Would I benefit from a dedicated DAC?

  • 30 December 2011
  • 74 replies
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Userlevel 2
In my living room, I have a ZP90 connected to an older Sony A/V receiver (STR-DE597) that I bought on Craigslist. Earlier this year I added a pair of Polk TSi400 with a Polk subwoofer that I use for Sonos and my television.

As I've been learning more about digital audio, I keep seeing references to dedicated DAC units as something that will really boost sound quality.

My question is: with the components that I already have, would a DAC like the Peachtree DAC-iT make a difference? My concern is that since my other components are not very high-end, the better sound quality of the DAC would not really come through.

Since this unit is about $500, would that be better spent on some other component, like a new A/V receiver?

And a related question: how would the DAC be wired? Does the output from the Sonos go to the DAC and then the output from the DAC go to the receiver?

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74 replies


As I've been learning more about digital audio, I keep seeing references to dedicated DAC units as something that will really boost sound quality.



After some years of living with an expensive one, I believe that in most if not all cases, an external DAC is snake oil. If you make sure that volume levels are the same, it will be difficult to pick up any difference in an ABX comparison, with/without the DAC in the system.
The zp90 has a good built in DAC, and I would put the money saved on an external DAC to better use.
PS: and yes, it would be wired just as you say. A digital cable to connect the Sonos to the DAC, via the digital out on the Sonos. And analog cable to connect the DAC outputs to the receiver.
Userlevel 2
Badge
I would agree with Kumar. With today's electronics, paying more doesn't always get you more. Speakers are where the improvements can be heard along with acoustic room treatments.
PenskeFile,

Unless you are on a complete system upgrade path, I don't think that investing in an external DAC would be good use of funds. If you are on the upgrade path, add the DAC last. And, listen before you buy.
Userlevel 2
A good DAC can make a huge difference in sound quality coming from any digital source (Sonos, PC, cd player, etc).

But, like the poster above mentioned, I think at this point you would better off investing the money elsewhere for other upgrades first.
Badge
Probably not.

I have been playing with my sonos connect played into the analogue inputs of my huge NAIM 122x/150x amp and big Neat Motive 1 speakers.

The Sonos connect ought to be way inferior to the naim kit, but actually the difference between a FLAC file played from a NAS via the sonos and the same file converted to wav, burnt to a CD and played on my £1500 Naim CD player (which has quite a fancy dac) .. was not huge. For complex classical music, the CD was definitely better but for some simple acoustic Jazz I couldn't honestly tell the difference.

In summary the sonos DAC seems to be pretty good and I really doubt it's the weakest link in your system. Buy better amp and speakers first.
Userlevel 2
Thanks all! points well taken. Our washer just died and the money will need to be re-directed in that direction to keep peace in the house. It wouldnt go over too well to introduce a new stereo component while crimping her budget...
Userlevel 2
Just by a pair of Play:3's for your kitchen, and do the washing by hand, while enjoying the music! ;)

Good luck explaining this @home.... 😛
Userlevel 2
Badge +2
If you have a good amp and speakers, a decent DAC (I use a rega), can make a noticeable difference. If not, don't bother. Spend the money on better speakers/amp 🙂
Userlevel 2
Hard to say, but the comments are correct first speakers, then pre amp then power amp and only after that a DAC.

I have 2 setups one with a nice DAC Wyred4Sound DAC-2 using the I2S interface then connected to a Classe integrated amp driving Proac speakers and one with the stock unit via a toss-link connection to a NAD receiver driving the same model Proacs.

And yes you can tell a difference but is it big and is it the DAC on it's own, in semi blind tests very few people can tell which unit is connected for a lot of music, it is easier to tell with some and with some it is a big difference but lets face it if you are using any lossy format then it's not worth buying a DAC at all (I know I am going to be flamed but that is my experience).

Ok enough rambling, if you have a really nice set up (and listening environment) I would get the DAC without any hesitation otherwise use the money elsewhere.

Peter
Userlevel 2
I have just made my own experience:

Professional Studio equipment (Monitor, Amp) : "best of best" .
But a Rega Planet CDP since years.
(Did not want to buy new because I planned already to switch to a NAS/Sonos Solution, finally did it.

Buyed a RipNAS and Sonos system.

Ripped my thousends of Cds and....

was shocked about a much more detailed performance - shurely due to the "old" Rega-CDP !

So - I am pretty shure: the Sonos is NOT the weakest part of most of the chains used by Sonos-Owners.

Investment to do for best benefit/cost relation in HiFi:

1) neutrally reproducing Speakers
2) ROOM ACCOUSTICS!!!

you can nearly ignore the rest regarding Cost/benefit.

Some hundreds of USD/Euro invested in room accoustics and consultiing a professional to measure and do some propositions for better damping will rapidly and radically better your sound.

It´s that easy.

cheers
D.
Musikliebhaber,
Welcome to the forums...

... and a huge +1 from me for your post.

Cheers,

Keith


... and a huge +1 from me for your post.

Ditto to the +1!

Very few people seem to get this - that speaker quality and room acoustics contribute to over 90% of the quality of the sound you hear. Today, even budget electronics upstream of the speakers are good enough, as are cheap, adequate gauge cables. And Sonos via wireless, using lossless music files is as good a source as high end CD players, and can hold its own in high end audio set ups.

I will add that speaker positioning in the room also is very important, as the interaction between the speakers and the room is determined by that. And the tweeters need to be at the level of your ears when you are seated in your listening position.
Userlevel 2
I can add an interesting anecdote. This weekend we did a listening test 4 people compared 3 source systems. It was a blind test.

Setup:
ProAc 2.8 speakers
Classe CAP-151 integrated amp

Source:
#1 Audio Alchemy Paganini CD player
#2 Stock Sonos
#3 Sonos with the Wyred4Sound I2S mod and a Wyred4Sound DAC-2

Many hours later after many CD's and corresponding FLAC's the result was everyone agreed:
The warmest sound was in order #3,1,2
The clearest was #3,1,2
The best for classical #3,1,2
The best for blues and "muddy" music: 2,1,3
The best overall: #3,1,2

But the difference was very small, much smaller than expected and 2 people put 1 and 2 equal more than 80% of the time.

The only area the stock sonos lost consistently in was clarity and definition! But when the sources and price tags were revealed we all agreed that for 99.9% of the time the stock Sonos was the way to go and use the money for good food and wine and invite your friends over instead.

Peter
use the money for good food and wine and invite your friends over instead.

Peter

+1 to that as an operating philosophy!

In addition, any blind test delivers colored results, if you haven't ensured that all combinations are producing the exact same volume of sound, while doing the comparisons, without any of the upstream electronics being pushed beyond designed output power levels.

The ears are very sensitive to quite small differences in sound levels, and these differences are heard as better/worse sound quality. Accurate equalization usually results in very little heard difference caused by system changes upstream of the speakers.
Userlevel 2
I can only speak from my own experience, but adding a Rega dac into my system yielded a significant improvement in overall sound - sufficient even for my girlfriend to acknowledge she could hear the difference. The sound is, in a word, better: bass is deeper and richer; the soundstage is much clearer and the quality of the sound is much more pleasant to listen to. Even at £500, I reckon it's absolutely great value for money.
Userlevel 2
I can only speak from my own experience, but adding a Rega dac into my system yielded a significant improvement in overall sound - sufficient even for my girlfriend to acknowledge she could hear the difference. The sound is, in a word, better: bass is deeper and richer; the soundstage is much clearer and the quality of the sound is much more pleasant to listen to. Even at £500, I reckon it's absolutely great value for money.

Well....

I did NOT say that the Rega is a bad CDP... but the simple TEAC Pro-CD-Reader in the RipNAS server did its job clearly better. The Sonos System does "just" transfer the datastream and serve as a internal database/User-Interface.

Regarding the fact that the REGA Planet has had already its 10th Aniversary this is everything but surprising... ;-)

I use geithain 901k Main Monitors and a Funk MTX Preamp - like most of the broadcasting stations in Germany do - this equipment is like a "microscope for music reproduction" - With this you can really hear the difference very clear.

But my message worth thinking about is the fact, that neutrally reproducing speakers, intelligent positioning of them and a well-done work concerning rom accustics (and perhaps a fine, neutral Preamp) will bring you to heaven in music... and the influence of the rest of the equipment is much less than people think...

Just by the way: neutral reproducing speakers must NOT be high-priced.

Good old speakers like that of the 7o´s and 80´s if the last century produced by HECO, Canton, and so on have been relatively neutral and they cost nearly nothing if you find them. If you add between some hundred to a thousand USD/EUR for proper measurements and room accustics the reproduction (and your joy of listening - if you want realistic music-performance) will dramatically (!!!) improve. And: Just normal cables will do their job - the PROs use cables for 1-2 USD/meter.... 😉 because you cannot hear the difference between cabls, if you do a blinded, scientific test (see the post of someone above) ...

Nowadays people like sounding - they lost their knowledge about nature of Instruments and of realistic reproduction.
Companies are not at all dump - the scientific basis of psycho-accustics exist completely since the 60´s - so the better ones of the Speaker Companies were not only able but also willing to go for realistic reproduction.

over the years more and more Companies went for "scientific sounding" which is just the other way of reproduction. Sounded reproduction manipulates the original signal in a special way - every company nowadays has its own "sounding signature" .
Sounding is nothing but a special, wanted specific colouration of sound. At first glance, it seems nice and interesting, but with time it´s boring and bad sound - for those who DO KNOW the real sound of instruments or human voice.

You want to have the very demanded sound of "The Singer seems to be just in front of the band, you can nearly touch her/him" ?

No Problem! You just separate the Mid-speaker and the Tweeter too high - 1kHz too high is already enough for that type of sounding. The effect is: The dispersion of the mid is narrowed in the higher mids - on axis this speaker is well balanced (important for tests) BUT off axis it isn´t neutral. Voilá, your effect you wanted as a marketing director ...

Same is possible more easy with 2-way speakers with incorrectly separation (Bass separation too high) ...


It´s like a good meal.....

"People have unlearned to eat - the only thing they do now is to swallow things" (Paul Bocuse)

cheers

D.

But my message worth thinking about is the fact, that neutrally reproducing speakers, intelligent positioning of them and a well-done work concerning rom accustics (and perhaps a fine, neutral Preamp) will bring you to heaven in music... and the influence of the rest of the equipment is much less than people think...



+1 to your thoughts.

With respect to the quote, I'd say that all fine amps are by definition neutral. A classic definition of a good amp is that it should be as a straight wire with gain.
Userlevel 2
+1 to your thoughts.

With respect to the quote, I'd say that all fine amps are by definition neutral. A classic definition of a good amp is that it should be as a straight wire with gain.


Yes, indeed.

"behavior like a straight wire" is perfect.

The word "neutral" might be a little bit misleeding, I confess.

Nowadays amp normally haven´t real problems with coloration , it is more about canal separation and precision (mostly in bass reproduction) ...

BUT: One has to use real top speakers to be able to identify these very subtile differences of the amps...

98% of the problems of reproduction are about speakers and room accustics.
So, investments have to be done THERE to get the best out for the money.

I think, you will agree.

cheers

D.
Yes, indeed.

"behavior like a straight wire" is perfect.

The word "neutral" might be a little bit misleeding, I confess.

Nowadays amp normally haven´t real problems with coloration , it is more about canal separation and precision (mostly in bass reproduction) ...

BUT: One has to use real top speakers to be able to identify these very subtile differences of the amps...

98% of the problems of reproduction are about speakers and room accustics.
So, investments have to be done THERE to get the best out for the money.

I think, you will agree.

cheers

D.


Good sound starts at the source, your system is only as good as it's weakest link.

Saying speakers are the most important part is like saying the cartridge is the most important part of a turntable.
Good sound starts at the source, your system is only as good as it's weakest link.

Saying speakers are the most important part is like saying the cartridge is the most important part of a turntable.


This salesperson BS is so old it is almost a cliche. It's complete horsehooey, and is only used to justify $10/ft speaker wire. The fact is, some components (like speakers) are far more important than things like amps (of which 99% are neutral in sound) and cables (which, unless complete crap, will not color the sound AT ALL!). Let me guess, next you are going to say we need to make equal length speaker runs because the electrons will arrive at different times if you don't?
This salesperson BS is so old it is almost a cliche. It's complete horsehooey, and is only used to justify $10/ft speaker wire. The fact is, some components (like speakers) are far more important than things like amps (of which 99% are neutral in sound) and cables (which, unless complete crap, will not color the sound AT ALL!). Let me guess, next you are going to say we need to make equal length speaker runs because the electrons will arrive at different times if you don't?


It's quite the opposite, the classic sales person BS was that speakers are the most important part.

Why? In hi-fi there is 40-50 points on speakers and 30 on electronics. So up-sell the speakers and make the most money.

Cables, interconnects, power conditioners are all complete rubbish and I categorize them as criminal.

No amp is transparent, but I understand what you mean by most are relatively neutral..but that doesn't change the fact that the more powerful the amp the better control it has of the speaker and the better your system sounds.

Good power doesn't come cheap either, and if you are using a really power hungry speaker like a pair of B&W 803s then don't expect to drive them with an amp you picked up for 500 bucks.

I use to work in Hi-Fi sales and could tell you every trick in the book, my opinion that I state is based upon actual experience testing and installing equipment...but take it or leave it.
It's quite the opposite, the classic sales person BS was that speakers are the most important part.

Why? In hi-fi there is 40-50 points on speakers and 30 on electronics. So up-sell the speakers and make the most money.

Cables, interconnects, power conditioners are all complete rubbish and I categorize them as criminal.

No amp is transparent, but I understand what you mean by most are relatively neutral..but that doesn't change the fact that the more powerful the amp the better control it has of the speaker and the better your system sounds.

Good power doesn't come cheap either, and if you are using a really power hungry speaker like a pair of B&W 803s then don't expect to drive them with an amp you picked up for 500 bucks.

I use to work in Hi-Fi sales and could tell you every trick in the book, my opinion that I state is based upon actual experience testing and installing equipment...but take it or leave it.


Sorry, but nothing is more critical to the sound, and nothing can color the sound more, than speakers. They are more subjective and more varied in sound than anything else, by 1000 times. Listen to 100 amplifiers and I dare you to find a difference, given the same output. Listen to 100 sets of speakers, and I dare you to find two that sound the same. Price markup means nothing, upselling is a tactic with all electronics (and 30-50 points is nothing compared to accessories and cables, especially in these low margin times). Fact is fact, and if you want to change your sound (notice I said change, quality is partly subjective), changing speakers is the easiest and most effective way to do it.
Sorry, but nothing is more critical to the sound, and nothing can color the sound more, than speakers. They are more subjective and more varied in sound than anything else, by 1000 times. Listen to 100 amplifiers and I dare you to find a difference, given the same output. Listen to 100 sets of speakers, and I dare you to find two that sound the same. Price markup means nothing, upselling is a tactic with all electronics (and 30-50 points is nothing compared to accessories and cables, especially in these low margin times). Fact is fact, and if you want to change your sound (notice I said change, quality is partly subjective), changing speakers is the easiest and most effective way to do it.

We will have to agree to disagree, source, amp and speakers all play an important role in the quality of audio. I've heard horrific sounding amps, speakers and sources, as well as good sounding ones.

I've listened to far more than 100 amps and speakers in my day and I can stand by the fact that they both make a difference.

No amp is transparent, but I understand what you mean by most are relatively neutral..but that doesn't change the fact that the more powerful the amp the better control it has of the speaker and the better your system sounds.

Good power doesn't come cheap either, and if you are using a really power hungry speaker like a pair of B&W 803s then don't expect to drive them with an amp you picked up for 500 bucks.



I see your point, but here is a slightly different take on it.

There are speakers - even high end expensive ones today - that are difficult to drive, where the impedance drops at lower frequencies, that demand powerful amplifiers to cope with them. If you have these, then of course you need the more powerful electronics to drive these well, and they aren't cheap.

But there also are better designed speakers that present the same impedance to the amp, across the frequency range. It really doesn't matter then if the impedance is as low as 6 ohm, as long it remains so across the frequency range.

For such speakers, it really doesn't matter what source/amp is used, unless one insists on vinyl, where good enough turntables may not come cheap. Obviously, the upstream shouldn't be poor quality, but developments in upstream solid state and digital tech and reliability have led to a situation where good enough quality is available from all the known brands, even from their budget lines.
For such speakers, the quality of the Connect amp, as an example, is good enough. As is the quality of the DAC in it, as well as that in the Connect. As I have experienced it for the last ten years, progress in the upstream is now happening in the realm of convenience as in the case of the Sonos offering, and not in that of source/amp quality to an extent where it can be heard. I refer to straight audio here of course, the Home theater stuff is a different ball game.

The same still isn't true in the case of speakers, where obtaining an amp friendly load and natural voicing from the speaker units need some care in selection. And perhaps a little more spend than that for upstream components.

Finally, speaker positioning and room acoustics still remain vitally important to the quality of the heard sound, and listening environments vary widely enough to make this the place where time/money/efforts spent yield the most benefits.
Userlevel 2
We will have to agree to disagree, source, amp and speakers all play an important role in the quality of audio. I've heard horrific sounding amps, speakers and sources, as well as good sounding ones.

I've listened to far more than 100 amps and speakers in my day and I can stand by the fact that they both make a difference.


A simple blinded test will re-ground you....

It´s just as I stated already:

It´s all about speakers and room accustics, the rest of the chain is not so important as them.

nevertheless - I am happy that we agree, that selling junk like "special cables" and other esoteric things is very much indeed nothing else than criminal.

cheers

D.