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Low End DAC vs High End DAC Sound Impression & Comparison

JasonCA

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#1
This will be my first post as a new member. :)

This may be a dumb question :facepalm:, but I'm very curious to know what sound differences there would really be in going from a low end DAC to a high end DAC? There's a lot of talk about how this DAC is better than that DAC. But, I don't see a lot of comparisons as to what sound impressions one receives going from a low end DAC to a high end DAC?

For example, currently I own the FiiO K5 Pro which contains a AK4493EQ (768K/32Bit and Native DSD 512). If I were to drop some money ($$$) to purchase a ADI-2 Pro FS ($1,699) or ADI-2 DAC FS ($1,149) what sound impression differences would I really notice?

For me, mostly I would be listening to music with high end IEMS (Campfire Audio Solaris, QDC Anole VX, Sony Z1R, Empire Legend X). Which IEM depends on my mood. But, I wondering if the difference in audio would really be all that noticeable going from something like a Fiio K5 Pro to a ADI-2? Seems like there is a point of diminishing returns on investment? Some say invest in high end IEM's rather than in the DAC. As I've never plugged into anything better than the Fiio K5 Pro, what sound improvements would I really hear by investment in a higher end DAC?

And/or what would be audibly different going from a Chord Mojo to something like a ADI-2 DAC FS?

Is the music fuller? Is it cleaner? Again, what sound impression would I walk away with in comparison going from a low end DAC to a high end DAC?

Part of me has considered the ADI-2 or even a Topping D90 or something similar. But, is it really worth it? Is the music going to sound more full bodied? Or what really am I to gain going from a low end DAC (Fiio K5 Pro) to something like an ADI-2?

A lot people say that's it's not just about the DAC itself, but the implementation of the additional components surrounding the DAC. But, I'd like to get some impression as to what would really be audibly different assuming the same hi end input is passed into both devices (good music sources going into a low end DAC and a high end DAC)?

Although there are other high end DAC's other than the RMI ADI-2, the ADI-2 seems to have a low gain setting specific for IEM's. I can't help be curious. And, I'd like to be encouraged not to spend the money :D. I'm trying to resist the temptation.

I just wanted to get others opinions and thoughts on this.
 

Panelhead

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#2
Your question addresses two areas. The actual dac and the headphone amplifier section.
The RME is stellar in both. The dac part is simple. Most DACs deliver 19+ bits resolution. Which is plenty.
Depending on the headphones, the amplifier used can make a real difference.
The headphone amplifier differences may be easier to hear than the dac differences.
 

RayDunzl

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#3
I'm trying to resist the temptation.
Looking at the prices of some of the transducers you listed, too late...

My impression, based solely on your first (and currently only) post, is "Whatever you get you'll want something else".

Good luck.
 

JeffS7444

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#4
With DACs, beyond a certain point, it's really more about features, form-factors and novelty than pure sonics. But having said that, my Benchmark DAC2 HGC is my most-used component, because it's convenient and offers several digital inputs, analog input, and it's a first-rate headphone amp as well, if lacking DSP and options like cross feed.

For a fraction of the price, my Objective DAC sounds the same to me, but it's USB-only and isn't designed to drive headphones directly. So I use it less often.

Lately I've been applying DSP to my headphones, using the combo of MiniDSP's EARS measurement jig and HA-DSP amplifier, aiming to match the Harman International headphone and IEM target response curves. And I was able to get near-perfect correction for my Fostex T50RP IIs ($150) and surprisingly, the original Apple premium IEMs (single-driver design, $90 or so IIRC). Once corrected, the two sound similar, and are most enjoyable. The IEMs I've had a tougher time with are a premium, multi-driver design, the Fiio F9 Mk Is: To date, I have not been able to get the same smooth frequency response out of them. But whether you choose over-ear or IEM types, it's super-important that they form a proper seal.

Speaking of headphone or IEM sonics versus price, Sean Olive wrote an informative article on the matter:
https://seanolive.blogspot.com/2017/02/twirt-337-predicting-headphone-sound_17.html
 

majingotan

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#5
And/or what would be audibly different going from a Chord Mojo to something like a ADI-2 DAC FS?
Like me, you're using IEMs as your transducers also and because of that the headphone amp output impedance will affect the sound 99.9999% more than the DAC will. Best to keep your DAC and try DAPs with better impedance matching to your IEMs instead. I find that the very low output impedance of my Chord Mojo provides the bass response that I desire (without using EQ) to my CA Andromeda IEMs. Like Andromeda, Solaris will also hiss with Chord Mojo as well. I would probably predict that the ADI-2 DAC FS would be hiss free with those IEMs, but at a cost of frequency response dip to the bass due to output impedance matching. And even the $9 Apple lightning dongle will provide all the microdetails and resolution that those thousands of dollar DACs do, but I find that the lightning dongle has roll-off in the bass region due to sub-optimal output impedance matching with multi-BA IEMs like Andromeda and Solaris. You can alleviate that through EQ but there are some factors like distortion that EQ will never fix
 

Fluffy

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#6
First of all, I recommend to read about Audibility thresholds of amp and DAC measurements.
Though some dacs justify their price by having excellent specs and performance regarding the accuracy of the signal, it doesn't mean it translates directly to audible differences. The "transparency" of an audio device is its ability to generate a signal that matches the source (like a digital file or CD) without any audible differences. You don't need 2000$ dac with THD+N of 120 DB to achieve transparency – the lenient limit according to this article is 96 db, and reckon even that is too much. Your FiiO K5 Pro with SINAD of 81 DB should be transparent in all but extreme cases.

The terms "fuller", "cleaner" when used to describe sound gear are subjective terms that are sometimes used to communicate technical properties (such as more bass or less noise), but more often are used as empty marketing talking points for the uneducated consumer. Two dacs that are measured as transparent and have a flat frequency response will sound the same, regardless of price or difference in architectures.

The price justification of a product like the RME ADI-2 DAC is not its "pure" or "clean" sound (it will be as pure and as clean as any other dac/amp that measures the same), it's that it’s a well-engineered device with many capabilities and features. It's actually a bargain – a well-engineered DAC coupled with a state of the art headphone amplifier, and a full pack of DSP and analyzing tools. Plus a remote. Not many other DAC/AMPS offer this kind of versatility coupled with outstanding measurable performance.
But as far as sound goes, I would not bet on it improving the sound of your system in any major way.
 
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#7
Here is my (long) DAC story, first listening using speakers, and later headphones, and 60 year old ears which have treble roll off starting at 10kHz. I'm a DAC newbie and I live on a budget, in other words I wouldn't even consider a $1000 DAC. I have a Sony DA4ES receiver from 2002 that I use for 2-channel playback. I don't know what DAC chip it has but I find the sound from a well engineered digital audio source to be very detailed with a very wide and deep soundstage and a low end that I describe as enhanced harmonics, not necessarily louder, just more "there" in detail. Some people describe it as "natural and alive", "precise and detailed". I was encouraged to buy a newer DAC for the "superior" sound difference of new technology. Now the journey begins. Before the DAC came I compared Sony's DA4ES DAC to what was in a Samsung DVD-N501 Nuon DVD player, the Samsung sending digital (to coax in) and analog (to tape in) to the Sony DA4ES. Night and day, with the Samsung having a narrow and flat soundstage and blurred subdued detail (less high frequency components?). Then I tried a Sony BDP-S185 DVD player that I usually use as a CD digital transport. Much better than the Samsung but lacked the low end harmonics and high end presence of the Sony DA4ES, which I could approximately simulate by adding in a BBE282ir Sonic Maximizer and adjusting the lo and hi values. The Liquid Spark DAC (AK4493EQ chip) came and now I'm comparing the two digital outs from a Raspberry Pi+DigiOne HAT feeding the Sony DA4ES and LS DAC. The LS DAC has the closest sound character to the Sony DA4ES but I find the soundstage a bit narrower, the depth greatly reduced (from 3-D to almost 2-D, and pushed back into and behind the plane of the speakers), and the detail or presence a bit subdued (is this what some call "smoother"?). I did find, though, that for a few recordings I liked the LS DAC over the Sony DA4ES for being subtlety more detailed, but for most recordings the Sony DA4ES was the winner in this characteristic. My limited conclusions are that DACs do have different sound characteristics, that DACs can perform differently depending on the recording, that I am not going to find a significantly better DAC for home speaker critical listening if I am very happy already, and that you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out which DAC sounds better for a particular recording or for critical listening in general. Finally, using Monoprice M1060 Planar headphones connected to the Sony DA4ES headphone jack, the Sony DA4ES has more detail, a slightly fuller bass, and a deeper soundstage (although still between your forehead and back of your head) as compared to the LS DAC. I am able to get the detail back using the hi knob on the BBE282ir Sonic Maximizer. I'm open to suggestions, but I think I can be happy for headphone use while "camping" in my RV with the combination Raspberry Pi+DigiOne HAT as my transport (both home and RV), LS DAC, BBE282ir Sonic Maximizer, and Liquid Spark Headphone Amp. It still lacks deep base that is not fixable using the BBE282ir Sonic Maximizer, but this certainly beats out my previous portable option of an LG V20 phone with its "quad DAC" which just doesn't drive my Monoprice M1060 Planar headphones well enough. Headphone use at home remains through the Sony DA4ES. Tests were performed using FLAC CD rips stored on the Raspberry Pi+DigiOne and Tidal HiRes streams.
 

Panelhead

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#8
I used an ES series SACD player around 2002. Was very nice. Moved on to Marantz afterwards.
If you read here, the dac section is bit transparent once the resolution reaches 16 bits. This is way below the measured performance of many modern dacs.
Headphone amp is another story. Some are afterthoughts to the unit. Others are well engineered to drive headphones of various impedance and efficiencies.
I always look inside. Seen discrete amplifiers, even NE5532.
Depth, width, and layering can be phase anomaly driven. Many recording are multi tracked with no spacial information.
 
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