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Are Expensive DACs Better?

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Like any product, a more expensive version is expected to come out the victor when pitted against a cheaper counterpart. However, this is not the case all the time.

DAC and DAC chip quality varies considerably, as proven by their respective product specifications. Thus, you may want to use this along with the price tag and not the price alone to determine whether a DAC suits your needs. There have been rave reviews of DACs under $500, proving DAC systems across the price spectrum can deliver.

Today we’ll discuss what DACs across different price points have to offer in the hope of helping you become a more informed buyer of these systems in the future.

Cheap vs. Pricey Systems: What’s the Difference?

DAC chips typically differ in terms of decoding qualities. Higher-end models are compatible with DSD and MQA formats and can decode files with high resolution.

In contrast, lower-end chips tend to fall short in the areas their pricier counterparts are known to excel in. They can be found almost anywhere, from desktop and laptop computers to your everyday smartphones. Furthermore, their audio features are far from optimal to the disappointment of many an audiophile listener.

Sound signatures are another aspect where DAC chips may differ. Some chips produce an analytical sound, while others deliver a house sound. Of course, the implementation of the DAC is still hugely contributory to the setup’s overall sound signature.

Same Chip, Different Devices

Using the same type of chip in two different devices doesn’t always mean you get the same sound. As mentioned previously, the implementation of the chip can matter as much as the type of chip for determining overall sound quality. This remains true for the new models as it did for the old ones.

There may even be times when a newer model of the same chip type underperforms against the older model. That could largely be due to the lack of synergy and poor implementation of the newer chip. So you can have a high-end chip but be disappointed in its performance because it doesn’t compliment a device well.

Single-Chip Configuration DAC vs. Multi-Chip Configuration DAC

DAC chip configuration is an area you don’t want to overlook when choosing a DAC. External USB DACs, DAPs, and other similar devices were traditionally designed to hold only a single DAC chip. That’s no longer the case today, as these gadgets’ newer versions feature dual DAC configurations. Some higher-end models even offer three.

It is, however, worth noting that while price and chip configuration numbers tend to go hand-in-hand, some DACs with single-chip configurations can still match their multi-chip counterparts for price on account of their other standout features.

Nevertheless, multi-chip configuration for DACs can hold a ton of benefits. It provides better detail retrieval, a cleaner sound, improved channel separation, and overall sound quality. 

Still, you cannot discount chip implementation and synergization with the setup’s other components, as these hold as much weight as the chip’s raw features.

Desktop DACs Differences

Often, what sets DAC chips and desktop DACs apart is their build quality and flexibility. Desktop DACS are no different from other audio components in that their more expensive models tend to be constructed with grade-a materials. They also tend to connect better and be compatible with other devices such as solid-state and tube headphone amps.

Desktop DACs also have no shortage of features. Most models come with Bluetooth technology, which opens countless doors for setup expansion.

Should You Get the Expensive DAC or the Cheap DAC?

At the end of the day, it’s neither the DAC chip model nor the DAC price alone that should determine your decision to acquire a DAC. The most telling factors are how the DAC is implemented and synergizes with other audiophile components. More than looking at your options from a technical standpoint, consider how well they would work with what you already have or what you plan to have.

In some cases, even low- to mid-range DACs can outperform high-end models when matched with a system that takes full advantage of what they have to offer. Nevertheless, higher-end DAC chips and DACs, in and of themselves, will always be the better choice. When a high-end DAC or DAC chip achieves perfect synergy with other high-end audio-production elements or devices, that’s when top-notch sound gets produced.

If the budget allows for a high-end purchase, seriously consider auditioning the equipment before you decide to buy it. Furthermore, it’s essential to consider your requirements. Even though a DAC delivers decent sounds in your setup, that might not matter if it doesn’t deliver the kind of sound you’re looking for.

Lastly, high-end and low-end DAC differences may not truly be perceived unless you use premier headphones or headphone amps. Hence, invest in a great-sounding pair to test out some of your prospective options.