Source Recommendations -

Source Recommendations

The source is the first part of your system chain. Usually, the source consists of two parts: a Transport and a DAC. Let me explain this further to avoid any confusion.

1. What is a Transport? 

A transport is the CD reading mechanism on a CD player. On a computer based system, the transport is the computer used to read the digital file from the hard disk. The purpose of the transport is to get the file from the storage media and pass it along to the Digital to Analog converter.

2. What is a DAC?

Remember that the data is stored in the digital format. In another word, in Zeros and Ones. After the digital data is read by the transport, it needs to be converted to an analog format before it can be reproduced into audio waves. This process is commonly known as the D/A conversion (or Digital to Analog conversion), and the component that does this job is the DAC (or Digital to Analog converter).

After the signal is converted to an analog format, then it is passed to a headphone amplifier so that the signal is amplified to a volume loud enough for you to hear and enjoy.

The quality of the DAC is very important to the quality of the analog signal which you will listen to with your headphones. This is where this page comes in. There are a lot of DACs out there and although I’ve done a review on many different units, there are a few that consistently have been proven to be favorites among the crowd.

  • USB: Digital connection is achieved from the USB port. If you’re playing music from a computer, this is the type of DACs to get.
  • S/PDIF: Digital connection is achieved using a Coaxial or Toslink S/PDIF port. The common interface used with CD Players, also available on certain Macintosh computers.
  • 24/96: Support for high resolution 24 bit, 96kHz sample rate. Superior to CD quality which is limited at 16/44.1.
  • Headphone Out: There is an onboard headphone amplifier, so you don’t need to add an additional headphone amplifier.
  • Balanced Out: Support for balanced out which are the common connection for Pro-grade equipment and studio monitor speakers.

Audinst HUD-MX1 – USB 24/96 with Headphone Out
The Audinst is the most popular entry level DAC/Amp box in Headfonia. It comes with a USB connection and doesn’t require a separate power supply, so you can just hook it to the Laptop/PC USB port, plug in a headphone in the front panel, and enjoy great sound right away. The WM8740-based DAC delivers a musical sound with good technicalities, and would make for a very good product to hear what the hype with external DACs are all about. The box will deliver an instant improvement in sound, and the built in headphone amp is powerful enough to drive the 300 Ohm full size headphones. Even after owning other higher end sources, I still enjoy using the Audinst for a simple one box set up next to my Mac.
$179.00 from Audinst | Audinst HUD-MX1

HRT Music Streamer II – USB 24/96
If you love a warm and analog sound, the HRT Music Steamers are the USB DACs to go for.  The Music Streamer II model is the entry level product from High Resolution Tecnologies, based on the PCM1793 chip. Priced much lower than the Music Streamer II+, the Music Streamer II delivers a performance perhaps 80%-90% of the bigger brother’s. This product runs strictly off the USB bus, and it is simply awesome.
$149.00 from Amazon.com | HRT Music Streamer II

HRT Music Streamer II Plus – USB 24/96
The Music Streamer II+ (with the plus sign) is the higher up variant of the Music Streamer II. It gives that extra bit of sound quality that makes it a good pairing even with $2K amplifiers and $1K headphones. This DAC, together with the DACport LX, are my favorite $300 level DAC. I love the HRTs for their warm analog sound, while the CEntrance shines with their clean black background sound.
$349.00 from Amazon.com | HRT Music Streamer II+ 

Fiio E10 – USB 24/96 with Headphone Out
At $80, the E10 is the number one budget level USB DAC/Amp on my recommendation list. You get a lot of sound for the money, good spacious soundstage, good midrange and bottom end, top notch musicality. It may not have the DAC resolution of the higher-priced boxes like the Audinst and the HRT, but for $80, it’s the best thing out there. As a bonus it also takes 24/96 files through USB, and works as a relatively good quality USB to S/PDIF converter (I’ve compared it to a pretty serious USB to S/PDIF and I like the E10 better).
$80.99 from Amazon.com | The Latest Must Have: Fiio E10

CEntrance DACport – USB 24/96 with Headphone Out
The original DACport gives you a high quality 24/96 USB DAC combined with a very powerful Class-A headphone amplifier in a package the size of a cigar. It’s pretty pricey at $399, but there is no denying its convenience. You plug in the DACport to your computer’s USB port, plug in your headphone at the other end, and voila you get a pretty good sounding set up just like that. The DACport is really popular, and everybody I know who owns one seems to love every bit of it. $399.00 at Amazon.com |  CEntrance DACmini and DACport

CEntrance DACport LX – USB 24/96
The DACport LX is the DAC only variant of the DACport, meaning there is no amplifier and you have to add in a separate amplifier. Less convenient, but at $299, it’s a full $100 cheaper than the original, while offering a superior 24/96 USB DAC performance. Yes, superior DAC performance for $100 less, but no amp. The thing that makes me love the DACport LX is that simply the sound of DAC section. For $299, I can take this DAC to a high end set up and never feel that the DAC is being a bottleneck to the system. For real. Unless you have a $2,000 DAC standing around next to the DACport LX, it’s really hard to find a fault with the DACport LX. Once again, a superb USB DAC, for merely $299. This DAC, together with the HRT Music Streamer II+, are my favorite $300 level DAC. I love the HRTs for their warm analog sound, while the CEntrance shines with their clean black background sound.
$295.00 from Amazon.com | Cheaper, Better: The CEntrance DACPort LX

Cambridge Audio Dacmagic – Multi S/PDIF and USB with Balanced Out
Though mostly underrated, the Dacmagic is one of the best deal around when it comes to desktop DACs. The Dacmagic employs dual Wolfson WM8740 chips for a highly smooth and refined sound. It is in fact one of the best implementation of the WM8740 and one that I would highly recommend to anyone. What makes the Dacmagic even better is that it comes with an abundance of conventional S/PDIF inputs in addition to the USB input, where most other DACs at this price range tend to support only USB input. What’s more, the Dacmagic also offers both balanced and unbalanced analog outputs. At the price that the Dacmagic is selling for, it truly is the best deals around. Cambridge has released a new version called the Dacmagic Plus that includes a build in headphone amplifier, but I have yet to had the chance to test it.
$429.99 from Amazon.com | Cambridge Dacmagic Review

 

Only list the most popular products are listed here. If you feel it to be too limited, feel free to browse the reviews on the Source Category:

 

 

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  • STARSTERN

    would a dac only serve when using a computer with onboard ,but not with CDP with dac chips inside ???

    http://www.avsforum.com/t/1000566/cd-transport-importance-vs-dac/270#post_24313979

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      You really have to read up on what a DAC does man. It can bypass your CDP dac too if the CDP allows it.

      • STARSTERN

        i really know what it does ,as well that it bypass ,still will it SERVE ?

        will it give any better sound ?

        of course it should ,but acording this forum http://www.avsforum.com/t/1000

        they found different ???

        • dalethorn

          That’s the downside of this digital stuff. Not everything sounds the same, even when playing a CD on a CDP and a perfect rip on a computer right next to the CDP. In my opinion, it’s almost always better to make bit-perfect rips of CDs and possibly store those as lossless FLAC etc., because when playing CDs, the physical process can incur jitter and other anomalies that don’t exist in a bit perfect rip. ….because the computer can wait for a re-read when the first read isn’t right, while a CDP has to keep moving on in real time.

  • Vaibhav Pisal

    source recommendation

    ibasso dx90

    astell and kern ak100

    fostex hp a4

    any other you may recommend.

    conditions:

    usb or battery powered, solid state.

    must have built in amp as i intend to use it standalone for forseeable future. no amp plans for now. (perhaps crack as its affordable and will cover most types of headphones then)

    i prefer warm sound. listen to most genres. max usd 500 budget.

    must scale well upto $1000 amp/ headphone.

    thanks in advance. I bought akg k550 and audinst hud mini based on your reviews and liked them both.

  • Michał Dżingis Błażejewski

    Hello,

    I am currently using a Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro 250 ohm paired with a Asus Xonar DX audio card (this would be the DAC I believe) and a cMoyBB v2.03 AMP.

    However, you being the experts seem to think that USB DACs are the way to go and I need to get rid of my current audio card either way as it covers the fans of my graphics card :(

    So, I decided to get a new DAC + AMP. I could for instance spend money on the here recommended Audinst HUD-MX1, but I’d welcome something cheaper for now. I’ve been looking at the new FiiO E10K Olypmus 2, the E07K Andes and the aforementioned twice as expensive Audinst HUD-MX1. I could pair the E07K with the E09K in the future. Also, I am asking myself if the Audinst or the E07K/E09K combo wouldn’t be overkill due to my headphones not needing such a ‘powerful’ DAC/AMP as far as I am aware.

    So what’s your opinion? How do these face-off against each other? Do you have any other recommendations? Do you think that the FiiO E10K would offer better sound quality than my current set-up?

    I am passionate about hearing from you soon.

    P.S. I want to get rid of the cMoyBB as well.

    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

      I can’t imagine that those FiiO amps would sound as good as the Xonar card. I would plan on something higher up in the chain.

      • Michał Dżingis Błażejewski

        Really? So a FiiO E07/E09K combo or Audinst HUD-MX1 are all inferior to my current setup? I’d welcome the opinion of other’s here as well. :)

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          I hope somebody else here offers a suggestion, but in the meantime it looks like you have a good alternative with the Xonar DX.

          • Michał Dżingis Błażejewski

            If I held off with the purchase for a while I could eventually afford something like the JDS Labs O2+ODAC or some combination of Modi, Magni, Bitfrost and Asgard 2. I’m just not really sure if it was worth for me. My music library consists solely of MP3 320 kbps recordings. I’d honestly be happy with something that is only slightly better than my current setup, but if you were to buy a DAC and AMP from those listed above what would it be?

            • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

              Headfonia is not a fan of O2 plus ODAC, but it’s an excellent DAC/amp for a reasonable price, and I would get it. I would want the DAC built into the enclosure with as little wiring as necessary, since separate DACs and amps lose some of their sound quality due to the extra jacks and wiring, plus interconnect cables. To really exceed the quality of O2/ODAC you would have to spend a lot of money.

              • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

                A lot maybe not, but more yes. but you would have something that actually sounds good ;-)

                • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

                  You’re the expert on entry-level amps, and it would be good to have a list of what you’re familiar with from the sub-$100 amps up to maybe $1000, if the list not only described where the amps’ sound fits in the overall hierarchy, but comments with each amp showing what it can be used with (due to its inputs and outputs).

                  • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

                    If only time would permit. The updating of the recommendations section is on the To Do list. somewhere

                    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

                      This might be a good time to ask this: I’m finding that the new iPhone 6-plus (and maybe the 6?) is doing better on its own than using the FiiO E07k and another low-cost amp I have (the PA2V2), but using the Portaphile Micro I get slightly better sound than the iPhone 6 alone. So I’m wondering, if other popular phones sound as good as the iPhone 6 series, what is the future of these low-cost headphone amps? BTW, to run these amps from the iPhone I have to use a LOD cable and Apple 30-pin to Lightning adapter – the adapter with the DAC inside. So I don’t know what got upgraded in the iPhone 6 – the DAC, the amp, or both – but the better sound I got with the Portaphile Micro used the DAC in the adapter, not the DAC in the phone.

                  • Michał Dżingis Błażejewski

                    Thanks for your input guys! C5D is my best best than, eh? I’ll probably end up purchasing it in a months time :)

                    • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

                      I do think the C5D would be a good match with your DT880. THe new E10K as you mentioned can be interesting too, certainly if you’re on a budget, but your Sound card is already a good one.

                      Mike retired from Headfonia early this year, it’s me and Nathan who are running it now with the help of guest reviewers like Dale, Dave and Ricky. and of course Dale’s nice work in the comments section

                    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

                      I missed this, but the C5D does look really good, and a bonus is compatibility with computers and phones!

            • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

              Yeah, like Dale says I would stay away from the O2. The Odac I can live with though, but for both there are better alternatives

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

      I would go for something like the JDSLabs C5D.

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