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Multi-bit DACs

Discussions of multi-bit DACs and their clear superiority over regular DACs have recently arisen in certain audiophile circles online.  The clear superiority of multi-bit DACs is touted, with links provided to articles online that have red flag (placebophile) buzzword for me.

So, I'm hoping that the community can point me to some decent articles or provide explanations over how multi-bit DACs work compared to their less expensive counterparts.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #1
It's an engineering decision...    I wouldn't worry about what's inside the DAC as long as it's better than human hearing (or one that meets whatever specs you're looking for).    And with modern integrated electronics, it's cheap & easy to build a DAC that's better than human hearing, so unless your DAC is particularly bad it's not worth worrying about.*

Of course, the marketing team takes engineering/design decisions and touts them as selling features.   



* A couple of years ago I did some quick research into a DAC that cost over a thousand dollars.   The high-end DAC chip they were using (maybe the "best" available at the time) cost about $5 USD.    But you don't need a high-end chip...   Almost any cheap audio DAC chip is good enough if the circuit/product is properly designed.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #2
There is a strong belief among "audiophiles" that the DAC can make a huge difference, and if you don't agree, you've never listened to an expensive DAC.

I totally disagree with this belief.  I believe there is value in getting an external DAC and getting on the on-board amp out of the equation sometimes.  But even that is not always necessary.

Multi-bit DACs sound like the usual placebophile belief that, if it costs more, it's obviously better.

Is there any reason to believe that a multi-bit DAC is going to sound different than the average run of the mill DAC.  Forget any belief it may sound better.  Is it there any chance there will be a perceived difference in the sound at all?

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #3
I've been told off by audiophiles for using a $30 DAC (FiiO D03K) in my system with ~$1500 worth of active studio monitors and subs, because "it's made for simple use only, for TVs that only have toslink output, not for proper hifi". Oddly enough, they can never seem to tell me exactly why that would make it unsuitable for use in a "proper hifi system".

The RMAA measurements are outstanding, and everything sounds fine, so it must be some sort of Wallet Overthickness Factor.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #4
I've been told off by audiophiles for using a $30 DAC (FiiO D03K) in my system with ~$1500 worth of active studio monitors and subs, because "it's made for simple use only, for TVs that only have toslink output, not for proper hifi". Oddly enough, they can never seem to tell me exactly why that would make it unsuitable for use in a "proper hifi system".

The RMAA measurements are outstanding, and everything sounds fine, so it must be some sort of Wallet Overthickness Factor.

The D03K looks very nice.  If my laptop had SPDIF or Coax out, it would be a great addition.

I do laugh when people tout a SPDIF out as a great feature of a sound card.  SPDIF out means that you're not using your sound card, but passing off the analog conversion to another source.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #5
I've been told off by audiophiles for using a $30 DAC (FiiO D03K) in my system with ~$1500 worth of active studio monitors and subs, because "it's made for simple use only, for TVs that only have toslink output, not for proper hifi". Oddly enough, they can never seem to tell me exactly why that would make it unsuitable for use in a "proper hifi system".

The RMAA measurements are outstanding, and everything sounds fine, so it must be some sort of Wallet Overthickness Factor.

The D03K looks very nice.  If my laptop had SPDIF or Coax out, it would be a great addition.

I do laugh when people tout a SPDIF out as a great feature of a sound card.  SPDIF out means that you're not using your sound card, but passing off the analog conversion to another source.

The thing is... they add the card when the computer already has  S/PDIF,  because what's built in cannot possibly be good enough

And then... Even though they might have bought some fancy, expensive, even professional sound card, they feed digital out to a  DAC because the sound card's analogue out cannot possibly be good enough. Most of them don't even pause to try it. And none of them (a bit guilty here myself) ever give the onboard DAC even a brief chance.

The most important audio cables are the ones in the brain

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #6
And none of them (a bit guilty here myself) ever give the onboard DAC even a brief chance.

I did try it, but there was really bad load-dependent noise, I could hear high-pitched squealing when I moved windows around. I've used the onboard sound on other systems that have been just fine, but mine is just a hunk-a-junk, unfortunately.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #7
What's a multi-bit DAC?  I thought they all took at least 16 bits at a time.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #8
What's a multi-bit DAC?  I thought they all took at least 16 bits at a time.
It is not related to their input wordlength, but their internal way of working. More specifically, we're talking about two different ways of implementing sigma-delta converters. For an "introduction" into how they work and what the "multi-bit" moniker means in this context, see here, for example.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #9
What's a multi-bit DAC?  I thought they all took at least 16 bits at a time.
It is not related to their input wordlength, but their internal way of working. More specifically, we're talking about two different ways of implementing sigma-delta converters. For an "introduction" into how they work and what the "multi-bit" moniker means in this context, see here, for example.

That link is over my head.  I believe Shiit claims to make one for a paltry $2300.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #10
The BiFrost is their cheapest multi-Bit offering at $599.  The current rumor is that Schiit is going to announce a multi-bit version of their Modi2 tomorrow, which is leading to a lot of placebophile chatter about the superiority of multi-bit DACs.

A reddit thread I was reading had someone explain what a multi-bit DAC was, only to have someone hop on and tell them that what they said was completely wrong, and give an explanation that made NO sense whatsoever.

So, at this point I'm feeling that multi-bit falls into the "It costs more so it must be better" logic.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #11
And none of them (a bit guilty here myself) ever give the onboard DAC even a brief chance.

I did try it, but there was really bad load-dependent noise, I could hear high-pitched squealing when I moved windows around. I've used the onboard sound on other systems that have been just fine, but mine is just a hunk-a-junk, unfortunately.

I was perfectly fine with the onboard DAC.  Then I bought a pair of Klipsch Promedia 2.1 speakers for my PC and plugged them in my docking station and got a buzzing noise sometimes.  So I decided to try an external DAC.  I bought a used Schiit Modi for $90 from someone.  I figure I can try and see if it eliminates the buzzing.  And it will also shut up all the placebophiles that keep telling me I don't have a leg to stand on because I am using "on-board."

Am I going to hear a difference with the on-board DAC?  Other than maybe eliminating the occasional buzzing, I would say no.

These Pro Media speakers are disgustingly loud.  I usually keep my PC volume at 100% and adjust the volume on my speakers.  But when I do that, the lowest volume on the speakers is way too loud.  I'm thinking the speaker out jack on my laptop must be amped.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #12
So, at this point I'm feeling that multi-bit falls into the "It costs more so it must be better" logic.
They will invariably use DAC chips from one of the usual manufacturers, and those chips will cost a few dollars at most. It is in no way a reason for such high prices. If they use the multi-bit moniker as a pretext for a high price, they are deluding their customers (no matter what the impact of multi-bit on quality may be).

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #13
The Schiit Yggdrasil uses 2x2 Analog Devices AD5791 DAC chips that is 50$ each when i read it correctly.
Is troll-adiposity coming from feederism?
With 24bit music you can listen to silence much louder!

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #14
That link is over my head.
Well, then for a very brief summary:

Originally, DACs in the early years of digital audio were often based on R2R resistor ladders; they converted the digital audio word to a current in one go, so you could call them multi-bit converters. The problem with such converters is their poor low-level linearity, which depends on resistor accuracy (those resistors are on-chip). This makes it impractical to use this technique in its pure form beyond 16-bit wordlength. The amount of precision trimming needed would be excessive.

First, this problem was tackled with oversampling, which could be used to increase the "apparent" wordlength of the DAC using filtering techniques on the digital side.

The next trick carried this idea to its extreme by reducing the DAC to a single bit, and use a noise-shaping sigma-delta loop with high-factor oversampling (*64 or more) to achieve the required dynamic range in the audio frequency band. This technique simplifies the analog circuitry to the max and thuis avoids problems with nonlinearities that had plagued the "parallel" converters used before. The introduction of such single-bit converters created the marketing problem of how to explain to a customer why a 1-bit converter was now supposed to be better than the 16, 18 or 20 bit converters used before. If you worked on the notion that more bits is better (as was done universally by marketing back then), you had a bit of explaining to do. The solution was to call this a "bitstream" converter, and avoid the notion that it is only 1-bit.

The classic sigma delta converter with a 1-bit DAC, however, also has a subtle problem in that it can produce very low level oscillations in some cases. The concept can be generalized, however, by using several bits (2 or 3) in the DAC stage, but otherwise keeping the noise-shaping loop. This yields a multi-bit sigma delta converter. This is completely different from the original multi-bit converters from the old days. Hence perhaps the confusion.

This is a topic that should interest only the DAC designers, because there is absolutely no useful performance information that you can derive from it as a layman.

The Schiit Yggdrasil uses 2x2 Analog Devices AD5791 DAC chips that is 50$ each when i read it correctly.
Those are modern incarnations of an R2R converter (but a more complicated segmented form that combines a 14-bit and a 6-bit segment), which is not aimed at audio, but at instrumentation usage. They are not sigma delta, expensive, and don't offer any tangible advantage for audio.

Except one: They don't have any digital filtering, so the people who are afraid of digital filters can relax.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #15
So, at this point I'm feeling that multi-bit falls into the "It costs more so it must be better" logic.
They will invariably use DAC chips from one of the usual manufacturers, and those chips will cost a few dollars at most. It is in no way a reason for such high prices. If they use the multi-bit moniker as a pretext for a high price, they are deluding their customers (no matter what the impact of multi-bit on quality may be).

From what I am gathering, multi-bit is more than just the DAC chip itself.  There is talk of PCB design and resistors.

There is also a good bit of confusion of also around terminology.

There is discussion of R2R DACs, which are claimed to be multi-bit.  While Delta Signal DACs are not.  Then another discussion starts up around Delta SIgnal DACs that are supposedly multi-bit.

The only article I was able to find was from someone who sells R2R DACs at ridiculous prices.  I will admit that I don't understand enough about DACs to read this stuff and come up with an informed decision.  And even if I did, there's no proof any of this superiority is actually audible.

But when it comes to Schiit as a company, this is what I gather...

The make a USB DAC called the Modi 2.  It costs $99.  And they make a headphone amp called the Magni 2 which is also $99.  And on their product page they state that these two items is possibly all that you'll ever need.  Which is probably right.

They make a whole line of more expensive stuff because there is money to be made from placebophiles.  If you can crank out a bunch of high end gear and sell it and make a profit, why wouldn't you?

So, as far as audiophile gear goes, they're not the complete scam artists that most companies are.  Their web site shows the specs for their products, has user manual downloads, and shows pics of the front and back.  They don't link to placebophile reviews on their products.  There is some placebophile marketing fluff on their page.  But overall, I don't find them to be as bad as some companies (I'm talking to you, Moon Audio!)


Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #16
The Schiit Yggdrasil uses 2x2 Analog Devices AD5791 DAC chips that is 50$ each when i read it correctly.
Those are modern incarnations of an R2R converter (but a more complicated segmented form that combines a 14-bit and a 6-bit segment), which is not aimed at audio, but at instrumentation usage. They are not sigma delta, expensive, and don't offer any tangible advantage for audio.
I only wanted to hint to exceptions out there.
They will invariably use DAC chips from one of the usual manufacturers, and those chips will cost a few dollars at most. It is in no way a reason for such high prices. If they use the multi-bit moniker as a pretext for a high price, they are deluding their customers (no matter what the impact of multi-bit on quality may be).
Is troll-adiposity coming from feederism?
With 24bit music you can listen to silence much louder!

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #17

<snip>

But when it comes to Schiit as a company, this is what I gather...

The make a USB DAC called the Modi 2.  It costs $99.  And they make a headphone amp called the Magni 2 which is also $99.  And on their product page they state that these two items is possibly all that you'll ever need.  Which is probably right.

They make a whole line of more expensive stuff because there is money to be made from placebophiles.  If you can crank out a bunch of high end gear and sell it and make a profit, why wouldn't you?

So, as far as audiophile gear goes, they're not the complete scam artists that most companies are.  Their web site shows the specs for their products, has user manual downloads, and shows pics of the front and back.  They don't link to placebophile reviews on their products.  There is some placebophile marketing fluff on their page.  But overall, I don't find them to be as bad as some companies (I'm talking to you, Moon Audio!)
I have to admit that the Schiit story, as published in instalments on Head-Fi, was absolutely gripping. I speak as a guy who detests management/marketing stuff. Can't help but be predisposed towards the company. As direct sellers, they do a lot to make people feel part of the family, whether we buy stuff or not. It is a very effective form of marketing.

I also think that they are sincere.

But hey, I know quite a few audiophiles who are nice guys
The most important audio cables are the ones in the brain

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #18
There may be objective reasons for using an external DAC instead of an onboard DAC.

1. Hard to drive headphones in which case a DAC and a headphone amp are purchased, often as a single unit.  Most likely symptom is low volume.  I suspect this is the source of most happy purchasers.

2. Ground loops which can sometimes be solved by using an external DAC with a Toslink connection.  Power comes from a wall wart.

3, Getting analogue audio out of a device having only a digital output, like many TV's.  The cheap and popular FiiO Taishan is frequently used for this purpose.

I briefly owned an Audioquest Dragonfly 1.2.  I found the sound from this highly rated device to be shrill and fatiguing with my speakers and sent it back. It was acceptable with headphones, which must be what most folks are using it for.  

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #19
There may be objective reasons for using an external DAC instead of an onboard DAC.

1. Hard to drive headphones in which case a DAC and a headphone amp are purchased, often as a single unit.  Most likely symptom is low volume.  I suspect this is the source of most happy purchasers.

2. Ground loops which can sometimes be solved by using an external DAC with a Toslink connection.  Power comes from a wall wart.

3, Getting analogue audio out of a device having only a digital output, like many TV's.  The cheap and popular FiiO Taishan is frequently used for this purpose.

I briefly owned an Audioquest Dragonfly 1.2.  I found the sound from this highly rated device to be shrill and fatiguing with my speakers and sent it back. It was acceptable with headphones, which must be what most folks are using it for.  

The Dragonfly is a DAC/Amp Combo.  It's quite possible the amp was giving you grief.  I don'tr think there's a way to get an un-amped line out from that thing.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #20
There may be objective reasons for using an external DAC instead of an onboard DAC.

1. Hard to drive headphones in which case a DAC and a headphone amp are purchased, often as a single unit.  Most likely symptom is low volume.  I suspect this is the source of most happy purchasers.

2. Ground loops which can sometimes be solved by using an external DAC with a Toslink connection.  Power comes from a wall wart.

3, Getting analogue audio out of a device having only a digital output, like many TV's.  The cheap and popular FiiO Taishan is frequently used for this purpose.

I briefly owned an Audioquest Dragonfly 1.2.  I found the sound from this highly rated device to be shrill and fatiguing with my speakers and sent it back. It was acceptable with headphones, which must be what most folks are using it for.  

The Dragonfly is a DAC/Amp Combo.  It's quite possible the amp was giving you grief.  I don'tr think there's a way to get an un-amped line out from that thing.

You are correct about the Dragonfly.  Most likely it did not get along with the input circuit of my power amp which it was directly plugged into.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #21
I'm not finding any credible-sounding articles regarding multi-bit DACs as they apply to audio.

It seems to me that a lot of what goes on in audiophiledom are rhetorical arguments, and many an audiophile product seems designed to address those matters of rhetoric. Science and engineering are only respected insofar as they seem to support existing beliefs.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #22
I'm not finding any credible-sounding articles regarding multi-bit DACs as they apply to audio.

It seems to me that a lot of what goes on in audiophiledom are rhetorical arguments, and many an audiophile product seems designed to address those matters of rhetoric. Science and engineering are only respected insofar as they seem to support existing beliefs.

I think that is what you call a solution in search of a problem.

Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #23
The latest post I just read said that the difference between an R2R DAC and a  Delta-Signal DAC is "night and day" and no blind testing is necessary because of that.  Soon as someone says that no blind testing is necessary, alarm bells go off in in my head.

The only thing that didn't make me discredit this completely was that the person said the R2R DAC sounded different and it was up to the individual person to decide if it sounded better.  But of course, no one is going to be able to do this because most people don't have a $2300 Schiit YGGDRASIL lying around for the testing.

There is one review on YouTube where someone ABs a Schiit BiFrost Multi-bit and says he can't hear a difference between that and a regular 1-bit delta-signal DAC.  I believe the BiFrost is a multi-bit delta-signal DAC, and not R2R. (Wow, I almost sound like I know what I am talking about!)  But when someome ABs (not blind) the two DACs and says they sound the same, then I don't have a lot of hope of personally hearing a difference between the two with my non-placebophile ears.

I would like to thank everyone for the great input on this thread.  I understand way more than I did before about this.


Re: Multi-bit DACs

Reply #24
And none of them (a bit guilty here myself) ever give the onboard DAC even a brief chance.

I did try it, but there was really bad load-dependent noise, I could hear high-pitched squealing when I moved windows around. I've used the onboard sound on other systems that have been just fine, but mine is just a hunk-a-junk, unfortunately.

I was perfectly fine with the onboard DAC.  Then I bought a pair of Klipsch Promedia 2.1 speakers for my PC and plugged them in my docking station and got a buzzing noise sometimes.  So I decided to try an external DAC.  I bought a used Schiit Modi for $90 from someone.  I figure I can try and see if it eliminates the buzzing.  And it will also shut up all the placebophiles that keep telling me I don't have a leg to stand on because I am using "on-board."

Am I going to hear a difference with the on-board DAC?  Other than maybe eliminating the occasional buzzing, I would say no.

These Pro Media speakers are disgustingly loud.  I usually keep my PC volume at 100% and adjust the volume on my speakers.  But when I do that, the lowest volume on the speakers is way too loud.  I'm thinking the speaker out jack on my laptop must be amped.

The buzzing in my onboard would occur every time I moved the damn mouse.  It was so bad and irritating to me, I felt the urge to strangle someone over it.  Getting an internal sound card with a built-in headphone amp with a break out box to sit on my desk (although it actually sits on top of my computer) saved me a stay at the local insane asylum.  I'm using a desktop PC by the way.

 
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