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For almost a decade, Benchmark Media Systems has set the de-facto standard for high-quality audiophile digital-to-analog converters with their flagship product DAC1.
This was the first time you could give your ageing CD player a performance boost or simply try out music server technologies. Its built-in headphone amplifier was good enough to drive a Sennheiser HD600 or HD650 with ease and you could use the Benchmark to even replace your preamp.
Benchmark has been continuously refining their product and introduced a successor that is now even more capable of conquering jitter than the original DAC1. So don’t get me wrong as it’s still a great buy today.
Unfortunately, at over a thousand Euros, it was and is still prohibitively expensive for many audiophiles – including me.
Luckily, you can now choose from dozens of truly fantastic sounding DAC models retailing well under 500 Euros that are comparable or even better sounding than their role model.
In 2015 you probably want a USB input to either use your computer as a source or tap the music collection digitally from your smartphone or iPod (yep, this is possible – more about this in another article). If headphone listening is your main priority, look for a model that comes with a decent headphone jack. Remote controllability is a nice bonus if you need to switch between multiple inputs and don’t want to leave your comfy chair.
On top of that, get a DAC that comes with at least a couple of optical and coaxial inputs. You probably don’t want to run out of inputs in the future. More and more devices including TVs, satellite dishes and set top boxes are outputting digital signals. Those devices are perfect partners for your new DAC.
In my personal opinion, I’d stay away from smaller boutique manufacturers. As always, there may be exceptions to the rule. Digital technology requires a lot of experience, expensive measurement equipment and careful engineering. Having designed a couple of digital to analog circuits, I know the importance of tight board layouts and how easy it is to screw things up performance-wise.
Do not focus too much on the DAC chipset alone as the actual chip is often not synonymous with high performance. Although that’s what the corporate marketing departments want you to believe. The analogue side including power supplies is just as crucial to fantastic sound.
Furthermore, don’t skimp on inputs because you never know how many devices you might need to hook up to your DAC in the future.
Tip! You can potentially save huge amounts of money by purchasing used high-end audio gear (advertisement).It’s not uncommon to see savings of 45% or more if you know where to look. Check out eBay or Audiogon classifieds. Great DACs that were over 1000 Euros just a couple of months ago, often trade for 500-600 Euros on places like Head-Fi.org.
Here’s my list of what I consider the best candidates in 2015 for a professionally-made DAC under 500 Euros:
By far one of the best values for money I have seen is the Audiolab Q-DAC. It is based on the spectacular ESS Sabre 9016 chipset which is a 32bit DAC. With 1 optical, 1 coaxial and 1 USB input, you get plenty of connectivity.
Thanks to the high resolution of the ESS chipset, you can use the Q-DAC as a full featured digital preamplifier, too. Can-lovers get a headphone amplifier thrown in as well. This DAC actually looks pretty nice with a wide LED display. It’s priced a hair under 500 Euros but worth every cent in my opinion. Technology-wise the Q-DAC is based on the Audiolab M-DAC which is almost twice the price. The first thing you notice when you pop open the hood is an engineer’s delight. Knowing that this DAC is actually the brainchild of John Westlake, I’d say it is not really surprising. John was the mastermind behind the original DacMagic and holds multiple patents in digital signal technology. This guy truly knows how to design a perfect DAC. I have personally tried out this DAC and wholeheartedly recommend it – it’s far ahead of the competition.
Another great value for money and often recommended is Cambridge Audio’s DAC Magic lineup. At present you can choose between two models. Both are based on the excellent top-range Wolfson chipsets (WM8742 in the DM100 and dual WM8740 in the DM Plus). Both are superb designs as well although I am not very fond of the noisy switch mode power supplies. Maybe this could be replaced by a linear supply if you are a hardcore tweaker. If you only need a plain-vanilla DAC without the headphone amplifier and fiddling with sample rate conversions etc., just get the DAC Magic 100. It costs less than half of the DAC Magic Plus and is already extremely capable. However, the DAC Magic Plus comes with a really nice headphone output (50 Ohms output impedance) that holds its own well when compared to many standalone headphone amplifiers costing as much as the DAC itself! The DAC Magic Plus also features a sturdier build-quality. Admitted, we are a bit beyond our 500 Euro budget territory but the DM is well worth a closer consideration.
The Musical Fidelity V90 DAC primarily caters to budget audiophiles seeking a minimalist solution for fewer than 500 Euros. It is based on the highly successful predecessor V-DAC model and features the latest Texas Instruments PCM1795 DAC chip capable of an astounding signal to noise ratio of 123dB. This is way better than any previous DAC made 3-4 years ago could even dream of. The V90 DAC has plain looks but comes with 1 coaxial input, 2 optical inputs plus USB. And you get a nice aluminum enclosure for a total price of 250 Euros. It is internally and externally well made. But unfortunately no headphone amplifier or volume control is included.
Teac and ESI (a professional sound-card manufacturer) also offer two fantastic DAC models that rightly belong to the “best DAC under 500” category.
If all of my recommendations still seem expensive, I have found a little digital to analog converter gem that costs less than 50 Euros. Can’t believe it? Enter the FiiO D3 E03K. For the crazy low price of about 35 Euros, you get a true 24 bit/192kHz DAC based on the Crystal CS4344 chipset and WM8805 PLL. Its DAC is so good that you’ll be having a hard time detecting audible differences between a “high-end” converter and the FiiO.
From a connectivity standpoint, the FiiO offers 1 coaxial and 1 optical Toslink input. Both are individually selectable. Unfortunately there is no USB input but for the price I wouldn’t expect one. The sound quality is actually darned good as I mentioned earlier and it would make a lot of CD players from the past sweat. It’s a great solution for my Apple TV which only comes with a single optical output. You can also use the small FiiO to hook up your TV to your stereo or if you are running out of inputs on your “main” DAC as I did. If that’s all you need a DAC for, simply buy the FiiO and call it a day.
Granted, I probably haven’t listed all possible decent DACs on the market. I am sorry for this but there are just too many of them. This is my personal hotlist of what I think are among the best deals for price versus performance under 500 and I wouldn’t skip investigating the ones I have mentioned in this article.
Oh yes – don’t buy used digital to analog converters. Although I always advocate buying pre-owned audio gear, technology is progressing so quickly that it would seem pointless in many cases to purchase digital audio products made 5 years ago.