Paul is absolutely spot on about this. The actual chip that converts digital bits to analog waveforms are perhaps the least important part of a DAC. As an example, there is the analog stage, which could be tubes or solid state, or a combination of both and the digital filtering, which could be electronic, or passive as it is in the PS Audio DSD DAC. PS Audio’s filtering in the DSD DAC are via transformers, which are also a big part of the the analog output stage of the DAC. Transformers are analog, not solid state, “natural “filters and an old fashioned way of doing things, but they work beautifully in this application.
All DACs are not equal yet many of today’s most popular digital to analog converters are based on the same off-the-shelf chipset like those from ESS, Cirrus Logic, or Analog Devices. Yet those DACs using identical chips often sound as if cut from very different cloth. What makes them different?
We might get a clearer answer by first asking the same question of something simpler. Ice cream. If ice cream is always made from its namesake why do they all taste different? Simple. Everything else that’s added to the cream.
The same is true for DACs.
Like any complex electronic product, it’s the details that make the difference: power supply, analog output stage, input conversion of data, to name a few. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that two very different sounding DACs would maintain their sonic character if all the designer changed was the DAC chip itself. This observation is not intended to diminish the role of the instrument’s heart but rather to point out the importance of the infrastructure that allows it to operate.
Consider another example. Two identical V8 engines can be the heart of two very different automobiles (like a Corvette and a truck). The engine’s the same, everything else is different.
My aim is to bring to light the elements one should consider when choosing a DAC. The actual technology contained within the instrument’s core is only part of the equation.
- Look carefully at how a DAC is built and who built it.
- Discover what attention was paid to the power supply.
- Find out if the unit voiced by someone you trust or placed on an engineering pedestal for its incredible specs?
- Question the designer on the importance of the output analog stage and how they made it better.
DAC decisions are tough because the technology is often beyond the understanding of people. It’s a lot easier to grasp the workings of an amp or preamp, perhaps a cable, but let’s not allow difficulty to get in the way of a thorough investigation.