year or two, for the price range that I'm considering, it isn't worth taking a wait and see approach. If things get much better five years down the road, then I'll have something to request for a gift (my wife buys me really, really nice gifts--iPods, 42" plasma screen, pro audio equipment, & etc)
Hello All, I have the Valab Dac, actually it is the second one, 6 of the 8 dac chip capacitors began to fail, the ends of the cap opened up and the contents began to vacate the cap casing. This first dac sounded extremely open and transparant at the same time a little steely and ragged, it was also extremely 3 dimensional, moreso than anything I had heard. Problem is, was I hearing a dac with bad caps, it sounded so good I was willing to overlook the bad points and work on balancing the sound. The second is going through break in at this time, so far it is smoother and less vivid and not as 3 dimensional. The Valab has gone through some changes, one day there were pictures of the dac on his E-Bay ad with different caps and a slightly different board layout, well my second dac arrived with a mixture of some new caps that were only available for a couple of days then Kevin posted some pictures with Rubycon caps and Nec caps, according to his ad this is what he will be using in future production. In any case, it is well worth the asking price.
You are not alone. Please see:
It seems to me that the Pacific Valve Co's NOS USB DAC is pretty much the same thing, but available states side.
I am still waiting to hear about the Scott Nixon option. When I sent him an email, he replied within hours with what he has available at the moment. I've heard really good things about his work. He has two different USB NOS DACs--one solid state, the other tube. The latter is out of stock, but I am hoping that he might have one come in on trade and be able to sell it to me in my price range. For those interested, you can see his work here:
In my search, i finally decided on the Keces da-151 and i am very pleased. Even though it has the "pedestrian" burr-brown 2702 dac that seems to get flogged here often, the implementation won me over. This piece is a one input, usb only device and not a jack of all trades, master of none dac with multiple inputs. Getting the usb interface done right was the most important to me because that was the way i was going to stream the music out from my computer. I figured i had a better chance of meeting this requirement by going with a usb specific dac like the Keces. Also, i like the full sized ac inlet and power cord on the Keces, assuring at least an adequate power supply.
Like you music prof., my budget was very similar to yours when i pulled the trigger. Just watch the power supply in these units. Some are self-powered which are good for a portable unit to lug around, but not so good for a home-based set-up. Some even have a half-assed walwart power supply like the fubar III which could be better as well.
Good luck in your search and thank you for starting this informative thread for others to enjoy!
An update--I am holding off on the purchase temporarily: I have a birthday in February, and that seems like a fine occasion for this purchase. I'm down to one of three choices:
1) Inexpensive: The Moon Dac at http://www.pacificvalve.us/GigaMoon.html seems in many respects similar to the Gigalabs and Keces models. Buying it domestically might offer certain advantages.
2) Moderate: I'll have to decide between the Cambridge Audio dacMagic or one of the new offerings from Scott Nixon. The former has fine reviews and offers many options. The latter, however, works with just one input type rather than many, and I can't help but wonder if that focus might yield a better product. His past DACs have been received favourably, and I'm eager to hear about the latest offerings.
I use a DacMagic with my digital piano via Mac into a quality stereo as a supplement to the piano's internal sound system. It sounds great! I use a Benchmark DAC-1 in my main system. In order for direct comparion, I hauled the DacMagic, (all 3 lbs of it) up into the listening room for a brief comparo. They sound quite different, but in that system both sounded wonderful. My preference changed with the source material! I'm afraid that personal taste will overwhelm other considerations in this decision. The only piece of advice I can offer - try to audition in your application before you buy. Always good advice, but really critical here - IMHO.
The comparison also leads me to blieve that the DacMagic (and perhaps many other current models in this price range)ofeer(s) excellent value.