"Short" High End DAC Comparison

So I’ve been feeling conflicted on starting something like this. I both want to write about this, and not at the same time lol. Seems like it would be entertaining to write about my experiences with some of these dacs for headphone use, but it poses a few problems:

  • It ignores individual system synergy (sometimes), and if I do focus on synergy it gets too complex, so I have to generalize
  • I lack the vocabulary and writing skill to articulate some of these differences in a coherent way so it may be overly simplistic
  • I question the value of this to others and if it would even be worthwhile doing (since this really isn’t the right forum for this lol, (no offense) not many people looking in this range anyways
  • Finding a place to draw the line of what should and shouldn’t be included is challenging as otherwise it can either be way too long or too short
  • This could be misinterpreted as something it’s not (this isn’t a tier list, nor a review, etc)
  • I’m lazy and would rather just be listening, but I kinda still want to do it

Acknowledging those problems, I’m going to continue, but due to those problems, take everything with a big grain of salt.

This mainly is going to include pretty high end dacs, generally almost all above 10k+ msrp new (with the exception of the quintessence) so this isn’t exactly for the faint of heart, but just because retail is high doesn’t mean you have to pay retail. I bought these dacs used, and paid substantially less than retail (assume around half or less most of the time, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford these lol). This also really isn’t taking value into account, just raw performance.

To set realistic expectations for what this will be, it’s pretty much going to be some generalized short thoughts on the dacs, what I like about them, how they compare to others, good source chains, basic general pairing information, other stuff, idk, going to play it by ear I guess? This isn’t really made to come to any conclusions or anything like that, just small blurbs of information rather than any sort of advice

Let’s do a bit of theoretical Q&A here to try and explain some things:

Q: Is it actually worthwhile to go this high for headphones?

A: Sure, I think it is, but only with top tier headphones, and top tier amps to go along with it. A high end headphone handicapped by source gear is a very underwhelming experience, and you get to the point where the headphones don’t go any higher, so you continue to boost source gear and reap the benefits, almost just as if you were continuing to upgrade headphones. It’s still far from hitting diminishing returns even if you end up paying 3-4x+ the cost of the headphones in source gear (depending on the headphone of course). Also you better be deep into this hobby and understand what you are getting into, this stuff isn’t worthwhile to the basic enthusiast nor casual listener, it just isn’t.

Q: Why wouldn’t you want to prioritize the amp more here?

A: Personally from my experience, once you get into the really high end, the dacs have made a larger or equal difference to the amps fwiw, so I think it ends up being worthwhile. Of course you don’t want to let your amp be the bottleneck, so make sure that’s in order first before considering such a high end dac. And of course, synergy is crucial and an amazing dac can sound like shit on the wrong chain, all depends. Lots and lots of things go into a phenomenal chain, the dac is only one aspect, but an aspect that can easily make or break.

Q: How are these experiences generalized?

A: Lots of trial and error with source gear pairing from transports to amps to headphones, basically generalizing all my experiences with them from critical listening and normal use, also includes tweaks like tube swaps, filter changes, different formats being fed into them, etc. Experiences over a long period of time basically. Not using any extra processing like upsampling, eq, or other digital processing during this, and always using exclusive mode if playing off a pc. Source material is all over the place, a wide range of genres and quality.

Q: Why were these dacs chosen?

A: Basically chosen because I have them in house and have the most listening experience with them lol, so these are mainly all dacs I enjoy, so you aren’t really going to see a strongly negative overall opinion since I bought these after demos so I already somewhat knew what I was getting into and don’t buy dacs I don’t enjoy (to an extent, more on that later), but I will still weigh the ups and downs of each and how they may compare. There are many other dacs I’ve heard that I also liked or disliked, but only heard at shows or limited demo’s so it’s not fair to include those. These are just basically the things I ended up with during my personal dac journey and I might as well document some basic info about them

Well that’s probably enough, let’s get into it

Dacs compared directly:

  • Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference Series 2
  • Lampizator Golden Gate 2 Discrete (KR 5U4G RK LTD, Psvane WE101D)
  • Totaldac D1-Direct + D1-Drivers mono MK2
  • Nagra HD DAC + MPS
  • Waversa WVDAC MK2
  • Etalon Dream DAC
  • Rockna Wavedream Signature Bal
  • Audio Note DAC 5 Special v2 (GE 5841A & 6463, Bendix 6X5GT, Telefunken <> ECL82)
  • Mola Mola Tambaqui
  • Mojo Mystique EVO Pro 21 (Amorphous Core)
  • Bricasti M21 Platinum
  • Aries Cerat Kassandra II Ref G2
  • Lavry Quintessence

Dacs compared from memory (at least 2 months of ownership to be included, confident enough in my experience with them to compare since they had been in the same setups and valuable to include):

  • Aqua Formula xHD
  • Concert Fidelity DAC-040

Transports for the dacs used:

Laptop → JCAT USB Isolator (powered by a TeddyUSB) → Berkeley Alpha USB → ATI DDA212-XLR → DAC

dCS Network Bridge → ATI DDA212-XLR → DAC

Auralic Aries G2.1 + Leo GX.1 → DAC

Meridian 500 MKII → DAC (seldom used this transport)

Power regeneration/conditioning: handled by PS Audio P20s
Cables: better than bargain bin

So for simplicity sake, I’ll separate them by basic stupid simple signature to start off from most to least in their respective categories

Warm Relaxed Warm Forward Neutral Relaxed Neutral Forward Slightly Analytical
Most: Aqua Mojo Nagra Waversa Mola Mola
Etalon Totaldac Bricasti Rockna
Audio Note Lavry Berkeley BAT
Least: Concert Fidelity Lampizator Aries Cerat

This chart is somewhat true somewhat not, it highly depends on the pairing, but with all the different combinations I can somewhat get a sense of the character of the dac. This factors in all aspects of the dac and not only tuning/tonality, so things like presentation, spatial recreation, dynamics, time domain, extension, resolution, forwardness, etc get included. There is a slight problem where some of the more neutral forward dacs can get analytical depending on the recording, but it doesn’t happen often enough to justify calling it analytical

Let’s dive into the warmer relaxed side of things and establish some short at a glance notes:

Starting with the Aqua Formula xHD, man this thing is warm, smooth and relaxed. Almost to a fault even lol, I initially grabbed this dac after hearing a positive store demo after looking for a warmer, smooth, and technical enough dac, and while it delivered on that front, it almost felt somewhat dulled and way too smoothed for my tastes with most amps in my setup, only pairing really well with components that lead to a typically over analytical setup

The good:

  • Nice midrange warmth and timbre
  • Nice midrange coherency
  • Forgiving of poor source material
  • Reasonably light on it’s feet
  • Fairly liquid sounding
  • Feels fast with solid separation
  • Relaxing

The meh:

  • Average stage width
  • Microdynamics good but somewhat unremarkable
  • Treble non fatiguing and decently extended and detailed but lacked energy and clarity at times
  • Tonal density alright but sometimes felt a bit lacking weight
  • Immersive but hazy feeling stage
  • Background good but not great

The bad:

  • Way too smooth, to the point where it sometimes sounded dull
  • Bass lacking extension, grunt, and control
  • Macrodynamics suffered and felt blunted
  • Slight feeling of being constrained or limited that was irritating for more dynamic pieces, but felt unrestrained with less complex music

Somewhat hard to pair with most amps, as it really is constantly pushing it for being too light, relaxed, and dulled, feeling somewhat uninteresting unless on a very analytical combo. Did improve with better transport chains but didn’t solve issues, overall feels very niche, and there would be other things I would pick over it for it’s duty, hence why it was sold

Onto the Etalon Dream DAC, this is a more relaxed, thick, meaty, and smooth dac with a focus on casual enjoyment and immersion while not being overwhelming in coloration and still being technically capable. Generally more saturated, a bit more sustained decay without smearing or sounding sluggish, nice density and weight, timbre organic although not as good as once would expect, and a pleasing tuning. Also solid dynamics and stage is large and reasonably accurate. Detail could be a bit better though

The good:

  • Tuning that generally sounds enjoyable with most music and isn’t overwhelming
  • Good impact and body along with that impact, doesn’t feel dull or lacking sharp attack
  • Non fatiguing and reasonably forgiving
  • Impressive separation for it’s coloration
  • Macrodynamic focus without forgetting micro
  • Reasonably black background

The meh:

  • Resolution isn’t super impressive but it resolves enough to not complain
  • While timbre is good it feels too colored to be organic
  • Stage large and reasonably deep although not stand out
  • Could use perhaps a bit more air and energy in the treble although that might upset balance
  • Signature not for everyone and on an overly warm setup it can get a bit too colored for some

For most amps, pairs decently well given you are going for that warmer tilt and the headphones and amp aren’t already overly warm, can feel overdone on a chain with a similar sonic goal. USB on the unit is already actually pretty good, improvement with better transports but good on it’s own still

The Audio Note DAC 5 Special v2 strikes a really nice balance overall, I hesitated calling it warmer relaxed as it can sound just pretty dang neutral depending on the chain and source material, but overall it does have a slight warmer smoother relaxed lean to it, but it’s subtle. It’s overall very organic, convincing stage and placement, really excellent tonality and timbre, great tonal density, and impressive body and meat, all while being fairly resolving of low level information, really great organic dac overall

The good:

  • Very nice organicness
  • Strikes an excellent balance of realism and enjoyment more focusing on realism
  • Lots of low level information but never thrust toward you
  • Pretty realistic spatial recreation and separation
  • Vacant background
  • Doesn’t call attention to itself
  • Pretty equally balanced macro and micro focus

The meh:

  • Can be unforgiving of source material and digital inputs
  • Engagement depends on pairing
  • Subbass slightly lacking absolute grip and control but not substantially so
  • Might not have initial wow factor but makes up for it in extended listening

Pairs pretty well with most things although something sloppy isn’t a good match as it may hinder transparency. Generally somewhat dependent on the digital transport for it’s sound quality, appreciates a good quality digital signal going into it

For the Concert Fidelity DAC-040, this dac offers an interesting balance of chill and more forward and fun, generally it’s chill but depending on the track can become forward at times, great tonal density and richness, reasonably neutral warmer while doing it. Things that have lots of information are pulled forward and things that don’t are kept more smooth and out of the way, not super common, but fun, makes things pop. Generally decently technical but not harsh or overly capable. Good at organicness but feels a bit embellished, in a good way, feel similarly about stage, as it’s got good depth and is pretty enjoyable, but stage is somewhat close

The good:

  • Tonal density is enjoyable
  • Timbre is very nice
  • Pleasing yet subtle coloration
  • Engaging listen depending on the music
  • Pretty immersive stage depth and layering
  • Decently forgiving

The meh:

  • Detail is good but not great
  • Things feel sometimes exaggerated in presentation
  • Not the blackest background
  • Extension is good but not impressive

Generally pairs well with most things although presentation can potentially conflict with the rest of the chain and can become less coherent. Also decently dependent on digital transport and appreciates higher levels.

Closing notes on the “Warm Relaxed” section and at a glance performance sheet. Dacs will be given 1-4, with 4 being the most in the category (most texture for example) or highest performing in that category, and 1 being the least or worst performing in that category. Keep in mind these are in comparison with each other, not to be taken out of context. Forcing myself to not make any ties. If there is a big gap between one dac vs the others, it will be denoted with a !

Generalized: Aqua Etalon Audio Note Concert Fidelity
Resolution 3 2 4! 1
Speed and Separation 3 2 4 1
Control and Grip 1 3 4 2
Texture 1 3 4 2
Treble Extension 2 3 4 1
Bass Extension 1 3 4 2
Microdynamics 2 3 4 1
Macrodynamics 1 4 3 2
Background (Blackest) 2 3 4 1
Stage Width 2 4 3 1
Stage Depth 2 3 4 1
Timbre 1 2 4 3
Tonality 1 2 4 3
Tonal Density 1 2 4 3
Smoothness 4! 2 1 3
Forwardness 1 2 3 4
Forgivingness 4 2 1 3
Organicness 1 2 4! 3

Personally my favorite out of these 4 dacs is the Audio Note, it to me strikes the best balance between realism, technical ability, and fun, but the other 3 dacs are pretty great as well

Moving on to the more warmer forward dacs on the list, and with some at the glance notes:

With the Mojo Mystique EVO Pro 21 this is a very fun focused dac, a real blast to listen to. Very dynamic, punchy and weighty, great timbre and tonal balance, resolution pushed forward a bit, holographic stage although slightly exaggerated in presentation. Tonal weight is stand out for how prominent it can be while still maintaining control and separation. Can be a bit too much fun for some specifically if you already have a pretty weighty and punchy pairing

The good:

  • Tonal density and weight that’s both very prominent and very well controlled
  • Low level information pretty easy to pick up on due to presentation
  • Solid timbre
  • Very dynamic overall
  • Makes most music pretty energetic and lively
  • Lots of punch and grip, hits hard
  • A decent bit of soundstage depth makes things fun

The meh:

  • Presentation can be slightly inorganic and feel slightly exaggerated
  • Treble clarity is good but not great
  • Slightly audible background at times
  • Can be too much for some systems

Generally pairs well with things although if you already have a fun warmer energetic leaning system, this could be a bit too much. Pretty dependent on the quality of the incoming digital signal, a good transport does improve a fair bit

The Totaldac D1-Direct with D1-Drivers MK2 monos is a very addicting dac. It’s bass grip, control, texture, depth, and density is like no other, it has a massive feeling stage, and placement is very very accurate and organic. It’s surface level detail initially doesn’t wow, but it has a ton of low level information for you to grab if you want it after deeper listening. Very dynamic, decay can be slightly slower than normal. It is slightly on the darker side of things though, which can be a factor in pairing

The good:

  • Texture very impressive
  • Lots of grip, command, and control
  • Great timbre
  • Impressive density
  • Very spacious but accurate stage, organic presentation
  • Low level info impressive
  • Dynamics are impressive
  • Very liquid and flows well

The meh:

  • Treble could use a bit more air and prominence
  • May sound slightly sluggish at times but not that big of a problem
  • Sensitive to parings

Generally it tends to pair well with things that have the same control and grip potential, that can also properly pass through it’s stage and texture, somewhat lost on lower end pairings, also you want some air. Sensitive to incoming digital signal, greatly improves with nicer digital signals

A studio oriented dac, the Lavry Quintessence this time, has a very distinct tone that generally tends to add to the sound of what’s being played through it in a pleasant way, adds more smoothness, weight, and sweetness throughout the range without touching most else like staging. It also adds a sense of power and presence to things that’s fun

The good:

  • Nice tuning that gives things more weight and substantiality, and a bit more forwardness
  • Good timbre
  • Nice punch and body
  • Nice width and space
  • Resolution forward in an organic way
  • Actually reasonably forgiving

The meh:

  • The signature might not work with all music
  • Can sound slightly hazy at times
  • Sometimes more grit and sharpness is desired
  • Microdynamics good but not great
  • Speed good but not great

Pairs well with most things surprisingly, pushes it’s strengths forward in most parings and that can become too colored. Actually not all that sensitive to incoming digital signals, it does improve with better but not by a super large amount.

When it comes to the Lampizator Golden Gate II Discrete, this dac tends to give you more than you expect, and all while being extremely balanced sounding. Great dynamics with a focus in microdynamics, an expansive and accurate stage, lots of information slightly forward but not shoved toward you, great timbre and tonality, a very vacant background, while also being fairly quick as well. Might feel slightly soft though, but not to a detriment, still has great control and nowhere near blunted

The good:

  • Very organic and engaging
  • Excellent balance and extension
  • Impressive staging
  • Lots of low level information
  • Great microdynamics
  • Vacant background
  • Technical without calling attention with impressive control

The meh:

  • Can be slightly soft sounding at times
  • Macrodynamics solid but not as impressive as micro

Generally pairs well with most things sans overly smooth amps, think it can get too smooth and potentially not have enough bite. Not super picky of how it’s fed but improves with nicer transports.

Closing notes on the “Warm Forward” section and at a glance performance sheet. Dacs will be given 1-4, with 4 being the most in the category (most texture for example) or highest performing in that category, and 1 being the least or worst performing in that category. Keep in mind these are in comparison with each other, not to be taken out of context. Forcing myself to not make any ties. If there is a big gap between one dac vs the others, it will be denoted with a !

Generalized: Mojo Totaldac Lavry Lampizator
Resolution 2 4 1 3
Speed and Separation 2 4 1 3
Control and Grip 2 4! 1 3
Texture 2 4! 1 3
Treble Extension 3 1 2 4
Bass Extension 2 4 1 3
Microdynamics 2 4 1 3
Macrodynamics 2 4 1 3
Background (Blackest) 1 4 2 3
Stage Width 3 4 2 1
Stage Depth 2 4 1 3
Timbre 2 3 1 4
Tonality 2 3 1 4
Tonal Density 2 4 1 3
Smoothness 3 2 4 1
Forwardness 4 3 2 1
Forgivingness 4 1 3 2
Organicness 2 3 1 4

Man, I really like the lampizator and totaldac, and think they operate in a different class from the mojo and the lavry, but the other 2 are good as well

A bit of a smaller group here for the more neutral relaxed dacs, time for more at a glance notes:

The Nagra HD DAC + MPS is a really impressive all rounder, specializing in low level information, flow and liquidity, organicness, and subtle presentation. Lots of information but presented realistically as well. Sometimes can feel a bit too soft, extension can sometimes be slightly lacking, and doesn’t have as much immediate wow factor but great long term

The good:

  • Very liquid sounding
  • Impressive resolving power for how natural it sounds
  • Fairly organic presentation overall with convincing placement
  • Generally makes things sound more enjoyable
  • Very impressive microdynamics
  • Solid texture and separation

The meh:

  • Extension is good but can sometimes feel lacking
  • More focus on micro rather that macro
  • Softness and lacking grip and grunt
  • Underwhelming with lesser recordings

Pairing wise, I actually like something a bit more energetic to balance out it’s more soft and smoother nature. Is decently picky about how you feed it, although doesn’t require it to sound good.

There are actually 3 dacs inside the Bricasti M21 Platinum, but they actually sound more similar to each other than not, so this makes it a bit easier lol. Generally a more clean organic signature that is technical without being harsh nor forward, wider more open relaxed presentation, very quick and light on it’s feet, good density as well, but with good grip. Also a bit softer leaning, but it does still have grip to back it up

The good:

  • Very technical and cleanly while being organic
  • Pretty immersive stage without calling attention to it
  • Quick on it’s feet while having lots of grip and appropriate body
  • Feels pretty rich while having a more clean tonality
  • Good balance between macro and micro
  • Nice extension and texture

The meh:

  • Tonality is slightly strange until you get used to it
  • Might not have as much wow factor as one wants
  • Perhaps too safe at times

Pairing wise, it’s kinda picky for what it meshes well with, something leaning too far toward warm or analytical doesn’t work well, shoot for the middle. Improves with nicer digital transport, but not required for good experience

I was considering putting the Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 in more neutral forward, but it tends to be more relaxed than not unless the music really calls for it to get forward, very clean and clear, pretty snappy overall, very fast, sharp and defined stage, good texture, slightly dry though at times, very tight and controlled

The good:

  • Lots of technical performance
  • Very fast and defined
  • Can get aggressive easily if it needs to be, and won’t if it doesn’t
  • More macro focus on things although micro is not neglected either
  • Great extension
  • Pretty versatile sound

The meh:

  • Slightly dryer thickness
  • Can be pretty revealing for poor material
  • Treble can get a slight bit hot at times

Generally it pairs well with more neutral to warmer chains, I wouldn’t pair with something more forward and aggressive. Is pretty dependent on the incoming digital signal from the transport for it’s performance.

Closing notes on the “Neutral Relaxed” section and at a glance performance sheet. Dacs will be given 1-3, with 3 being the most in the category (most texture for example) or highest performing in that category, and 1 being the least or worst performing in that category. Keep in mind these are in comparison with each other, not to be taken out of context. Forcing myself to not make any ties. If there is a big gap between one dac vs the others, it will be denoted with a !

Generalized: Nagra Bricasti Berkeley
Resolution 3 1 2
Speed and Separation 1 2 3
Control and Grip 1 2 3
Texture 3 1 2
Treble Extension 1 2 3
Bass Extension 1 2 3
Microdynamics 3 1 2
Macrodynamics 1 2 3
Background (Blackest) 3 1 2
Stage Width 1 3 2
Stage Depth 3 1 2
Timbre 3 2 1
Tonality 3 2 1
Tonal Density 3 2 1
Smoothness 3 2 1
Forwardness 1 2 3
Forgivingness 2 3 1
Organicness 3! 2 1

I really like all three and think they semi compete on a similar level with a slight edge to the nagra, although the bricasti is the best all rounded but also least remarkable

Moving onto the neutral forward category, time for more at a glance notes:

The Waversa WVDAC MK2 is a pretty unique dac, it has a fairly unique stage and presentation that is forward and in your face but not fatiguing, impressive separation, and still really nice tonal density. It’s not that organic but it is pretty holographic and dynamically impressive that makes music pretty fun, but it’s presentation can sometimes conflict with the pairing

The good:

  • Pretty immersive and holographic
  • Clean and slightly technical
  • Vacant background
  • Macro focus that also emphasizes micro in the process
  • Big wow factor
  • Pretty quick and snappy

The meh:

  • Presentation not organic or realistic
  • Pairing isn’t as easy
  • Detail is good but not great
  • Could be a bit smoother
  • Things can get too forward at times

Pairing is a bit harder, personally I prefer something a bit warmer and relaxed to offset this dac. While it did improve with nicer source transports, it didn’t drastically improve in is pretty solid on it’s own already

For the Rockna Wavedream Signature Balanced it’s seemingly all about being clean, quick, and holographic while still being organic and convincing. It is very snappy overall with a very linear signature with a bit of forwardness, stage that is pretty tight and accurate, a microdynamic focus with a goal of revealing lots of low level info. Still pretty decent timbre and tonal density, slight touch soft on the low end

The good:

  • Technical without going overboard
  • Very quick and tight sounding with good control
  • Sharp stage placement
  • Great microdynamics
  • Easy to hear technical capabilities
  • Solid texture
  • Nice flow

The meh:

  • Can be a bit light on the subbass and lack slam and impact
  • Timbre is good but not great
  • Macrodynamics good but not great
  • Slightly soft

Generally forgiving with pairing although if you go too analytical it might get a bit too dry and not have enough weight. Improves with nicer digital transports a decent bit

With a macro focus the BAT REX 3 DAC is an impressive choice for something decently neutral, but with a bigger more meaty presentation, macrodynamic focus, lots of resolution, and pretty great extension. Can offer smoothness when called for it, or it can get more aggressive and sharp if need be, pretty nice. Does sometimes feel overpowering though to some setups

The good:

  • Nice punch and slam
  • Great grip and control
  • Macrodynamic focus that gives big feeling sound
  • Stage with good depth and more forward presentation
  • Great extension

The bad:

  • Can get a bit too aggressive with poor recordings
  • Stage slightly pushed forward at times
  • Microdynamics while good not stand out
  • Sometimes overpowering to specific chains

Pairing wise, something more neutral tends to work well as sitting in the middle avoids it becoming overpowering. Upgrading the digital input signal does improve the dac a decent bit from my experience

I hesitated putting the Aries Cerat Kassandra II Ref G2 in neutral forward, mainly since it can really vary, it’s surprising how relaxed it can get at some times, and how forward at others. Pretty in the middle. Very organic in most ways it goes, with timbre and tonality being very good, spatial recreation being expansive and enveloping while being accurate, grip and control being really tight, and dynamics being on point. It does get decently unforgiving of poor source material though, and could potentially use a bit more. All with a hint of sweetness. Also great texture.

The good:

  • Technical while being very organic
  • Adapts well to the music being played
  • Equal macro and microdynamic focus
  • Immersive stage
  • Rich tonal density but not overdone
  • Great control

The meh:

  • Perhaps might be a slight bit too forward and sometimes aggressive in the midrange for me

So far it has paired well with most things outside of amps that lack transparency or are too rich. Generally slightly improves with better digital source but works pretty well out of the box.

Closing notes on the “Neutral Forward” section and at a glance performance sheet. Dacs will be given 1-4, with 4 being the most in the category (most texture for example) or highest performing in that category, and 1 being the least or worst performing in that category. Keep in mind these are in comparison with each other, not to be taken out of context. Forcing myself to not make any ties. If there is a big gap between one dac vs the others, it will be denoted with a !

Generalized: Waversa Rockna BAT Aries Cerat
Resolution 1 3 2 4!
Speed and Separation 2 3 1 4
Control and Grip 1 2 3 4!
Texture 1 3 2 4!
Treble Extension 1 4 2 3
Bass Extension 1 2 3 4
Microdynamics 1 3 2 4
Macrodynamics 3 1 3 4
Background (Blackest) 1 3 2 4
Stage Width 2 3 1 4
Stage Depth 3 2 1 4
Timbre 1 3 2 4
Tonality 1 3 1 4
Tonal Density 2 1 3 4
Smoothness 1 3 2 4
Forwardness 4 3 2 1
Forgivingness 4 3 2 1
Organicness 1 3 2 4!

The waversa was hard to rate due to how weird it could sound, but I think the general stand outs to me were the aries cerat and the rockna

And in a class of it’s own for slightly analytical, the Mola Mola Tambaqui lol. But it’s only that way since I don’t really have any other dacs I would call consistently analytical like the mola mola. Generally it has a very black background, with a ton of low level resolution, lots of speed and control, great grip, lots of depth with a slightly smaller stage, never harsh but brighter cleaner leaning consistently. Microdynamics are emphasized and forward. Still actually solid tonality and timbre. Might find it a bit too forward and unforgiving though.

The good:

  • Background blackness
  • Raw resolution
  • Micro focus
  • Revealing nature
  • Prevention from getting overly harsh
  • Stage depth and sharpness

The meh:

  • Can sometimes get a bit too forward
  • Stage can feel slightly limited in width from time to time
  • Could hit a bit harder

Would suggest not pairing it with something brighter, as that can easily be overwhelming. Did improve with nicer digital transport but did fairly well on it’s own.

Part 2 out of like 4 continued below


Let’s get a bit more vague and personal. My personal preferences when it comes to dacs ends up coming down to mainly 3 things. Timbre, Dynamics, and Spatial Recreation. If something misses on any 3, it’s likely not a dac for me, or it better do 2 of them damn well to compensate. It honestly can all boil down to time domain performance, somewhat of a sucker for that, I can enjoy most tuning or voicing given it’s got good time domain performance behind it. Imo nailing things in the time domain has yielded the most realistic or enjoyable experiences for me and my personal preferences, but I don’t want to say there isn’t really anything I don’t flat out care about, outside of vocal performance perhaps.

Below will be a list of my personal overall satisfaction of the dac, how much enjoyment I feel I get from it overall, regardless of technical ability (but there may be a correlation there lol), rated most satisfied to least

Satisfaction: DAC: Why? Stand out traits:
Most Aries Cerat Overall refinement coupled with technical level, completeness
Totaldac Texture, tangibility, bass in all regards, spatial recreation
Lampizator Nuance, organicness, fun with refinement
Audio Note Organicness with high accuracy, understated overperformer
Berkeley No nonsense technical performance done right
Nagra Smoothness and liquidity while not sacrificing technical performance
Mola Mola Analytical but really fun and enjoyable, without the typical drawbacks
Mojo Whole lotta fun for most things you run into it
Rockna Precision and technical without being overdone
Bricasti Relaxed refinement done right
BAT Explosiveness and emotion tamed
Etalon Casual listening tuning done right
Waversa Stage that envelopes and dissects with immersive presentation
Lavry No nonsense, but with a bit more emotion and fun
Concert Fidelity A focus on organic coherency
Least Aqua Smoothness and delicacy

This isn’t overall most capable to least, it’s just how I feel about having each, also shows how often I use each piece and how much I tend to crave listening to it. Some of these may be lower than you might expect in satisfaction, but this is overall satisfaction, so some of the master of none or one trick ponies get placed lower, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them if it’s ranked lower. After all, I decided to grab these for myself, I’m not going to torture myself and get something I don’t enjoy listening to. All these dacs are great, and I somewhat feel bad for placing the aqua so low as it still is a very impressive dac, just didn’t fit my preferences and didn’t fit my system I guess

On that note, let’s get a bit of a look into how I was sucked into each of these dacs enough to plunk down for them. Something else I forgot to mention is that for a lot of these, I owned lower end models previously and have been moving my way up since.

Aries Cerat: I was enamored when I first got a listen to this dac, everything just sounded… right, 0 qualms, mainly only music, hard to find faults for my personal systems and tastes. Just constantly craving more to listen to. Really not much more to say, it does everything so well that I really can only just listen and be happy

Totaldac: Was immediately wowed by the bass performance, so much texture and microdynamics, great body and slam to really kick when it should, spatial performance that laid things out in such an organic way that it immediately knocked my socks off. Dynamics were crazy enjoyable. While it may have some slight concerns in the treble and accurate decay, I was really just impressed how enjoyable and organic this dac could sound, all the muscle in the world while still being delicate underneath

Lampizator: The sweetness and refinement of the signature, coupled with the organic staging and placement with lots of depth, tonal density with excellent balance, and a more micro and nuance focus made this one stand out to me after getting it in, and I was also surprised to hear how well it handled music without nuance, can be fun if it wants to, and won’t punish that much for poor recordings. Hard to not enjoy

Audio Note: Very very natural, convincing and correct sounding without overstating itself, doesn’t call attention to the sound but more lets you grab whatever you want out of it, isn’t interesting at first listen, but man once it sets in after a few hours it really is enjoyable. At first was lukewarm, but this just kept growing and growing on me, once you start an extended session, it makes sure you commit to listening that long lol

Nagra: Smooth, but also technical, liquid and flow but still tight and clean, really good overall balance and all rounder that happens to be a slight touch warm and slight touch soft, very micro focus but makes it easy to pick up on that low level information. It is not engaging unless you are specifically looking for that info yourself, and if something doesn’t have that info, it will let you know by being dull. Smoothness you can feel, really enjoyable in that regard

Mola Mola: Detail, clarity, speed, precision, and depth, but never painful or unpleasant, pushes things forward to really let you hear what’s underneath, but somehow still sounds decently organic with solid tonal density, and reasonable punch, lots of control. With music that has a lot of information it’s a blast getting that stuff thrown at you, was surprised I enjoyed this so much. You will take the information and you will like the information, and I do lol

Berkeley: On first listen you can tell this dac means business and is trying to get out of the way as much as possible from your music. Clean, tight, technical, but good depth and punch, solid timbre, very sharp stage. I was impressed how well this handled a wide range of music and how coherent it was, nice all rounder that does pull you in without taking too much of your attention

Mojo: You want fun? You got it, makes anything you put though it an energetic experience (even if it’s slightly less accurate). Punch and slam that puts a smile on your face, holographic stage, dynamics that force you to pay attention, timbre that is rich but controlled, and detail that isn’t the focus but satisfies still

Rockna: This dac is a great balance of wow factor and not sounding overstated or exaggerated, has all it’s traits well refined and in balance, keeps you engaged and doesn’t let down, although sometimes it can be a bit no nonsense if it wants to be

Bricasti: So when I first got a listen here, I wasn’t actually impressed, it sounded good, but nothing stood out at all. After some time, that’s the biggest positive this thing has, it gets out of the way of everything while being really really technical, you just have to actively listen for what should be there, and when you do it’s there, very natural-neutral presentation that has continued to grow on me

BAT: This almost felt like someone took the nagra, and basically tilted it more forward, more clean than warm, and injected steroids into it’s muscled when it comes to slam and macro performance, but micro ends up suffering and it isn’t as technically proficient and refined as the nagra

Etalon: This is a confusing thing to say, but this dac is fun but also boring at the same time. It’s so casual it can get boring for critical listening. It’s pretty fun for semi active listening where you just want to chill and listen to music, but don’t want to devote your everything to the music at the same time, it doesn’t command the same attention as the other dacs do, which is both a strength and weakness

Waversa: What the hell is this staging and why do I like it? The separation feels overdone but it’s so immersive at the same time. Why does this still sound good? I would typically call it lacking coherency and feeling unrefined, but it somehow pulls it off, don’t know, hard to really explain lol

Lavry: It does it’s job and it does it well, but also isn’t that remarkable when doing it, but it is still enjoyable nonetheless, gives a almost slightly vintage and classic sound to whatever comes out of it, music enhancement for poor recordings but at the same time is revealing enough to still make them sound bad

Concert Fidelity: You can tell the clear focus was on tonality, timbre, density, and spatial recreation, but it somehow misses really low level resolution more than I would expect it to have, still impressive though and it caused me to stick with this dac for a decent amount of time since at the time other dacs didn’t pull off organicness this well

Aqua: I wanted to like this, but it’s too non offensive, it has some pretty good traits like it’s midrange coherency and organicness when it comes to bass and midrange, but subbass is lackluster and it’s just too damn smooth, too much for my tastes, really specialist

It’s honestly hard to dislike any of these dacs when you have good synergy pairings with them, all Perform pretty damn well and offer a higher level of music experience than what’s below, although to varying degrees, there are some clear higher performers within the group, and those that fall behind a bit. All are excellent dacs, but some are indeed higher performing than others, so I feel compelled to separate things into 3 performance categories. I don’t really want to do an overall like ranking system all against each other since I don’t really think it would convey properly and there would be too many circumstances where things would change rank depending on setups and whatnot, but I do think some of these dacs do deserve to get noticed for their higher technical ability out of the group.

I can’t really think of group names that would convey all I would want them to, so let me introduce you to the trio: Nice Shit, Oh Shit!, and Holy Shit!!!. Basically corresponds to what comes to mind when you listen to them and how you feel after experiencing them, coupled with technical performance and slightly includes some weighting for cost (as in if a dac is more expensive, expectations are higher for it). Should be enough information to get going. These are not ranked inside the 3 tiers so it’s not weighted by most to least or anything like that in contrast to previous tables

Nice Shit Oh Shit! Holy Shit!!!
Etalon Mola Mola Aries Cerat
Waversa Mojo Totaldac
Lavry Rockna Lampizator
Concert Fidelity Bricasti Audio Note
Aqua BAT Nagra

I should clarify here, all these dacs were able to give me a Holy Shit moment at some point at least once, they do have them in them, but it’s either much less common or more situational for ones rated lower on the shit scale where if it’s higher it’s more consistently happening

So now what? Not sure, I basically wrote this in a night and need to sleep, will get to the next parts with more cross comparisons and potentially deeper analysis when I get the chance, need to dive deeper into synergy for sure rather than just the vague statements. Perhaps make the next parts more meaningful. I apologize for how simplistic this ended up getting in description, but honestly it’s really hard to try and convey some of these things with these dacs, clearly audible but hard to articulate to someone else.

The mainly final part converting mainly synergy here, click to jump to post (just kidding there’s a decent bit more actually):


Very interesting and well written, excellent job!


IMHO, Enjoyable well thought out and informative read on equipment I will never own. As usual you know the equipment and relay what you hear very well.


This is brilliant reading. So much information and thoughts in one place. I enjoyed just reading and googling those beautiful dacs that I will probably never hear. But never say never maybe one day.
Looking forward to future episodes.


I will read though this whole thing. Getting ready to travel to Mother in Law’s house… or I should say, the kid’s grandmother. It’s the first trip we’re taking as a family since the whole covid shit, my “kids” are in their mid 20’s.

I will be looking forward to your entire post, and I must say @M0N that I take offense that this isn’t the right forum. lol Yeah, champagne wishes and belgium trappist beer budget. But hey, a guy can dream can’t he.

Anyway, where else would a scraggly group like the one we’ve got here get this wisdom? I am genuinely looking forward to reading your creation despite your reservations. lol




Very nice work @M0N; the most thorough hi-end dac comparison I’ve ever seen. Comparisons like this just don’t happen in most audio publications, which is frustrating because it’s arguably where the most learning happens.

Thanks for sharing your encyclopedic audio knowledge with us!


The time and effort for this alone just to have it formatted right is insane. @M0N i havent read this yet nor do i want to give myself high end fomo, but i look forward to diving into all those words.

What i really like is all the knowledge of this high end stuff trickles down into the more common price brackets. And no one is poo poo’ed for choosing a used car over a high end dac


I mean a few of these manufacturers make more entry level high end models that are fairly attainable, that generally sometimes carry a similar signature, so something to consider if you wanted to get a taste of some of these dacs (and honestly that taste ends up being enough for most people anyways)


Well, I’d like to make it more thorough soon since I can’t say I’m totally satisfied with it right now, so I guess expect that, but I appreciate the kind words

Hey look a post where I didn’t just have one block of run on text lol, yes that’s a bit of a new for me

Lol, it’s all in priorities


Oh for sure I will check and consult. I guess I should say this hobby is lifetime thing for many of us here so I hope I have many years to save and try and go up if it feels right. So time will show. No rush needed in this price range.

For Berkeley there’s the older alpha dac series 2 non reference for 5k MSRP but can be had for 2k used, pretty great

Lampizator has their amber 3 which is 4k new, around 2.5k used, also great

The cheapest totaldac that I would suggest would be the d1-single-mk2, and that is a bit higher at 7k, and generally not much cheaper used

There’s the nagra classic dac, which I think retails for 15k, but can be found used for like 6-7k

Waversa has the dac3 mkii which retails for around 8k typically goes for 4k ish

Etalon has their dacmini, but I’ve never heard it and don’t know of the price

Rockna has the wavelight dac, which retails around 5k and honestly isn’t much cheaper used

For audio note, there’s a lot of models below the 5 that are affordable, and prices vary a lot. Also there’s kit models that are cheaper as well

There isn’t anything cheaper from mola mola

Nothing else from bat worth looking into

For mojo audio you can find an older model like a mystique v3 for around 3-4k depending on options

Bricasti has their older m1, which retailed for 10k and at this point you can find used under 4k

No real cheaper AC gear

There’s the Lavry DA11 which is around 700 used at this point

Aqua actually has a more entry level dac I like, the La Voce S3, retails for around 5, used for typically 3k or less

And I’m actually pretty sure you can find the concert fidelity for like 2k used at this point, with the battery and new nx modes being more expensive

So yeah options if you wanted to get into some of these brands. But it’s a different tier of performance and the dacs do different things from their older siblings, so it’s not exactly apples to apples so don’t base it off the comparison above. Also this doesn’t include the cost of nicer ddcs or streamers which you would really want for some of these dacs


Epic post, no such other exists anywhere that a cursory search could reproduce. Been reading for an hour while also Pulling up general info on each DAC and i am only half way through M0N’s impressions. This has to be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable threads ever. Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts and impressions to “paper” M0N.


Is now a bad time to mention I’m already working on the 2nd out of 3 parts, as this was just the first? This next one will dive more into my personal feelings about how they perform, a deeper choice into why I decided I wanted to own them, stand out traits at a glance, and deciding to rank them into 3 performance classes (of undecided name). The 3rd part will more focus on synergy and source chains in more reasonable depth

I will be updating that 2nd post with this new information to make a more seamless transition


Excellent and thorough write up! Well done.


This model has been working for Hollywood, lol


Now, these are some charts I can get behind!

M0N, thank you for taking the time to do this! What an amazing resource. As always, your approach is able grasp the immense and nuanced complexity of these comparisons, while still remaining intelligible to the lay audience like me.

I’ll take two Wavelights, please. Extra sauce!


Part 2 is up, edited into the 2nd post, this one was a bit more shorter and concise


This just keeps getting more impressive, @M0N.

I have one incredibly burning question, tho:

Do you carry insurance on all this?

I mean seriously…your house is probably the Fort Knox of audio gear. What happens in case of fire or tornado or [insert home-destroying disaster in your part of the world]?

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:+1: I appreciate the kind words, also glad the tables aren’t too confusing

Will pm about it lol

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