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China is for many a complete answer to sourcing cheap consumer electronics. However I find that Chinese manufacturers can indeed produce ultra-high quality electronic products at reasonable prices.
With many top universities in China including Tsinghua or Fudan which are among the best tech universities in Asia, there’s no shortage of brilliant engineers.
Electronic parts are easily obtainable across the country. Almost every major distributor sells parts to individualists or smaller startups. Couple that with low labor cost and you’ve got a winning cost versus performance ratio.
You’ve probably noticed that eBay (advertisement) is flooded with all sorts of “high-end” DIY DAC boards from China and some of those deals sound just too amazingly perfect, almost too good to be true.
Their target audience are DIY audio enthusiasts who no longer find reasonably priced kits in the western world. Many audiophiles would also prefer to customize the sound to their tastes by swapping out electronic parts such as opamps for better performing ones. After all, tweaking has become second nature to audiophiles.
You cannot play that “individuality game” easily with off-the-shelf products from your local hi-fi store.
Want a latest-generation 24bit Wolfson DAC with stellar performance for under $50? I’m not kidding, these boards blow competitors for 10 times the price (or more) out of the water. See my review of this amazing board here.
It’s often not trivial to separate the wheat from the chaff, though.
Some of the boards I’ve tested were populated with reused or counterfeit parts (especially OPAmps and capacitors) and the PCB layout was plain horrible. I also noticed production spread with a couple of boards. But overall my experience has been mostly positive.
Here’s a list of my two favorite Chinese eBay sellers and their best DAC boards:
Update March 09, 2018: Here are two hot DACs that I’ve recently discovered. Both are offered by the Chinese eBay seller Weiliang and are killer value for money just judging by the pics of the board. Please note, that I have no personal experience with either of them but please let me know if you get a chance to try one of these:
AK4497 DAC (advertisement)
ESS9028 DAC (advertisement)
Check out his “Full Assembled WM8740+DIR9001 DAC Board Decoder Board“
I’ve extensively reviewed and modded this board. SUrprisingly clean PCB layout. If you want to turn this DAC into a world-class performer, add a better OPAMP, disable USB (get USB externally from an XMOS converter) and work on the power supply. I suggest replacing the voltage regulators with ultra-low noise boards from diyinhk.com. For those of you who are not faint-hearted, de-solder the WM8740 chip and drop in the pin-compatible WM8741 as a replacement (can be purchased from Mouser).
Overall this eBay seller is a really nice and reliable guy. I often purchase stuff from him.
If you are after the best ESS Sabre 9018 DACs, boards with AKM4495 and top-notch XMOS USB to SP/DIF converters, he is the guy to contact! He is pretty responsive and he can help you find the configuration that is right for your needs.
Many Chinese DACs don’t come with optical Toslink inputs. Not a problem if you know how to add them later on. I’ll explain how in a separate post.
Given the low extra cost for enclosures. I would definitely purchase the boards readily assembled in a decent enclosure. Buying a case separately can add that individual touch but easily eats the savings.
This is mor for DIY audio enthusiasts but nevertheless a great place to buy low-noise low voltage power supplies to pimp your DIY DACs or start with a custom design.