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DAC Roundup! ARES II vs D90 vs Bifrost 2 vs ADI-2 vs Gungnir vs Qutest

Why would anyone want to compare this many DACs at the same time? Answer: to try as much as possible to take the guess work out of wondering which DAC is for you.

You’ve probably seen both of my videos going into detail comparing all of the different sound signatures. In this post I’ll post my song test notes for further reading.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Gear:

Test Setup:

  • Roon with Tidal Hifi / hi-res tracks
  • Windows 10 PC & macOs MBP\
  • HFM Arya, Senn HD800s, Meze Empyrean, ZMF Aeolus
  • Drop 789, SMSL SP200, Violectric V280, Cayin HA-6A, Woo WA22
  • Mogami XLR cables
  • Monoprice Premium RCA cables

Song Test Notes:

*Disclaimer: as these are notes they may appear rough and are not formatted into paragraphs. They should still get the point across, though. Felt it better to share them here vs keeping them in a Google Doc.

  • Folk Rock – City Love by John Mayer
    • I like using this track as a test song. On top of the full band there’s a string section that backs up the other instruments during the chorus, and there’s that violin pizzicato. And who isn’t a sucker for some pizzicato?
    • As for the ARES II and the multibits, it shows just how much they have in common as they all excelled here at several things. For one, the sound of the snare drum is extremely satisfying. It feels a tad fuller with more energy and more rounded out, the closest thing here to the sound & feeling of a snare hit in the same room you’re in.
    • At 28 seconds the chorus gets going which is pretty busy considering all the instruments playing and I much prefer the sound from the R2R units. You get that fuller, enveloping sound while still retaining the details that you want to hear. Among the three here the ARES wasn’t as detailed as the multibits but I found the ARES brought out the mids better, bringing better focus to John Mayer’s vocals. Between the multibits both were great but I have to note the Bifrost 2 exhibited a tad bit of glare while the Gumby was more organic and easier to listen to, much like the ARES.
    • At 42 seconds there are a series of crashing cymbals and the R2R DACs handle this noticeably better than the D90 and RME, which feel thin and lighter on the top end while both the ARES II and the multibit models give you that reverby sense of space. I’d say multibit wins by a hair over the ARES when it comes to emphasizing the strength and smash of a cymbal crash.
    • So the D90 and the RME are great with the details as expected, I feel like I’m getting every bit of information that the microphone was able to pick up, and everything sounds precise with quicker attack & decay. The downside is there are parts of the song that exhibit a little bit of glare or harshness with the percussive elements, namely the snare and crash cymbals, to the point of it sounding unnatural.
    • But there are some other characteristics to those sounds that you can factor in. For example after the snare drum hits the decay sounds more muffled or a bit dampened on the multibit DACs while sounding more open & airy on the D90. So while the overall sound may not be as natural as the R2R models, it is more lively and just has a greater presence or energy that you may prefer.
    • All of the delta sigmas also have darker blacks, or moments of audibly complete silence. It sounds like something where the amps would be more responsible for this, and that’s not wrong, but you can really tell a difference in going from the ARES II to the D90 when comparing times of silence, even on the same amp.
    • The Qutest is the outlier here for the delta sigma models. You get the details but none of the glare. Initially it feels subdued compared to both the D90 and RME but the longer I listen I get why Chord is doing what it does. It doesn’t over pronounce the parts that don’t need to be focused on. It’s just throwing you the good bits while not assaulting your ears when you slightly turn up the volume.
    • And we have to talk about the transients, an area where the Qutest clearly wins out. So transients are the leading edge of when you hear an instrument. As soon as a snare drum, cymbal, violin or any other instrument begins to produce sound, your ears are very good at deciphering much of what sound that is within the first milliseconds of it occurring. One of the things being analyzed is if the sound is real or if it’s being reproduced from a recording. So as far as realism matters, instruments sound generally the most accurate on the Qutest. Very natural sounding and full comparatively without the harshness the other DACs in this roundup may produce.
    • Getting back to the chorus, the one issue I had with the Q was how the violins sort of felt buried as compared to all the other DACs here. There is a piano playing and I noticed that the Qutest brought it to the foreground while the other DACs had it in the background, giving focus to the violins instead. Honestly I felt like the violins should’ve been louder and more defined, but it was interesting to hear how Chord handled this particular instance which honestly wasn’t my preference.
    • Out of all the DACs here I prefer how the Gumby presents the busy chorus of the song the best. You get the smoothness of R2R, yet more details than the ARES II, and although the Bifrost 2 is close, the Gumby’s lack of glare and slightly more refined sound signature just pushed it over the edge for me.
    • There’s a little guitar solo at 2 minutes and you guessed it the R2R DACs felt fuller and more organic, but in this case I really liked what I was hearing from the AK chip DACs. The decay way faster than I preferred but the tonal characteristics of each string was sweeter and just more engaging to listen to.
    • And lastly let’s discuss the vocals, which are the best on the Qutest, with the R2R DACs taking 2nd place for me. The Chord presents the vocals in a more organic and lifelike fashion with greater intimacy, and also better separation away from the other instruments. As for the R2R models, the richness and bloomy characteristics are an absolute joy to listen to as well. On the multibits you get an edge on detail but the S’s are also a tad sibilant when compared to the super smooth ARES. I consider them to be a tie.
  • Classical
    • Scheherazade, Op. 35: The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship – Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When the strings come in both the D90 and the RME handle this part with precision as to be expected, but while this sounded good on the tube amps I felt it was overly digital on the solid states, especially the THX units. When I’d switch to the R2R DACs and even the Qutest I wanted to move away from AK chip-based devices and stick to the others. The competition simply sounds more real, more lifelike with a bigger soundstage and less like a recording.
    • When it came to a violin playing by itself I felt the multibit DACs excelled. The Qutest is as great as ever creating that sweet, engaging sound but on the Bifrost and Gumby the violin strings just have the nice bite and crispness to them that I enjoy. The ARES was very close to the Bifrost in this regard but I felt the multibits edged it out here.
    • Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor by Ralph Krishbaum. The fuller nature of this instrument is best served on the ARES II. This song has a couple of cellos playing but there’s a part where just one goes solo, at the 2 minute mark for about 12 seconds.
    • The whole solo is glorious on the R2R’s, it’s smooth, open and big. And the last note is especially enjoyable on the ARES as it hangs in all its full & echoey glory. This richness is able to give more emotion to the music, which in my view is better than the extreme precision of the delta sigma DACs. Which again, is subjective, but this just gives you a glimpse of why so many like that R2R sound.
    • As for piano I listened to several Lang Lang tracks and this is where the Qutest and its superior transient abilities shine. The tonal characteristics of the piano are reproduced the best here to my ears. The combination of that leading edge softness and accuracy, coupled with the precise decay of delta sigma makes for a really technical yet natural listen here.
    • As for the R2R DACs vs the D90 and the RME I kept going back & forth. Initially I felt the decay from the R2R’s were almost too smooth and loose, almost sloppy in comparison as the notes would keep reverberating over to the next one creating less breathing room. On the delta sigmas the tighter decay was great to listen to and things felt less messy, but still had hints of that digital sound which is another reason I preferred the Qutest.
    • But in the end, R2R vs the AK delta sigmas, it was a toss up and more of a matter of personal preference. Sounds like a cop out I know, but I think most would be happy with either option here, and I’d be interested to hear what an actual piano player would prefer.
  • Jazz
    • So we’re switching to jazz now and I’m just going to mention this off the top, but here’s where you notice the Qutest starts running away from the competition.
    • I tried different tracks here like Time On My Hands by Chet Baker; Straight, No Chaser by Thelonious Monk, and Brubeck’s Take Five. A common theme was the R2R’s didn’t sound as clean as the delta sigmas but were an easier listen as edges were rolled off, and additionally, the R2R’s had a noticeably bigger soundstage.
    • Then there’s the Qutest. Amazing separation, rolled off edges with a crystal clear presentation. It feels like the Q is handling everything just right, making the slow moments intimate, sorting out the high energy parts with ease, and making everything in between sound as sweet as ever. As much as I like that R2R sound I felt the Chord really outshined everything else here.
    • The one area where I thought the ARES II surpassed the Q was with brass instruments. Listening to Miles Davis trumpet on ‘Round Midnight was so much richer and fuller on the ARES. You see why I’m keeping more than one DAC now?
    • For our deep dive let’s look at Kissing a Fool by Michael Buble. I wanted something with vocals and lots of dynamics, and this track happens to be recorded really well.
    • During the opening the male vocals are really smooth and the Qutest simply sounds the most lifelike. The S’s aren’t sibilant at all and everything sounds so natural and sweet. The ARES II gives this almost brassy-like tone to Michael Buble’s voice and while that term is not usually an accolade in the audio world, I actually find it really pleasing to my ears.
    • As for the multibits, they sound great as well but you don’t get that extra bit of wow like you do from either the Chord or the ARES. The benefit over the ARES is the increase in clarity. Both the Bifrost 2 and the Gumby have better definition and resolution, especially in the upper frequencies. The splash of the drums cymbals and high hat is better defined on the multibits.
    • For me though, the sound of the ARES is too seductive and I simply don’t mind the bit of loss in definition. I also have to mention the soundstage of the ARES surpasses the Bifrost here. It sounds more open and natural compared to the multibit DAC.
    • The D90 here sounds super clean, with the RME on the smoother side of the scale, but neither are able to give that body of the R2R or the organic feel of the Chord. They don’t sound bad by any means, in fact these sound great, but the others are a step above and in my view are more engaging.
    • Around 2:30 the song picks up in volume and I really love how the ARES gives body and texture to the trumpets. That heavy & thick sound signature is perfect here. The Qutest takes the big increase in volume and sorts it out so your ears don’t strain as much as the other delta sigma DACs, and you also get that sweet sound of the cymbals crashing.
    • When comparing directly to the R2R models, the Chord can again feel a tad subdued or soft comparatively, while the ARES and the multibits are more forward on the mids. Both excel on rolling off the harsh edges of the music.
    • During the same chorus the AK-based delta sigmas don’t let you miss a detail and I feel like I’m hearing everything like it was mastered in the studio, BUT it just doesn’t sound as natural to me. It has that overly precise, digital sound when it comes to reproducing live music which doesn’t make it horrible, per se, but as a matter of personal preference I wanted a tad more realism coming from these DACs.
    • I have to mention for all you tube amp owners out there that switching from a solid state amp to a tube with the D90 sounded much more enjoyable to my ears. You get that natural smoothness from the tubes with rounded off edges to reduce or stamp out the harshness, while getting noticeably more details than the ARES. It sounded less digital and more natural.
    • If you have a D90 and love the sound, consider getting a tube amp if you haven’t already. The D90’s ability to present so many details so cleanly mates extremely well with vacuum tube amplification.
    • But back to the roundup. Bottom line if you’re a jazz lover and have the budget for it, you should try to get your hands on a Qutest. If you want to spend half of that or less then look at the ARES or Bifrost.
  • Female Vocals
    • This is where things get tricky. The upper detail retrieval of the delta sigma DACs becomes a nice benefit here, while the smoother sound signature of the R2R DACs prevents things from sounding too digital. Ave Maria by Celtic Woman, a solo track sung by a soprano with a single harp in the background. We get piercing highs and upper mids on a crystal clear recording. Really sublime track with the right setup.
    • I found the Chord to sound the most natural, with great layering and separation. The strumming harp is very apparent and well defined while not outshining the vocals.
    • The D90 and RME sounded sweeter than the R2R DACs, tickling your eardrums with those upper registers. But the same story happens here, it tends to sound digital when you switch to the ARES II. The multibits are in between leaning towards smoothness. In the end I felt the R2Rs were more natural while the delta sigmas were more fun and lively.
    • Vibin’ Out by FKJ, great female vocal lead. Sounds the best on the Qutest with that natural tonality. The realism from the Qutest is a great match here and none of the other options are this pleasing. The 2nd place would have to go to the multibits. The clarity and mid-forward presentation make this song really enjoyable as well. The ARES is just a hair behind the multibits here. While I simply love the way it handles voices there is a smidgen of extra clarity from the Schiit DACs.
  • Electronic
    • Roses by Saint Jhn. The Imanbek Remix that you hear everywhere. I don’t care if you’re sick of it, it’s a great mix. This hands down sounds the best on both the D90 and RME. The D90 is simply the best at details, precise attack and decay, and just a fun and energetic presentation. The RME is not too far behind but it doesn’t quite have the level of details and that ultra black background that the D90 provides.
    • The trump card for RME is the customizations. It’s so easy to tailor so many settings to your liking. For comparison’s sake I did a little EQ test and bumped up the 120Hz shelf 3 decibels for both DACs. For the D90 I did it in software via Roon and on the RME via hardware with its internal settings. You get more impactful, cleaner bass from the ADI-2. I did the same test isolating at 1kHz and then 8kHz but they sounded more or less the same. If you appreciate plentiful and great quality bass you will love the lower frequency capabilities of the RME.
    • The song “Make You Happy” by Betablocker has some really fun synths throughout the track and I initially thought we’d have the same result with the AK delta sigmas taking the crown but Qutest just handles everything here masterfully. It sounds so real and incisive, and just very pleasing to hear.
    • Where the AK-based DACs have this no-nonsense way of presenting the song, sort of like a what was mixed in the studio will be represented here, the Qutest really takes it a step further and says, “Why does this loud snare drum or cymbal crash need to be emphasized so much? Let’s massage those parts a bit and round off these harsh edges so you can listen at a fun volume and not get hearing damage.”
    • “Tunnel Vision” by Zonderling, an amazingly fun song that will test your setup’s dynamics. During the main part there are different reverb effects applied to the synthesizers after each beat. These effects are more apparent on the Qutest, not necessarily because it’s more transparent, but because it’s more intimate and the way Chord decodes this song just puts the synths at the forefront.
    • For me, the D90 just kills it on this song. Tons of energy and liveliness, it really puts a smile on my face with both the V280 and the Arya.
    • With the R2R DACs you don’t get that crazy display of dynamics, at least to the level of the D90, but you get more texture and a wider soundstage. They feel more like you’re at an outdoor concert vs at home with your nice sound soundsystem. Personally I prefer the delta sigma options in this genre’s case.
  • Rock / Electric Guitar
    • So let’s play some Pink Floyd and Muse. And for that I switch over to the ZMF Aeolus as I love how guitar sounds on them. On the DACs the R2R units are mesmerizing, with haunting reverb and a lifelike presentation. They put the guitar riff front & center and handle the mids spectacularly. The ARES sounds more realistic to me but you get better dynamics with the multibits. Between the two I prefer the ARES.
    • Switching to the delta sigmas I notice the Qutest sounds even more natural and organic with softer edges. It makes for an easier listen and that patented sweet sound signature really draws you in.
    • The D90 and the RME on a technical level sounded amazing. You hear the dynamics, precision, layering and soundstage really well. That big chaotic energy was there while listening to Muse but I felt something was lacking, and it wasn’t until I plugged them into my tube amp that I got that extra soul that I was looking for. As for the slower, less busy Pink Floyd song I felt these DACs sounded just as good as the rest. It was harder to pick apart differences though I did note the decay was quicker and more precise on the guitar plucks, and everything just sounded more sharp in general.
    • As for which DAC I enjoyed the most for this genre it’s a tough call. I’d say the Qutest still sounds the most realistic but the R2R DACs give you that emotion and soul better. Just depends what sound you’re looking for and which amp you’re pairing these with. I liked the delta sigmas on the tube while the R2Rs did it for me on the solid state THX.