What are the objective measurements for a DAC?

Hey Guys,

First off, im pretty new to the world, so if I say anything that’s wrong please point it out.

This question arises because its really easy to find measurements and their explanations for amps, but I haven’t been able to find much for DACs. From amp measurements, to say nothing of sound pleasantness, it at least seems fairly easy to identify well-performing uncolored unites through measurement. What are the corresponding things to look for in regards to an uncolored dac? Is that even a thing?

Without writing a novel about the relevant specs and why they matter, go here.
Just one of many reviews with objective measurements. Search for others.

Yes… but you may prefer to hear more colorful music. :grin:

Most of the DACs available today measure the same (100% ultra-flat line from 0hz to 20 000hz, meaning no bass, mids, treble boost, etc). And most of the DACs available today, and recommended here, also have more than 100dB SINAD (i.e.: You will not hear any distortion either, or anything that “colors” your music in a bad way).

The funny thing is… they don’t sound the same. Measurements aren’t everything. And ASR, for example, certainly doesn’t measure everything either. If you want a smooth DAC (more mids and more bass), search for one with an AKM chipset in it. If you want an even smoother DAC, go with Burr-brown. If you want a crisp, clean, clear DAC, go with ESS. But some people complain about ESS because its too “analytical”, the high frequencies are too “sharp” (sibilance, shrillness, annoying treble).

…and if you want to hear something more “musical” (colorful), there’s R2R tech, too).

You’re searching for a DAC? Do you already have an amp?

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I have read audio science reviews on several DACs. My main problem is that, unlike for amps, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus in the community if his measurements reflect user experience. With just how big of a role expectation bias can play in the minutia of audio differences but also the fact that it even admittal of most objectivists that measurements cant get everything, im just kinda at a loss of what I’m realy looking at/who to trust.

No I’m not. I just recently discovered the comunity when I ordered pandas and decided to take a deeper look when I figured out how big of a difference a higher quality track makes even on shitty headphones, but no plans to dive deeper yet. Just reading around and learning and confused by a lot of the DAC stuff.

Oh, no doubt. I just figured that learning what makes a clean uncolored sound seems like a good starting place for learning about hifi tech.

This is exactly where I am getting confused. When reading headphone measurements and such there are massive discussions on where things like soundstage and imaging are ‘hid’ in the measurements and, what seems like, an active call out of the things that we cant measure in each review. I dont see these sections in almost any DAC review, yet talks of chipset sound differences are everywhere.

I’m not going to get into measurements, IMO they should be used to confirm something isn’t broken, not assess how correct something is, or how good something sounds.
From my experience DAC’s sound different.
If you don’t agree with that, just stop reading.
The difference is more apparent with more expensive DAC’s, and has more to do with the design of the power supplies and input/output sections than it does the actual DAC chip or R2R Ladder.

Most of the <$200 DAC’s like most of the <$200 amps sound more alike than different, there are still differences and generalities you can draw, but you really do need to pay very close attention, and for most people with lower cost headphones, it really isn’t worth worrying about.

I personally prefer the AKM DAC’s at the entry level, the ESS DAC’s present treble with a bit more brittleness, but the differences are subtle if you haven’t “heard” them.
Where things get interesting is AKM DAC’s are rarely if ever used in high end DAC’s, ESS dominates the more expensive DAC space, and higher cost ESS DAC’s don’t sound like their entry level brethren.

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Sorry if thats the way my post came off. I am mostly just trying to understand whats going on with the reviews since I haven’t heard any high end DACs, much the less compared them. I am honestly just confused as to why reviewers dont talk about whats outside of the measurements (like they do with headphones) while different chips/techs/DACs with identical measurements sounding different seems to be just an accepted fact.

Ultimately, I just basicaly dont like that I cant seem to find explanations of why different techs/dacs sound different but I also cant find anyone going “we have no fucking clue how to measure this” like I can with headphones and want to know if im missing something.

Ultimately, for budget options, everyone seems to just go “find one with the features/inputs/formats you need and just move on and dont sweat it”, and that makes sense to me, so im not realy worried about finding a dac for myself, just understanding whats going on

My experience is different from most people.

I’ve found that digital filter plays a very big role in how a DAC sound.

I use a Burr-Brown DAC which used to sound off to me. It was just too loose and smooth, especially in the bass region. I switched to DSD and it almost fixed the issue.

But my player (Neutron) can make digital filter. So I made a sharp filter and to my surprise, Burr-Brown sounded crisp, clear, and fast. That looseness and over-smoothness were gone. Now I’ve switched back to PCM.

Even my LG G4 which uses an old Qualcomm dac sounded noticeably better. I could even distinguish the difference in an AB test.

I know for sure that weak digital filters make dac sound smooth. The best R2R dacs have usually sharp and powerful filters even in NOS mode.
It’s the same case with the Burr-Brown dac (DSD1793). a measurement showed that the digital filter is too weak causing “stairs” in frequencies.

Because measurements are “easy” (They are not, and a lot of measurements are flawed). “Bigger/Smaller number better” makes for an easy review.

Reviewers, at least good ones do talk about the sound, the problem with DAC measurements is that given what sites like ASR measure they ought to be pretty much identical, so the measurements aren’t useful.
If a DAC doesn’t have close to perfectly flat response to a frequency sweep and generally good linearity, it’s broken, outside that the measurements tell you little to nothing, so why even mention them.

Headphones, like all transducers (Speakers, Microphones, Cartridges) have relatively speaking massive errors in frequency response, out side a very few tube amps, nothing else in the system changing that response would be noticeable. I think these gross errors and an ability to point at graphs and correlate it to sound has resulted in an assumption that the other things you can hear but aren’t necessarily apparent on a FR graph are hidden there somewhere.
Personally I can listen to headphones with a variety of FR curves and enjoy them all without feeling the need to EQ something, in fact I consider it one of the least interesting parts of a headphones signature.

But the gross errors are why you buy a headphone you like first and don’t expect to fix it with electronics. That’s not to say that electronics do not have an effect, they do, but it’s far more subtle, for the most part when people talk about bright or dark amps they are talking about perception rather than measured frequency response.

A JDS Atom will measure just as flat in FR as a Liquid Spark, and yet they sound different, to me that implies measurements are not capturing what we’re hearing, there are easier tests for this if your DAC or amp has a phase switch, there are recordings where flipping absolute phase will change the staging, yet that change won’t show up on a frequency sweep.

Where ASR and a measurement focus has been a positive impact on hifi is at the entry level where a push for measurements has meant that there has been a significant improvement in the average quality of what’s available. There was good gear always available at the entry level, but there was also s lot of junk.
Where that starts to be an issue with measurement focus is when measurements drive sales and manufacturers optimize for a small set of measurements over all subjective metrics.


I understand what you’re getting at.
The real purpose of ASR is primarily to verify manufacturer spec claims.
I don’t recall the exact numbers, but generally the products we’re getting these days are so good any issues are typically well outside the limits of human hearing.

On how a DAC “sounds”, unless you’ve got unlimited funds and the means to objectively test every conceivable pairing of DAC and Amp for every given headphone or speaker you may use - ridiculous, right? - I can only suggest choosing a sonically clean product based on budget and features and go with it.

That was never really the point of ASR, if anything it’s mellowed a bit, but most of the criticisms levelled at the site including favoring certain manufacturers, sloppy measurement practices etc. have some Basis historically.

I would suggest you listen to gear in the price range your interested in, and cheaper if you want and make a decision based on what you like.

I own 4 entry level DAC’s, and I could live with any of them, so pick something you find aesthetically pleasing and don’t worry about it until the rest of your gear is at a point where you get into BiFrost2, Soekris, Aries territory.

Once your out of the entry level it’s usually quite possible to audition gear, usually for headphones with your own gear in the chain.
If you can’t audition it, buying/selling used is a good way for it not to cost too much to audition gear.


I should have prefaced that statement with “For me…”
Anyone in this audio game will have critics and claims of bias, etc, but the guy is still doing more than most. YoutTube reviews, for example, are little more than entertainment with almost no value. Some of them so pompous it’s laughable.

“I own 4 entry level DAC’s, and I could live with any of them”

That was more or less what I getting at. The differences in how the D/A chips are implemented and how the output stage is designed in similarly priced products are going to be subtle.
It’s ends of the chain that matter most, your source material and the headphone/speaker you are listening to.

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Measurements, of many.

Sorry it took me a while t respond here. I wanted to read ASR’s measurement explanation a few more times before I did. Essentially the problem is DACs is that we just have no idea where the sound coloration is coming from (like headphones)? With amps it seems to be that you can determine if there is major coloration through the measurements alone, so I had just assumed dacs would be similar.

Major coloration doesn’t exist anymore unless you ask for it and get an R2R DAC or Tubes, for example.

Otherwise, ohms. Different speakers or headphones with different ohms (literally, different resistances to electric current) will act differently, therefore color the sound differently (i.e.: DT880 32ohms, 250ohms, 600ohms).

Different amp technologies can do weird things too (Questyle’s Current Mode Amplification, etc).

But most of all… To confirm how something should sound:

  • You had to be in the studio and hear the music there.
  • So that’s only for live studio recordings.
  • That weren’t mastered in any way.
  • Recorded with the most “neutral” of microphones.

How many CDs were recorded like that? To my knowledge? One. So… find headphones, speakers, amps adapted to your own, personal, unique ears enough to make you feel as if you’re at a bar you know, or at a show you went to, or a studio you went to, and enjoy. :headphones:

Because, chances are, whatever “measurements” and “science” says, you may not even like what you hear from a “hypothetically perfect neutral natural and distortionless” source + dac + amp + headphones or speakers… because all ears are unique anyway.

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Oh, I fully get the issues with aiming for 0 color. I’m not particularly interested in that fwiw (I think my first pair of bigger boy headphones will likely be argons). I’m just trying to understand how exactly the tech its self works and is understood. I do have an afinity for measurements in most any field, but I also get that they aren’t all telling. I was mostly trying to figure out what you can find out about a dac with just measurements. Seems like the answer to the is “is it junk?”

You’re getting a set of answers here and would get a different set of answers on ASR. Which you probably know.

Yah. Im well aware. I specifically asked here because this place seems to be the most balanced with people going “measurements dont tell the whole story” (which is objectively true with things like sound stage and imaging which we dont know how to measure yet) but still calling out bullshit like poor power filtering on expensive products and bullshit snakeoil without massive negative backlash. Ultimately I am well aware that all of this asside from a simple “I like X” has to be taken with a pretty solid grain of salt no matter what comunity you are in.


… and “I like X and use Y YouTube reviewer to support my like” even more salt!

I don’t think I assess the “balance” the same way you do (on either of the two mentioned forums) but it seems like you’ve considered the caveats and have your reasons at least.

Mind if I ask how you perdsonaly balance it? Im very new to the world of higher end audio, so I’m very open to hearing the tint of others glasses.