Why you should spend most of your budget on your DAC

It’s pretty simple really. Headphones are scaled down speakers and a headphone amp is a scaled-down version of a speaker amp, however, there’s no such thing as a headphone DAC, therefore it’s only rational that one would spend most of their budget on a headphone system on the source.

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Going to leave the source out of this but generally it’s Transducer > Amp > Dac but ultimately it’s down synergy.

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This seems like trolling/bait.

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Don’t really understand this logic and how it leads to that conclusion. Imo if you wanted to make the dac is the most important argument, you could say that everything starts with the dac, so an amp can only amplify what it’s given, and a headphone can only reproduce what the amp gives it, so the piece at the front (dac) will ultimately potentially determine or limit the performance of the rest of the chain moreso than any other component. Even then it doesn’t mean you should always prioritize a dac though

I’m one of those people who might actually put the dac ahead of the amp as you go up, but there’s a ton of things to consider when trying to find balance within a chain and what actually makes sense and provides the best bang for buck. At different levels of performance what matters more changes due to what you can get for dacs at sub 1k vs an amp at sub 1k vs a headphone at sub 1k.

I don’t think it’s wise to say to spend most of your chain on a dac, or really on one piece at all, it’s all about balance and finding the bottleneck in your chain to allow all pieces to perform to their best. If you dump your budget into one singular aspect and neglect everything else, you typically end up with a fairly lackluster result vs having some attempt at carefully deciding how to make your chain.

You can put all your money into a dac but not really realize that benefit because the amp and headphones suck, you could dump a ton of money into your amp but not realize that benefit because the DAC and the headphones suck, you could dump everything into your headphone but not realize that benefit because the DAC and amp sucks. It’s really more about balance. For what that balance is, it will depend on the specific gear, goals, and level of experience at hand

Sometimes spending the most on the headphone is the clear way to maximize what you get for your money, as you go up and the level of demands increase sometimes putting the most into the amp yields the best sound per dollar. Go even higher and perhaps the biggest limitation becomes the dac so that becomes the priority. Again though that’s all going to depend on so many factors that it doesn’t make sense to blanket statement “spend the most on this always” or “this is always the most important” etc. Things don’t always scale linearly or how you might expect if you haven’t had experience at the next level

Edit: I guess I get where you’re going with the initial statement, but I think it’s incorrect to look at headphones as scaled down speakers and headphone amps as scaled down speaker amps, because they are a different category of product with different demands and designs for optimization for each other. As an example of how that might not check out, if you take a headphone amp and a speaker amp of the same price and use both to drive headphones, you’ll typically find the headphone amp to give better sound per dollar compared to the speaker amp (assuming there’s a reasonable level of synergy and paring between them). But if you’re going to drive speakers obviously the speaker amp is a better choice. Just because something is smaller doesn’t mean is worse, all depends on the job something is given and what it was made to do/excel at. You’re just making the assumption that all 2ch gear is just better and will be better for headphones than things designed for headphones which I don’t think is a wise assumption

The reason there’s no headphone dac (well there are, but it’s just a dac with built in headphone amps or features that might suit headphone users more such as crossfeed), is because there’s no real reason to be, it does equally good a job with both speakers and headphones as a source

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Nah, it’s not that simple.

You can have the greatest DAC on Earth, and if your amp provides nothing but dirty, distorted, imbalanced power, then your headphone probably will sound like shit, especially if it demands plenty of power.

Agreed. Of course, I’m the kinda guy that wouldn’t mind having a DAC, several amps (as they can flavor the sound in more direct ways, eg. tubes vs solid state), and several headphones/speakers (as, if anything, they do the most to give shape and color to sound). If you want something to just slap you across the face that your music is bad, the amp and headphone/speaker combination are going to do more to do that then a DAC will. Not too say you should pair a super budget DAC with mid or high end amps, but who’s to say you can’t?
My end game would be more of:
A good enough DAC, perhaps two if needed.
A clean amp, a more colored amp, a hybrid tube, and a full tube.
Varied headphones/IEMs. Maybe I feel like something to hit me with bass. Maybe I want something more calm and relaxed. Maybe I want all the detail. Maybe I’m in the mood for EDM. Maybe some metal. Maybe something classical. Maybe I wanna game.
This isn’t including speakers, I know, but still. I’d like to be able to cover my bases with the different flavors as my mood changes.

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Yeah but you’re going to stereo either way, i.e. 2 channels of 0 1 (numbers) to vibrations. Thus, there’s no need for a “headphone DAC”, only a component at the front of the chain that appropriately hands off the small, recently converted analog signal, to the amplifier.

Don’t overthink it.

Addendum: And for what it’s worth, I think audiophile DACs are baloney. You don’t NEED one like you do good headphones, or a powerful enough amp to drive them. Yes you get a different flavor, but unless you’re $5,000+ in, don’t bother.

Yeah, I said it.

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From my personal experience, I suggest people go after a DAC that provides extra features to make it useful for more things. Things that many ‘mainstream consumer’ DAC’s overlook.

  • For example. I greatly enjoy having a very clean, precise, and accurate EQ. On cheaper DAC’s the EQ’s can sound muddy, and often do not behave the way one would expect. Even those which come with ‘sound color’ presets, are often lacking in many ways.

  • But in the professional studio arena of sound editing - precision and accuracy are hugely important. And this filters down to many normal users as well. Putting a Professional level EQ in the hands of anyone, gives them an extremely useful and powerful tool - and can greatly enhance the listening experience.

DAC’s are certainly important. But I feel it entirely fair to expect a DAC do more, than just convert sound for running into our amplifiers.

For example purposes only!
This is only being used to show that DAC’s can do more!

From my personal gear:
I own and prefer the RME ADI-2 DAC FS. I have used it since the end of October in 2022.

  • This DAC has an amazing ability to adjust sound and loses nothing in the presentation. It can make almost any pair of headphones ‘sound good’ - provided you are willing to spend a bit of time twiddling with the sound presentation. All due to the Pro Recording Studio level EQ, as well as many other studio style sound adjustments, this DAC supplies.

  • To finish up, I will link two video reviews for the RME ADI-2 FS DAC, to give you a better idea of why this might be a good feature set to start thinking about for your future DAC purchases.

I personally run this DAC to a separate dedicated Amplifier (a Topping A90D for the curious), and only use this as a DAC. Although it also has a very capable headphone output too.

  • Zeos also has a review on this DAC, which gives a better idea of just how many features this DAC can supply. - It’s a lot more than just a simple EQ.

  • This review is quite entertaining, because it’s one of the few reviews that have gotten Zeos to drink alcohol on-screen. It has an overwhelming suite of features, and they are all Very useful, and exceedingly well implemented.

  • This next review goes over the technical details as well as reviewing the DAC itself, and explains why how all these features work, and what makes them important.

I believe it is entirely fair to demand more from our DAC’s, than just simply sound reproduction. Especially when you start hitting the 1,000 dollar and above category.

Is there an advantage to doing EQ on the DAC rather than on the software level? Don’t most studios these days use the EQ functionality that already exists in tools like Pro Tools, so that you can EQ individual instruments rather than all the sound at once?

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This would require an answer from someone who works in a professional sound studio, or someone involved more closely with that side of the audio world. I have not done any professional sound work since I worked in a Radio Station more than 20+ years ago. My knowledge there is a bit old.

I can say it’s very handy to have prepackaged with great quality sound output in a self contained unit. I have greatly enjoyed tinkering with settings to adjust custom presets for each of my various headphones and speakers, to give them the type of sound I personally enjoy.

For me, it ended the endless hopping through various sets of equipment, because it allows me to customize sound output exactly the way I want it. And being a clean precise level of adjustment is very important, and something I have not run into on cheaper units. EQ twiddling almost always tends to obscure the sound a bit. But on this unit, I have not noticed any difference in the quality of the sound, just adjustments to the various tones, as you would expect from a clean EQ adjustment.

(The second video I linked in my earlier post talks about that a little)

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This was @Kenyon reply to me regarding analogue v’s digital eq…

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From checking the companies page - Yes this is a Parametric EQ (PEQ)
The reviewers weren’t fibbing, it is considered professional studio gear.
The second video I linked goes over that a bit.

This is why I feel we should demand more from our DAC’s. If we are spending professional studio level money, we should be getting professional studio level quality and feature sets.

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all things being equal…no part of the sound chain should be prioritized over the other as if you do that, then you create a bottleneck. ideally your DAC and Amp have the same level of investment into them as your headphones do. while most headphones will scale as your chain quality goes up, the reverse is not true; if you have expensive cans and a cheap sound chain the headphones are not likely to perform as expected and intended.

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To be fair you do both types of mastering. It’s exactly the same as big picture and in the detail working - one helps define the other.

Doing EQ in the DAC would be equivalent to in software depending on it being a well implemented DSP & DAC design as the DAC process would follow any DSP. There used to be a need to separate them to offload tasks to another device so your software wouldn’t freeze. For context you can see a separate DSP box for UA devices used but processors are now at a point where that is mostly redundant performance wise and it all could be done from the one computer in software.

The RME that has been mentioned is great - it is the home hifi version of the Pro which is their TOTL home studio audio interface. The EQ is done completely digitally in that device. And it is much more than simple EQ it is a fuller DSP. Whilst it is not an absolute top performer for transparency (still top 2% and exceeding audibility anyway) it’s the features, great build, and well thought through execution that make it a benchmark. No snakeoil with RME, they explain pretty much everything in detail including certain design choices and how that influences the product and measurements. I legitimately know people who use this as the DAC in their mastering chain. And I wish we had more DACs inbuilt with DSP for home listening - it is something Topping has been hinting at for awhile.

For pro audio conversion the budget sort of goes -
Motu (best bang for buck), RME, which then kicks up to UA (they are tieing you into their plugin software system which is top notch but expensive) and in big budget studios Antelope (shockingly shit), Apogee (personally not as familiar) & Avid (pro tools). But this is more ADC focused. To be honest the DAC part of pro audio is less discussed than in audiophile circles… (Read into that what you will)

I am hoping the Chinese DAC & Headphone Amp performance and price dominance will infiltrate pro audio but the build & reliability will be maintained. Currently the only pro audio DAC (apart from the RME) that I would recommend for HiFi would be the Motu Ultralite series as you can use them as a multichannel DAC if you wanted to run a cheaper but better performing balanced surround system using active monitors. The Topping DM7 is the only hifi competition unless you have been blessed by the gods and can grab an OKTO Dac8 Pro. But again that is using pro audio for a very narrow defined application in the home.

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Ohh this is definitely not studio money… & the feature set is wild for pro audio where stuff is usually narrowly defined (outside of the Budget ranges) or you suffer for quality.
The RME is an outlier for performing pro audio.

100% Agreed - it would be great to get better features on DACs. But we are also blessed to be getting such high level DAC performance at the low cost it is now available at. Go back 10 years and this performance was inconceivable at tens of multiples of the cost.

Topping did high performing combos, then limits of audio performance measurements, now multichannel so DSP is supposedly next. And let that filter down the chain until it becomes standardized (and hopefully QC reliable) - then maybe we will get a decent software partner to allow that hardware to really shine as hard to see a HiFI audio company building something to rival pro audio /tech software DSP offerings from scratch.

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I just want to say that I think the RME ADI-2 is a total piece of shit and performs nowhere near as good as any DAC at a comparable or even significantly lower price points. You guys are smoking crack talking up that pile of garbage. You’re paying $1000 extra for EQ you can use without a PC. It performs like a $200-$300 DAC. Not even slightly higher.

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What makes you think it’s a piece of shit? I mean it’s a DAC it pretty much works or it doesn’t and hard to deny from the measurements that this works beyond audibility. I mean it’s used as a reference & personal set at ASR so it’s pretty lauded and tested with the measurement mafia… God that crack tasted good… :man_facepalming::man_facepalming::man_facepalming:

How many/what XLR balanced DAC/AMP combos at $200-$300 outperform it?
I imagine you are referring to the C200 & DX3Pro+ but these are not balanced HA & not XLR (C200 was also launched with QC issues and Topping had an awful last year for reliability with PA5 having to be withdrawn from the market - making this an impossible recommendation for Pro Audio). For the general listener these are phenomenal for the price and if I was talking to someone new in the hobby 100% they get recommended valuewise over a $1000+ DAC Combo as your better putting your money on speakers or headphones.

Similarly do any other DAC/AMP combos provide DSP - I can just think of the FLEX or SHD… But that measures worse and isn’t XLR. RME found a market niche that measures and utility/aesthetically is preferable to the ADC/DAC MiniDSP model, needing a connected computer for DSP or Pro Audio rack units which are not user friendly for PEQ.

Regarding measurements - it measures at 115 (117 max setting) Sinad and a TOTL DAC/AMP like the Dx7 Pro+ is 123. They both have good headphone amplification power measurements but transparency is better on the RME which is still TOTL measurement wise even though it is 2-3 years older than the competition. The ability to up the voltage allows higher end amps to also be fed in a passive speakers setup - which is not possible at the price range you spoke of.

Is it overpriced in comparison to a Topping or SMSL or Gustard - yes - but they don’t have the QC, warranty, features or filters to be comparable for what this is generally used for. And that is from someone that is a Chifi fanboy. Neither are they pro audio… (The RME is actually choosen for it’s price in that world - if your interested go check out some of the alternatives that are used in the studio to see the insane pricing). In the end here you are paying for a complete feature set, reliability and serviceability + Western audio brand mark up. Just depends on your application and where your budget is at.

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First mistake. The measurement mafia over at ASR doesn’t mean shit. The tests they do are anything but conclusive and leave some of the most important measurements that could actually mean things completely out of the equation, and its mostly so they can keep up their elitist mentality that means nothing to anyone but themselves. “Audibly transparent” means fucking nothing and is solely an ASR term. The ADI-2 sounds AUDIBLY shitty.

No, absolutely not, both of those are by no means good and they’re not just DACs, they’re combo units and the DX3 Pro+ is a BAD combo unit. There is literally no such thing as a combo unit without sound quality sacrifices in the name of convenience. You’d be hard pressed to find a standalone DAC anywhere in the $200-300 price range with worse technicalities than the ADI-2. Name any DAC at all in that price range and its almost guaranteed to perform better, and I’m dead serious and I really don’t think I’m exaggerating whatsoever.

Problem here is that it isn’t good DSP and it isn’t “lossless” just because its digital, there are very significant problems with EQ, especially when built into the DAC unit, and a lot of times they manifest as phase distortion and general problems in time domain and just because you can’t hear it, doesn’t mean it isn’t audible. If you can’t hear extreme amounts of bad phase alignment, that’s fine, its not uncommon and it can be extremely hard to hear with certain transducers, but if you or someone you know is mastering with an ADI-2, quit now. You don’t have the ears for mastering. On the topic of XLR vs RCA, it doesn’t matter, it is solely down to implementation.

This is not true. While I think the DAC in the ADI-2 is mediocre at best, the headphone amp in it compounds the problems and it is seriously one of the worst headphone amps money can buy. Again, “audibly transparent” isn’t a real thing you can discern from ASR measurements, this isn’t an opinion.

Goalpost moving. Stick to the DAC performance.

Again, objectively false. Nobody worth their weight in salt at mastering is EVER going to use an ADI-2 for mastering. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ADI-2 was leaps more capable if it didn’t have the DSP chip in it at all or had a way to disable it at a hardware level and completely bypass it, but it is there and with it there, you are getting literally audibly worse performance than something like a Schiit Modius, Topping E30 ii (I actually hate this DAC but ASR measurements or subjective listening wise, its leaps better than the ADI-2), or other DACs in the same price range.

I’m not going to claim to have golden ears, but I am pretty sensitive to time alignment and phase angle and misalignment, both of which most people into audio think is completely irrelevant but is arguably more important than SINAD measurements, especially when getting over the ASR “audibly transparent” magic number of SINAD and while we’re on the topic of SINAD, the ADI-2 sits at 112, not 115 or 117. 112 and with just awful dynamic range and phase distortion from the headphone out. If you’re after the ability to plug the optical out from your TV into something you can slap some EQ or DSP into for sheer convenience, then yeah, I guess it has its place, but that is literally it. Software EQ is objectively better than the ADI-2 can accomplish and not by a small amount. If the ADI-2 is convenient in your situation, cool. I’m not saying don’t buy it, I’m just saying from a price to performance perspective, you literally can’t make a worse buy. The fucking thing is $1300 and a $300 stack outperforms it both objectively and subjectively and the only thing that $300 stack wont have is hardware EQ, that is literally all. I’m all for brands having good customer service, warranty, and quality control, but the idea that there’s tons of chifi DACs and amps out there failing at high rates is simply wrong. They might have higher failure number, but they also sell 1000 times more units per month than RME will sell in the lifetime of their company. There’s gonna be a few that fall though the cracks and I’d bet money there’s quite a few chifi companies that have a lower failure percentage. I said it in my first post and I’ll say it again, You are paying $1000 for hardware EQ on the ADI-2 and literally nothing more and even without the EQ, you’re getting a sub par performing DAC and amp. If the ADI-2 didn’t have the DSP and was only a DAC and amp combo, I genuinely wouldn’t pay $300 for it, the C200 is leaps better in every way imaginable and it isn’t very good either.

TLDR for those too lazy to read the above (even though you should): Measurements ain’t everything, the rme offers poor subjective dac performance (which is what actually matters), eq isn’t magic and will degrade fidelity to some extent the moment it’s introduced and moreso the more you use it, the headphone out is only good enough for convenience, rme is prosumer quality at best and not up to snuff compared to some other mastering converters, and you’re trading too much quality for not enough benefit in features and convenience for the price.

I’d mostly agree with all of it.

It’s a poor value at it’s price point compared to other offerings, and I’d never suggest it to someone unless they want to burn a grand for <200 buck performance. Not sure if there’s more I could add because if that isn’t a final nail in the coffin I don’t know what is lol. From my personal experience with the unit, there isn’t anything redeeming about it sound wise to justify the price tag. I also don’t eq my headphones often though so that’s something to note. I’d rather have an allo revolution dac, geshelli jnog, schiit modius, what have you, or something from smsl or even topping if I needed features. And if you need a headphone amp just grab a jds atom+ or magni 3+ or another nice 100 buck headphone amp, you’ll be better off than using the internal one.

My main question to you would be have you tried it? Can you confirm what you preach with your own two ears? If not, why are you even bothering to defend it? If you have heard it please do note your experience, as that’s really what matters. Otherwise, I’m not sure if there’s any meaningful discussion you can bring to the table, nor any meaningful response you can give on the topic. It’s all just noise otherwise, and obviously it’s always better to have the least amount of noise right?

How did this thread becomes about an adi 2 anyways? Hey pizza man, why you gotta write an ad for rme every time someone brings up the word dac? Literally looks like something I’d find on one of those autogenerated spam review sites if I searched for “best dac” on google, if you didn’t have previous posts on the site I’d have genuinely thought you were a bot

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But they have issues. Without they might sale even more but… just the issues are still there.
Also the trouble people will have… having to spend hours of solving the troubles vs. not having these troubles and only few emails is worth few hundred easy.