Short High End DAC Comparison, PT.2

A few disclaimers before starting off:

After my initial write up on higher end DACs, I thought it would be valuable to do something similar to create a followup to hit a few specific goals, something that would be:

  • More applicable to a wider range of the Sonus community
  • More approachable and hopefully more streamlined
  • Starting with the goal of writing for someone else (rather than largely writing for myself in PT.1)
  • A fair bit more concise, this will be a lot, lot shorter, but hopefully still informative

I think a lot of the concerns I had before still apply, just to restate:

  • It ignores individual system synergy (sometimes), and if I do focus on synergy it gets too complex, so I have to generalize
  • I lack the vocabulary and writing skill to articulate some of these differences in a coherent way so it may be overly simplistic
  • Finding a place to draw the line of what should and shouldn’t be included is challenging as otherwise it can either be way too long or too short
  • This could be misinterpreted as something it’s not (this isn’t a tier list, nor a review, etc)
  • I’m lazy and would rather just be listening, but I kinda still want to do it
  • This is solely from the perspective of headphone listening, I did do some speaker and in ear listening as well, but this mainly represents my experiences with the DACs in a headphone setup environment

And a few new ones as well:

  • At this point, I’ve sold off a lot of the appropriate complementary gear (digital sources and amps) that would go with this level of DAC, so some of the gear used to evaluate will be overkill and is not a suggestion of what you should be pairing with this tier of DAC, I will elaborate later on that
  • There are a lot of nice pieces in this range but I limited it to 10 in slightly different price points, I went and either bought for myself or borrowed these DACs for this, I have had most of these before at one point, but I wanted to get all of them in to do a final shootout again, I apologize if I didn’t include something that you think I should have, I just got what I had heard before and also what I could get my hands on in the first place lol
  • At this point I have sort of moved past this level of DAC and farther beyond that, so my experiences will be colored by that, so I likely won’t have as much enthusiasm as I did during the previous comparison

With that being said, I thought it might be valuable to have a comparison between some of the DAC options that I’ve tried at or under 5k new that are still currently produced. I would have wanted to do 5k used, but since the used market is hit or miss and not always predictable, and there’s too many potential options lol, I’ll just stick to that price range for things you can get new. Buying used will definitely yield better value, a lot of the DACs that will be mentioned here can be had around 2-3k used or sometimes less so if you are considering any of these, check used to see if you can get a better deal (although it might take a bit more time and energy doing that)

These are basically just my thoughts after putting these DACs through their paces after owning them for a few (2-4) months. There’s not really a conclusion here, this isn’t the goal to find the best out of the bunch or anything (since it will really come down to synergy and preference) but hopefully just provide some insight on how things may compare with each other

This is all just my opinion and experiences, so treat it as such lol


Let’s get this show on the road

DACs up for comparison:

  • Holo May KTE
  • Aqua La Voce S3
  • Lampizator Amber 3
  • Sonnet Morpheus
  • Denafrips Terminator II
  • Chord Hugo TT2
  • Schiit Yggdrasil OG A2
  • SW1X DAC II Special
  • Rockna Wavelight

From memory (because the one I was trying to get my hands on again for months didn’t work out and I have to return some of these loaners from friends soon), will go off of previous experiences with it + extrapolated performance from the M21 Platinum, I feel I still have enough experience with to speak reasonably confidently, I have had it in house at one point, just not right now.

  • Bricasti M3

Main gear used during listening (will discuss synergy later on)
Headphones:

  • Hifiman Susvara (DHC Prion4)
  • Mysphere 3.1 (Custom cable)
  • Mysphere 3.2 (Kimber Axios Hybrid)
  • Focal Utopia (Danacable Lazuli Nirvana)
  • Abyss AB-1266 Phi TC (JPS Labs Superconductor)
  • Final D8000 Pro (Brise Mikumari Ref.2)
  • Audio-Technica ADX5000 (AAW Aoraki Platinum 8)
  • Sennheiser HD800s (Brise Mikumari Ref.2)

Amps (yes most are overkill for this level of DAC but that’s all I have right now):

  • Riviera AIC-10 (Brimar CV4003)
  • Mass Kobo 394II
  • Viva Egoista 845 (Sylvania VT-234, EML 5U4G Mesh)
  • Eddie Current Studio T (RCA 2A3 Black Plate)
  • Angstrom Stella Headphone MK2
  • Grandinote Demone w/ tap box
  • LTA Ultralinear w/ tap box
  • Ferrum OOR + Hypsos

Digital Sources (also wish I had more tier appropriate digital sources lying around):

  • Berkeley Alpha USB
  • Sonore ultraRendu (Mojo Illuminati v3)
  • JCAT (Intona) USB Isolator
  • Allo USBridge Signature Player (Shanti LPS)
  • Singxer SU-2

Other Cables: Better than bargain bin

DACs were tested with a wide range of amps, headphones, and music (mix of both casual and critical listening with a wide range of genre and production quality/fidelity). Mainly evaluated stock without any modifications or better digital sources (although those are tried later on), with any extra settings like filters generalized in the experience and then noted in the section about the DAC (also did not do any extra digital processing like upsampling or anything). Basically a compilation of my day to day notes from listening and also comparing them side by side. I can’t guarantee that all the DACs mentioned have totally equal listening time (since this has only been over the span of like 3-4 months where I had a year or so of having them in house on PT.1), but I’ve tried to make sure to balance my listening appropriately to make sure I am properly acclimated and well acquainted with each DAC.


For simplicity, I’ll start by grouping the DAC by their overall signature for the comparison (to make more relevant comparisons, and save myself from having to compare everything to everything. This isn’t the most precise grouping, I’d want to have more granularity but this is enough to start to make categories to compare against.

Warmer Leaning:Neutral-ish:Brighter Leaning:
Most Forward:Yggdrasil OG A2DAC II SpecialTerminator II
WavelightM3Hugo TT2
May KTEAmber 3
Most Relaxed:MorpheusLa Voce S3

This chart is somewhat true somewhat not, it highly depends on the pairing and settings (different filter options), but with all the different combinations I can somewhat get a sense of the character of the unit overall. This factors in more than just tuning/tonality, so things like presentation, dynamics, stage, etc are also factored in when deciding forwardness. Just because a DAC is in let’s say the warmer leaning category, it’s different levels of warmth, not all the same level. This really doesn’t matter too much anyways, this is just so I can initially start grouping things together, the real info will follow below.

I will start by outlining the general info about the DAC, what it’s strengths and weaknesses are, good pairings with gear I have on hand and pairings I have tried in the past (so you may see some pairings that were not mentioned above, but have been tested with the DAC and found to be worthwhile, although limiting myself to 4 pairings for my sanity), how it takes to better digital sources (just in general, but of course changes will depend on the digital sources at hand), preamp performance if applicable, and other random notes about the DAC. Also a section for value, basically a question of “is this worth the money to me.”


Warmer Leaning DACs:

Schiit Yggdrasil OG A2

Overview: Overall a DAC that will trade a bit of lower level technical proficiency for a lot of macro capability, great tonal density and weighting, great timbre and tonality, great more grand spatial recreation, fairly dynamic overall, nice speed as well. Might not be the most resolving, textured, or separated DAC at the price point but the rest makes up for it for sure. Generally very solid slam and impact that can hit hard without giving up it’s control, great macrodynamics at this price point to back that up as well. I do think while the DAC can be smooth, it has a sense of rawness at times that prevents it from feeling liquid, but it’s typically not a problem enough to be a deal breaker. Stage is fairly large but somewhat hazy, but still ends up having a bit of a grand presentation that adds to the fun factor, although background blackness is lackluster.
Standout strengths:
+ Strong macro performance all around
+ Fairly organic signature and weighting, nice tonality, great timbre
+ Pretty fun overall with it’s slam, grand stage, and macrodynamics
+ Fairly capable for the money
Notable weaknesses:
– Not the most resolving
– Micro is good but not great
– Can sometimes sound a bit congested
– Less than black background is distracting
Quality amp pairings at different price points:
* Eddie Current Studio T – Wasn’t expecting to like this pairing as much as I did, it’s still reasonably neutral with a warmer lean and more energy without getting harsh
* Ferrum OOR + Hypsos – It is a fairly forward pairing, but it adds better warmth and bass, and makes a more involved experience, very slammy
* XI Broadway – Leans farther into the warmth but less forward and intense with a bit more nuance
* Burson Soloist 3XP + Supercharger – Takes on a commanding strong macro focus while giving some warmth and sweetness to the amp
How it takes to better digital sources: On it’s own, the USB input of the DAC is already pretty good (assuming Unison USB). It can be improved either through USB or though AES/SPDIF, using the ladder yields a cleaner and more techincal sound with less fun where elevating via USB better maintains that, but it doesn’t improve drastically compared to other DACs.
Preamp performance: N/A
Other things to note: Balanced out is a fair bit better than single ended output, make sure to run it balanced. Long warm up time as well.
Value: Very good value with this DAC considering the price imo

Rockna Wavelight

Overview: A fairly balanced DAC in most all aspects, a bit warmer and thicker leaning but neutral enough with a more forward presentation in the midrange and treble compared to others. Spatially, dynamically, and tonally very well rounded, with surprising macro capability lurking underneath when requested. Overall fairly technical without trading much organicness in the process. There’s something special about what goes on in the bass, it’s both got some roundness but also the feeling of really impressive control, as it doesn’t have the typical softness with that roundness, addictive alongside it’s macrodynamic capabilities. Stage is very accurate in placement and depth as well despite not being the largest stage (still pretty large though), it’s well balanced but the grandness with accuracy really ties things together. There is something about the DAC that holds it back from sounding very organic but I can’t put my finger on what it is, might be the way it portrays texture seems off. Speed and separation are strong suits here as well. It actually doesn’t sound all that smooth but manages to be fairly liquid which is unique.
Standout strengths:
+ Very strong macrodynamics without sacrificing micro
+ Speed and separation are stand out and impressive
+ Stage depth and placement are very sharp, very grand
+ Overall something about the bass is very addictive, and also it’s strange liquidity without much smoothness
Notable weaknesses:
– Can sometimes be a bit more forward in the midrange than I prefer
– Texture while good is portrayed in a not as natural manner
– Not that forgiving as others
– Could be a bit more organic overall
Quality amp pairings at different price points:
* Eddie Current Studio T – A very dynamic and engaging combo with a bit of sweetness and softness
* Mass Kobo 394II – Makes for a more forward and cleanly leaning pairing with good accuracy without being overwhelming
* Pass HPA-1 – A fairly neutral combo overall that complements eachother well
* Bryston BHA-1 – Strong macro focus here but without disappointing on the micro
How it takes to better digital sources: Well, although USB is already pretty good, but personally being fed by a nicer AES/SPDIF source sounds better and would be recommended later on.
Preamp performance: While it’s not going to replace any pres if you already have a decent one, it’s not bad and should serve well if you need basic volume control, although I still think one would benefit from moving on to an equally tiered pre at some point.
Other things to note: Filter wise the changes were pretty noticeable, while NOS improved stage width and tonality, and a bit better weighting while relaxing things a bit, it lost some of its macro abilities feeling a bit more loose and technical ability did drop a bit, I personally thought the best balance was Linear Phase, I thought Hybrid or Minimum lost some lower level resolution and also were less coherent. Balanced does perform better than single ended, but single ended is still decent although it can lose a bit of nuance through SE. DSD performance not bad but not stand out
Value: Overall pretty solid value considering what it offers.

Holo May KTE

Overview: This DAC is a bit weird, it’s a great option for making everything you run through it sound great and natural, but it has a habit of masking some of the lower level nuance and artificially dulling things to give it that character at times. Stage is very wide and holographic although not as natural as other DACs but is pretty engaging, timbre and tonality are very good though, but tonal weighting can sometimes be not as well balanced/executed as other DACs in the range. Microdynamics are solid and overall the micro focus of this DAC can be nice, but the problem lies in that the May can sometimes go about masking the very thing it tries to focus on for more consistency and contrast even if that isn’t there naturally. Resolution is quite good, and it’s reasonably forgiving as well. There is sometimes some weirdness in the upper midrange or lower treble though that can get harsh, which is weird.
Standout strengths:
+ Very black background with expansive staging
+ Great resolving power and microdynamics
+ Pleasing tonality and smoothness
+ More of a micro focus overall while being forgiving
Notable weaknesses:
– Feels sometimes dulled or blunted on transients
– Coherency is somewhat weaker in the treble and somewhat lacking in extension there
– Sometimes feels smoothed over when it comes to texture, almost masking things for more contrast
– Feels slightly embellished to give a sweeter and more romantic sound by sacrificing some intangibles
Quality amp pairings at different price points:
* I’ll be honest with the higher end amps I have in the house, I didn’t find a good pairing and thought they showcased the weaknesses of the DAC too much.
* Niimbus US4+ – Adds more sweetness into the dryer leaning amp and better spatiality, although somewhat darker pairing but still enjoyable
* Cayin HA300 – A very sweet and relaxed pairing that emphasizes space and richness
* Headamp GSX MK2 – Turns it into a reasonably neutral leaning and capable combo with a stronger micro focus, if you swap the Mini for the MK2, the Mini leans warmer
How it takes to better digital sources: The USB on the May is extremely good for being already in the DAC, personally I’d focus on using that with nicer USB sources and elevate that way over using AES/SPDIF if you can, although those inputs aren’t bad either. I would say though that it’s not even really that much of a priority since the integrated USB is already really good and I don’t think there’s as much benefit as moving up in the digital source compared to other DACs here.
Preamp performance: N/A
Other things to note: I just really think the DAC does it’s best in NOS mode, just keep it there. The internal PLL is also quite good and wouldn’t suggest disabling it unless you have a very high quality digital source to feed it. Balanced is a reasonable bit better than SE, run balanced if you can. Just leave it on, warm up is noticeable. DSD performance is really not great, would not suggest it.
Value: Pretty solid for what it offers if you like the goals of this DAC.

Sonnet Morpheus

Overview: This DAC does some interesting things with a more unique sonic goal. The way it presents and packages everything is weird in the sense that it tries to squish everything together in a dense mass that’s very coherent, still technical, and relaxed overall. Spatially it’s not very large, but it has a very grand sense of scale due to the almost “wall of sound” sort of presentation. Dynamically it takes a stronger micro focus overall while admittedly neglecting macro a fair bit for my personal preferences, the presentation sort of helps but not enough with that. Timbre and tonality are pretty nice, although extension on both ends isn’t very strong for the price point. I do think this can lack energy and somewhat end up smoothing things out a bit too much, but I can sort of see the appeal
Standout strengths:
+ Very dense and meaty presentation with a fair amount of information included that can be fun
+ Very coherent and nicely organic timbre and tonality
+ Fairly forgiving of source material, makes things more fun
+ Strong micro focus, very smooth
Notable weaknesses:
– Rolled on both ends noticeably
– Can sound too “wall of sound” at times and lack proper separation and spatiality
– Sometimes too relaxed and dulled
– Lack of real macro capability
Quality amp pairings at different price points:
* Viva Egoista 845 – Calms down the raw energy and adds much more body and thickness to everything while the Viva makes up for the Sonnet’s macro and space lack
* LTA MZ3 – Both sweetens up the MZ3 with more density and richness but also works well in strengthening it’s micro performance, fun combo
* Sparkos Aries – Sorta like a Soloist on a different level, similar sig with a bit more micro lean
* Burson Soloist 3XP + Supercharger – Leads to a very massive and rich sound that’s pretty enjoyable and not overly focused on macro or micro
How it takes to better digital sources: Upping digital sources improves clarity and space, recommended for sure, I’d say it sounds better using other inputs besides USB if you are going to improve the source, although USB isn’t bad per se.
Preamp performance: Not bad, it doesn’t have the openness of other pre, but it does the job well enough considering the price.
Other things to note: SE and BAL aren’t far off from each other, so works somewhat equally well with both outputs which is nice.
Value: Good if you enjoy the type of experience it offers

The Warmer Leaning DACs Against Eachother

What the symbols mean:
= means about similar, perhaps slight edge to the first over the 2nd
‎>= means a bit better, noticeable but not enough to push it over the next tier edge
‎> means fairly better but not massively so, possibly next tier better but not decidedly so
‎>> means stand out better, pretty easily noticeable, easily next tier better or a bit above
‎>>> means skipping multiple tiers, leagues better

Resolution/Detail: May KTE >= Wavelight >> Morpheus > Yggdrasil OG A2
Speed: Wavelight >= May KTE >> Yggdrasil OG A2 > Morpheus
Separation: Wavelight > May KTE >> Yggdrasil OG A2 > Morpheus
Control and Grip: Wavelight > May KTE > Yggdrasil OG A2 >> Morpheus
Impact and Slam: Wavelight > Yggdrasil OG A2 >> May KTE >= Morpheus
Midrange Texture: May KTE > Wavelight >= Morpheus > Yggdrasil OG A2
Bass Texture: Wavelight > May KTE >> Morpheus > Yggdrasil OG A2
Treble Extension: Wavelight > May KTE >= Yggdrasil OG A2 > Morpheus
Bass Extension: May KTE = Wavelight >= Yggdrasil OG A2 >> Morpheus
Microdynamics: Wavelight >= May KTE >> Morpheus >> Yggdrasil OG A2
Macrodynamics: Wavelight > Yggdrasil OG A2 > May KTE >> Morpheus
Background Blackness: May KTE > Wavelight >> Morpheus >> Yggdrasil OG A2
Stage Width: May KTE > Wavelight > Yggdrasil OG A2 >> Morpheus
Stage Depth: Wavelight > May KTE > Morpheus >= Yggdrasil OG A2
Placement Accuracy: Wavelight > May KTE > Morpheus > Yggdrasil OG A2
Presentation Organicness: Wavelight > May KTE >> Morpheus = Yggdrasil OG A2
Timbre: May KTE > Wavelight > Morpheus = Yggdrasil OG A2
Tonality Organicness: Morpheus > May KTE >= Wavelight = Yggdrasil OG A2
Tonal Density Quantity: Morpheus > May KTE >= Yggdrasil OG A2 >= Wavelight
Tonal Density Quality: Wavelight > May KTE >> Yggdrasil OG A2 >= Morpheus
Smoothness: Morpheus >= Yggdrasil OG A2 >= May KTE > Wavelight
Liquidity: Wavelight > Morpheus > May KTE > Yggdrasil OG A2
Coherency: Wavelight > Morpheus >= May KTE > Yggdrasil OG A2
Forwardness: Yggdrasil OG A2 >= Wavelight >> May KTE >> Morpheus
Energy & Incisiveness: Wavelight > Yggdrasil OG A2 > May KTE > Morpheus
Forgivingness: Morpheus > May KTE > Yggdrasil OG A2 > Wavelight
Overall Treble: Wavelight >= May KTE >> Yggdrasil OG A2 >> Morpheus
Overall Midrange: May KTE > Wavelight >> Morpheus >= Yggdrasil OG A2
Overall Bass: Wavelight > May KTE > Yggdrasil OG A2 >= Morpheus
Overall Subbass: Wavelight > May KTE > Yggdrasil OG A2 >> Morpheus

In general I think the May and Wavelight sort of stand above the Morpheus and Yggdrasil in most regards just feeling like the tier above. I do think the Wavelight is overall the most balanced, while the May is the most sweetened, the Yggdrasil is the most energetic and fun, and the Morpheus is the most chill, rich, and relaxed in signature. The May and Wavelight are strong technical performers while managing to be fairly organic, where the Yggdrasil seemingly trades away some more low level capability in some areas for more fun and energy, and the Morpheus trades away a lot of it’s macro capabilities for being more relaxed and nuanced. Personally I think the Morpheus is a bit too handicapped there to be that balanced and comes off as more a specialist DAC, potentially worthwhile but it would need to really match the system. The technical ability of the Wavelight and May trade blows but I’d overall give the edge to the Wavelight, I’d say if you prefer a bit more energy, accuracy, and neutrality go with the Wavelight, if you prefer a bit more richness, space, and relaxedness go for the May. But comes down to synergy as well of course.


Neutral-ish:

SW1X DAC II Special

Overview: A very organic DAC without having the traditionally warmer leaning tonality and richer leaning weight, not overdone, both very technical and very organic in presenting that ability. It is picky for what it sounds good on though, it’s demanding for the source and pairing, it’s not very forgiving. The forwardness of this DAC may not appeal to some but it’s pretty direct in pushing information, and is able to uphold that directness with solid control and grip as well which I wasn’t expecting. Timbre is awesome, resolving power is very high, and texture is very well represented. Really enjoy this one.
Standout strengths:
+ Coherency and liquidity are awesome for the price
+ Very organic presentation, and very accurate stage accuracy and placement
+ Very dynamic in both macro and micro, very solid grip and control as well
+ Surprising resolving power and texture for the money
Notable weaknesses:
– Not really forgiving to lesser recordings
– Can sometimes get congested with overly complex material due to separation not being great
– Smaller stage width and things are pushed together at times
– Can sometimes feel overly forward
Quality amp pairings at different price points:
* Angstrom Stella Headphone MK2 – Very organic and technical pairing, well balanced, complement eachother
* Riviera AIC-10 – Does take a warmer larger macro lean, but reduces forwardness a bit, very enjoyable
* Pass HPA-1 – Will lean more toward the sweeter side of things, gives more energy to the pairing
* Quicksilver Headphone Amp – Will lean pretty neutral organic with strong authority and forwardness but not enough to mess up the experience
How it takes to better digital sources: Very worthwhile to get better sources, really takes well to nicer AES/SPDIF sources, highly recommended to treat it well.
Preamp performance: N/A
Other things to note: Noticeable warm up time.
Value: Pretty high assuming you like it’s signature and can feed it well.

Bricasti M3

Overview: This is a fairly no nonsense DAC without sacrificing organicness or sweetness, it’s overall pretty linear in signature and presentation, doesn’t really enhance or over focus on one thing, great balance. It just kinda does it’s thing and gets out of the way, non intrusive but still fairly impressive, pretty refined for the price point imo. I do think spatially it could use better depth and it’s not as textured as some other options in the range, but overall a fairly refined and complete package.
Standout strengths:
+ Overall grip and control with great impact and slam, great speed
+ Well extended and very neutral tonality
+ Really good smoothness and density, with good liquidity as well
+ Pretty capable yet unobtrusive
Notable weaknesses:
– Might lack some energy or excitement for some
– Can sometimes lack a bit of texture
– Stage could use a bit more depth despite being wider leaning
– Background isn’t that blackest
Quality amp pairings at different price points:
* Octave V16 + SBB – Complements eachother well and creates a very balanced and controlled pairing
* Eddie Current Studio T – Helped to really balance things out to be very neutral yet organic
* Mass Kobo 394II – Made for a very studio neutral and refined sounding combo
* Bryston BHA-1 – Great for a very smooth and warmer relaxed pairing just pushing the edge of too much
How it takes to better digital sources: Unable to test, have only heard via USB.
Preamp performance: Actually pretty solid, it doesn’t synergize well with everything but there are some cases where the volume control in this DAC is better than one would expect.
Other things to note: Long warm up surprisingly. Linear filter is the way to go for control and grip along with impact and slam, better energy there. Minimum is better for making it more laid back and also more spatially alive but it does lose some of that control and command. DSD performance is pretty solid in here so good pick for DSD people.
Value: Fairly good overall if it has what you are looking for

Lampizator Amber 3

Overview: The Amber really prioritizes engagement over other aspects, with a focus on a larger and more grand stage, great impact and punch, weighting that adds a bit extra meat on the bone but doesn’t feel bogged down by it or overdone, and also something that isn’t too picky on what it sounds good with and will maintain it’s enjoyability with a wider range of music and sources. I do think it’s stage is a bit more hazy though with microdynamics and lower level resolution not as prominent as other options in the range, but it’s other aspects make up for that for the most part and don’t detract from the experience. It’s macrodynamics make things fairly engaging in return.
Standout strengths:
+ Large stage and grand presentation
+ Great impact and punch
+ Nice weight and richness
+ Fairly forgiving overall
Notable weaknesses:
– Not the most resolution for the money
– Micro performance is only alright
– Sometimes can feel a bit more sloppy or loose than other options in the price range
– Somewhat vague in it’s spatial recreation
Quality amp pairings at different price points:
* Eddie Current Studio T – While it’s not the most technical, it’s a very fun and engaging a bit more relaxed pairing
* XI Formula S + Powerman – Helps expand space and add better macro performance to that pairing
* LTA MZ3 – Adds more space and warmth to the amp without causing issues with micro of that amp
* Decware Taboo MK4 – Very sweet sounding and warm without being overdone
How it takes to better digital sources: Both USB and AES/SPDIF are viable options to improve sound, it does take well to nicer source gear, boosting USB generally keeps the fun while AES/SPDIF tends to be more neutral and a bit more technical.
Preamp performance: N/A
Other things to note: Use high gain if you can, it just sounds much more lively and less muted/restricted. Noticeable warm up. DSD performance is also solid here, good for that.
Value: Pretty good if you are after the sound it offers.

Aqua La Voce S3

Overview: Generally a fairly balanced DAC that does lean a bit more toward the relaxed and slightly sweeter smoother side of things, great organicness, great placement accuracy and depth within it’s stage, great coherency and liquidity. It does take a stronger micro focus that’s well executed, and while it’s macro isn’t the best it isn’t really lacking that much and doesn’t overly dissapoint there. Resolution and texture wise it’s pretty solid and well presented. Pretty quick but doesn’t sound overly fast or emphasized.
Standout strengths:
+ Great for nuance and low level information, strong micro, also fairly fast and separated
+ Good coherency and liquidity, very refined and organic (solid timbre too)
+ A bit laid back without losing too much energy
+ Spatially pretty accurate and precise while presenting organically
Notable weaknesses:
– Macro capabilities not as strong as some other options, could use greater control and slam
– Not the best for extension and capability on both ends (but not that bad)
– Could have a bit more tangibility
– A bit more bite at times would be nice
Quality amp pairings at different price points:
* Eddie Current Studio T – works very well for having a fairly neutral combo with great nuance and a bit of a micro focus
* Mass Kobo 394II – builds on what the amp already does well basically
* OG Cavalli Liquid Gold – Helps balance out the amp a bit more and focus on nuance without reducing the macro ability
* Pass HPA-1 – Overall very balanced relaxed with great technical ability and organicness
How it takes to better digital sources: Pretty well, USB is good, but I do think it just generally benefits more from a nicer AES/SPDIF source with a similar signature in improvement.
Preamp performance: N/A
Other things to note: Balanced and single ended sound fairly close, I do think balanced is an edge better but really not all much different. DSD performance is all right but not stand out
Value: Pretty solid if you like what it has to offer.

The Neutral-ish DACs Against Eachother

What the symbols mean:
= means about similar, perhaps slight edge to the first over the 2nd
‎>= means a bit better, noticeable but not enough to push it over the next tier edge
‎> means fairly better but not massively so, possibly next tier better but not decidedly so
‎>> means stand out better, pretty easily noticeable, easily next tier better or a bit above
‎>>> means skipping multiple tiers, leagues better

Resolution/Detail: DAC II Special > La Voce S3 >= M3 > Amber 3
Speed: M3 >= La Voce S3 > DAC II Special > Amber 3
Separation: La Voce S3 >= DAC II Special >= Amber 3 = M3
Control and Grip: M3 >= DAC II Special >= Amber 3 > La Voce S3
Impact and Slam: M3 > Amber 3 >= DAC II Special > La Voce S3
Midrange Texture: DAC II Special > La Voce S3 >= Amber 3 = M3
Bass Texture: DAC II Special >= M3 >= La Voce S3 >= Amber 3
Treble Extension: M3 > DAC II Special = La Voce S3 = Amber 3
Bass Extension: M3 > Amber 3 = DAC II Special >= La Voce S3
Microdynamics: DAC II Special >= La Voce S3 > M3 > Amber 3
Macrodynamics: DAC II Special >= Amber 3 = M3 > La Voce S3
Background Blackness: La Voce S3 >= DAC II Special >= M3 > Amber 3
Stage Width: Amber 3 > M3 >= La Voce S3 >= DAC II Special
Stage Depth: DAC II Special > La Voce S3 > M3 >= Amber 3
Placement Accuracy: DAC II Special >= La Voce S3 > M3 = Amber 3
Presentation Organicness: DAC II Special > La Voce S3 >= Amber 3 = M3
Timbre: DAC II Special > La Voce S3 >= M3 >= Amber 3
Tonality Organicness: DAC II Special > La Voce S3 >= M3 = Amber 3
Tonal Density Quantity: M3 >= Amber 3 >= DAC II Special >= La Voce S3
Tonal Density Quality: DAC II Special > M3 >= La Voce S3 > Amber 3
Smoothness: M3 >= La Voce S3 = DAC II Special > Amber 3
Liquidity: DAC II Special >= La Voce S3 >= M3 > Amber 3
Coherency: DAC II Special >= La Voce S3 >= M3 = Amber 3
Forwardness: DAC II Special > M3 > Amber 3 >= La Voce S3
Energy & Incisiveness: DAC II Special > Amber 3 >= M3 >= La Voce S3
Forgivingness: Amber 3 > La Voce S3 > M3 > DAC II Special
Overall Treble: La Voce S3 >= DAC II Special >= M3 = Amber 3
Overall Midrange: DAC II Special > La Voce S3 >= Amber 3 > M3
Overall Bass: DAC II Special > M3 > La Voce S3 = Amber 3
Overall Subbass: M3 > DAC II Special > Amber 3 >= La Voce S3

Honestly all 4 trade blows well and end up on a similar tier, I think if you are looking for the most balanced experience overall you would likely find the M3 most satisfactory, if you are looking for a neutral forward but sweeter and a bit more romantic take on evenness the DAC II Special is quite good for the most organic experience here while having very high technical ability, if you find yourself looking for a bit more laid back and nuanced focus the La Voce S3 is a solid pick, and if you are looking for a bit more forgiving and fun DAC offering more warmth without sacrificing too much technical performance the Amber 3 is a good choice. I do think the DAC II Special is really good for the price, but the other DACs are also solid values, honestly all great picks on an even playing field. But comes down to synergy as well of course.


Brighter Leaning:

Denafrips Terminator II

Overview: The Terminator II takes an overall strong macro focus in everything it does, it’s a cleaner leaning v shape, but still reasonably weighted signature with a focus on macrodynamics, grand spatial recreation, and great control and command, but in the process somewhat sacrifices the nuance side of things with it’s somewhat lacking microdynamics and separation, despite it’s good resolving power and speed. It’s tonality isn’t that great imo and is somewhat not that organic as it should be for the price point, treble is also lacking refinement and can sometimes get gritty and peaky. There’s something that I can’t quite put my finger on that makes timbre off putting, but it does bother me. But it’s an overall fun DAC that will provide good clarity, energy, and scale to most pairings that I can understand why some enjoy it, but it’s personally not for me as I think it lacks in comparison to other options at this price point it sits in.
Standout strengths:
+ Real grip and command, great control
+ Strong macrodynamic focus with also good impact and punch
+ Solid resolving power and texture
+ Grand stage
Notable weaknesses:
– Lacking microdynamic capability
– Tonality is not organic, neither is presentation
– Treble is not that refined, and can sometimes get too hot and gritty
– Sacrifices some of the smaller finer information in the process of getting good wow factor
Pairings with good synergy, at different price points:
* Riviera AIC-10 – This is a fun pairing but you can really start to hear the limitations of this DAC’s micro capabilities.
* Luxman P-750u – Adds more bite and energy to this more lax amp, increases grandness substantially, great slam and impact, and gives a bit more sweetness from the amp.
* Cayin HA300 – Generally sweeter leaning with a focus on organicness that helps offset the lack in the Terminator a bit.
* Bryston BHA-1 – A warmer leaning combo that builds on the DAC’s strengths with a warmer tilt.
How it takes to better digital sources: Pretty well, it did improve a fair bit when being fed with a quality SPDIF/AES source, and when I still had the Gaia it was a great pairing that overall elevated the performance and somewhat addressed it’s micro lack, but it didn’t fully go away, but it’s a worthwhile addition with this DAC.
Preamp performance: N/A
Other things to note: I did like NOS more for better spatial recreation naturalness and improved micro performance, and had better tonality in the midrange, but it did lose some energy and control making it sound a bit more dull and unrefined, I actually thought OS Slow was a better compromise if you prefer a more holographic but less organic stage, much better control, less grainy treble, just a bit better technical ability. Balanced output is also better here, so it does tend to work better with balanced amps. Longer warm up time. DSD performance was not the best.
Value: Not the best value in the price bracket, even if you like a more macro leaning DAC, but enough value to be worthwhile to some imo.

Chord Hugo TT2

Overview: Overall the Chord house sound is a love or hate sort of thing, the way Chord DACs handle the time domain and transient response is unique in that they focus on creating somewhat embellished/ethereal transits that are very smooth and liquid with still good density, but it does sound unnatural and inorganic in how it goes about it. Information is also pushed forward but in a non-offensive way that makes it very easy to hear, overall the signature is a more brighter neutral forward without the traditional harshness or leanness that comes along with it, it’s strange to hear such a signature being a bit softer overall. Spatially it’s got good depth and placement but in a more enhanced/holographic way, it focuses more on width than depth. The TT2 takes a larger focus on micro performance like low level resolving power, micro dynamics, separation, and overall flow.
Standout strengths:
+ Very liquid and smooth
+ Fairly resolving and nuanced while having refined presentation
+ Reasonably forgiving and sweeter signature
+ Micro focus is impressive
Notable weaknesses:
– Not very organic sounding overall, can feel overly embellished
– Transients are very hit or miss depending on the person
– Might lean a bit too clean for some
– Can lean too micro focused and lack good impact, heft, and macrodynamics, and stage scale
Pairings with good synergy, at different price points:
* Viva Egoista 845 – This added a better macro focus while both filling in the middle more and keeping it fairly clean as well, very technical combo, might be too much at times for some.
* XI Formula S + Powerman – A more micro focus but very controlled and sweetened without being overdone.
* Woo WA22 – Great if you enjoy a more saturated and rich sound while still being reasonably clean, adds more space and macro capability.
* Violectric V281/280 – A reasonably neutral micro focus with good control and spatiality.
How it takes to better digital sources: The TT2 with the Mscaler is a fairly large jump forward in performance and generally takes the DAC to the next level, highly recommended. It did improve with the better digital sources I have with me, but not really the level of what the Mscaler could accomplish, but a better digital source is recommended and substantial if possible.
Preamp performance: It’s volume control is adequate, I don’t think it would really be replacing anyone’s preamp as vs nicer preamps it feels like it lacks drive and control, comes off more lean, and less engaging, but does do the job for basic level control to an already integrated amp.
Other things to note: The filters don’t change the sound of it all that much, the first 2 filters lean it more cleanly and bright, the second 2 offer a bit more warmth, but really they didn’t change the sound enough to be a substantial factor. Crossfeed was all right, but personally I didn’t really use it that much. The headphone amp is mediocre for the money, but more than serviceable, although I personally wouldn’t use it and would rather get a more proper headphone amp in this range, I think it’s more a better DAC than AIO. Balanced out was a bit better than SE but both are fairly good. DSD was hit or miss here, would likely lean more toward miss.
Value: Reasonable if you appreciate the Chord house sound and what it does to the music.

The Brighter Leaning DACs Against Eachother

What the symbols mean:
= means about similar, perhaps slight edge to the first over the 2nd
‎>= means a bit better, noticeable but not enough to push it over the next tier edge
‎> means fairly better but not massively so, possibly next tier better but not decidedly so
‎>> means stand out better, pretty easily noticeable, easily next tier better or a bit above
‎>>> means skipping multiple tiers, leagues better

Resolution/Detail: Terminator II >= TT2
Speed: Terminator II > TT2
Separation: TT2 > Terminator II
Control and Grip: Terminator II > TT2
Impact and Slam: Terminator II >> TT2
Midrange Texture: Terminator II >= TT2
Bass Texture: Terminator II > TT2
Treble Extension: TT2 > Terminator II
Bass Extension: Terminator II > TT2
Microdynamics: TT2 >> Terminator II
Macrodynamics: Terminator II > TT2
Background Blackness: TT2 > Terminator II
Stage Width: Terminator II > TT2
Stage Depth: TT2 > Terminator II
Placement Accuracy: Terminator II > TT2
Presentation Organicness: TT2 > Terminator II
Timbre: TT2 > Terminator II
Tonality Organicness: TT2 > Terminator II
Tonal Density Quantity: Terminator II >= TT2
Tonal Density Quality: TT2 > Terminator II
Smoothness: TT2 >> Terminator II
Liquidity: TT2 >> Terminator II
Coherency: TT2 >> Terminator II
Forwardness: Terminator II > TT2
Energy & Incisiveness: Terminator II > TT2
Forgivingness: TT2 > Terminator
Overall Treble: TT2 > Terminator II
Overall Midrange: TT2 >> Terminator II
Overall Bass: Terminator II = TT2
Overall Subbass: Terminator II > TT2

Generally the TT2 offers a more refined, organic, and balanced approach to a cleaner signature where the Terminator takes a more brute force approach for it’s clarity and forwardness. I do think the TT2 is more refined overall but lacks some get up and go, where the Terminator is lacking a bit of that refinement and nuance but exchanges it for more energy and power overall. I do personally like the TT2 more but I can see where the Terminator II could be preferable for sure. But comes down to synergy as well of course.


As A Whole?

Really most of these DACs that I chose for this comparison were options that I thought were worthwhile and represented a potentially compelling option where they sat, so I can’t say there were really any bad apples here because I made sure not to pick those in the first place. Although I didn’t really like the Terminator II all that much, but included it because I bought it on a whim after what others had said about it. All are really pretty great options and which one to go with really just does come down to preference, synergy, and budget in the end.

If I had to sort them myself for which ones I would likely pick up for myself (ignoring synergy and price for the moment), it would likely look like this

Satisfaction:DAC:Why?
Most:SW1X DAC II SpecialReally enjoy it’s organicness coupled with technical ability, but demanding on digital source for that
Rockna WavelightOverall balance and technical performance but still reasonably organic
Aqua La Voce S3It’s nuance and sweetness but fairly neutral and composed
Lampizator Amber 3Fun factor and organicness without sacrificing that much technical ability
Bricasti M3Refinement and no nonsense approach, very low key, does nothing wrong but nothing immediately stands out either
Holo May KTEWell executed embellishment, although I’m not that partial to this approach personally
Schiit Yggdrasil OG A2Overall macro approach without being jarring
Chord Hugo TT2Overall micro approach without being jarring (while being fairly technical too), but not my cup of tea in signature/voicing
Sonnet MorpheusStrong micro approach with a unique twist, but situational and didn’t mesh well for my personal tastes
Least:Denafrips Terminator IIConstant wow factor (but not long term satisfaction)

Again this is just me though, just my personal overall satisfaction of the DAC, how much enjoyment I feel I get from it overall, regardless of technical ability (but there may be a correlation there lol), rated most satisfied to least. I can easily see someone having a totally different final list. And again comes down to synergy as well, would really end up being dependent on what amp and other source gear I was running too.

What about what I personally think about value (new prices)? This is just what I think best represents bang for buck, not ranking DAC sound or anything. Again all depends on synergy anyways.

Value:DAC:Why?
Best:SW1X DAC II SpecialHonestly really wowed me in most all aspects for the money, don’t mind paying new
Schiit Yggdrasil OG A2One of the most well rounded and refined DACs at it’s price point, don’t mind paying new
Aqua La Voce S3Sleeper, it’s lower level ability with it’s sonic goals are special, much better value used
Rockna WavelightOverall very solid asking for what you get, but doesn’t scream deal, don’t mind paying new
Lampizator Amber 3While the price has been slowly rising, still a good deal for now, better value used
Bricasti M3Seems very fairly priced, very middle of the road value both new and used
Holo May KTEI do think you are paying a bit extra here for what it is but not bad, somewhat overvalued used
Chord Hugo TT2See above for the most part, feels like a brand tax, still fair enough price though
Sonnet MorpheusVery situational, could be higher up but most pairings for me were a miss imo
Worst:Denafrips Terminator IIFeel there’s too many dealbreakers to justify price vs competition, only one that gave me a sense of lackluster value, pretty overvalued

Again that’s over generalization since a DAC could be a poor value in one chain but great in another, but felt like I should make a generalized section about value as well

Guess what’s coming back? That’s right, the shit scale baby, for some reason making a return after it actually made sense to people apparently. To clarify now, I will be using the same 3 categories, but I do think there are easily DACs above this level, so consider this version of the shit scale to be isolated to this max budget, and assume there isn’t anything above. Basically corresponds to what comes to mind when you listen to them and how you feel after experiencing them, coupled with technical performance and slightly includes some weighting for cost (as in if a DAC is more expensive, expectations are higher for it). Should be enough information to get going. These are not ranked inside the tiers, so it’s not weighted by most to least or anything like that, only in the 4 blocks

Nice Shit.Awkward Shit?Oh Shit!Holy Shit!!
Schiit Yggdrasil OG A2Denafrips Terminator IIHolo May KTESW1X DAC II Special
Sonnet MorpheusChord Hugo TT2Rockna Wavelight
Aqua La Voce S3
Lampizator Amber 3
Bricasti M3
On second thought, this was already somewhat covered by the 2 other tables, oh well

I think that’s really all I wanted to potentially cover here, wanted to make this more brief and to the point, although I’m sure some detail was lost. To be clear here, this isn’t intended as a review or anything, just a more brief coverage of some of the DACs I have enjoyed in this price range and how they may stack up to each other. If you want a lot more information and context for everything, reading PT.1 covers a lot more of the why and how, and of course a whole different set of DACs and reasons for doing it lol.

For further discussion over all of this, head over to the thread on the forums:
https://forum.sonusapparatus.com/t/short-high-end-dac-comparison-pt-1-pt-2-source-gear-progression-and-general-thoughts/26

Now I gotta get a lot of these DACs back to their original owners lol


Afterthoughts

I should have really covered pairings in more depth with amps and headphones and everything like I did in PT.1, but I wanted to keep this much more brief this time and that adds a whole lot more work to do as well, so I just covered it very briefly for simplicity. But I think it does really need that, so might add it later on if I get the chance to

I do like the more personal and detailed approach of PT.1 more, but I didn’t really think that would fit as well here, nor was I as personally invested in PT.2 as I was PT.1, I might go and add onto this more at some point but I think I’ll keep it fairly cut and dry for this one

I may update this with a few more DACs in the future, like the Exogal Comet Plus, Crane Song Solaris Quantum, XI Sagra, Dangerous Music Convert 2, or others but it will depend if I can get any to borrow and if I actually feel like updating this any more lol. They wouldn’t be able to be directly compared side by side since by the time I would get one in hand I would have returned many of the DACs tested above, but who knows might add them in at some point if I get the chance to. Wanted to keep it at 10, but perhaps a few more wouldn’t hurt

Expanded Tables

At the request of a few forum members, I will add other DACs I’ve heard around this price point around/under 5k, both new and used and also some that may not be in production anymore. This is just adding to the table, not any real elaboration, just including the names, that’s it. Might not be all that helpful to most, but hey someone asked lol. I don’t plan on really adding any more comprehensive comparisons since this was a more one and done sorta thing as well, so don’t expect any real updates to things tbh. Also it’s been awhile since I’ve heard some of these, so take with a larger grain of salt (although still heard these enough to have a decent idea of how they sound, also only including stuff I personally like AND still think is competitive in the current market). But again this doesn’t really try to convey anything more than voicing+signature+presentation, so don’t take it too seriously

Warmer Leaning:Neutral-ish:Brighter Leaning:
Most Forward:Schiit Yggdrasil OG A2SW1X DAC II SpecialDangerous Music Convert 2
Mojo Mystique EVO/V3Bricasti M3/(older) M1Denafrips Terminator II
Rockna Wavelight/WavedreamLampizator Amber/Baltic 3Ayre QX-5 Twenty
Totaldac D1-Core Exogal Comet PlusChord Hugo TT2/Qutest
Holo May/Spring 2 KTEMeitner MA-1 v2Berkeley Alpha S2
Merason DAC-1Aqua La Voce S3XI Sagra
Hibiki SDSCrane Song Solaris Quantum
Sonnet MorpheusPlayback Designs Merlot
Most Relaxed:MSB Analog DAC
Nice Shit.Good ShitOh Shit!Holy Shit!!
Yggdrasil OG A2May KTEWavelightMA-1 v2
MorpheusHugo TT2La Voce S3D1-Core
SDSTerminator IIAmber 3DAC II Special
Solaris QuantumMerlotM3QX-5 Twenty
SagraAlpha S2Mystique EVO/V3
Convert 2Analog DACBaltic 3
Comet Plus(older) M1
Spring 2 KTEWavedream
QutestDAC-1
Keep in mind these are not weighted inside each group contrary to the above, also note it’s adjusted accordingly to the new entries

If you want to see an actual comparison with the tier of dacs above all of these mentioned, then part 1 is where that will be

Things sure do get interesting when you allow used and/or discontinued options in doesn’t it lol. Had to add another category here to make it a bit more readible and to better showcase differences. You can see how it’s no longer really that fair anymore to a lot of the inital DACs in the comparison, but that’s just the magic of buying used for better value lol. Was going to make a value table, but that’s hard since used prices change a lot and it’s not reliable, so I guess I won’t then lol. But you could likely guess value from the 2 above tables anyways.

Again this isn’t that detailed and I’m not as confident as the actual comparison above, but it’s here nonetheless, take it how you will

Glossary:

Resolution/Detail: How much raw information can something pull out of the recording?
Speed: How fast can something respond overall to quick changes in music?
Separation: How well can something differentiate sounds happening at the same time, and accurately portray that space between things?
Control & Grip: How tightly can something follow the music and how much force can it also exert while doing it?
Impact & Slam: How well can something give visceral power and punch to things while keeping moderately composed overall?
Midrange Texture: How well can something represent perceived tangibility and feeling in the midrange?
Bass Texture: How well can something represent perceived tangibility and feeling in the bass?
Treble Extension: How far can something extend into the treble while remaining refined and composed?
Bass Extension: How far can something extend into the bass while remaining refined and composed?
Microdynamics: How well can something convey quick low level changes in volume while remaining audible and apparent, not being overwhelmed by more prominent information?
Macrodynamics: How well can something convey large changes of volume and scale while remaining audible and apparent, not feel limited or out of control?
Background Blackness: How well does something create a sense of nothingness between instruments, it’s ability to recreate empty space without the feeling of something being present when nothing should be? (Note, this is not noise floor aka background hiss)
Stage Width: How far can something extend in creating it’s space while still remaining coherent enough?
Stage Depth: How deep can something extend into the stage, how much range something has inside the stage inbetween the farthest and closest aspects.
Placement Accuracy: How accurate is something at creating a convincing overall stage, accurately representing the location of sounds in space and time with precise definition?
Presentation Organicness: How realistic is the overall balance of something (all combined aspects), in a way that leans closer to live?
Timbre: How accurate is something at creating the characteristics of an instrument or sound, other aspects that don’t directly focus on tonality, the general nature of the sound, how true does the instrument sound to life?
Tonality Organicness: How balanced is something in frequency response and how well does it prevent things from being masked or overwhelming each other throughout the entire range?
Tonal Density Quantity: How much weight and meatiness/thickness does something place on notes?
Tonal Density Quality: How well does something vary it’s weight to be accurate to the recording, and it’s ability to control the weight and prevent it from affecting other aspects?
Smoothness: How, smooth and non fatiguing does something portray it’s sound, blending together sometimes?
Liquidity: How well does something handle the natural flow of music without adding or subtracting things, flowing through without imparting any extra texture or sound of it’s own?
Coherency: How well does something portray a sense of unity and seamlessness overall?
Forwardness: How close does something bring the sound from where it should be, how much things are pushed toward you more than they normally would be?
Energy & Incisiveness: How directly, clearly, and energetically does something represent sound?
Forgivingness: How forgiving is something of both bad synergy with other components and bad source material, the ability to make even lesser recorded or poor matches sound more enjoyable?
Overall Treble: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall treble range sound on something?
Overall Midrange: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall midrange sound on something?
Overall Bass: How capable, polished, and complete does the bass range sound on something?
Overall Subbass: How capable, polished, and complete does the subbass range sound on something?