DAC/AMP Upgrades and Sidegrades Discussion

I currently have the JDS Labs The Element and El DAC, and was recently at Headphone bar in Vancouver Canada. Where the gentleman manning the shop said that the ifi Pro Ican, or the Cayin iDAC-6 and iHA-6 would be the next step up for my setup. I didn’t get to listen to the ifi, but thought it looked very nice and it appealed to my aesthetic side of my brain. The Cayin set I thought was also very handsome, but I wasn’t “blown away” by it. I listened with an HD800S (also wasn’t “blown away” compared to my HD800). So “whew” that being said what would be a good upgrade path/sidegrade path? I have also been drooling over the RME ADI-2 DAC and would much rather spend that money on that. Also I was told that I wouldn’t notice a DAC difference until I got to the RME ADI-2 DAC level of DAC and higher, what are peoples thoughts on that? Do DACs stagnate from the $250-$900 range? I would be very interested to get @Torq, @I_want_all_the_tacos, opinions on the mater and anyone else that has experience with these topics.

Sorry for being all over the place :wink: (brain work well…where’s my coffee!!!)

1 Like

I’m probably a bit in the minority here regarding source differences, but to be completely honest most source changes for me are very small and subtle. I don’t know what constitutes being “blown away” for you, but for me I usually use that phrase in a similar way as “night and day different”, and so far I haven’t had an experience with sources that are that drastic. When I say something is “night and day different”, I mean it in a way that any joe consumer off the streets would hear the 2 things side by side and unquestionably pick them apart in a blind test. So far only headphone changes have given me that sense. And to some extent solid state vs tube amps can do that too.

But to be clear, I think this level of source sensitivity varies WIDELY from individual to individual based on experience, quality of tracks used, quality of headphones used, critical listening skills, length of time with a given source, volume levels, etc. There’s just so many factors at play. For me, I honestly don’t think I have very sensitive hearing in general. I have no problems with sharp treble and I don’t get fatigued easily. I have found I can also adapt really well to any headphones, even ones that aren’t particularly pleasing in tone. That makes it great in that I can appreciate almost all headphones I try, but I think that adaptability is at the expense of having a more “dialed in” sensitive nature that can immediately amplify subtle differences. This isn’t surprising to me at all either given that my vision isn’t perfect (I wear contacts), my sense of smell and taste are probably below average based on my experiences of friends being able to smell/taste things that wasn’t apparent to me. So I wouldn’t doubt if my hearing abilities are also less sensitive compared to others in this hobby. For a headphone example, just yesterday I got a chance to hear the Chord DAVE both as a DAC and also connected to a Wells Audio Milo using my own HD800. While I do feel I heard a difference from my own modest setup (Mimby->Valhalla 2), it wasn’t so drastic that I would bet money I would pick the setups apart in a blind test.

But with that said, I absolutely still believe that there are differences in sources and I know many people in this hobby that can quite easily pick out those differences. And I understand the rhetoric used at this level as even these small and subtle differences can psychologically affect your entire experience, which amplifies how much those differences mean to you, which then leads to the hyperbole of descriptions that get used. So that all ties back into how personal of an experience this is, and that it is hard for me or others in making source upgrade suggestions as I have no idea how wide the expectation vs reality differences in sources will mean to you and what you are willing to spend for what might be very subtle differences. Or conversely, those subtle differences might be life changing to you.

Also, that doesn’t mean investing in higher end source gear isn’t worth it. I myself plan on picking up the RME ADI-2 DAC very soon. I do this not even expecting to immediately hear a big difference in sound. But the reason I think the cost to upgrade is worth it is because that unit not only measures superbly, but it has an awesome feature set that I would find useful. It is a wonderfully sized form factor, has an awesome LCD display, has built-in EQ with custom save settings, auto loudness correction that accounts for equal loudness contours, has a separate IEM port that lowers the noise floor for sensitive IEMs like Andromeda, has a remote, has the ability to turn off all its lights for a dark mode, has balanced XLR outputs for my active monitors, has built-in detection to see if your input signal is bit-perfect, etc. It is a unit both praised by objectivists for its measurement performance and engineering prowess, but also by subjectivists for just sounding clean, transparent, and uncolored.

I have no idea what you are looking for exactly in source upgrades, but I feel like the RME strengths are in its overall package moreso than pure “sound enhancement”. If you are looking for something the clearly sounds different and perhaps “better” to you than your current source gear, you might want to consider tube amps as those really do something different with the sound (you may or may not like what they do) and HD800 responds really well to them. In your price range I think safe bets to try would be Valhalla 2, Lyr 3, Massdrop CTH, Massdrop EC ZDT Jr, Woo WA6, Bottlehead Crack, a used Feliks Elise, etc.

If you are looking for straight DAC upgrades you might want to consider trying R2R DACs as those will be your best bet in really hearing differences in DACs, but I still think they will be relatively small and subtle, at least at first until you spend more time getting adjusted to them. Safe bets for R2R DACs would be Mimby, Bimby, Soekris 1321, Audio-gd R2R 11, Metrum Amethyst, etc.


@I_want_all_the_tacos, thank you for the response, I followed you here from R/headphones, and really appreciated your comments and views there. I find that I have a “similar” hearing profile as you, and also looking into getting the RME for generally the same reasons you are. I’m a big fan of multi-function meets form. I haven’t been “blown away” by anything but headphones so far, but I will be getting my MCTH here this week, and hopefully the Bottlehead w/speed ball kit in the next couple weeks. DACs just are an aspect that I have a hard time wrapping my brain around, mostly because I’m just not experienced enough in this hobby yet (especially in regards to DACs).

I think I will pursue the RME as a primary DAC once it is available again (I really like the function/form of it, on top of the highly regarded aspect)

I also agree with you on how everyone is different, and will hear things differently. In relation to the how to do reviews conversations we had on Here, I think it is important to find people of a similar hearing profile, or even similar likes as far as aesthetic/function and you could go as far as disposable income. Because subjectively I have friends that think their “gaming” headphones sound as good as my HD700/800…Psychologically I think it is because they worked hard at researching and saving up for them…So they mean/seem more to them. I’m not putting those views down (I was in the same boat a couple years ago, and it is how I came into audiophile headphones), and I get how that can color ones impressions.

Back on track… your response was exactly what I was looking for when it came to the “upgrade” of a DAC. I’m currently in the camp of Headphones>amps>DAC when it comes to upgrades or what I’m hearing. I’m looking forward to other peoples experiences and impressions on this topic.


Another unit to add to the list, as of today, is the new Massdrop x Airist Audio R-2R DAC ($349). I’ve posted a couple of reviews of it elsewhere, and when I get a chance this afternoon will likely post one on here as well.

Definitely competitive with what’s been listed so far and, more so than I was expecting.


Oooh that is an interesting option, I look forward to your review on the R-2R DAC. I still think I will eventually get something along the lines of the RME, but until then I don’t mind playing with new technology. Hopefully this isn’t something that ships in 6-12months lol.

1 Like

Damn that looks like it is quite the great value DAC, and I’m excited to see Massdrop put out an R2R DAC and see more enthusiasts try it out and hear comparisons to delta sigmas. I would definitely be interested in hearing your review of it. You seem to have a really good handle on DAC comparisons and I trust your impressions on DACs more than most in this hobby.

@taronlissimore @andrew - Not sure if this is a “bug” or intentional, but this is a great discussion here and I realized this thread doesn’t show up on the front page of this forum when replies are made. I suspect that because this is a top level sticked/pinned parent thread that it doesn’t appear on the front page when new replies are made like a regular thread does. I would suggest allowing replies here to be made visible on the front page or perhaps move this entire discussion to a new, regular (non-stickied) thread instead.


Thanks for the heads up!

It has been moved to a new thread @I_want_all_the_tacos .

Definitely some great discussion going on in here. Would be a shame for the community to miss it.

The first part of that review is up here.

I’ll break it up a bit so as to not make the first post overwhelming and so as not to test the limits of the post editor! Things like technical details, specifics of how it compares to other DACs (rather than just what I feel it should be compared with) , and thoughts on amp pairings and system building around it will follow if there’s interest.


This is pretty much how it goes. Although depending on the headphones your using I would probably go Music
→ Headphones → DAC/AMP → Cables, etc…(Last 5%). The way I look at DACs and Amps is usually they are pretty good in the sub $500 range. Technology has come a pretty long way. Once you start getting up into the above $1000 range I start looking at all the goodies that it has (Crossfeed, LED lights, multiple inputs and outputs etc…). The little things that sets it apart from what some of the lower-end offerings have. I do find that generally the noise floor is much lower on higher end source gear and that tends to be the most noticeable part for me.

Tubes are a little bit different than solid-state but I don’t have enough experience with tubes yet to give an informed opinion on them for price/performance.

It’s kind of like building a PC. Do I need a clear case with RGB lighting? No. Am I willing to spend a little extra to get it. You’re damn right! Haha.


@taronlissimore I just rebuilt my PC and fully agree with you here(upgraded to the new i5 6 core and a new motherboard, the old ones were bottlenecking my 1080ti). The more money I spend on a product the more I want out of it (even if the technology can be had for much cheaper) I.E. Campfire providing that extra case of nice quality and the pin (both are cheap add on’s, but show a care for the customer and building brand). I feel the same way about my other products… I’m willing to spend the little extra for the add on fringes… But I’m also a deal finder and don’t mind buying used on products lol… a walking conundrum. I feel bad for my wife sometimes, having to put up with my shenanigans.

@TylersEclectic, the only DAC that was a small “WOW” to me was a MHDT Pagoda in comparison to my Bimby, Bifrost Uber, Modi2uber, UD-301 and sold off Modi, VX1, and WA7d. I’ve also heard a Metrum Musette, MHDT Stockholm2, Topping D30, O2/ODAC, Master 7, Yggy, Gungnir, Hugo, Hugo2, Mojo, UD-501 and Red Wine Isabellina, all were quite good and a preference choice except for the Mojo, ODAC and D30 to me. Mojo was just a bit too warm and the ODAC, Modi, VX1 and D30 were just a bit on the sterile side to me but if looking for “neutral” they might be what you are looking for.

As @I_want_all_the_tacos noted the differences are small and I’d say more than half my friends can’t tell the differences until I give them some clues to what I’m hearing and even with clues some still can’t hear any differences. I’m one to put DAC “upgrades / updates” behind amp upgrades but still way ahead of headphone cable changes.


Yeah, I think I’m seeing a similar theme here, I agree that headphones, amps, then DAC are the way to go. I just joined the R-2R drop, so I think that plus my El DAC, the DAC in the Element, and eventually the RME will be my go-to for quite some time. I’ll focus my efforts on amps and headphones.

1 Like


So it begins…


Definitely interested to see what you think of the MCTH. And perhaps more interested still to see what you experience between initial power-up listening and over the next few days. Not so much from the more subjective aspects of sound “quality” evaluation, but just to see what aspects of initial tube-ownership you experience.

Once you’ve got a baseline, and maybe 100 hours or so on the stock tube, since you’re local it might be fun to get together and do some broader listening comparisons.

I will do my best do document my experiences here. I would love to do a meet up, I know that @andrew @taronlissimore, are looking into helping set up a general one also. I am really enjoying the “adventure” of new equipment, quite enjoyable. I just wish I was more eloquent with my writing capabilities lol.


All setup, I’m running out of room on my desk lol…
First impression… Wow…I can hear some of the “pops/crackles/snaps” you mentioned @Torq. But even with that… Music sounds… Better, crisp more lovely/lively bass is deep and melodic…ok… official new wow moment! Listening to some FLAC files, mostly jazz, but I’m moving onto my other ecletic stuff soon… This is awesome, very happy with this…in other good news my Bottlehead is arriving today also! Tubes…tubes for everyone! :wink:

Edit: I’m using my Focal Elex initially, I’ll switch to my HD800 here soon also. :star_struck: wow a piano solo just came on…oh I can get used to this!


I mentioned those since they take people new to tubes a bit off guard sometimes. They’ll go away (and I do mean “go away” not just that you’ll “get used to them”) fairly quickly.

If you want to speed that process up a bit, when you’re not listening just leave your headphones disconnected, put the volume somewhere around 10:00, and leave the thing playing for a few days (don’t leave any tube amp on while you’re not home though).

Will do, thank you for the tip! I’m really enjoying this amp, I now get why people have so many different amps. I can see also (even though I haven’t started) why people would dive down the tube rolling hole.
switched to the HD800…and the detail and precision is just wow! Man, now I really can’t wait to get the R-2R in the mail lol!

You ordered your bottlehead on the May 5th sale right? I still haven’t gotten a shipping confirmation and its been exactly a month…

yeah, I did, but I’m in the Seattle area (which is across the water from the Bottlehead shop) so I’m sure that played a part in how quick it got shipped.