Jul 24, 2018346 views

What makes amps and dacs better than others?

I have the Sound Blaster X7 amp and dac combo and was looking into other amps and dacs. What makes an amp and dac better than others and what would be recommened for under $500. I use Sound Blaster XM7 bookshelf speakers, as well as my Beyerdynamic Amiron Home and Sennheiser HD 700. I do A LOT of gaming and music listening.
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carlosmante
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I'm really happy with my Audio-gd R2R-11. If you only want a straight DAC it might even be cheaper and I really think its hard to beat for the price. Look it up, not seen anyone unhappy with the performance of these amps/dacs yet.
http://www.audio-gd.com/R2R/R2R11/R2R11EN.htm
This is a different flavour of conversion than delta/sigma dacs, and might be an aqquired taste. Ymmv.
So in my opinion (and this is an opinion), the quality of an amp/dac is measured by the level of distortion introduced to the source audio file. The more distortion the worse the quality. I personally prefer my equipment be as neutral as possible, and as an added bonus, it is possible to test this fairly objectively.
I also like my DAC to include some good EQ settings if possible. This is mostly for convenience, as it saves time installing some fairly non-intuitive software.
I always start with feature set when determining if I want/need a change in gear. First selecting gear that meets my functional needs it then limits the options down to just a few. I then look for reviews/posts that compare the options either against each other or against something I already own. For example I plan to separate my stereo from my home theater again in the future. As such I will need pre-amp functionality that my receiver currently covers. I will need at least two outputs, preferably three as I will have amps, subs and headphone amp(s) attached to the stereo. Next I set a budget, which in this case is <$2500 to cover DAC/Pre-amp capabilities in either a combined or separate solution.
This has led me to looking at/comparing the following gear: Benchmark DAC3 L Mytek Brooklyn+ PS Audio Stellar GC DAC Schiit Gungnir Multi-bit + Freya
I then create a pro/con comparison on features and feed in my subjective research on sound quality and make a decisions (not there yet with this scenario).
I will say one thing to keep in mind when reading "objective" based reviews... "Inaudible is inaudible, you don't get brownie points for making it 100x more inaudible." While I do read ASR, I feel they do a generally poor job on calling out inaudible and use some pretty arbitrary thresholds for what they consider "good" measurements.
ElectronicVices
Agreed; I wouldn't trust anything out of ASR after their hack-job on the Yggy.
As an amp/dac combo, the Topping DX7s is hard to beat, especially in the <$2k price range. It's cheaper than the Jotunheim, measures better, and can't possibly kill you. Jotunheim looks sexier, though, which has a bigger impact on sound quality than you might think.
https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/review-and-measurements-of-topping-dx7s-dac-and-headphone-amp.2378/
As far as general advice goes, there is so much about our hearing that is internal to our brain that it is hard to make suggestions based on personal experience. (Consider for a moment, how impressive visual illusions can be in spite of the fact that "seeing is believing".) The old adage "if it sounds good, it is good" is about the best you can do. From the perspective of measurements, both objective and subjective, the weakest link will always be the transducers, even if you're driving Utopias with a cellphone.
More learning can be found here: https://diyaudioheaven.wordpress.com/amplifiers/ Note that the author of that site has designed commercial headphone amps.
I have my LSR305 studio monitors and HD6xx headphones paired to a Schiit Jotunheim multibit DAC/Amp. Its right at your budget and its an all in one unit with balanced inputs and outputs.
Evil_Paroxysm
I'll check it out. Thanks
EESH. This is a VERY BIG topic.
Are you looking for recommends, specifically? Or are you looking for an answer to the Subject question? Or, does your Subject question REALLY mean, "What makes certain amps and dacs best for specific applications/listening interests?" What KIND of music are you listening to?
First things first; The SOUND coming out of whatever equipment you play has to SOUND GOOD TO YOU. It has to sound RIGHT for the specific use...as in, whatever it is you are listening to. Like, live performance has to be, well, LIVE sounding, clean and vibrant without harshness or sibilance that's not part of the performance. It has to be Truthful in the reproduction. This idea can be applied to whatever you are listening to. So, SOUND is the first value, the amp/dac has to be good enough to do that. Accuracy is key.
Secondly; BUILD QUALITY. If the build quality is crap, you're going to have wasted your money. Not actually tricky to understand this concept...but I am often amazed at how many people spend too much money on gear that hasn't a very good track record with consumers, or have an unfortunate customer service history from the manufacturer. And, typically, if it's a nice device with an excellent build quality, it should sound pretty fine, should re-sell nicely down the road when you decide to upgrade, if you ever would. Much of my gear can be considered vintage.....but it still works quite well, sounds sweet, BECAUSE the build quality was excellent.
Now. There are many many many amps, dac/amps, etc. out there, many many are very very good. This is where reading specs, and reviews, and suggested uses from the manufacturer is important. If you have an interest in a specific genre, doing a search for "best dac/amp for XX genre" can come in very handily. Go to headfi.org ,(one of the most widely respected audiophile forums on the web), and search the forums there. If you have an interest in a specific dac/amp you see dropped in here, read the discussions about it, ask questions about how that amp has served the owners in use for XX genre.
While I might say that it's the headphones that matter most when you are talking about music genre being heard, I DO heartily believe that pairing the right amp,(and less so, dac), with them is very important. For instance, if you have very analytical sounding cans going on, a tube amp can mellow them, and a GOOD tube amp can do that without losing detail and clarity too much. On the other hand, super warm, V-shaped sound sig cans can benefit from a good solid state amplifier. Going with a nice hybrid amp,(tube X solid state), brings you the best of both worlds.
I doubt that gaming would be a very good,(or necessary), use for gaming. You could probably stick with your Sound Blaster gear there-I think that's what Sound Blaster was sort of made for, right?
Under 500.
Try Schiit. They have some very NICE combos, including a hybrid, the build quality is excellent. Unless you go crazy at Schiit, you'll come in quite easily under your budget. And their gear is built like silver tanks. Sennheisers sound very nice on Schiit gear, Beyerdynamics sound good on the hybrid Lyr amp. I have my Lyr paired with a BiFrost dac that sounds very nice with my T1 Teslas.
There are also several very nice options being dropped around here. You will regularly find some of the goodies re-dropped over and over again...like the O2 DAC/amp, or the Cavalli, several Massdrop XX's.....Aune, SMSL, Little Dot.... almost all of these come in under 500 USD.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Read everything you can from people who already own whatever you are considering. If there are even a few people who have had issues*, don't pull the trigger. You can find something better for your bucks, ALWAYS.
I hope any of this helps. Best of luck to you.

* Addendum for the sake of clarity, per the pointer that LeoLancaster offered below; Re' "issues"- I was pretty much talking about unknown or little-known brands with very little support, where folks have run into NIGHTMARES trying to get resolution to problems. That's what I meant by "issues". I have had a few glitches here and there with Schiit...but never NEVER ever have I had a problem getting service and them making it right. There are, however busloads of people who have had trouble with some of the Chinese knock-offs of Darkvoice,etc. , and also with La Figaro service, sometimes no resolution a year later.... that's where my thinking was and I wasn't very clear.
My apologies for my lack of clarity above. Hope this addendum helps folks understand what I was driving at.
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TiffanyPoodleslide
I find it a little odd you specifically recommend Schiit but warn to stay away from gear "even a few people" have had issues with. Some people have encountered QC issues relating to scratchy pots and a couple other things on the Fulla 2, among others. Nothing wrong with liking Schiit, just thought your advice is contradictory.
LeoLancaster
I should have been more clear; I was pretty much talking about unknown or little-known brands with very little support, where folks have run into NIGHTMARES trying to get resolution to problems. That's what I meant by "issues".
I have had a few glitches here and there with Schiit...but never NEVER ever have I had a problem getting service and them making it right. There are, however busloads of people who have had trouble with some of the Chinese knock-offs of Darkvoice,etc. , and also with La Figaro service, sometimes no resolution a year later.... that's where my thinking was and I wasn't very clear.
Thank you for catching that and for giving me a chance to elucidate. I will go and edit the unclear post to reference this one.
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