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.