What is the benefit of very expensive DACs?

Jake Purches

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Jun 17, 2015
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Don't you think there is this assumption that just because it cost $20,000 and is in a very expensive CNC milled box, ego it must be a better DAC?
Sure everything is in the design, but most of the brains are in two areas - the DAC chip(s) themselves, and the design of the audio stage. Both sit on a single PCB normally. The analogue stage has a few dollars of components on it, maybe 20 or 30 dollars for more expensive op amps or transistors. The DAC chips themselves are no more than a few dollars on a roll, if that. The fancy box will be the most expensive part and the regulators and power supply will sink some money too. A very good DAC can be made for a few hundred dollars. So if its costs $300 to make - its going to retail for $3000 approximately.
 

Mike Lavigne

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Don't you think there is this assumption that just because it cost $20,000 and is in a very expensive CNC milled box, ego it must be a better DAC?
no. at the modest end of high end dacs, there are lots of 'giant killers' where lower priced dac's equal or exceed the performance of higher priced dacs. for years dac technology was advancing every 2-3 months, so models were falling behind quickly. not as much now.

in fact, dac performance and price are not that relevant.....unless you were to plot a few (2-3) dozen dac's, then we might see a general price/performance trend. which is typical of any high end product category.

all other things being equal, chassis solidity does cost more, and in general yields better sound. but is not reliable as proof of better sound. it just helps if it's part of a superior design. a poor chassis design could hold back an otherwise great design. resonance inside a dac is quite relevant to performance.
Sure everything is in the design, but most of the brains are in two areas - the DAC chip(s) themselves, and the design of the audio stage. Both sit on a single PCB normally. The analogue stage has a few dollars of components on it, maybe 20 or 30 dollars for more expensive op amps or transistors. The DAC chips themselves are no more than a few dollars on a roll, if that. The fancy box will be the most expensive part and the regulators and power supply will sink some money too. A very good DAC can be made for a few hundred dollars.
agree that dac's need not be expensive. we've seen Oppo digital players be re-packaged at much higher prices.

but it's not fair to paint all dac's as simple and cheap designs. some might be, and some are not.
So if its costs $300 to make - its going to retail for $3000 approximately.
i would not agree with that. but 5:1 build retail/build cost is likely middle ground. depends on the marketing model. is it direct or vertical with layers (manufacturer/distributor/dealer....or field staff/dealer)?
 
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thyname

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Apr 22, 2019
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Don't you think there is this assumption that just because it cost $20,000 and is in a very expensive CNC milled box, ego it must be a better DAC?
Sure everything is in the design, but most of the brains are in two areas - the DAC chip(s) themselves, and the design of the audio stage. Both sit on a single PCB normally. The analogue stage has a few dollars of components on it, maybe 20 or 30 dollars for more expensive op amps or transistors. The DAC chips themselves are no more than a few dollars on a roll, if that. The fancy box will be the most expensive part and the regulators and power supply will sink some money too. A very good DAC can be made for a few hundred dollars. So if its costs $300 to make - its going to retail for $3000 approximately.
Easy peasy, right? We can all built awesome DACs from our basement, using parts from China on eBay . For a couple hundred bucks.

I will copy / paste below some wise words from the late Charlie Hansen of Ayre:

———

The thing that I see over and over and over in this thread is an irrational belief in the importance of the DAC chip itself. Just about everything affect the sound of an audio product, but when it comes to DACs, I would rank (in order or sonic importance the general categories as follows:

1) The analog circuitry - 99.9% of all DACs are designed by digital engineers who don't know enough about analog. They just follow the app note. The specs on the op-amps are fabulous and digital engineers are inherently seduced by the beauty of the math story. There are minor differences in the sound quality between various op-amps, but it's kind of like the difference between a Duncan-Heinz cake mix and a Betty Crocker cake mix. 99.8% of the op-amps are used a current-to-voltage converters with the inverting input operating as a virtual ground. This is probably the worst way to use an op-amp as the input signal will cause the internal circuitry to go into slewing-limited distortion. http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/anablog/4311648/Op-amp-myths-ndash-by-Barrie-Gilbert

With discrete circuitry, the only limit is your imagination. You are free to adjust the topology of the circuit, the brands of the parts, the active devices, the bias current in each stage - anything you can think of. Think of this as going to a world-class patisserie in Paris and seeing all the different things that can be made.

2) The power supplies - 99.9% of all DACs use "3-pin" power supply regulators, which are pretty much op-amps connected to a series pass transistor. Everything in #1 applies here.

3) The master clock - jitter is a single number assigned to measure the phase noise of an oscillator over a fixed bandwidth. It is far more i important to know the spectral distribution of the timing variations and how they correlate to audible problems. 99.9% of all DACs use a strip-cut AT crystal in a Pierce gate oscillator circuit. It's pretty good for the money but the results will depend heavily on the implementation, particularly in the PCB layout and the power supplies (#2).

It's hard to rank the rest of these so I will give them a tie score.

4) The digital filter - 99.9% of all DACs use the digital filter built into the DAC chip. About a dozen companies know how to make a custom digital filter based on either FPGAs or DSP chips.

4) PCB layout - grounding and shielding, impedance-controlled traces, return currents, and return current paths are all critical. For a complex digital PCB, 8 layers is the minimum for good results.

4) The DAC chip - almost everything these days is delta sigma with a built-in digital filter. Differences between different chips is one of the less important aspects of D/A converter designs. Both ESS and AKM have some special tricks to reduce out-of-band noise, which can be helpful, but not dramatic.

4) Passive parts - the quality of these can make a large difference in overall performance, especially for analog. Not many digital engineers sit around listening to different brands of resistors to see what sounds best.

These are just a few of the things that make differences in the way that a DAC will sound.

Hope this helps,
Charles Hansen
———_—————————-
Source: https://audiophilestyle.com/forums/...an-a-cheap-dac/?do=findComment&comment=713189
 

microstrip

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Don't you think there is this assumption that just because it cost $20,000 and is in a very expensive CNC milled box, ego it must be a better DAC? (...)

IMHO it is much more complex than that. If it costs $20,000 it will compete in the market with other DACs costing a similar value. If it is not on level of sound quality of them, it will be a failure and market rules will send the manufacturer and the DAC down the hill. But surely if people buy a 20k component just because of a few net strong opinions and a couple of reviews they are risking a lot.

Price is not an assurance of quality. However, more money wisely spent means a better system, always according to one's preference.
 

QuadDiffusor

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Easy peasy, right? We can all built awesome DACs from our basement, using parts from China on eBay . For a couple hundred bucks.

I will copy / paste below some wise words from the late Charlie Hansen of Ayre:

———

The thing that I see over and over and over in this thread is an irrational belief in the importance of the DAC chip itself. Just about everything affect the sound of an audio product, but when it comes to DACs, I would rank (in order or sonic importance the general categories as follows:

1) The analog circuitry - 99.9% of all DACs are designed by digital engineers who don't know enough about analog. They just follow the app note. The specs on the op-amps are fabulous and digital engineers are inherently seduced by the beauty of the math story. There are minor differences in the sound quality between various op-amps, but it's kind of like the difference between a Duncan-Heinz cake mix and a Betty Crocker cake mix. 99.8% of the op-amps are used a current-to-voltage converters with the inverting input operating as a virtual ground. This is probably the worst way to use an op-amp as the input signal will cause the internal circuitry to go into slewing-limited distortion. http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/anablog/4311648/Op-amp-myths-ndash-by-Barrie-Gilbert

With discrete circuitry, the only limit is your imagination. You are free to adjust the topology of the circuit, the brands of the parts, the active devices, the bias current in each stage - anything you can think of. Think of this as going to a world-class patisserie in Paris and seeing all the different things that can be made.

2) The power supplies - 99.9% of all DACs use "3-pin" power supply regulators, which are pretty much op-amps connected to a series pass transistor. Everything in #1 applies here.

3) The master clock - jitter is a single number assigned to measure the phase noise of an oscillator over a fixed bandwidth. It is far more i important to know the spectral distribution of the timing variations and how they correlate to audible problems. 99.9% of all DACs use a strip-cut AT crystal in a Pierce gate oscillator circuit. It's pretty good for the money but the results will depend heavily on the implementation, particularly in the PCB layout and the power supplies (#2).

It's hard to rank the rest of these so I will give them a tie score.

4) The digital filter - 99.9% of all DACs use the digital filter built into the DAC chip. About a dozen companies know how to make a custom digital filter based on either FPGAs or DSP chips.

4) PCB layout - grounding and shielding, impedance-controlled traces, return currents, and return current paths are all critical. For a complex digital PCB, 8 layers is the minimum for good results.

4) The DAC chip - almost everything these days is delta sigma with a built-in digital filter. Differences between different chips is one of the less important aspects of D/A converter designs. Both ESS and AKM have some special tricks to reduce out-of-band noise, which can be helpful, but not dramatic.

4) Passive parts - the quality of these can make a large difference in overall performance, especially for analog. Not many digital engineers sit around listening to different brands of resistors to see what sounds best.

These are just a few of the things that make differences in the way that a DAC will sound.

Hope this helps,
Charles Hansen
———_—————————-
Source: https://audiophilestyle.com/forums/...an-a-cheap-dac/?do=findComment&comment=713189
RIP, Charlie !
 

skids929

Active Member
Dec 31, 2020
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Don't you think there is this assumption that just because it cost $20,000 and is in a very expensive CNC milled box, ego it must be a better DAC?
Sure everything is in the design, but most of the brains are in two areas - the DAC chip(s) themselves, and the design of the audio stage. Both sit on a single PCB normally. The analogue stage has a few dollars of components on it, maybe 20 or 30 dollars for more expensive op amps or transistors. The DAC chips themselves are no more than a few dollars on a roll, if that. The fancy box will be the most expensive part and the regulators and power supply will sink some money too. A very good DAC can be made for a few hundred dollars. So if its costs $300 to make - its going to retail for $3000 approximately.

Weak rationalization...Let me sum this up in a simple way. It's about 10% parts, and 90% the circuit design and what they do with the parts.
 
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AMR / iFi audio

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Don't you think there is this assumption that just because it cost $20,000 and is in a very expensive CNC milled box, ego it must be a better DAC?
Sure everything is in the design, but most of the brains are in two areas - the DAC chip(s) themselves, and the design of the audio stage. Both sit on a single PCB normally. The analogue stage has a few dollars of components on it, maybe 20 or 30 dollars for more expensive op amps or transistors. The DAC chips themselves are no more than a few dollars on a roll, if that. The fancy box will be the most expensive part and the regulators and power supply will sink some money too. A very good DAC can be made for a few hundred dollars. So if its costs $300 to make - its going to retail for $3000 approximately.
A DAC chip is indeed an essential component of the end product, but not the only important one. There is a number of components which influence the final quality of sound as well as how you place them on the PCB.

When it comes to the final price you need to include the R&D costs and sometimes even 3 years of trials and errors including multiple rounds of BETA testing. If you can strike the perfect combination of precisely matched components for the first time without multiple rounds of testing then you could save anywhere between 3-20% of the final cost that is dedicated towards the R&D (depending on company's PRR).
 

QuadDiffusor

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The MSB Select II ”stack” has been anointed as the best, by Jay.
 

rossb

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May 24, 2017
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I seem to have ended up with a very expensive DAC, without really intending to. In fact, the DAC I have would probably be regarded as obscenely expensive, even compared with the very expensive DACs I have previously owned. The value of my DAC is multiples of the next most expensive component in my system, and about 5 times the cost of my speakers.

My DAC is a Nagra Tube DAC, with Classic PSU. You can google the cost of these, and I say this not to brag but to indicate how shocked and surprised even I am by the amount I have spent on this DAC. I did not quite pay the full new price, for reasons I will explain, and got there in stages. In fact, strictly speaking it is not a Tube DAC but an HD DAC which was internally upgraded by Nagra to Tube DAC internals, although it still says "HD DAC" on the faceplate.

Is it worth it? In an absolute sense, no. Of course not. A DAC cannot be worth that much money. It is hard to justify on any rational basis. Do I regret the purchase? No. I spend a lot of time listening to digital - maybe 8 or more hours a day while I am working, and probably the same amount when I am not. I have been through a lot of DACs over the last decade or so, many of them very expensive by most standards. All of them have been vaguely unsatisfying in one way or another, until the Nagra arrived.

Some of the DACs I have owned include all of the Chord DACs: Qute, Qutest, TT2, QBD76 and DAVE, and I have owned the M Scaler no less than 3 times. I had an Ayre QX5, a Mytek Manhattan, a Metrum Pavane, a Holo May, a Meitner MA1 and a bunch of others that escape my memory. Immediately before I bought the Nagra, I spent a week with a DCS Bartok on loan from a dealer. Although I had it for a week, I could tell within the first few minutes that I would not like the Bartok. It sounded impressive - big, dramatic, realistic in some ways - but also lacking in tonal colour and dynamics. It sounded quite monochrome and was just not musically engaging for me. I returned it after a week.

When I was at the dealer I noticed there was a traded in Nagra HD Dac. It was offered at a bit less than a new Bartok, and around the same price as a new DAVE. I disinterestedly asked the dealer if it was worth listening to. He shrugged and offered it to me to listen to if I wanted to. A customer had traded it in for a new Tube DAC. I borrowed it without much in the way of expectations.

When I connected it at home, it sounded good. In comparison with the Bartok which had been there a couple of hours before, it was bursting with tonal colour and harmonic complexity. But in other respects it sounded quite ordinary. It sounded "smaller" than the Bartok, less dramatic. But I listened to it for hours without fatigue. After a week or so, I bought it.

I compared it with my Mytek Manhattan II, which I still had at the time and which I still regarded highly. I actually went back and forth with the Manhattan for some months before I ended up selling the Manhattan. In direct comparison, the Manhattan could sound a bit sharper and faster, with slightly more defined edges of notes. But it also had a certain thinness to the sound. And while I liked its sound, it did become fatiguing after an hour or two and I lost interest in listening to it (just as I did the Chord DACs and others). By contrast, the Nagra was never fatiguing and I was able to listen to it for hours without pause.

Like many, my reference is vinyl, although I am fully conscious of vinyl's limitations. Noise, limited dynamic range, as well as limited range of music are inherent in analog audio. But even a relatively modest turntable can sound deeply satisfying over a long period - despite these limitations - in a way that most digital does not.

The thing I noticed - or indeed failed to notice - about the Nagra DAC was that it sounded quite ordinary, but managed to achieve a similar level of deep musical satisfaction. It did this without over-emphasising any particular aspect of the sound. The DAVE/M Scaler by contrast sounded hyper detailed in a dramatic and attention-grabbing way but was ultimately unnatural and fatiguing. The R2R DACs had a lovely fully bodied tonality, but sounded heavy and dynamically slow.

Over time I upgraded the HD DAC to the Tube DAC internals as mentioned above, and bought the Classic PSU to replace the pair of ACPS II power supplies that came with it. I bought the VFS support which was also a noticeable improvement.

I have now had the Nagra DAC for about a year and half, which is longer than most DACs last in my system. I have no desire to replace it, and still listen to it happily for hours at a time. When I do get a chance to listen to another DAC, I am often initially impressed by some characteristic of the new DAC, but over time I notice that this characteristic, which was initially attractive, now becomes obvious and a source of fatigue. The Nagra quietly sits in the background, knowing that I will return to it.

After buying the Nagra DAC I also bought a used Nagra VPS phono stage, which is also powered by my Classic PSU. This has similar characteristics - nothing obvious stands out, just a natural, musical and engaging quality which slowly becomes addictive. This seems to be a Nagra trait - well engineered equipment which is not designed to impress on the first listen, but which sounds natural and which slowly insinuates its way into your consciousness.

So, for me, the benefit of getting a very expensive DAC was at last to find something that sounded "ordinary". In other words, digital music that sounded like real music without any unnatural artifacts that make it difficult to listen to for long periods, or reminded me that I was listening to computer-regenerated music, which was the case with every other DAC I have owned. I had to pay a lot money to get something that did not draw attention to itself and just played music in a satisfying but self-effacing way. I still think it is in many ways unfair that I needed to pay so much money to achieve an outcome that was so "ordinary". But now I am glad that I have.

No doubt there are other very good DACs, many of them at much lower cost. I haven't heard everything. But having spent far more than I ever thought I would on a DAC, I am for the first time satisfied with digital as a format for playing music,.
 

Sampajanna

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Apr 1, 2021
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I seem to have ended up with a very expensive DAC, without really intending to. In fact, the DAC I have would probably be regarded as obscenely expensive, even compared with the very expensive DACs I have previously owned. The value of my DAC is multiples of the next most expensive component in my system, and about 5 times the cost of my speakers.

My DAC is a Nagra Tube DAC, with Classic PSU. You can google the cost of these, and I say this not to brag but to indicate how shocked and surprised even I am by the amount I have spent on this DAC. I did not quite pay the full new price, for reasons I will explain, and got there in stages. In fact, strictly speaking it is not a Tube DAC but an HD DAC which was internally upgraded by Nagra to Tube DAC internals, although it still says "HD DAC" on the faceplate.

Is it worth it? In an absolute sense, no. Of course not. A DAC cannot be worth that much money. It is hard to justify on any rational basis. Do I regret the purchase? No. I spend a lot of time listening to digital - maybe 8 or more hours a day while I am working, and probably the same amount when I am not. I have been through a lot of DACs over the last decade or so, many of them very expensive by most standards. All of them have been vaguely unsatisfying in one way or another, until the Nagra arrived.

Some of the DACs I have owned include all of the Chord DACs: Qute, Qutest, TT2, QBD76 and DAVE, and I have owned the M Scaler no less than 3 times. I had an Ayre QX5, a Mytek Manhattan, a Metrum Pavane, a Holo May, a Meitner MA1 and a bunch of others that escape my memory. Immediately before I bought the Nagra, I spent a week with a DCS Bartok on loan from a dealer. Although I had it for a week, I could tell within the first few minutes that I would not like the Bartok. It sounded impressive - big, dramatic, realistic in some ways - but also lacking in tonal colour and dynamics. It sounded quite monochrome and was just not musically engaging for me. I returned it after a week.

When I was at the dealer I noticed there was a traded in Nagra HD Dac. It was offered at a bit less than a new Bartok, and around the same price as a new DAVE. I disinterestedly asked the dealer if it was worth listening to. He shrugged and offered it to me to listen to if I wanted to. A customer had traded it in for a new Tube DAC. I borrowed it without much in the way of expectations.

When I connected it at home, it sounded good. In comparison with the Bartok which had been there a couple of hours before, it was bursting with tonal colour and harmonic complexity. But in other respects it sounded quite ordinary. It sounded "smaller" than the Bartok, less dramatic. But I listened to it for hours without fatigue. After a week or so, I bought it.

I compared it with my Mytek Manhattan II, which I still had at the time and which I still regarded highly. I actually went back and forth with the Manhattan for some months before I ended up selling the Manhattan. In direct comparison, the Manhattan could sound a bit sharper and faster, with slightly more defined edges of notes. But it also had a certain thinness to the sound. And while I liked its sound, it did become fatiguing after an hour or two and I lost interest in listening to it (just as I did the Chord DACs and others). By contrast, the Nagra was never fatiguing and I was able to listen to it for hours without pause.

Like many, my reference is vinyl, although I am fully conscious of vinyl's limitations. Noise, limited dynamic range, as well as limited range of music are inherent in analog audio. But even a relatively modest turntable can sound deeply satisfying over a long period - despite these limitations - in a way that most digital does not.

The thing I noticed - or indeed failed to notice - about the Nagra DAC was that it sounded quite ordinary, but managed to achieve a similar level of deep musical satisfaction. It did this without over-emphasising any particular aspect of the sound. The DAVE/M Scaler by contrast sounded hyper detailed in a dramatic and attention-grabbing way but was ultimately unnatural and fatiguing. The R2R DACs had a lovely fully bodied tonality, but sounded heavy and dynamically slow.

Over time I upgraded the HD DAC to the Tube DAC internals as mentioned above, and bought the Classic PSU to replace the pair of ACPS II power supplies that came with it. I bought the VFS support which was also a noticeable improvement.

I have now had the Nagra DAC for about a year and half, which is longer than most DACs last in my system. I have no desire to replace it, and still listen to it happily for hours at a time. When I do get a chance to listen to another DAC, I am often initially impressed by some characteristic of the new DAC, but over time I notice that this characteristic, which was initially attractive, now becomes obvious and a source of fatigue. The Nagra quietly sits in the background, knowing that I will return to it.

After buying the Nagra DAC I also bought a used Nagra VPS phono stage, which is also powered by my Classic PSU. This has similar characteristics - nothing obvious stands out, just a natural, musical and engaging quality which slowly becomes addictive. This seems to be a Nagra trait - well engineered equipment which is not designed to impress on the first listen, but which sounds natural and which slowly insinuates its way into your consciousness.

So, for me, the benefit of getting a very expensive DAC was at last to find something that sounded "ordinary". In other words, digital music that sounded like real music without any unnatural artifacts that make it difficult to listen to for long periods, or reminded me that I was listening to computer-regenerated music, which was the case with every other DAC I have owned. I had to pay a lot money to get something that did not draw attention to itself and just played music in a satisfying but self-effacing way. I still think it is in many ways unfair that I needed to pay so much money to achieve an outcome that was so "ordinary". But now I am glad that I have.

No doubt there are other very good DACs, many of them at much lower cost. I haven't heard everything. But having spent far more than I ever thought I would on a DAC, I am for the first time satisfied with digital as a format for playing music,.
Great post! Enjoyed this. You would probably love the Playback Designs MPD-8…. I would look into it, and its relationship to what you have.
 

morricab

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Apr 25, 2014
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I seem to have ended up with a very expensive DAC, without really intending to. In fact, the DAC I have would probably be regarded as obscenely expensive, even compared with the very expensive DACs I have previously owned. The value of my DAC is multiples of the next most expensive component in my system, and about 5 times the cost of my speakers.

My DAC is a Nagra Tube DAC, with Classic PSU. You can google the cost of these, and I say this not to brag but to indicate how shocked and surprised even I am by the amount I have spent on this DAC. I did not quite pay the full new price, for reasons I will explain, and got there in stages. In fact, strictly speaking it is not a Tube DAC but an HD DAC which was internally upgraded by Nagra to Tube DAC internals, although it still says "HD DAC" on the faceplate.

Is it worth it? In an absolute sense, no. Of course not. A DAC cannot be worth that much money. It is hard to justify on any rational basis. Do I regret the purchase? No. I spend a lot of time listening to digital - maybe 8 or more hours a day while I am working, and probably the same amount when I am not. I have been through a lot of DACs over the last decade or so, many of them very expensive by most standards. All of them have been vaguely unsatisfying in one way or another, until the Nagra arrived.

Some of the DACs I have owned include all of the Chord DACs: Qute, Qutest, TT2, QBD76 and DAVE, and I have owned the M Scaler no less than 3 times. I had an Ayre QX5, a Mytek Manhattan, a Metrum Pavane, a Holo May, a Meitner MA1 and a bunch of others that escape my memory. Immediately before I bought the Nagra, I spent a week with a DCS Bartok on loan from a dealer. Although I had it for a week, I could tell within the first few minutes that I would not like the Bartok. It sounded impressive - big, dramatic, realistic in some ways - but also lacking in tonal colour and dynamics. It sounded quite monochrome and was just not musically engaging for me. I returned it after a week.

When I was at the dealer I noticed there was a traded in Nagra HD Dac. It was offered at a bit less than a new Bartok, and around the same price as a new DAVE. I disinterestedly asked the dealer if it was worth listening to. He shrugged and offered it to me to listen to if I wanted to. A customer had traded it in for a new Tube DAC. I borrowed it without much in the way of expectations.

When I connected it at home, it sounded good. In comparison with the Bartok which had been there a couple of hours before, it was bursting with tonal colour and harmonic complexity. But in other respects it sounded quite ordinary. It sounded "smaller" than the Bartok, less dramatic. But I listened to it for hours without fatigue. After a week or so, I bought it.

I compared it with my Mytek Manhattan II, which I still had at the time and which I still regarded highly. I actually went back and forth with the Manhattan for some months before I ended up selling the Manhattan. In direct comparison, the Manhattan could sound a bit sharper and faster, with slightly more defined edges of notes. But it also had a certain thinness to the sound. And while I liked its sound, it did become fatiguing after an hour or two and I lost interest in listening to it (just as I did the Chord DACs and others). By contrast, the Nagra was never fatiguing and I was able to listen to it for hours without pause.

Like many, my reference is vinyl, although I am fully conscious of vinyl's limitations. Noise, limited dynamic range, as well as limited range of music are inherent in analog audio. But even a relatively modest turntable can sound deeply satisfying over a long period - despite these limitations - in a way that most digital does not.

The thing I noticed - or indeed failed to notice - about the Nagra DAC was that it sounded quite ordinary, but managed to achieve a similar level of deep musical satisfaction. It did this without over-emphasising any particular aspect of the sound. The DAVE/M Scaler by contrast sounded hyper detailed in a dramatic and attention-grabbing way but was ultimately unnatural and fatiguing. The R2R DACs had a lovely fully bodied tonality, but sounded heavy and dynamically slow.

Over time I upgraded the HD DAC to the Tube DAC internals as mentioned above, and bought the Classic PSU to replace the pair of ACPS II power supplies that came with it. I bought the VFS support which was also a noticeable improvement.

I have now had the Nagra DAC for about a year and half, which is longer than most DACs last in my system. I have no desire to replace it, and still listen to it happily for hours at a time. When I do get a chance to listen to another DAC, I am often initially impressed by some characteristic of the new DAC, but over time I notice that this characteristic, which was initially attractive, now becomes obvious and a source of fatigue. The Nagra quietly sits in the background, knowing that I will return to it.

After buying the Nagra DAC I also bought a used Nagra VPS phono stage, which is also powered by my Classic PSU. This has similar characteristics - nothing obvious stands out, just a natural, musical and engaging quality which slowly becomes addictive. This seems to be a Nagra trait - well engineered equipment which is not designed to impress on the first listen, but which sounds natural and which slowly insinuates its way into your consciousness.

So, for me, the benefit of getting a very expensive DAC was at last to find something that sounded "ordinary". In other words, digital music that sounded like real music without any unnatural artifacts that make it difficult to listen to for long periods, or reminded me that I was listening to computer-regenerated music, which was the case with every other DAC I have owned. I had to pay a lot money to get something that did not draw attention to itself and just played music in a satisfying but self-effacing way. I still think it is in many ways unfair that I needed to pay so much money to achieve an outcome that was so "ordinary". But now I am glad that I have.

No doubt there are other very good DACs, many of them at much lower cost. I haven't heard everything. But having spent far more than I ever thought I would on a DAC, I am for the first time satisfied with digital as a format for playing music,.
Interesting post. Do you know how the tube DAC compares to their classic DAC?
 

rossb

Well-Known Member
May 24, 2017
55
28
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Interesting post. Do you know how the tube DAC compares to their classic DAC?
Yes, I do, as it happens. I borrowed a Classic DAC while my HD Dac was being upgraded. It sounded quite bland in comparison. It lacked some of the tonal depth and musicality of the HD Dac and Tube Dac. While it is still a very good DAC, I did not feel it reached the the same level of resolution or musical engagement.
 

morricab

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Yes, I do, as it happens. I borrowed a Classic DAC while my HD Dac was being upgraded. It sounded quite bland in comparison. It lacked some of the tonal depth and musicality of the HD Dac and Tube Dac. While it is still a very good DAC, I did not feel it reached the the same level of resolution or musical engagement.
Great thx
 
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Al M.

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I seem to have ended up with a very expensive DAC, without really intending to. In fact, the DAC I have would probably be regarded as obscenely expensive, even compared with the very expensive DACs I have previously owned. The value of my DAC is multiples of the next most expensive component in my system, and about 5 times the cost of my speakers.

My DAC is a Nagra Tube DAC, with Classic PSU. You can google the cost of these, and I say this not to brag but to indicate how shocked and surprised even I am by the amount I have spent on this DAC. I did not quite pay the full new price, for reasons I will explain, and got there in stages. In fact, strictly speaking it is not a Tube DAC but an HD DAC which was internally upgraded by Nagra to Tube DAC internals, although it still says "HD DAC" on the faceplate.

Is it worth it? In an absolute sense, no. Of course not. A DAC cannot be worth that much money. It is hard to justify on any rational basis. Do I regret the purchase? No. I spend a lot of time listening to digital - maybe 8 or more hours a day while I am working, and probably the same amount when I am not. I have been through a lot of DACs over the last decade or so, many of them very expensive by most standards. All of them have been vaguely unsatisfying in one way or another, until the Nagra arrived.

Some of the DACs I have owned include all of the Chord DACs: Qute, Qutest, TT2, QBD76 and DAVE, and I have owned the M Scaler no less than 3 times. I had an Ayre QX5, a Mytek Manhattan, a Metrum Pavane, a Holo May, a Meitner MA1 and a bunch of others that escape my memory. Immediately before I bought the Nagra, I spent a week with a DCS Bartok on loan from a dealer. Although I had it for a week, I could tell within the first few minutes that I would not like the Bartok. It sounded impressive - big, dramatic, realistic in some ways - but also lacking in tonal colour and dynamics. It sounded quite monochrome and was just not musically engaging for me. I returned it after a week.

When I was at the dealer I noticed there was a traded in Nagra HD Dac. It was offered at a bit less than a new Bartok, and around the same price as a new DAVE. I disinterestedly asked the dealer if it was worth listening to. He shrugged and offered it to me to listen to if I wanted to. A customer had traded it in for a new Tube DAC. I borrowed it without much in the way of expectations.

When I connected it at home, it sounded good. In comparison with the Bartok which had been there a couple of hours before, it was bursting with tonal colour and harmonic complexity. But in other respects it sounded quite ordinary. It sounded "smaller" than the Bartok, less dramatic. But I listened to it for hours without fatigue. After a week or so, I bought it.

I compared it with my Mytek Manhattan II, which I still had at the time and which I still regarded highly. I actually went back and forth with the Manhattan for some months before I ended up selling the Manhattan. In direct comparison, the Manhattan could sound a bit sharper and faster, with slightly more defined edges of notes. But it also had a certain thinness to the sound. And while I liked its sound, it did become fatiguing after an hour or two and I lost interest in listening to it (just as I did the Chord DACs and others). By contrast, the Nagra was never fatiguing and I was able to listen to it for hours without pause.

Like many, my reference is vinyl, although I am fully conscious of vinyl's limitations. Noise, limited dynamic range, as well as limited range of music are inherent in analog audio. But even a relatively modest turntable can sound deeply satisfying over a long period - despite these limitations - in a way that most digital does not.

The thing I noticed - or indeed failed to notice - about the Nagra DAC was that it sounded quite ordinary, but managed to achieve a similar level of deep musical satisfaction. It did this without over-emphasising any particular aspect of the sound. The DAVE/M Scaler by contrast sounded hyper detailed in a dramatic and attention-grabbing way but was ultimately unnatural and fatiguing. The R2R DACs had a lovely fully bodied tonality, but sounded heavy and dynamically slow.

Over time I upgraded the HD DAC to the Tube DAC internals as mentioned above, and bought the Classic PSU to replace the pair of ACPS II power supplies that came with it. I bought the VFS support which was also a noticeable improvement.

I have now had the Nagra DAC for about a year and half, which is longer than most DACs last in my system. I have no desire to replace it, and still listen to it happily for hours at a time. When I do get a chance to listen to another DAC, I am often initially impressed by some characteristic of the new DAC, but over time I notice that this characteristic, which was initially attractive, now becomes obvious and a source of fatigue. The Nagra quietly sits in the background, knowing that I will return to it.

After buying the Nagra DAC I also bought a used Nagra VPS phono stage, which is also powered by my Classic PSU. This has similar characteristics - nothing obvious stands out, just a natural, musical and engaging quality which slowly becomes addictive. This seems to be a Nagra trait - well engineered equipment which is not designed to impress on the first listen, but which sounds natural and which slowly insinuates its way into your consciousness.

So, for me, the benefit of getting a very expensive DAC was at last to find something that sounded "ordinary". In other words, digital music that sounded like real music without any unnatural artifacts that make it difficult to listen to for long periods, or reminded me that I was listening to computer-regenerated music, which was the case with every other DAC I have owned. I had to pay a lot money to get something that did not draw attention to itself and just played music in a satisfying but self-effacing way. I still think it is in many ways unfair that I needed to pay so much money to achieve an outcome that was so "ordinary". But now I am glad that I have.

No doubt there are other very good DACs, many of them at much lower cost. I haven't heard everything. But having spent far more than I ever thought I would on a DAC, I am for the first time satisfied with digital as a format for playing music,.

Very interesting post, thank you. Congratulations on your DAC!

The system context around the DAC is important as well in my experience. You mentioned tonal color and harmonic complexity vs a more monochrome presentation, as well as unnatural sharpness and etched sound (if I understand the gist of it correctly) and a presentation with attention grabbing detail. I have found that in all this, room acoustics, set-up and cables also play a role.

In another system I have heard my DAC sound more colorful or more monochrome depending on just the interconnect between DAC and preamp. Or depending on door glass covered or not.

Sophistication of tone color as well as loss of etchedness of sound has greatly increased in my system with better room acoustics as well. Better power delivery in my system (not just to the DAC but all components, notably amplification as well) has also greatly improved differentiaton of tone color and transient behavior. Keeping transients sharp where they should be, but greatly smoothing out unnatural edges elsewhere.

Interestingly, even just a Furutech e609 6-way power distributor box between wall outlet and my components has significantly contributed to that. It is relatively expensive, but was well worth it for me. Results may not be the same everywhere; in my case the benefit was perhaps enhanced since my power cables (ZenWave PL-11 and ZenWave Clear Bass) also have Furutech plugs with the same rhodium plated copper; keeping metal to metal contacts the same throughout may help.

With all the power cables, distributor and even Furutech outlet from the wall the sophisticated resolution of silky sound from orchestral massed strings on great recordings has now reached levels that I simply not thought possible.

All the changes in acoustics, set-up and power delivery have resulted in the DAC (and the whole system) being able to more get out of the way of the music. And to make it sound less computer-generated, as you suggest.

By the way, a reclocker between CD transport and DAC to lower jitter to the DAC was crucial to all this as well.
 
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Sampajanna

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Apr 1, 2021
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Yes, very system dependent. My amps and speakers, for example, would never let anything be harsh or bright. Marten have a sweet transparency, which is one reason they are my favorite. Therefore, no material how much detail is behind my amp/speaker, there is never any fatigue or glare or etch. So I love the Dave behind them. The Dave is also highly tweakable and incredibly sensitive to cables and power.
 
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matthias

Well-Known Member
Mar 14, 2019
736
282
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Germany
I seem to have ended up with a very expensive DAC, without really intending to. In fact, the DAC I have would probably be regarded as obscenely expensive, even compared with the very expensive DACs I have previously owned. The value of my DAC is multiples of the next most expensive component in my system, and about 5 times the cost of my speakers.

My DAC is a Nagra Tube DAC, with Classic PSU. You can google the cost of these, and I say this not to brag but to indicate how shocked and surprised even I am by the amount I have spent on this DAC. I did not quite pay the full new price, for reasons I will explain, and got there in stages. In fact, strictly speaking it is not a Tube DAC but an HD DAC which was internally upgraded by Nagra to Tube DAC internals, although it still says "HD DAC" on the faceplate.

Is it worth it? In an absolute sense, no. Of course not. A DAC cannot be worth that much money. It is hard to justify on any rational basis. Do I regret the purchase? No. I spend a lot of time listening to digital - maybe 8 or more hours a day while I am working, and probably the same amount when I am not. I have been through a lot of DACs over the last decade or so, many of them very expensive by most standards. All of them have been vaguely unsatisfying in one way or another, until the Nagra arrived.

Some of the DACs I have owned include all of the Chord DACs: Qute, Qutest, TT2, QBD76 and DAVE, and I have owned the M Scaler no less than 3 times. I had an Ayre QX5, a Mytek Manhattan, a Metrum Pavane, a Holo May, a Meitner MA1 and a bunch of others that escape my memory. Immediately before I bought the Nagra, I spent a week with a DCS Bartok on loan from a dealer. Although I had it for a week, I could tell within the first few minutes that I would not like the Bartok. It sounded impressive - big, dramatic, realistic in some ways - but also lacking in tonal colour and dynamics. It sounded quite monochrome and was just not musically engaging for me. I returned it after a week.

When I was at the dealer I noticed there was a traded in Nagra HD Dac. It was offered at a bit less than a new Bartok, and around the same price as a new DAVE. I disinterestedly asked the dealer if it was worth listening to. He shrugged and offered it to me to listen to if I wanted to. A customer had traded it in for a new Tube DAC. I borrowed it without much in the way of expectations.

When I connected it at home, it sounded good. In comparison with the Bartok which had been there a couple of hours before, it was bursting with tonal colour and harmonic complexity. But in other respects it sounded quite ordinary. It sounded "smaller" than the Bartok, less dramatic. But I listened to it for hours without fatigue. After a week or so, I bought it.

I compared it with my Mytek Manhattan II, which I still had at the time and which I still regarded highly. I actually went back and forth with the Manhattan for some months before I ended up selling the Manhattan. In direct comparison, the Manhattan could sound a bit sharper and faster, with slightly more defined edges of notes. But it also had a certain thinness to the sound. And while I liked its sound, it did become fatiguing after an hour or two and I lost interest in listening to it (just as I did the Chord DACs and others). By contrast, the Nagra was never fatiguing and I was able to listen to it for hours without pause.

Like many, my reference is vinyl, although I am fully conscious of vinyl's limitations. Noise, limited dynamic range, as well as limited range of music are inherent in analog audio. But even a relatively modest turntable can sound deeply satisfying over a long period - despite these limitations - in a way that most digital does not.

The thing I noticed - or indeed failed to notice - about the Nagra DAC was that it sounded quite ordinary, but managed to achieve a similar level of deep musical satisfaction. It did this without over-emphasising any particular aspect of the sound. The DAVE/M Scaler by contrast sounded hyper detailed in a dramatic and attention-grabbing way but was ultimately unnatural and fatiguing. The R2R DACs had a lovely fully bodied tonality, but sounded heavy and dynamically slow.

Over time I upgraded the HD DAC to the Tube DAC internals as mentioned above, and bought the Classic PSU to replace the pair of ACPS II power supplies that came with it. I bought the VFS support which was also a noticeable improvement.

I have now had the Nagra DAC for about a year and half, which is longer than most DACs last in my system. I have no desire to replace it, and still listen to it happily for hours at a time. When I do get a chance to listen to another DAC, I am often initially impressed by some characteristic of the new DAC, but over time I notice that this characteristic, which was initially attractive, now becomes obvious and a source of fatigue. The Nagra quietly sits in the background, knowing that I will return to it.

After buying the Nagra DAC I also bought a used Nagra VPS phono stage, which is also powered by my Classic PSU. This has similar characteristics - nothing obvious stands out, just a natural, musical and engaging quality which slowly becomes addictive. This seems to be a Nagra trait - well engineered equipment which is not designed to impress on the first listen, but which sounds natural and which slowly insinuates its way into your consciousness.

So, for me, the benefit of getting a very expensive DAC was at last to find something that sounded "ordinary". In other words, digital music that sounded like real music without any unnatural artifacts that make it difficult to listen to for long periods, or reminded me that I was listening to computer-regenerated music, which was the case with every other DAC I have owned. I had to pay a lot money to get something that did not draw attention to itself and just played music in a satisfying but self-effacing way. I still think it is in many ways unfair that I needed to pay so much money to achieve an outcome that was so "ordinary". But now I am glad that I have.

No doubt there are other very good DACs, many of them at much lower cost. I haven't heard everything. But having spent far more than I ever thought I would on a DAC, I am for the first time satisfied with digital as a format for playing music,.

Yes, great post, thanks for sharing!
May I ask which devices you have upstream to your DAC?

Matt
 

matthias

Well-Known Member
Mar 14, 2019
736
282
138
Germany
You would probably love the Playback Designs MPD-8…. I would look into it, and its relationship to what you have.

AFAIK, Nagra use DAC modules from Andreas Koch of Playback Designs.......
 
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Sampajanna

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Apr 1, 2021
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AFAIK, Nagra use DAC modules from Andreas Koch of Playback Designs.......
Yes, That was why I suggested he look into the relationship :) Was being polite. But, as I understand it, the Playback has the better version of that kit and for way cheaper
 
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