Friday, 14 March 2014

DSD DAC Research Roundup

Looking at a couple of good DSD DAC options, a whole lot of factors around deciding on a DSD DAC or any DAC for that matter, and deciding against all of them to look at really sorting out my cables instead.

So after a brief foray into JRiver converted on the fly Blue Coast DSD recording which I still love and listen to regularly, I went into some pretty seriously looking for a DSD DAC.  The people at @DSD_Audio tweeted some helpful things, both some DACs and also pointing out that DSD wasn't complicated with this photo

I've got a lot of sympathy for the elegance of the 1bit process DSD is going for.  Better then to say with some certainy that deciding to buy a DSD DAC, or for that matter any DAC at the moment is complicated as we are in the middle of a bit of a format war.  It's not a nice simple Betamaz vs VHS, Vinyl v CD, DCC versus MiniDisc - a this or that physical choice, as an end point source - it's a complex ephemeral mid point choice of dacs, cables, bits and khz, how you are preserving that stream on it's journey back into analogue.

So when faced with a Hifi problem, I like most audiophiles have a couple of go to brands that I've bought a lot of kit off over the years and have a lot of respect for.  If they are doing something, I'm much more inclined to take on faith that they have made some of the best choices for how to do it.  Two of my favorites have released new very well received small, PC targeted DACs: the Arcam irDAC and the Meridian Director.  Many other very good hifi brands are also doing so, and it's clearly a fast moving space.  You can see eBay flooded since Christmas with Musical Fidelity M1s.  In 2012 these were the What Hifi 5 stat, group test winning must have in this space, in 2013 it is now only 3 stars.  That falling in and out of favour volatility always worries me, either a product sounds absolutely great, or it doesn't. I realise that it's a new prodcut area, and that the price point sensitivity for the stars is changing rapidly, but hifi isn't a new field, I have a very good high res DAC already, and a record deck, a purely comparative rating within a small narrow new field isn't helpful to compare something new with those existing things.  So buying with care in the space appears to be recommended.

Meridian especially have a long history with high res digital and I have a lot of faith in what they think in this space. If they were supporting DSD I would probably own a Director right now and there is signficnat interest for DSD support in the Meridian forums.  However Meridian do not seem convinced of it, or likely to supply such support in the near future.  The picture is repeated around other long established respected brands that active in the digital space in the UK, like Naim and Linn, interest on Forums, new high resolution PCM products, and no clear forward view for DSD, often mixed with some skepticism.

Without a comforting brand to help the decisions about a DAC choice get harder.  All of my 3 digital audio PC to external DAC builds have had issues where one thing was messing up at one point and stopping it being all it could be, that required diagnosing and fixing.   Although much better now, plugging together the right PC, Player, Cable, Connection and DAC is much easier to get wrong than right.  The more I've read the more things I found to obsess over, and here is a list of things I was considering when looking at the right DAC.

All these DACs seem to have pre-amps - I have a really good pre-amp already.  Ideally I'd like just a DAC and not to pay for kit I'm not using, or at very least one with the pre-amp stages switchable out

Is the DSD stream really DSD all the way through, is it getting turned into PCM in the middle, or otherwise messed with.  Is a native bitstream better or is DSD over PCM (DoP) going to be fine?

DSD and PCM both need final pass filters, but there seems to be a strong opinions that they benefit from quite different ones, and the top DACs have switchable final filter options.  What filter am I getting, is this optimized for DSD or PCM?

If I'm going to all this trouble, I'd really like it to have balanced outputs to match the rest of the kit.

Is it really necessary to go to native DSD if JRiver converts on the fly to 64/352, and will stick it out into this NAD DAC V-1 which supports up to 24/384?

How much is enough digital resolution, DSD has x2, x4 and x8 versions.   There are big reservations of its 1 bit nature for mixing and editing and there is DSD-Wide with an 8bit hybrid.  On PCM, do you stop at 24/96, 24/192, 32/192... 32/384...

That narrows the list of DACs a lot to chose from, and it's a lot of headache in choosing for potentially a small sonic difference at potentially high cost.  I also made a list of things which could give me as much satisfaction in sound improvement and a completed project than buying a new DAC.  It went like this:

Sort cables to allow optimal placement for electrical and vibration separation.
Sort out cables in general, and tune interconnects and speaker cables.
Go to balanced connections throughout.
Mass load the speakers with fine sand and leadshot (the Ruarks really benefit from this)
Get the positioning and leveling of the speakers absolutely spot on, probably going to three oversize custom spikes rather than the difficult to get how I want, statistically indeterminate, four they have now.
Get an external power supply for the record deck.
Change the power connectors for shielded ones and separate out the audio cables to reduce the background electrical noise.
Route a dedicated spur from the consumer unit for the hifi.
Get a custom cabinet that made everything look neater and positined the centre speaker tweeter at the same height as the left and right.

If only one good thing came out of this, this was a good list to have made and so I decided I'd much prefer to sort out my cables, go fully balanced and have some options on fixing some of the other things, rather than mess with a new DAC right now.

However if I lived in the states, you have some really good audition at home options, and I'd have probably opted already for one of the three below I short listed.

Schiit Loki
15 day 15% return policy.  $150.  Also has a really nice solution to the Filter and conversion questions: it only does DSD, it's optimized for that and that only and it's designed to utilize that DSD elegance from the ground up, not try and convert a PCM product.

If you are reading htis Schiit I liked a lot about the philosophy of thi product, and your view of the format wars, I think the same thing but with the balanced outs and modular USB boards of the Gungnir would be an absolute winner.  Maybe even a Gungir with a DSD and a PCM board in, and the switch between internally.

However for only $22.50 at risk, this sounds like a fantastic box in terms of design purity to try out.

Mytek Stereo192-DSD
After a lot more reading, this consistently seems to be very well regarded.  Balanced connections.  You can switch off the preamp stage in it.  You can also get it on 30 days approval in the US.   Not in Europe.  I don't like the buttons or the look - but would have probably have got one to try if I lived in the US.  $1600

Meitner MA-1
Money-no-object, I'd probably go one for one of these.  I find the quote  "The result is a converter that turns the "you-have-to-spend-a-lot-to-get-a-lot" paradigm on its proverbial ear" pretty risible as it is $7000 for a DAC. But it definitely has the end to end DSD basis (upsampling with it for PCM) and a pretty formidable online reputation, and I like a lot of the design that has gone into it.

Generally this resource page on audiostream is very useful for DSD DACs and links to the reviews.

So with a lot of newer players leading the DSD way, picking something you can try and home with your kit sounds a winner.  Without that option, I've decided to give it a miss at the moment.  It's not that DSD is not going to be worthwhile, but the current escalating war of khz and bits I think will soon start to bottom out at some fairly generally acknowledged way-further-than-it's-worth going top level, and some of those manufacturers will look harder again at DSD support, the reviews and prices will stabilise and you can have more faith you are buying something that will sound good for a decade rather than sounds comparatively better than the direct competitors this year.