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    austinpop

    My Quest for a New DAC - Introduction to the Series

    Editor's Note: This is the first article in a new series from CA contributor austinpop. I'm sure the anti-pseudonym crowd is already up in arms, but that's OK. I've personally met autinpop on a couple occasions and we've exchanged enough communications that I'm extremely comfortable with his credibility, experience, and knowledge. 

     

    I recently had a manufacturer email me to say he couldn't find a single review written by austinpop online and was concerned about credibility. Releasing a product to someone unknown to him could be a recipe for disaster. This was comforting in a way because the manufacturer really cared about who would write the review and wouldn't just supply products to anyone who could type better than a monkey and supply accolades. I told the manufacturer, and will tell the CA Community here, that I stand behind austinpop as a very credible person who will write his unbiased opinion and correspond with the Community in his usual professional fashion. 

     

    We may no agree on everything when it comes to audio, but that's part of what makes his new series of articles even better and what makes this hobby so wonderful. Plus, people have to be sick of me by now :~)

     

    Enjoy this introduction from austinpop and the followup coming later this week.

     

    - Chris

     
     
     
     
    My Quest for a New DAC - Introduction to the Series
     
     
    Earlier this year, Chris and I discussed the possibility of my writing an article (or series of articles) for CA's front page. I told him I wanted to be true to my voice, and write about gear the way I did in my forum posts: in the context of my own audio journey. To my surprise, he agreed! He also said it would pay handsomely, enabling me, and several future generations, never to work again. Ok - that second part never happened.
     
    While I've been active on CA forums for a couple of years, most CA'ers probably don't know my background. I'm your classic computer technologist, with a long career as a software architect and senior executive in the computer industry. My area of expertise is the performance and scalability of distributed computing systems, so tuning and optimization is in my blood. Despite my techie background, my approach to music and audio is subjective. My goal is to enjoy music in the deepest and most satisfying way I can afford. I trust my ears, and they are always the final arbiter in my decisions.
     
    If you've seen my posts here on CA, especially in the monster A novel way to massively improve the SQ of computer audio streaming thread, you know I've been spending a lot of time, effort, and money on optimizing the digital chain upstream of the DAC. If you'd asked me 2 years ago what the most important piece of digital gear in my audio chain was, I would have said - the DAC. What I wouldn't have said - since I had no idea - was that the chain leading up to the DAC matters too. Profoundly.
     
     
    My Gear
     
    For many years, my audio setup languished, as the demands of my career and raising my kids took up most of my time. A couple years ago, I became an empty nester, and made a career change to part-time consultant. This finally gave me the time to refresh and enjoy my audio setup. I wanted to build a high-end headphone setup - my home situation doesn't allow me the luxury of a speaker-based setup that I can drive to realistic levels. I started with the following system:
    • all my music on a Synology NAS, running minimServer as the UPnP server
    • Auralic Aries Mini streamer, as UPnP renderer, over USB to
    • Ayre Codex DAC
    • Cavalli Liquid Gold headphone amp
    • Sennheiser HD800 headphones, with Super Dupont (SD) mod
     
    Of course, this system took several steps to assemble in its own right, but followed what I would term a conventional path - of selecting or upgrading transducers, amplification, and the source (DAC). As far as I was concerned, the NAS, the network gear, and the streamer provided enablement, with no audio impact or consequence. After all, with a PhD in computer networking, I thought I knew a thing or two about CSMA/CD, TCP/IP, sliding windows, flow control, the lot. Bits were bits, after all. 9_9
     
    Fast forward to today, and the conventional part of my system has not changed, from the DAC downstream. I still have the Codex, the Cavalli and the HD800 (now joined by an Audioquest Nighthawk). But upstream of the DAC, there have been major change. Here is a picture of my current system.
     
     
    Audio-topology.png
     

    How I upgrade - where should I spend my next $?
     
    If you stare at this chain long enough, and start adding price tags, you'll see the upstream components dwarf the DAC itself in cost - in MSRP terms, by a factor of 5x or more. What madness is this?! Yet I can honestly say that I got to this point by asking myself at each point of upgrade: where should I spend my next $? And time after time, I found that the biggest sonic bang for buck came from upstream changes. Not only that, with every increase in refinement, my trusty little Codex scaled right up. Every sonic upgrade was truthfully reflected by the little guy.
     
    In fact, with a recent major upgrade - the addition of the Innuos Zenith SE server - I wrote in my CA review:
     
    It occurred to me that with the loaner (Ayre) QX-5 sitting in my room, I actually had the makings of a very interesting experiment - i.e, compare these two (approaches):
     
    • Upgrade the DAC: replace the Codex with the QX-5 in my current chain
    • Upgrade the music player: replace my current chain with the SE chain in finding 1, keeping my Codex DAC

     

    Cost wise, these are in the same ballpark, depending on whether you factor in retail vs. used cost, and the resale value of superseded gear. Not perfect, but an interesting comparison.
     
    ... Upgrading to the SE chain yielded more bang for the buck - to my ears - than upgrading the DAC. Now of course, upgrading both was to be transported to a divine plane, where you recline on a cloud, caressed by sunbeams, while angels sing. :D 
     
    With my current system, I am well and truly in the realm of diminishing returns in my upstream chain, so I am finally at the point where the answer to "where should I spend my next upgrade $" is resoundingly: the DAC. Which brings me - about time, they groan! - to the point of this article series. What DAC is a worthy successor to my beloved Codex, in my system?
     
     
     
    Picking my next DAC 
     
    In my experience, modern DACs almost universally sound good. Very good. I have personally heard great sonics all the way from a $99 Audioquest Dragonfly Black to a $13k Chord DAVE in my system. As I evaluate DACs in this series, the question will not be whether they sound good or bad, but whether they speak to my soul. My focus will be on synergy - with my system, my ears, and my preferences.
     
    If there's one DAC that I consider my reference, it would be the Ayre QX-5 Twenty. I've had it on loan from my friendly dealer a couple of times, and with it, my system really sings. It elevates everything I love about the Codex to a new level of refinement and physical authority. At its $9k price point, it's just too rich for my blood, but it sets a bar against which to gauge other DACs I evaluate.
     
    So what am I looking for in my next DAC? First and foremost, a significant improvement in sound quality, within about a $5k price budget. Next up, I'm interested to include DACs with full MQA decoding in my evaluations. I know MQA is a format that engenders strong feelings in audiophiles, across the spectrum from hyperbole to paranoia. My question is simply this - how does it sound? And to determine that, I need to hear a full MQA DAC in my system. The other question is: how important is MQA to me? Everyone has different musical tastes and habits. Some people amass vast libraries of music they own, while others rely almost exclusively on streaming from Tidal and Qobuz, etc. I wanted to explore Tidal for MQA content, and gauge not only how it sounds, but how much content is really out there.
     
     
     
    My Musical Tastes and Habits
     
    I listen predominantly to classical music, mostly orchestral and choral. Beyond that, I dabble in progressive and classic rock from the 60s and 70s, jazz, and Indian classical music. When it comes to formats, I may be atypical. While about 70% of my collection is redbook CD, in terms of what I actually listen to day to day, high-resolution formats predominate: DSD, various 24-bit PCM formats, followed by 16/44.1. This may be easier to understand when you consider that in classical music, SACD, i.e. DSD, is alive and well. I have 300+ SACDs in my collection, which have been ripped to DSF files - and my collection size is probably on the smaller end of the spectrum for classical fans.
     
    What this means is that DSD and 24-bit PCM performance are both equally important to me.
     
     
     
    Without further ado...
     
    With that background, let's dive in. In the first installment, I evaluate the Mytek Brooklyn DAC+, along with the Uptone Audio JS-2 power supply.
     
     
     
     
     



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    What's wrong with your current DAC? Other than not supporting MQA, why do you want to upgrade it? Does it no longer sound good? 

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    9 minutes ago, kirkmc said:

    What's wrong with your current DAC? Other than not supporting MQA, why do you want to upgrade it? Does it no longer sound good? 

    That's a great question Kirk and I'm sure austinpop will have his own answer.

     

    As a music lover and audiophile, I often get the itch to try new things / components. This frequently leads to an experience that can be equally enjoyable but different, better in every way, or worse. A new DAC journey is something that many can relate to due to the pace at which technology changes. Whether it's interfaces, codecs, amoled displays, or better clocks, etc... it's changing quicker than all other parts of this hobby. 

     

     

     

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    Nice idea for a series.  Please evaluate the IFI idsd Nano black.  BTW, I have a much simpler approach to headphone listening.  I have a copy of my music library on a portable hard drive and plug that into a Macbook Pro which feeds a DAC.  Lately that's toslink out to an el cheapo Audioengine D1 powered with an Inland (Microcenter house brand) cell phone battery pack.  I am looking for an upgrade, but probably one decimal point less than what is described above.

     

    Perhaps I should just get a Mojo.

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    16 minutes ago, kirkmc said:

    What's wrong with your current DAC? Other than not supporting MQA, why do you want to upgrade it? Does it no longer sound good? 

     

    Nothing's wrong with my current DAC. In fact, I love it dearly, as you'll see in the subsequent review. 

     

    But I'm always looking for more and trying new things. I confess I have the itch! Without the upgrade itch, CA wouldn't be nearly as active as it is. :)

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    14 minutes ago, austinpop said:

     

    Nothing's wrong with my current DAC. In fact, I love it dearly, as you'll see in the subsequent review. 

     

    But I'm always looking for more and trying new things. I confess I have the itch! Without the upgrade itch, CA wouldn't be nearly as active as it is. :)

    You have a very good DAC, but it may be the relative weak point of your very good system, as it were.

    I'm a little different from most people here. I have no problem listening to either PCM or DSD. I've found that for me, if a DAC does one of them extremely well, I have no problem with a quality conversion to that format for playback. In my previous system I listened to all DSD, now I listen to all PCM.  

    If native playback of both formats isn't an issue, then obsolescence etc, in DACs is much less of an issue. The other path is a DAC that does everything in FPGA, that can be upgraded with firmware as time goes on. 

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    40 minutes ago, Ron Scubadiver said:

    Please evaluate the IFI idsd Nano black. 

    IFI DAC's are great priced consumer DAC's, especially on the MQA front, but definitely a step back on the DAC end here for Austinpop.  How important of a bottle neck is this component?  Huge, if you ask me, as your entire system is upgraded.  

     

    Austinpop, I see only one DAC that will give your headphone system the biggest upgrade, especially with future m-scaler, Chord DAVE or Chord TT2.  Your system chain screams for it.  Then you can drop the separate headphone amp.  Will get a bigger transparency gain with a Chord DAC direct.

     

    Otherwise a full speaker system would really open up the sound and give you a full experience, which would become the most important piece.  But as a headphone only system, I feel your limited in SQ upgrade.  Thus DAC doesn't scale as much in importance as an open speaker system would bring.

     

    Your bottle neck to better SQ is in the analog end!  

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    This is a whole lot of equipment to just be listening to headphones. I kept looking for the full stereo equipment list and speakers, but nope, this is all for headphones. Wow.

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    Great introduction and an excellent way to have thoughtful discussions on audio topics. Use our experiences  in an expanded format above and beyond forum posts.

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    Quote

     

    At its $9k price point, it's just too rich for my blood, but it sets a bar against which to gauge other DACs I evaluate.
     
    So what am I looking for in my next DAC? First and foremost, a significant improvement in sound quality, within about a $5k price budget. Next up, I'm interested to include DACs with full MQA decoding in my evaluations.

     

     

    The QX-8 is supposed to come in at $5-6K depending on options (from Soundstage). Maybe splits the sonic difference between the Codex and QX-5? I have it on my radar as a possible upgrade from my QB-9.

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    1 minute ago, beetlemania said:

     

    The QX-8 is supposed to come in at $5-6K depending on options (from Soundstage). Maybe splits the sonic difference between the Codex and QX-5? I have it on my radar as a possible upgrade from my QB-9.

     

    On my list, as you'll see. :D

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    55 minutes ago, ElviaCaprice said:

    IFI DAC's are great priced consumer DAC's, especially on the MQA front, but definitely a step back on the DAC end here for Austinpop.  How important of a bottle neck is this component?  Huge, if you ask me, as your entire system is upgraded.  

     

     

    How do you know this?  

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    10 minutes ago, Ron Scubadiver said:

    How do you know this?  

    I have this DAC as a low cost backup in Costa Rica.  Great DAC for the price, but it doesn't hold a candle to a Chord DAC, being used in the optimum system setup.  

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    4 minutes ago, ElviaCaprice said:

    I have this DAC as a low cost backup in Costa Rica.  Great DAC for the price, but it doesn't hold a candle to a Chord DAC.  

    Hardly surprising since the Dave costs over 50 times as much and having spent that money I wouldn't expect a different answer from you no mater what the reality is.  However, I would love to see his impressions of an affordable DAC vs the expensive stuff.

     

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    5 minutes ago, Ron Scubadiver said:

    Hardly surprising since the Dave costs over 50 times as much.

     

    That goes for 2Qute and original Hugo also.  Like I said, for the price it's a great DAC line up, IFI.  But make no mistake, there is better, as usual, at a cost/implementation.

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    Just now, ElviaCaprice said:

    That goes for 2Qute and original Hugo also.  Like I said, for the price it's a great DAC line up, IFI.  But make no mistake, there is better, as usual, at a cost.

    I would like to see his impressions of the idsd nano black.  By dissing the product you are trying to prevent that, so you are not being helpful to me.  I hope you understand that.

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    4 minutes ago, Ron Scubadiver said:

    I would like to see his impressions of the idsd nano black.  By dissing the product you are trying to prevent that, so you are not being helpful to me.  I hope you understand that.

    Don't worry, Ausinpop doesn't sway to my opinion, he needs to hear it himself  Your correct, Ron.  You want to hear Ausinpop's impressions not mine.  I was answering for the community in general.  

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    @Austinpop nice introduction - should be an interesting series.  My only concern is that you may be tempted to gravitate towards the $5000 'budget' that you appear to have in mind, as if price correlates to sound quality performance.  My career in consumer products marketing (together with my audio hobby) tells me to be deeply suspicious of this assumption.  You may well find all the DAC you need or want at $1000, if you can only put cost at the back of your mind.  I would find it much more revealing if you could use your analytical  skills to determine how much SQ actually improves as you climb the price ladder from products like the RME ADI-2 and Mytek Liberty through various Schiits, Exasounds and Benchmarks.  You obviously can't test everything but I hope you can offer a range of cost perspectives.  My prediction is massively diminishing returns as you increase expenditure. 

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    I have been using an Ayre Codex with source from a SOtM chain and clocked by Cybershaft OP13.  I have a 30 day trial

    of a Meitner MA-1 V2 inhouse now for 3.5 days and it is sounding noticeably better than the Codex, clearer, more dynamic.

    I expect the Meitner to settle more in the next two weeks but I think this is my next DAC.   There are MA-1 V2 units on superphonica.com at 43% off MRSP.  Good deal in my opinion.

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    I'm excited to see this series of articles.  @austinpop has written some excellent evaluations of SOtM components.  His contributions are always very well written and thorough.  I'm convinced he has good listening skills and I trust his advice.

     

    It makes sense to pick a price range ... there are zillions of DAC's out there and no target budget is going to satisfy everyone.  I have several DAC's I'd love him to review that are well beyond the $5K mark.

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    This looks good.   I’d say your situation is reasonably close to mine so I will be interested to see what you choose.

     

    My sense is that there is comparatively  little at the $3k>$5k mark that is MQA capable, either much less or much more.  Maybe timing will allow the Pro iDSd to be considered, on the assumption that it will be MQA capable?   Also interesting to see whether you conclude that a “full” MQA DAC is worthwhile or better just to stick with initial decode.  

     

    Good luck with the quest.

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    Not surprising to see experience with vinyl duplicated with digital...source is the most important part of the chain for investment. @austinpop - one thing I am curious about is if you have any sense of priority observed in upgrading individual functions in the source chain? And yea, its hard to justify a new DAC when you know the source can do more with a next upgrade. Eager to see what you share on DAC's

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    2 hours ago, rickca said:

    I'm excited to see this series of articles.  @austinpop has written some excellent evaluations of SOtM components.  His contributions are always very well written and thorough.  I'm convinced he has good listening skills and I trust his advice.

     

    Not just SOtM components!! But thanks for the kind words.

     

    2 hours ago, rickca said:

    It makes sense to pick a price range ... there are zillions of DAC's out there and no target budget is going to satisfy everyone

     

    Bingo. And as I stated, this is my quest, so the only one I'm satisfying for sure is me. :D

     

    Folks, writing reviews on CA isn't my new "job." I'll submit a review or article as and when I have something meaningful to say.

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