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  • The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

    Most Esteemed Audiophile Intelligentsia,

    I've just made a discovery that could revolutionize the way we look at our audio system's digital front-end components. There have been those who have made the claim that all CD players should sound alike, but simple comparison listening between CD players in multiple price brackets shows this to be thoroughly untrue. On a system that consists of components widely regarded as 'high end' (my Mark Levinson pre and Hafler 9270 amp), I've listened to digital program material using an RCA 5-disc CD changer, which was replaced during the winter with a Marantz CD5004 player (well-reviewed as a 'starter' CD player in the latest Stereophile). In the last week, I've been getting acquainted with the Musical Fidelity V-DAC outboard upsampling digital-to-analog converter ($299), connected to the CD5004's digital outputs. My experimentation has led me to the conclusion that the most important front-end audio component (the one most responsible for sound quality) in a digital setup is not the preamp, the amp, or the transport, but the DAC. I performed my listening on a modest pair of speakers using heavily-modified Dayton shielded silk-dome tweeters (I forget the mumbo-jumbo model number offhand) and robust 4" paper-cone buyout woofers (also modded). These speakers probably aren't the last word in anything at all, but they do measure fairly smooth, and have respectable time-domain performance, as well as something like resolution, and they're the best of what I currently have around. I also used my 500W powered sub loaded with an Acoustic Elegance AV12 Mk II driver and dual 15" PRs. Cables (if you must know) were Rocketfish RCA's and Philips S/PDIF.

    The sonic differences between these iterations of my digital setup have not been subtle, as we might be led to believe by some naysayers (who I'd have to assume have never done this kind of comparison). Each upgrade brought large audible improvements in resolution, smoothness, soundstaging, dynamics, and distortion - things I previously associated mainly with speaker upgrades. Moving from the RCA to the CD5004 was like moving from a 2-dimensional sonic image to one with depth. Smoothness was also improved. This player performs at about the level of the NAD C545BEE, for those who haven't investigated the Marantz. However, the most impressive upgrade was the addition of the V-DAC. The V-DAC is an upsampling DAC, which means that before converting the digital stream to an analog signal, it interpolates the information in between the digital samples coming into it at 44.1kHz (or 48kHz or 96kHz), and outputs a 192kHz signal to the DAC. Adding the V-DAC eliminated some residual 2-dimensional haze from the high frequencies, and brought microdynamic finesse, texture, and mass to the individual instrument sounds, for something that was much more like listening to a 96kHz high-rez file than a CD. There were several open-mouthed "Wooowww" moments in my initial listening, particularly when listening to rock music with cymbals and distorted guitar; the V-DAC restored smoothness and tone, and prevented lower-level instruments from being obscured by hash.

    I think anyone with a digital front-end to their sound system needs to consider the addition of an upsampling DAC like the Musical Fidelity V-DAC or the Cambridge Audio DACMagic as their very next system upgrade. The DACMagic is $450, and according to reviews it produces a slightly more spacious presentation, but at $300 the Musical Fidelity unit is a true bargain when you consider that the V-DAC contains essentially the same upsampling DAC scheme and (unbalanced) output stage as the $2500 Musical Fidelity M6CD player, just in far more modest cladding and without the choke-regulated power supply (which is available separately as the V-PSU) or balanced outputs. Added to my $350 Marantz CD5004, I really feel like it represents the other $1000 I could have spent on a CD player. Don't buy a new CD player, just add an upsampling DAC to your existing player, and it's like a high-end brain transplant for a very reasonable price (MF says that their V-series has on average 70% of its value in electronic components). Upsampling to 192kHz is the real kicker with both of these DACs. I believe that every other outboard DAC without upsampling capability is officially obsolete, and even very modest systems can benefit from upsampling. And if you own a decent CD player and can afford the V-DAC and haven't tried an upsampling DAC, at these prices, why the hell not?

    I'm not a shill, just a happy and satisfied customer. If you don't believe there's a difference to be heard, stop by and I can repeat the comparison for you (and I've got beer). Happy listening. (pics to come)
    Best Regards,

    Rory Buszka

    Taterworks Audio

    "The work of the individual still remains the spark which moves mankind ahead, even more than teamwork." - Igor I. Sikorsky

    If it works, but you don't know why it works, then you haven't done any engineering.

  • #2
    Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

    Interesting! Thought about doing a test/demo at one of the DIY meetings Rory?
    Tim

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    • #3
      Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

      What bias-control is in place?
      :blues: Flat frequency response, a smooth sound power response free of resonance, careful driver-integration, and high dynamic range both upward and downward :blues:

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      • #4
        Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

        It all starts at the source. ;)

        Nice write up Rory.
        "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you." Friedrich Nietzsche

        http://www.diy-ny.com/

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        • #5
          Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

          The V-DAC will be part of the InDIYana 2011 setup in Fort Wayne. If Jeff B. is planning to be there, perhaps I might be able to con him into bringing his Music Hall player for a shootout.

          Also, a comment about bass performance: The V-DAC also improved the dynamics and texture of the low end. Where before, the bass tended to drone somewhat and sound a little overly full, now it is extremely well-controlled, with more impact and 'tightness'. It's easier to hear differences from one kick drum hit to another, and when a bass string is plucked especially hard, you feel it as a palpable sensation instead of a 'thunk'.

          This DAC has definitely added quite a few more 'audiophile words' to my system, and I think it's the best investment out of all the components in my rig. (the ML preamp doesn't count as it was given to me, but I believe that a much more modest system would still benefit greatly from the V-DAC.)

          No external bias controls, from what I can see. The only external control is a switch between USB and Coaxial S/PDIF input (the Optical input isn't switched). There's no power switch, but Musical Fidelity recommends leaving the unit on continuously, and standby power draw is low.
          Best Regards,

          Rory Buszka

          Taterworks Audio

          "The work of the individual still remains the spark which moves mankind ahead, even more than teamwork." - Igor I. Sikorsky

          If it works, but you don't know why it works, then you haven't done any engineering.

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

            i will be by you house around 9:30 or 10:00 on wednesday. will you be home?
            " To me, the soundstage presentation is more about phase and distortion and less about size. However, when you talk about bass extension, there's no replacement for displacement". Tyger23. 4.2015

            Quote Originally Posted by hongrn. Oct 2014
            Do you realize that being an American is like winning the biggest jackpot ever??

            http://www.midwestaudioclub.com/spot...owell-simpson/
            http://s413.photobucket.com/albums/pp216/arlis/

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            • #7
              Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

              Yes, come on in.

              It'll be a party. ;)
              Best Regards,

              Rory Buszka

              Taterworks Audio

              "The work of the individual still remains the spark which moves mankind ahead, even more than teamwork." - Igor I. Sikorsky

              If it works, but you don't know why it works, then you haven't done any engineering.

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

                I have that same CD player. Great unit. Is there a reason you use the digital output on the Marantz and then a $300 outboard DAC? The Marantz has GREAT audiophile-grade analog audio circuits built in. I understand the use of a DAC if you are using a junk CD player or DVD as your audio source and sending a digital signal. But using the digital output from the Marantz is by-passing most of the value of buying a nice CD player.

                It's my opinion, but digital signals are digital signals as long as "noise" is not introduced into the system. The reason the Marantz CD player costs more than a $50 DVD player is the DAC built in.
                My Home Theater Build thread
                My DIY Speaker builds

                My Gear:
                Emotiva XMC-1
                Emotiva XPR-2
                Emotiva XPA-5
                Clearwave Dynamics 4T and 4CC (mains)
                Paradigm Millennia LP (surrounds)
                Oppo 103D
                Mede8er 600X3D w/ 4TB
                Marantz CD-5004
                AppleTV
                JVC RS-4910 Projector
                100" Screen Innovations Pure Gray Screen w/ LED kit
                APC Uninterrupted Power Supply (x2)
                iRule controlling it all....

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                • #9
                  Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

                  Originally posted by Taterworks View Post
                  The V-DAC will be part of the InDIYana 2011 setup in Fort Wayne. If Jeff B. is planning to be there, perhaps I might be able to con him into bringing his Music Hall player for a shootout.
                  It's doubtful that I can make it. But I have an old-school Aragon D2A dac that I could lend to you and/or the event for a shootout. I think it is pretty good; most people would have a hard time distinguishing it from the super high-end.

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                  • #10
                    Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

                    Originally posted by deewan View Post
                    I have that same CD player. Great unit. Is there a reason you use the digital output on the Marantz and then a $300 outboard DAC? The Marantz has GREAT audiophile-grade analog audio circuits built in. I understand the use of a DAC if you are using a junk CD player or DVD as your audio source and sending a digital signal. But using the digital output from the Marantz is by-passing most of the value of buying a nice CD player.
                    Good on ya. The CD5004 is a great-sounding player all by itself, and definitely is in the same league as the mid-high-end NAD C545BEE. When I was pondering my buying decision, I headed over to the Ovation store in Indianapolis where a pair of Klipsch Palladium tower speakers (their high-end statement model; I can't afford them) were sitting, connected to an Aragon power amp and a Yamaha blu-ray player. I swapped out the Marantz for the Yamaha and the CD5004 sounded great. The V-DAC, however, takes the CD5004 from 'great' to 'awesome', and I can only imagine the improvement it would make over, say, a garden-variety Sony CD player. I'm tempted to hook up the RCA changer via Toslink and see what it does.
                    Best Regards,

                    Rory Buszka

                    Taterworks Audio

                    "The work of the individual still remains the spark which moves mankind ahead, even more than teamwork." - Igor I. Sikorsky

                    If it works, but you don't know why it works, then you haven't done any engineering.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

                      Not me talking here, but dBe says that optical is bandwidth limited and that the digital-coax is the better connection from the player to the DAC.
                      Thought I'd shout that out... not that I've tried it or anything...

                      I guess your next purchase spot is a Buss or Gizmo, right?

                      Later, ;)
                      Wolf
                      "Wolf, you shall now be known as "King of the Zip ties." -Pete00t
                      "Wolf and speakers equivalent to Picasso and 'Blue'" -dantheman
                      "He is a true ambassador for this forum and speaker DIY in general." -Ed Froste
                      "We're all in this together, so keep your stick on the ice!" - Red Green aka Steve Smith

                      *InDIYana event website*

                      Photobucket pages:
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                      My blog/writeups/thoughts here at PE:
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                      • #12
                        Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

                        Originally posted by Taterworks View Post
                        Good on ya. The CD5004 is a great-sounding player all by itself, and definitely is in the same league as the mid-high-end NAD C545BEE. When I was pondering my buying decision, I headed over to the Ovation store in Indianapolis where a pair of Klipsch Palladium tower speakers (their high-end statement model; I can't afford them) were sitting, connected to an Aragon power amp and a Yamaha blu-ray player. I swapped out the Marantz for the Yamaha and the CD5004 sounded great. The V-DAC, however, takes the CD5004 from 'great' to 'awesome', and I can only imagine the improvement it would make over, say, a garden-variety Sony CD player. I'm tempted to hook up the RCA changer via Toslink and see what it does.
                        If the Yamaha Blu-Ray player was hooked up using a digital output to the amp (I'm guessing hdmi), the when you switched over to the Marantz and used analog cables the difference you heard was the difference between the DAC in the Aragon and the DAC in the Marantz.

                        If you used digital cables in both situations, I personally think any difference you heard was only in your head. I am not trying to say a good DAC isn't worth it's money in gold. I am simply saying if you buy a nice CD player with a nice DAC built in, there is not reason to also buy an external DAC.
                        My Home Theater Build thread
                        My DIY Speaker builds

                        My Gear:
                        Emotiva XMC-1
                        Emotiva XPR-2
                        Emotiva XPA-5
                        Clearwave Dynamics 4T and 4CC (mains)
                        Paradigm Millennia LP (surrounds)
                        Oppo 103D
                        Mede8er 600X3D w/ 4TB
                        Marantz CD-5004
                        AppleTV
                        JVC RS-4910 Projector
                        100" Screen Innovations Pure Gray Screen w/ LED kit
                        APC Uninterrupted Power Supply (x2)
                        iRule controlling it all....

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

                          Interesting finding Tater.

                          Our audio society had a DAC shootout a few summers ago. It was done pretty rigorously. We even had a special built switching unit to instantly switch betweet two DACS playing the same music. The outcome was that it was extremely difficult to differentiate between any two DACs.

                          BTW, we also used a dB meter to level match FWIW.

                          As a consequence, we changed our summer shootout to speakers, where the differences are inherently more apparent.
                          Last edited by carlspeak; 03-21-2011, 11:01 AM. Reason: added BTW
                          Live in Southern N.E.? check out the CT Audio Society web site.

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                          • #14
                            Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

                            I just sold my Vdac. Not because I did not like it. i could not tell the difference between it and the other dacs I use. I have an Adcom, Lite Dac Ah, Zhalou, and an Entech. They all improve some cd and dvd players. The Vdac did improve the sound but it was the newest and worth the most so I sold it. I will wait for the next great thing to come along. If it improves the sound in your system I am happy for you. There is a lot to be said for synergy.
                            Howard

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                            • #15
                              Re: The Most Important Audio Component: The DAC

                              Frankly Rory, I'm surprised that this was such a revelation for you.

                              The various DAC chips really are different. The difference in DAC chips and implementation is pretty analogous to swapping cartridges in a turntable. One can easily tell the differnce between different carts.

                              Why would you expect DACs to be different?

                              And Deewan:

                              For the same reason. The CD5004 may have a great analog portion, but the DAC is pretty garden variety compared to the VDAC's capability. Rory said Aragon power amp. What DAC would you expect in a power amp?
                              I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.
                              OS MTMs http://techtalk.parts-express.com/sh...d.php?t=220388
                              Swope TM http://techtalk.parts-express.com/sh...d.php?t=221818
                              Econowave and Audio Nirvana AN10 fullrange http://techtalk.parts-express.com/sh...d.php?t=216841
                              Imperial Russian Stouts http://techtalk.parts-express.com/sh...=1#post1840444
                              LECBOS. http://techtalk.parts-express.com/sh...ghlight=lecbos

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