Chipsets for DACs and Amps

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

Are there any favorites?

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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!

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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?

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

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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.

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-

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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

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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-

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.

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-

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I’ve DIY/modded/bought Chi-Fi DACs using Wolfson, AKM, Sabre, Burr Brown, Cirrus, and
Philips (TDA1543) chips.

I know I specifically don’t like Sabre implementations. They tend to reveal all flaws, and impart a “lean” signature. Hate "sterile " sound for music enjoyment. So adding a warm amp is the path to sinergy with ESS.

I used (and do still) a brute force approach to NOS design with a DDDAC 1543 mkII, which has been my favourite from a long time for headphone listening, until I tested Wolfson (GrubDac/WM8524, Dugood WDAC-1/WM8746) but specially AKM: (Behringer SRC2496/AKM4393, waiting for a single AK4490 /XMOS208 based one to reach me.

I noted also most pro equipment tend to use either AKM Dacs, or more complex/pricier designs using Burr Brown (e.g. Audient id22/PCM1798).

Actually in the quest of locating a killer price gem based on dual AKM4097EQ with balanced outputs.

Why I like AKM?

  • Built in digital filtering w/o any middle stages
  • Sound: Never gritty, very detailed, smooth sounding (yes, they definitely can be described as velvet sounding!)
  • Closest to Pro sound from $$$ pro DACs I’ve heard.
  • Killer to listen to varying quality sources, as it enhances them.
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I’m looking for reviews on the upcoming Topping D70:

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Looks nice @generic! didn’t know about it. :+1:

Only thing I’m missing on the D70 is the AKM4118 (maybe they used a more expensive solution), there are multiple XMOS 208/Amanero - 2xAKM4097EQ+AKM4118 for about half that price: PCB + pigtails LCD/rotary controller and trafo, no case, as it drives shipping costs nuts) shipped here ($300).

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I’m interested in this one as well.

The AKM4497 is an interesting chip. It’s rather more involved to implement properly than most DAC chips (especially, say, the 4490 or the 4493). Failure to do so means you’re spending more and not getting anything for it.

For example, one thing the 4497 has is provision to provide external supplies/regulation at 5 different points (and levels/current requirements) - and to get the best out of this chip is is critical that a) it is something the implementer actually takes advantage of and b) they need to do it VERY well.

If they opt just to run the chip with its internal regulation for the optional supplies, then it generally doesn’t realize much of a benefit over a 4490 or 4493.

Looks like the D70 will land around $600 … that’s a big jump from the D50, so I imagine there will be a fair bit of scrutiny on this one.

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Absolutely agree… so the question if is this can be properly implemented for around $300.

Similar pricing on aliexpress, board seems to be the same across vendors.

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I have the Monolith THX-AAA with dual AKM4493 dacs. No idea if it’s implemented correctly, but it sounds fine to me.

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Yeah found a lot of these on Ali express…seems to be the new hotness there…I can always use more balanced DACs and these prices are good…I’m just worried about quality…but these also seem to have a very DIY friendly build to them as it looks like most come from DIY sources…

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The 4493 is an excellent converter - it is not the issue.

The issue is that the 4497 can be implemented in a number of ways, and the path that must be followed to get the best out of it is much more involved than for a 4490 or a 4493. If you decide to implement a 4497 and take advantage of all the individual supply points, which is how you ring the best out of it, then you must do so with very high-grade supplies or it will perform worse than it does if you just use its internal regulation.

On internal regulation it’ll be about equivalent to the 4493 or a really well done 4490.

That, in itself, is not bad.

But the 4490 is a $2 chip, the 4493 is an $8 chip and the 4497 is a $50 chip, so if you’re going to pay for the more expensive converter you don’t want it performing like the much cheaper one. And on a $150 board, there’s not much wiggle room for chips as expensive as the 4497, much less the extra supply stages you need for its individual inputs.

Which makes doing a competent, budget 4497 board that actual benefits from having that 4497 on board for reasons beyond marketing, quite challenging.

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Well the SMSL M10 is up on Amazon…$544 range…but even though I want/need more balanced DACs I think I will wait on it based on this discussion…another part of me wants to just say screw it and get another ADI-2DAC lol…but I like different things too much… variety is the spice of life after all…maybe I’ll look at the Cyan again

That unit is a perfect example of what can happen here … it’s a 4497 based device that doesn’t even measure as well as some vastly less expensive units using much cheaper, simpler, less-fussier, DAC chips. It is significantly out-performed even by other, cheaper, SMSL DACs.

Which just goes to show … there’s more to a DAC than what chip it uses, or what check-boxes it can tick off on the marketing sheet.

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