Why Spend So Much for a DAC?

For various reasons (or excuses) I could never justify spending more than a few hundred bucks on a modern dac - modern meaning produced within the last 5 years. I believed this because I was swayed by reviews that described how great budget priced dacs performed like the Audioquest Dragonfly, and IFI IDSD, and so many others. When I decided to take a chance on one of those budget dacs with USB streaming, and compared it to my multi-buck, ancient 15+ years old cd transport and dac, I was stunned by how much better the budget dac sounded.

This revelation inspired me to explore the new dacs and dac chips, and ultimately forced me to invest a few more bucks into a higher priced category of products. After living with a few models I finally settled on an Oppo Sonica dac with an ESS 9038PRO Sabre chip and USB/ethernet streaming. The Oppo at $799 represented a big sonic improvement over my previous dac, which was almost twice the price.

However, I was still not satisfied. Listening to digital recordings has always bothered me. I originally thought I preferred digital over vinyl because I thought I was hearing a lot more detail (clarity), and I wasn’t hearing surface noise, clicks and pops, rumble, etc. But over time I found that the enjoyment I experienced when listening to music from vinyl was eroding when listening to cd. What used to be involving and relaxing grew increasingly annoying, and even painful. It was almost as if the nerve endings in my inner ear or brain were being irritated.

No matter how much I spent on upgrades to equipment, cables, and isolation periperals, I could never overcome that seemingly inherent flaw in digital music. So, I tried to console myself with the Oppo by rationalizing that digital sounded a lot better than it used to, and it was convenient, but it could never match the experience I got from vinyl. I did realize improvements in digital by upgrading things like power supplies, and to a great extent, streaming. But I was never completely satisfied, so I always relied on vinyl playback for my preferred listening pleasure.

Not too long after getting the Oppo I saw a great buy on a DSJ with Bridge II, but now we are talking about a product with a sticker price almost 4 times higher. I cursed myself for plunging even deeper, but I bought it anyway, thinking I would be able to sell it without taking much of a loss if I wasnt’ impressed.

Bad thinking, To my chagrin the DSJ was far superior to the Oppo. Even digital recordings from the mid 80’s that I could not tolerate for the most part sounded very good through the DSJ. I don’t know if its 1 bit comversion was the reason, but I did not like the realization that a multi thousand dollar component could bring about such improvement. In comparing the Oppo to the DSJ, there simply was no comparison.

I could have, and maybe should have stopped there, but I was so impressed by the DSJ, I couldn’t help but wonder how good the DS Sr might be. Unfortunately for my pocket book, the DS Sr, just took it all to another level. The Sr took away most of the hardness of digital, it put flesh back on the bones of instruments, voices sounded more natural and human, and the irritation to my nerve endings virtually went away (unless the quality of the digital recording itself was nasty). I wouldn’t say the Sr offered more detail or resolution, but I was able to hear more deeply into the performance and appreciate more nuance. I was just able to enjoy the music for music’s sake, and forget about hi-fi.

I was recently asked why I thought so much of the DirectStream on another forum, so I thought I would comment on it here as well. Too much time on my hands lately. :grin:


I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist. If you think you’re really hearing incredible sound from this DS Sr. You have a thing coming to you. I don’t want you to go on a spending frenzy, but check this thread out and you will never be the same again. Matrix X-SPDIF 2

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Wait until you hear a really good DAC…


hey way11…can you, or anyone here explain in simple terms what the Matrix X-SPDIF 2 actually does?
I am using a separate ROON core device, streaming to a Bryston BDP2, and connected via USB and sometimes AES/EBU to my Direct Stream DAC.

I see the thing has a fancy clock…but is that needed? what else does it do?

thanks! T

The main purpose of the Matrix is to convert USB to I2s and retaining the higher sampling frequencies and DSD to your DAC thru I2s which I found is the best sounding input on the DS. The Matrix works mainly with the DS because it has the compatible I2s interlink. I believe the Matrix also help reduce digital noice in it’s circuit in the process. But you do need a extra good HDMI cable from the Matrix to your DAC. Also a good power supply for the Matrix improves the sound further. It is quite an expensive undertaking. You have to really be committed.

My mistake, i should say you don’t need too good of a HDMI cable or an extra power supply to benefit from this Matrix. It will still be better with it in the system, but you will not realize the full potential of this device without the upgrades.

I upgraded direct from the Oppo Sonica DAC to a DS DAC Sr with Bridge II. The difference was night and day. Can’t speak to difference between the Jr & Sr. I would certainly make sure that all of links in your chain are resolving or you may capitalize on what the Sr has to offer.

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thanks man

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I’ve also been much more obsessed with DACs than other components because most digital conversion does something that seems to mess up the sound and doesn’t seem right. I don’t have much experience with R2R DACs but these are the main elements that seem to make a difference:

  1. DSD output instead of PCM. The harsh filters and lower linearity of PCM is probably the worst thing about typical DACs.
  2. High quality, low-noise digital source and cabling. For whatever reason this makes a huge difference, so much of that grunge is noise coming down the cabling from the computer or server.
  3. Low mains noise with better power cabling and filters/distributors/regenerators. I think because digital devices are more complex than traditional analog ones they kick off lots of ugly, but very low level noise that accumulates into something subtly unpleasant.
  4. Higher sample rates/wider bandwidth. For whatever reason the higher sample rates and DSD, both in the files themselves, and in potential upsampling, yield more analog-like results.

I went through a similar journey and now have both a Jr and a SR. I agree that the Matrix takes it up another notch.


The best of both worlds. Analog and Digital.

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Who was the manufacturer that got caught putting a complete, un-altered Oppo player in a custom aluminum shell and selling it for five times the price? I believe that ended the company.

Oh wait, that’s it in the picture isn’t it?


Lexicon BD-30 which turned out to be an Oppo BD-83 with a different faceplate and a LOT higher price.

More love michael

There was another that used a thinner model of Oppo and they did a massive one piece hogged out aluminum chassis that would accept the Oppo whole. It was alarming…

Cool pics - which illustrate my bias in terms of what looks like “money” in audio design. (Sorry - I realize this is cross-topic stuff). COMPLETELY ASIDE from what I know these boxes contain and/or do. The tape deck wins for me, as does this:


it looks like; “not more power, master!” Yes, more power, damn you"! throw the switch!!!

I always thought those Shadow Hills compressors looked like a giant octopus or spider. Never my flavor aesthetically or sonically, but they are a beast inside.

Bakelite Beauty

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After discovering PS Audio DACs I wondered why I spent so much on vinyl for all those years :thinking:

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