DAC Guide for Hi-Res Audio

Hi-Res Audio

There are many aspects to enjoying Hi-Res Audio (or better-than-CD-quality  or high-resolution audio). One of the first is to source the Hi-Res Audio content either from SACDs or from online download providers. The next is to be able to send these digital hi-res audio files into an external DAC so as to reproduce the music into its analog version. There are many DACs available and more produced daily, which prompts the question “which DAC should I buy to enjoy Hi-Res Audio?”. The following should help in the pursuit of Hi-Res Audio bliss.

DAC Comparison Table

Here is a nifty comparison matrix for available DACs to review before making a purchase decision. The main characteristics used for sorting are price, frequency response minima and maxima, max PCM frequency as well as DSD capability. If you know of a good DAC not represented in the matrix, do let us know in the comment section below!

NameReviews and buy linkMin Freq (Hz)Max Freq (kHz)Max PCM (kHz)DSDPrice ($)
Audioquest Dragonfly DAC
Audioquest Dragonfly DAC
Read reviews and buy on Amazon4896No250
Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus DAC
Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus DAC
Read reviews and buy on Amazon10100192No599
TEAC UD-501 DAC
TEAC UD-501 DAC
Read Reviews and Buy on Amazon580384Yes (x2)849
Mytek Digital 192 DSD DAC
Mytek Digital 192 DSD DAC
Buy on eBay192Yes (x2)1,595
Benchmark DAC2 D
Benchmark DAC2 D
Read reviews and buy on Amazon1045192Yes1,795
Fostex HP-A8C DSD DAC
Fostex HP-A8C DSD DAC
Read reviews and buy on Amazon1080192Yes925

From Hi-Fi to Computer Audiophile: how to have better sound with Hi-Res Audio

Audirvana+
Audirvana+

When I was a teenager, I remember listening to vinyl on at my uncle’s place. He had a vintage Hi-Fi audio system and it is on vinyl that I first listened to Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygène, and other great albums of his collection, including Roxy Music’s Avalon.

In this post, I go over how we have moved from vintage Hi-Fi system considerations to a modern system, giving rise to the Computer Audiophile, using Hi-Res Audio as an integral part of the music listening experience.

Hi-Fi

Hi-Fi, short for high-fidelity, was the pursuit of musicophiles and audiophiles during these years. The avowed goal of high-fidelity was to try to reproduce the experience that the listener had in a live music setting, often of classical repertoire or other shows of the acoustic or rock genres.

A typical system could consist of the following:

  • Vinyl Turntable
  • Double-deck Cassette Player
  • AM/FM Tuner
  • Integrated Amplifier
  • Passive Speakers, and…
  • Audio Cables

System-matching in the Hi-Fi world

An important way of maximizing the music experience with a Hi-Fi system was to match each component with others which make the system sound beautiful. You could do that  by buying components from different manufacturers and making sure they worked well together and sounded fantastic.

For instance, you could have a Philips Turntable with a Sony AM/FM tuner, a Marantz cassette-deck, wired to a Kenwood amplifier and Pioneer speakers. At the time, these were some of the known and appreciated brands, together with TEAC, Sansui and Yamaha and more.

Maximizing Frequency Response

One of the main goal of assembling a great-sounding Hi-Fi system was to make sure you have the widest possible Frequency Response along the component chain.

For instance, if the speakers could go to a max of 19kHz, but the amplifier could manage up to 20kHz, then the speakers would be the weak link, artificially restricting the Frequency Response of the system to 19kHz. In other words, you would be losing some high-frequency content present in the music, affecting hi-hats and other instruments which have those frequencies in their timbres.

Therefore, you would want to replace those speakers by others which have a larger frequency response.

The same thing applies to bass reproduction, i.e. the lower frequencies.

How Mobility (and Steve Jobs) killed Hi-Fi music

In those times, the way to get your music collection to listen to on-the-go was to record your vinyl songs onto cassette and carry a Sony Walkman.

  • Then came the miniaturization and mass-marketing of computing.
  • Then came lossy digital audio compression like MP3.
  • Then came Steve Jobs with his iPhone, iPod and iTunes.

With all the convenience of carrying a big part of our music collection around with us and the fact that storage was still expensive, many people thus ripped their CDs into lossy compression formats for mobility.

And since the lossy-compressed music file was also on our   desktop or home computers, just listening to these instead of the CDs became our habit, thus robbing us from listening to all the good work done on the sound of music by the following:

  • The Band or Artist
  • The Recording Engineer
  • The Mixing Engineer
  • The Mastering Engineer

These experts spent a great amount of time and savoir-faire to maximize how the music should sound like, and here we were (are) listening to an ersatz of it, a degraded experience just for the sake of convenience, mobility and not having to stand up and get that CD into the player…

All is not lost, however, for the determined audiophile today, since there is a way to reclaim a fantastic music experience with many of the advantages and convenience that digital does offer.

The Computer Audiophile: the new face of the Hi-Fi enthusiast

Compare a Computer Audiophile’s system to a traditional Hi-Fi system:

  • Hi-Res Audio  – WAV, FLAC, ALAC, i.e. uncompressed or lossless-compressed, CD or better-than-CD quality (44.1kHz/16-bit to formats like 192kHz/24-bit for PCM, and DSD)
  • A Computer with a CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drive for ripping
  • Storage (e.g. a N.A.S. or other hard drive or SSD drive)
  • Specialized Audio Software to play the Hi-Res Audio files in a bit-perfect manner (highly important)
  • An External DAC with asynchronous USB capability (highly important)
  • Amplifier
  • Speakers (or active speakers without a separate amplifier)
  • USB and Audio cables

With these, and also still using the principle of maximizing the Frequency Response of the whole system, the Computer Audiophile typically enjoys a far, far greater music listening experience than the lambda musicophile with a huge MP3 or Apple-compressed library, played either straight from the computer’s audio outs, i.e. using the internal DAC.

Just using these three made a huge difference in my own setup:

  • Using Hi-Res Audio instead of lossy-compressed (ripping my own CDs or downloading free Hi-Res files, e.g. from the Test Bench HD Audio File menu of www.2l.no or the free DSD music from Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast Records)
  • Using a different Audio Player than iTunes (I use Audirvana+ by Damien Plisson on Mac OS X and Korg’s Audiogate)
  • Sending the music file read in bit-perfect mode through USB to an external DAC

To help others choose the way of the Computer Audiophile, I have set up a growing list of affordable Hi-Res Audio DACs in the DSD DAC Guide.

AudioHead has a cool portable DAC comparison video with 12 of them: