First: This is about taking one's music from wherever it is, in whatever quality, and playing it at the highest quality possible. Those who wish to play only pristine recordings can skip this article, without any judgement from me. To quote Sheryl Crow, "If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad."
Second: You probably need the Audiopraise VanityPRO, even if you don't realize it yet. Set your HDMI skepticism aside for about five minutes and continue reading.
Third: There are many possible uses for this product. I focussed on a limited set of theses uses, but I look forward to a great discussion about how others are using or will use the Audiopraise VanityPRO.
As a knuckle-dragging, card carrying audiophile, I have all the typical demonstration albums at 24 bit / 352.8 kHz and DSD256. I have hundreds of Mobile Fidelity, XRCD, XRCD 2, XRCD24, and on and on, special versions of my favorite albums. Like most audiophiles, some of these special versions are of albums we don't care for that much, but the music sounds spectacular.
Somewhere in the center of this music continuum resides my thousands of albums that sound less than stellar, but bring me so much joy. Like the aforementioned audiophile favorites, I play these albums on my high end system and it brings me one step closer to the real event.
On the far end of this continuum, opposite from the audiophile standards, is a treasure trove of music only available in lossy, subpar quality, from the most mainstream commercial sources such as YouTube or even Netflix. I know, I felt the collective cringe when you all read that sentence. What's a music loving audiophile to do when YouTube has a concert that will never be released through official channels? The $1,599 Audiopraise VanityPRO is one part of a fantastic solution to this problem. The other part is a $29 Google Chromecast that's still in production and readily available everywhere.
Let's Dig In
HDMI audio has been shunned by the audiophile community since the beginning. According to Audiopraise, "One of the biggest issues associated with HDMI audio is quality of the clock recovered from the HDMI stream and electrical noise associated with it. Despite many improvements in the newest HDMI receiver devices, the recovered clock always suffers from high levels of phase noise." Fortunately, Audiopraise also says this, "There is usually nothing wrong with the audio data itself, provided the receiver can take advantage of all the digital formats and sampling rates available on the source side. It is mainly the way the audio data is packed and interleaved with the video data in a high frequency digital signal and eventually recovered on the HDMI receiver (sink) side."
The Audiopraise VanityPRO is an HDMI audio extractor. HDMI audio extractors have been around for seemingly ever, but the VanityPRO is both subjectively and objectively the best one I've ever heard. The VanityPRO looks like a professional audio tool on the outside, but inside it's built like a true high end component.
Audiophiles will immediately appreciate the dielectric barrier built into the VanityPRO for two reasons. One, it's a galvanic barrier between the HDMI section and the audio output section. Two, this enables users of the VanityPRO to power the unit with two separate power supplies. According to Audiopraise, "The audio part can be powered from a high quality and low noise, possibly linear, power supply without the risk of being plagued by the noise from the switching regulators on the HDMI side."
Sonore sent me the stereo version of the VanityPRO with two very good and inexpensive power supplies (Jameco ReliaPro, Product Number 1953612, Model Number DDU050100).
Audiopraise is definitely an engineering first company, as such it has made available extensive objective information about the VanityPRO, HDMI audio in general, and some comparisons to other products. I'll save everyone, myself included, from the dry details, and link to the information here in the Audiopraise HDMI Audio Jitter PDF.
The VanityPRO incoming signals on its HDMI 2.0a interface, and can pass them through on an HDMI output, or via several different stereo or multi-channel interfaces. It supports from 44.1 kHz through 192 kHz and both 16 and 24 bit signals. One feature that I wasn't able to test, is its DSD to PCM conversion and raw DSD to DoP conversion. I don't have an SACD player or any device capable of outputting DSD over HDMI, but I know many readers will enjoy this capability. It should be an excellent way to get DSD audio into a great DAC.
In the VanityPRO user manual, there's a note about using the unit with some ESS Sabre based DACs. Here is the note in its entirety.
"Note 1: The user might experience occasional dropouts in the audio signal with a DAC based on a ESS (Sabre) DAC chip. The jitter attenuation function of this chip called DPLL has several settings and with certain combinations of the DAC’s local oscillator and the DPLL setting the DAC chip may momentarily unlock when the VanityPRO is adjusting its own audio clock. Many ESS chip-based DACs have the DPLL settings exposed to the user and using a lower DPLL setting usually fixes the problem."
I setup the VanityPRO in two different systems, one for testing and one for listening.
Testing System: My testing system consisted of a Google Chromecast, Audiopraise VanityPRO, and a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS3. The sole purpose of this system was to verify the VanityPRO was passing the audio through to my audio system bit perfect, without any DSP.
Listening System: My listening system consisted of a Google Chromecast, Audiopraise VanityPRO, Linn Klimax DSM, Constellation Audio amps, and Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2 speakers. This system has the unique capability to accept audio from both the VanityPRO via S/PDIF and from the Chromecast directly via HDMI. It's the perfect system for subjectively evaluating the VanityPRO.
I used the Google Chromecast (standard version, not Chromecast Audio or Chromecast with Google TV) because it's in current production, unlike the Chromecast Audio, and it doesn't require a display for setup or daily use, like an AppleTV or Roku. As a 100% audio guy without a display in my listening room, I love the fact that the Chromecast never has a popup error message or anything that requires a display.
Some readers may also be asking why not just use AirPlay directly to an audio component like the Linn Klimax DSM. I think AirPlay has one of the worst design flaws of any product. I know Apple views this as a feature, but it's a flaw in my opinion. AirPlay requires that the audio be routed through one's phone/tablet/computer on its way to the audio device. This is a nonstarter for me. Nobody would ever accept a television that sent all video through the remote control, and I don't accept a solution that sends all audio through the remote control. I use AirPlay when I have to, but not by choice.
Use Case One - Content from sources such as YouTube, Netflix, and HBO MAX.
Again, keep an open mind until you hear me out. I'm a huge Tracy Chapman fan. She is fairly reclusive and hasn't released much new music or music from her archives. When I discovered her full concert from December 04, 1988 at the Oakland Coliseum, available on YouTube, I was elated. This is pure talent on display, without effects, accompanying musicians, dancers, or any distracting elements. Previously, I was stuck listening to this concert every which way, except my main audio system. Now, I sent it through the isolation and enhanced clock recovery of the Audiopraise VanityPRO, and sat back in my listening chair to enjoy.
The VanityPRO can't get something from nothing, but it can do all that we should ask of a component. That is, take whatever content I want to enjoy, and make it sound as good as possible. Connected to the Linn Klimax DSM, this Tracy Chapman concert sent chills up and down my spine. I felt like I was eating a forbidden fruit because I was listening to a concert in a high end way that wasn't previously available to me, and in a way that I know most audiophiles will love if they only knew about it.
If you couldn't tell by now, I'm a fan of audio, not video. Audio is theater of the mind that, like books, are always better than the movie. With this in mind, I opened Netflix on my iPhone, and casted Springsteen on Broadway to my main audio system. The audio started, I put my phone away, and listened to Bruce tell stories and play music. I had the audio in great quality, while I had the stories running through my mind. His stories about New Jersey, his parents, his sister, etc... all went through my head as I imagined what everything looked like back in the day. To me, this is incredibly enjoyable. Have you ever read a book, imagined what the characters looked like, then been severely disappointed when seeing the official version of said characters? If so, you likely get why I enjoy this high end audio, theater of the mind experience.
Readers should note that I had to set the Chromecast in stereo mode, for Netflix content to work in my system. This configuration is done through the Google Home app on a phone, not a television display. Perhaps one of these days I'll have a full multi-channel system :~)
Comparing the audio quality of content from YouTube going through the VanityPRO and bypassing the VanityPRO, was hit and miss. Some of the audio quality is so questionable as to be a modern day audio equivalent of the Zapruder film, and I felt lucky just to be hearing it through my main system (Pearl Jam concert from 1998 in Minneapolis). Other content sounded pretty dang good and was certainly assisted by the Audiopraise VanityPRO.
Listening to Ryo Fukui's album Scenery from YouTube, I could hear an improvement through the VanityPRO. I learned about this album after reading a great article about Japanese jazz. Given that the album isn't available for streaming on Tidal or Qobuz and I'd just "have to" order the HQCD version from Japan, I wanted to get the best taste of the album that I could. I pulled it up on YouTube via my iPhone and sent it through the Chromecast / VanityPRO combo and enjoyed both it and the sound quality. The VanityPRO appeared to reduce background noise associated with HDMI, not background noise embedded in the YouTube audio. This is exactly what the device is supposed to do. Count me in as a big fan.
Use Case Two - Content from streaming apps such as Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Unlimited, and Apple Music.
Dovetailing into the last album I mentioned above, Ryo Fukui's album Scenery, while it wasn't available on Qobuz or Tidal, it was available on Amazon Music Unlimited (more on this in a bit). This brings up use case number two, streaming lossless audio from services such as Amazon, Qobuz, Tidal, and Apple Music.
I did extensive testing with this use case, both objectively and subjectively. The HDCD test was invaluable for identifying bit perfect playback, or not (Apple Music I'm looking at you). It was also more enjoyable to use some great recordings when subjectively testing audio quality between the VanityPRO and direct HDMI input.
Using Amazon Music Unlimited on a Samsung Galaxy Tab A7 Lite, because Amazon can't send audio to a Chromecast from iOS, I sent the lossless 16/44.1 version of Ryo Fukui's album Scenery through the Chromecast / VanityPRO combo. The sound quality was much better than I thought ti would be. The sound of Satoshi Denpo's double bass, both in the background at low levels and in the forefront at certain points on the album, really sucked me in. Also, Yoshinori Fukui's drum solo on the track Early Summer was equally as enjoyable. This hardware / software combination was so good that I know I could fool half of my friends at the next audio show into thinking it was a fairly nice server feeding the DAC.
The VanityPRO is all that it's cracked up to be from my own subjective point of view. Switching back and forth between the VanityPRO and the direct HDMI input, I immediately noticed a dullness, a bit of rounded edges on transients, and something that seemed to sit just under the music when listening without the VanityPRO. I don't know if this was HDMI noise, phase noise, or what, but the VanityPRO removed it and I was very grateful. Again, the device accepts our audio from anywhere and makes it sound as good as it possibly can. No juicing up the highs or lows, or EQ'ing anything. In a way, the VanityPRO just cleans up the signal by removing what wasn't on the actual recording. I must also note, the Linn unit has ultra low latency on its HDMI input because this input is used with AV systems and movies, where lip-sync issues are dealbreakers. I'm unsure if means that sending audio through a VanityPRO style cleanup just can't be done because it would introduce latency, but that's my hunch.
Digging more into this use case, I see it as viable under certain conditions. Yes, the scenario I mentioned above was absolutely perfect, but this was partially because the audio was CD quality. The Chromecast is limited to 16 or 24 bit, and 44.1. or 48 kHz. Remember, I wasn't using the long discontinued Chromecast Audio. I used the standard Chromecast. Trying to find a technical document that specifies the supported same rates of the Chromecast or Chromecast with Google TV (that supports 4K video) is impossible. I had to run my own tests, but I am curious if the 4K Chromecast supports higher sample rates.
I ran through numerous apps, sending the audio to the Chromecast and checking for bit perfection. Here's what I found.
Apple macOS / iOS
- Tidal - macOS and iOS are bit perfect, but its mQa files prohibit streaming of lossless pure PCM on most albums. Even when streaming HiFI, not Master, it isn't bit perfect if there's an mQa version on Tidal. I can stream CD quality Reference Recordings albums bit perfect because they've never gone through the digital signal processing of mQa.
- Qobuz - macOS and iOS are Bit perfect.
- Amazon Unlimited - can't be done on iOS.
- Apple - Can't be done on macOS or iOS.
- Bandcamp - Casting is lossy, even if the content purchased on Bandcamp was lossless.
Note: Occasionally 24/44.1 content through Chromecast was flakey, causing the HDCD / bit perfect light to go on and off. I didn't hear an audible glitch in this limited testing.
- Apple Music - I couldn't get Apple Music to stream bit perfect through the Chromecast.
- Qobuz - Bit perfect.
- Tidal - Bit perfect.
- Amazon Music - Bit perfect.
The Audiopraise VanityPRO is one of those tools every audiophile should have connected to his system at all times. Hang a Chromecast off the VanityPRO and connect it to an open input on the DAC. This way, one's system is always capable to accepting audio from more sources and it's going to make those sources sound as good as they possibly can. Audiophiles like me, will want one for frequent listening, not just the odd chance it's needed. The VanityPRO opens up (and cleans up) a world of more audio content that's unavailable via our typical streaming services.
The VanityPRO proved better than a direct HDMI input in my listening tests, and in the Audiopraise objective measurements. The device may look fairly industrial on the outside, but inside its dielectric barrier and dual power zones are features found in very high end components. I'm unfamiliar with Audiopraise as a company, but given that the team at Sonore is selling the VanityPRO and stands behind it, I have no worries.
The Audiopraise VanityPRO HDMI audio extractor is the product you need, whether you realize it or not, and is a product I won't be sending back. Add to cart, add to system, add to enjoyment.
- Audiopraise VanityPRO HDMI Audio Extractor $1,599
- Audiopraise VanityPRO Product Brief (PDF)
- Audiopraise VanityPRO User Manual (PDF)
Where To Buy
- Source: QNAP TVS-872XT, Aurender N20, CAPS 20
- DAC: EMM Labs DV2, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil LiM, Meitner Audio MA3, Denafrips Terminator II
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE (optical), APL HiFi DNP-SR, CAPS 20.1
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers, Constellation Audio Inspiration Integrated 1.0
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia Series 2, Wilson Audio TuneTot
- Headphones: RAAL-requisite SR1a
- Digital Signal Processing: Accurate Sound, HQPlayer
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote, Aurender Conductor, HQPDcontrol v4 (iOS) (Android), JPLAY for iOS
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro (M1)
- Playback Software: Roon, HQPlayer
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): QNAP TVS-872XT
- Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables, Gotham GAC-4/1 ultraPro Balanced XLR Audio Cable (40'), AudioQuest Robin Hood SILVER (ZERO)
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: one 4kVA and one 5 kVA 512 Engineering Symmetrical Power Source
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Fiber optic Cables: Single Mode OS1-9/125um (LC to LC)
- Acoustic Room Treatments: Vicoustic Diffusion and Absorption, ATS Acoustics Bass Traps
- Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 16 XG, Ubiquiti UniFi Security Gateway Pro 4, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, UniFi FlexHD AP, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x6, Commercial Grade Fiber Optic Patch Cables, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
This graph shows the frequency response of my room before (top) and after (bottom) tuning by Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The standard used for this curve is EBU 3276. This tuning can be used with Roon, JRiver, and other apps that accept convolution filters. When evaluating equipment I use my system with and without this tuning engaged. The signal processing takes place in the digital domain before the audio reaches the DAC, thus enabling me to evaluate the components under review without anything changing the signal further downstream.
My RAAL-requisite SR1a headphones using a convolution filter created my Mitch Barnett of Accurate Sound. The blue trace is the raw measurement and green is the corrected response. Here we bring down the two peaks above the green curve, in addition to smoothing out the response.
Here is an article all about the headphone filter - Taking the SR1a to Another Level
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