Pursuit of DAC Happiness

Disclaimer:

All the DACs, amps, headphones and digital sources discussed/mentioned in this article are my personal gear that I purchased with my own funds.

Introduction:

For the last 3 years, I have been on a pursuit to find a desktop DAC that fits my preference. As part of the pursuit, I have been through some notable DACs and I thought I’d share some thoughts on these devices. Before we dive into the impressions, let me give you a quick background on my approach and preferences. I like to give equal weightage to components in the chain. I find the DAC to be as important as the amp and the transducer. I like to build a chain, where the DAC gets as close as possible to nailing my preference and then I like to use a transparent downstream chain.

I like a dynamic and resolving sound that is also smooth at the same time. While I value timbre a lot, it is not the be-all & end-all for me. While I am willing to sacrifice a bit of timbre for the sake of better dynamics or micro detail, I do not like timbre that lacks an organic quality. For a couple of reasons, I am going to use the term tonal realism instead of the term timbre for the rest of the article. On the micro details side, I seem to value inner details, nuances and micro dynamics more than hi-fi details like sharp outlining of instruments and effortless separation.

On the presentation side of things, I don’t mind a bit of a forward presentation, in fact I might even like it. A presentation with pushed-back mids on the other hand is a big no-no for me. I also am more particular about depth and layering over stage width and imaging precision. Even after these 3 years, I still haven’t found my ideal DAC. While I seek a very resolving sound, I am also sensitive to treble issues. Between macro-dynamics, resolution and timbre, it is as if DACs will let you have only 2/3 at any single given time.

This whole pursuit started when I got to try the Cayin N8 as a DAC in my desktop system. Until then I had been using the Hugo2 and the Cayin showed me what was missing in the Hugo2. Here are the list of 6 DACs I have covered in this article in the chronological order of ownership.

  1. Chord Hugo 2
  2. Cayin N8
  3. Schiit Bifrost 2 (The Original)
  4. Rockna Wavelight
  5. Chord Mojo 2
  6. Abbas 2.3SE (Currently Own)

Chains:

  • MacBook (USB) > DAC > Eddie Current Black Widow 2 > HD800 (Hugo2, N8)
  • Allo USBridge Sig (USB) > DAC > Eddie Current Black Widow 2 > HD800, HD650 (Bifrost2, Wavelight)
  • Allo USBridge Sig (USB) > DAC > Elekit TU8900 > HD800, HD650, HD580 (Bifrost2, Wavelight, Mojo2)
  • MacBook/Allo (USB) > Audiobyte Hydra Z (SPIDF) > DAC > Elekit TU8900 > HD800, HD650 (Mojo2, Abbas)

Chord Hugo 2:

  • Neutral-ish and a coherent sounding DAC with a dry tone
  • Great transients and chameleon like speed
  • Sound is slightly tilted towards micro than macro
  • Treble can be a touch bright
  • Excels in HiFi details, separation and imaging
  • Excellent overall resolution and refinement
  • Stage is excellent. Width, depth, airiness, holography, the DAC has it all
  • Not very authoritative and weighty in the bass nor with attacks generally
  • Tonal realism lacks an organic quality
  • Not a lot of meat on the bones. But not thin either
  • Not as textured as Schiit DACs but has more micro details than Bifrost 2
  • Fairly transparent and can be unforgiving due to bright treble
  • The output stage is kind of weaksauce. Does way better with an external amp
  • The onboard digital volume control kills dynamics, details and depth, and I much preferred using the RK27 potentiometer on the BW2

Cayin N8:

  • Most well rounded and balanced DAC I’ve heard in my system
  • Neutral-warm in tone and fairly pleasing, yet an engaging listen without much treble issues
  • Does not have the velvety sound that AKM DACs are infamous for
  • A step behind the Hugo2 in overall performance, but is more engaging
  • Finds the right balance between micro and macro
  • A touch behind the Hugo2 in micro details but better than the Bifrost 2
  • Not as textured as the Biforst 2 though
  • Depth and layering is not as great as Chord and R2R DACs, but the stage is sufficiently wide and airy
  • Midrange has a bit of inner warmth and is full bodied
  • Has good transparency and walks the fine line between forgiving and unforgiving
  • Has a refined and resolving sound, without sounding Hi-Fi

Schiit Bifrost 2:

  • A love-hate DAC. Loved it for what it did well and hated it for its flaws
  • In the lower mids, it is on the warm and mushy side
  • In the lower treble, it is on the bright and strident side
  • This kills the otherwise beautiful tonal realism the DAC is capable of
  • Mids are bodied and have an inherent warmth
  • Not the best quality bass but hits quite hard
  • Not super refined or resolving. But provides an engaging listen with its energetic sound
  • Has the best texture among all the DACs discussed here
  • Micro details are not as great as Chord, Wavelight or Cayin
  • Resolution, refinement, separation imaging and stage width are a touch behind the Mojo2
  • But the depth and layering is excellent
  • On speakers, the weaknesses become less apparent and the strengths shine through
  • I liked the DAC a lot on speakers and not much own headphones

Rockna Wavelight:

  • The sound has a resemblance to both Schiit Multibit and Chord
  • Has the tonal realism in the midrange and ballsy sound akin to Schiit DACs
  • But is also HiFi sounding like the Chord DACs
  • This is another DAC that does the balance between micro and macro quite well
  • Scores high on both performance and engagement
  • The center stage has the necessary forwardness, which the Chord DACs (and the Bf2 on headphones) lack
  • Midrange has a bit of inherent warmth but is bright in the treble
  • Overall treble is a bit lifted and can be harsh or fatiguing for treble sensitive folks or in the wrong system
  • The lifted treble and the HiFi sound doesn’t let the tonal realism in the midrange to shine
  • This is the least grainy DAC I have heard in my system
  • Excellent stage with great depth and layering. Throws an immense stage on speakers
  • Separation and micro detail might be a tiny step above Hugo2
  • Inner detail and microdynamics may be the best of the bunch here, but could have been slightly better
  • WL and Chord DACs have a way of showing gradations of dynamics in a more nuanced way
  • For instance, on a spectrum of 1 through 10, WL and Chord DACs can produce dynamic gradations of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10.
  • Whereas the Bf2 and Abbas can only do 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10. Cayin would slot somewhere between these 2 categories
  • On headphones, Mojo2 comes close in terms of separation and some micro and HiFi details
  • On speakers though, the WL pulls ahead quite a bit and has a huge sense of scale
  • Unlike the Bf2, where the weaknesses are less apparent on speakers, the issues of the WL are still apparent on speakers

Chord Mojo 2:

  • Please read the Hugo2 impressions first
  • Basically a Hugo2 but a touch less bright/sterile and a step behind in performance
  • Has an effective built-in EQ with which you can try and mimic the tonal balance of Hugo2 or the Mojo1
  • The output stage and the built-in digital volume limits the performance of this DAC
  • Feeding Optical from a good source takes the performance one step higher and gets rid of 99% of digitus
  • Optical input + external amp + external vol ctrl revealed how capable this little DAC is
  • I was willing to overlook the insufficient texture and truncated decay
  • But just like with the Hugo2, the lack of tonal realism was a deal breaker once again

Abbas DAC 2.3SE:

  • Sounds very anti-modern and anti-HiFi
  • The sound is macro oriented than micro
  • Unlike most NOS DACs, this has a very energetic and punchy presentation
  • Bass quality might not be as good as modern DACs. That doesn’t bother me, but might bother others
  • The DAC does decay quite well. But Wavelight is still the best
  • Mids are warm and meaty, but as already mentioned, it can lack a bit of inherent details
  • The tonal realism of this DAC is really something special. Very realistic/organic/life-like
  • Upper treble is a bit toned down (which I like). Lower treble has the right amount of presence
  • Can be a touch energetic in the upper-mids with headphones like the HD6X0 series and HiFiman
  • Texture, microdynamics, inner detail and micro details could have been better
  • Transparency is quite good but resolution and refinement are not its strengths
  • Stage is NOS like. Condensed towards the center and not great with separation and imaging
  • Depth and layering is quite decent
  • Works really well with wide-bander speakers as both share some similar strengths
  • May not work well with modern multi-way and HiFi sounding speakers

Score Chart:

Concluding Thoughts:

  • I admire the performance of Chord DACs, but the lack of organic-ness in their tonal realism is why these DACs don’t work for me.
  • On the other hand, some of my friends do not have any issues with the way Chord DACs do timbre. In fact they find it to be the most realistic. So do not discount these DACs just yet. Just remember to feed optical in, use an external amp and external vol ctrl
  • Cayin N8 is the most well-rounded and well-balanced DAC I have tried in my desktop system. I had to move on because of the clunky hardware
  • As you can see from the score chart, Cayin wasn’t a top-scorer in any of the individual aspects. But it scores consistently across the board. I am still looking for DAC that is well rounded like this
  • I seem to like the mids of R2R DACs. But R2R DACs also suffer from treble issues. R2R DACs also seem to do depth, layering and inner details more easily.
  • I loved many aspects about the Bifrost2. But on headphones, the strident lower treble and pushed back mids did not work for me. But I loved the DAC on speakers
  • Wavelight was a great performer and came close to nailing my preference. But the fatiguing treble was a deal breaker. The onboard vol ctrl on the Wavelight is pretty great
  • Abbas is macro tilted, very lively and has a wonderful tonal realism. So it makes for an engaging listen. I wish it had better micro capabilities and stage

2 thoughts on “Pursuit of DAC Happiness

  1. Very interesting, a good read! Why? First, I can relate to quite some of your sonic preferences. Second, I went up to the Hugo 2 myself, when the AudioQuest DragonFly Red wasn‘t enough anymore. Third, with the Hugo 2, I quite quickly arrived at using an external headphone amp with it; your prior post on that topic summed it up nicely. And fourth, I do also find that the Hugo 2 is missing something at times – that so-called musicality which for me came in spades with the Cayin N8ii DAP. I am wondering what you would think about the N8ii …

    Like

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