In search of a DAC which sounds excellent.

Sampajanna

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Sampajanna

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For me, what is missing research wise, if it is even possible, is a correlation between measurements and human appreciation of music. I know the argument is that more "accuracy" means closer to what is recorded and so it is "better." But "better" is a value. Can it be measured? Which study shows that more humans enjoy music played through dacs that measure higher in some way? Is someone who prefers a worse measuring dac "wrong"? What does "wrong" mean?

"Hey you over there having a great time--Stop it. You are being fooled. You got sold snake oil. You got ripped off. Stop enjoying yourself! That enjoyment you are having is just a placebo so cut it out and get angry at the people that sold it to you!"

I would rather ignore that and continue having a great time. I LOVE my Lampi dac. It sounds great. I love listening to music and go back again and again for more. Once I got a Lampi I also stopped listening so critically to the gear, comparing and analyzing and now just connect to the music and its all about joy and fun and music, music and more music... If I enjoy myself this much for a year for many hours a day, then the price of admission is more than worth it for me.

That said, budget is an issue for all of us. I have heard Topping dacs and they are ok for the price, but even then I am not sure because I havent shopped much at that budget. My buddy went through many desktop Chinese dacs and eventually moved on to an Ifi dsd with teh tube inside and he said he now enjoys his music instead of constantly evaluating everything....
 
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Atmasphere

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I respect your opinion and am happy you found a good dac for your system, but I couldn’t disagree more. I do not think Topping dacs sound good….

Im not a computer. Do you order food at a restaurant after they give you a lab report on nutritional value?

“the better a DAC gets, the more it will sound like any other DAC that measures as well. Bits being what they are”

Again, why not eat tasteless slop with the right vitamins and minerals? The closer it gets to some measured “nutritional perfection,” the more all food will taste the same. The fact is, the sum IS more than the parts.

How do you know that what you are measuring matters to humans? How do you know you are measuring everything there is to measure? Are you seriously suggesting that we fully and completely understand listening, audio and sound, including the brain’s role?

This measurement debate is so tiring. My experience with the measurement crowd, like those over on ASR is that they are very negative, unhappy humans. They dont seem to be enjoying their systems or music at all. I love music and listen for enjoyment not to collect data measurements of ”accuracy”— whatever that even means? There is no soul in the music out of such dacs, no connection, no emotion. I dont bob my head at rock, lift my hands up and conduct the air for classical, make air-guitar motions or dance.
Your metaphor doesn't make sense. Technical stuff and biology are very very different. What is important here is not just the measurements, but the simple fact that if you know what to look for in them, you can tell how the equipment will sound. Not to put too fine a point of it but I've made a career out of that.

You might, as I suggested, try the new D90SE. I didn't say 'buy' in my original post, and I pointed out the Veblen Goods issue because so many people think that if you pay more you get more value and that simply isn't true. I know this affects me- I like to get good quality so it can be really difficult to buy something less expensive- I don't like to buy junk.

The Topping is easily able to convey the emotional aspect of music because its simply neutral so the music conveys it on its own. FWIW, the brain has a tipping point about how music is processed- normally its by the limbic centers (emotional, fight or flight) but if the brain detects something weird the processing is unconsciously transferred to the cerebral cortex, at that point the music's emotional impact is reduced or gone altogether. Distortions, the speed of the system, tonal colorations will all trip this tipping point. So its essential that the playback be neutral!

And of course, because you might have heard one Topping product does not mean you've heard them all. My first introduction to Topping was with a small class D amp they make, which a customer claimed to have a buzz problem with our little UV-1 preamp. I decided to buy the amp myself as a shop tool (and wasn't able to duplicate the buzz problem) but on listening to that amp I found it insanely boring :(

But I keep an open mind so when I started reading good reviews I tried their DACs.
Given the impact of the analog output stage on the sound quality, how can you say that it is all math and engineering in the digital domain and therefore just go for the numbers?? Silly statement...I expect better from you ... did you actually listen??
As you might expect, of course I 'actually' listened! What do you take me for? Measurements help and still you have to listen. You should expect that of me by now- in case its not clear I don't want my system to color the sound- I seek neutrality and with our OTLs that has always been the goal.

To be clear digital audio is all about the math and the numbers- it simply would not exist otherwise! You, and everyone reading this should know that! If you don't, now you do. All audio is driven by engineering, like all else, without it we'd still be living in caves and the like.

If you poo-poo the measurements you are committing the same sin that the objectivists commit when they poo-poo the listening experience.

Regarding the output buffer of the Topping, which is the same topic as the input buffer for a class D amplifier: The trick is to use opamps and not demand too much gain of them. Modern opamps finally have enough Gain Bandwidth Product that you can get about 20dB of gain out of them without coloration (IOW the feedback employed in the circuit is supported at all frequencies...)- with distortion so low they won't sound harsh or colored in any way. This was not possible 30 years ago or 50 years ago (which is why if you have a vintage guitar pedal that uses opamps, you'll have to seek out the vintage opamps if you need to replace one it it; otherwise it won't sound right because the older opamps have a 'sound' due to insufficient Gain Bandwidth Product)- like everything else in our world, opamps have seen a lot of development over time. The output buffer of a DAC does not need that much gain (maybe 10dB) so if the designer is at all competent, an opamp buffer/output circuit can be designed that is entirely neutral- neither warm nor bright, just the music. And sounds good with our OTLs and our class D.

As you might know, I have a number of CDs I recorded and released. I know what they sound like- I was there when they were recorded. I use them as reference just the same way as I do LPs that I recorded.

There has been this subjective/objective debate going on in audio for far too long. Back in the 70s and 80s it had merit because the technology to really do the right measurements didn't exist. Now most of it does. The problem now is twofold: the first being that often the needed measurements simply aren't made and the second being that audiophiles don't know what to look for when they see them. So these days when something measures really well (the Topping being one of the best in that regard) you need to pay attention, whereas a few decades ago that might have been anathema.

On the objectivist side, there is a refusal to allow for what the ear hears. They fail because they don't understand how the ear converts distortion into tonality and they don't understand how sensitive it really is to distortion.

The pragmatic engineer or designer today should be aware that there is now a direct causal line between what we hear and what we can measure; understanding the significance of the measurements is now the tricky part. I concede that many have not reached this understanding and I doubt that simply because I said so that people will believe me.

So the objectivists continue to live in their world of pain and the subjectivists continue to live in their world of ignorance.

Its not the job of the audiophile to understand this stuff. For him its just sit back and enjoy. I love how so many object to a lowly Chinese company actually making a product that really does challenge the top tier stuff available- but being an aspect of Veblen Goods (Google it!), its ego that is standing in the way of understanding this simple fact: High end audio is not driven by price, its driven by intention. Once you understand this its possible to understand how something inexpensive can sound as good or better than something expensive (if the designer for example, thinks high end audio is driven by price, they will make a mediocre product that costs a lot and we've all seen it if we're being honest).

So I suggest that you listen, with an open mind. Try it.
 

AMR / iFi audio

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ESPECIALLY R2R DACs, where the power supply is essentially passed straight to the outputs after the R2R
That's the case with every piece of audio gear, to be honest. Audio equipment is basically a modulated power supply in a sense. This is why power supplies are so important. Every type of gear requires a different power supply. DAC doesn't draw too much current, but it needs to be super clean, fast and stable. Power amps require lots of currents but aren't as picky in terms of stability. It's an art to make a good power supply.

End of off top :)
 

morricab

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Apr 25, 2014
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Your metaphor doesn't make sense. Technical stuff and biology are very very different. What is important here is not just the measurements, but the simple fact that if you know what to look for in them, you can tell how the equipment will sound. Not to put too fine a point of it but I've made a career out of that.

You might, as I suggested, try the new D90SE. I didn't say 'buy' in my original post, and I pointed out the Veblen Goods issue because so many people think that if you pay more you get more value and that simply isn't true. I know this affects me- I like to get good quality so it can be really difficult to buy something less expensive- I don't like to buy junk.

The Topping is easily able to convey the emotional aspect of music because its simply neutral so the music conveys it on its own. FWIW, the brain has a tipping point about how music is processed- normally its by the limbic centers (emotional, fight or flight) but if the brain detects something weird the processing is unconsciously transferred to the cerebral cortex, at that point the music's emotional impact is reduced or gone altogether. Distortions, the speed of the system, tonal colorations will all trip this tipping point. So its essential that the playback be neutral!

And of course, because you might have heard one Topping product does not mean you've heard them all. My first introduction to Topping was with a small class D amp they make, which a customer claimed to have a buzz problem with our little UV-1 preamp. I decided to buy the amp myself as a shop tool (and wasn't able to duplicate the buzz problem) but on listening to that amp I found it insanely boring :(

But I keep an open mind so when I started reading good reviews I tried their DACs.

As you might expect, of course I 'actually' listened! What do you take me for? Measurements help and still you have to listen. You should expect that of me by now- in case its not clear I don't want my system to color the sound- I seek neutrality and with our OTLs that has always been the goal.

To be clear digital audio is all about the math and the numbers- it simply would not exist otherwise! You, and everyone reading this should know that! If you don't, now you do. All audio is driven by engineering, like all else, without it we'd still be living in caves and the like.

If you poo-poo the measurements you are committing the same sin that the objectivists commit when they poo-poo the listening experience.

Regarding the output buffer of the Topping, which is the same topic as the input buffer for a class D amplifier: The trick is to use opamps and not demand too much gain of them. Modern opamps finally have enough Gain Bandwidth Product that you can get about 20dB of gain out of them without coloration (IOW the feedback employed in the circuit is supported at all frequencies...)- with distortion so low they won't sound harsh or colored in any way. This was not possible 30 years ago or 50 years ago (which is why if you have a vintage guitar pedal that uses opamps, you'll have to seek out the vintage opamps if you need to replace one it it; otherwise it won't sound right because the older opamps have a 'sound' due to insufficient Gain Bandwidth Product)- like everything else in our world, opamps have seen a lot of development over time. The output buffer of a DAC does not need that much gain (maybe 10dB) so if the designer is at all competent, an opamp buffer/output circuit can be designed that is entirely neutral- neither warm nor bright, just the music. And sounds good with our OTLs and our class D.

As you might know, I have a number of CDs I recorded and released. I know what they sound like- I was there when they were recorded. I use them as reference just the same way as I do LPs that I recorded.

There has been this subjective/objective debate going on in audio for far too long. Back in the 70s and 80s it had merit because the technology to really do the right measurements didn't exist. Now most of it does. The problem now is twofold: the first being that often the needed measurements simply aren't made and the second being that audiophiles don't know what to look for when they see them. So these days when something measures really well (the Topping being one of the best in that regard) you need to pay attention, whereas a few decades ago that might have been anathema.

On the objectivist side, there is a refusal to allow for what the ear hears. They fail because they don't understand how the ear converts distortion into tonality and they don't understand how sensitive it really is to distortion.

The pragmatic engineer or designer today should be aware that there is now a direct causal line between what we hear and what we can measure; understanding the significance of the measurements is now the tricky part. I concede that many have not reached this understanding and I doubt that simply because I said so that people will believe me.

So the objectivists continue to live in their world of pain and the subjectivists continue to live in their world of ignorance.

Its not the job of the audiophile to understand this stuff. For him its just sit back and enjoy. I love how so many object to a lowly Chinese company actually making a product that really does challenge the top tier stuff available- but being an aspect of Veblen Goods (Google it!), its ego that is standing in the way of understanding this simple fact: High end audio is not driven by price, its driven by intention. Once you understand this its possible to understand how something inexpensive can sound as good or better than something expensive (if the designer for example, thinks high end audio is driven by price, they will make a mediocre product that costs a lot and we've all seen it if we're being honest).

So I suggest that you listen, with an open mind. Try it.
Having also listened to the Topping DAC, I cannot support your conclusion about its sound quality. It imaged quite flat and that lack of dimensionality is an instant fail. Nothing sounds less realistic than flat images regardless of whatever else you think it dies right.
 

Al M.

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A friend of mine has a Topping DAC…it was easily sonically destroyed by a much worse measuring Ayon DAC…

In which manner? Could you please be more specific?
 

Sampajanna

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Apr 1, 2021
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I cannot argue with you. You are knowledgeable, and I appreciate your perspective and wisdom. I agree and am grateful for engineers like you who make this all possible for bozos like me. I dont understand the data and so cannot meet you at that level. I fully agree with you that poo-pooing on measurements is the same as those guys poo-pooing on listening. Absolutely! Let me try another analogy:

One party is a gathering of people interested in the technicalities of wine. They blind taste test cheap vs. expensive wine and record the results, discussing how most couldn’t tell the difference. The second party is a dinner. The host buys the expensive wine and tells his guests “this is a very expensivE bottle, but you are fine people and this is a special occasion. Cheers!” And then they have a nice dinner and Enjoy the occasion.

What I do not appreciate is how many of the measurement crowd show up to the restaurant where that second dinner is going on to crash the party and shout/post at people, often using inflammatory or negative language. “Hey stop enjoying that wine. Are you stupid? We have measurements!” (Not accusing you of this, just to be clear. You seem curteous and knowledgeable.) For me, I would rather attend the second gathering, any day of any week. I know there are intellectuals interested in the first type of gathering who would enjoy the learning there more. I dont begrudge them that.

I dont begrudge you your enjoyment of Topping dacs. I have heard the dac you mention and many of their other products. I live in Asia. They are all around.… I have compared a Topping to a Dave and a Dave to a Pacific in my system, amongst other dacs. I did not come to teh conclusion you did that dacs all sound the same. In fact, I think that in a digital rig the dac makes the greatest difference, and I have been blown away by how different the 15 or so dacs I have tried all sound from one another…

I agree that not all expensive things are good. Of course, I haven‘t heard Topping dacs in all systems. there very well could be a synergy between them and certain amps that gets you there. If you have found that, rock on, brother. I am happy for you. I would guess that you are using tube pre and tube amps in such a system, since the Topping sound is very inorganic to my ears…. There are also awesome budget products. But i dont think they are awesome just because they were measured in a certain way or just because they are cheap. The best audio engineers measure AND listen.If you dont need the system to connect to the music emotionally, then why not just get a simple Bluetooth speaker and be done with it? Why fuss at all? I find that what you said about poo-pooing is wise. Some wealthy people with expensive gear look down on cheap stuff without listening and foolishly dismiss it, but I find more often people who cannot afford expensive gear or dont want to spend that much dissing on it as a rip off, etc. Many of those dudes cultishly waive the Topping banner about along with Sinad…. they seem to worship the Sinad….
 

Al M.

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Wow, reading this thread I'm almost tempted to buy the Topping and hear for myself.

I'm not against relatively inexpensive DACs. Mine is, and I have friends who had owned or auditioned 10 x more expensive DACs in their systems and instead chose the one that I have based on sonic merits. So I don't necessarily believe in performance always being related to high prices.

Having said that, my tube amplification is expensive, and sonically worth it. I look for performance, not price; if the desired performance costs much, so be it, if it doesn't, great too (and nice for my wallet, for sure).
 

Tuckers

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Spot on! I don't have a Lampi, but in my Modwright Elysee tube DAC in my 2nd system changing the rectifier from the new production 5AR4 that it came with to a NOS Philips was quite noticeable; likewise moving from the new production 6922's to NOS Mazda. No different than the impact in any other tube equipment different tubes, different presentation
I had an Audio Note dac once with tube rectification. That tube made a huge difference. I found a vintage nos tube that transformed the sound (can't remember the deets).
 

Hilroy48

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I started out farting around with dacs in the $1000.00 range. I stepped up and bough an Aqua la Voce S3 ladder DAC. HUGE HUGE IMPROVEMENT. I have since moved that to my second system in the basement and bought a Saturn Audio 200 series dac. It is actually better than the Aqua in my opinion. Both at the $4000.00 mark.
 

Tuckers

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I've had a Topping D90 (not the SE) concurrently with the May KTE. Plugging in the May new straight out of the box in the first 5 minutes it blew that Topping so far out of the water it was ridiculous. It was magnitudes better in every parameter. The Topping sounded flat, flaccid, grey and grainy and BORING. I'm sure the SE is better, but that far? A Musician Pegasus (at about the same price as the Topping) noticeably outclassed the D90 as well.
 
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Al M.

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I've had a Topping D90 (not the SE) concurrently with the May KTE. Plugging in the May new straight out of the box in the first 5 minutes it blew that Topping so far out of the water it was ridiculous. It was magnitudes better in every parameter. The Topping sounded flat, flaccid, grey and grainy and BORING. I'm sure the SE is better, but that far? A Musician Pegasus (at about the same price as the Topping) noticeably outclassed the D90 as well.

The chips are different, but not just that. From:


"Enter the newest Topping D90SE or Special Edition, but wait a minute…what is so special about it you might ask…Dropping AKMs in favor of ESS Sabre units doesn’t sound so special to me, until I’ve opened it up and everything became clear as the blue sky. D90SE doesn’t feel like a quick money grab, as for the first time ever, they redesigned from the ground-up its power supply, its voltage regulation, its clocking system, the I/V conversion and the output stage are on a different level, something that I have never seen on a Topping device. I now get what is so special about it, D90SE might have the same lettering, case and design cues, but I kid you not! This is next level; this is Topping 2.0 and it is happening right now."
 

Sampajanna

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He says in the video "I am personally using 3 dacs daily and they sound completely different." My experience exactly. Do Chinese dacs all sound the same? Yes. Do other dacs sound different, yup. All 15 or so I have listened to were different, some radically and some close... Maybe they are measuring the same stuff (or worshipping the same god of SINAD)....

Same conclusion here:

 

Tuckers

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The chips are different, but not just that. From:


"Enter the newest Topping D90SE or Special Edition, but wait a minute…what is so special about it you might ask…Dropping AKMs in favor of ESS Sabre units doesn’t sound so special to me, until I’ve opened it up and everything became clear as the blue sky. D90SE doesn’t feel like a quick money grab, as for the first time ever, they redesigned from the ground-up its power supply, its voltage regulation, its clocking system, the I/V conversion and the output stage are on a different level, something that I have never seen on a Topping device. I now get what is so special about it, D90SE might have the same lettering, case and design cues, but I kid you not! This is next level; this is Topping 2.0 and it is happening right now."
Ah, yes, it was actually HIS review of the D90 that convinced me to buy it as a temporary fix. He raved about it too. I probably wouldn't like the SE then as I haven't yet heard an ESS dac I'd use as my main driver. I do like ESS dacs for portables though. Also, wasn't it really because of the loss of the AKM manufacturing plant that Topping and other Chi-fi companies had to create new models quickly? I think Gustard and several other manufacturers did the same.
 
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Al M.

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Also, wasn't it really because of the loss of the AKM manufacturing plant that Topping and other Chi-fi companies had to create new models quickly? I think Gustard and several other manufacturers did the same.

Yes, he alludes to that in the review.
 

morricab

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In which manner? Could you please be more specific?
Topping was somewhat "grey" in tonality and was quite flat with regard to images. Soundstage was ok but with cardboard cutouts on that stage. Bass was also less powerful and textured. Highs were smooth enough but not so harmonically differentiated...something the Ayon does very well.
 
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morricab

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I cannot argue with you. You are knowledgeable, and I appreciate your perspective and wisdom. I agree and am grateful for engineers like you who make this all possible for bozos like me. I dont understand the data and so cannot meet you at that level. I fully agree with you that poo-pooing on measurements is the same as those guys poo-pooing on listening. Absolutely! Let me try another analogy:

One party is a gathering of people interested in the technicalities of wine. They blind taste test cheap vs. expensive wine and record the results, discussing how most couldn’t tell the difference. The second party is a dinner. The host buys the expensive wine and tells his guests “this is a very expensivE bottle, but you are fine people and this is a special occasion. Cheers!” And then they have a nice dinner and Enjoy the occasion.

What I do not appreciate is how many of the measurement crowd show up to the restaurant where that second dinner is going on to crash the party and shout/post at people, often using inflammatory or negative language. “Hey stop enjoying that wine. Are you stupid? We have measurements!” (Not accusing you of this, just to be clear. You seem curteous and knowledgeable.) For me, I would rather attend the second gathering, any day of any week. I know there are intellectuals interested in the first type of gathering who would enjoy the learning there more. I dont begrudge them that.

I dont begrudge you your enjoyment of Topping dacs. I have heard the dac you mention and many of their other products. I live in Asia. They are all around.… I have compared a Topping to a Dave and a Dave to a Pacific in my system, amongst other dacs. I did not come to teh conclusion you did that dacs all sound the same. In fact, I think that in a digital rig the dac makes the greatest difference, and I have been blown away by how different the 15 or so dacs I have tried all sound from one another…

I agree that not all expensive things are good. Of course, I haven‘t heard Topping dacs in all systems. there very well could be a synergy between them and certain amps that gets you there. If you have found that, rock on, brother. I am happy for you. I would guess that you are using tube pre and tube amps in such a system, since the Topping sound is very inorganic to my ears…. There are also awesome budget products. But i dont think they are awesome just because they were measured in a certain way or just because they are cheap. The best audio engineers measure AND listen.If you dont need the system to connect to the music emotionally, then why not just get a simple Bluetooth speaker and be done with it? Why fuss at all? I find that what you said about poo-pooing is wise. Some wealthy people with expensive gear look down on cheap stuff without listening and foolishly dismiss it, but I find more often people who cannot afford expensive gear or dont want to spend that much dissing on it as a rip off, etc. Many of those dudes cultishly waive the Topping banner about along with Sinad…. they seem to worship the Sinad….
THe best inexpensive DAC I have heard so far is the Monarchy Audio M24 DAC that uses the good old BB PCM63K and tube output (no transistors anywhere) for a bit over $1000. It even accepts 24/96, so it's not limited only to cd quality input.
 

morricab

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Apr 25, 2014
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Wow, reading this thread I'm almost tempted to buy the Topping and hear for myself.

I'm not against relatively inexpensive DACs. Mine is, and I have friends who had owned or auditioned 10 x more expensive DACs in their systems and instead chose the one that I have based on sonic merits. So I don't necessarily believe in performance always being related to high prices.

Having said that, my tube amplification is expensive, and sonically worth it. I look for performance, not price; if the desired performance costs much, so be it, if it doesn't, great too (and nice for my wallet, for sure).
Go for it...nothing like experience... I am sure you can resell for a modest loss.
 
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morricab

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I had an Audio Note dac once with tube rectification. That tube made a huge difference. I found a vintage nos tube that transformed the sound (can't remember the deets).
The rectifier in my Aries Cerat (GZ34) makes a huge difference as well.
 

morricab

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Apr 25, 2014
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The chips are different, but not just that. From:


"Enter the newest Topping D90SE or Special Edition, but wait a minute…what is so special about it you might ask…Dropping AKMs in favor of ESS Sabre units doesn’t sound so special to me, until I’ve opened it up and everything became clear as the blue sky. D90SE doesn’t feel like a quick money grab, as for the first time ever, they redesigned from the ground-up its power supply, its voltage regulation, its clocking system, the I/V conversion and the output stage are on a different level, something that I have never seen on a Topping device. I now get what is so special about it, D90SE might have the same lettering, case and design cues, but I kid you not! This is next level; this is Topping 2.0 and it is happening right now."
Funny but a lot of people think the AKMs sound better than the ESS chips. The ONLY ESS based dac I have heard that I think sounds really good is the Ayon Stratos...not cheap but a true high end contender.
 

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