If DAC Chips Perform Perfectly Then Why Don’t All DACs Sound the Same?

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 It is likely the audiophile forum Audio Science Review that should get credit for starting this thread talking about digital to analog converters and the vast improvements in today’s DAC chips. The question was “Do All DACs Sound the Same?” The question gets asked because of the Wild Wild West situation that is the semiconductor world these days. New, highly effective semiconductor chips are creating a disruptive (the positive meaning of the world, like they say in Silicon Valley) situation in the audiophile business. Amazingly, today semiconductors can make relatively lower-cost audiophile power amps sound just like the best tube or Class-A amps while using very little power and not breaking the bank. That’s changing the game for many audiophiles who are value-oriented today. So, if a $50 DAC chip can product literally a perfect sine wave, then why should you spend on anything other than the least expensive DAC? That’s what people are asking, and it is easy to understand why.

The Bricasti M3 is a super capable audiophile DAC with deep pro-audio roots
The Bricasti M3 is a super capable audiophile DAC with deep pro-audio roots

Even If the Best DAC Chips Perform “Perfectly,” Not All DACs Deliver the Same Sound

Let’s assume that together we were building an audiophile digital to analog converter-type component. If you go by the letter of the law from the forums, then all you would need is a great DAC chip, and you are pretty much done. There is zero possibility that one complete DAC could really be much (or any) better than another using the same chip, even with vastly different implementations. I know audiophile reviewers who see things pretty much this way. I know professional audio experts who also mostly adhere to the “$300 DAC is as good as the $13,000 DAC” philosophy. 

Simply put, the performance of DAC chips has improved drastically in the modern era, along with many other semiconductors in the tech space. Audiophiles can only dream of a day when the new Semiconductor Act (CHIPS) kicks in, nine (yes, nine) new gigabit factories open right here in the United States, and we no longer depend on Taiwan for the chips that we need. We also will be able to make smaller, better and faster chips, but that’s in the coming years. For now, DAC chips are cheap and quite fantastic, so why don’t all DACs sound the same?

There’s a lot that goes into a DAC beyond the selection of the semiconductor. Specifying the chipset is a great first start, but there are all sort of other elements that factor into the sound and performance of an audiophile DAC today. 

  • In any audiophile component, and especially in digital ones, using a robust power supply is the best way to achieve overall great performance. That’s not anything new to audiophile engineers, but the point gets an exclamation point today because of what we’ve learned from the new school, class-D amps, streamers and of course… DACs. 
  • Top-performing DAC chips, like the AKM option found in many of today’s sexiest Chi-Fi digital audiophile products, aren’t sold just as a digital solution, as it is bundled with what is needed to make the analog section work. These chips cost roughly about $50 and a accomplish a lot, but they don’t fit every design criteria for a top-performing DAC.
  • Some DACs use multiple semiconductors in their design. Benchmark and PS Audio use four each. Bricasti, in its more expensive DACs, offers chips more suited to DSD, and then another for PCM. That changes the complexity of the unit, the parts cost and the sound of a DAC in nearly all cases.
  • The issue of jitter is a big one for many of the digital audio engineers who design our DACs. Reclocking the digital signal can help on that front. All sorts of design tweaks can help make incremental improvements in the jitter department, and each of those benefits can add up to overall better sound from one DAC to another.
  • Filtering can be viewed as a negative by some audiophiles, but many higher-end DACs offer the ability to change the sound of their DACs to suit the tastes of the listener. The Benchmark Media DAC that I am using now is the opposite of that, but Paul Wilson’s $19,000 Bricasti offers options to slightly change the sound of the DAC to your tastes. That might not be the purist way to go about things, but neither is dropping a small ice chip inside of your Macallan 18 – it just tends to make the Scotch taste better, aka “opened up.” 
  • With the rise of a new class of semiconductors known as FPGA chips, companies can make updates to modern DACs to keep them state of the art for much longer. This was a legitimate reason why many audiophiles refused to invest in “bleeding edge” digital audio in that with one hot, new chip to hit the market and their $30,000 investment just lost half of more of its value in the audiophile resale market. Today’s audiophile DACs are much more able to stay current without any meaningful, additional investment which removes some of that ugly, “boat anchor” effect to buying high end, audiophile digital components. 
  • The physical build quality of a DAC can matter to its sound especially on digital audio components that spin or rip discs be it some permutation of a music server or Compact Disc player. Using better metal work or internal bracing or even absorptive feet can help make an audiophile DAC perform incrementally better. Larger-sized components also have more room for better power supplies, which we’ve already established is a major upgrade to digital audio components, be they DACs, Class-D chip-based amps and beyond. 
The Anthem STR stereo preamp is used by many reviewers on staff as their reference audiophile, stereo preamp
The Anthem STR stereo preamp is used by many reviewers on staff as their reference audiophile, stereo preamp

Are Today’s Internal or Included DACs as Good as Standalone Components?

Normally not, but the DACs that come inside of many of today’s stereo preamps are really, really good these days. I’ve got a 32-bit DAC inside of my Anthem STR, and it is quite capable. At $4,000, I get all of the benefits of a full-feature stereo preamp. including ARC room correction, as well as a high-end DAC. In comparison, the internal DACs don’t quite sound as good as the aforementioned standalone $1,895 Benchmark Media DAC3 B. Sharing a power supply is one potential issue. Another trick that the component needs to master is that there are only so many design resources that can go in these affordable audiophile products, which combine so many incredible and compelling features.

Should you shy away from a product that takes on more than one audiophile challenge? Absolutely not. Just know that, as your system gets more and more sophisticated, that you might enjoy the benefit of a standalone component (DAC, in this case) over one combined into another component. Is that an audiophile law? No, but it is a good place to start with your overall system upgrade strategies. 

The Topping D90 is an awesome value and top performing DAC that audiophiles love
The Topping D90 is an awesome value and top performing DAC that audiophiles love

So, What Should You Do When It Comes To Buying a DAC?

It is easy to understand how people get pissy or even a little bitter about very high-priced audiophile components. Conversely, are there also bullshit products in the uber-high end of digital audio? Oh, God, yes, there are, just as an $87,500 phono stage is too expensive for even Powerball winners to afford over on the analog side of the argument. The idea that all DACs are the same or sound the same is downright incorrect. There are subtle or not-so-subtle differences between good DACs, ranging from the affordable to the less-than-affordable. They don’t all sound the same. They just don’t. 

What any new or upgrading (aren’t we all upgrading?) audiophile needs to determine is if he or she can justify the cost of a digital audio product like a DAC in their system. If you do a volume-matched comparison between an entry-level $400 DAC with a certain chipset and another $10,000 DAC with the same chipset and you can’t hear the difference, then you know what to do. Run, don’t walk, away from the expensive one. The burden is on the expensive DAC to deliver enough sonic upgrade to justify the additional cost. If you don’t hear it, then do not spend on it. 

Remember that audiophile systems evolve as we upgrade, and that when you get towards the top of the mountain, often it is the small differences that are all that is left. Like an F1 race team, advanced audiophiles are looking for any and every possible performance advantage. Often what the uber-high-end products in the audiophile space are selling is just that level of outrageous performance. Others are selling voodoo and/or vapor ware. As long as you are testing the gear that you are evaluating with your volume matched and your system fairly/equally assembled and balanced, you should be able to draw your own fair conclusions. 

In the end, what matters is that the upgrades that you invest in make you more and more happy with your system. You are are still allowed to “be in the audiophile club” if you decide that your current system (or DAC) is good enough, even if it is a $400 Chi-Fi darling. Many others who can hear and justify the difference in a more expensive component can make their moves accordingly. There is no right or wrong here, and there should be no techno-shaming, either. In the end, you need to justify the investment that you make in your system, as it is designed, first and foremost, to sound great to you. 

This has been a controversial topic for many audiophiles. Where do you stand on the matter? Comment below (politely, please) in our moderated comments. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Michael Zisserson

Jerry,
This is one of your best yet. I have upgraded my Bricasti M1 as they have updated it for over a decade now. Sure, the initial buy in was high, but it has served me as a reference piece for pennies since, including the upgrades. Further, there is an extreme amount of complexity to high-end Dacs, and people forget WE DO NOT LISTEN TO SINE WAVES, rather an amalgam of sine waves. How a component does with complex waveforms is extremely different from how it does with sine waves, and the output section also has a lot to do with it.

I can go on and on, but to think all DACs sound the same is just sophomoric and a petty excuse for not wanting to spend the money (and it does not have to be insane money). Reverse snobbery at its finest. Many of these inexpensive, simplified DACs based around good chips are indeed very good, and for many audiophiles that is enough. I am happy for those audiophiles, too. That means they are enjoying the music in their own space and that counts more that any techno-babble argument.

Yes, I know I have what many consider to be a world-class DAC, but there is better than the M1…Like Paul’s M21, and MSB has some scary good options…But I am not about to take that fact away because I cannot afford to be on the bleeding edge of the bleeding edge. There are better DACs than $50 DACs, there are better DACs than $10,000 DACs, and there are technological reasons for that. Period.

My exception is this: I had a DAC in for evaluation (you remember – the owner of the company got hostile when I called him out) that claimed it was a reinvention of the wheel using dual NOS DAC chips from the 1980s. This thing was suppose to change audio forever for ONLY $13,000. It was hot garbage. It sounded like 80’s digital, and worse, 80’s metal dome tweeters. So I understand the skepticism from people since these garbage products exist to solely take advantage of people. The flip-side happens, too. Cheap products trying to band torches and pitch-forks together to “hate” legitimately advanced products. So all audiophiles have to be careful to have an open mind, but not let their brains fall out. My advice? Stay Blue Chip, known brands that have a proven track-record (Bricasti, Benchmark, Schiit, etc) and you will always make a sound investment for the money. I am still waiting for someone who has found that reinvention of the wheel that changes audio forever….Never seems to pan out.

Ernie Meunier

Nice article, Jerry…and followup Michael. Thanks.

kengratz

Thank you for writing this Jerry. Many in the ASR cult are strong and stubborn, and the source of a plethora of downvotes on Reddit to posts that discuss the varying sounds of different devices and manufacturers. I doubt that many of the naysayers have even listened to higher end components. SoulNote even called them out in their wonderfully written design philosophy. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

Thom Osburn

Those blind-testing-or-die guys in such forums are completely exhausting to deal with.
Heaven forbid you have your own well informed opinion on the matter.

Ross Warren

Just want to mention that Taiwan hasn’t been the major problem regarding DAC chips. It was factory fires in Japan a few years ago that took AKM DAC chips away from us until they could be rebuilt and get back up to speed. From a national security standpoint, the U.S. needs some domestic chip production as most of our weapons use them. We can’t be dependent on a foreign nation for these. Hence the CHIPS act to bring some production back to these shores.

Regarding DACs and chips you didn’t mention R2R architectures which are the darling of many audiophiles. People swear that R2R based DACS offer a better soundstage, imaging, and a more natural tonality and decay than *most* chip-based DACs at least at price points below $2K, give or take. But the cheaper ones lack the bass slam of chip-based DACs.

What’s an audiophile to do? Well, as you suggest, try these devices out in our systems if possible and see if there is enough of a noticeable difference to justify the more expensive piece. Fortunately, Amazon and a few others have 30-day return periods, but that isn’t always possible. Caveat emptor as they say.

Ross Warren

The sort of funny thing, even for audiophiles, is that since all DACs do NOT sound the same (many a time YouTubers and others are quick to point out that the output stage and power supply are just as important to any resulting sound as whatever “chip” is used), the question comes up, “What is truth?” I mean at some level you are hearing things the sound engineer producing the album didn’t even hear, let alone the artist or band. Once you get to that level, are you kidding yourself in some way that you are experiencing “better” sound? Where to get off this treadmill and be happy?

Steven

Just over a year ago I had the chance to listen to a DAC shipped from Southeast Asia that has a current retail price of $10,249.
I listened to the unit for more than a month in my system and compared it to a couple of different DACs that I had become familiar with over the years.
One of these DACS was a standalone using ESS Sabre chips from more than 10 years ago, and the other a standalone player with a Legato Link DAC from more than 30 years ago.
The DAC from Singapore was their flagship product and remained as a stock, unmodified product, however the older products that were used for comparison had been modified.
Specifically, the ESS Sabre based DAC had an upgraded power supply and improved EM/RFI noise filtering, and the Legato Link based standalone player was “well massaged” with respect to parts quality throughout the unit and received an upgraded clock.
The standalone player’s transport was connected to the standalone DACs via SPDF cable–and various SPDF cables were tried between the DACs to optimal effect.
Blind listening tests were conducted with seasoned listeners in a custom built listening room that all agreed was neither under nor over damped.
The electronics and loudspeakers had proven themselves in other systems, including systems used by record company owners.
As expected, the DAC sounded differently.
The unexpected difference was the newest model (which had been fully burned-in) did not fair as well as the older–albeit modified–units.
Sometimes newer does not always translate into better. . .

Ron

Even if all DAC chips decode equally, which measurements show they don’t, it is ultimately the electronics delivering the signals to our preamps and amplifiers that “shape” the final sound that we hear. Not specifically related to DACs but there are a lot of forum comments about how changing one electronic component changes the sound.

Home audio is a “system” everything works together in concert with the room…and this can be the hard part….getting everything to play well together to deliver sound that brings an emotional connections.

Ron

Jerry, I agree and I wasn’t clear…I suspect the chips themselves are pretty much sonically equivalent to almost all ears…but everything else in the DAC…. the electronics…the power supply…and even the case in the DAC are what distinguish the sound of one DAC from another…

Trevor

I know from 20 years ago (when my hearing was considerably better) that when listening to many CD & DVD players that I had to hand, not all players sound the same & I had a definite preference for my NAD CD player with Burr-Brown DACs & a Panasonic DVDA player. Fast forward 20 years when choosing a DAC for streaming I chickened out & I simply went with a well reviewed (inc Futureaudiophile) inexpensive DAC from Schiit. I listen to Internet radio a lot & there’s so much variability in MP3 source quality that the DAC performance is irrelevant. I have found some excellent quality classical & jazz radio stations but they are few & far between.

Michael Zisserson

Paging Eric Forst! I would love to see our resident medical hearing expert discuss the topic below.

Trevor, do not discount your age-induced hearing ills. We hear in our own context, this does not mean we cannot hear music well because our hearing has degraded over time. I have had this proven to me time and time again. This one time, an older gentleman we were listening with, WHO HAD HEARING AIDS, was able to detect an issue with the turntable we were using because he was so familiar with the song, and it did not sound right. It was found that there was a small piece of something on the stylus armature. He heard the difference when no one else could even though most of us knew what we were listening to and were familiar with the music. Humbling.

David Tomsett

It’s the components used around the Dac chip that make the difference

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