Discrete Ladder DAC price implosion

ariescerat-espana

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Reading the busy and enthusiastic threads on WBF about TotalDAC, Aqua and Lampizator and other discrete DAC designs, I thought we could have a new thread looking at the general competition for that market in audio.

I have been following with interest the 're-arrival' of R-2R Ladder DACs into the audio scene over the last 3 years. IMO TotalDAC was probably the leader in the reboot of ladder DACs to high end audio. Before they came on the scene, it was very niche, almost invisible. If we look back 20 years many of the top brands made ladder DACs that proved very costly to make and died out fairly quickly as we know. This was not based on sonic grounds, more commercial reasons.

Many of those early designs are to this day some of the best sounding DACs ever made, and still sought after on the second hand market.

Around 2014 after a short foray into DIY discrete board sales, TotalDAC made the A1 and started gained some great magazine reviews and later into 2015 and 2016 with the D1 dual a strong user base for the finished products. I almost purchased the D1 Six in early 2016 but it was in the end a bit too expensive for me.

Fast forward to April 2017, and there is now a lot more models available from other manufacturers such as the Aqua La Scala and Formula and Lampizator who offer the discrete board on some of their models. These DACs tend to be in the 8K USD+ sector. It is good IMO to have a nice spread of manufacturers offering their own discrete DACs to keep the market competitive and affordable to audio fans on 'real world' incomes.

holo2.jpg holo1.jpg
https://kitsunehifi.com/product/springdacbase/
A new dynamic seems to be emerging this year, with a growing cluster of high performance and incredibly cheap discrete DACs appearing from China and Korea. Examples are the Holo Spring DAC with models from 1.5-2.5K USD depending on specs. This looks like quite a remarkable product offering a discrete DAC topology, and nicely designed power supply and line stage in a compact chassis. Quite how this DAC can be made for 1/4 the price to comparable (roughly) DACs manufactured in the EU and USA I am unsure. labour costs for sure, but in the TotalDAC's case they use a costly and time consuming to assemble Vishay resistor arrays, and the Holo and others use SMD type construction, I assume made by an automated process (not hand made). I am curious if the cheaper discrete DACs do indeed sound as good as the units made in the EU and USA, but if they are close, it seems like an incredibly cheap entry to high end digital.

900x900px-LL-0cf82e39_3c39b2bbbf311949c7e39e6ea40ed1344c8debba.jpeg 900x900px-LL-3688dc10_2c8500d31a5bf4ca854d21d129d3f59ac51f177b.jpeg
http://www.denafrips.com/ares.html
Another is the Denafrips Ares which is cheaper than the Holo Spring DAC at 600 USD! They also make a 'Terminator' higher spec unit at a pricier 4K USD that has very high specs.

And in the DIY sector for 3 years at least, we have had the Soekris discrete DAC boards at 250 USD. These were intended I guess for the DIY'er to then fit in chassis with a DC feed (power supply) and line stage.

My point, discrete R-2R DACs are becoming available en mass to a wider audience, and the prices looking these models is coming down. Caviet, I have not heard any of these DACs from China or Korea, but there are busy threads on head-fi for example exploring the sonic merits of these DACs.

It would be very interesting to know / hear the sonic differences of the Holo DAC v a DAC from the EU at 2-4 times that price. And then of course, we have the next tier of DACs in summit fi beyond 20K. Quite possibly very high end performance digital that was out of reach for many just 3 years ago may now be a reality?
 

Ken Newton

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The main performance issues with discrete R2R DACs are linearity and settling time related A.C. errors, such as glitching. High linearity not only requires extremely accurate resistors, but also that those resistors hold that extremely high accuracy over changes in temperature and humidity. The more bits of resolution desired, the more demanding is the required accuracy and it's stability.

Glitching is an short burst of wideband energy which is added to the analog output when each input digital sample updates/switches the R2R array. It constitutes an signal error. Glitching error is highest when the analog signal output is lowest. Non-trivial steps are required to suppress settling-time related errors, so they are often simply ignored.

These are not trivial design and production issues and the cost of effectively addressing them is the main reasons why delta sigma type DAC chips replaced R2R types among commercial monolithic DAC chips. Therefore, inexpensive discrete R2R based DACs are automatically suspect on linearity and glitch performance. Making an single accurate, high resolution R2R DAC in a laboratory is challenge enough, but ensuring that it is consistently linear and has low A.C. errors across every production unit is usually both difficult and costly.
 
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Joe Whip

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Gee, if the challenge is so great, how are products such as the Holo Spring making it to market? I have heard it. It does well with DSD but there is a sameness to the sound. Pleasant no doubt. I have had a R2R DAC now for years and they sound fantastic are are rather inexpensive. I have no desire at all to own another DS DAC.
 

Ken Newton

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I'm not here to advocate for SDM conversion versus full multibit. I only addressed some objective performance challenges of full resolution R-2R conversion, not it's subjective performance.
 

Al M.

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I'm not here to advocate for SDM conversion versus full multibit. I only addressed some objective performance challenges of full resolution R-2R conversion, not it's subjective performance.

That is probably why Schiit make their Yggdrasil DAC ($ 2.3 K) as a 21-bit DAC, not a 24-bit DAC. Which makes perfect technical sense, since 20-21 bit resolution is the maximum practically possible, given the noise floor of even the best power supplies, see:

https://mojoaudiofiles.wordpress.com/the-24-bit-delusion/
 

Al M.

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Are there any consumer DACs capable of full 24 bit resolution?

Probably not. There are many DACs that can decode 24-bit files, but the actual resolution at the analog output of the DAC is something different entirely. For practical reasons it cannot exceed 20-21 bits, see above.

Mastering in 24-bit format is a different thing altogether. 24-bit resolution exists in software, and the ability to master at that resolution (or in 32-bit 'floating') may be advantageous because of the avoidance of losses in practical resolution throughout the mastering process.
 

Joe Whip

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I have listened to the Halo along with an a Yggy through the same system. The Yggy hooked up through the AES port and the Halo with the i2S. I greatly preferred the Yggy. The Halo sounds nice and I would consider it to just play DSD files. I found the Halo to have a consistent sound regardless of the source. I found it to be soft overall. That would be great I suppose for certain systems but I found the Yggy to be more faithful to the recording. Different recordings should sound different. Using PCM, I found the Yggy to be much better. When playing DSD converting to 176.4 pcm for the Yggy, things were much closer. On some files I liked the Yggy better and on some, the Halo. The listening was with Large Evolution Acoustics speakers and all Spectral electronics. Of course, YMMV. I have not had the opportunity to hear the Totaldac. I have heard the Gustard and prefer it to the Halo.
 

asiufy

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Al M.

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I have listened to the Halo along with an a Yggy through the same system. The Yggy hooked up through the AES port and the Halo with the i2S. I greatly preferred the Yggy. The Halo sounds nice and I would consider it to just play DSD files. I found the Halo to have a consistent sound regardless of the source. I found it to be soft overall. That would be great I suppose for certain systems but I found the Yggy to be more faithful to the recording. Different recordings should sound different.

Yes. Just this morning I made similar comments here:

http://www.whatsbestforum.com/showthread.php?22891-Wadia-12-Dac-or-Rega-dac

From your description it seems I would prefer the Yggy too (I have ordered it, BTW, but it's on backorder).

I don't like a 'soft' sound either. Some prefer it, but it does not conform with my experience of what (unampflified) live music actually sounds like.

And just the last few hours I enjoyed Wofgang Rihm's piano music with its brutally hard attacks on the keys (not employed throughout though). If you take that away, you destroy the music.
 
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wisnon

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Alex, I was just about to post that. MSB and Rockna (who used MSB tech). dCS is also a form of R2R.There is also that Vinshine Dac from Singapore using Soekris board. $1500. Head-fi forum guys love it

Astro: Lampi Atlantic (Basic) is about $4K, far from the 8K range and comes standard with PCM 384 and DSD256 capabilities.
 

Al M.

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Looking at the JA measurements back in 2014, looks like 21 bit resolution to me.

Of course. While the MSB DAC may be a true 24-bit ladder DAC as far as the conversion stage goes, rather than a 21-bit ladder DAC as the Yggy, the actual resolution at the output of the DAC still is limited by the practically achievable noise floor (the dynamic range of a stereo system as a whole is even less).
 

Joe Whip

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Somehow I knew you would mention a Lampi in this thread Norman! I hope things are well with you and your wife and family. Let me know when you are back in the area. We just got back from a month long trip to Australia, New Zealand and London. No more trips for awhile!
 

wisnon

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Somehow I knew you would mention a Lampi in this thread Norman! �� I hope things are well with you and your wife and family. Let me know when you are back in the area. We just got back from a month long trip to Australia, New Zealand and London. No more trips for awhile!
Just correcting Astro prices. He mentioned it and its natural as we speak of R2R.

Things are well with us, but her Dad, not so much. She will be back there soon...not sure for me yet....but for sure I will contact U anytime I am there...thats a given! You certainly are the globe trotter..LoL. I am now officially tired of visiting London. Every 3 weeks or so.
 

Joe Whip

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I wish I was there that often but am so worn out, I will wait to the start of football season in the fall.
 

Ric Schultz

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While the Yggy is R2R using expensive Analog Devices chips, the Gustard Pro DAC uses mono ESS9028 DAC chips. After mods (some say even stock) it is mucho better than stock Yggy. What DAC system you use is only a small part of the overall sound. Every DAC that uses the same type of system or chip sounds different. It's in tweaking the details that you get music. A tweaked Gustard Pro creams a stock Yggy...which as Joe Whip said is either as good or better than Holo DAC. Now an all out assault on discrete R2R should be better than most.....but is it really better than tweaked latest parallel ESS DACs with tweaky clocking, power supplies, output stages, etc.? By the way, the Gustard has DSD and digital attenuation as well....both missing on Yggy.
 

Joe Whip

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Having heard a fully modified Gustard and an stock and a modded Yggy (damped) on the same system, I have to respectfully disagree.
 

Al M.

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So the Gustard didn't "cream" the Yggy? No kidding ;)

Whenever I read such hyperbole I am just wondering if it's only about "my taste preference is better than yours". Without specifying what is meant by "being better", and without unamplified live music as reference (what sounds more believable compared to that?) all these proclamations become meaningless.

And the often tauted "oh, this sounds more analog". What does that mean anyway?

Sorry about my little morning rant. I need another cup of coffee I guess...
 

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