I’ll cut to the chase.
I have the following gears for comparison purposes:
– Schiit Modi 3
– Audio-gd Reference 5 DSP
– PS Audio DS DAC (not pictured as it is sitting on my audio rack with lots of cables tied onto the back of the rack, btw the rack is a beauty: Symbol Audio Dovetail)
– Denafrips Ares II (not pictured)
The comparisons were made using my headphone system. The headphones are:
– Sennheiser HD6xx
– Campfire Audio Cascade (yep, after so many bitchings about ALO Audio, I hold their first headphones in high regard)
– Grado RS2e
Yes, the last two headphones are very colored. I like them because they are fun to listen to and offer completely different experience from one to another. Unlike DACs which are hard to differentiate, headphones and loudspeakers are not.
Headphones amps used to power headphones above:
– Schiit Magni 3+
– Woo Audio 6 SE
My thought process was to use two different amps to basically give some options. The Magni 3+ is a sublime solid state while the Woo is a superb Class A tube amp.
They all offer very solid build quality. There is no product used from bad audio company here. At first, I thought the most attractive was off course the PS Audio DAC. My friend who visited me told me it looks like a Canon printer.
I can’t say I disagree. 😆
If I want to go down to nitpicking detail, I prefer all jacks to be chassis mounted. My Modi 3 has developed looser RCA connectors.
To level the playing field, I always use this album as a reference point: https://www.hdtracks.com/#/album/5bffce2cc6e102670ab3facd
With the exception of PS Audio DS DAC and Audio-gd RE5 DSP, most my DACs sound neutral. This is all you should know really.
Again, if I want to go down to nitpicking details, the RME DAC performs the best out the bunch. It’s incredibly detailed and transparent. The DAC is not fatiguing like some high end DACs can be (I’m looking at you Mytek Brooklyn…).
This RME DAC actually makes my Cascade more listenable. I thought the Cascade was somewhat producing slightly convoluted sound. I was not hearing clear enough passages between notes. There is not a clear sense of space. at least with Modi 3 and Ares II. I can use the Cascade for hours, a very rare case for headphones to me. Cascade becomes more precise in terms of imaging, instruments separations and soundstage. Bass thumps are not so overly boomy anymore. I’d even claim that now, Campfire Audio Cascade has become my favorite headphones.
With Grado RS2e, the German-made DAC does not improve much of Grado’s sound traits or at least as much as it improves Cascade. It does offer similar improvements on sense of space. I love the Grado phones as it is. Actually there isn’t much to improve. Or it could be that this particular Grado is not very sensitive to small changes. To me this is a win.
One interesting find that I very much appreciate is the availability of fine sounding headphone amps in the unit. To keep this short, unless you want to have transformers-coupled tube amp sound signature, you need to daisy chain the ADI2 DAC FS with an amp like my Schiit Magni 3+. Not only if you drive your headphones direct, your headphones will sound better but also the simplicity. I do not favor using a longer signal path in between DAC and amplifier unless a preamp or a separate headphone amp brings something different on the table. So, after I paired it with Magni 3+ and WA6SE, I drove my headphones direct from RME ADI2 DAC FS. You’ll get extra airness and impacts. It’s an audio bliss how this small unit can offer so much and sacrifices nothing in sound quality.
If I want to compare DS DAC and Ares II, I would have to use a headphone amp. There is a small noticeable inferior detail retrievals. Driving my headphones direct is simply superior. Does it fare well against Paul McGowan‘s beloved DAC and Denafrips’ cheapest DAC? Yes, it does. Both DS and Ares II DAC sound warm. This can be a very pleasing for some tracks. DS DAC basically masks imperfections. The next question what Hi-Fi exactly is? RME ADI2 DAC FS is hi-fi.
Ares II fares better, although not without its flaws. Ares II somehow lacks punches. It does not have the same surreal listening experience if you play good recordings. It’s far too flat and uninviting. This Ares II will definitely go for sale soon.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a very sensitive IEM. My only IEM is Sennheiser IE8. The IEM headphone jack drives both the IE8, Cascade and RS2e just fine. It’s completely silent. There is no background noise, period. According to AudioScienceReview.com, RME ADI2 DAC FS IEM output measures the best, even when compared to the venerable THX AAA 789.
RME ADI2 DAC is feature-packed. I’m a proponent that no speakers sound the same in various conditions. Headphones are not room-dependent but our ears are shaped differently. If micro adjustments are needed, RME has the features to do so.
I won’t cover all the features, they are just too many. You can read the manual, it covers everything. The manual is an interesting read; read it before you decide to buy it: https://www.rme-audio.de/downloads/adi2dac_e.pdf
Even without its’ features and functions, ADI2 DAC FS is a superb sounding DAC. Its’ features are basically the deal breaker. I’d pick RME ADI2 DAC FS over DACs listed above.