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The State of USB Audio by Alan Taffel


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This is title of new article in "the absolute sound". S/PDIFF is much better than USB, Firewire was also much better than USB.

Quote" Yet regardless of which Dac I used, that was never the case. USB was always a pale shadow of S?PDIFF, due the former's tell-tale synthetic glaze, washed out timbers, lackadaisical rhythms and screechy strings" He used Benchmark DAC1 Pre, Bryson BDA-1, Audio Research DAC7, Bel Canto USB Link in this article. He also says quote " Meanwhile, it has long been accepted dogma in the pro recording industry that FireWire sounds better than USB. My own tests, in a completely different context, confirm that consensus"

 

It is no surprise to me in Chris puts Berkeley Audio Design Alpha Dac and Weiss Engineering Minerva as the best sounding dacs he's ever heard as neither uses USB...

 

I do use a Pro-ject USB Box dac at this time as it sounds better then headphone audio out on IBM ThinkPad.

 

Its unfortunate that there is so few audiophile dacs using firewire. Recently with new update to Apple MacBook Pro all Apple computers once again have firewire.

I can not afford the Minerva and the Apogee Duet does not have balanced audio out.

Will have to wait to see if there will be any new dacs with firewire.

 

Dan

 

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This article is bullshit! I have compared my Wavelength Crimson with many hi-end CD players and it sounds excellent, even better than these CDP's. Unfortuantely I have not compared it to FW. But certainly, USB implemented properly is not mediocre as this guy claims.

 

There is a good thread on audioasylum detailing the inadequacies and inconsistancies related to this lame article. Cheers!

 

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... the Apogee mini dac has the balanced outputs that maitadan wants, and it is at or near the price range that he wants.

 

Cheers?

markr

 

EDIT: Hey sammie, how about a link to the article that your referenced?

 

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Here it is:

 

http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/vt.mpl?f=pcaudio&m=55685

 

The "problem" with USB driven converters (like the mentioned Benchmark i.e.) is, that they need no driver - und I think that may be the culprit for some users. If you are used to select an - say - ASIO driver in your playback-software (be it a professional editor or a "jukebox"-like one), and you don´t have to do it with an usb device, a lot of system derived probs might crash into it, ... but without a hint for the user.

"Computer-audio" was - and still is - not as easy to use as some are believing, and without the knowledge to do it right from scratch, the sound quality might get lost somewhre in between ("lost in translation" comes to my mind ;) ).

 

Cheers

Harald

 

Esoterc SA-60 / Foobar2000 -> Mytek Stereo 192 DSD / Audio-GD NFB 28.38 -> MEG RL922K / AKG K500 / AKG K1000  / Audioquest Nighthawk / OPPO PM-2 / Sennheiser HD800 / Sennheiser Surrounder / Sony MA900 / STAX SR-303+SRM-323II

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I would have disagreed with you when I first got into DACs and computer audio. My first DAC was a PS Audio DLIII and the USB was awful compared to SPDIF. That being said, I've since moved up to the Peachtree Nova. The USB is excellent, a real step above the DLIII. However, I still use SPDIF because the NOVA doesn't support 24/96 over USB.

 

With regards to USB implementation, I understand Asynchronous USB developed by Wavelength and used in their own DACs as well as Wadia Dacs is the way to go. Something about the DAC controlling the computer and not vice versa helps to recover what's normally lost. I've heard a Wavelength Brick in my system for a few weeks and loved it to death. It's the best damn DAC I have ever heard (and it was USB only). BUT, I am waiting to compare it to a Weiss DAC2. We'll see which wins out.

 

Mike

 

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Inasmuch as none of the Async USB devices were tested, this condemnation of USB is invalid. OTOH, I'm not surprised that Firewire - aka the forgotten interface - was deemed better than the non-Async USB devices. The use of Async USB is meant to duplicate the behaviour of Firewire, i.e., using the local clock in the DAC to control data flow.

 

For whatever reason - e.g. avoidance of writing drivers - the audiophile community has not adopted Firewire as an interface for DACs. Pro audio is the primary source. Apogee, Metric Halo, RME, Prism are some of the brands I'd recommend for consideration.

 

clay

 

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Normally, when a response begins with a comment similar to "this article is bullshit," I disregard it. In this case, though, I couldn't agree more. This is basically the article that Chris has been laying out here since the beginning of CA, except that Chris is spot on and Alan Taffel doesn't know a DAC from his elbow. This guy actually said there is to date no Firewire DAC! Interesting. Two articles later, in the same edition of AS, there is a review of the Weiss Jason and Medea by Dick Olsher. Do these two ever talk? As anyone here knows, Weiss also makes the Minerva which Chris happened to put on the CASH list. I see chris quoted in AS and Sp regularly, and Tassel has never been here? This article was poorly researched, poorly written, and IMHO a MASSIVE disservice to the audiophile community. This is (also IMHO) the biggest thing in audio right now, and the one thing besides possibly vinyl that could serve to get gen x and gen y'ers into high end audio. They are not going to buy a 5k dac. If AS and SP cannot address how to get good sound from USB outs on a computer, (like Chris has) they can forget about having readership down the line. This article was long overdue, and botched horribly. Did anybody edit this article?

 

That's enough venting.

 

2.26 GHz Mac Mini (Late 2009), 8 GB RAM, 2 External Seagate 7200 RPM 1TB / Firewire 800/ Wavelength Wavelink/ Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC / Nordost Blue Heaven IC / Musical Fidelity KW 750 / Nordost Blue Heaven Speaker cable/ Magnepan MG 3.6r with MYE stands / Custom purpose built listening room

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Gang,

 

I pulled out after talking to Alan and feeling he had no right to do a review like this because he had no understanding of the topic and had such sub par hardware that I could see nothing more than an Absolute Train Wreck.

 

TAS said he was the computer go to guy. When I talked to him on the phone he had never even done ANY computer audio.

 

What surprises me is why didn't other companies request their hardware back like I did????

 

Thanks

Gordon

 

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Interesting information Gordon. I venture to guess people like you (the few that exist) are in a major league of their own when it comes to understanding USB and computer audio. Even trying to understand the concepts behind Asynchronous USB (not the Asynchronous Sample Rate Conversion used by Benchmark) is mind boggling. The learning curve and cost must be pretty high considering major companies like PS Audio for example are making DACs that don't include the technology despite claiming to be on the cutting edge.

 

As for why other companies didn't pull their products . . . perhaps others were just looking for a quick review and some advertising. Or, maybe they are just not as involved as you. The absence of your products from the review were instantly a question in my mind. For gods sake your website is USBdacs.com . . . not to mention wavelength is pretty much considered the premier USB Dac in audio circles.

 

I personally feel the reviewer of the article had preconceptions of USB from the start, and proceeded down from that point.

 

Mike

 

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One small point, (I'm not in the slightest qualified to judge whether the reviewer is full of it/biased/just plain wrong): he did say that USB is here to stay and that the audio community needs to do a better job of working to bring it up to snuff, which suggests that he's not entirely hostile to USB.

 

Scott A.

 

\"...many people are doped up, drunk, compulsive liars or completely bat-s**t insane. And some are all of those, all the time.\" - found on Slashdot, 4.11.11

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Scott,

 

after reading the article, it does seem as if Alvin (if that's even his real name) was damning an entire protocol. He pointed almost exclusively to USB in his comments (rather than the products), when he had only apparently tested the products in question. How one can damn an entire interface protocol on the basis of a handful of products is beyond me, but that's what it appeared that he did, as seen from my vantage point.

 

His comment that 'there is as yet no such thing as a Firewire DAC' is ludicrous. While it is very remotely possible that what he meant to say was that "there is no such thing as a Firewire-capable device built by an audiophile company that functions only as a DAC", that's a pretty significant slip of the tongue, err, typo. That is the level of qualification required to state that there is no such thing as a Firewire DAC, and a 'writer' that knowingly was that imprecise is not worthy of the name, which leads me to believe he hasn't a clue.

 

How someone can know about pro audio devices like the Focusrite Firewire to S/PDIF converter WITHOUT seeming to know about a SINGLE pro audio Firewire device that can function as a DAC is beyond me. He actually recommended this converter as his 'solution' for people using Firewire connections.

 

 

 

 

 

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okay, people, please help me out.

this writer is ignorant about computer audio. granted. he wasted our time and money. granted. his writing is hardly an example of professional competence. granted.

 

one question remains unanswered: how in the hell did the editors allow this piece of 'dreck' to make it's way through the editorial process and into the light of day?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

johnnyturbo

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Gentlemen,

First, I don't think Gordon Rankin necessarily has a monopoly on the truth, though he may have the best USB solution to date. It appears Charlie Hansen (Ayre) thinks so, which counts to me. I don't think his USB scheme is any harder to understand than most technical audio writing, and in fact I'm not sure it matters. What matters is that ALAN Taffel doesn't know squat about computer audio (the Weiss Minerva isn't a high end Firewire DAC? If not then CA must be a pro audio site...) FWIW, I think Mr. Harley and Mr. Taffel need to know our opinions. I wrote the following letter to Mr. Harley:

 

Mr. Harley,

I am not often driven to write an editor regarding articles that they publish. Having said that, the article regarding USB audio in the 8/09 TAS by Alan Taffel was so fundamentally wrong and of poor structure that I feel compelled to write. In my opinion, there are two things which currently might save high end audio (not to mention TAS) by bringing the new gen x and y'ers into it. The first is vinyl. The second is computer audio. Mr. Taffel is clearly either biased against USB audio or the manufacturers who are at the forefront of its production. To make a blanket statement about ALL USB being worse than S/PDIF is wrong and shortsighted. Furthermore, on the page following Mr. Taffel's diatribe, is Mr. Stone's overwhelming recommendation of not only a $299 USB DAC, BUT a $99 dollar one from the same company! Why were the USB only Music Streamers not included in the USB discussion? How could you, as editor, let Mr. Taffel's article go to print with his clearly lacking knowledge of computer audio and the available products? He states, (Page 31) "However, there is as yet no such thing as a Firewire DAC." Interesting. See page 50 - Weiss Jason/Medea review. Perhaps Mr. Taffel's computer skills are sufficient for him to visit Weiss' website. Have him look under products- Minerva DAC. He might change his mind about whether there is a Firewire DAC. Additionally, I would refer Mr. Taffel to Chris Connaker's website- Computer Audiophile.com. He could learn a lot. I don't know why two of the leading high end USB only DACs were not even mentioned. Mr. Taffel states that he could not get a USB DAC from Gordon Rankin of Wavelength audio. Why not? How about Charlie Hansen of Ayre, who uses Mr. Rankin's software? He couldn't even discuss what he has heard at audio shows or friend's systems with either of these implementations of USB only DACs? Does he believe Wavelength and Ayre are not up to snuff? I must say, I have heard products from both, and consider them to be some of the finest made. (I own neither, but despite this article, may soon). The reputation of and impartiality of TAS has been destroyed by the article. I hope you better consider what you publish in the future. You have just alienated every ipod listening 20 or 30something from high end audio. We as a community cannot afford that.

 

If you wish to use some or all of this to express your opinions, I would welcome it. I have no connection to the audio industry except that I want motivated designers to continue to build great products and for more people to join our fold so that those designers have a market. I am a practicing eye surgeon.

 

Mr Taffel's e-mail is: alan taffel

 

You can e-mail Mr. Harley at: AV Guide.com- TAS- Contact US.

 

This is where our opinions could do some good, at least if these two care about either their jobs or high end audio.

 

 

2.26 GHz Mac Mini (Late 2009), 8 GB RAM, 2 External Seagate 7200 RPM 1TB / Firewire 800/ Wavelength Wavelink/ Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC / Nordost Blue Heaven IC / Musical Fidelity KW 750 / Nordost Blue Heaven Speaker cable/ Magnepan MG 3.6r with MYE stands / Custom purpose built listening room

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See if these go through:

 

alan taffel is: ataffel at comcast dot net

 

[email protected]

 

2.26 GHz Mac Mini (Late 2009), 8 GB RAM, 2 External Seagate 7200 RPM 1TB / Firewire 800/ Wavelength Wavelink/ Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC / Nordost Blue Heaven IC / Musical Fidelity KW 750 / Nordost Blue Heaven Speaker cable/ Magnepan MG 3.6r with MYE stands / Custom purpose built listening room

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One of my club members made me aware of this article. As the President of an Audiophile club that started back in the year 1979, I truly am in a position to debate and trounce this ludicrous article written in TAS.

 

I work in the computer field so I have the well-informed skills, which IMHO are necessary in order to get Computer Audio (USB) to sound right.

 

I am currently using an IBM ThinkPad T43 laptop with Windows XP SP3. All versions of Windows that have preceded Vista have within their subsystems, a component called the kernel mixer. Prudence tells me I should use Vista yet I am apprehensive about using that OS. I have even contemplated using Ubuntu yet the lack of support for applications holds me back.

 

I will get right to the point: A computer, DAC and USB cable right out of the box will not sound like a finished product. There are configuration issues, choice of cable, Power filtration, front-end application etc. I do plan to get a new notebook when Windows 7 is released.

 

I feel fortunate that I have been able to speak with some of the gurus in computer USB audio. I have to inform all of you that the S/PDIF interface is highly flawed and was not meant by either Sony or Philips to be used in the consumer marketplace. Sony and Phillips used this to communicate with each other’s chips. I am no electrical engineer but I can confirm that SPDIF is highly flawed.

 

When using S/PDIF, you will experience a higher rate of timing errors aka JITTER! The off the shelf S/PDIF receivers are built to a specification, they are not built for performance. Why do think there are so many devices and people out there who reclock, or resync the clock signal?

 

Audiophiles have long known that their choice of cabling can make or break a system. Nowhere has this been the case with me that usage of both S/PDIF and USB cable. It would seem to me that the digital cable between transport and DAC is critical to the playback.

 

For years, I have used the Illuminati S/PDIF cables and I still use the D-60 from my HT to connect to my HT processor from the cable converter. I use the newest generation cable from this designer, the Stereovox XV2 is used from my DVD player to decode surround sound. I even purchased another 2.0-meter cable to use between my modified DVD player and my Audio Note Dac Kit.

 

I can recall when I was breaking in this DAC (250-300 hours) I was using the S/PDIF connection wit the XV2 and I liked it better than my stand alone player. I heard a batter sense of the music, a dimensionality that had been lacking, etc.

 

A few weeks later, I placed the laptop into the system when my shelves were ready. I tried a Belkin Gold USB cable and it was ok yet something was lacking. I then used my vaunted Ridge Street Audio Poiema!!! and I was amazed at the improvement I was hearing. The Tonal quality was so much more natural and engaging. I had a 3-Dimensional soundstage and I could hear the different sections in a orchestral piece.

 

I must state that I use the files ripped from CDs using EAC in secure mode. I rip the WAV files then I encode them to FLAC in order to conserve space. I used these files to compare the sound of my Player with CDs and my laptop with ripped files. I used several genres of music and each time I preferred the USB connection over the S/PDIF connection knowing I had been using top notch interface cables.

 

This whole endeavor has taken me a lot of time to learn how to use USB audio to satisfy my Audiophile years and yet, I still feel I am learning.

 

I incorporated many changes, which now has my not listening to any CDs anymore. I do not even listen to my SACDs which I used to think rivaled Vinyl. The point I am making is this, you need to setup your computer connection properly, just like a LP player and CD player.

 

I switched off any software volume controls, including the front end application. That and other bypasses, tuned off services, unmapping devices, etc made the SQ better and better. I had been using ASIO4all and thought that was pretty nice as it was better than Direct Sound. I use XP and I knew I had to bypass the Kmixer, not warp around O I am now using the actual ASIO driver and it does indeed sound better!

 

I place the Laptop and Hard drive’s wires away from other cables and I plug both devices into my Furutech conditioner and into the accessory outlets. I recently upgraded my USB cable to the newest cable from Ridge Street Audio. The Enopias is a statement type of product IMHO. As pleased as I was my stem using USB audio, I am now even more engaged in the music. I hear a similar flavor yet the SQ is much better. The voices are more distinct and separate. The tonal qualities in the Midrange and highs seem sweeter and more organic. The opening then decay of notes is now more evident and really shines when listening to Violin and Piano.

 

I have had many members from my Club listen to my system using USB (not firewire) and some have said it sounds like ANALOG!

 

Here is the biggest advantage that USB computer usage has over the flawed S/PDIF interface. Firewire is used in the Pro market and we al know the pro market is not as good at the Audiophile market. Firewire usage requires additional drivers, which is a no no IMHO and can cause some configuration issues. I also believe it jacks the price up which I despise.

 

Alan’s article to me seems ludicrous. How can any knowledgeable audiophile claim that SP/DIF is superior to a USB connection that is properly setup.

 

On CA we have a few gurus who participate such as Gordon from wavelength and Steve from Empirical Audio. I have spoken to Gordon and sought his advice. He was nice enough to take the time and speak with me and I am very grateful for that. Check out his web page http://www.usbdacs.com/. That helped me confirm what I thought was the best front-end windows player, J. River Media Center. Steve’s page confirms what I have always known that not all computers sound equal.

 

I am not attempting to trash another platform. I want to convey that using a properly setup Windows based Laptop is great and has even toppled a couple of Macbooks.

I am not convinced that one platform is superior to the other. You need to understand and maximize your computer’s setup and that is what I have done.

 

Let me go even deeper into this. Computers use a switching power supply as opposed to a linear power supply. For audio, this is a disadvantage ass it emits noise. I use shielded power cords on all components (Signal Cables). Then they plug into a Furutech E-TP80 passive conditioner. I use the Omega Mikro Active Planar power cord to feed the line conditioner and that conditioner is plugged into a Varistat so I can maintain a constant voltage. Where I live, AC power is a big concern, perhaps larger than in other areas. I can suggest for those who own their own homes, to install a dedicated AC circuit.

 

Once and I while I try listening to a CD into my Dac and it does not satisfy me. Even the SACDs do not do it anymore. Computer based Audio is the most gratifying playback system which the convenience in mind. Of course, a good system will sound only as good as what you play. I suggest you digitize some Vinyl LPs as the captured records provide the analog warmth and fullness that a lot of CDs do not have.

 

Make sure the computer you use is a USB 2.0 port and do not use a USB Hub with your DAC. The DAC should have its own dedicated USB port.

 

For the readers of CA, I can point out the one disadvantage that USB does not have. The highest sample rate that native USB supports is 48Khz. That will restrict you from playing higher resolution recordings. This can be resolved if companies that make off the shelf USB Receiver chips such as Burr Brown (TI) get off that fat butts and manufacture them. Demand drives supply so let’s work on that!

 

To my knowledge, two companies have programmed USB chips to handle higher resolution sample rates and lower jitter. One of those companies is a member of this Website and contributes often.

 

I do not care about higher resolution sample rates at this time. My music is sourced from Redbook, 16 bit 44.1 KHz. CD players, Dacs that use SPDIF do not get that to sound engaging to me. A computer using USB that is setup properly and with a good cable, isolation, etc. does satisfy the Redbook playback in this ‘philes system.

 

 

Liz Out…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Powerbook G4 15 inch Aluminum, \"Fidela,\" M2tech EVO (BNC)with RF attenuator,dedicated PSU, Stereovox XV Ultra (BNC) Audio Note Dac Kit 2.1 Level B Signature Upgraded to 12AU7 tubes, ARC SP-16L Tube preamp , VAC PA100/100 Tube Amp), Vintage Tubes, Furutech ETP-80, (Alon 2 Mk2, (upgraded tweeters, Usher Woofers), Pangea Power cords, Omega Micro Active Planar PC. Signal Cable Silver Resolution ICs.

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one question remains unanswered: how in the hell did the editors allow this piece of 'dreck' to make it's way through the editorial process and into the light of day?

 

The article sure has drummed up a lot of talk about TAS. Maybe there is no such thing as bad press.

 

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

Announcing The Audiophile Style Podcast

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Hopefully this thread will help protect those entering the world of computer audio from poorly researched info. Especially buying DAC products based on those recommendations. Good to see Computer Audiophile serving its purpose.

 

 

James[br]

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chris-

will a piece of 'lousy journalism in a small niche market help to maintain and/or add to the subscriber base?

maybe there is such a thing as bad press. if there is enough bad press, how long can any magazine survive? should it survive? ( yes, rhetorical question :) )

 

johnnyturbo

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Chris,

I generally believe all press is advertising, which is good. TAS and Blue Circle though will neither benefit from this issue of TAS nor the discussion of it. I now truely do not believe a word they say about any product, and their advertisers need to know it. This article was far beyond anything I have seen in the audio press since the early 80s, and that is not much of a benchmark for comparison.

 

2.26 GHz Mac Mini (Late 2009), 8 GB RAM, 2 External Seagate 7200 RPM 1TB / Firewire 800/ Wavelength Wavelink/ Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC / Nordost Blue Heaven IC / Musical Fidelity KW 750 / Nordost Blue Heaven Speaker cable/ Magnepan MG 3.6r with MYE stands / Custom purpose built listening room

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Chris,

Let's hope Taffel and Harley hear him (and the rest of us).

 

2.26 GHz Mac Mini (Late 2009), 8 GB RAM, 2 External Seagate 7200 RPM 1TB / Firewire 800/ Wavelength Wavelink/ Berkeley Audio Alpha DAC / Nordost Blue Heaven IC / Musical Fidelity KW 750 / Nordost Blue Heaven Speaker cable/ Magnepan MG 3.6r with MYE stands / Custom purpose built listening room

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I don't care as much about the writer as the underlying point: when I started to pay attention to audio a couple of years ago, the single thing that excited me most was the idea that computers + USB would let me have an audiophile set-up, at a fraction of traditional audiophile prices.

 

Does that premise hold? Or is there, sadly, once again no free lunch?

 

Scott A.

Watertown NY

 

btw - I'm cross posting this note over at Stereophile's forums as well, because the readerships are somewhat different and I really do think this question is important.

 

\"...many people are doped up, drunk, compulsive liars or completely bat-s**t insane. And some are all of those, all the time.\" - found on Slashdot, 4.11.11

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