If you hate the bright and mechanical, then you'll love the Kora Hermes. My HermesII just trounced the Audiomat Tempo dac, and the Audiomat costs $1100 dollars more! Detail, soundstaging, seperation of instruments, depth without shrinking instruments/voices, layering...its all there in this dac. What is rarely talked about is the punchy dynamics this dac is capable of. This is the most analogue sounding dac this side of a turntable that I have ever heard...and I've heard a few.
Hope this helps
One that you should add is the Scott Nixon tube dac. Not expensive at all and might be just what you are looking for.
I am very partial to the Musical Fidelity A324. It is the best Dac I have ever heard. Has a sound that is just plain musical without the grime and grit that most lower end digital sounds like. Very analog like and it is the same circuit used in the more expensive Nu-Vista CD player without the use of the tubes. I couldn't believe the stunning differences between the unit and a very good sounding Musical Fidelity stand alone player that I compared it to.
All the best.
Give a listen to the Electrocompaniet ECD-1. It's very good!
You should secure yourself a demo of the Ack dAck. Your gear will completely complement it. It's so analog sounding it's scary. I too have the Merlin VSM'M and it's totally intoxicating with my VAC amplification. I'd hate to overstate this, but it's ridiculously underpriced and worth 5 times as much.
If brightness is the problem, try the high definition
link from walker Audio,they do wonders.
I also have been considering a new DAC. You said you compared the A324 to a MF CD player, which player was it the A3 CD or the A3.2 CD? I ask because I have an A3 CD and was wondering how much improvement I would hear vs. the CDP alone.
As Rgd said above, the micro-priced Tube-Dac from Scott-nixon.com is a minimalist, musical, tube output unit from the designer who originated the tube output concept in a consumer DAC. I bought a used Scott Nixon 1990's era Anodyne ATAS, and still find it outdoes many new flavor of the month DAC's, unless their price get stratospheric. His latest unit is able to outdo his previous work, and comes in a miniature package at a ridiculous low price. Both his customer service, and dedication to user satisfaction are amazing, even in our Audiogon universe with many outstanding vendors.
I suggest you get a Stellavox from Goldmund, the best DAC I ever heard when it is hooked up to my EMC1 CDP the sound has less muddy, more detail and more resolution(about 20%). Good luck.
Perpetual P-3A with mods from EA. Nothing touches it, not even electrocompaniet.
Save yourself a ton of money and buy a used Theta Gen.Va.
Still as good as any other DAC mentioned in this thread.
Benchmark Dac 1 $850.00 will put to shame DACs costing 4x as much.
The MSB Link 24/96 'too bright and mechanical'? The one I owned for a while was the Gold Link version, with upgraded parts and dual-differential DAC's, but still, my objection to this converter had a lot to do with its rolled-off, euphonized sound, especially in upsampling mode, and its pursuit of 'liquidity' that sacrificed full dynamic expresssion and midrange neutrality. It didn't sound accurate, but it certainly didn't sound bright or mechanical (its tonal deviations could be quite attractive with the right disks, although it shrank the soundstage), my reference Theta DSPro Basic IIIa in comparision passing much more detail and frequency extension as well as dynamic life. Unless the non-Gold version sounds very different, I wonder whether your results indicate a high-jitter transport or simply poorly-mastered disks.
I just recieved the AVA Omegastar dac. Its connected to a Rotel 955ax...for the moment. Just breaking it in but, right out of the box its resolving everything, back wall reflections in the studio, etc.! Pretty crazy. I think after its run in I'll just float away. So far I'm floored. What a far cry from the econo-dacs a few years back. My first was a dac-in-the-box (slow, veiled, dynamically challenged) follow by the venerable Audio Alchemy DDE 3.0 w/DTI Pro-32 fully modded by Dusty vawter. So far there is no comparison between the AA power duo and the Omegastar DAC. I'll just say so far it has the most natural, grainless presentation I've heard in my system. That incl. the most expensive Camelot dac, at 3 or 4 grand. This is insanely close to top vinyl.
The other high-value DAC I was looking at is the Bel Canto DAC2. but Have not heard one...yet.