Do hi-end DACs offer true value or diminishing return...

These two hi-fedelity recordings posted on Youtube allow one to audition the state-of-the-art, highly raved R2R DACs with values ranging from $850 all the way to $6,500. Please use headphone or, play back to your stereo system if you think your system is revealing enough. The question to ask to yourself is that the true hi-end (w/ high price tag) gears offer you true values or just a diminishing-return foolproof. In my system, I do hear the differences but, to me, the differences might not be that significant to justify the luxious spending. Maybe my system is not revealing enough.  Maybe the recording quality through the on-line broadcasting degrades.  How about you? Do you hear major differences? 

Terminator Plus ($6.5k), Venus II ($3k)

Terminator $4.5k, Ares II ($850)





High end DACs are like every other component and them taken together… the better they are the better your system can be. My Audio Research Reference CD9se DAC is truly incredible…. I consider it a screaming deal at $17K. In my system it bested a $22K Berkeley DAC (by a hair). But the better your system the more difference a small change makes. So the diminishing returns doesn’t apply… or folks wouldn’t own $500K systems.

Without listening at your own home with your own equipment I feel that it is near impossible to distinguish major differences between sampl3s posted online. There are so many variables in the delivery of these samples that any changes are likely to be random from system to system. A true comparison should be done in-house with your own equipment before spending any money. Reviews are helpful to get a better understanding of what others are hearing but as always your results/impressions may vary. 

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utube for high end audio is like buying wine based on smelling the ……label….

This topic seems to preclude significantly lower priced kit. For a while I felt my Audio Alchemy DDP-1 + PS 5 (MSRP $2600), with built in DAC was my weak link. Fortunately, my CDP used as a transport died. I chose a CDP to have as a backup player, just in case, but only ever used it as a transport. My retired on SS budget restricts me from big ticket kit, so I researched hard and came across Audiolab CDT6000 (MSRP ~620-$700) and found one with ~ 100 hours on AG. I am using it with a ~ $800 PC, a Pangea Coax Premier XL and Nobsound springs. I used the IsoTek burn in disc all day then listened to an oldie for me Chet Atkins and Mark Knoffler Neck and Neck. Totally transformed my system. Moral of the story: a transport (or lack thereof) can make or break the overall sound 

One of the best Dacs for the money is the Playback Design Dream series, but its above 25K Retail which is still allot of money.`


Engineered by a guy that other companies hire privately to write codes or design their dacs for them.



The higher the price the more confirmation bias is in play! I don't care what your golden ears tell you! If you haven't done a blind listening comparison your conclusions are highly suspect. This is the big fear of the subjectivists - that blind testing will upset their preconceived notions!

Absolutely no intention to preclude lower-price gears. It is just for such fine quality recordings are difficult to find online.  I know, from the responses above, some gentlemen have their own perfect reason ditching the use and purpose of them and I respect that.  I certainly understand the limitation and bunches of factors playing into that may invalidate legitimacy of using that avenue for selecting the hi-fi or mid-fi (if you judge them purely base on the price) gears.  But I believe that is the dilemma that many audiophiles run into because of the limited resources around the neck of wood where they live.  I certainly do not have much disposal money to purchase and bring all of gears I am interested home for auditioning.  That is essentially the reason why some enthusiasts put out a fair amount of time doing so to help out and I appreciate that.  The is apparently the suboptimal way given the reality constraint.

I also agree the blind test needs to be part of equation and you could do it in your discretion.

For those who are reluctant to admit there is diminishing returns, listen to what the humble gentleman Paul has to say:

I also invite those who have DACs you think exceptional/worthwhile could also spend some time doing some fine recordings and showcasing your gears with the community.  Would you?  Appreciated.

Raul, Was trying to be funny.  Of course, the OP is free to post on the Digital Forum, as well.  I wish he would have exercised that freedom, in fact.

Look into Merging Technologies +player. An exceptional DAC with Roon Core/endpoint, all in one chassis. If you’re interested in auditioning, reach out to Colin @gestalt audio. 

I cannot comment on these specific DACs, but on the concept of diminishing returns:

An upgrade might feel like a small step. However, once you are used to it, trying to go back to the previous "level" will feel like a big, almost unacceptable drop....



Well, it’s all up to you. If you are struggling to find money to buy a decent DAC, or any kind of audio equipment, then you will surely find all kind of reasons in the Internet not to buy one. Then you (plural) you will be a specialist in posting in all audio forums why those are snake oil. That’s how it works. I have seen it all over again and again.


Including making decisions based on a YouTube video 😂


Bottom line: take care of basic needs first, food to the table, family, housing, kids’ college, and so on. Audio is a hobby. Secondary to all in the grand scheme of things. Discretionary

@jasonbourne52 dude:

If you haven't done a blind listening comparison your conclusions are highly suspect.

Please let me know how you picked your speakers. Did you line up a few pairs in your house and quickly did some blind testing?


Do you have speakers?


Price has nothing to do with sound quality.  I see equipment racks going for $50K.  It all means nothing.  You can get great sound for less money, but you don't get the last 10-20% or more of the sound the better sounding components can deliver.

Look inside your components.  What makes them different?  Are there Audio Note non-magnetic resistors in there No?  Audio Note capacitors No?  Plitron transformers or chokes NO? Point-to-point wired NO?  So then why would you think the higher price components should sound better?  There are relatively no new designs in audio components just slight variations.  Learn what makes sound good and then you will find out how to make a system sound the way you would like it within your price range.

Happy Listening.



Happy Listening. 


You’d have to try hard to find a magnetic resistor these days. Even the cheapest available are more likely than not to be nonmagnetic. And although Audio Note silver foil in oil capacitors sound great, there are many less expensive alternatives that arguably sound as good or even better and are less expensive.

I cannot believe how lucky i am with my Dac paid 20 bucks on Ebay...

Dont invest money in costly dac invest in reading about acoustic...

You can almost guarantee that high-end anything is just an overpriced offering to those who need to spend a lot to feel good. People start chasing mirages and they think they're achieving small steps to perfection but are really just getting sucked into the hype stirred up by manufacturers, retailers, and reviewers. You have the cash and its their job to get it.

@jasonbourne52 The higher the price the more confirmation bias is in play!

Careful now. You may get banned for using long words or introducing concepts that may require reading/research.

I’ve had the Denafrips Ares II and thought it was a great product, especially for the price tag and I thought wow these are a great company, I thought I want even more of this so I moved up to a Denafrips Pontus II and it was more of the same, much more. 
Is it a point of diminishing returns? Yes of course, I think everything in the HiFi world is, but at the same time the Pontus is still great value compared to many DACs out there, would I want a Terminator + ? Yes, but I’d have to change a few other components first, starting with a new MRS. 😂

If you seek an R2R DAC, I know that the Denafrips Ares spits out pretty respectable test measurements. As does the Holo Audio DAC, which is eye candy, too.

Terminator has some engineering enhancements compared with Ares. So, toss-up between Terminator and Holo I reckon.

Yes, you will hear a difference.  I know this, for reasons.

This is about R2R DACs only.

@ghpprentice my system is listed on Augdiogon.  I am a manufacturer and modification/upgrade/repair service for any electronic device.  Direct Heat Triode DAC using 101D tubes with 25 pound power supply, 6SN7 preamp with separate power supply, either pure class A stereo power amplifier 50wpc, hybrid power amplifier 100wpc, tube mono blocks 40wpc class A & 70wpc AB, VAC music box 160 tube mono blocks, VTL tube mono blocks, etc  Speakers Vandersteen 7s, 5As, Sonus Faber Stradivari, Horning, filed coils, etc.

Happy Listening






@mrmeaner Denafrips Pontus II might be a sweet point based on the reviewers' comments.  At this point of time, I pretty much rule out D/S dacs and only consider R2R dacs for the "high-end" dac that possibly matches my system.  Ares II seems a bit grainy on top end and soft low.  As far as the FPGA dac is concerned, the model within the similar price range worthy of consideration is Qutest but I was sort of convinced it is less preferrable than Pontus II.  From the recording (again I'm hopeless) The soundstage seems more 3D but a bit artificial not as natural as Pontus II.   



You just displayed them? I thought I checked an found nothing. Now I understand your comments. 


You’re comparing dacs thru the dac you already own. Unless the quality of your dac is actually better than the ones being demoed how would you know?

What is your definition of value? Are you talking merely dollars or the importance of sound?  Dollars are just a construct to assign value but have nothing to do with the actual value of any item.

@ghpprentice my system should have been available not sure why you may not have seen it.


@danager - comparing DACs to what we build, through different audio society members in the NY & NJ area, local dealers, ones we have repaired and ones we have upgraded.  For example, we recently upgraded a Lampizator DAC that has a built-in preamp.  The owner left every very happy with our upgrades.


Value is what you get for you dollar in our opinion.  The quality of our DAC has a 25-pound power supply.  Probably better than any one of the components you have heard or owned.  Point-to-point wired with the parts I mention above.  That is how we know.  We can build any type of audio component that we see/hear.  We have upgraded and repaired hundreds of audio components.  Sound quality?  Well, I have said everyone thinks they know sound, right?  Until you hear something that is better you don't know.  It comes down to experience and knowing what makes something sound the way it does.  Most people do not know why one component sounds the way it does or why one they feel sounds better than another.  We can change the sound a typical component with a few parts changes.  It really is that simple.  So, value to us is what you get for your money which is the sound versus the money.  Money has nothing to do with how a component sounds.

I hope I explained myself correctly.  We have a demonstration room set-up in Northern New Jersey.  Everyone is welcome to come in for a listen and even bring one of their components to place in our system.  We welcome all as we are always willing to listen and willing to learn.

Happy Listening.  




@danager What is your definition of value? Are you talking merely dollars or the importance of sound? 

The value refers mainly to the SQ.  You could argue that the techonoloy and quality of components such as power supply module should also be counted, but ultimately what really matters is whether that can be translated to the SQ enhancement.  Take Denafrips product as example, if Terminator Plus ($6.5k) costs 3.6 times over Pontus II ($1.8k) but the SQ is just twice as good, we have diminishing returns.  However, the hard part is that how the SQ is perceived is heavily individual dependent and always a contentious subject.  Let us change our perspective in sound a bit here.  Can we even "measure" the quality of sound?  Can we create metrics and standard procedure to measure the SQ?  We understand a microphone and software could be used to measure SPL but not the subjective perference of a human auditory neurons and brain?  A perfectly flat response curve may be ideal but the sound reproduced from such a stereo system might be boring to some.  I am by no means an expert but there is psychoacoustic theory behind it that talks about the measurement of quantifiable psychoacoustic "entropy."  One aspect of theory relates to analyzing certain types of musical harmonies, such as the even order harmonics give smooth, rich more pleasing sound and odd order harmonics give edgier more exciting sound.  Also, part of entropy can be measured through the SPL via some methematical algorithm, etc.  

I am hopeful such a matric and process can be implemented in the near future to measure the quality of sound reproduction and help us make an informative decision.  Right now, leap of faith seems the only thing we could count on, whether right or wrong... 

I have a problem understanding % of sound quality improvement.  Improvement is binary it's either better or it isn't.  Its also personal what sounds better to you doesn't mean I will agree with your assessment.  So if the difference is miniscule the upgrade may or not be worth the bother / money.  So it is a value assessment but the hobby for me is a comparative endeavor.

@lanx0003 the Ares II can sound grainy on the top depending on the o/s non o/s selection, I found in oversampling mode it could be grainy on some tracks, the Pontus is just pure silk, I’d love a terminator but 1 I’d need to lose the wife and too I fear it would open Pandora’s box in the expensive quest to then search out new speakers etc. so for the foreseeable I’ll stick with my wife and the Pontus. 🙂

Same here, especially when I try to revamp two systems around the same time.  I may have a solution for that though, i.e., buy her a more expensive gift. Ha!

There is also the Venus II.  I don't think I've seen it mentioned.

I own and use three DACs: Schiit Gungnir ($1.2K), Ayre QX-9 2020 ($4K), and an Audio Research Reference CD9SE ($17K). The sound quality of each is commiserate with their cost. 

AR CD9se is also a CD player too and that would justify its price point.  Have you tried the SQ of the internal DAC and transporter individually just curious?


I only use the CD9se as a DAC. I have of course tried CDs… red book CDs and streaming sound exactly same, streaming better when higher resolution from Qobuz, which is common.

I have owned a number of very good DACs… Sim Audio and Ayre… others. I have auditioned many high end DACs. The Audio Research is among the very best and exhibits tremendous synergy with the rest of my equipment (all ARC).

I use a Aurender W20SE streamer through the DAC and have used the Berkeley Alpha 3 DAC as well (the $22K). The ARC DAC is as good, for me, better. Almost no difference between the two (takes very critical listening to hear any difference. I had to give the nod to the ARC… slightly more musical with a touch more midrange bloom. The Berkeley a tiny itsy, bitsy nearly undetectable extra detail. The musicality of the ARC definitely won. Also, the ARC $5K cheaper.

It was a stern shock when the audio store I returned to asked for $250 before they would allow a listening session comparing most of the DAC brands mentioned already. Turns out I was a petty cash customer since my prior purchase was only 5k. In the end it was worth every dollar spent.

They obliged a blind test of each DAC shuffling my own into the mix at random. Even better was the component and speaker match with Roon as the source. Nearly my exact home setup. I settled in after selecting four tracks that were played on each DAC. Songs chosen had familiar details and is where I focused listening when those details arrived during playback. Each DAC struggled through some parts but excelled at others. All were chip based DAC’s. I kept notes and this went on for nearly four hours.

No surprise. the 12k DAC was the best. Second was my own (2.5k) and that was a surprise. Third, fourth, and fifth were 3, 5, 8k DAC’s and scratched from consideration which was surprising considering all the published review hype I spent months pouring over. I went home to review my notes and ponder what just happened, especially after scoring my own DAC second. It was obvious. My ears were accustomed to its sound after two years of listening, so of course I liked it. Conclusion: My 2.5k DAC is a Streamer/DAC/Pre that sounds like an 8k DAC. Well that doesn’t help my end goal of seperates. Starting over.

R2R DAC’s were not auditioned since the store owner had a bias against them and is where I turned, Unfortunately I had to buy one to audition so more research and I settled on a Holo Spring 3 without the pre amp option. Yep. My best value selection and in the budget. My onset goal was 3k per piece/component and in my opinion I’ve done well achieving desired SQ.

After letting power heat up through resistors for a few days I selected the same tracks used for the shootout. My hearing immediately sensed a familiar past. I was hearing tape again. Immediately transported back to the late 70’s, early 80’s when tape was my preferred medium. I feel so old and rejuvenated at the same time. What is more interesting to me is whenever Roon pops a 44.1k track my head snaps to the display for confirmation. To me it sounds better than upsampling every time.

The ear knows what it likes and if you are able to remind it of whatever you trained it on your whole self will be happiest.

My analog contribution. I have a balanced system.

Another Jerry

I forgot to mention the $250 is a store credit for any purchase. They can F off as I will never spend another cent there or recommend anyone shop there. Won't effect their petty cash but I feel better. Way to treat a customer.

I was sold a satisfactory service and a very pleasurable experience. In this instance service does not equate to sales.

Someone said a $17K. Man oh man oh man.  I have a Schiit Modi 3 and Gustard x26 pro. The differences are there, but not as noticeable as one would think.

I jumped from a midrange DAC (about $2k)  to a much more expensive one.  But of course I didn’t trust myself so I asked two professional level musicians to be my judges.  Took about 12 seconds for both to describe 1/4 and 1/8 notes on a bassoon that I didn’t have a clue about.  My point being that bias is huge.  You really have to get a neutral involved to get rid of the bias.  

there is a correlation with the price... do you want to understand it? - a good analogy - drive a cheap Korean or American car ... and then try a BMW 750 Li or a Mercedes S class ...
of course, all components of the path are important - high-quality recording, a special room, good electricity, other devices and their synergy ...
Do you need it? - it will be expensive and long - but you will get an illusion that will bring joy ...

You can also get by with less money and get acceptable sound quality.

You can’t get by with small funds - this is a lie ... start from 10 K

Funny. When you call professionals, and ask about adding more DAC, changing a DAC, etc. … they’ll usually ask the question: “Well, can you REALLY tell the difference?”

And I’ll have to say, “No”

There are just too many variables which have even more opinions. There are no facts. Your ears and your room are the only facts… but they cannot be compared to another’s… same deal.