CDP upgrade - the DAC question again!


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Mar 9, 2002
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I have a Primare D20 CD player and a Sony NS900V DVD. The Primare (analogue output) does sound pretty good (much better than the Sony and MUCH better than the digital out of the Primare connected to the Digital in of my Denon 3802).

What I am currently doing is feeding the analogue out of the Primare directly to my Primare A30.1 amp for "direct" listening, with the digital out going to the Denon 3802 if I feel like mangling the signal with DPLII or whatever.

After some recent upgrades, the CD player is however clearly becoming the weakest link in the chain - so I'm thinking about the upgrade path. I had thought about a Primare D30.2 - but this is quite a lot of cash. The alternative seems to be a DAC (e.g. the Tag DAC20). I suppose this would give me HDCD decoding and a decnt quality feed into both amps - and would mean I could use my Sony as transport.

But the question is whether this is a sensible way to go or whether I would be better off trading the Primare D20 in towards a D30.2?

Due to my location it is going to be next to impossible to get a demo - thus am doing Internet based research first.

There seems to be a misconception that using an offboard DAC will make all CD/DVD players sound exactly the same - it won't.
The transport is also responsible for the overall sound.
The reason is laser misreads and error correction - the laser misreads a block of data - it has to be corrected. There are several levels of correction - CIRC is the first level, which can repair small-medium errors. Larger than that, and it's interpolation time - yes, the player guesses what the data would have been based on surrounding intact information. Finally there's muting, when the errors are so large that it can't even guess, it simply mutes the output for that split second (or whatever) which leads to CD jumping (not too dissimilar in sound from a vinyl record jumping) Eventually, if the errors are so gross, the transport cannot continue, and gives up.
The transport is responsible for all this, before finally putting together a datastream to send to the DAC (whether on or off board).
Not all transports are created equal - as with many things there are varying qualities and costs, in both the physical mechanism and the supporting logic/PSU/general build).
Feed the digital outs of both your Primare CD and Sony DVD into the Denon and see if they sound exactly the same (as the DAC is then the same, any differences must be down to the transport/logic/PSU etc). If they do, then it's a cheap/free way to prove that your transports are of equal quality - and if so, what the hell justifies the cost of the Primare? :)

It's also true that the DAC (and it's supporting logic/circuitry) can also affect the sound. However, there are varying levels of DAC quality. As you can already hear a clear difference between the DAC in the Denon and the DAC in the CD (with the CD's DAC being clearly superior), it may suggest that the Primare CD player already has a pretty good DAC - swapping it for an offboard one, even one such as a TAG20, may not be an upgrade at all.
I'd check first with a home demo if possible (I know you have a problem with demos, but see if anyone will do sale or return) - you may be disappointed (or you may be lucky).

All I'm saying is that it's certainly not a foregone conclusion that an offboard DAC will improve things, and even if you go for one, that doesn't necessarily mean the Sony DVD will suddenly be transformed into the equal of the Primare CD player.
I'm not really expecting that the Sony will suddenly be transformed into the equal of the Primare - that would be a bit depressing, since the Primare cost more than twice as much as the Sony - and the Primare is a dedicated CD player, whereas the Sony is trying to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.

At the end of the day all I need (and want!) is one best possible sounding CD player - if the Primare (with or without DAC) sounds better, I will always use that in preference to the Sony.

There is obviously also a convenience element here - if I want to play the CD player into the Denon for DPLII or whatever, I currently have to do this via the digital out of the Primare CDP into the DACs in the Denon (which doesn't sound great). The alternative is to use the analogue (or digital) out of the Sony into the Denon (again not the greatest sound).

There is obviously a real risk that a DAC20 may not improve the sound of the Primare - this is however my general upgrade dilemma, what is the most cost effective way of getting a significant improvement in audio quality from whatever is my final CD player setup?

The last minor point is getting HDCD decoding capability (which even the much more expensive Primare D30.2 doesn't provide) - I don't know yet whether this is worth having, since I've never had an HDCD capable CDP.

I am sure something like the Chord DAC64 would be a significant upgrade - and possibly the best upgrade I could get for £1900. But that is a lot of $$$$ - the question is whether for much less than that (a Primare D30.2 costs at least £1500 as well) I can actually get a significant improvement. Clearly spending £450 and getting no significant improvement is also a waste of money.

Dave just to show you what a fickle world audio is I know 3 guys who have added a DAC 20 to both players you mention above (and loads more to other CD/DVD players), a guy over on the HFC forum added a DAC 20 to his set up and loved the change the DAC 20 brought to his D20 : Sources: Primare D20 CD player, DAC:TAG Mclaren Audio DAC20, Amp: Primare A20mkII, Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Contour 1.1 on matching Dynaudio stands. And a guy here who did not notice any difference whatsoever between a DAC 20 & a NSV900 & a dude over at the HFC forum who did notice a difference (favourable BTW) so its up to you dude!! No doubt the Chord 64 is the DAC to aspire to at the moment, but I would honestly say for £450 the Tag is a no brainer at the very least you will have 2 excellent sources ie the Primare or the 900+DAC 20, or you may prefer it in tandem with the D20. Im quite sure my digital replay system is fine now for the foreseeable future since the arrival the DAC 20 take my word for it an awesome piece of audio kit. … IMHO.

BTW Dave, HDCD decoding is worth having, sounds awesome IMO and the amount of titles available is great - one of the wonders of this DAC is its HDCD playback but it is still immesne at ordinary redbook CD IMO. FWIW I would not rate the DACs on the 3802 for stereo duties compared to either the D20 or 900 IMHO. I would expect the NSV 900 to be transformed into a £1000+ CDP (if it has a resepectable jitter spec) with the addition of a DAC like the TAG.

I would not worry if the sound does not suit you, it can always be sold on if you don’t like it IMHO.

BTW go here and do a search on DAC 20 (they all cant be wrong IMO).

I'm still a bit puzzled why Tag are flogging the DAC20 so (relatively) cheaply if it is such a good piece of kit. Is it about to reach end-of-life and become obsolete / replaced by something much better?

It's already EOL - hence the discount!

The DAC7 chipset it's based on was discontinued by Philips 2 years ago (following a fairly long lifespan (nearly 10 years, although no doubt it had revisions during that time). That doesn't mean it sounds bad though!
It was used in many good CD players in the 90s, and a few of the first SACD players too apparently.
Who says technology always moves very quickly? :)

As Mike says this months flavour of the month in digital replay is tommorrows old fashioned out of favour system or more realistically discarded technology. This is for many reasons, not a lot to do with sound quality per se, but more the need of the industry to keep churning out newer, “better” & “Improved” technologies for the public to keep the upgrade bug in place ie to keep them in business. Very like new reg cars IMO. If you chart down the ages of CD playback you will see a set of illustrious CDPs that were briefly (Im sure everyone else has more worthy players to be in this list) at the top of the pile :

Linn CD12
Marantz CD7
Sony SACD-1
Every Wadia that appears
MF Nuvista 3D CD
DCS Elgars & Purcell
Chord DAC 64

Now every one of these players / DACs are fantastic in their own right, but instantly dated when a newer model appears – or more truthfully the one that is falvour of the month, take my word for it – If we had a exponential increase in performance from redbook CD as the mags/industry we would all sitting on cloud 9. For example the industry press would have you believe that a player for example like the Marantz CD7 is now surpassed with newer technology, but in realistic terms (IMHO) it can still blow the socks off many comparitively prices new CDPs. So it is up to you to step off the merry go round and take a look would you want a Chord DAC 64 when you could pick up a Wadia X64 DAC for £1300 2nd hand ? what is the best DAC out of those 2 dude? So the DAC 20 is “old” technology but it has been reviewed up against Naim CDX+XPS (£4K worth) and it came up against that (Still a big selling CDP) as not far off what the Naim could do. Just because it is end of line, don’t make it bad - far from it, means you can sample high end sound for a fraction of the price. Of course buying it so cheap must make it crap of course. Heh heh !!

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