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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

     

     

     



    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments



    ECDesigns will be affordable as well. Their adapters will be compatible with toslink inputs of most DACs. 

     

    Can you tell us more about your project ? 

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    14 minutes ago, Matias said:

    MSB has been isolating their DAC inputs with their proprietary ProISL fiber as well.

     

    http://www.msbtechnology.com/accessories/prousb/

     

    Or Bel Canto Black system went further and its "preamp" converts everything to 2 fibers and sends to the dac+amplifier monos.

     

    http://www.belcantodesign.com/home/black/the-system/

     

     

    Ayre has used optical isolation inside DACs. If I remember right, they said it has a small negative effect. I could be wrong though. 

     

     

     

    6 minutes ago, hopkins said:

    ECDesigns will be affordable as well. Their adapters will be compatible with toslink inputs of most DACs. 

     

    Can you tell us more about your project ? 

     

    Toslink is so limited. I don't think I'd go back to it. 

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    6 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

     

    Ayre has used optical isolation inside DACs. If I remember right, they said it has a small negative effect. I could be wrong though. 

     

     

     

     

    Toslink is so limited. I don't think I'd go back to it. 

     

    Well, that is another interesting debate :)

    For the coming decade I believe we will see "source immunity" and "format immunity" meaning DACs capable of offering similar quality for Redbook and high res. Let's see in 10 years (if we are still around) what will be in your "products of the decade".

     

    Vis à vis the négative effects of optical, they really depend on the implementation. The toslink cable is also a source of jitter signal degradation from what I understand. 

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    5 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

     

    Ayre has used optical isolation inside DACs. If I remember right, they said it has a small negative effect. I could be wrong though. 

    Yes, QB-9 DSD started with optical isolation of the USB port inside the unit. I always wondered why other manufacturers did not also implement this.

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    Just now, hopkins said:

     

    Well, that is another interesting debate :)

    For the coming decade I believe we will see "source immunity" and "format immunity" meaning DACs capable of offering similar quality for Redbook and high res. Let's see in 10 years (if we are still around) what will be in your "products of the decade".

    Source immunity would be really cool. The Lumin X1 I just reviewed has fiber Ethernet input.

     

    I don't believe it has happened in analog yet. 

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    Just now, Matias said:

    Yes, QB-9 DSD started with optical isolation of the USB port inside the unit. I always wondered why other manufacturers did not also implement this.

    Sometimes the cure also has issues not present in the original issue. Perhaps the opto isolator has issues or other manufacturers didn't think it was necessary or the cost was higher. Who knows. 

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    37 minutes ago, Matias said:

    Yes, QB-9 DSD started with optical isolation of the USB port inside the unit. I always wondered why other manufacturers did not also implement this.

     

    At least some optical isolators are themselves electrically noisy when they do the conversion back to electrical, though I would guess this wasn't the case with the Ayre units.

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    I would like to add something, to "tie" these different comments together. What Chri's 3 selections have in commmon, it seems to me, is "simplicity". As Duke Ellington once said: "Simplicity is a most complex form", and that is true for audio systems as well - there is certainly a lot of complexity involved in the design of these systems. Now lets hope we see even more progess in the coming years, with outstanding audio quality of course.

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    I wonder why Quboz is not available in the Nordics/Scandinavia? Neither for streaming or downloads. This is the message you get when we try to enter:

     

    Qobuz isn't available in your country.

     

    Qobuz isn't available in your country.

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    On 12/20/2019 at 6:31 PM, mansr said:

    Such designs can achieve jitter performance very close to that of a plain crystal oscillator, close enough to be of no concern for audio purposes.

    While I am well aware of the approach you describe, I have yet to hear an SPDIF interface which sounds as good as a properly implemented USB one (although I would expect that if the async SPDIF receivers, as apparently used by Ayre and dCS to be perhaps be equal if they are truly async).  And I prefer to disable all PLLs and use synchronous clocking in my ESS based DIY DACs for this same reason, better sound.  So with my ESS DACs the masterclock, at 45.1584 MHz is the same clock used for the USB interface (I play only DSD 256, so no need for a 48 KHz base XO clock).  While I understand your belief, and the measurements, which suggest that a PLL based approach, and/or async re-clocking at the DAC approach is of "no concern", my ears tell me something different: that a good (low phase noise at low frequencies) master XO, at the DAC chip, acting as master for both the source (USB in my case) and the DAC (allowing for bit clock and master clock to be in sync) just sounds better.  I can audition both approaches in the same (DIY) DAC, and the synchronous clocking approaching plain sounds better.  Yes, this is subjective evaluation for sure, both approaches yield very good measured results with the ESS 9038 Pro.  Although I readily admit the differences here are are small, but they are significant enough in an audiophile sense for me to have a clear preference.

     

    As for I2S I am not a fan of using this interfaces for between boxes as currently implemented by most.  I2S might work really well if it used a master clock at the DAC, and then sent that clock back to the source, but this is not how it is implemented (excepting perhaps MSB's proprietary approach).  Of course if one really believes re-clocking everything into a new clock domain at the DAC and PLLs are perfect, then sure, it would be fine.  And yes, we are phrasing a bit differently...  Since it is easily possible to just have one master, close to the DAC conversion stage (chip or discrete, whatever), I prefer having one master in that location, and sending that master back to the source (whatever it may be) and then re-align everything via a Potato chip and the master clock right there, directly before the conversion.  Then we need no PLLs, async re-clocking, or any other nonsense.  Just the best possible XO at the DAC conversion stage, with everything else synched to that single clock (or two of them if one must deal with the two base frequencies).

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    I'm testing Dante (AOIP) to a Burl DAC (with Dante card installed) as a possible alternative interconnection method to all this USB/SPDIF madness. PC serves files through Dante virtual sound card or dedicated PCIe card, delivered direct over Ethernet (optical isolators used), with everything reclocked at the DAC. There is also an input for an external clock if you want to up the anti.

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    25 minutes ago, mwhitak said:

    I'm testing Dante (AOIP) to a Burl DAC (with Dante card installed) as a possible alternative interconnection method to all this USB/SPDIF madness. PC serves files through Dante virtual sound card or dedicated PCIe card, delivered direct over Ethernet (optical isolators used), with everything reclocked at the DAC. There is also an input for an external clock if you want to up the anti.

    Is there a sample rate limit using Dante in your setup?

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    5 hours ago, barrows said:

    While I am well aware of the approach you describe, I have yet to hear an SPDIF interface which sounds as good as a properly implemented USB one (although I would expect that if the async SPDIF receivers, as apparently used by Ayre and dCS to be perhaps be equal if they are truly async).  And I prefer to disable all PLLs and use synchronous clocking in my ESS based DIY DACs for this same reason, better sound.  So with my ESS DACs the masterclock, at 45.1584 MHz is the same clock used for the USB interface (I play only DSD 256, so no need for a 48 KHz base XO clock).  While I understand your belief, and the measurements, which suggest that a PLL based approach, and/or async re-clocking at the DAC approach is of "no concern", my ears tell me something different: that a good (low phase noise at low frequencies) master XO, at the DAC chip, acting as master for both the source (USB in my case) and the DAC (allowing for bit clock and master clock to be in sync) just sounds better.  I can audition both approaches in the same (DIY) DAC, and the synchronous clocking approaching plain sounds better.  Yes, this is subjective evaluation for sure, both approaches yield very good measured results with the ESS 9038 Pro.  Although I readily admit the differences here are are small, but they are significant enough in an audiophile sense for me to have a clear preference.

     

    As for I2S I am not a fan of using this interfaces for between boxes as currently implemented by most.  I2S might work really well if it used a master clock at the DAC, and then sent that clock back to the source, but this is not how it is implemented (excepting perhaps MSB's proprietary approach).  Of course if one really believes re-clocking everything into a new clock domain at the DAC and PLLs are perfect, then sure, it would be fine.  And yes, we are phrasing a bit differently...  Since it is easily possible to just have one master, close to the DAC conversion stage (chip or discrete, whatever), I prefer having one master in that location, and sending that master back to the source (whatever it may be) and then re-align everything via a Potato chip and the master clock right there, directly before the conversion.  Then we need no PLLs, async re-clocking, or any other nonsense.  Just the best possible XO at the DAC conversion stage, with everything else synched to that single clock (or two of them if one must deal with the two base frequencies).

    Any plans for a commercial DAC?

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    1 hour ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Is there a sample rate limit using Dante in your setup?

    Since Dante is a pro audio setup....I believe the maximum is 32 bits/ 192khz.

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    53 minutes ago, mwhitak said:

    Since Dante is a pro audio setup....I believe the maximum is 32 bits/ 192khz.

    Yeah, I’m pretty familiar with the similar technologies. I thought there was a 96k limit, but that could’ve been a while ago. 
     

    Here is an interesting interview I did with Domonique from Merging about ARS67 and Ravenna etc...

     

     

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    3 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Yeah, I’m pretty familiar with the similar technologies. I thought there was a 96k limit, but that could’ve been a while ago. 
     

    Here is an interesting interview I did with Domonique from Merging about ARS67 and Ravenna etc...

     

     

     

    Interesting...thanks Chris ! Perhaps it's time for AudiophileStyle to do a write up on the latest developments in AES67/AOIP ? 

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    I will not endorse as Product of the Decade any product that is not available to large swathes of audio consumers. Please check the global distribution extent of products before making awards.

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    1 hour ago, Arg said:

    I will not endorse as Product of the Decade any product that is not available to large swathes of audio consumers. Please check the global distribution extent of products before making awards.

    I certainly hear what you’re saying but I believe this is a pretty large group of people. Certainly not as many people as some other services, but that’s ok in my book. 
     

    Austria

    Belgium

    Ireland

    Italy

    France

    Germany

    Luxembourg

    Netherlands

    Spain

    Switzerland

    United Kingdom

    USA

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