Why DAC's are important

Why DAC's are important

Audiophiles have a significant investment in their systems but the most important part of any system is the source. For the last 30 years most sources have been digital audio files played back from a variety of media. (CDs, DVD, downloads, and file streaming). Barring any corruption of the data, it does not much matter how the data is stored and how it is moved around and played back, right up to the point where it is converted to analog audio. Analog audio is an electronic representation of the sound waves themselves. It is what comes from a microphone feed, or from a record player. The component that makes that conversion is called the DAC (digital-to-analog converter). Every electronic device that plays a digital source has a DAC, from your TV set to your phone. The difference between them is the cost and quality of the DAC.

DACs are critical to the sound of your system regardless of its cost. They define:

  • The dynamic range of the music
  • The harshness which causes long-term listening fatigue
  • The resolution of the harmonics
  • The jitter inherent in the music
  • The noise floor of the system
  • The detail in the music.

Each of these is absolutely locked in at the point of conversion. No preamp or amplifier in the world can reduce the noise floor or increase the resolution of the source. The best can just maintain it on its way to the speakers. Cables, preamps, amplifiers and speakers can all reduce harshness, but ONLY by reducing detail as well -- basically by filtering the signal. Nothing can mitigate the effect of jitter downstream - the smearing of individual instruments and harmonics.

The clear proof can be found by upgrading the DAC in a range of systems. You can always hear the improvement, even in an entry level system right up to the best of the best. Now this is only true if the DAC is provided clean, bit perfect data, and the power for the system is clean and low noise. It is certainly possible to overwhelm the improved DAC output with excessive filtering which just makes everything sound muddy. But any system that sounds pretty good with an analog source like vinyl, will show the range of DAC performance from poor to great.

A listening environment is made up of the sound of the DAC, modified by the preamp, amplifiers and speakers, and then further modified by the room. Start out poor and there is no way to fix it. Band Aids will help a little but a system cannot sound better than the source.

Digital Sources should sound the same

All digital sources will sound the same provided three basic rules are followed:

  • The digital data must be bit-perfect. Many computer players will resample or change the original data.
  • The data has to be sent to the DAC in a synchronous way. Digital data contains clocking information. A DAC will either use the clocking information embedded in the data (common) in which case the audio quality will only be as good as the source, or the DAC will reclock the data using a low jitter clock. This is much better sounding but if the data is sent to the DAC with the embedded clock, both are present in the DAC and the embedded clock tends to degrade the internal clock, by being ALMOST the same frequency.
  • The electrical ground of the DAC needs to be isolated from the electrical ground of the source. Computer grounds are horribly noisy and should never be connected directly to an audio system.

Fortunately all MSB DACs and sources meet these three vital criteria even though most DACs do not. And the same music file played on CD, streamed or played by USB sounds basically identical.

All our inputs are ground isolated, even our USB and all but the old style S/PDIF inputs slave the transport to the DAC Clock. Perfect sources sound the same playing the same data file. Choosing the best sounding source should not have to be one of your concerns.

Three DAC Types

In the beginning there was just one DAC type made, the R2R Ladder DAC. Philip introduced the world to CD players in the 80s and every one had a Ladder DAC in it. They were expensive to make and varied in quality so had to be sorted, with the highest grade going in expensive CD players and the lower grades moving down the ladder. Unfortunately quality and demand did not match up and it became clear that this technology would not be suitable for large scale manufacturing.

Next came the Delta Sigma DAC or one bit or single bit DAC. This used a high speed switch to chop up an electrical signal and put it back together again in a repeatable, low cost way. In no time at all 100% of DAC chips made were Delta Sigma, and all the high-end audio companies followed suit, using these chips, and music quality suffered.

Over the years developments were made and Delta Sigma got better and better but was alway hampered by its fundamental physics. Once you chop up a signal you have to filter it, and that causes phase errors. It is the best technology for producing repeating test signals but not optimum for music.

But MSB took another path. We developed our own discrete ladder DAC technology in-house. Over the last 20 years we have refined and developed a range of break-through technologies transforming the original ladder DAC technology into an amazing array of sign-magnitude ladder DACs and our own Hybrid DAC. In recent years other manufacturers have finally recognized the value of this core technology and now several excellent sounding ladder DACs are on the market. But nobody has been doing it as long as MSB or as well as MSB. We have forgotten more about DACs than most companies even know! But do not worry about this fast changing technology. MSB has created a line of virtually future proof upgradable DACs!

The first mass produced DAC chips came from Philips and were Ladder DACs. They were graded for accuracy. The best were marked with either one or two crowns.
Delta Sigma DACs proliferated. They were reliable and cheap and perfectly suited to consumer products. Although high end manufacturers pushed them to the limits, the fundamental physics just could not be overcome.
MSB was the first company to build a discrete Ladder DAC back in the 90's. It works by switching various value precision resistors in and out with changes in the music. It is more of an analog process than digital. Twenty years later MSB has an array of advanced Sign-Magnitude and Hybrid Ladder DACs that is unrivaled.

Our biggest competitor

Unlike what you would think, the biggest competitor we face in the market is cables and speakers. Customers want to upgrade their sound and just assume (as they have been faithfully told for years) that they should just get better speakers (which look very different), or just swap out those cables (which is easy to do). But the quest is rarely fully satisfying. The flavor changes but the basic flaws remain. Cables and preamps are used to hide the digital harshness of the DAC but then detail is lost.

When at last we can clear away all the bandaids and demo a truly remarkable DAC, customer satisfaction results. Fundamental changes to the sound and believability of the music result. Sometimes this is harder than you think. A system has been built up over the years with heavily filtering cables and preamp, and then have a really fast amplifier and stiff fast speaker with diamond tweeters to try to get some dynamics back. Absolutely the best sounding system possible with a harsh DAC, but when you put in a great DAC, then you really have the worst possible system to hear what the DAC can do. You need to focus on a revealing accurate system all the way through. Interestingly, audiophiles who have built their system around a vinyl source generally have just such a system, and dropping in an MSB DAC results in stunning sound.

The final word

Our mission is to encourage and even beg audiophiles to try an MSB DAC. We are confident that even though a good DAC is as expensive as a good pair of speakers, that the impact on YOUR system will be shocking to you, and you can then begin a new phase in your listening experience.