Expensive DAC vs Cheap DAC – Is There Really a Difference?




The topic of DACs may initially seem straightforward. Like headphones and IEMs, expensive DACs should perform better than cheaper DACs. However, this is not always the case.

The quality of DACs and DAC chips varies greatly. This can be directly seen in their respective product specification. However, to truly discern their differences, you must judge the entire system as a whole. This is because two identical DAC chips can still sound different when places in two completely different systems. 

In this article, we will be talking more about the different price tiers of DACs. And by the end, you should have a more informed purchase decision when it comes to DACs.

Expensive DAC vs. Cheap DAC – Is There Really a Difference?

Differences Between DAC Chips

The main difference between different DAC chips is their decoding capabilities. Higher-end DAC chips are capable of decoding higher-resolution files. They are also compatible with formats such as MQA and DSD.

Lower-end DAC chips, in comparison, are typically lacking some of the mentioned features. They are usually found on more common devices such as smartphones, laptops, and desktop motherboards. These are not optimized for audiophile listeners and are therefore not the best sounding.

Speaking of sound signatures, different DAC chips are also known to have different sound signatures. AKM DAC chips, for example, are known for their analytical sound. This house sound is typically different from the one offered by competing brands such as ESS Sabre and Cirrus Logic.

Of course, the overall sound signature of your setup will still depend on how well the DAC chip is implemented. But in general, the sound signature of different DAC chips is still noticeable in different devices.

Same DAC Chip in Different Devices

ssp with ak380 + amp

Having the same DAC chip does not automatically mean that two different devices will sound the same. As we mentioned earlier, the overall sound of a DAC will largely depend on how well it is implemented in a system.

A classic example is the Fiio X5ii and the Astell & Kern AK 380. These are both old devices, but the differences that are observed here can still be observed in newer devices.

Both DAPs have the same dual AKM AK4490 DAC chip configuration. However, the X5ii is significantly less expensive than Astell & Kern’s flagship at the time. This created a lot of hype with consumers.

But when X5ii was finally released, users were very disappointed. Not only did it have a warmer sound than the AK380, but its technical capabilities and detail retrieval were also nowhere near to AK380.

As you can see with our example, the overall implementation and synergy of the DAC chip were what ultimately mattered. Despite having a high-end DAC chip, it still faltered and did not live up to its expectations. Even the AK70 Mk2, which had a lower DAC chip, sounded better than the Fiio X5ii.

Single DAC Chip vs. Multi DAC Chip

Astell&Kern A&Futura SE200 Portable High Resolution Audio Player, Moon Silver
Astell&Kern A&Futura SE200 Moon Silver (Image: Amazon)

Different DACs can also have different DAC chip configurations. Most devices such as DAPs and external USB DACs like the Audioquest Dragonfly traditionally only featured one DAC chip. However, newer devices now feature a dual DAC configuration. Some higher-end devices such as the Astell & Kern SE200 feature three DACs.

There are lots of benefits to having a multi DAC chip configuration. You get better channel separation, better detail retrieval, a more clean sound, and overall, better sound quality. Of course, it will all still depend on how the DAC chip is implemented and how well it synergizes with other components such as the headphone amplifiers.

Difference Between Desktop DACs

iFi Zen DAC V2 | Desktop Digital Analog Converter with USB 3.0 B Input only / Outputs: 6.3mm Unbalanced / 4.4mm Balanced / RCA - MQA DECODER - Audio System Upgrade (Unit only)
iFi Zen DAC V2 (Image: Amazon)

As for the desktop DAC/Amps, the main difference apart from DAC chips is their flexibility and build quality. Like other audiophile components, more expensive DAC/Amps tend to be made with more premium materials. They also tend to have better connectivity and compatibility with other equipment such as tube headphone amplifiers and solid-state headphone amplifiers.

Also, different desktop DACs can also have a variety of different features. Some models, such as the iFi Zen Blueoffer Bluetooth. This opens lots of doors in terms of how you wish to expand your setup.

Expensive DAC vs. Cheap DAC (Which should I Get)

The takeaway here is that the price of the DAC and the model of the DAC chip does not always paint the entire picture. It all still depends on how well the DAC fits in your setup. You should stop looking at the technical specifications. Instead, start looking at how well they synergize and perform in the real world.

Sometimes, even lower-end and midrange DACs can sound nice when paired with equipment that can fully take advantage of what they offer. Of course, higher-end DACs ad DAC chips will always be a viable solution. If you have the budget, then we highly recommend auditioning the said equipment first before truly committing.

Also, you should take note of your requirements. A DAC may sound good in your setup. But if it does not meet your requirements, then it will be just useless.

Additionally, we believe that the difference between high-end DACs and low-end DACs will not be truly perceived if you do not have good headphones, IEMs, or headphone amps. So before thinking about purchasing a standalone DAC, DAC/Amp, or DAC, you should first invest in a good-sounding pair of headphones or IEMs.

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