How much a DAC really affects sound

Discussion in 'Computer Audio' started by B00nie, Sep 10, 2017.

  1. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    Here's a youtube video which lets you compare sounds from different sources and try to figure out if you can hear a difference between 25 dollar and 1500 dollar DAC among many other tests.

     
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  2. Commander Shepard

    Commander Shepard [H]ard|Gawd

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    I know that I overspent to an embarrassing degree on my DAC. I figured it would be a purchase that could last the next 10-15 years, so I bought it anyway... but still spent too much. :whistle:
     
  3. Brian_B

    Brian_B Gawd

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    The first speaker talking about steering probably has the best part of the video - if you ~think~ there is a difference, you will probably hear a difference. If you ~think~ there's no difference, you probably won't hear a difference.
     
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  4. RogueTadhg

    RogueTadhg Gawd

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    Last edited: Sep 11, 2017
  5. daglesj

    daglesj [H]ardness Supreme

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    Too close to call.

    Pretty much any DAC is now tried and tested tech. They are all perfectly 'good enough' whether the DAC chip costs $5 or $50.

    It's not down to whether one sounds better or worse. I doubt there is such a thing as a 'truly terrible incompetent' DAC. Like cars today, even if you buy the cheapest new car on the market it will probably have a decent safety rating, comfy seats, a stereo, handle competently and not rust away in 18 months. Basically get you from A to B with the minimum of fuss.

    It's purely down to if you prefer the very subtle differences each individual DAC has in it's presentation. If you can detect them that is.

    The analogue output probably has more to do with that side too.
     
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  6. michalrz

    michalrz 2[H]4U

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    I used to be a rare specimen of "audiophile".

    You see, I have owned around 10 soundcards. Integrated, PCI, USB. My first amp was a 70s Hitachi and then a Yamaha ax-550rs.
    Speakers were Tannoy M4, headphones were AudioTechnica ATH-AD500 (CMOy amp :p)

    So, you can easily see that I could never afford any piece of equipment beyond about 200 dollars.

    But, man, I can easily say I got into electronics and physics solely because I was fascinated with tweaking my gear. Not computers. Audio.

    After that I went bankrupt due to life issues and the only toy I was able to buy was a small PCM2704 based USB DAC. It was a sigma-delta chip and it was pretty okay for the absurdly low price.

    Pic of toy:
    pcm2704.png

    The fun thing about it was that I had soldered it onto my Yamaha's AUX input and was able to plug my receiver to the computer via USB.

    This is important, because I've found that (I made literally dozens of signal cables out of various things, coax, solid core wire, stranded) the connection between the DAC and the amplifier is a super important link in the audio chain. Even more so than speaker wire IMHO.
     
  7. pippenainteasy

    pippenainteasy Limp Gawd

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    I think in general, DACs/pre-pros that have more connectivity, better components, better build quality/decor are better than just buying a machine to be a pure digital to anlog converter. I think when it's just a pure DAC the value proposition is definitely less--for example the Oppo Sonica DAC is a really weak value proposition IMO even with the ESS 9038 Pro versus the HA-1, which uses the older ESS 9018, due to all the extra connectivity and amping it provides.
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2017
  8. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    Aside from the DAC issue this video brings emphasis to speaker quality and room acoustics. Those two define the majority of the end result.
     
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  9. sweets3450

    sweets3450 Limp Gawd

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    from my experience, the dac makes almost no difference for headphones. However, there is definitely a difference between cheap and expensive preamps when recording with a microphone. The amplifier makes a bigger but still mostly small difference in headphone quality. Is it powerful enough? If so, the quality of the sound is so small between different amps.

    However, buying an external dac is certainly worth the money to separate the chipset away from the motherboard which creates annoying interference
     
  10. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    Mics can be sensitive to amp quality. IMO the two critical stages of any sound chain are the beginning and the end. Mics and speakers with the rooms they're placed in. Bad room, bad placement makes a mess of the result of both.
     
  11. pippenainteasy

    pippenainteasy Limp Gawd

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    What's crazy is people buying stuff like Chord Dave ($11,000) or the MSB Select DAC ($90,000) as the front-end for their IEMS or headphones. I can't see any justification for dropping that much on the digital to analog converter, pre-amping!

    In fact I'm willing to wager neither of those DACs would outperform an under-2k Chinese-built DAC like the Audio-GD NFB-7.77 (dual ESS Sabre 9038Pros) in a scientifically measured test.
     
  12. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    The placebo effect is well known in audio. Unfortunately people are suspectible to all sorts of pseudo-science and advertising and they completely overlook the fundamentals of what makes good sound. It's like buying 10 000 dollar racing tyres and rims to a car with a broken suspension and worn engine.

    In fact part of the problem is that advertisers knowingly stay quiet of the true problems in audio. First of all, unsatisfied customers are going to return back for more expensive gear in a futile hunt for something better. Second, acoustic treatment is costly and difficult. Not only it requires space but it needs to be designed room specific to be truly good.

    And there's the WAF which can be extremely bad when you have to place large treatment panels around the room.
     
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  13. Krixon

    Krixon Limp Gawd

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    At a certain point, you hit a ceiling of sorts. While certain DACs/Headphone Amps/etc. might technically deliver better sound, the average person wouldn't be able to tell the difference. That ceiling, at least in my experience, seems to be about ~$900 for a small DAC or a headphone Amp (at least to my ears). Generally, if your headphones have a nominal impedance of, say, 300 ohms and your DAC/AMP can deliver that, then you're probably set. There are always exceptions, but I really wonder about people who drop tens of thousands on certain audio components, especially if they are listening to a fully digital source.

    A lot also depends on your listening environment, and the end of your system, being headphones or speakers. You can't drop a few hundred dollars on a DAC or amp and expect to get better sound out of the headphones that came with your phone, or a set of speakers you picked up for $50. When you start getting really serious about your audio, you have to consider things you never thought you would, like the quality of the electricity coming into your home, acoustic isolation, cable-run lengths, and even humidity if you're running vinyl. Audio is one of those things that, if you are in a position to spend a lot of money on it, either learn the hobby yourself or hire a professional that knows what they are doing. You can't just throw money at one piece of a very intricate puzzle and expect it to solve itself.

    The problem with a lot of users is that they are running a very standard/average audio setup and they spend a ton of money on one aspect of it, like a DAC or an amp, and expect to be blown away by the audio. When they aren't, they tell all their friends that this kind of equipment is a waste of money. Take my brother for instance: He bought a pair of Sennheiser HD700 headphones back when they retailed for closer to $800. I mentioned to him that he would need to buy a proper headphone amp to use them properly. What does he do? He buys a sub-$50 amplifier from FIIO that has a nominal output impedance of roughly 50 ohms. The HD700's are rated at 150 ohms. For the longest time, he was convinced that he had been ripped off by Sennheiser and that high end audio was a gimmick. Finally, he flew down to LA and I told him to bring his headphones. I hooked them up to my Beyerdynamic A20 which is rated for up to 600ohms and played some vinyl for him. Suffice it to say, he is more than convinced now and has bought a proper amp/dac.

    Example #2: My Dad bought a pair of KEF reference towers for about ~$20,000 a year ago. He runs separate amps for them, has an high-end power conditioner, and connects them to a ~$5,000 NAIM DAC. What does he ultimately put through his system? Apple Music and Spotify. It makes me want to put my head through a wall.
     
  14. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    Apple music and Spotify premium are not that bad. Apple uses it's own compression algorithm that's pretty efficient and produces good results. Most people (if any) will not find a difference between them and a 24-bit hd recording in a double blind test.

    Having said that spotify free is complete waste. It is so bandwith limited that it doesn't contain any bass below 50hz among other things.

    The difference between a well compressed and non compressed recording is diminishing and probably one of the last things to worry about in the total chain. If you listen in a non-treated room for example, treating that room (correctly I might add) is going to improve your sound at least 100x more than the uncompressed source.
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2017
  15. Krixon

    Krixon Limp Gawd

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    They're definitely not that bad. I use Spotify regularly on my phone for car-listening. My point was more that it is a bit of a waste spending ass-loads of money on an audio setup if you're running that kind of music through it. I also lean more toward analog sources over digital, which is probably why I shy away from any of those services from home-listening. That's just personal preference though.

    I'm in the middle of treating my room at home right now with some mid-range paneling, with some minor professional consulting, and have already noticed a massive difference - way more than I thought I would. I remember the day I added Vinyl to my setup and being blown away by the difference. I never thought I'd get a feeling like that again until the panels went up.
     
  16. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    Find someone who has measuring gear and take RT60 and room mode measurements of your room. Bass treatment is usually the biggest thing. Study limp mass absorbers to treat the inevitable room modes. The 20-400hz region contains most of the energy of cello, double bass, male voice etc. and are the costliest to treat. So my advice is be very careful on installing too many thin wool/foam absorbers. You need to have at least 10 inches of foam/wool and an air gap behind the panel to absorb the lower octaves.

    Too much thin absorption will only cut the high frequencies and make your room sound dead, heavy and dull.

    The quality of Apple audio is already so high that it's not a significant bottleneck on a 50 000 dollar audio system. It's more a question of preference. Of course it's very cheap to switch to non-compressed audio if one prefers that. But I can't really blame your relative for being happy with compressed source audio either. If he likes it, no problem!
     
  17. spaceman

    spaceman [H]ardForum Junkie

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    My experience is that a dac can certainly change the sound. A solid state vs a tube dac for example. You roll different tubes in there and of course the sound signature changes. I would never spend more than $2K on a dac though. I find most dacs around $200-500 are 98% as good as anything else.
     
  18. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    Tubes introduce a LOT of harmonic distortion to the play so naturally they sound different. Most people prefer a sound with a lot of harmonic distortion as it makes the sound warmer. That's all there is to it. The actual conversion - you'll most likely won't hear a difference.

    People who use regular speakers in non-treated rooms are listening to treble attack heavy sound with way too much high frequency radiant energy. In those conditions it's not surprising to search for something that will soften the upper register. Cue in tubes.
     
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  19. Krixon

    Krixon Limp Gawd

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    I'll definitely look into that. My buddy is actually helping me out with the isolation/getting me materials for close to cost. His company does quite a bit of work building recording and editing studios here in Burbank. I know he came in and did a few measurements with a device I couldn't name. He mapped out my room, told me where/how to add isolation, and left me to install it - which I'm sure I could do a better job with. He did tell me to add an air-gap, which I did with a frame of 1x3 pine in 4'x8' sections around my room (a basic movie-set flat). Is this a big enough gap? It's roughly 2.75 inches from the wall. I'm trying to pick this stuff up as fast as I can, but the amount of information is pretty overwhelming.

    Regarding my Dad. You're right, I probably should be less critical of his choice in music/format. For him, it's easier to just tell Siri to play something and walk away. Part of me is just disappointed that he hasn't jumped back into vinyl since he was a disk jockey back in his bachelor days and is largely responsible for me being into analog formats. He's had his eye on the new Planar 6 from Rega, but I haven't been able to convince him just yet.
     
  20. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    The air gap is most effective when it's about as big as your layer of insulation. It effectively doubles the amount of absorption.

    The bass frequenices need helmholtz resonators or limp mass absorbers to be treated practically, you just need way too much wool to handle them. Lowest frequencies would require 5 FEET thick wool lol.

    If you're looking for isolation, not just acoustic improvement, the only effective way is to build double frame walls. Inner wall from double sheetrock (and a rubber lining sandwiched between them if you want to go crazy), then a wood framing with insulation wool. Then the air gap of 5-10 inches. For outer wall strip the existing sheet rock to have an exposed framing and wool insulation. Then you naturally have the sheet rock of the next room. In addition to that you'll need every nook and cranny sealed with caulk and install decibel door / doors. Double compartmentalising doors are the cherry on the cake.

    After all that is done, you'll have probably 3 feet to 3 feet space inside your room lol. But you can play drums and nobody will hear it. Well, at least if you also built a floating floor and double frame ceiling.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
  21. rezerekted

    rezerekted 2[H]4U

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    Speakers with textile dome tweeters are less bright/harsh too. My last 3 speakers have all used textile dome tweeters, Polk Audio, Totem and now ATC.
     
  22. B00nie

    B00nie [H]ardness Supreme

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    Here's a demo of music playing from quality speakers in a treated and non-treated room. Now ask yourself: Have you ever heard such an improvement in quality by swapping DACs, amps or cd players? I bet not. Yet most people just continue sinking money into gear and not even a dime on acoustics.

     
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