While the best analog-to-digital converter (or “ADC”) is different for everyone here is a list of the most worthy contenders (and thus brands) on the market today.
But first some advice: if you are planning to track your converter is probably not the weakest link in your recording setup. The room is more important than the microphone, which is more important than the preamp, which is more important than the converter. Just about all modern converters have extremely low noise floors and are generally suitable for most people’s needs. The law of decreasing returns in audio gear.
If one is say, looking to master or sweeten an already-recorded digital signal then investing in a really good ADC (and DAC – digital-to-analog converter) could be more practical.
However the best converters can do things like create a more defined sense of space, or make someone who isn’t a critical listener notice the difference between preamps. If you do tracking (recording) and have a great room+mic+preamp then you might want to invest in one of these ADCs
Clocking is really important to analog-to-digital conversion creating a better image to my ears in conversion shootouts. better clocking can also have a clarity to particularly the low frequencies in my experience. Having a really nice internal clock is important for tracking as analog-to-digital clocking cannot be improved by jitter rejection like with digital-to-analog conversion.
With that said upgrading a converter with an external clock can can have a positive impact on the performance of the converter if the external clock is better and the connection between hardware units is good.
There hasn’t been as much development of ADC microchips as with the DAC chips over the past 20 years so most of the modern technology is focused on getting a better signal to the chips
The analog side of the converter has a huge impact on the sound much like the sound of the analog side of a tape recorder gives the timbre of what many would call a “tape” sound. Class A or passive seems to be a trend among the best-sounding converters but there are many creative ways they have been made.
Latency is also a big factor with audio conversion when tracking. The Lavry Gold is a very highly-regarded converter however it has 8ms of latency, and that’s before the interface and DAW introduce their own latencies. This may disrupt a musician’s timing, for example. Personally I prefer under 2ms total latency to be ideal for tracking. Many will be ok with 5 milliseconds (in Pro Tools that’s 256 samples for 44.1-48khz, 512 samples for 88.2-96khz, and 1024 samples for 176.4-192khz). Sound travels at about 5ms per foot so if a guitar player is used to playing with their amp across the room 8ms might be totally fine for them, or even feel natural. Likewise a drummer is practically inside their kit so a total latency of 2ms would sound natural
There is no “best” converter but here’s a list and some details to help you decide which to shoot out.
This page is an ongoing project, please let me know if your converter is not included (and should be!)
2192 – Tape OP, Sound On Sound
X16 – While much cheaper than most on this list the Apollo X16 has extremely high specs. While specs do not make a converter it is worth noting that the X16 has some really desirable numbers in comparison to many other converters on the market.
Dynamic Range: 124 dB (A-weighted), THD+N: -115 dB (0.00018%), Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz, ±0.05 dB
Avid MODDED – Black Lion Audio does a mod that drastically improves the quality
Benchmark – ADC16
Burl – B2 Bomber and Mothership – These are designed to add a bit of analog mojo to a signal. If driven hard more of that quality is imparted on the sound. While “colored” they are still a converter, not a preamp or microphone, so it is a more subtle difference.
Crane Song HEDD
emmLabs DAC – Meitner ADC8 MK IV – Class A
Euphonix – some color,
Forssell – MADC-2 and MADC-4 – There is no shortage of raving reviews on these units (along with the MADA-2a which is ADDA). In one thread it is reviewed as both wonderful but that it lacks soft-limiting. Some have said the DA section is where this unit really shines. This unit seems to win a lot of shootouts.
Greg Hanks Design BA-AD660
Grimm – AD1 – discontinued – Discrete, Class A – DSD converter
Lavry (gold and blue)
Gold – Has a sound. Has amazing ‘soft clipping’ to crank the gain while mastering. Conversely not exactly high-headroom compared to some modern converters. Very old while converters advanced rapidly in the 2010’s however there could be benefits too. The Most desirable version is the MKII model not the current MKIII because some components could no longer be sourced, Some like the older versions more 8ms latency from internal processing. Lavry uses its own converter chips: “Lavry uses successive approximation ADCs as opposed to Delta Sigma ADCs wich are standard in most other products. This is a fundamentally different conversion process and the main reason why the Gold AD sounds the way it does.” Here are some well-formed thoughts about the Lavry Gold vs Prism ADA-8XR. Class A.
Blue – Integrated circuit, also has a sound, old but some might still prefer it to some other items on this list. Items on the circuit board are not as high-end as what is found on the gold as well as a switching power supply but it was designed as a lower-cost alternative.
ADC F444 – The linked version, the F444D has 4 channels. Very affordable and perfectly natural and smooth. The imaging is less etched out than Mytek’s Some Advice about how to use Lake People converters Another view
ADC RS04 *
Lynx Hilo – Great RTA meter
Lucid Technologies ADA 8824
Pacific Microsonics – Model Two – This is a legendary unit made in the 90’s There were only 100 made, but they have a reputation of being “cooler than reality” but in a convincing way. They are still loved. Perhaps because microprocessor voltages were so much higher than they are now (because our processors now are so much more efficient. Today’s processors have transistors that are 5nm and even smaller,
ADA-8XR – “Bouncy” low-end, lots of headroom. “Relaxed” These converters have been very highly regarded for a long time but are now aging and while still regarded as excellent the price tag of other converters of high quality has dropped significantly.
Titan – Strong reputation but across a wide range of ears the ADA-8XR wins out often. Debate below!
Metric Halo LIO-8 3d
MSB Technologie ADC V
Nagra VI Music – While this is designed as a field recorder the conversion is quite good
QES Labs – PAD-2 – transparent/clean, maintains space very well
RME ADI-8 QS – excellent drivers/low latency but not known as a ‘top-end’ converter
Sound Designs – what do you think of the conversion?
Black Lion Audio – Their AVID HD I/O and 192 mods have a really good reputation.
USB and Thunderbolt honorable mentions
Ayre Acoustics – QA-9
Build your own!
Texas Instruments – PCM4222 Evaluation Module (EVM)
Other converters that are not “High end” but are worth considering:
Aphex, Art, Audient, Black Lion Audio Drawmer, Focusrite, Fostex, Klark Teknik, MOTU, PreSonus, Sonifex, Tascam
More thoughts about conversion
Each neuron hears once every 1 millisecond so if a conversion process can happen within 1ms from A to D to A again then it will be imperceptible by the artist in terms of musical performance
Higher bitrates reproduce/record a wider frequency range and it can be argued that it has an effect on the overall tambre of the audio at high SPL’s. At 100dB this could have an audible difference but it would be so subtle that the shaking of the room at that loudness would have more of an effect in most places.