Best DAC/AMP under $200

N

NorCalRP

Full Audioholic
New to headphones (been a a/v guy my whole hobby/obsession life),and there's just so much to look at. I'm looking for something to hook into my Dell XPS15 laptop.

Do different DAC/AMPs have different tonal qualities? If so, I like sound that's neutral from the mids up, and somewhat warm below that. I know eq'ing can tailor my sound, but when I engage the volume dives (will the amp take care of this?).

Thanks for the feedback folks.
 
P

PENG

Audioholic Overlord
I have a couple of Xduoo Dac/headphone amps that sound neutral.
 
N

NorCalRP

Full Audioholic
R

R.Elder

Audioholic
Wow, pretty phenomenal how small it is. How does this work with higher impedance headphones? The size is great as I'd be using it while working on my laptop
I’m not sure but I think it’s one of the few things that Audioquest makes that’s a decent value. They claim to be able to power most headphones and they work pretty well with my seinheissers.
 
K

kenwstr

Audioholic Intern
I'm currently using an Essence HDACC DAC/AMP which was out of your range last time I checked.
Some of the SMSL offerings seem to be gaining quite a following for value for money.
They appear to be well built and come up on Drop (formally Massdrop) at good prices.
http://www.smsl-audio.com/

There are some well respected brands that come up on Drop too, it's a good place to keep an eye on.

As far as tonality goes, a lot depends on the source hardware and software. Computers tend to modify the bits depending on settings. If they didn't, you wouldn't be able to adjust volume from the computer. That in itself is re-scaling (reducing) bit depth. Not at all sure if you can actually set a computer to produce a neutral bit stream. I did some PA testing playing WAV tone files (pure sin wave tones) in WMP and VLC. VCL produced strong harmonic undertones for source tones above 10 kHz. I have lost effective hearing above 10 kHz and could hear the harmonics from VLC clearly. I did not hear any harmonics from WMP. My conclusion is that VLC is definitely inferior to WMP in respect of tonal neutrality. I think the fact you are using a computer as a source outweighs tonality issues in DACs.

You may get cleaner audio just putting the media on a USB HDD plugged into your broadband modem. Then any WiFi device like a BD player etc could extract a bit stream from there to output to a DAC or it's own inbuilt DAC.

Audio specific products have a better chance IMO.
 
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MR.MAGOO

MR.MAGOO

Audioholic Chief
I'm happy with my AudioQuest Dragonfly Red, now wondering if the 'new' Cobalt version is worth the extra $100.
 
P

PENG

Audioholic Overlord
I'm happy with my AudioQuest Dragonfly Red, now wondering if the 'new' Cobalt version is worth the extra $100.
Imo those are overpriced, reminded me of the modern day Boss stuff.. There are way better ones, I would just pick from the blue, green, even the orange buckets in the audiosciencereview.com's list.
 
K

kenwstr

Audioholic Intern
Hi, If looking for a good yet inexpensive USB cable for a DAC, I'd like to recommend Tripp-Lite U023-series. These are double shielded (braid & Mylar) and include ferrite chokes, A-B plugs. Paid about $13. I am using this on an auditorium PA system to connect a Radial USB-Pro to the mixing console. That DAC is a little over the $200 limit here but not by a lot and I think the sound is beyond all expectations. Comparing the tripp-Lite with a discontinued BNIB LH Labs Lightspeed 1G, the tripp-lite wins hands down for it's clear, rich, open, dynamic and expressive sound. Every sound comes through the Tripp-Lite with punch and precision while the discontinued Lightspeed really suppresses some or the instrumentation.

I am also using a Trip-Lite at home to connect my laptop to an Essence HDACC, though I haven't gone out of my way to compare this with boutique cables.

I don't do on the move DAC applications which is what the Dragonfly is built for. I have an iBasso DX 80 that. Horses for courses as they say.

Ken
 
Kvn_Walker

Kvn_Walker

Senior Audioholic
A perfect USB cable transmits 100% of the 1’s and 0’s 100% of the time.

If your old cable “sounded worse” then it was defective and did not transmit 100% of the signal. A $3 digital cable that has 0% signal loss “sounds” the same as a $5,000 cable that has 0% signal loss.

I can somewhat grasp there being a little difference with analog signal cables, but not digital transmission if both are transmitting 100% of the data at the same rate. It’s not physically possible, sorry.

Guess I could iterate a step further and say that a bad or poorly made cable could introduce noise into the signal path and raise the noise floor, which would for all purposes muddy the sound. There is merit in buying a competently made cable (analog or digital) but the truth remains that a theoretical "perfect" cable gives you a net result of 1.0. Anything imperfect gives you <1.0. The snake oil industry is built around making people believe that a passive cable can give them >1.0, somehow defying laws of physics.
 
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K

kenwstr

Audioholic Intern
It isn't about the 1s and 0s. That argument entirely misses the point.

There are differences because noise from a PC or laptop and from RFI and EMI can pollute the analogue circuits of a DAC and infect its ground reference. This is particularly a problem with computing devices that float on and pollute the analogue ground such as laptops. Computing devices still produce an enormous electrical noise floor because they are a general device and do not follow the same design principles as audio specific components. Show me a computer that handles power supply noise in the same way as a high end analogue audio circuit for example, torridal transformer, powder cap storage and filter caps array to ground out steep rising spike forms that are generated by rectifier switching threshold characteristics. OK so there are good examples of switching supplies these days but very poor ones still exist as well.

If the cable is well shielded and helps to filter these effects, it yields a better performance because it decreases the noise entering the DAC. This is especially important in the extreme high EMI RFI environments we commonly run audio these days. This is also the reason that external DACs perform better than inbuilt sound cards, all other things being equal of course. In the case of the 2 cables I mentioned, the tripp-lite is just a plain conductor with excellent shielding measuring 0.0 ohms while the much more expensive LH Labs cable shield resistance can not be determined with a digital meter because it incorporates semi conductor technology that prevents the meter gaining a stable reading. In fact it rolls around and eventually indicates open. However an analogue meter gives an oscillating reading. To me, this indicates poor (high impedance) shielding. The fact that the connector glows confirms that the cable incorporates electronics.

As an example of interference sources in AV, HDMI is the absolute worst source of RFI egress in a system. This cable type is the same as having a broad band GHZ transmitter aerial right in among you AV system. The dam things register -20dB RF on our PA radio mic receiver and this is across all 200 channels (and more). It causes the screen to shimmer and filcker. It is much much worse whenever we move an active HDMI cable near it and the problem completely disappears when HDMI is not active. I have even seen HDMI cable completely swamp out an jam TV reception on stations they are completely clear and trouble free whenever HDMI is inactive. I have about had it with HDMI, it works well in itself but is absolute crap for just about every other electronic technology anywhere in its vicinity. This is why I now place extreme importance on cable shielding and filtering. The tripp-lite incorporates these basic features with out spurious fancy claims or price. It's a simple utility cable that gets the job done and does it very well.

Ken
 
John Parks

John Parks

Full Audioholic
@NorCalRP Hey - I know this thread is been around for a bit and you asked about a DAC/Amp in March, but did you purchase something? Since my my system had to split because of configurations (had to separate my computer from my 2-channel setup) I have been looking for a "desktop" DAC/Amp. The new unit from ifi ( https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-dac/ ) looks very exciting. It decodes just about any file you can throw at it (DSD is important to me) has two gain settings so as to drive anything short of electrostatics, a nice bass boost (I've got a pair of ear cannons that sound otherworldly when properly boosted) and some other nice features all for... $129.99!
1574109554300.png
 
tyhjaarpa

tyhjaarpa

Audioholic Field Marshall
@NorCalRP Hey - I know this thread is been around for a bit and you asked about a DAC/Amp in March, but did you purchase something? Since my my system had to split because of configurations (had to separate my computer from my 2-channel setup) I have been looking for a "desktop" DAC/Amp. The new unit from ifi ( https://ifi-audio.com/products/zen-dac/ ) looks very exciting. It decodes just about any file you can throw at it (DSD is important to me) has two gain settings so as to drive anything short of electrostatics, a nice bass boost (I've got a pair of ear cannons that sound otherworldly when properly boosted) and some other nice features all for... $129.99!
View attachment 32313
I would avoid something like this that comes with any kind of booster, especially from company never heard of. If you are in budget you should look for O2SDAC instead.
 
Kvn_Walker

Kvn_Walker

Senior Audioholic
 
John Parks

John Parks

Full Audioholic
Wow - savage review! I hate going to the ASR site because if I take their reviews (tests) at face value, a lot of my plans go up in flames!
 

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