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USB to SPDIF "converters"......WTF?


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This is my second post here. I have been a regular over at audioasylum.com for 10 years.

Yes, I am making the leap to a music server and am carefully researching all the subtle nuances, of which there appear to be many. I have a budget this year so I cannot just waltz out and score a berkeley, wavelength or any other DAC that has supposedly implemented USB properly.....whatever, right?

 

I have read many things here and I appreciate the articles by Chris about the USB/SPDIF "debate". I have settled on a MacBook with a modded PS Audio DAC III....for now. Yes, I am an audiofool and want to be able to test and evaluate new DACs if liquidity and college tuition for kids allows. I see/hear/read that, unless one acquires a DAC that has USB done well (ie...above mentioned products) that it may be wise to get an external USB>SPDIF converter. Sheet, man, that is one more thing that is just confoosing as hell to me. So, my googling and forum "skills" have lead me to believe that there are many to choose from. I appreciate all feedback here as I navigate yet another technical mind field:

 

1. Bel Canto USB Link - $500

2. Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3 - $700

3. Hagerman USB - $130

4. M-Audio Transit - $99

5. Digiatl Link PC Link - $26

6. Trends Audio USB Coverter - $180

 

Any and all input is immensely appreciated.

Thanks,

Ian

 

 

 

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I can't compare and contrast, however you'll want to consider whether your objectives include higher res playback. I think all of these will do the standard redbook format at 44.1 kHz but not all will do 88.2 kHz, 96 kHz or (To Infinity... and Beyond!) higher rates.

 

I did think about this kind of thing for awhile. In my case, I just sat on it until I could afford the lower end Wavelength (Proton)-- so as to get a good 96kHz implementation in a one-box solution.

 

However if you've aspirations to be in to 192kHz club, then that fact alone may hover you onto a very short list. I did worry over such things, but decided 96 kHz would suffice. :-)

 

 

2013 MacBook Pro Retina -> {Pure Music | Audirvana} -> {Dragonfly Red v.1} -> AKG K-702 or Sennheiser HD650 headphones.

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It's great to see readers do a little research and ask questions! I've actually heard good thing about all of these converters. There are major differences in the design and implementation of them however. The Bel Canto and the Empirical Audio models use the CEntrance code that allows one to use them without added device drivers. Very plug and play. These devices also handle 88.2 as well as 96k. Implementation is key with these devices.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Bob -

 

It's things like this, as you mention above, that leave me scratching my head.

In mnay debates over at Audio Asylum, I see ardent defenses of one transfer protocol over another. To be candid, it was this exact type of minutae that I had hoped to escape from my cluttered CD transport world.

 

I would think that a simple Toslink connection from the Mac to the DAC would suffice. And, yes, it is within my "God" given right to listen, test and audition for myself. But, with 2 kids, wife, dog, business, etc., I just can't pull it off anymore. I dont have the time to sit in my basement and play with cables and little boxes.

 

10 years ago, I would have marched out and bought "Chris' Reference Mac Server" and maybe in 2-3 years I will. In the mean time, I am addressing the myriad connection, protocol and hardware issues in the same way

i did when I built a world-class cdp-based system.

 

ARGH!!!!....;-)

 

 

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Bob -

 

It's things like this, as you mention above, that leave me scratching my head.

In mnay debates over at Audio Asylum, I see ardent defenses of one transfer protocol over another. To be candid, it was this exact type of minutae that I had hoped to escape from my cluttered CD transport world.

 

I would think that a simple Toslink connection from the Mac to the DAC would suffice. And, yes, it is within my "God" given right to listen, test and audition for myself. But, with 2 kids, wife, dog, business, etc., I just can't pull it off anymore. I dont have the time to sit in my basement and play with cables and little boxes.

 

10 years ago, I would have marched out and bought "Chris' Reference Mac Server" and maybe in 2-3 years I will. In the mean time, I am addressing the myriad connection, protocol and hardware issues in the same way

i did when I built a world-class cdp-based system.

 

ARGH!!!!....;-)

 

 

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I have used the HagUSB, and I am currently using an Off-Ramp. I am still using a ten-year-old Timbre tt-1 dac, and haven't been able to find anything that I can afford that is even close to it. I hope I can get a listen to the new Ayre.

 

The HagUSB is extremely good for the money. The Off-Ramp is better. Of course, after a certain point improved sound quality if expensive.

 

I expect all of these devices are system specific in how they perform.

Don

 

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You'll get as many answers as there are forum members! This is both the beauty of, and the frustration of, forums!

 

Reading between the lines of your post I get the feeling that a quick and simple solution is taking precedence over outright sound quality. I have no doubt that some of the items you mention will give you some serious comparison work to do, between Toslink and the more esoteric USB solutions, in order to satisfy yourself that the additional expense is justified.

 

If you are going to leave this for sometime in the future, then the quick and simple answer is Toslink to Dac - chuck in an iPhone/iTouch for remote control and job done. Having got this set up you can then play with the other solutions at your leisure, having given yourself a reference sound to work from. Using the Macbook makes your choice of software a no-brainer - iTunes, end of. You can compare a straight usb to dac with toslink to dac without spending anything to speak of, get everything set up the way you like and then have a play later when, and if, 'audio nervosa' strikes!

 

All the other options will give you more comparisons to make but, if it was me, I'd establish the base line first.

 

Anyway, have fun! :)

 

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Thanks for your comments.

 

I actually seek a musical and robust solution that delivers 90-95% of the possible "fidelity" much like how I treated CDP-based systems as well as my amp, speakers and cables.

 

meaning....I have an Audio Aero Prima cdp. It lists for around $2,500.00.

yes, Audio Aero has the Capitole at around $8,500 and, yes, there are cdps that cost over $12K.

 

But for me, in my system and at my price points, the Prima simply sings.

 

I have an ARS-Sonum Filarmonia EL-34 based integrated amp.

It is hand built in Spain and sells for almost $5K now. I have had separates before that were over $15K.

But for me....in my system....

 

I have Merlin Music VSM-MX speakers made by a small compnay in Rochester, NY. They list for over $11K but I paid half that.

 

so, the picture that I want to project is one of audiophile sensibility and system matching. In every area, I could certainly pay more but in all areas, i get 90-95% of the benefit at about 50% of the cost of admission.

 

I seek the same (twisted, Scottish) equation in these DACs, sound cards and format things.

so, maybe an Berekeley or Weiss thingamjig is the best, but I can get 90% of the benefit at 50% of the price if.......

 

do you see what I mean?

i jst fully suscribe to the (unqualified) law of diminishing returns and also to the beief that those last 5-10% cost $1-$2K per percentage point.

 

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Thing is, then, that the price of the usb gizmos worth looking at are not that far off the price of the dac. I don't know about you, but to me that just seems a little unbalanced, budget-wise.

 

Your system certainly looks resolving enough to cope with some serious hardware, so how about seeing what you can cobble together around a second-hand Mac and a lynx soundcard? Here in the UK, Lynx cards are a silly price but over the pond I think you would probably be not that far over the top USB Gizmo choice and you'd end up with something that would happily cope with a 'better' dac, later on down the road?

 

As you may have gathered, I personally struggle a bit with the usb upgraders! As far as music servers are concerned I just don't think the mileage is there, in the interface, in the first place. Every time I've looked at it I've come away from usb feeling decidedly unsatisfied. It may well be that if I tried one of the 'uber' boxes that I would change my mind, but the cost seems disproportionate when compared with a pro audio card with coax/AES connections - connections designed to carry quality audio signals! Certainly, if you are at all interested in anything over 24/96 then a pro audio card is the only current option.

 

I would suggest that the best signal you're currently going to get from a computer is going to come from a good soundcard, so maybe that would be a better long-term investment. YMMV of course, but looking at your system I reckon something close to a CA Reference server will save you some money in the long run! Or get a Weiss DAC2 and go Firewire! ;)

 

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On the other hand, a USB DAC can work just great. I don't see anything wrong with a sound card or connection through firewire -- but no need to rule out USB -- IMO.

 

I hear what you're saying though: if your dac doesn't have usb built in, you end up with the usb converter, yet another cable, and then also the cost of the DAC and suddenly it gets a bit much.

 

Say, does the Lynx really work with a Mac? Looking around a bit and it wasn't totally clear. Looks like a nice bit of gear, though. If the OP was also thinking of doing some audio recording from LP or other analog sources.... it looks like this PCI card also has inputs!

 

2013 MacBook Pro Retina -> {Pure Music | Audirvana} -> {Dragonfly Red v.1} -> AKG K-702 or Sennheiser HD650 headphones.

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what gets me about this is that I hear everywhere that because your DAC can handle USB does not mean that it has been implemented "correctly". WTF is that all about? Hence the need, or want, of a USB>SPDIF converter.

 

I'm not married to one path or another. I would be happy to take a Toslink connection out of my Mac and simply plug it into a DAC and spend the $$ on a USB thing on a better DAC.

 

My error lies in a flawed belief that computer audio dealt more in absolutes and less in snake oil.

well, looks like I will have to listen, learn and judge for myself.

 

Thanks to all for your input.

 

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Ah, once you get your system set you'll really like it. :-)

 

Here's how I look at it: prebuilt music server vs. roll-your-own. With this latter we have to assemble the components, basically a general purpose computer + software + dac . Since most of us here are doing the roll-your-own approach, we run into this capitalistic excess of options to choose from. So yes, there are a lot of DAC options out there.

 

Really, the way I look at it, we are in the enviable situation that we need not be limited to just the redbook sampling rate. I love this. We can get something closer to the 'master tapes' in our living room.

 

But many options, many listeners and their tastes, and different budgets -- well things get messy!

 

2013 MacBook Pro Retina -> {Pure Music | Audirvana} -> {Dragonfly Red v.1} -> AKG K-702 or Sennheiser HD650 headphones.

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I'm on a similar quest.

 

The economics of a SOTA solution seem to boil down to:

 

1. Buy a MacPro (or g4) + Lynx AES16 (or AES16e) to plug into my Dac ($2500 + $700 new or maybe knock a grand off and find a used computer) so I spend $2000-$3200.

 

or

 

2. Use my existing Macbook Pro and buy a box like the Off Ramp or Weiss or Bel Canto then plug that into the Dac. Most of this stuff is too new to have a used market so I'd spend $500-$2000 on it.

 

They seem to meet at the Weiss or optioned out Off Ramp and the used computer route in the $2000 neighborhood.

 

Am I missing anything here?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You may not be missing anything, per se, but rather just convincing yourself that you have actually made a decision that seeks approval and confirmation from others....;-)

 

For example, you outline in "#1" above:

- MacBook pro

- Lynx card

- DAC

= $3,200

 

That can be "countered with:

 

- MacBook

- better USB DAC.......this is what I am now leaning towards, btw.

 

As I am in no hurry at all, I am going to see how the new Ayre USB DAC is received. This is one of those DACs that has "the correct" implementation of USB. It's also $2500 instead of $5000 for Berkeley and Weiss.

 

By the time I add up all the chaff - DAC, mods to DAC, USB converter, etc - I might as well just buy one that is done right.

 

as to the "roll your own" vs. "pre-built" analogy.....this is exactly like the server appliance model in the I.T. space. Take a DNS server or SPAM filter server. You can go out and buy all the crap yourself or just buy a sealed applinace.

 

How about of some company just take the Macbook and make an "Audio Appliance" out of it?

 

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I know the market is kind of narrow for such a big volume company but I would think a Apple could take the best of the mini and ATV and make a media server+ or some product with all this good stuff for not much money.

 

How many could they sell at say $2000 if they included things like ESS Sabre32 dacs, Balanced outputs, etc. They will probably offer an HD video solution with HDMI first though.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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"Thing is, then, that the price of the usb gizmos worth looking at are not that far off the price of the dac. I don't know about you, but to me that just seems a little unbalanced, budget-wise."

 

You would think so at first blush, but maybe not given this feedback from a DAC shootout in Ariz (I was not there, but just got the reports on it):

 

The DACs all sounded radically different when driven from a typical transport, however when driven from a low-jitter source, they all sounded very similar, indicating that it was the jitter reduction that was actually a bigger factor than the DAC technology itself.

 

This would lead one to believe that it is more important to achieve a low-jitter digital stream first and then think about a DAC. They are both important of course, I'm not saying that the DAC is not important. More and more I'm recommending the $200 VALAB DAC on ebay combined with a low-jitter digital source. This can really be magic.

 

Steve N.

Empirical Audio

 

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Steve -

 

For the CA neophyte, could you please describe what constitutes a "low jitter source" as it relates to a Mac-based front end? Also, I read about your high regard for the VALAB DAC. Are you doing any mods on it or just sticking with your own designs?

 

BTW, I still have 2 Magnum power cords that I bought from you in 2002.

 

Cheers,

Ian

 

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"For the CA neophyte, could you please describe what constitutes a "low jitter source" as it relates to a Mac-based front end?"

 

Any device that delivers a low jitter digital signal. An EMU 0404 or a Tascam US-144 with a Superclock4 properly installed, a Sonos with a low-jitter clock installed and output mods, and of course several Empirical Audio products.

 

Most stock sources have fairly high jitter, but adding a good reclocker after them can deliver low jitter. Its not limited to USB, Firewire, WiFi or even PCI bus. They can all deliver low jitter with the right mods or reclocker. I2S can deliver very low jitter too. Some people are driving the Buffalo board with I2S.

 

"Also, I read about your high regard for the VALAB DAC. Are you doing any mods on it or just sticking with your own designs?"

 

I am consulting on mods for it. I dont have time for mods anymore. I posted some on Head-Fi I believe.

 

Steve N.

Empirical Audio

 

 

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hi all,

 

All of these converters seem to only do stereo and offer only stereo PCM for multi channel sound. Do any on the market offer passthru for DTS/AC3?

 

Ideally I wouldl like to use the same bit perfect, USB sound device for both music and movies. I already have a great DTS/AC3 processor so I would like the signal passed on...

 

Cheers,

Ken

 

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