Greetings mate and Welcome aboard! Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions leading to a beautiful audio experience that will make you fall in love with music (NOT gear), all over again, so…
Do keep in mind this is going to be my personal opinion but is based on experience with nearly 40 different DACS as of this writing (and just about 50 Amps & DACS in total).
Also, remember that DACS in and of themselves have a lot less to do with how the track is going to sound. Yes, you want a quality DAC, but as far as the song itself, it mostly comes down to the way it was recorded, mixed, and mastered, with the headphones themselves making up the other significant sound discrepancies.
DACS can alter the flavor of sound a bit via Output impedance, but at the end of the day, they represent a very small portion of influence on audio. What is Output Impedance?
With that said, I’ve always surmised that the ESS Sabre variety to me accounts for 95% of the perceivable sound differences you may encounter when going back and forth between DACS.
I’ve owned a DragonFly Red for nearly 2 years now and demoed it for quite a while before eventually calling it my own.
Many, many Amps & DACS have come through here since then, and I still believe the Sabre is the best sounding from a technical standpoint.
Some would argue that it renders music too bright and/or analytical, and I can certainly see where those people are coming from to an extent, but still don’t entirely agree.
I believe music tends to sound its best when it has room to breathe, sounds open and clear, and excels at separating instruments.
Out of all the DACS I’ve heard to this point, I think the Sabre chip does that better than the majority of products out there. It’s crisp and snappy, with plenty of air around the instruments. It tends to sound more detailed and spacious.
Again, the differences can be quite subtle, but in the case of the DF Red, they’re more noticeable than they would be with other chips.
What I’m saying isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction. I’ve noticed this time and again over the last couple of years since owning a DragonFly Red and comparing it to countless other products.
Most Burr Brown and AKM chips are kind of a cross between neutral and warm, which is probably my second most preferred type of sound.
I should also note that the differences between DragonFly Red’s 9018 Chip and Cobalt’s 9038 to me were basically non-existent; i.e. don’t waste your money and spend an extra $100 on what is likely a placebo.
Remember that if a song sounds harsh through a DF Red, it likely isn’t the chip or the DAC. Again, it comes down to how the track was recorded. This is one of the most basic sound principles that gets glossed over time and again in favor of buying new gear and trying to chase a unicorn that doesn’t exist.
Also, keep in mind that there are other factors that affect how a DAC sounds other than the chip itself:
Analog Output Stage
Let’s ask Paul McGowan of PS Audio (A guy who has been building and engineering these types of systems for over 40 years) what’s important and what’s not.
So we can infer from this video that the DAC chip is super important, but the analog output stage could be even more important.
Why the Analog Output Stage Matters?
Well, that’s a great question and can be had for the low low price of JUST KIDDING.
Let’s consult the Springer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science for that one:
The main purpose of the output stage of an operational amplifier is to deliver a certain amount of signal power into a load with acceptably low levels of signal distortion. In a low-voltage low-power environment, this has to be achieved by efficiently using the supply voltage as well as the supply current. To implement this, the output voltage range must be as large as possible, preferably from rail to rail. To achieve this, the output transistors have to be connected in a common-source configuration. An efficient use of the supply current requires a high ratio between the maximum signal current that can be delivered to a load, and the quiescent current of the output stage. To accomplish this, the output transistors have to be class-AB biased.Springer
The main duty of an analog output stage is to provide clean gain (or amplify the signal) and remove noise/distortion.
In the case of the DAC chip, it is important, but perhaps not quite as important as some would have you believe.
You can also see that Paul also values the ESS variety of DAC chips quite a bit – the point where he uses them quite frequently in his own various builds.
Again, there’s a reason for it. The Sabre chip is a high-performing, solid, and reliable product that does tend to stand out above many other varieties.
I recommend the DragonFly Red a lot because of this. It’s a great product and deserves mention whenever possible!
Speaking of, check out the review and comparison to the Black:
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.