External DAC Opinions Sought


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My soon-to-be setup:

BR100 > ZP90 > McIntosh MA6900 Integrated Amp > B&W CM9 Loudspeakers

While this is not a high-end system, it's not a boombox either. I'm wondering if an external DAC would be beneficial for a system such as this.

If so, don't be shy to recommend one that would be commensurate with this system in quality and price.

Thanks,
EdP

173 replies

Userlevel 2
An external DAC or a CD player with a digital input would make a big difference.

I love my Cary 306/200 with my MA6900. It was a big improvement over my Lavry DA10 which is miles ahead of the Sonos using the Sonos' analog outputs.

You might want to check the Wyred 4 Sound DAC1 or DAC2.
Userlevel 2
I use a SONOS since a few years. It's useful but has a very(!) limited soundquality.
Any DAC, e.g. DAC magic for 400 EUR or whatever, connected with a TOS link, make big difference to SONOS original sound.

best wishes from Aschaffenburg, Germany
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You don't really mention your musical tatses and you should really set a budget ... Is this going to be your only/main source?

Theres quite a lot out there and depends what you can get your hands on to listen to. To be honest I'm not familiar with your amp so don't know the tonal balance.

If it were me (and I am looking at some toys myself too), I'd be looking at the Bryston and the Naim. I've also read good things about the Benchmarks as well.
If money were no object for either of us, I'd be sorely tempted by the Audio Research.
I've got a Musical Fidelity V-DAC with a separate regulated power supply. Its seems (to my ears) equivalent in sound quality to the "acclaimed" dac in my Arcam Alpha 9 cd player. And its relatively inexpensive. Under $400 for all from Amazon.

And of course, it has improved the sound of my ZP90.
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fathervic

>your musical tatses <
Didn't think of that - 98% classical listening and it will be my main source.

Not surprisingly, money *is* an object for me, just as it is for so many others. This is why I am looking for something that is commensurate in quality (not price) with my system, ie, can my system detect and present any difference in auditory quality between a $500 DAC and a $3500 DAC.

In a nutshell, what's the best bang for the buck.

Thanks,
EdP
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Linn always hark on about source first... I have to agree. Your system can only show off what you feed in to it.

As I said I have no experience in the McIntosh but I currently run a Bryston 4B SST with a pair of PMC OB1s, so pretty revealing.

I appreciate the suggestions of the more budget DACs that have been mentioned so far by others and how they've made a difference, but at the end of the day your amp is capable and deserving of sooo much more.

I wouldn't think twice about spending £1500 - £2k on a DAC because I feel the systems really do desreve it if not more.

At the end of the day, You'll just have to have a listen. Even if you have a dealer with a couple of random DACs at different price points, that way you could at least compare and contrast and hopefully hear for yourself any differences.

I have a leaning towards the Bryston because I'd lusted after the amps for a while and finally proud to own one. The only downside for me is the lack of volume control which is where one of the Benchmarks comes in with the built in pre.

Having listened to Naim kit before, I found it too bright (and never understood the pairing with B&W as to me brought this out more - but that's just my ears...) but certainly has great reviews behind it and a long standing pedigree.

Why shouldn't you spend more money on a DAC or hear differences between something at $500 or $3.5k? Think of it like you would do a CD player - the more you spend, the better the it (usually) gets.
Arcam was preciously mentioned. If you take their players as an example, externally they were all identical (casework) and internaly used the same transport, the only difference being a higher quality DAC.
Why did you spend so much to buy your amp and speakers? You obviously heard a difference with those over other kit.

Also take time to consider future connections you may wish to use and also what the DAC accepts for signals if you want to play hires.

Cheers
Userlevel 2
You can easily spend a fortune on a DAC, but if you are like me, you are probably looking for the best sound without breaking the bank.

I bought a PS Audio Digiltal Link III, it is $800.00 US and used to be about twice that price about a year ago. It has a great sound and a nice power supply with a toroid transformer. It is incredibly better than the analog output of the Sonos ZP90 ( which has a 10 buck integrated circuit D to A).

I did a lot of research before buying the PS Audio and I am very happy I did !:)
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I have to say I agree with the fathervic; you have a system that will show up the qualities of a good DAC.

I have tried everything from the Cambridge Dacmagic to the Lavry. From the Beresford to the Benchmark and with my set up and musical taste I have landed on the Naim DAC. The difference between the DACs is significant both in price and experience so I would have to recommend you audition in your own system. It is absolutely down to personal taste. All the DACs above made a difference and so are worth a try. In terms of value for money the DAC magic punched way way way above its weight in my system but the Naim just took the whole experience to another level. The sad thing is that using HD music via the usb port really kicked the sonos' (no HD support) a**e. The timing and image were both improved in an almost jaw dropping way that I can barely listen to the system without.

The great thing about the DAC is that it is upgradeable (gulp), with a power supply which in my opinion is a leap too far but does make a difference.

The key message here is that the DAC took my sonos to a point where i sold my £3k CD player and that is saying something! HOWEVER if others are reading and they are using mid range systems you will get a good kick out of the dacmagic. ENJOY.

My system is:

NAIM NAP 200 power, NAC 282 pre, HICAP x2, NAIM DAC, ZP90, Neat Ultimatum MF5 speakers.

Cheers
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W4S Dac 1.. lots of talk out there about this one. $995.00
Userlevel 2
I wouldn't have bought the Sonos kit without knowing that a DAC would give a very significant difference in sonic performance. I bought the Musical Fidelity VDAC but after a couple of months realised that while it has a lot of good points, the mid range was too overwhelming for my tastes. Some lucky guy on ebay is now enjoying it. I switched to the DacMagic and it suits me down to the ground. Rest of the system is Audiolab 8000A amp and Quad 11 speakers. After 6 months of not listening to my Arcam CD 73 player, it's now went the way of the VDAC and sold on ebay last night.
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I'd be interested for some help from those who know better than me.

In my main room I use the ZP90 via optical into my AV reciever ( Pioneer VSX-AX4AVi-S ) so let that do the digital audio conversion and I listen to the sound through the Neo:6 MUSIC AV setting.

The speakers are four KEF iQ1s, a KEF iQ6c centre and a small MJ Acoustic sub (like a REL Quake)

Would I hear an improvement with a Cambridge Audio DACMAGIC? I am listening to mainly Apple Lossless ripped music.
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For those of you who use DACs, does a DAC improve audio quality much if you are listening to compressed MP3s or a 160kbps stream like Rhapsody? I know it would help with lossless, FLAC etc... but not sure if MP3s or streaming Rhapsody is so crappy that it can't be helped by a DAC.
Userlevel 2
For those of you who use DACs, does a DAC improve audio quality much if you are listening to compressed MP3s or a 160kbps stream like Rhapsody? I know it would help with lossless, FLAC etc... but not sure if MP3s or streaming Rhapsody is so crappy that it can't be helped by a DAC.

I don't use the streaming services but all other content is improved (TV, CD, Sonos etc...) with my Naim DAC. The question is how much are you willing to spend on a DAC? The difference it makes on Lossless formats is jaw dropping, 256k mp3 is also better but you would expect that from a 2k DAC but you probably wouldn't spend that if compressed formats were your main file types. My DACmagic has less impact on the more compressed formats.

You also need to consider your system make up and price match to that... What have you got?
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Thanks Lamby for the detailed information and link to the arcam DAC. I think I will give it a go with a DAC for at least one zone. I have one remaining question to resolve before I buy. I am not sure if the arcam or the dacmagic are auto signal sensing so they turn on/off automatically when the zp90 sends a signal. My audio rack will be in the basement so this is an importAnt feature. From the Cambridge and arcam websites, they do not mention signal sensing as a feature. Does anyone know of a signal sensing DAC?
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Hello Ed,
I just bought a Lavry DA11 and the difference is hugh. The sound opens up, it is rhythmic. I feel I am back listning to music. I run Apple lossless from a NAS -> ZP90, coax out -> Lavry and then to a modified Quad 405-2 -> speakers. The original setup with ZP 90 analogue out to amplifier gives more bass, but lacks rhythm, space, treble. The Radio music also sounds better. I have not tried other DACs but I think with the quality equipment you have Lavry would make a difference.
/ulf
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When I get my Z90 and I plug the optical or coaxial digital output into the corresponding input on my Anthem AVM-30 Processor isn't the Anthem doing the D/A conversion?

Though a DAC with a stereo pair of balanced outputs would be nice as there is a dedicated stereo pair of balanced inputs on the Anthem also.

I use those for my CD player at the moment, not saying any better sound quality than RCA. They are there so why not use them is my motto, plus it frees up another analog RCA input if I need it.
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When I get my Z90 and I plug the optical or coaxial digital output into the corresponding input on my Anthem AVM-30 Processor isn't the Anthem doing the D/A conversion?

...


Correct.
Userlevel 2
Correct.

That's what I thought. Won't be getting a DAC for a few months, it should sound awesome through the Anthem...thanks
Userlevel 2
I have to disagree that an external DAC makes less of a difference with compressed music (the vast majority of my music is ABR 320).....but I don't wanna start a compressed vs. lossless debate so I'll leave it as simple as that.

I'm using a Benchmark DAC-1 (about a 1000 bucks) running into a Yaquin MS-12B tube buffer/phono preamp with Gold Lion reissue tubes. (200 for the the Yaquin, about 150 for the tubes.) Even without the Yaquin in the chain the difference between the stock DAC and the Benchmark is pretty big. With the Yaquin in the chain....even better.

Some don't like the Benchmark as it can be pretty bright, but with the tube buffer and my speakers (vintage Magnepan SMG-a's) its not bad at all. Your speakers and set up make all the difference.
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I agree with you; there is no need to only consider a DAC for Hires music or standard lossless, actually I love my 320kbps files.

The Benchmark is a great DAC, I just preferred the NAIM DAC.

S
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I have two of them into a Condard Johnson tube stereo system and a Mark Levinson home theater for when I want 2 channel audio.

I've come from Theta and Muscial Fidelity and this one presents the best sound stage. Very affordable too!
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Hi mom9394
Another poster [ErikM] also recommended the W4S DAC-1, and it is now on my wish list! Nearly 1/3rds the way towards saving up for one now. I plan to connect it between my ZP90 and Harman Kardon AVR4500, although I have to confess I do see it as a bit of overkill. Not convinced I am enough of an audiophile to hear the difference!

However, I look at my Sonos equipment as the "icing" on my audio cake. And the W4S DAC-1 as the "icing on the icing"! I am sure I'll not regret the considerable expense, but it is reassuring to read posts such as yours. Thanks.
Norrie
Userlevel 2
I am amazed to read that so many experience a huge improvement in sound using an external DAC. If that is true, the SONOS must be a very inferior sound system.
I am amazed to read that so many experience a huge improvement in sound using an external DAC. If that is true, the SONOS must be a very inferior sound system.

It depends what you are comparing with.

If you are comparing a ZP120 to an external receiver or DAC/Amp combo then I would say that the ZP120 easily competes with external amps at around the same price range. However, I have no doubt that an amplifier costing 4-5 times more would be better.

Does that make Sonos inferior? Well, compared with a £2,000 amp, yes it probably does, but you wouldn't expect a £429 amp to be as good as a £2,000 one.

If you are comparing a ZP90 into a good amp with a ZP90 into a receiver or receiver amp combo, then I think it is less clear where Sonos compares. Certainly I would be surprised if most people can detect a significant difference between the ZP DAC and the DAC in a typical home receiver in the £1,000 price range.

The people in this thread are talking about much higher-end systems than this. They are talking about standalone DACs that cost 2-3 times the cost of a ZP90 (or more) before you even consider the cost of the amplifier. You would expect them to be better.

Cheers,

Keith
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In my short experience with my Z90 I have tried hooking up the Stereo Analog outputs of my Z90 to the Analog inputs of my Anthem AVM-30 and thought it sounded ok.

When I hooked the RCA Digital Output of the Z90 to an RCA Digital Input on my Anthem the sound was much better.

Which makes perfect sense to me as the Z90 is only $349.00 and I would expect my Anthem processor to have higher quality DAC's then the Z90.

I didn't buy the Z90 for it's DAC's but for the convenience. I will eventually try a stand alone DAC and see if I can hear a difference.

All I know is, the way it is set up now I can't tell the difference between the CD and the FLAC file playing through the Sonos.

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