DAC Testing Day

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Like many audiophiles, I tend to accumulate equipment overtime that I don’t necessarily use, or not use enough to justify having it. So, this week I’ll be doing deep testing of 5 different DACs I have, and decide which one stays and which ones goes to eBay or Audiogon. Since I have 3 complete systems, 2 DACs have to go.

The 3 main systems at home where DACs are an important part are:

  • Family room and home theater. This system is powered by Emotiva gear, the XMC-1 processor, XPA-DR3 3-channel amplifier that drives my Legacy Audio Signature III mains and Silver Screen center, and an Emotiva A-300 amp that drives my Polk LS f/x dipole surrounds. I don’t have Atmos or back channels in my current setup given the nature of the room. However, this is a very, very good system. Although the XMC-1 has a USB DAC which is fairly decent, I’m looking for something really exceptional here, that can drive the rest of the system the way it’s supposed to be. These speakers are full range, and very detailed on the high frequency range, due to its titanium and a dedicated ribbon twitters. For that reason, the DAC here needs to avoid being overly analytical, and rather, more musical, more relaxed and deeper on the low-end.


  • My home office, where I spend most of my day when I’m not traveling for business. Here I have a Schiit Jotunheim acting as both, a preamp routing to my Emotiva Stealth 8 powered monitors over balanced connections, and as a balanced headphone amp, currently powering my AudioQuest NigtOwl Carbon cans (although I’m anxiously waiting for my ZMF Vérité closed back).


  • My dedicated audio room. Here is all about reference sound, maximum quality and zero distortion. Here I have my custom-build Linkwitz Labs LX521.4 reference speakers, powered by my 8-channel ATI NC5280 amp. The DAC here will need to have its own hardware volume control and needs to have a remote. A trigger that can control the amp is also a plus. The speakers have an incredibly deep low-end, so I’m looking for a DAC that don’t over-emphasize this aspect of music, while being very detailed in the mid-range and high ends.

So, the DACs I need to test are:

Methodology

I first decided to deeply understand the sonic signature of each DAC. I do that by creating a 18-track playlist, and for the most serious listening, a 5-album set. The track list needs to be diverse, reflecting all styles of music I listen to (a lot), with a broad dynamic range, and different recording qualities and formats, from the 1950s to the present.

The 5 albums are emotional in nature, and something I’m very familiar with. They are all reference-level quality work. Listening needs to evoque emotion, respect for the artist work, and enjoyment. I know how each one of them should sound down to the last note.

I created a Numbers spreadsheet where the rows where each one the 20 tracks and later the 5 albums, and the columns where each of the DACs. With that in mind, I listen, and I write notes about my listening experience. Many notes look very similar. Things like “deep, tight and controlled bass” or “broad soundstage”. Ultimately, when done with the list, I’d get an overall assessment of what are the words that repeat the most, which will give me an overall assessment of the DAC.

The first round of testing I’m doing it directly in my office with headphones. Once I determine the sound profile, I proceed to test in each one of the full systems.

The tracks I use for testing are: (Song, Artist, Album, Year, Format)

  1. School, Supertramp, Paris, 1980, DSD128
  2. N.I.B., Black Sabbath, 1970, DSD64
  3. Bring Me The Disco King, David Bowie, Reality, 2003, DSD64
  4. Billie Jean, Michael Jackson, Thriller, 1982, DSD64
  5. Flamenco Sketches, Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, 1959, 24 / 192
  6. Last Train to London, Electric Light Orchestra, The Collection, 1979, 24 / 96
  7. Lazarus, David Bowie, Blackstar, 2016, 24 / 96
  8. God Control, Madonna, Madame X, 2019, 24 / 88.2
  9. Age of Man, Greta Van Fleet, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, 2018, 24 / 88.2
  10. The Small Hours, Metallica, The Greatest Hits, 2009, 16 / 48
  11. Sideways, Santana, Shaman, 2002, 16 / 44.1
  12. Sheep, Pink Floyd, Animals, 1977, 16 / 44.1
  13. Zion, Fluke, The Matrix Reloaded, 2003, 16 / 44.1
  14. Calm like a bomb, Rage Against the Machine, Battle of Los Angeles, 1999, 16 / 44.1
  15. Variaties Op Een Dame, Flairck, Live in Amsterdam, 1996, 16 / 44.1
  16. Patience, Guns N’ Roses, Greatest Hits, 2010, 16 / 44.1
  17. El Macho, Mark Knopfler, Sailing to Philadelphia, 2000, 16 / 44.1
  18. White Eagle, Tangerine Dream, White Eagle, 1981, 16 / 44.1

The 5 albums are: (Album, Artist, Year, Format)

  1. Alturas de Machu Pichu, Los Jaivas, 1981, 16 / 44.1
  2. The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd, 1973, DSD64
  3. Soil Festivities, Vangelis, 1984, 16 / 44.1
  4. Some Other Time (The Lost Session From The Black Forest), Bill Evans, 1968, DSD128
  5. The Joshua Tree, U2, 1987, DSD128

Initial Results

  • Most analytical: Wyred4Sound
  • Most musical: Oppo
  • Best bass extension: Oppo
  • Best instrument separation: Lumin
  • Best imaging: Lumin
  • Best “3D” effect: Oppo
  • Best stereo separation: Lumin
  • Best for human voice: TEAC

After this first round of testing, I took the most appropriate DACs to each one of the target systems, and I quickly went through the track list to confirm my observations. I didn’t listen to each track fully, but just enough to get a sense and validate or invalidate my assumptions.

Final Results

For the family room/home theater, the Oppo was the winner. It emphasizes the low end, it’s more musical and more forgiving on the high-end, which makes it the perfect match for the Legacy Audio speakers, when configuring the XMC-1 in reference stereo mode.

For the dedicated audio room, the best was the Wyred4Sound DAC. It’s revealing in the mids and high-end, emphasizing less the low-end, which is perfect for a system with dipole subs. Besides, it has its own volume control, trigger and remote.

For my office, I’m sticking with the Lumin D2 (with modified linear power supply). It’s extremely detailed and well-rounded, with excellent imaging and stereo separation, which is what you want if you are primarily listening with headphones. Besides, it’s a streamer, so I don’t need to rely on my laptop.

All of these, except for the Lumin, will be connected to a dedicated computer with a Roon endpoint software.

So my second (unmodified) Lumin D2, and my TEAC DAC will both be heading to eBay and/or Audiogon, although I’m going to wait on that last one a bit, in case I’ll need to start commuting to an office due to changes at work. If that’s the case, I’ll take it to my office and use it with my AudioQuest headphones.

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