Which *MQA* DAC for a mid-fi MQA agnostic / skeptic?


I’ve loved my Roon / Tidal induction. My current set-up is a near field Ropieee->Schiit Modius/Schiit Bifrost 2->Emotiva A-100/Schiit Jotunheim (balanced)->KEF Q150/Sennheiser HD6XX

I’m also building a proper system in my new basement - either Maggies or Focals or Revels most likely, but still in very early design phase. Basement isn’t even done. Just want you to have context that I’m neither a died in the wool audiophile obscurantist nor a cost is no object I’ll try anything guy.

So here is the question. I want to give MQA a proper shake. I don’t want to break the bank.

  • budget: Could spend $500, or even $1000 if I felt like that would make the difference
  • commitment: Would ideally like something that I could return if after a month if I don’t find the magic
  • sound: I like warmth / organic, not etched
  • features: do not need a headphone amp built in; could always use jotunheim or another separate. Prefer to have balanced out if I can

My philosophy is that I’m a hopeful skeptic. A lot of people say I’ll love it. I want to. I’m a little dubious going in, but I’ve adopted all kinds of things (coffee, travel, clothing, audio) that folks have suggested where I’ve originally been skeptical.

So here are the ideas I’ve looked at:

  1. SMSL SU-9
  2. SMSL M500
  3. iFi Micro iDSD signature
  4. Meridian Explorer 2
  5. Topping D90

And then there are the “this blows my budget by far, but if I’m not going to appreciate MQA without it, I can see my way clear to considering it, though this might put my timeline back by a bit”:
6. Mytek Brooklyn DAC+
7. Aurelic Altair G1
8. IFi iDSD Pro
Note that within this group it’s not entirely fair, because my existing equipment is not at this level. I can compare the MQA vs redbook/non-MQA portion of each of these items.

Note: MQA hate isn’t helpful to this exercise, even if I understand why some might.

So I realize this is going to get some people riled up. I don’t know if I will like MQA at all. A bit dubious that I will. But I want to really try — for a full month. Can you help me figure out what it’ll take to really decide? Which one would you choose? Beyond this group, understanding my budget? Appreciate all your help.


The Topping D90 is supposed to be a very good DAC in it’s price range. I’ve got other AKM based DACs which I’m very happy with. Even if you don’t end up liking MQA you would have something that should be a good source for a system.

Doesn’t do MQA.

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I would add the iFi NEO iDSD to your list, possibly dropping the iDSD Signature…unless you really need portability. The NEO is a full MQA Decoder, has balanced outputs, and is generally more capable than its portable sibling.

Edit: I should add that I have the NEO now. Using it with a VitOS Raspberry Pi 4 and THX AAA 789 headphone amp. The NEO does have a headphone amp, but it’s strength lies in the quality of decoding and fixed XLR outputs.

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Thanks Mark-

Do you have the topping and love it? I get that many really respect it, but a lot of other folks describe it as hard-edged. Hoping folks will recommend the DACs they know and love… I too like AKM (recent factory fire notwithstanding!)


Thanks David- I was going to ask if you had it, but you edited while I was writing back, and you do have it. It’s pretty new… what do you like about the sound? And what do you compare it to?


Hi Johnny,

This would be my pick. Well-engineered and competitively priced for the features and apparent build quality.

If you buy it through Apos Audio (no affiliation) you get their 30-day return policy and 2-year warranty. I’ll be picking one up after the holidays.


The NEO has the typical AMR/iFi house sound…slightly on the warm side of neutral. I think you would like it

I’m constantly struck by how effortless it is to follow every part in complex pieces with the NEO. I’ve had DACs that enabled me to hear new sounds in familiar tracks before, but this is different. Instead of just picking out new details, I feel like I’m finally hearing all of the details together and in proper relation.

Caveats: Roon’s device volume does not work with the NEO, so you’ll be using your amplifier or the iFi remote to manage volume. Sometimes when I switch inputs, VitOS can’t find the DAC; unpluging and reinserting the USB cable or doing a quick reboot solves this. Otherwise, it works beautifully with Roon.

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No, I don’t have the Topping but I have considered getting that model. I do have a Teac UD-301 and a Linn streamer that both use AKM chips.

Oh, I’ve compared the NEO in this system to the Orchard Audio PecanPi USB, S.M.S.L. Sanskrit 10th V2, Khadas Tone Board, HiFiBerry DAC2 HD, and iFi micro iDSD (original). I love the sound of all of these, but the NEO is my favorite by a fair margin.

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I have the Mytek Brooklyn+ and I love it. In addition to using it as an MQA capable DAC, it also serves (temporarily)as a pre-amp.
To that end, IIRC, the Mytek Liberty DAC would give you most of what you want without the Brooklyn price tag. Mytek was an early adapter of MQA.
I also have on order a Pro-Ject Pre Box S-2. I cannot comment on its sound, as I have not yet taken delivery. Find it for $399 (or less) and give MQA a fair shot without a lot of risk.

I really appreciate that you push the budget serious equipment. This is the only time I’ve heard the khadas tone board mentioned on here; I listened to it and thought it was fun if very forward. The NEO looks like it’s a solid piece of equipment. I haven’t heard any of the ifi DACs so I don’t know the house sound, but the descriptions I’ve dug up are in line with what I like.

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So here is where I start dreaming about my proper system. I tell myself… oh I’ll get a Brooklyn dac+ and use it as my phono preamp and dac straight into a pair of Schiit aegir’s as monoblocks… in the meantime I’ll use it with the trs/xlr balanced cable adapter to drive my HD-6XX’s. I can find a Brooklyn for $1750 used, but I can’t find any used liberty’s for love or $$$. Very very tempting.

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Auralic does not do MQA (unless you’re talking about an Ares feeding USB to a DAC that natively supports MQA). If you’re looking for MQA that exceeds your stated budget, I suggest looking at the Matrix Audio Element series.

From your initial shortlist, I’d personally probably go with the Topping D90. (INote: I have not heard any of your shortlist devices. Statement on the D90 based on all the various reviews I’ve read of the various devices in your list.)

If you really want to try MQA without a big investment, find a used ProJect Pre-box S2 Digital. Its a very competent DAC. But unfortunately has a few known bugs that will never be fixed. End result is you need to configure it in Roon as a MQA renderer only, and have Roon do the MQA first unfold. This does not affect the SQ of MQA. (I used to have the S2, but have no MQA sources, so never personally tried it with MQA. But it’s a solid DAC.)

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I know exactly what you mean, and often find myself in the same query. Buy 2 or 3 of something on my way “up the ladder” to what I eventually want, or wait and buy what I want once.
That’s why I bought the Brooklyn. It’s paired with a Benchmark AHB2 amp, as Mytek and Schiit weren’t offering amps yet and Benchmark DACs don’t do MQA. I figured, even if I didn’t care for MQA, I still had a competent DAC to use in my “digital” system and it drives my Audeze LCD?’s nicely.
I will get a Liberty for my “analog” system, but the Pro-Ject will hold me over until then. The Liberty does come up from time to time as demos or open boxes from a couple of the on line vendors who sell Mytek.
I currently have no regrets in the area of DACS.

First of all, you should try turning Roon MQA Core decoding setting on and off, and compare the SQ of this setting, with a Tidal MQA track that has a MQA sample rate of 88.2kHz or higher.

If your purpose is to evaluate the SQ of MQA, I suggest getting a DAC based on relatively new chips from ESS: ES9028Q2M or newer, or ES9028PRO (like our Lumin T2 but overbudget) or newer.

Thanks Peter-

Really appreciate it. And I dream of your T2, no joke. But I’m not there yet. Give me a little time, I’ll get there (and maybe you’ll have something even better out then).

So your statement about the chip is really interesting, and I bet there are some technical reasons for it.

Why would that give the best grounds to evaluate MQA? Feel free to be as technical as you’d like, or just tell me it’s what you like the best. If it’s over my head, I’ll keep plugging till I understand.

Much appreciated. It’s thoughtful responses like this that make me love this community.

Yes, but I cannot disclose the primary technical reason. The secondary reason is that ESS is a MQA partner (with multiple latest chips having built-in MQA support).

Another important thing to look for, if you’re evaluating MQA SQ, is that you have to be able to turn it on and off. Some designs have non-MQA PCM also going through MQA processing. A certain manufacturer has an MQA on/off switch, where the On setting behaves like this, but the Off setting allows you to choose ESS filters. (Lumin automatically avoids having PCM go through MQA processing for non-MQA music.)

(I have managed MQA integration using 7 models of DAC chips from 4 semiconductor manufacturers.)


SMSL SU9 is a great choice and not very expensive. I have one and much prefer it to the previous Ifi it replaced.

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Altair G1 does not have digital output only analog.