Should I invest in a DAC for a budget Hifi setup?

Discussion in 'Digital Audio' started by hack_tc, Feb 19, 2016.

  1. hack_tc macrumors newbie

    Feb 19, 2016
    Hello fellas, first time poster here :) I have been using my ipad/iphone6s to stream SiriusXM to my small budget bedroom stereo via the headphone jack (using 3.5mm-rca splitter). I'm using some Elac b6 speakers with a 30w Topping amp. I've read that the siriusxm app, with the settings at high quality, stream @ 256kbs+. I mean, it already sounds really good...but if it can sound better with little expense, I'm all ears!!!

    Anyways, would it be a worthwhile investment to get a usb dac and connect it through the thunderbolt/camera usb cord, or is going through the headphone jack like I have been plenty sufficient for the audio I'm listening to? I don't really use itunes, flac, alac, or anything like that. I just stream.

    I have considered getting the airport express and using it to stream via airplay from my phone, but I'm not so certain its built in dac is any better or worse than my ipad/phone. I'm also looking at this:

    Any input would be greatly appreciated. I'm looking in the 100$ budget range.

    Thanks in advance!
  2. UBS28 macrumors 6502a

    Oct 2, 2012
    I wouldn't bother with DAC's in the $100 range since they are bad. So best is to stick is what you already have in my opinion.
  3. hack_tc thread starter macrumors newbie

    Feb 19, 2016
    Thanks for the reply.

    Is it just that the apple dac in my devices is already comparable to 100$ dacs? It seems odd that there would be dozens of highly rated headphone dac/amp devices in this price range if a noticeable difference wasn't made. Or do you think people are confusing the benefit of sound quality with simply having more power feeding their headphones?

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking to throw money away on a dac just because it's hip or anything; I'm just looking for the next logical step for a better quality stereo, without breaking the bank.
  4. zhenya macrumors 603


    Jan 6, 2005
    I think in all likelihood a $100 DAC will sound little different than those in your Apple devices, and they may well sound worse.

    For headphones it can be a different story because there are plenty of cans that need more power to drive them properly, and at that point, the best way to get the sound out for amplification is digitally, in which case the amp needs a DAC.
  5. Shamgar macrumors regular

    Jun 28, 2015
    The DAC built-in to an iPhone has a very flat response and is an all around excellent device. There is no meaningful upgrade available for listening purposes. Some headphones may need more amplification, but that's a separate issue.

    There is also a large market for audio gear that offers no significant improvement over cheaper gear, but people feel like it should be better and so they perceive a difference which makes them happier. In a world of $300 USB cables, a $100 iPhone DAC looks like a steal.

    If you want better stereo, buy better speakers. I'm not knocking your speakers. That's just the component of the audio chain where the most difference can be achieved and diminishing returns kick in most slowly.
  6. RickInHouston macrumors 65816

    May 14, 2014
  7. StoneJack macrumors 65816


    Dec 19, 2009
    isn't streaming itself is delivering lower quality sound? what's the point then?
  8. infiniteentropy macrumors regular

    Sep 9, 2009
    I use a Dragonfly DAC ( ) plugged into my USB port and Beats Studio headphones plugged into the Dragonfly all day at work (they can also do wireless but I don't use that so much, only very rarely) for listening to iTunes and other content. It really is a huge difference over what is built in and better than what gets delivered over Bluetooth. In my opinion, that is. Ears and opinions vary, so take it for what it's worth.
  9. bobtennis, Mar 29, 2016
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2016

    bobtennis macrumors member

    Jul 8, 2013
    Hi...Just a few thoughts based on my experiences as it relates to your question. Mostly, I listen to internet radio, ripped CDs and streaming services, and mostly through iTunes, but this should also apply to your uses also. I have higher end "stuff", but also have "budget" systems having accumulated parts from being a long term hobbyist and experimenter, including one system using ELAC B6 speakers, which are not too bad, and will definitely allow you to hear more from your music. Of course, as with most things audio, these are my subjective opinions, but are based upon my experiences. I am trying to suggest to you possible solutions based on your need to observe a budget. I have also been there, where you need to find the best "bang for the buck" method to get the job done. Actually, I still am there, so this is why I can try to help you with these suggestions, I've been there, done that!

    Even with a chip amp like your Topping (and just about almost all cases using external sourced audio), I have found that an external DAC interface notably improves the sound quality from either a computer (iTunes or other streaming via USB interface) or, from an iPod/iPad/IPhone (via Airplay) as opposed to using the headphone output with an RCA "Y" connector to the amp input. The DACs in an iPod, iPad, or IPhone are very good, but the analog headphone amps are not that great when used to feed a higher capability audio system. You may not hear the difference using earbuds for which they are intended, but you will when you compare direct digital output through a DAC into an external amp and speakers as opposed to being connected with a Y connector through the 3.5 mm headphone out jack to RCA plug inputs.

    You don't have to get an expensive DAC to experience the improvement either, but of course like in most things, the sky is the limit on what you could spend, and more expensive stuff does have more refinement and better specs, but the laws of diminishing returns applies here, it would make no sense to buy a $10,000 DAC for connecting an iPhone to a Topping amp (to use an extreme example) in a budget system.

    I agree with alazhaarp that the Schitt Modi is a very good USB-RCA interface DAC. You need to upgrade to the Modi 2 Uber to get both USB and coaxial/optical inputs. I have the Modi, and use it to connect to a Laptop PC or a Macbook Air for iTunes and Internet radio. You can get a less expensive Behringer UCA-202 that sounds almost as good for $30 on Amazon (for example), to give it a try. If you don't like it, not much is lost. The biggest difference (among others, I'm sure spec wise) is that the Behringer does not have the same file bandwidth (24/48 kHz) as the Modi (24/192 khz), but that does not make a difference if streaming iTunes, CDs or Internet radio (my uses). It is difficult to tell the differences in actual sound output (I'm talking aural perceptions here, not specs!) unless you compare them directly in an A/B comparison, even then, it is relatively subtle...I won't get into the differences as it will take this thread in another direction, except to say both do a credible job. I have them both, and they both work very well. It makes for a good budget solution, and you can always upgrade later, like with everything else! You will still will hear marked sound improvement (in clarity, detail and less distortion) with either DAC.

    If you need an optical/coaxial to RCA out DAC, you can use a FiiO D03K - Taishan, available on Amazon for $22, or $25 with an optical cable. This little DAC actually sounds pretty good after a few hours of "burn-in". I've never believed in "burn-in", but I must say when it comes to DACS, a little run time does help to open them up. I don't know why (but, I digress). There are other "cheaper" alternative DAC modules, but I have not tried them, so I cannot recommend them or say it would be worth any savings. The FiiO D03K has an input capability of 24/192 kHz, so a wider bandwidth capability than some others, although in this case, you may not need that capability, it does not hurt to have it though. The FiiO is probably not considered state of the art. There are better DACS for more money, but again, diminishing returns applies here too. It does a very credible job, and delivers clean highs and low bass, and instrument separation. I am listening to a high bit rate internet station fed through one to my stereo system as I am writing this reply; it sounds good!

    I mention that you many need this type of DAC because it ties directly into another (2nd) part of the "solution" you may want to consider. You can buy an Apple TV for $70 new, or $40-50 refurb, and use the optical output only as an audio streamer. You don't need to connect it to a TV (although you still can if you want to!), except for the initial setup. From that point on, it can be disconnected from the TV HDMI port, then moved to where you want it to be, where it then acts as a remote digital receiver. You can make the connection for the Apple TV to your router via wi-fi, or a hard wire via LAN connection. The Apple TV and Airplay on the iPod (or iPhone) or from iTunes transmits the signal wirelessly at Apple Lossless quality and sounds very good. You feed the optical output of the Apple TV into the FiiO DAC, where it gets converted to RCA L-R output to connect to the amp. The FiiO DAC also does a nice secondary job cleaning up a CD output from a "cheap" DVD player using the DVD coaxial audio out (a plain RCA patch cord will do fine here for this job) as opposed to the analog RCA outputs on the DVD, because the DVD is used solely as a transport in this situation, bypassing the cheap DAC and analog sections on most run of the mill DVD players that typically don't do a good job with CD audio. There is a switch on the FiiO DAC unit that allows it to select either optical or coaxial input, so it will support two source (e.g., Apple TV and DVD) inputs, if you like. (Remember, these are my subjective evaluations-you may have differing ideas).

    The Airport Express can be used in a similar way to the Apple TV with it's optical output (the analog jack doubles up as an optical digital output when a mini Toslink optical cable is used instead of the 3.25 mm analog audio plug), but costs a little more than an Apple TV. However, it can be used for wi-fi purposes too. I have heard the output from the Airport Express is limited to 16/44.1 kHz, as opposed to 24/48kHz on the Apple TV, but won't make a substantial audible difference in this situation as it is acting as a distributor for the sound. It is still at or above CD level quality.

    To use these solutions, you stream your audio out via Airplay to the Apple TV or Airport Express, which acts as your receiver, then you use the DAC optical input to RCA analog output for conversion to plug into your amp's input. An advantage here is that you won't need to tether the iPhone via direct connection wires to make the wireless connection either. You can also connect multiple Apple TVs and or Airport Express units from one source if more outlets are desired at a later time, and stream to any or all units through Airplay simultaneously (select Multiple in Airplay, then check off the desired receivers).

    There is also the Schitt Modi Uber (mentioned briefly above), where both type of DAC inputs are in one unit, but that starts to be getting more expensive ($149 + shipping), and may not be within your budget. The other suggestions above will keep you below the $100 you mentioned as the bottom line. So often, suggestions are made with good intent that, although valid and helpful, will pull you way out of your targeted budget and run up your costs.

    I apologize if this reply has been a bit long-winded, but, I wanted to offer not only suggestions on what to get, but why I recommend them and how to use them. These are practical and workable improvements you will be able to hear, not state of the art solutions that disregard your budget and are out of context relative to use/benefit relationships. Plus, you may find it is kind of fun to be getting this stuff together to work. As I said, you will definitely find the sound quality you will hear from digital audio to be notably better from your iPhone, or from a typical computer sound card output using a DAC instead of the headphone plug/Y connector analog outs. And, if and when you do upgrade your system, these setups can be moved on to the new components where you may notice even further improvement due to upgrading components (like for instance, starting with the Topping amp???...I find the chip amps run out of "gas" (distort) if you turn up the volume too much, or feed inefficient speakers with high dynamic range material, like the B6's for instance because they just run out of power, but I digress again! Your call here if and when!) I hope these suggestions I offer helps you and helps improve your listening pleasure.
  10. Shamgar macrumors regular

    Jun 28, 2015
    That's your brain adjusting to the characteristics of the new device. The DAC hasn't changed. Just your perception.
  11. bobtennis, Mar 30, 2016
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2016

    bobtennis macrumors member

    Jul 8, 2013
    Shamgar...Intellectually, I agree with you. As I said, I am not a believer in "burn-in", especially for a non-mechanical, non-moving component. After all, the DAC is essentially an integrated circuit chip that converts 1's and 0's into an analog waveform to be fed to an amp. In most cases, the chip does the amplification too, so again, another variable is eliminated. The signal just has to pass through a few supporting resistors and capacitors , etc. before reaching the output jacks. So, it makes no sense that these values of the inherent chip characteristics should change over use time to an audible degree (excluding any thermal changes or other operational factors that may alter the electrical values on a micro level). Actually, based on the function of the DAC chip, it should not matter whatever brand or chip version that is used should make any difference on converting all digital 1's and 0's into an analog signal.

    But, different DACs do sound different in the output, even using the same chips let alone from different chip makers, and the wide variation in prices from inexpensive to super expensive DACs does exist...or is this only the brain falling for the fallacy there is a difference in quality in proportion to the increase in price?

    That said, empirically, I felt I heard a difference in the end sound after the FiiO DAC had been left on for some time, and it was not because I was constantly listening to it that I had time to accommodate to the sound, because several days passed before hearing it again, but I left it running with a signal passing to a muted amp to see if it made a difference. The sound initially was slightly bright and lacked depth, then later did not display these traits, it was neutral and instruments and voices sounded fuller and had more depth. Shouldn't be, but it seemed to me it was.

    Am I sure it was not accommodation causing this? No, I'm not sure. I know intellectually it should not be so, so, maybe you are still correct in your assessment of what I perceived hearing. I don't claim to have golden ears, but I know what I like hearing.

    Nonetheless, it sounds pretty good to me as an affordable solution to the need to convert the Apple TV optical output to analog, with the side benefit I can feed a DVD coaxial output through it and get it also to sound better than the analog output for playing CDs (where otherwise it would have continued to sit unused in a closet).

    But, more important is not what it does for me, but what it can do for the OP. I was trying to answer his question regarding whether he can improve the sound of even a budget system by use of a DAC from his iPhone over a direct connect with a headphone Y connector (yes) and how he could do that within the budget of $100 or less now. What I suggested will definitely provide that audibly significant improvement and still stay within his stated budget. There are probably other solutions that may achieve this also. He does not need to get a super expensive DAC to provide that benefit, these suggestions worked for me, so I thought I would share my experiences in the event the OP never thought of this way to do it. That's how I learned a lot about these things, from reading what others have tried and researching the web. It is not state of the art, as I stated, but it will provide a definite benefit to the OP's system and listening enjoyment (in my opinion, there is room for other opinions too!). If his enthusiasm grows from this experience and he wants to up the budget, he can upgrade later as he feels necessary.

    Shamgar, again let me apologize for being long winded and going beyond a simple response to your comment. Let me just close by saying you may very well be right!
  12. hack_tc thread starter macrumors newbie

    Feb 19, 2016
    Wow. Bobtennis, thanks for taking the time to reply with such analysis.

    Since the time of the original post, I've sold my topping and purchased a SMSL Q5 Pro. Still a cheap amp, but a bit more power and features. I have it connected via toslink cable to my onboard audio on my PC. I have yet to purchase a dac, but am still tempted to. I'm sure the 24/192 dac in my amp is as cheap as they come, but I have been listening to a lot of FLAC files, and can definitely tell a difference between those and streaming/mp3s. I'm sure it's hard to say whether the sound files or dac made the difference, but I'd probably put my money on the flac files. It has been exciting revisiting old albums and hearing new subtleties in the music. With that said, I am still eager to try a proper dac, preferably with a headphone input/amp, so that I am not having to constantly switch audio devices in Windows (I know, this is a mac forum!).

    Thanks again for all the help.
  13. bobtennis, Apr 14, 2016
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2016

    bobtennis macrumors member

    Jul 8, 2013
    Wow Hack_tc! Quite a move there, now you do have a DAC, and you can hear a positive difference, and you can see what I meant!

    I also have an SMSL Q5 Pro as a secondary system (remember, I'm a hobbiest!), and actually, that is a pretty good sounding amp, and a really good DAC too. I listen to it a lot! As a digital amp, all the signal processing is done in the digital domain, and only converted to analog as the last step. I really like the clean sound the Q5 puts out. The only drawback for me is it still is limited power, but I'm sure you can see, it plays pretty loud with the stock power supply. Not shy with the power, and is very clean and neutral. I guess for you, another drawback is the lack of a headphone output, that does not bother me so much as I rarely listen to phones. I think you can put buying a "proper DAC" on the back burner until (or if) you buy a component amp where you can't use the SMSL DAC, as the SMSL DAC is really very good, and you won't get much further aural benefit in what you would hear. Incremental, maybe. Trust me on that! Plus, you should not really double up on the DAC, as you will be converting a signal already digital twice, a no-no!

    I'm not sure what you mean by switching audio devices in Windows. The SMSL Q5 has 4 inputs (Digital coax, Toslink (optical), USB, and analog RCA), you can do switching from there without touching Windows settings after you initially configure the audio. BTW, I feed the signal from the computer through USB directly to the Q5, and Apple TV through the optical (to allow Airplay...not the video apps), and DVD through the coax, and a turntable to the analog (with a mini to RCA Female adapter, and plug the turntable into that), and do the switching through the source switch on the Q5.

    You should (at least, I recommend) configure Windows audio to output a higher digital rate than the default value. Windows defaults to 24 bit, 48 kHz, but your DAC will handle 192 kHz. Go to Control Panel/Sound/Select the SMSL device/Properties/Advanced. Select Default format and use the drop down to select 24 bit, 192kHz, and Apply, then OK. Use the test button to check to see if it puts out a tone. This will give you more range to exploit your extra bits when they are present at the source (like if you download some FLAC Hi-Rez files, or sites which support Hi-Rez). I am not sure whether Windows, or the DAC will handle the down conversion for lesser signals, like from a CD (16 bit/44 kHz) or MP3, but somehow it happens, the lower rez will self convert. It works, I'm not really sure how, but will automatically adjust for different formats. If you have golden ears, or can convince yourself you can hear the difference between 48 bit/96 kHz and 192 kHz, then more power to you! I cannot! You should not need to make adjustments each time as you change sources, just leave it there and enjoy.

    Explore internet radio streaming for some Hi-Rez stations with your computer, it's fun and sounds great! Enjoy your new digitally capable amp/dac, it was a real good choice and will hold you over for a long time. If you want any further assistance, please feel free to ask, but you're on your way!
  14. Shamgar, Apr 15, 2016
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2016

    Shamgar macrumors regular

    Jun 28, 2015
    Human hearing is generally considered to be 20 Hz to 20 kHz as a rule of thumb. In practice, the higher frequencies decay as you age and few adults can hear much past 16 kHz (in fact, 17.4 kHz is known to really annoy teenagers while being inaudible to adults. Great times.) To perfectly reproduce a sound wave, you just need a sampling rate of double the highest frequency (see: Nyquist Theorem). So anything above 40 kHz will reproduce the full range of human hearing. 44.1 and 48 were each chosen for different legacy reasons, and work great for consumer playback giving just a bit of headroom. Similarly, most consumer speakers will only be rated up to 20 kHz or just above, covering the same range.

    96 kHz sometimes gets used in mixing and mastering because it can reduce particular audio artifacts generated in that work. Anything above that generally only has utility for scientific purposes. Some people use it anyways because more is better.

    Anything above a 48 kHz sampling rate is physically inaudible to humans and unreproducible by non-specialized speakers. You can get music at 96 kHz or even 192 kHz, but it won't add anything. Unless it was specifically mastered differently than other releases, which can happen. But then it's just different, not necessarily better. Though it could be.

    Going from lossy to lossless is an area where real improvements can be found. 256 kbps AAC or 320 kbps MP3 from a good encoder is close enough to transparent for me, but anything less than that and I start to hear the deficiencies quite regularly. I still have a mild preference for true lossless though.
  15. AndyMoore macrumors 6502


    Feb 8, 2008
    I've been considering the new Dragonfly Black which came out last week. It's £89 / $99 so perfect for the budget conscious but I can't find any reviews yet, although it's supposed to be an improvement on the Dragonfly 1.2 which did review well.

    Has anyone got one yet?
  16. ThisBougieLife macrumors 68000


    Jan 21, 2016
    SF Bay Area, California
    I would, if you're interested in lossless sound and all that. I use a Fiio E17 USB DAC and I love the sound out of it; it works well with my Sennheiser HD 598 headphones. (I listen to AIFF classical files most of the time).

    That said, if you're mainly listening to 256Kbps stuff then it's probably not going to make much difference.
  17. MH01 Suspended


    Feb 11, 2008
    Thumbs up there mate. You took your time to give a good explanation in your posts here. I'd recommend anyone to try an aftermarket dad , it can be a real game changer if you like your music, though it's a very slippery and dangerous slope which one day has you looking at a chord Hugo on your desktop and cursing that person who gave you your first advice about trying X.... :p
  18. mojolicious macrumors 68000


    Mar 18, 2014
    Sarf London
    I believe that the technical term is 'stepfather'.
  19. Amigaman macrumors regular


    Sep 29, 2007
    Greenville, MI
    IMHO, the Schiit Modi 2 is best DAC you can buy for $100. That being said, I'm not sure how much of a difference a DAC will make in a traditional 2.0 system with bookshelf speakers. However, a good Amp/DAC combined with good headphones is simply wonderful. I'm currently using an Apogee Groove Amp/DAC with a pair of Bowers & Wilkins P7s and some PSB M4U4 IEMs and I love it.

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