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    The Computer Audiophile

    Audiophile Style Products of the Decade

    We started this decade at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, where manufacturers were just getting on board with Asynchronous USB interfaces. Wavelength, Ayre, and dCS all had them before anyone else, but at CES Mbl, and Resolution Audio introduced their own async interfaces and many manufacturers were working on deals to license async technology. Shortly after CES we launched the first C.A.P.S. Server. The success of the C.A.P.S. project was beyond anything I predicted. Readers must also consider the reasons for this success. The major one for me was that HiFi companies were still twiddling their thumbs wondering if this new era of digital audio was going to pan out. In the years since 2010 we released several C.A.P.S. designs before manufacturers kicked things into gear with offerings of their own. 

     

    Doing its own thing way back in 2010 was Linn, which eschewed USB interfaces for Ethernet before most companies even thought about either. UPnP / DLNA was great even back then, until it wasn't. Universal Plug and Play is the most non-standard standard, and any early adopters found this out the hard way. Sure tech geeks had Linn systems running smoothly, but the same can't be said for everyone. 

     

    Digital HiFi was a bit sketchy back in the early 2010s. Roon was still Sooloos and I first saw the initial Aurender S10 music server at the California Audio Show in 2011. Since then, many products and manufacturers have come and gone as the options grew and competition heated up. At the end of this decade we have countless ways to play our digital collections, much better quality, and we even have access to high resolution music streaming at the tap of a finger. Seriously, it's a dream come true for music lovers and those of use who also like great sound quality. Overall it has been the best decade ever to be a digital audiophile. 


    It's time to give credit where credit is due. No long drawn out cliffhanger word salad. Here are the Audiophile Style Products of the Decade for Hardware, Software, and Music.

     

     

    Hardware



    Sonore-Rendu-PoD.jpgIt's nearly impossible to think about all the products that I've heard and used over the last ten years. Many of them were and are fantastic in all important categories such as sound quality, ease of use, build quality, customer support, and value. However, one series of products stands out to me as the biggest game changer in addition to checking all the right boxes. I'd love to hand this award to a single product, but as you'll see, it only makes sense to award the Audiophile Style Product of the Decade for hardware to the Rendu series of products from Sonore. 

     

    It all started with the microRendu in 2016. This was a product that nobody had previously built. What's more, the team at Sonore and Small Green Computer, with engineering by John Swenson, took this product to a level that wasn't just necessary or sufficient, it was extreme. A custom tiny computer with a custom operating system wasn't even on the radar of most audiophiles. In fact many had to be educated on why they'd want or need such a product. 

     

    Prior to the microRendu most audiophiles had Windows or Mac computers connected to DACs via USB. This is a great way to playback a digital collection through a HiFi system, but many people wanted something different. Once the microRendu was announced, the game was changed. It enabled HiFi enthusiasts to turn any USB DAC into an Ethernet capable DAC with features that no DAC with built-in Ethernet has even to this day.

     

    After the microRendu, Sonore released the ultraRendu, Signature Rendu, opticalRendu, and my current favorite the Signature Rendu SE Optical. Sonore didn't limit updates to only hardware. It released several software updates to the Sonicorbiter operating system that brought new capabilities and features. The Sonore team is so versitile, it can turn on a dime with software changes and upgrades long before the topic has even gotten out of committee at large manufacturers. I know this because I've talked to Sonore partners who praise everything about the company.

     

    The Rendu series of products started a movement and class of products that has been copied by several high end manufacturers, but has yet to be duplicated.  

     

    Visit Sonore

     

     

    Software

     

    Roon-PoD.jpgMusic library management and playback software has come a long way this decade. I remember opening Foobar2000 and thinking I could do my taxes and listen to music simultaneously. Cheers to its developer Peter Pawłowski for keeping the product free, as in beer. For some reason many of us in HiFi latched on to MediaMonkey in the early days. I still don't know why, especially when we have JRiver Media Center as a far better alternative. Oh well, live and learn. 

     

    By far the single product that has taken HiFi by storm the quickest and has produced the largest number of fans is Roon. Roon was a game changer for many in HiFi and is the Audiophile Style Product of the Decade for software. 

     

    Since its spin-off from Meridian in 2015 the Roon Labs team has continually updated the app by adding feature after feature. While the app has grown a bit more complex over the years, it's only because the Roon user base has demanded it. In addition to consumers, the number of manufacturers who've jumped onboard the Roon train, and the speed of adoption, has been amazing. It really seems like every manufacturer in HiFi has either Roon Ready or Roon Tested devices available for purchase. 

     

    Like all products, Roon isn't perfect and isn't for everybody. Its' subscription pricing model is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the app. In addition, some audiophiles have what I call a starter home network. Running Roon Ready endpoints on such a network can be a recipe for disaster, leading some to abandon the app altogether. That said, the vast majority of Roon users have fallen in love with the app. I use it almost every day, but I also use many other platforms almost every day. 

     

    Roon has become the app by which all others are judged and the app that generates the most feature requests to competing manufacturers. I look forward to what the Roon Labs team has in store for the next decade and to see what the competition has up its sleeve.

     

    Visit Roon Labs

     

     


    Music

     

    Qobuz-PoD.jpgThis selection may be a little controversial given its recent entry into the US market, but this company started in 2008, only one year after Audiophile Style opened its digital doors (as Computer Audiophile). I challenge anyone to find a better product, with more potential, and better customer service than Audiophile Style Product of the Decade winner for music, Qobuz. Everything about the Qobuz streaming service is better than the competition, with the exception of its coverage area. Members of the Audiophile Style community in Canada are chomping at the bit to start streaming its true pure PCM high resolution audio. 

     

    Qobuz has so much going for it that the other services can't currently match. It's embedded into apps from Lumin, Aurender, NAD, Bluesound, Roon, Auralic, and more. In addition, its desktop and mobile apps are head and shoulders above the competition. The fact that we can stream bit perfect high resolution music up through 24 bit / 192 kHz and view the PDF booklet for many albums is a dream come true for many of us. This is a service created by music lovers and it clearly shows. 

     

    Above all else, the one aspect of Qobuz that the others will never match is its customer service. The Qobuz team is here on Audiophile Style answering questions daily. When there's a problem with any part of the service from music metadata to a complete outage, the team responds promptly to let everyone know what's going on. Try getting service like this from Amazon, Tidal, Apple, Spotify, or Deezer. 

     

    The Qobuz catalog in France and other European countries is currently a bit better than in the US, but I don't expect this to be the case for too long. After all, the rights holders of the music want to make money from their investments. Plus, much of the paperwork has been done with labels already appearing on Qobuz in other countries. For many it's just a matter of signing-off on the new territory 

     

    Congratulations to the entire Qobuz team, in the US and France, for winning our Audiophile Style Product of the Decade for music. 

     

    Visit Qobuz

     

     

     



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    @The Computer Audiophile, I think cliches are a useful and efficient way of writing, but my pet peeve is misstated cliches. 😉I will never get used to "chomping at the bit", even though it is now prevalent. Horses "champ" at the bit when they are anxious, that is where the expression originated:  

    https://www.dictionary.com/browse/champ?s=t

     

    I enjoyed reading the best of decade article very much, but I would have liked to see a single product instead of a manufacturer for product of the decade. The microRendu would be my choice, so not far off. Interested to see what Sonore comes up with next, although I suspect the future belongs to integrated streaming and/or ethernet DAC's, not separate streaming solutions.  

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    10 minutes ago, audiobomber said:

    I believe SPDIF and AES are technically inferior to USB and I2S, because there are two clocks, sender and receiver, vs a master clock with USB and I2S. Some manufacturers get USB wrong, but that does not make SPDIF right. 

    The USB clock isn’t related to the timing of the audio signal though - the USB packets arrive in bursts every milli second and need to be reclocked before they can be passed to the DAC.

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    1 minute ago, Richard Dale said:

    The USB clock isn’t related to the timing of the audio signal though - the USB packets arrive in bursts every milli second and need to be reclocked before they can be passed to the DAC.

    Yes, but still only one clock determines timing, the receiving clock. 

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    2 minutes ago, audiobomber said:

    Yes, but still only one clock determines timing, the receiving clock. 

    No, there are two clocks and the USB clock is controlled by the bus master which is the computer end.

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    3 minutes ago, mansr said:

    With asynchronous USB, the receiver (DAC) is the master and tells the host (computer) how many samples to send per packet to maintain the proper average rate. The low-level USB link is controlled by the host, but that has no bearing on the audio processing.

    Yes the DAC end is the master in the sense of how it controls samples per packet as you describe, but the normal use of the word ‘master’ in USB parlance is the bus master that controls the USB clock.

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    6 minutes ago, Richard Dale said:

    Yes the DAC end is the master in the sense of how it controls samples per packet as you describe, but the normal use of the word ‘master’ in USB parlance is the bus master that controls the USB clock.

    USB terminology is host and device. Whichever end is sending at a given time is responsible for the clock. This can be either the host or the device.

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    3 minutes ago, mansr said:

    USB terminology is host and device. Whichever end is sending at a given time is responsible for the clock. This can be either the host or the device.

    I think you might be right about ‘host’ vs ‘master’ terminology here. But the computer device that controls the interval between USB audio packet bursts received by the DAC is the ‘host’, while the DAC as ‘master’ handles flow control by setting samples per packet. The clock in the DAC used for the digital to analog conversion is unrelated to the USB packet arrival rate.

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    1 hour ago, audiobomber said:

    I believe SPDIF and AES are technically inferior to USB and I2S, because there are two clocks, sender and receiver, vs a master clock with USB and I2S. Some manufacturers get USB wrong, but that does not make SPDIF right. 

    In the end each will develop into i2s which feeds the DAC chip. Some implementation are good and some are not. 

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     "technically speaking, if a USB input is implemented correctly with the best engineering, it will outperform a SPDIF input with a similar level of implementation. No matter what, SPDIF is technically the poorer interface design, because four signals (master clock, bit clock, word clock, and data) are converted to one on the send end, and then converted back to four again on the receive end, in a real time (not asynchronous, with the exception of a very few, very expensive DACs) data stream without any error correction"

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    3 hours ago, Raimund Heubel said:

    Why not consequently have ethernet or optical input and optical output as you can see below and here in order to best possible isolate the digital data stream before it enters the DAC?

    Very few DACs have optical input that isn't Toslink. I have the EMM Labs DV2 and NS1. I can connect the NS1 to the DAC via optical. It's pretty cool. But, if people don't like the few DACs with optical, it doesn't make sense to use a DAC they don't like just because it has optical. 

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    1 minute ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Many manufacturers are attempting to create DACs with all the interfaces. However, none of them can move at the speed of Sonore when it comes to new features, bug fixes, etc... "All" the hardware manufacturers use off the shelf solutions which are really limiting. Plus, the sound I'm getting from the Signature Rendu SE Optical connected via USB is better than Ethernet to the same DACs. 

    I don't doubt anything there. No multi-tool can compete with a specialized tool like a screwdriver and pliers, etc. But techy things improve over time,and a streaming DAC makes a lot of sense and will have some advantages (cost, convenience, design integration, etc).

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    1 hour ago, Richard Dale said:

    I think you might be right about ‘host’ vs ‘master’ terminology here. But the computer device that controls the interval between USB audio packet bursts received by the DAC is the ‘host’, while the DAC as ‘master’ handles flow control by setting samples per packet. The clock in the DAC used for the digital to analog conversion is unrelated to the USB packet arrival rate.

    Now we're in agreement.

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    3 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Very few DACs have optical input that isn't Toslink. I have the EMM Labs DV2 and NS1. I can connect the NS1 to the DAC via optical. It's pretty cool. But, if people don't like the few DACs with optical, it doesn't make sense to use a DAC they don't like just because it has optical. 

    Chris,

    as you can see in the 1st picture both the „arfi-stream“ renderer on top as well as the „artiflex“ DAC below have multiple non-optical outputs respective inputs a customer can choose from when ordering such devices from the company „artistic fidelity“.

    From my meanwhile years of experience in using these devices I can however say I sound wise clearly prefer the optical I/O over SPDIF, AES/EBU or USB. Only the ethernet RJ45 format - if properly implemented - comes close.

    But if customers want Toslink I/Os they can have them, for me there is no turning back.

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    Several other manufacturers are doing this, as it is the only way of offering perfect isolation between the source and the DAC. PSAudio is implementing some form of fiber connection ("Air Gap Audio Interface") I believe. I have been using  optical connections with the ECDesigns product, and their latest implementation ("ElectroTOS") is quite impressive. The devil is in the details, as always, and all the technical aspects go way above my head. 

     

    What I do find exciting is the idea that DACs my finally become "source immune" with these types of connections, meaning an inexpensive source will be sufficient, without the need for all sorts of tweaking upstream (for example, Audiophile network switches, the latest craze). 

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    39 minutes ago, Raimund Heubel said:

    Chris,

    as you can see in the 1st picture both the „arfi-stream“ renderer on top as well as the „artiflex“ DAC below have multiple non-optical outputs respective inputs a customer can choose from when ordering such devices from the company „artistic fidelity“.

    From my meanwhile years of experience in using these devices I can however say I sound wise clearly prefer the optical I/O over SPDIF, AES/EBU or USB. Only the ethernet RJ45 format - if properly implemented - comes close.

    But if customers want Toslink I/Os they can have them, for me there is no turning back.

    We use to build music servers with USB, SPDIF, or i2s and each was preferred 1/3 of the time. 

     

    The Toslink is hard to enjoy with high sample rate PCM and DSD so people will also be divided on that. 

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    33 minutes ago, hopkins said:

    Several other manufacturers are doing this, as it is the only way of offering perfect isolation between the source and the DAC. PSAudio is implementing some form of fiber connection ("Air Gap Audio Interface") I believe. I have been using  optical connections with the ECDesigns product, and their latest implementation ("ElectroTOS") is quite impressive. The devil is in the details, as always, and all the technical aspects go way above my head. 

     

    What I do find exciting is the idea that DACs my finally become "source immune" with these types of connections, meaning an inexpensive source will be sufficient, without the need for all sorts of tweaking upstream (for example, Audiophile network switches, the latest craze). 

    I heard that project was not moving forward?

    Which optical connection have you been using?

    You may still need an expensive source depending on what it is. 

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    @vortecjr

    I have been using only ECDesigns equipment, so if you are referring to PSAudio I have no idea. ECDesigns is finalizing new products which should be available in a couple months. Their new DAC will use this ElectroTos interlink (which I am using now in a prototype version, between their UPL source and their current MOS DAC). The led is at the DAC end of the cable, to put it simply, but in their latest implementation they have further improved the circuits that generate the signal in the source and decode it in the DAC, from what I understand. They will be offering adapters for sources with usb, toslink, or coax digital outputs. The source immunity may not be perfect, but we are getting closer, I believe. This is all mentioned in their thread on Diyaudio.  Something to keep an eye on. 

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    2 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Which ones?

     

    The one mentioned by Raimund Heubel, PSAudio I believe, and ECDesigns (the only one I am familiar with). Could be others. 

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