2016 Buyer’s Guide: DACs $1,000 - $5,000

Equipment report
Digital-to-analog converters
Aurender Flow,
Benchmark Media Systems DAC2 HGC,
Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC Series 2,
Bryston BDA-2 ,
Cary Audio Design DAC-100,
Cary Audio Design DAC-100t,
Exogal Comet,
Monarchy Audio NM24,
Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC,
Wyred4Sound DAC-2
2016 Buyer’s Guide: DACs $1,000 - $5,000

Monarchy Audio NM24 DAC Preamplifier
The NM24 teaches us three important lessons regarding digital-to-analog converter design. First, that there’s still plenty of audio magic left in Burr Brown’s 24-bit/96kHz PCM1704 chip, the world’s most sophisticated R2R DAC chip which Texas Instruments came close to discontinuing in 2012. Second, a tube buffer is sonically superior to an op-amp buffer, as can easily be ascertained by auditioning both built-in buffers: an AD811 video op-amp and a 6922 triode-based stage. Third, it is much easier (i.e., less costly) to design a good-sounding DAC using an R2R chip than it is with the currently ubiquitous delta-sigma type. There are only two digital inputs (TosLink and coaxial), so you’ll need a good external asynchronous USB link for computer audio. As compensation, you can use the line-level preamp outputs as a headphone amplifier via a suitable adapter cable. The sound is exceedingly analog-like, as the NM24 avoids the halo of brightness that permeates the harmonic textures of so many delta-sigma based DACs. You’ll have to look in the neighborhood of $5k to exceed its performance. Sold factory-direct. monarchyaudio.com

Aurender Flow
With a footprint measuring only 5" by 3" by 1", Aurender’s Flow packs a lot of technology into a one-pound chassis. The DAC uses an XMOS USB interface and Sabre ESS9018K2M chips and has its own internal 4450mAh battery power supply. The Flow can handle any digital data stream up to 384/32 PCM and 128x DSD via USB and 192/24 PCM via its TosLink input. Although the Flow only has a single-ended  phone-jack output, that output can be configured in several ways. It can be made variable in 0.5dB increments up to 2 volts or configured fixed at either 2 or 5 volts. For someone who wants great sound, good ergonomics, and a compact footprint, the Aurender Flow offers an elegant solution for headphone and nearfield listening. Put a large hard drive in it and you have a clever rig for a traveling audiophile. Also the Flow could easily find a place with music professionals, who might carry it from studio to studio to ensure monitoring consistency. aurender.com

Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2
$1499 ($100 to add DSD, $1000 for SE boards)
The Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 combines a rich feature set with remarkable performance at a price that makes it hard to beat. Its overall sound has a solidity and weight that are both arresting and involving. While SS hasn’t heard every available DAC in its price range, he has yet to hear any USB DAC under $1500 that outperforms the Wyred4Sound. Factor in the basic DAC-2’s 192kHz high-resolution capabilities, small upcharge for DSD support, and the ability to convert to SE anytime you wish via built-in circuit-board upgradability, and you have a DAC that will remain au courant long enough to make it a savvy and satisfying purchase, regardless of how much more you can afford to spend. wyred4sound.com

Mytek Stereo192-DSD DAC
Manufactured in Poland, the Mytek Stereo192-DSD-DAC was designed by Michal Jurewics, who is also the founder of Mytek Digital. The Stereo192-DSD-DAC comes in three versions. Fortunately for consumers, all three have the same price. The “standard” version is available in two finishes, silver and black. The black chassis 192-DSD-DAC has front-panel volume-level LEDs below the LCD panel, while the silver version has none. Input and output options on the black and silver 192s are identical. The “Mastering” 192-DSD-DAC has a similar front panel to the black version, but instead of an analog pass-through it substitutes a dedicated DSD input for 128x (5.6MHz) files (currently only accessible via a PC-based computer). If you want or need a DSD-capable DAC with a FireWire interface (which can be attached to any Thunderbolt connection via an adapter), the Mytek is the only game in town, so far. mytekdigital.com

Benchmark DAC2 HGC
The DAC2 HGC employs new high-efficiency low-noise power supplies with each sub-system using its own dedicated low-noise regulation. The UltraLock2 digital clock replaces the older UltraLock clock that was used in the DAC1 for jitter attenuation. Like most current-generation DACs, the DAC2 uses an asynchronous interface, which Benchmark, with a knack for verbal invention, calls its “multi-mode asynchronous USB.” The HGC moniker stands for “hybrid gain control,” which is a “dual domain” attenuation system that combines digital with analog gain controls for an optimal result. By using a 32-bit digital system along with a servo-driven analog potentiometer, Benchmark claims that the HGC design “outperforms traditional analog or digital volume controls, including the two-stage DAC1 HDR system.” benchmarkmedia.com

Bryston BDA-2 DAC
Bryston’s BDA-1 builds on the success of its highly regarded predecessor, the BDA-1. The new unit adds a greatly improved asynchronous USB interface capable of handling sampling rates up to 192kHz, along with a pair of top-of-the-line chips from AKM. The USB input, merely a convenience feature on the BDA-1, is now a state-of-the-art implementation that is fully competitive with other top-class USB DACs. Because of its particular strengths, the BDA-2 will be especially appealing to listeners seeking to maximize enjoyment from USB sources. The overriding impression of music played via the BDA-2’s USB input is one of relaxed ease and unflustered composure. KS found that the crowning achievement of the Bryston BDA-2 can be described in the simplest of terms: It makes the best of every recording that you play through it. A great bargain. bryston.com

Cary Audio DAC-100 and DAC-100t
$2495 and $2995 
Available with either a silver or black front panel, the DAC-100 and DAC-100T look virtually identical. The “t” on the second DAC-100 stands for tube. This is what differentiates the DAC-100t’s analog output stage from that of the all-solid-state DAC-100. Except for their output design the two are technological twins. Overall the DAC-100t had more additive colorations, especially in the bass, while the DAC-100 was slightly subtractive in its upper frequency ranges. Which is “better” will depend on the rest of your system. WG encouraged readers to listen to both and make their own choice, but the fact is you can’t go wrong with either one. caryaudio.com

Exogal Comet DAC
$2500 ($3000 with upgraded power supply) 
A full-featured DAC that can also serve as the control unit in an all-digital system, this small, unusually attractive unit uses your smartphone as the remote control, giving you lot of capability. The remote displays the same information shown on the Comet’s small screen, which is very difficult to read. A headphone output jack is provided, but its output is not very powerful. The Comet plays PCM files up to 384 kHz/32-bit, and DSD64 and DSD128 files. The Comet has two analog outputs, so it can drive a power amp and a subwoofer directly. Sonically, the Comet has an open, neutral, spacious sound with good bass and treble extension, but no peakiness or edge. Soundstaging is spacious and precise. Voices are pure and rich. In summary, the Exogal Comet looks great, sounds even better, and for the asking price, represents good value. exogal.com

Auralic Vega
If you are looking to take the plunge into the world of DSD and need a high-quality DAC/preamp capable of handling all your digital sources, look no further than the Auralic Vega digital/pre DAC. With AES/EBU, two coax, optical, and USB inputs, the Vega is highly versatile. Because it is also capable of acting as a preamp, all you have to do is add an amp and speakers and you’re ready to start rocking. The Vega supports all PCM-based audio up to 384kHz/24-bit and DSD up to DSD128. As good as it gets for the price. auralic.com

Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2
The Product of the Year Award-winning Alpha DAC is not only one of the best-sounding digital-to-analog converters, it’s also an amazing bargain. In addition to world-class decoding of CD sources, the Alpha DAC can handle any sampling rate to 192kHz and word lengths to 24 bits. Its robust analog output stage and variable output level allow it to drive a power amplifier directly. This feature is significant, because the Alpha DAC is capable of such resolution, timbral purity, and dynamics you’ll want to hear it without the limitations of a preamp in the signal path. When used at its best—fed by true high-res sources from a music server, and driving an amplifier directly—the Alpha DAC delivers stunning resolution of the finest musical detail, throws a spectacularly large and well-defined soundstage, and plays back music with gorgeous tone color and purity. berkeleyaudiodesign.com