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  1. #1

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    Default DACs around $500

    Hey all, been I while since I visited here. Been busy with work, kids, other projects and hobbies, etc.

    I wanted to start a discussion on DACs in the $500 max range, new or used.

    Seems like there are a ton of new Chinese DACs under $500. However, Iím leaning towards an established manufacturer.

    Right now Iím using a Lite DAC-AH (Pacific Valve mod) NOS DAC. I generally like the laid-back sound of this DAC, but it does have a couple flaws that are making me want to look higher up in the food chain. I tend to prefer a warmer, more laid-back sound vs. something hyper-detailed.

    Iíve been looking at the MSB Nelson DAC (upgraded Link III) which can be purchased for $500 new, although the design goes back to 2000.

    Any other recos?

    Thanks
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  2. #2

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    I've used the Bel Canto DAC 1.1 and Musical Fidelity A3.24cr. both sound fantastic.
    Sony KDL-40V2500 HDTV, Rotel RSX-1067 Receiver, Sony BDP-S550 Blu-ray, Slim Devices Squeezebox, Polk RTi6, CSi3 & R15, DIY sub with Atlas 15

  3. #3

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    To be honest, I think even $1k + DAC's offer only subtle differences--I don't think you're going to get any bang for your buck at $500 (unless of course it's a special sale, killer deal on a real good one).

    You'll notice that I have a Benchmark DAC1 ($975)--does it help my CEC CDP? Sure. Does it help it to the tune of $975?---arguably, but not by much. Definitely nothing earth shattering, but does give better soundstage depth/width, more slam, and less digital glare. I do like it's versatility. I have my satellite STB (via Toslink); BluRay player (via coax); and my CD transport (via XLR) all connected to it because of its excellent analog section.

    Just my 2 cents.
    Last edited by steveinaz; 01-30-2008 at 12:27 PM.

    Source: Squeezebox Touch/CIA Power Supply
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  4. #4

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    MHDT Paradisea was the flavor of the month for a while, really popular over on Audiocircle. Generally they go used for $350-$400. If you don't want a tube in your dac you can get the Constantine which is the same DAC but no tube buffer.

    Another popular one was the Ack Dack battery powered NOS dac. Older ones go for <$250 used.

    I personally love the Peter Daniels Audio Sector DAC. It is a DIY job, Peter sells the same unit under the Audio Zone name for $1000+. You can find them used for $200-$300.

    Personally I went through a bunch of dacs in a few months and settled on the Paradisea.

  5. #5
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    ADCOM GDA-700 DAC... used.... about....$300. HDCD capable too!

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    well I have a nice parasound ultra 2000 in that price range. These things were 2-3 thousand when new, does everything for redbook and hdcd lots of ways to hook into the unit, if your interested let me know.

    If not no sweat.

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    If you can stretch to $1,000, you should definitely go for the Benchmark DAC1. There is a USB version too, which allows you to hook it up to your computer.

    Unless you are willing to spend a lot of money on a fancy dedicated CD player, you are not going to find many consumer grade CD/DVD players that have the sound quality of a Benchmark DAC1.

    If you have the money, I whole heartedly recommend the DAC1.

  8. #8

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    Quote Originally Posted by steveinaz View Post
    To be honest, I think even $1k + DAC's offer only subtle differences--I don't think you're going to get any bang for your buck at $500 (unless of course it's a special sale, killer deal on a real good one).

    You'll notice that I have a Benchmark DAC1 ($975)--does it help my CEC CDP? Sure. Does it help it to the tune of $975?---arguably, but not by much. Definitely nothing earth shattering, but does give better soundstage depth/width, more slam, and less digital glare. I do like it's versatility. I have my satellite STB (via Toslink); BluRay player (via coax); and my CD transport (via XLR) all connected to it because of its excellent analog section.

    Just my 2 cents.
    Your transport is probably better than mine but I noticed a pretty big difference adding the DAC1 to my set up.
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  9. #9

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    Thanks for all the input and offers so far. I have a lot of options to consider.

    My experience so far with the DACs and players I've owned is that DACs can sound significantly different or remarkably similar.

    My inexpensive NOS DAC sounds significantly different from the others. The music has a certain laid-back natural quality, but definitely gives up some resolution and detail. I generally like this quality, but this particular DAC has some issues on some hot recordings - it can audibly clip/distort and sound congested in certain parts of certain songs. This is a known flaw.

    What do folks feel regarding advances in DACs over the last 10 years? Would a good DAC from 10 years ago be as good as a similarly or lower priced modern DAC?

    Unfortunately, the Benchmark is out of my price range.

    As a side note, my sources are my Sony ES CD/SACD player and my PC (running flac files in Foobar). One of my projects has been ripping all my CDs to flac (about 400 done so far). A few months ago, we got a new PC with a coax spdif output. For the heck of it, I ripped some reference CDs to flac and ran a temporary cable (60 ft) to my DAC in the basement. I could honestly not tell a difference switching back and forth between the PC running over the long coax vs. the original CD running over a 3 ft toskink. I was able to cue up the same song on both simultaneously and switch the DAC's input on the fly. I ended up running a 60 ft Blue Jeans coax through the walls and proceeded to rip my collection to flac. Man, it is so nice to have your music library at your fingertips. I suggest that anyone on the fence about PC music try this out as an experiment. You might be surprised.
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  10. #10

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    For use with a computer, and on a budget, I would recommend the EMU 0404 external USB DAC. I think it goes for just under $200. Very good specs. Make no mistake, it is not on par with the Benchmark DAC1. But if you are on a budget, the EMU is a great choice.

    As to advances in DAC. Yeah, DACs' have come a LONG way over the years. Even the most high end DACs' from 10 years ago now pale in comparison to today's midrange DACs.

    The Benchmark DAC1 is really one of the very best DACs out there today.

  11. #11

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    Quote Originally Posted by furball View Post
    For use with a computer, and on a budget, I would recommend the EMU 0404 external USB DAC. I think it goes for just under $200. Very good specs. Make no mistake, it is not on par with the Benchmark DAC1. But if you are on a budget, the EMU is a great choice.
    Thanks, but I don't need a USB DAC. I use the PC's coax spdif.
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  12. #12

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    I personally much preferred the Peter Daniels over the DAC-AH but it wasn't a modded one. I have never really liked over sampling dacs.

    How did you control your PC from 60 ft away? I would think you are the perfect candidate for a SB3.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gaara View Post
    How did you control your PC from 60 ft away? I would think you are the perfect candidate for a SB3.
    Generally, I load up Foobar with songs in the den where the PC is, then just go in the basement to listen. I can also control the PC from my basement. I bought a VGA splitter/amp and ran VGA to my projector in the basement. Then I use a Rocketfish wireless mouse (40 ft range) to control the PC from the basement. Itís basically a remote display and audio system for the PC. It's a pretty cool set-up.

    I didn't go the SB route because I also select video files, pics, and karaoke from the PC, and play them in the basement. Therefore, I need to be able to completely control the PC in the typical fashion from the basement.
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  14. #14

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    Furball, I totally disagree. Most top flight DAC's 10 years ago had far superior analog stages in comparison to many of today's DAC's and therefore remain superior to modestly priced DAC's on the market.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LuSh View Post
    Furball, I totally disagree. Most top flight DAC's 10 years ago had far superior analog stages in comparison to many of today's DAC's and therefore remain superior to modestly priced DAC's on the market.
    Now you've done it.
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  16. #16

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    Of course the analog stuff hasn't changed all that much over the years. You get what you pay with the analog stuff.

    The DACs themselves have progressed quite a bit in the last 10 years.


    Quote Originally Posted by LuSh View Post
    Furball, I totally disagree. Most top flight DAC's 10 years ago had far superior analog stages in comparison to many of today's DAC's and therefore remain superior to modestly priced DAC's on the market.

  17. #17
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    I think that most electronics have a break-in period of at least 10 years. The sound doesn't change. But, it takes that long for me to be able to afford them!!!

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    Many designers consider the analog stage more important then the digital, that's my point. The power supply and isolation steps is another area where more advancements were actually introduced and focused on in digitals golden age then todays cheaper solutions. Digital might have been at it's peak ten years ago, at least for red book with every manufacture focusing on separate transports, DAC's and sometimes even power supplies. That is rare in todays industry as many vendors have moved to a single box solution trying to incorporate two or three formats. Top flight DAC's from even 10 years ago would do very well today. The ultra high end stuff would still top all but the state of the art from Emm Labs, dCs etc...

    I'd like to point out that I'm not trying to hijack the thread but instead trying to give the OP a more rounded view on what he can obtain within his budget constraints. You might be surprised how cheaper older digital is and how much of it can beat many of todays boxes.
    Last edited by LuSh; 01-30-2008 at 07:44 PM.

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    Point well taken.

    But still, I don't know if this analogy is valid in the audio world. Take the world of computers for example. Most laptops from 10 years ago were built like tanks compared to today's mostly cheap plastic laptops. But if given a choice, would anyone prefer to use a 10 year old laptop over a modern laptop?

    Again, I am not sure the analogy is all that valid in the audio world, especially since technologies in the audio world haven't progressed at nearly the same pace as those in the computer world. But food for thought nonetheless.



    Quote Originally Posted by LuSh View Post
    Many designers consider the analog stage more important then the digital, that's my point.

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    Quote Originally Posted by furball View Post
    Point well taken.

    But still, I don't know if this analogy is valid in the audio world. Take the world of computers for example. Most laptops from 10 years ago were built like tanks compared to today's mostly cheap plastic laptops. But if given a choice, would anyone prefer to use a 10 year old laptop over a modern laptop?

    Again, I am not sure the analogy is all that valid in the audio world, especially since technologies in the audio world haven't progressed at nearly the same pace as those in the computer world. But food for thought nonetheless.
    Not valid in many cases. The DAC chips have improved, but the weak link continues to
    be power supply and analog section. Even cheap CDP's of today have better DAC chips
    than any of those old boxes. Yet, old Dacs still bring a lot to the table with their
    very solid design. It's kind of like many power amps of 10 years ago. They still are very
    tough to beat, and time tends to cause a price drop! Ears will tell the story better than specs,
    as always.
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  21. #21

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    Quote Originally Posted by wingnut4772 View Post
    Your transport is probably better than mine but I noticed a pretty big difference adding the DAC1 to my set up.
    Well, oddly it takes some time. Lemme splain...

    I was bored one week, so I decided to just let the CEC run on it's own. I hadn't done this since buying the DAC1, so it had been about 2 years. At first I thought the CEC sounded pretty damn good (and it did)--but after about a week, I was ready put the Benchmark back in. Lost was the punch/slam, dynamics. The soundstage was smaller and not nearly as deep. Cymbals didn't quite have that "wood on brass" sound. There was less seperating space/air between musicians.

    I use the word "subtle" in the context of, you're not gonna be immediately impressed---but, after taking some time and listening to a large sample of your music, then the real differences come to light--in a more than subtle way.

    Make sense?

    I hesitate to be too excited about recommending external DAC's because most people who have never heard one usually expect this big "POOF" to happen, and their music will be instantly transformed. DAC's take listening time to really appreciate everything they bring to the table.
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    Last edited by steveinaz; 01-31-2008 at 09:00 AM.

    Source: Squeezebox Touch/CIA Power Supply
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  22. #22

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    Quote Originally Posted by steveinaz View Post
    Well, oddly it takes some time. Lemme splain...

    I was bored one week, so I decided to just let the CEC run on it's own. I hadn't done this since buying the DAC1, so it had been about 2 years. At first I thought the CEC sounded pretty damn good (and it did)--but after about a week, I was ready put the Benchmark back in. Lost was the punch/slam, dynamics. The soundstage was smaller and not nearly as deep. Cymbals didn't quite have that "wood on brass" sound. There was less seperating space/air between musicians.

    I use the word "subtle" in the context of, you're not gonna be immediately impressed---but, after taking some time and listening to a large sample of your music, then the real differences come to light--in a more than subtle way.

    Make sense?

    I hesitate to be too excited about external DAC's because most people who have never heard one usually expect this big "POOF" to happen, and their music will be instantly transformed. DAC's take listening time to really appreciate everything they bring to the table.
    Makes sense. That's why I think your transport is better than mine because I was blown away. I don't think the DACS in my Pioneer are all that stellar.
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  23. #23

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    I love my CEC (thanks Bev), it's somewhat unique, very well made, and has XLR digital output.

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    I bought a California Audio Labs Sigma Dac used for less than 300. I dont have any other experience with Dacs because I like this one so much. The only Dac I might snag if I see it is the Cal labs Alfpha, since everyone I see comment on it likes it better than the Sigma.

    other than that, I'm not looking, which tells me it might be a damn good unit.

    if your budget is 500, I'm thinking used might be the only way to go to get bang for the buck.
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    MHDT Paradisea
    I am going to quote this because I can tell you that this DAC is worth every penny. It is truly a giant killer. Make sure you get the paradisea+. The plus version has toroidal transformers and a few other upgrades that lower the noise floor, and also give you USB compatibility. I have an MHDT DAC with the standard transformers and while it sounds so liquid and smooth, you have to get careful how you hook it up and where, because it is very sensitive to EMI, something that was fixed in the plus versions. It is one of the best NON-OS DACs out there... all of them, Paradisea all the way down to the Dialogue II.

    You can wait for MHDT labs to get them up on ebay, or you can look on audiogon. People are always using MHDT as a first DAC, so they go up for sale, not because they are bad, but because users are so impressed with what an external DAC can do, they want more. Maybe people upgrade from one MHDT to the next, so there are a lot of non plusses out there, that sound great, and while losing USB support, it's not like there aren't some great usb s/pdif adapers out there if you really want to do PC audio. I don't have a plus version, and while if I turn my volume up all the way I hear a tiny bit of white noise, it is nothing that is going to ever be heard at anything near listening levels... even ear-bleeding ones.

    Make sure you have an active pre though, the output voltage can be a little low, so not for passive pre folks, actually, if you get the paradisea or any of the tubed ones, I think this problem goes away due to the tubed output buffer easing any output/input impedance matching problems you might have anyway, but don't quote me.

    http://www.audiocircle.com/circles/i...&topic=33534.0

    Here is a 59 page thread about them, including best setups and modding components. If you are thinking of checking MHDT out, this thread will fill you in on about everything you need to know and stuff that you may not be able to know without a degree en electrical engineering.

    The other DAC I would say would be a Scot Nixon, but I think MHDT has them beat, though not by too much.

    You can build your own monica II if you really want to get down and dirty.

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    A couple recos for the MHDT NOS DACs...

    I researched them a bit before starting this thread. They seem to be up my alley - I like the NOS sound, they are in the right price range, and should be a nice step up from the DAC-AH.

    The issue is that I was leaning away from the small company, Chinese (actually, these are Taiwanese) DACs because service would be a pain and also because of the experience of the circuit flaw (distortion) in my DAC-AH.

    Also, I can't find the MHDT DACs for sale anywhere. I used to see them on eBay, but didn't see any recently.

    Another consideration is having my DAC-AH modded further to fix the clipping/distortion and change to higher quality parts in key areas. Iím talking with Doug Jesse from asi-tek.com (formerly from RAM) about his mods, which appear to be the same mods RAM does on the DAC-AH.
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    Cambridge Audio C500 Preamp
    Sony 222ES CD/SACD
    MSB Nelson Link III DAC with P1000 Power Supply, Music Hall DAC 25.2
    Squeezebox Classic
    Sony BDP-S1000ES
    JVC DLA-HD250 Projector
    Da-Lite HCCV - 100" Permwall 16:9
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    I have not had a problem with mine... check th thread too... I mean, that's not to say it wouldn't die... but the guy has sold thousands, and has not had a single negative feedback. That probably says something, not all bad products come from china? Don't know...

    I read someone tell me that Quad moving their manufacturing to China was the best thing they ever did... but yeah, they are still on ebay, unfortunately I only have the store link at work. It is MHDT Lab http://www.geocities.com/mhdtlab/order.htm

    The guy will sell directly to you, so you don't need to go to ebay. He returns e-mails and ships fast for such a long way. I was quite impressed, and this was now a couple years ago almost. Part of me wants to upgrade to the tubed paradisea+, but the dialogue II hasn't sounded like something I "need" to replace yet? If that makes sense, I seem to upgrade other things and the DAC kindof just moves along with it all. It really looks nice when you get it in your hand, feels well made, maybe that is why. Easier to get rid of some manufactured stuff that there are millions of, harder to get rid of something weighty, hand made, ect...

    I am not a fanboy, I have heard some good DACs, but I will say, that this has turned me onto the NON-OS sound... whether I get another MHDT someday or not, it will be a non-os dac.

  28. #28

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    try this has op amp sockets to make op amp changing a breeze. first one the best
    http://www.psaudio.com/products/digi...i_overview.asp
    http://cgi.ebay.com/KECES-DA-131-SPD...QQcmdZViewItem
    Last edited by carversound; 01-31-2008 at 06:35 PM.

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    Sweet DAC. I know some people have done mods like that on MHDT dacs... swapping opamps, output caps, ect... but it's hard. The link DACs have always been pretty modular, which is really cool.

    Second link looks pretty good too. Another hand made plexiglass DAC. There is something about holding a hand made device in your hand that makes you appreciate it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LuSh View Post
    Furball, I totally disagree. Most top flight DAC's 10 years ago had far superior analog stages in comparison to many of today's DAC's and therefore remain superior to modestly priced DAC's on the market.
    +2. Today compared to 10 years ago there is a lot of very mediocre audio being sold. There are also some great pieces floating around but today it seems you really have to do your homework to get something above ordinary.

    H9
    "Appreciation of audio is a completely subjective human experience. Measurements can provide a measure of insight, but are no substitute for human judgment. Why are we looking to reduce a subjective experience to objective criteria anyway? The subtleties of music and audio reproduction are for those who appreciate it. Differentiation by numbers is for those who do not".--Nelson Pass

    Pass Aleph 30; Eastern Electric Mini Max; Adcom GDA600; MIT S3/Z Pc; SDA 1C; Squeezebox; Tubes add soul!

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