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Unfortunately, high-quality digital-to-analog converters (DACs) can be really expensive for what they do (that is converting digital pulses into analog waveforms). Luckily, eBay is flooded with cheap DACs with bold audiophile claims. But how good are these actually? Let’s find out.
I have recently purchased a Chinese made DAC on eBay for under $50 from seller along1986090(advertisement link) (btw, I highly recommend this guy) with the Wolfson WM8740 chipset and full USB audio support. Not only did it work perfectly right out of the box but the quality is absolutely mind-blowing – not just for the price.
Before purchasing this DAC, I drafted my personal requirements.
All I was looking for was a cheap DIY solution to test new loudspeaker setups. In addition, I wanted to be able to use the DAC as an external soundcard for my laptop. I prefer watching movies or listen to some occasional background music without chirping high-frequency noise generated by onboard sound chips.
Here’s what arrived in my mailbox after 2 weeks:
Figure 1: WM8740 DAC board arrived!
My DAC is powered by the 24 bit/192 kHz Wolfson WM8740 chipset. Audio manufacturers such as Arcam or Cambridge Audio just to name a few are also using the exact same chip in much higher priced products.
The board dimensions are 11.5 x 8.5 cm. It features a height of 2.5 cm. You also need a power supply which is not included with the DAC board itself. The required voltage is 9V AC. Ask the seller for a suitable supply as it tends to be a lot cheaper than purchasing locally outside of Asia.
So what are the obvious downsides?
Unfortunately, its potential is held back a bit by the onboard DIR9001 digital receiver which is only capable of 96 kHz max sampling rates. But nevertheless this should be fine for most people and I personally cannot hear the difference between 96 kHz and 192 kHz anyway (can you?).
USB is also somewhat limited to 16 bit/48 kHz only due to the ageing PCM2704 chipset by Texas Instruments. But as I said, you are going to be fine if you down-sample high-resolution audio with no audible loss. Fortunately, you won’t need any drivers for USB audio. Everything is plug-and-play right out of the box. Windows or Mac computers would recognize this DAC like an external soundcard.
I even tested this little beast with the Apple Camera Connection Kit and a USB hub. I was instantly able to play lossless files from my iPhone. How cool is that?
Figure 2: USB chipset by Texas Instruments
If you absolutely must have 24 bit audio via USB and don’t mind paying a few extra bucks, you can bypass the limitations of the DAC with an external USB to SP/DIF converter. But from an economic standpoint it makes little sense as this would easily cost more than the DAC itself.
Let’s look at other features of this little DAC board. You also get one coaxial input which is great if you plan to hook up an older CD player or DVD player for improved sound quality. It’s a shame that the Chinese designers did not implement any optical inputs. If this feature is important to you, check out how to get a coaxial to optical converter off eBay or from Amazon.
Update 29, September 2015: Check out my article on how to cheaply retrofit an optical output to this DAC.
Other than that, I must say that the board layout itself is absolutely well executed. The same goes for the parts quality. Even for this low price you get Sanyo OSCON and Nichicon capacitors as standard.
After initial inspection, I cannot tell whether the parts are genuine or fake.
The output buffer dual OP amp is installed on a DIP socket for easy removal. You could replace the cheap default choice with another “audiophile” operational amplifier such as the LME49720 or LM4562. This costs you only a few dollars and I highly recommend it for slightly improved sound quality.
Figure 3: Rear view of DAC board
So how does this little gem sound?
Absolutely stunning! I and my friend Alex did a head-to-head comparison with his expensive Marantz SACD player (a $1500 machine) and to our surprise, this Chinese DAC was audibly better than the Marantz’ built-in DAC.
To be fair though, the difference was not night and day and rather subtle. But who would have expected this level of performance from such a low budget module from eBay? The sound is crystal-clear with razor sharp resolution, yet full-bodied with a mellow tone and great dynamics. I also extensively tested the USB input with my music library and I honestly couldn’t find any faults. I haven’t done extensive testing against megabuck DACs but I am pretty sure this little guy can more than hold its own against stiff competition.
So if you are looking for a great DAC and don’t want to spend a fortune, look no further than this Wolfson DAC board. It’s a real giant killer and a downright steal for the price.
I should mention that you are not going to get an enclosure for this but you could install this board inside a CD player or simply drop it into a generic box. Both work equally well.
Updates as of December 20, 2016
Beware of fake boards. I’ve seen a number of them popping up across the internet. On some boards I found no ground plane, fake capacitors and bad soldering joints. Other than that, I still consider this DAC a great value.
Updates as of March 9, 2018
You might want to keep a closer look at other Chinese DACs on eBay. New ones featuring the best AKM and ESS chipsets are popping up. Check out my article for more up to date details.