The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2021! This year we decided to mix it up a little by breaking up the Buyers Guide into sections, which makes it a far more manageable read. And oh, we know what you’re thinking–the best DACs and digital gear? Sorry, but I’m a vinyl guy and have no time for all the new digital thingamabobs. Not even sure what a “network streamer” does. Let’s clear this up: these are the best DACs, streamers, servers and disc-spinners that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
Schiit Modi 3+ ($99 USD)
Have a computer with USB capability? That’s all you need to get amazing sound for just a hundred bucks. The Modi 3+ DAC has plenty of connectivity options, including optical and coax, and most notably for 2021, Schiit’s proprietary Unison USB™ technology. Simple, convenient and dirt-cheap.
Schiit Bifrost (from $699)
This affordable DAC from Schiit comes in two options. The cheaper one is built around the smooth sounding AKM4490 chipset while the pricier (but still affordable) multibit version takes advantage of Schiit’s know-how from their top-of-the-line Yggdrasil converter. Both versions are worth their money—expect the AKM to have a slightly less defined bass while maintaining an excellent midrange, while the Multibit version adds crispier high frequencies to the mix. Both are modular and upgradable designs.
BorderPatrol SE-i DAC ($995-$1,850 USD depending on configuration)
Measurements, schmeasurements—do yourself a favor and try this DAC. Yes, it’s a Redbook-only converter, and yes, it sports NOS chips. And so what? Chances are, you’ve never heard digital like this, and certainly at nowhere near its price. There is no oversampling, no up-sampling, and no filtering. This is “do no harm,” taken seriously. Add a choke-input and tube rectified power supply, and forget David, here you have an audio Goliath. Clear, open, transparent, sound flows forth like sweet water poured from the hands of friendly, loving gods. According to the musicians that made it, this was how your music was supposed to sound.
TotalDAC USB Gigafilter (1,600 euros)
Not a DAC but a digital filter that is placed between the digital source and the DAC, the Gigafilter that achieves galvanic isolation, re-synchronization of the digital bitstream and “extensive filtering of the signal.” Designed to take the USB cable out of the digital chain, the TotalDAC makes music sound natural and not simply “reproduced by a mere collection of electronic gear.”
Crane Song Solaris ($1,949 USD)
A decidedly non-audiophile pick, the Crane Song Solaris is a dyed-in-the-wool pro audio DAC: nothing more and nothing less. You won’t find a fancy faceplate, gold-plated connectors, or a remote control—this DAC is meant to be mounted into a rack and left there. On the plus side, the Solaris is hand built by Dave Hill’s crew at Crane Song and it is a perfectionist DAC in all respects, sporting some of the lowest jitter measurements on the planet. It’s simple to set up and straightforward to use, and it sounds fantastic.
Mytek Brooklyn DAC+ ($2,195 USD)
At its modest price, the Mytek still produces a “level of reproduction that was unthinkable only a few years back.” What’s even more impressive is that the Brooklyn + also includes a headphone amplifier, a preamplifier and a phono stage, making it an incredible bargain.
Exogal Comet ($3,500 USD with optional power supply)
Reasonably priced considering it has so much proprietary technology, this DAC provides superb harmonics and timbres, with a very lifelike presentation for a mid-priced piece of digital gear. This is also a great DAC for “imaging and soundstaging freaks.” Still a top pick in a very fickle market segment.
Merason DAC-1 ($5,000 USD)
We felt that while there are many excellent $5000 DACs out there, the Merason is one of the best DACs we’ve heard at any price–so much so that we would still be impressed with it if it was much more expensive. Sonically, it can go toe-to-toe with plenty of the big boy DACs. “What you get is a product that seems to be built for the audiophile that is primarily interested in performance and doesn’t require a lot of fancy features or gold-plated-with-a-screen visuals.”
Simaudio Moon 390 ($5,300 USD)
This digital one-box solution contains a DAC (with quad DSD and MQA), a preamplifier, a headphone amplifier, an MM/MC phono pre and a streamer that’s Roon ready. The 390 also has plenty of connectivity for HDMI, so you can work it into your home theater as well. All you need is an amp and speakers and you have a first-class digital-based system—or add that turntable!
Auralic Vega G2 streaming DAC ($6,599 USD)
This is the new version of the blockbuster Vega DAC with completely redesigned analog and digital sections, and now with built-in streaming capabilities. This is one of the most complete offers in the digital domain and one of the best sounding in its price bracket. Superb attention to detail, solid aluminum chassis, femto clocks, a nice color screen that shows album covers and class A output modules.
LampizatOr Atlantic TRP (from $7,325 USD)
The “Tube Roller’s Paradise” version of the Atlantic DAC has the ability to natively handle high-resolution files up to 192k PCM and 512 DSD. The sound, with the supplied tube complement, is robust, rounded and engaging, but great though they are, you’re not buying this DAC to use the stock tubes. And that’s when things get fun, because this DAC is customizable to a level that is beyond absurd. You want a little more air? No problem. A little more bass? Gotcha covered. A little more transparency? Sure! A little more warmth, more depth, more speed? Go grab that favorite box of tubes, and Bob’s your uncle. Other options include balanced outputs and an integrated volume control.
Bricasti M1 Classic ($9,000 USD)
Although it’s the lowest priced of Bricasti Audio’s perfectionist DAC products, we feel that the M1 Classic is one of the best overall DACs we’ve used. Since this model has been around for a few years, it’s been carefully tweaked out and improved to wring out the best possible sound for the price. Your money buys not only top-tier sonics and lots of input/output and digital filter options, but also a perfectionist-built unit that looks spectacular inside and out.
Mola Mola Tambaqui ($13,400 USD)
If the Mola Mola Tambaqui were a city, it would be Utrecht. It’s prim and proper by all appearances, the manicured image of perfection, and yet beneath it all it still has that signature Dutch warmth and character, even if a little more formally served than in Amsterdam. The Mola Mola Tambaqui is ultra-fi digital sprinkled with a little extra sonic coziness, and taken down the price ladder several rungs. Looking for Summit-Fi without the price tag? This little fishy could just be your ticket upstream.
Bricasti M1 Limited Edition ($15,000 USD)
Although we feel that the M1 Classic is one of the best all-around DACs on the market, the LE ups the ante with gold-plated chassis parts, changes in the internal wiring and power supplies, better isolation feet that integrate StillPoints, all yielding a more liquid overall sound. That results in a DAC that provides more information at low volumes as well as “a hair more clarity.”
dCS Bartok ($15,000 USD with headphone amplifier)
A descendant of the classic Rossini and Vivaldi DACs from dCS, the Bartok also includes a wonderful headphone amplifier, making it the perfect base camp for some high-wire headphone listening and digital streaming. It’s the sound that we look for “in the best analog rigs and what digital aspires to sound like.”
LampizatOr Pacific DAC (starts at $25,535 USD)
We felt that the sound of this DAC was “deeply impressive,” and it changed the way we interpreted digital audio. This is a particularly sweet-sounding DAC, an “all-out assault on digital conversion” that’s incredibly musical and satisfying.
Servers and Streamers
Sonore UltraRendu ($875-$999 USD depending upon power supply)
This is definitely a minimalist product, but it comes at a minimalist price. This small box helps you circumvent the need for a computer in your listening room, and it gets the tunes where they need to go without a fuss. It also sounds surprisingly good for the money and might be the perfect one-box server solution for those new to computer audio.
Roon Nucleus ($1,400 USD)
If you’re addicted to Roon software to organize your digital needs, and we do, the next step up is the Nucleus which acts as a “traffic cop” and manages everything on your hard drives, networks and streaming sources. The first piece of hardware offered by Roon, the Nucleus can even be used to play your files from multiple devices all through your home.
Naim Mu-so 2nd Generation ($1,690 USD)
The second generation of the original Mu-so digital player is such an addictive one-box solution–it’s what got some of us into streaming in the first place. You get multiple streaming choices, internet radio and all sorts of wireless digital connectivity options–now you can even attach it to your Smart TV and use it as a stellar sound bar thanks to those impressive drivers packed into this compact box. Still the most interesting table radio ever made, because it can be so much more.
Wolf Audio Systems (starting at $3,600 USD)
Computers designed with one thing only in mind—creating the best digital playback possible. Extremely powerful processors fed with linear power supplies, tweaked software and superb built quality.
Auralic Aries G2 ($3,899 USD)
While it’s designed for more complex home networks, the Aries G2 does offer outstanding connectivity to all sorts of devices and all sorts of technologies—including DSD512 over wi-fi. The control app is particularly stunning in the way it provides access to building and managing playlists.
Innuos ZENith Mk III (starting at $4,249 USD)
A new and improved power supply, which includes Mundorf caps, gives the Zenith music server a leap in performance that places it closer to the company’s top offerings and way over the offerings of most every other audio server on the market. The sound is incredibly neutral, and many of the new features make the Mk. III incredibly easy to use. CD ripper is built-in.
dCS Network Bridge ($4,750 USD)
We called the dCS a “Swiss Army knife” of digital streamers, and it’s one the most enjoyable interfaces you can place between your DAC and your streaming services. It can work with almost any DAC out there since it “can take almost anything as an input.” It even includes an auto-clocking feature that minimizes jitter.
Cocktail Audio X45 Pro Music Player/DAC ($5,995 USD)
This Korean-made digital all-in-one box offers just about everything for the audiophile who is exploring digital technologies for the first time—CD ripper, DAC, music server with plenty of storage, hi-rez streaming capabilities, a phono stage, an FM tuner and, most importantly, great sound. “Vinyl lovers have found their digital mate!” we decided.
Aurender N10 ($8,000 USD)
With 4TB of storage, the ability to convert DSD to PSM on the fly through FPGA and full-function control, this server also sounds spectacular since so much time was devoted to controlling noise. The N10, as a result, creates music that emerges from the blackest of spaces.
Melco N10 ($8,000 USD)
A state of the art two box streamer from Melco, a specialized company that pays enormous attention in delivering superb audio performance. The new app is still a work in progress but sound-wise the N10 sits at the top of the food chain.
Innuos Statement Music Server ($13,750 USD)
This two-box server plays all file formats and offers stupendous sound quality as long as connect with USB, which is the only option. Every system we “dropped it into, no matter how good, sounded better with the Statement at the front of the chain. Given what we currently know, the Innuos Statement is the best server there is.” An Editor’s Choice winner.
Aurender A30 Music Server ($18,000 USD)
This is an audiophile-grade server, with 8TB (!) of storage, with a killer DAC included that has all the best numbers: “768KHz/32bit dual-mono DAC designed around the AKM AK4497 chipset, with support for “native” DSD at up to 8x.” By the way, it’s also a full-function preamp that can be hooked up to your favorite amp by either RCA or XLR. Expensive, but not for what it does: “For the rest of us, the A30 is an excellent end of the line.” An Editor’s Choice winner.
Bel Canto CD3T ($1,495 USD)
This typically compact transport from Bel Canto is billed as “the most direct path to your DAC.” Despite being reasonably priced, it offers loads of features and conveniences. Its true talent is its reliability—this is a rugged, well-made transport that will last at least as long as your dedication to the playing of little silver discs.
Sparkler Audio S503 Spiral Disc Player ($1,700 USD)
This simple top-loading CD player from the mind of the former head designer of 47 Laboratories is old-fashioned through and through. But with Sparkler’s Ether integrated amplifier, the sound was clean and up-front. The Spiral can also be used as just a transport. Finicky operation, but still well worth the modest price.
McIntosh MCD600 ($6,000 USD)
This Mac is ideal for those audiophiles committed to maintaining their CD collections, especially when a significant number of those discs are SACDs. Beautiful and packed with features, not to mention a great-sounding DAC, the MCD600 only has one shortcoming: you can’t break the DAC out from the transport. If you don’t need those capabilities, the 600 will make an ideal “last CD player you’ll ever own.”
CEC TL2N ($7,000 USD)
CEC is known for its belt-driven digital transports, and this new model uses many of the same innovations as their top-of-the-line TLO-3.0. The CEC also features an external clock as well as their highly-regarded SUPERLINK connection.
Audio Note UK CDT-Two/II ($7,450 USD)
Discussions about CD transports may sound a little boring these days, but the Audio Note was so fun that we wanted to listen to our CD collections—and not even in a retro way. The CDT-Two/II sounded “breathtakingly open, clear and extended.” Remarkably, this transport also excels at reading even the dirtiest of discs.
Audio Research CD6-SE ($10,000 USD)
The number of audiophiles who need a state-of-the-art one-box $10,000 CD player is shrinking every day, but that didn’t stop us from thinking that the CD6-SE was one of the best-sounding digital playback components we’ve heard. Modern connectivity options and a superb DAC allowed us to use the ARC in a number of digital configurations, but when it comes to making redbook CDs sound a lot like hi-rez downloads the CD6-SE stands out from the pack.
Esoteric P-02X ($21,000 USD)
This CD and SACD transport has all the bells and whistles, including the proprietary VS-DD Spindle servo driver and a double-decker circuit layout that creates the shortest signal paths. This latest version of the trusted Esoteric transport includes a much classier remote as well as newly expanded connectivity options.
The Buyers Guides of 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges
- The Best Reel-to-Reel and Cassette
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
Looking for even more? Check out our “Best Of” awards in our year-end roundup on The Occasional Podcast. Now streaming on iTunes and all podcast platforms. We also offer educational and informative breakdowns for digital audio, getting into turntables and mastering in this year’s episodes.
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