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Sound investment? Best your DAC!

Audiolab M-DAC+ ; Reputed to be a great DAC at £795/$1200

Why streaming with the right DAC is every bit as good as CD and vinyl….

Perceptions about streaming

Much like a dodgy burger, it’s often regurgitated that people are underwhelmed by the performance of digital audio in HiFi systems. Particularly streaming. They might say they prefer their CD player or turntable and that digital streamed content, either from a NAS (network attached storage drive) or online streaming services, is not the same shooting match.

Relying on it still?

I tend to agree in a fashion. CDs and ripped content playing from good hard drives is better than the vacuum packed compressed content of Tidal. Unpacking this compression might be minor to sound quality. However I’ve got the ‘master’ version at home and no cost pinching commercialist internet service provider will get between the streaming service and my streamer to disturb my experience. I’ll stick to my format guns! As a ‘sticker’, I control sound quality by owning the format. The same unwarranted concern perhaps applies to music off a hard drive. I’ve no idea what a FLAC is and anyway I don’t even think PR promotion has got anything to do with HiFi!

I perceive there is still also a reticence to enjoy digital audio from the perspective of prejudices about sound quality too. I’m not criticising anyone, it’s just based on an understanding about familiarity of formats. You don’t change horses in midstream. Much as we are creatures of habit, we have all had years of building a relationship and familiarity with the sonic qualities of CD players and turntables. Designers too have developed CD as either transports or DAC integrated CD players, for the best tailored sound from CD.

A large part is due to DACs often being packed into streamers, they come included into pre amps or integrated’s. A hidden part of audio. They have hand me down DAC chips, which are fine, but the converter is often a price / performance compromise, in an all encompassing product. By including a DAC, Streamer and pre amp in one box, it will be, as the price is trying to be as competitive as possible. What I’m saying is don’t expect the earth of the DAC, in some installations.

Bucks the trend – Auralic Altair Streaming DAC and pre-amp ; a fantastic DAC in a combined unit.

This type of thinking I’ve explained will engender strong personal perceptions that the quality of audio is format dependent. You might be a CD-ist and vinyl hankerer for years. If you then plug in a streamer, as an early assault into streaming at a fraction of the price of your main front end sources, it’s hardly surprising it could leave you flummoxed. The first step will likely be as a budget streamer/DAC, to test the waters. You will form an opinion the CD or vinyl record is of better quality. Who wouldn’t. By virtue, you would also form an opinion that different lossless digital file formats will be different too. That you should select a streamer or DAC based on its ability to handle DSD, MQA or hi-res content.

So the rub is, is the aforementioned thinking about streaming quality, erroneous? I believe so if you invest in it more, as you will likely have an opposite view. It’s not that anyone could ever say that keeping certain traditional formats like CD is ‘very 2005’. Of course not, as it’s still a great format. However our opinions are largely based on our experiences. School of hard knocks maybe.

A new hope

I would challenge the notion that digital audio cannot be enjoyed using better streamers and particularly DACs, to at least the same enjoyment level that you might already listen to audio on CD or vinyl. I’d propose well beyond too. At the budget end, the digital source is often less important so long as it is relatively good, but what can be a deal breaker to performance in such systems, is the DAC.

About Hi-Res or DAC quality?

It also means that the quality of audio is DAC and digital chain dependent, not whether it’s hi-res, CD quality or DSD. That Sony Hi-res logo wasn’t helpful in this respect. A different better quality DAC can easily make the difference up over another playing a ‘lesser’ format. This doesn’t mean don’t select it on its ability to play formats you want, of course not. Just don’t give it the precedence of say standard HD TV to 4K. For it ain’t anywhere near that level!

This too doesn’t mean that you need to spend a lot on a DAC to get better sound quality than is capable from much pricier converters. Some converters can perform twice as good for half the price. Others 70-80 percent the performance for 1/10 the price.

Schiit Modi 3 DAC – a budget separates DAC at around £115/$99/EU120

But my point is that with a great system with good speakers and amplification, investing in the DAC is paramount to the quality of digital audio you will achieve and your perceptions about digital audio. In this respect there is nothing better than a very good quality stand alone DAC with no compromises. Or a high quality DAC/pre amp or integrated. Bear in mind DACs improve faster than a brick falling from a tower block…. So if you can keep it separate within a separates system, it makes great sense.

DAC technology has come on a quantum jump in the last 5 years and when we see what is now possible in digital audio. Vinyl is still a very small industry with limited choice, so it’s really a no brainer to start investing in a great DAC. Sony has announced it intends to close its Digital Audio Disc Corporation UK distribution plant in Enfield, UK. Its been ever present since CD inception from the 1980s. When the plant was damaged by fire in 2011, purportedly around 25% of the stock of home entertainment discs were destroyed; around 1.5million CDs. The intended demise of the plant says an awful lot to the health of new CD production. This prose is on the wall for CD, and it’s a good time to buy DACs and streamers.

Mytek Liberty DAC – great value audiophile DAC at $995/EUR995/£829

DACs are to be welcomed and embraced and encouraged, to accept music packaged in the way it’s likely to ALL be shunted into your homes in the future. Digital investment will facilitate everyone taking up the slack of streaming, and bring down unit costs of streaming services and downloads. Plus by doing so, ensure more artists are paid the going rate. Not to mention hopefully start a fully adopted mass market streaming revolution, like in CDs heyday. It also benefits audiophiles too when full adoption of mass market streaming will filter through to better investment in audiophile products which are cheaper.

Chord Qutest – one of the best balanced, detail dredging DACs at around £1200/$1500/EUR1350

So only when we invest in DACs can we fully turbo charge what digital has to offer. 

4 Comments

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  1. A good hi fi is about “source first”. It has always been so. A DAC is increasingly the point of entry into a hi fi system so is the “source”. Streaming is just the media as is CD and vinyl. This article should be pasted to the window of every hi fi retailer on the planet…

    • I agree with you on that Stephen as I suppose it could be looked at as the source. This thing with digital being OK and DACs not being as good as they could, is often common in lots of HiFi systems I perceive. I’ve seen people with speakers of the quality in the many many thousands, using DACs in basic streamer classes. The streamer transport isn’t so much of the issue as it can still sound good, but what is so much more detrimental, is the DAC and its analogue outputs. The easiest test to convince yourself on this is to get a great audiophile streamer with a DAC, a basic one with a DAC (eg Node2), and ultra budget one (Chromecast Audio). Now route them all into a different / better performing (or sounding) DAC to your ears and its easy to hear, that whilst the digital transport source is still important, it is less important than the quality of the DAC being used. I’ve had a Chromecast through my Qutest and it sounded pretty good. Equally Bluetooth through a Chord Hugo TT2 (whilst not the preferred choice/use of course) sounds great.

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Written by Simon Price

I'm an audiophile who likes faithfully reproduced audio and sharing experiences with others. I am primarily interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews are not overly technical and I don't use pretentious language, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

How important is the entire Digital front end, in 3-5k systems ?

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