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Thread: The truth about DACs

  1. #1
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    Default The truth about DACs

    What led me to start this thread is a recent experience. Having now got very good systems in place for different parts of the home, I discovered internet radio. And pursuing that led me to put in what is an Apple tech based icing on the existing systems cake. I can now play my mac, both ripped CDs and radio, controlled by the remote i pod touch app, through every system, with each system fed by an Airport Express sitting in a wifi network. With an Apple Time Capsule doing base station duty.

    In getting to this next level of audio bliss, I had some problems connecting Express to the DAC of the main system, for which the C7s are the speakers. Occasional crackles was the issue, which went away when I connected the Express directly to the preamp(Quad 99) RCA aux inputs via analog cable. That led me to suspect the quality of the Toslink optical wire and/or the connectors on it.

    When I made a A/B comparison of the sound via both methods, apart from the occasional crackle in the external to Express DAC based set up, I could not hear any difference in the sound that the Harbeth speakers made, driven by a Quad 99/909 amplifier. The DAC in the Express seems to be of reasonably good quality. The analog wire I used isn't a high end one, it just has decent connectors at both ends.

    The systems are now running very well, with all Expresses connected via analog wire. If I could not make out any difference in the C7 front ended system, I was sure I wouldn't hear any difference in the other 2 systems, and so it turned out.

    It therefore seems to me that the entire external DAC is another example of probable oversell. If the analog output of a device is similar to that put out by the DAC in terms of voltage and other electrical characteristics, I suspect that it would be hard to make out the difference in the heard sound.

    Another reason I have for saying this is I do not find any difference in what I hear when I connect an ipod via a well made analog docking station, which has analog outs, like the arcam rdock, where the conversion to analog is done inside the ipod, and by connecting the ipod to the digital inputs of an external DAC.

    I find that external DACs are sold for even reasonably expensive and well made CD players, to connect these to the amplifier. Reviews for these also tend to have the usual hyperbole all over the place.

    Based on my admittedly limited exposure to the subject I would say that these are another part of the getting people to empty their wallets and then hearing better sound for having done so story.

    I yield the floor now....

    PS: As I write this, the Express is playing through just the 99/909/C7 set up, and two pieces of kit are sitting silently by - a SACD player with digital inputs to its DAC, and a record player. I haven't the heart to box the two and keep them away just yet. They cost me serious money, so they better be good for something!

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    Default DACs - another opinion

    Kumar, even I (a hopeless cynic) must disagree with you on this one. I am not an expert by any stretch, but I have heard a few DACs and they are not all the same. I currently have a modded Esoteric D70 DAC in a computer based system. I compared this "legacy" device with a Weiss DAC202, which is heralded by many as SOTA. IMHO, the Esoteric was better and the SQ difference was meaningful.

    I have also heard substantial differences in SQ by using the Esoteric DAC in different configurations. Via S/PDIF the DAC slaved to the source the sound is very good; via dual AES/EBU with the DAC as master the sound is amazing.

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    Default DAC differences

    Quote Originally Posted by QChicago View Post
    Kumar, even I (a hopeless cynic) must disagree with you on this one.
    Of course, this is why the forum exists! My views are based on certain DACs in a certain environment, where I have to say that my inability to hear any difference has saved me the time, effort and the money to fix what is obviously a Toslink connection quality issue.
    What I will do today is do an A/B comparison of the Express analog out to preamp set up, with SACD played and connected to another input on the same preamp. All that will be involved in doing this is to have both sources playing the same music, and use the preamp remote to cycle between the two. If I do not hear any difference, then I know that I do not need to spend time improving the Express analog connection. But if I do, then I have a problem that part of me would love to have, just to be able to solve it! I have already done the A/B of SACD v CD v LPs, and found no difference in my system, so using the SACD for this step will be all I need to do to validate the Express analog out sound quality.
    I realise that this will still be conclusive only for my set up and my ears, if both sounds are heard the same by me. It could also be down to the fact that the DAC in the Express and the one in the SACD player are of the same quality.
    Also, if anyone here can suggest a DAC that will make for much better sound through the same Quad 99/909/C7 system if placed between the Express digital out and the preamp analog in, I would be happy to hear suggestions. I suspect it would be quite expensive, because it would have to be audibly better than the DAC in my SACD player, which is 2010 Marantz.

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    Default DAC differences

    I am using a Musical Fidelity V-DAC in a system that feeds internet radio from an Apple TV. Initially, the digital signal was fed to an internal DAC in a high end SONY ES model receiver. The difference between the Musical Fidelity DAC and the SONY internal DAC were dramatic, and my impressions were confirmed by several blind A/B tests by me and other listeners.

    The Musical Fidelity DAC is a relatively inexpensive but highly rated DAC. While the quality of the system is not at the same level as my primary stereo system, It was not difficult to hear the difference.

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    Default There are so many variables ...

    ... that it's nearly impossible to determine how one or another DAC (or other device) will sound in any given system. I do believe that the quality of equipment (which does not necessarily correlate with price) can and does make a difference (although, as with everything, there is always the law of diminishing marginal returns). That said, what I have learned, FWIW, is that the first order of business is to to try to maximize room acoustics and speaker placement with one's existing equipment. Once that is achieved, it may be time to experiment with upgrades.

    I have read on several occasions posts on one site or another asking about one device or another, while leapfrogging the room / placement issues.

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    Default Wadia + Cambridge Audio Dacmagic

    I use a wadia transport dock and Cambridge Audio Dacmagic. Dramatic difference to Ipod with dock, or using the analog outs of the Wadia. Inexpensive, and much better than the valve AudioNote DAC that I have tried. Each DAC sounds different, and it is a matter of taste, but the built-in Iphone DAC can be improved. I now only play vinyl or Spotify via my Iphone. And am very satisfied (Vinyl obviously wins)

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    Default Blind listening test is the only valid one (for DACS)

    I blind ABX SB3 DAC with Benchmark DAC1 and no one could tell the difference. In sighted tests the difference was obvious. So I am inclined to agree with Kumar. If the test is not blind then it is not worth much for DACS in my opinion.

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    Default Analogue v. digital

    Quote Originally Posted by steve View Post
    I blind ABX SB3 DAC with Benchmark DAC1 and no one could tell the difference. In sighted tests the difference was obvious. So I am inclined to agree with Kumar. If the test is not blind then it is not worth much for DACS in my opinion.
    Update: I have just installed a Sonos zp90 in my system, that plays lossless ripped CDs. The zp90 has both analog and digital outs. My SACD player takes digital in to its DAC. Because the only cost I had to incur to use the digital out, bypassing the zp90 DAC was the cost of a digital coax cable ( 8 GBP ), I have used that connection. Until I bought it, I had connected the zp90 via analog cable direct to the amplifier. I am not sure that it sounds very different, in either case. And at the moment, I am listening to music through the C7s, and it is sounding just a good as it does when I play the source CD through the CD player. The key to the sound quality is, I believe, the Harbeths, and the care taken in their positioning/room acoustics. I don't see myself buying a separate DAC, based on my experience. Maybe having non discerning ears is an advantage!

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    Default Validating the listening observations about DACS

    Since this is all objectively relative to what Kumar hears in his system with his ears, there isn't much anyone can say to dispute it. He does seem open to other's opinions, so I'll give mine. I'm not sure what Marantz SACD player you have. You identified it as a "2010", but I know of no such model, perhaps you meant the year of manufacture. In their current lineup of SACD players, the SA8004, R15S2, and last years KI Pearl all use the Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chip. The higher end players, R11 and R7 use Seiko Nippon DAC's in dual differential mode. When you refer to the quality of the DAC, I don't know if you mean the specific chip or the entire DAC section. I believe that iPods use DAC chips from Wolfson or ESS. Any of these chips has the potential to sound great. Its the implementation of the DAC chip aloing with digital filter, clock, ASRC chip, I/V stage, and analog section along with power supply and resonance/EMI/RFI control that determines the DAC's overall sound quality.

    For no other reason than size restrictions, I can't see where an iPod has the ability to output an analog signal even remotely in the same league as one of Marantz's Reference Series SACD players. The entire unit is smaller than a decent PSU or analog section!

    Also, I'm not sure how you're going about the listening tests. You stated that you heard no difference between iPod, CD, SACD, and vinyl??? Really, that makes me wonder! In an extreme example: Lossy MP3 vs. SACD, are you saying that you could not distinguish between these two formats? I think we all agree, here, that your choice of speakers is quite good. Certainly the C7's should easily reveal the, not at all subtle, disparity in sound quality. I'm not familiar with the Quad electronics you're using, and I know better than to bring up the issues of power conditioning or cable performance in this Forum.

    Can I suggest a few things that you could try to listen for? I don't mean to imply anything about your listening skills or experience in this hobby. No doubt, you are hearing the same piece of music through the iPod or SACD player, but how about things like: soundstage depth, image focus, timbral clairity, attack and decay, dynamics, top and bottom end extension, air around instruments...

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    Default Audio comparisons

    Quote Originally Posted by Diminish View Post
    I'm not sure what Marantz SACD player you have. You identified it as a "2010", but I know of no such model, perhaps you meant the year of manufacture. In their current lineup of SACD players, the SA8004, R15S2, and last years KI Pearl all use the Cirrus Logic CS4398 DAC chip.

    Also, I'm not sure how you're going about the listening tests. You stated that you heard no difference between iPod, CD, SACD, and vinyl??? Really, that makes me wonder! In an extreme example: Lossy MP3 vs. SACD, are you saying that you could not distinguish between these two formats?
    Can I suggest a few things that you could try to listen for? I don't mean to imply anything about your listening skills or experience in this hobby.
    The DAC is indeed the Cirrus Logic one in a Pearl lite SACD player. And all my CD rips are in Apple lossless, so the comparison isn't all the way back to lossy v SACD. In theory therefore no difference in terms of bits from a SACD.

    Also, I have now moved, for music listening convenience to a Sonos zp90 input to the system. The zp90 has a built in DAC that also sounds pretty good to me. And if I were to use the size restriction that you refer to as a constraint for DAC quality, it ought to be a lot better than the iPod DAC because a zp 90 is a lot bigger than the iPod?:-)

    The zp90 has analog and digital outs, and only because the SACD player has a digital in, I am bypassing the zp90 DAC because all it took me to do that is to buy a standard digital coax cable to do so. Until then, I used the analog out from the zp90, and I can't make out any before/after difference.

    While I appreciate that an audiophile would be very interested in looking for the things you refer to, I spent a decade doing that before realizing that I am losing sight of what really matters, the music - these days all I do is listen to the music that the C7 produces with either Apple lossless rips or internet radio playing through the system, and what I hear is good enough for me to not delve deeper into the aspects you refer to. Which is not to say they aren't relevant or important, they just don't seem to me now to be so.

    What I have found is that if I take care to be sure about the volume levels produced before making any A to B comparisons, changes in the system components beyond what I now have, aren't audible to my ear in terms of the music quality out of the C7s.

    The other point to make is that this thread is in the debunking hi fi section. And although I haven't posed the question, the one to also be posed is - would there be a change for the better to the heard sound, if the pearl lite SACD player was to be supplemented by an external DAC, bypassing the DAC that comes with the player? That there would be is the basis for the external DAC industry. My submission is that there would not be such a change, though there would be enough flowery reviews of expensive standalone DACs in the press that suggest otherwise. I can't of course support this by direct experience today because I would have to buy an expensive DAC to do that and I do not see any point in doing that. A couple of years ago I got rid of one, that was bought in my audiophile mania days - one that was larger in size and heft than the entire Marantz SACD player of today! And the reviews referred to many of same things you refer to - but once I was honest with myself, I couldn't find them in my system with that external DAC sitting in it, supposedly augmenting a Marantz CD player.

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    Default Don't let audiphilia get in the way of the music

    Quote Originally Posted by Diminish View Post
    I know better than to bring up the issues of power conditioning or cable performance in this Forum.
    ) I had to add this as a ps to my post, to the part quoted above, I guess by now you know that reception those issues will get there...

    For any one interested in how esoteric even the discussions on this subject can get, there is a hot thread running just now on the Computer Audiophile site, on the question of ABX and blind testing to determine cable performance. After some time just reading that thread, my head started spinning. But I must say that there are passionate believers for both sides of that debate, although I would rather spend all that time on listening to the music and all the heat on other things. But audiophilia is a hobby like so many others, and if it floats one's boat, and one has the money and the time to support it, nothing wrong with that as long as music lovers do not allow that to color their enjoyment of music from whatever system they have today.

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    Default More on audiophilia

    "But audiophilia is a hobby like so many others, and if it floats one's boat, and one has the money and the time to support it, nothing wrong with that as long as music lovers do not allow that to color their enjoyment of music from whatever system they have today."
    What if it does color my enjoyment? I essentially agree with this statement. If you were to draw a sharp line of demarcation between Audiophiles and Music Lovers, I am not ashamed to admit that I would fall into the former category. Of course, I've been trying to assemble a system that I will live with for a very long time. This required a more objective approach. Yes, at times, it does inhibit my enjoyment of music. For example, I'll listen to a track because it highlights a particular sonic attribute rather than simply because I like the song. I may listen to the same track, as you do, for no other purpose than comparing it to another medium. My point here is that this type of listening is every bit as enjoyable to me and does not stand in the way my turning down the lights, turning up the volume, and listening to an entire symphony with no thoughts of equipment when the urge strikes me. The only times when my gear stands in the way of musical enjoyment is when there is something obviously wrong with the presentation. Consider the following example: I had to sell a good pair of speaker cables in order to buy the ones that I have now. This meant putting a cheap pair in the system until I saved up the money for the new ones. During that time, I hardly even turned the system on. I listened to my iPod and car stereo more than anything. Was this because the sound through the cheap cables was all that terrible? No, in fact, it was pretty good, but I knew that it did compromise the system's overall performance and that bothered me.
    I think that comparing an Audiophile to a Music Lover is a bit like comparing a football fan to a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Music Lovers are definitely the purists; much like the football fan. The Eagles fan loves the sport, probably nearly as much as the football fan, but his main concern is the sport of football within the context of his favorite team. The football fan would be content to watch any game: Saturday or Sunday; college or pro, whereas, the Eagles fan spends Saturday gearing up for Sunday.
    I've finally reached the point where I've got my system where I want it to be. I carefully selected each component, designed and built a power line conditioner, went through many, many different cables, and implemented extensive vibration isolation measures. Economically speaking, I am very close to the optimum with regard to the Law of Diminishing Returns. In other words, mine is a fairly modest $25K (US) system. I beleive it would not be bettered by the majority of $35K systems, and a $50K stereo would only offer slight improvements. I've done all my auditioning and comparative shopping, and now its time to sit back and enjoy the Music! The only thing that I might consider is Bluray Audio. The sheer volume of data available on a Bluray disc offers enormous potential for hi-res. digital playback. So far, little has been done to maximize this potential. Sure, you can buy a multi-channel, audio only Bluray with up to 7.1 streams of 24 bit / 192kHz audio, but this isn't vastly different from DVD audio. I'd like to see DXD or DSD 128!

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    Default Being seduced by knowing the price, but not the true value.

    Quote Originally Posted by Diminish View Post
    Consider the following example: I had to sell a good pair of speaker cables in order to buy the ones that I have now. This meant putting a cheap pair in the system until I saved up the money for the new ones. During that time, I hardly even turned the system on. I listened to my iPod and car stereo more than anything. Was this because the sound through the cheap cables was all that terrible? No, in fact, it was pretty good, but I knew that it did compromise the system's overall performance and that bothered me.
    If I may point out, this is just the sort of situation that I have left behind, because I grew to realize it to be a trap, this sensation of being bothered.

    There are two things about this statement to consider. First, based on what one reads on this forum and my own experience, the cheap ( but of good gauge, I assume, because cheap does not preclude that ) cables would sound just the same as the ones you sold - by your admittance, the sound through them was pretty good. But not good enough to listen to, and that discouraged you from listening to music through a system that would still have been a better sounding one than the iPod or the car stereo?!

    The question to consider here is that was your system's performance perhaps compromised for you because intellectually you believed that you now had cheaper cables in? I also believe that what one hears is, by definition subjective, since it is the brain the converts what the ears as transducers convey. I am pretty sure that what the brain finally delivers as a sensation of heard sound, is also more than just from what the ears convey. That is why I think my system sounds better when the lights are low and after a couple of glasses of wine. The brain converts this two circumstances - the message from the eyes, and the alcohol in the blood - along with what the ears convey into delivering the experience of what I "hear", and get elevated pleasure from.

    If that is the case, would the fact that the brain knows about the cheaper cables, get into the hearing experience as well? I suspect that to be the case, but this from only personal experience. And once that happens, any difference that is so heard would be very real to the subject hearing it, because it is his reality that cannot be disputed, even if measurements proved otherwise.

    The other thing to consider is that this can also turn you off your system if you were to read the review of a better cable in a few years, using some exotic tech or the other. Because the brain would factor this in as well, and leave you dissatisfied with what you hear from your system once you have read or heard about this supposed advance in cable tech. That is the typical upgrading disease that is very easy to acquire - I know I succumbed to it, but better people than I have, so I suppose that's ok:-)) Again, as long as one has the money for it, and enjoys the activity, there is nothing wrong in it, but it is something that I wouldn't want to go back to.

    If you have now reached a stage where you think you can now sit back and enjoy the music from your carefully selected system, I wish you well and years of happy listening! My experience was that I never got to that stage, because encouraged by the high end audio industry, I was always left searching for the end of the rainbow. So I decided enough is enough, and simplified my system. I got rid of external DACs, tube buffers, power conditioners and isolation platforms. I kept the cables and interconnects I had, because there was no reason to throw those away! And I found that the music I now get from well positioned C7s to be just as good as in more complex system of yesteryears.

    I suppose getting older has its benefits, and that is another helpful trick the brain can play on you. It knows that the ears are losing capability, so it is easy to persuade oneself that the benefit of the expensive exotics will be lost in translation anyway:-)

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    Default Cables, DACS and comparisons

    "There are two things about this statement to consider. First, based on what one reads on this forum and my own experience, the cheap ( but of good gauge, I assume, because cheap does not preclude that ) cables would sound just the same as the ones you sold - by your admittance, the sound through them was pretty good. But not good enough to listen to, and that discouraged you from listening to music through a system that would still have been a better sounding one than the iPod or the car stereo?!"

    I don't believe I admitted that the "cheap" cables were equal to either the cables that they replaced or the ones that they were replace by. If I did make such a statement, this was not what I intended to convey. I had these cables laying around and decided to hook them up A) for purpose of comparison, and B) just to have the ability to listen to my system should the urge strike me.

    Immediately following the first swap (taking the Kaplan GS cables out and putting the Monster M1.2's in), I noticed a big change; decidedly for the worse! Bass was less impactful, shallower, and not as well extended. A measure of depth and transparency was lost and the soundstage seemed to shrink. Yes, it still sounded better than the iPod or car stereo, but I want to point out that it was the drop in performance (whether you want to call it real or imagined) that stood in the way of enjoyable listening. This is to say that it was not the cables' appearance or any subjective perception that resulted in the lack of use of my stereo. Honestly, if these cables sounded as good as or better than the others, I could and would have saved myself a pile of money.

    When the new cables finally arrived, I was not able to do any objective comparison versus the Kaplan cables, quite obviously, because I no longer had them. The Transparent Musicwave Ultras that I have now absolutely SMOKED {Moderator's comment: what does this word mean?} the Monsters in every way imaginable! I've heard of the Randi Foundation's offer for individuals being able to discern differences in cables, and I'm 100% certain that I could pass this test within the context of my own system and these 2 particular cables. Actually, my cables are roughly 1/3 the price of the Pear Anjous that Randi identified in his offer.

    I auditioned many different cables in my search for the "final" one for my system. This included single and bi-wire runs of models from 5 different manufacturers. I heard slight differences between every cable (and each one deviated from my idea of absolute neutrality). Sometimes preferred a bi-wire configuration and sometimes not. The Musicwave Ultra single wire was selected "blindly". Once I narrowed it down to 3 models from 2 different manufacturers, the dealer (who is also my friend) let me listen to each of them blind.

    I did all of this specifically to avoid the "upgrade syndrome". While I'm perfectly willing to accept that there are better cables out there, I'm simply not in the market for them. I don't know of any significant advances made in the cable industry in the last 2 years. Any cable is always going to be some combination of resistance, inductance, and capacitance, and until they come up with a true superconductor, I'll stick with what I've got. Its much more likely that further advances will be made with digital components.

    My first USB > SPDIF converter, the Sonicweld Diverter 24/96, has already been replaced with a new model capable of up to 192kHz sampling rates. Ten years ago, nobody had even heard of a music server. This truly is an exciting time for digital audio.

    I'd just like to digress (further???) for a minute here and review something Kumar said in his last post. With regard to my interim speaker cables, he noted that they were of "good gauge" and asserted that price would not preclude this. He was right on both counts. Cables need to be large enough to handle the current they are called upon to carry and to do so without excessive voltage drop or heating. That was my point when talking about the size of a power supply in an iPod being a limiting factor. I'm aware that great sound can be obtained by converting an iPod's digital output to analog in an outboard DAC, but I am doubtful that the analog signal would sound very good. Of course, let it be said, that I'm not set up to test this hypothesis so it will remain as such.

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    Default Cheap speaker cables?

    Quote Originally Posted by Diminish View Post

    I don't believe I admitted that the "cheap" cables were equal to either the cables that they replaced or the ones that they were replace by.
    I don't believe I said you did:-). I said that to my ears, and to some other forum members that have written about this, they would sound the same provided they were of good gauge. I quoted what you said about them - that they were pretty good. There is more on this in a thread about speaker cables in the same section of this forum.

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    Default My C7s and my networked music system

    Another benefit of learning about simplicity is that it has allowed me to bring Sonos systems home and install simple set ups that work well out of the box in wifi mode, that some of my audiophile friends look askance at - to them, wifi can never be hifi.

    My bedroom system for instance is just a sonos zp120 - a small square box - connected to the mains, and to a pair of small Spendor bookshelf speakers. That's it, nothing else in the system of any kind. And from just that, using an iPod app remote, I can select/play my entire collection of CDs that have been transferred to a networked hard disk drive, and internet radio from thousands of radio stations. I find that I am now listening to music a lot oftener, radio as well as my music, and without any anxieties.

    The radio streams drop from time to time because of external issues, but to me, the music from the hard disk is just as good as I have heard the speakers sound from any other source+cable combination connected to them since I bought them a few years ago.

    Of course, now that I know about the P3s from this site, I am no longer as satisfied with the Spendors as I once was:-)). As of now, I have no plans to change though. The reason I moved the Spendors into the bedroom from the living room of an earlier home is because they were obviously too small for the current living room, where the C7s are doing very well indeed.

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    Default

    I think the key to understanding/appreciating DAC's requires 2 things; 1) You need to be in the $1500 "sweetspot" to really get an appreciable gain. 2) DAC's need to be listened to in the long term to really appreciate what it is they are doing (if anything). DAC's are not a 15 minute listening session item. The things they do are far too subtle for quick evaluations. With a truly good DAC, it's more about what it doesn't do, than what it does do that matters. Also, an often missed point is the analog output section of the DAC. In a good DAC, the analog section will likely be far better than a comparable standalone CD player.

    Multi-input DAC's open another door of opportunity---of which I take advantage. I connect my HDTV Receiver, BluRay, and Squeezebox Touch all through my DAC. This allows 3 relatively modest pieces to benefit from my DAC's superior digital and analog sections.

    Of course, like anything common sense needs to prevail. You don't connect a Rotel RCD-1072 to a $300 DAC--it's just plain foolish. DAC's are a dime-a-dozen these days, so buyer beware. True "giant killers" are few and far between.

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    Default

    Hi to everybody,

    i have Arcam FMJ cd33 cd player, and i'd like to ask you, if it's worth to use a DAC instead of Arcam! Do you thing that i'll have a better sound using a DAC?
    i have to notice here, that i have never before any experience with DAC's!!

    thanks

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    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by camel View Post
    i have Arcam FMJ cd33 cd player, and i'd like to ask you, if it's worth to use a DAC instead of Arcam!
    That is a very good player indeed, and you won't hear anything better by adding an external DAC.

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    Default

    Best thing is for you to try a DAC or two with your Arcam and hear for yourself. Also, bear in mind that there might be a better sounding CD player for a similar amount of money as the DAC.

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