Resurrection of the Tube DAC convo

There was a topic last year about how to recover tube warmth in a solid state system, where to insert it, alternatives. The topic was closed without much useful info or experience being exchanged.

I’m wanting to put some tubes in my system, to see if I can recapture some of the joy from the days when I was single and could devote an entire room to Audio Stuff (without family blowback).

I’m using an Intel NUC as a Roon Core, into a Bluesound Node 2i as a streamer into a Cambridge Audio CXA61 integrated amp, feeding a pair of Totem Hawks. The sound is a little dry. Not much in common with the last time I had tubes throughout, from Cary Audio monoblocs>ARC IA>AudioNote Tube DAC>Totems. Times, family schematics, home floor plan and disposable income have all changed.

So I’m thinking of inserting a tube DAC in between the Node and the analog inputs on the CXA61. Would it matter? Am I hunting snake oil? Do I have to spend $6k? Anyone in love with a niche device that makes their life perfect? I don’t use headphones often, so all these things called “headphone amps” don’t grab my attention. But I figure they might just be very low powered devices, which might actually send a great signal to the CXA61. Using the product category “headphone amp” for marketing purposes.

I see tons of <$200 DACS online, but the sheer volume is daunting. Lots of Chinese-manufactured selections, from manufacturers I’ve never heard of. 12 Best Chinese DAC 2023 | For Hi-Fi Sound on a Budget we found online - Redesigns audio The market seems bunched up at the extremes of the price curve with not a lot in the middle. An upside down bell curve.

I don’t think I can answer your actual question but, as an alternative, you might explore some of the pro audio outboard processors that are sometimes used in mixing (and mastering) to add ’tube’ flavour.

I found the DAC to be the least effective place to have tubes. I have a tube preamp and a tube amp and that gets me the sound I want.

Musical fidelity used to do a “tube buffer” that fitted between the source and amp that added what you are after. I’m not sure if any other companies do one or an auction site may be your friend. You can try to see if you like the effect before fully committing to anything else?

Well, same interest here, so I got me a used CAYIN DAC11 tube DAC using two 6922 tubes, which I replaced after a long search with 2x perfectly matched NOS SIEMENS E88CC tubes. It has symmetrical XLR outputs too. This tube DAC is served using USB from a passive ROON CORE via a Raspi PI4 ROON BRIDGE running ROPIEE. I listen with STAX Hybrid Amps and STAX Headphones connected using XLR with a PRIMARE PRE in between. Very happy with the result… (the PRIMARE PRE is only in that chain, as I use several DACs, so I can switch life between them - and it allows to calibrate the volume of all its six input channels which very few PREs allow).

Do you think the addition of the tubes at the DAC stage made the difference or was/is it just the whole combo?

That’s a bummer. I know I could redo the whole thing, go new tube PA and pre, but I do like the CA integrated, and don’t want to start over. I just want to warm things up a bit.

What if I just used the CA as a pre and fed that signal into a tube PA or monoblocs?

There must be a sweet spot in the linkage where adding tubes can make an impact.

Like many others, I’m trying to find that sweet spot in the venn where the best of digital intersects some of the best of analog.

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what that means. What sort of hardware device is that?

What’s your budget?

My experience with DAC’s has been, well, interesting. My worst sounding DAC, a Chinese Topping D50 measures the best. Go figure.

If you are looking to warm things up a bit you could try an R2R DAC like the Shiit Yggdrasil. It’s my best sounding DAC by a fair margin. Schiit has less expensive options too. All good. I like to buy free-world products.

The Lampizator tube based DAC’s are all well liked as well.

These are my personal experiences, in my system, in my home, over many years.

I think a tube preamp could also get you a warmer sound, but the outcome is uncertain as tube preamps vary widely.

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Thank you. As to budget, let’s just say that I have more money than space available for audio junk. I’m no longer at an age where a “listening room” is reasonable or even remotely desirable.

A pricey solution that can be tucked away unobtrusively is vastly more likely than an inexpensive solution that requires measurable square footage of any room in the house.

I totally get where you are coming from. OK. The hard part about all of this is hearing before buying. Take a look at the Schiit stuff. Designed by industry experts, built in California. I can highly recommend the Yggdrasil OG. Their other R2R DAC options are progressively less expensive: Gungnir, Bifrost are all good. They have an in-home trial option.

The Lampizator options have tube outputs and tend to be more expensive by 2x-5x. They also have tubes sticking out of the top, which can be a problem. No I’m home trial that I’m aware of - but it might pay to inquire.

If your integrated has pre-out/main-in connections you could consider a tube preamp. ASchiit makes several that are reasonably priced.

As an audio guy and tinkerer, the last thing I want to do is dissuade you from purchasing more gear…

So I’ll compromise by proposing nothing and something disruptive and expensive.

The nothing is this: experiment with roon DSP and equalization. Perhaps that can provide you the warmth you are looking for for nothing. Really, what is “tube warmth”? It’s the special kind of distortion you get with a tube amplifier. Perhaps you can come close with DSP?

The expensive and disruptive exposes my biases, preferences and beliefs, with which you may not agree. My opinion is that the DAC and pre-amp should be as transparent as possible. I’m tempted to say that an amp should do the same, but I have and am listening to a tube amp that I love as I type this. If you want tube warmth, purchase a tube amplifier.

Hope you find what you’re looking for.

Thanks. I’ve been playing with DSP for a couple years plus.

But you’ve answered my question, that being where in the signal path folks think is the best place to insert tubes to get a particular sound. Call it “whatever.” Going from tube PA, pre and DAC, to SS in the whole path, I miss that “whatever.” I’m just looking for the best experience-based theory on where to insert a tube or two. Your vote is in the power amp.

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Yes it made a big difference! There are DACs having solid state AND tube output stages (to switch between) like the Cayin iDac -6 Mk2 - you could try that…

Btw DSP is not able to replicate “tube sound” as this lies in the non-linearity of the tubes which is different than solid state amplification. Never seen a DSP function which deliberately and “adjustably” lets you introduce even and / or odd numbered harmonics.

Btw if space is an issue (and that seems to be the case) there are also DAPs (Digital Audio Player) having solid state and/or tube output stages; you might want to try those too (as it includes a player, a DAC and an amplifier) - but suitable only to headphones…

Using Linux OS’s, one may install free DAW software and use DSP plug-ins to introduce even/odd order harmonics ad libidum, to facilitate manipulation of Roon’s RAAT stream via a software loopback device.
A lowly Raspberry Pi even fits the bill.

It just needs the will to google respective info and go through the learning curve…

Most audiophiles, though, rather splurge on some tube device with a fixed distortion profile, keep rolling tubes and/or replacing the kit until finding desired outcome, which they call tinkering and fun in the hobby - to each their own, I guess…

I like @Marin_Weigel‘s idea to use software plugins - actually my initial thought too - but I couldn’t think of a practical way to integrate it into a Roon signal path.

Lots of plugins available if you can make it work, and potentially more flexible (and cheaper) than trying to integrate the outboard (hardware) equivalent.

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All good.

But, a perspective.

Unlike some folks in this forum category, it’s not “tinkering” and “fun” I’m searching for. I like to listen to music while I have fun tinkering away at other things that are more interesting to me than software and clunky machines. Not everyone who enjoys good sound and great music considers the effort to get there the “fun” part. There are many life endeavors where the journey IS the goal; this is not one of those for me. Frankly, if I could recover the sound I had in my old system with a plug-and-play device that cost $10k, was the size of a pack of cigarettes and could sit unobtrusively in a desk drawer, I’d be all over it. Until then, I have to buy tickets to great concert halls…but apparently abide mediocrity, or passenger bus sized collections of equipment in my living room. :wink::man_shrugging:

I tinker with a lot of stuff and subjects. This isn’t one. I only use the “tinkering” category because it seems that’s where the best ideas come from the most experienced and creative folks—such as yourself—on this forum. (My mom used to say that you don’t need to invent the telephone to use it. I got her point.)

So thank you for your thoughts. They’re very helpful.

And, by the way, I think I’ve already learned that my original hunch—that maybe introducing a tube DAC into the mix—is, by itself, WAY off the mark. That’s HUGE. I’m also weird in that I really don’t mind—and sometimes even like—being wrong.

I hear you and absolutely understand your position!
BTW, that specific comment wasn’t aimed at you anyway…

And I just had to add my knowledge of the possibilities in the presence of statements grounded on insufficient investigation.

I get it. Thank you. No offense taken. I just wanted to clarify that my interest is the music and the sound, not the tinkering. I live in a ski town now, and between blowing snow, skiing on it and playing with my kids in it, i have a lot of other demands on my time end energy.:wink:

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