Chipsets for DACs and Amps


#1

I see lots of different chips for DAC and amp devices. Burr Brown, Cirrus, Sabre, etc

Are there any favorites?


#2

I’m sure there are “favorites”, though they’re going to be different for everyone … I’ll give you mine in a moment.

If you mean “industry favorites”, my opinion there is that the stuff that manufacturer’s tends to like is biased towards a) excellent measurements/specs that are unlikely to be met in a finished product and b) which are easy to implement.


Much of the “sound” that comes from, or gets associated with, various DAC chip sets is down to how the raw converter IC is applied, as much as it is what that IC itself is doing. Such ICs come with a “data sheet” or “reference circuit” as part of their documentation.

A great many, probably most, complete DACs simply implement that circuit … just using fancier (i.e. more expensive/boutique) components, and maybe pair it with a high-spec power-supply. And, as a result, they tend to exhibit the same fundamental audible signature and technicalities.

Additionally, DAC ICs (i.e. the actual chip) generally don’t just to the data-to-current conversion part of the process. They include upsampling, over-sampling and filtering functionality. And the filters, especially, contribute quite a bit to the way these converters sound.

For example, the AKM 449X line was specifically designed to have what AKM call “velvet sound”. If you use, say, the 4490, in it’s reference sheet/default configuration, the chip is doing all of the conversion work (excepting a final current-to-voltage “I/V” conversion) and all the digital-domain filtering. Used in this way tends to result in DACs with a slightly bloomy bottom-end and a bit more warmth to the sound than is strictly neutral.

You CAN bypass the filtering, and various other features of the 4490 - in which case you get a neutral result BUT have to do those parts of the implementation yourself (and the lower-down the price tiers you go, the less likely anyone is to bother with that).

Still, the surrounding reference circuit imparts it’s own character to the result.

The short version is that the “sound”, or what would drive “favorites” in DAC chipsets is not just down to the raw converter, but how it tends to be implemented. And it’s when you get the interesting/original approaches to implementation that things start to stand out.


Data-sheet designs using the ESS (Sabre) chips tend to rub me the wrong way - with a tendency towards being bright and with an exaggerated sense of detail. I’ve found this to be less of an issue with ESS 9038 series ICs than with the 901X lines.

I’ve yet to hear any product featuring the CS4398 chip set that I liked at all.

AKM449X I like, but I like them better when they’re implemented in a fashion that avoids the “velvet sound” signature.

Wolfson’s WM8740/8741 have a tendency to a slightly warm bottom end, but without the bloom that comes with the AKM4490, and they’re generally very smooth in the treble with excellent resolution.

PCM1704 is another well regarded one, though for me I find the bottom end a bit loose and generally prefer the PCM1702 as an overall solution. But the 1704 is a “classic” for a reason.

PCM56 and PCM63 are both excellent … don’t think I’ve heard something using these that I didn’t enjoy.

TDA1541 was quite nice in it’s day as well.

Analog Devices have a classic or two in their old catalog.


Now, the minute you have manufacturer’s moving away from the standard “came in the box” data-sheet implementations, all of the typically associated behaviors/signatures for any given chip set or IC vendor can go right out the window!


Best upgrade from Dragonfly Red
#3

Good overview as usual @torq!

I’m think about building a Raspberry Pi-based player. There a few different implementations of DACs and amps on add-on boards. I saw several with Burr Brown (now TI?) DAC ICs and some based on Cirrus Logic.

Anyone with an RPI config they’d like to share?


#4

I have two pis with the hifiberry DAC and one with an external Topping NX4 (also Burr Brown). They all sound good to me.


#5

I’ve used both Burr Brown and AKM DAC chips. I’d say the Burr Brown was a little more analytical while the AKM was a bit more velvety as @torq put it. I use the AKM 4490 in my Schiit Modi, and the Burr Brown in an Cambridge Audio DAC Magic a few years back. I’d like to try ESS Sabre chips at some point.

Edit: Out of curiosity I looked it up for some reason. I was mistaken, the CA DAC Magic had an ESS 9023.


#6

I find that the ESS Sabre Chips 9016 and 9018 both suit my preference for an analytical even clinical sound. I hope to listen to some of their higher end chips before long. I also need to try different manufacturers as well and broaden my horizons.

Being in the audiophile community I like many others always strive to gain more experience with more gear and educate myself.
-Paul-


#7

Yes! I had the ESS Sabre 9028 in my Matrix X Sabre
It is wonderful and can be found used these days around $500-600 on the usual forums.
The new Matrix X Sabre Pro has the new ESS 9038 Pro Series chips
The new X Sabre Pro was going to keep the 9028 with a few changes and decided to delay coming to market for 6 months. Apparently it turned out great enough that ESS booth was showing it off in their booth at their show. use the new 9038 Pro they had to rework the new X Sabre to accommodate it.
I decided to try the Chord Hugo 2 since everyone speaks so highly of it as a great mate for the Utopias. If it doesn’t work for me, I’ll probably try the MatriX Pro


#8

The newer ESS Sabre chips look really good and if I had the cash I would certainly buy one of the New Matrix lineup. Though I think you’re not going to regret going with the Chord Hugo 2 from what I understand it seems to be very good. But then again I wouldn’t have thought that the Utopia’s are going to sound particularly bad through anything. What a great setup you’ve got. Something for me to aspire to. Enjoy.
-Paul-


#9

It sure is a bargain for what it is and what it does at $1700
It’s not always about having the cash as much as in my case selling lots of equipment.
I hope the Chord lives up to lots of informed experience. It seems to me how much could be under the hood for something that small. It’s even has its own proprietary chips,therefore hard to research. By all the “Hoopla” it must be a winner. I’m sure to find out soon and when I do I’ll post impressions.


#10

That would be great to hear your impressions. I have a Chord Mojo which I use sometimes. I think it’s a great piece of kit. Although of anyone wants to trade for a Dave…:slight_smile: .
-Paul-