My DAC is bigger than your dac! A "mature and serious" debate

Recently coming across the topic of DAC’s and objective measurements versus subjective opinion and what makes a DAC good (specifically here.)

I thought rather than coming across this heated topic in every new DAC thread, I would start a thread for those looking to discuss this in a mature and thought out manner. Naturally this will provoke some conflict and side taking. Please remember that we are all human and that this topic is meant to promote a healthy discourse discussing the benefits of each. Follow the rules and directions of the moderators and this forum. Debate in defense of whatever DAC you are trying to champion.

This is fencing, not a street brawl!

On a personal note I would love to know more about this hobby and DAC’s confuse the shit out of me. It would be great to have someone put a list of songs together and a description of what to listen for. Maybe with time stamps?

Hell you say im here to eye poke hit below the belt kick down opponent

Pride rules pal !

Personally, I do believe that all DACs have a different sound. Based on my own experience, they all have their own characteristics, but I think what becomes the problem is that people often expect for a difference that’s really big like changing headphone or speakers. While those can happen for some DACs, I think for the most parts the changes are subtler than what most people expect.

I think if I would give a comparison to how big this changes between the DACs are, I would equate them with how one acoustic guitar can sound differently than another. Like how a mahogany guitar have a different sound than a rosewood guitar. Some may say that there’s practically no difference between the two, but for the music lover, they would certainly know that there’s a difference.

I think it’s the same story with DAC. No matter the price point, they all have a difference (although granted I never tried anything uber expensive). Usually to see how a certain DAC sound, I would play something that’s well-recorded, eg. the Chesky records, orchestral album, or anything natural. The reason I choose those types of albums is because usually different DACs have different ways of layering the instruments, presenting the “room” of the recorded music and so on. The other reason why I choose something that’s recorded from a live performance and hopefully have a minimal edit is because I’m familiar with how most instruments should sound.

The other way for me to identify the differences in DACs is simply by using them. The way that I would notice the differences here will be like when you go away from your home for some time and then you go back to your old room and you start to smell the funky or fragrant smell of your room. I don’t usually know how my own room smell, but by going away for some time, I would notice those smells. So, how do I apply this to DACs? Usually I would simply use this new DAC for a week or so, and then I would go back to my old DAC. Usually when I first move to the new DAC, I can’t really notice what are the new things on this DAC, but after a week of using it and going back to using my old one, I start to see how the new DAC have this and that characteristics which is missing in my old one.

Anyway, hopefully I can shine some light on how to hear the differences in DACs and don’t start some nasty controversies. I tried my best to describe my experience.

My take on seeing measurements

I think measurements are great. They are important in providing an objective point of view, but for me, it doesn’t do much use. I simply don’t know how a 120 dB SINAD would translate to my personal experience. Maybe some people can and know what it means, but personally I don’t know how they affect mine.


Think im in the dac should provide no color otherwise its a form of DSP. The shallow end is the pool i swim. The most expensive DAC i own is on its way E30. I can say i hear a difference from a
$20 dac smsl ad18 entry yamaha AVR and Bluray player.

Perhaps we should talk more of what is in the recorded material. Got to this hifi site through home theater. So im all for measuring processing by the end user. I like to tinker.

Source material: appletv 4k Windows laptop apple music CD rips hires downloads 4k blurays.

Pardon the bad writing im usually playing with gear while lurking zeos/dmx hive mind.:smirk_cat:

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Im also not fully knowledge of all possible meanings and how much what effects what to notice.
In the levels “normality”. This is usually enough and when there is No errors or No distortion/noise that can be noticed. It’s good enough.
Mention from the measurement forum.

So with SINAD being 123, 122, 121 etc… they all very close from the “normal usage” and probably zero meaning in daily listening.
As the ASR has plenty of charts. I would concern anything in the “blue” coloring be to “good enough”.

So bio organisms cannot cope with the forces science can reproduce, for now. We know this via measurement.

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I would disagree with that actually. I think it’s so easy to undermine our human capabilities, while actually it’s pretty awesome. For example let’s talk about burn in on headphone or IEM, or even cable rolling. Many people said that those things doesn’t make sense because the result of the measurements are within the error, while in reality those differences can be heard quite clearly.


I like to use the car analogy. You can have a 1000 horsepower, useless if the tire cant put the power to the ground.

Fighter aircraft, weakest link is monkey.

110 db is required for THX or IMAX something or other recall.

Can sleep easier knowing breaking the bank to obtain good enough hifi isnt a hard fast rule.

This has been my experience as well. Quick A/B testing has not been very useful in my experience. It’s spending extended time with a DAC and then changing that component out when you notice the differences. And again, it hasn’t been as drastic as “I can hear this sound on DAC ‘A’ but not on DAC ‘B’”. The changes are more in the stuff that people have a hard time measuring, describing, or agreeing on. It’s in the way things are staged, separated, the natural sound qualities of the instruments and vocals. The trailing ends or leading edges of sounds that add that little bit of extra realism. These types of things I can pick out most easily on tracks that are recorded well and music that I am familiar with. However I’m learning to pay attention to them more when I listen to new music as well.

I really like your smell analogy. It’s another one of those things that is hard to describe. Once you have been in a room for a few minutes your brain adjusts and you don’t even realize you are smelling anything anymore. I think our ears function in a similar way, especially when you are talking about these types of subtle differences.


I think a big problem/misconception in this area is the notion that you have to spend a ton of money to get a truly good sounding DAC. I disagree with this completely. Now I am not a richie-rich so I will never get to sample any of this comically expensive stuff, and therefore will never get to make any real comparisons as to whether or not “high end” DACs are truly better or if it is all just bullshit.

What I can say for sure is that I did the best I could and ended up with some pretty good sounding gear that I didn’t have to take a second mortgage on the house to get. I still can’t decide which one I prefer, however; the AK4497EQ or the ES9038Q2M’s found in the SU-8. I’m leaning towards the SU-8 but that could be the fact that it rocks dual ES9038Q2M’s as opposed to the single AK chip found in the M200. Both make me very happy, so I’m good for now! I guess a R2R would be the next step in my journey.

Pretty great analogy, actually.


My $.02. I do believe that DACs effect the sound. Whether that is in the form of warm, pleasing distortions, sterile neutrality, or lively, piercing, detail spotlighting, I think finding a truly “Transparent” DAC is next to impossible but it is very possible to find one to align with the rest of your system. Now I will say that while certain chip implementations tend to follow sound trends, I don’t think its the chips themselves impart that sound. I think the standard implementations are more responsible for the “Flavors” we hear. If you take an ESS Sabre DAC and put it in the standard circuit that it’s shown with, you’ll probably get that “Sabre Glare”. However, if you take the time, tweak your analog output, your filter, the I/V stage, and all the other voodoo that goes on after the bits are turned to waves but before the output, then you could make it sound very, very different(maybe not in the way you want but that’s why there are smarter people than me around). That’s what I think anyways, I know as much about DAC manufacture as I do Alpaca farming(which is nothing).

I have a few different DACs around the house. I use each one in the system it works best in and that generally is more a function of features and use than of sound quality. I use a BossDAC with a Rpi 3 on my bedside HP system because it works better than the USB out on the Rpi3. I use a Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 audio interface in my listening room because I use it for vinyl ripping, an internet radio show, Gain riding, and digital to analog conversion. I use a DIYParadise USB Monica(in a botched case)sporadically because it’s easy to move around and interface with. I use an iFi Hip Dac on the go because, well it goes, and I use one of those Fiio BTR3s when mowing the lawn because its cheaper than the hipdac in case it gets chewed up. All of them perform well enough, each satisfies musically in their own way but each is overshadowed by the system or headphone it is used with.

So the TL;DR version, DACs can and do sound different, don’t always judge a DAC by it’s chip, sound differences between dacs are tiny compared to other components, and functionality matters.


Throwing analogies around… I grew up in the NYC area, everybody has their favorite pizzeria, you’d know which pizzerias were it, and you knew EXACTLY why you preffered your slice the way you did. You’d never go to a shop that made a bad pie, as a matter of fact shops like that would go out of business quick. You’d also rather die than go into a Pizza Hut, cause I wouldn’t feed that shit to a dog.

Flour, water, yeast, tomato sauce, cheese. They all use the same ingredients.

Yet Pizza Hut’s annual revenue in 2020 was over 46 billion dollars. So someone is eating that shit.


The short version of my answer.

Do DAC’s make a difference: Yes
Do Some higher end DAC’s sound better : Yes
Do you care: Not unless you have a considerable investment in headphones and amplifier first

FWIW IMO most entry level DAC’s sound much more alike than different, for the most part they aren’t worth stressing over. I can hear the differences between the two or 3 I have here, but I’m not sure I have a preference.
At what most on this forum would consider rediculous levels of investment the DAC is at least as impactful to a system as the Amp and synergey between components becomes a very important part of it.


The differences are definitely subtle. To me, it makes by far the smallest difference in your system. Unless you have a very cheap/crappy DAC.

My SMSL SU-8 cost me about $350.00, landed (Canuck bucks). I stepped up to a BF2 and my landed cost was $1,135.00, again in Canuck bucks.

Right off the bat, A/B testing showed 0 difference between the two. I was then told that I needed to spend at least a week adjusting to the new sound signature. Then go back to the old model and see what you have gained.

I did that and really didn’t find a huge difference. I started to listen very closely and analytically and I could indeed hear a fuller sound with more bass on certain songs, with certain amps.
At this point I was reminded of that old adage, “Do you listen to your gear or do you listen to your music?”
I was just listening to my gear and the music was only a measuring stick.

Is the BF2 better than the SU-8? Yes!
Is it $1,135.00 better? Not to me.
Is it because I am old? Maybe.
Is it because my other gear is inferior? Maybe.
Is it because I do not have golden ears or even great hearing abilities? Maybe.

I do not have the hearing ability, the money or the urge to chase the incremental improvements that better DAC’s can bring.


I have an SU-9 that I think sounds pretty decent, but I’ve reached a point these days that I’m willing to pay extra for a company where I trust their quality control and where I can get things easily serviced. A week or two ago, the Bluetooth on my SU-9 just stopped working for no reason. I have a DA-8 and sometimes the power brick just randomly doesn’t want to work. It’s frustrating.

Whatever you think of Schiit, I’m someone who lives in California, so for example, I had a product that accidentally came with the wrong cables and they shipped me replacements that arrived the very next day at no charge.


This is why sites like hifi guides is a valuble resource, real world product testing/customer feedback.


This is interesting. I have both the S-8 stack and the S200 stack and both have been flawless. But like everything else your mileage will vary. I would love to try a Bifrost 2 but I am not going to wait 12 weeks. If they can’t do better than that I’m not interested.

To give some perspective, when I tried my first none entry level DAC (Gungnir Multibit) I was using $700 headphones, and a similarly priced amp.
Even then I tried it with the caveat that if it didn’t make a big difference to my headphone set up I had a $10K+ stereo system it would end up in.
I really wouldn’t worry about it until you start to believe the DAC is potentially limiting you system.

It’s the same thing with anything to a point, there isn’t a lot of point in spending $1000 on an amp if your just going to plug $30 headphones into it.
Or worrying about if a $2000 power regenerator will make your system sound better when the system costs less than that.
On the other end of the scale if you own a $6000 headphone, you shouldn’t expect to get the best out of it with a $100 amp, and if your chain costs $20K, then that regenerator seems like a much less stupid investment if it makes anything you plug into it better.

It’s all very much about balance and synergy.


For sure. For the longest time I fed my stereo (Klipsch RF-63 on a Primare i32) with just the built-in DAC of my TV (Panasonic VT50 Plasma). It sounded pretty good, but first and foremost it was just functional and I didn’t have to cable manage.

There I was sitting with a setup near €10k and using the TV as a DAC. So when I was starting to fiddle around with new desktop amps and dacs, I decided to put my old Harmony Design DA9 on the TV, oh boy what an upgrade.

Having used the SMSL SP200 and SU-8 for about a year? Memory is fuzzy, but for an extended amount of time anyway. This is something I really noticed when I swapped back to the Harmony stack at my desktop. Having been away from that “smell”, I immediately started noticing the differences and found, in my old gear, exactly what I was looking for. So I decided to contact the manufacturer (Harmony Design) and got a good deal on an upgrade.

Later on I ended up with the SU-8 on the stereo setup and once again noticed the differences. I think it’s a good match for the Primare and the Klipsch, but I think I would like something with just an extra bit of warmth and soundstage. Some time down the line I might get myself a tube pre-amp or even a tube DAC. But that’s the one thing I like about the filters on the SU-8, you can get that little bit of change in flavour. I think I prefer the Topping D50s to it sound wise however when I tested it briefly, plus it has BT. There’s that little bit of extra warmth to it and it really shines on accoustic music.

To go back on the initial balance and synergy though, there’s just some things that can’t be explained through measurements. I’ve gone over the DAC measurements of the old DA9 and compared them to newer units like the SU-8, and on paper it should sound much better. But it just doesn’t, it sounds clear and detailed, but it lacks the added warmth and soundstage and just overall “holographic” sense that the DA9 or D90 has in comparison.

TL;DR: I’ve rambled for long but I’m a strong believer in gear synergy outside of pure measurements. However I like to use measurements as pointers or hints towards what might be good. But these days I think measurements help more when looking at speakers, headphones or IEMs and way less for amps or dacs. Measurements are nice to see if there are issues with channel balance or keeping a stable load though.