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My Adventures in Computer Audio


joesax
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Hi:

I spent a lot of time reading posts on this forum and certainly gathered a lot of information. My goal was to learn as much as a could about using a computer as my audio source. Here's my story and results:

 

I have a fairly decent CD based audio system. It is based on excellent quality Quad audio components. The CD-P CD player has a built in preamp, 3 coax digital inputs, 3 optical digital inputs and an optical digital output. The internal DAC is a high quality up-sampling unit. This player is connected to a Quad 909 Amplifier (140 watts per channel) that feeds Quad 22L floor speakers. This is the best system I've ever had and has always produced a very musical and natural sound. Despite this I wanted to explore computer based audio. My reasons: If I could feed the DAC in my CD player a signal that produced equal or better sound than playing a CD directly than I could enjoy the conveniences offered by a digital music library.

 

After many weeks of research I decided that I would begin with the simpliest method. That meant either Airport Express or a USB/SPDIF converter. I decided on the converter because I didn't want to involve WiFi and didn't want to use optical. I purchased a HagUSB converter. I chose this unit becasue: it did just and only what I wanted: converts USB to Digital Coax; the designer builds other audiophile products; the design appeared to do a good job isolating the computer power line from the USB.

 

My computer is a three year old HP Laptop running Windows XP Pro. It's my home office compter. The laptop has a 1.7Ghz Pentium, 1 GB RAM and a 90 GB hard drive. The drive is too small so I planned to use an external drive for my library. I used XP without any plugins (No ASIO, No Kernel Streaming, etc.) I did optimize XP by shutting off Windows Sounds and placing the volume at max.

 

I like Itunes so I decided to start there although I did experiment with Foobar, Media Monkey, and Winamp. Itunes, IMHO, is very easy to use so that's where I started. Also I decided that Lossless was satisfactory so I ripped using Itunes and Apple Lossless (ALAC). I could always change if this didn't work to my satisfaction. I optimized Itunes (shut off all DSP, etc).

 

I needed cables so I ordered an RCA Digital Coax and a USB cable from www.monoprice.com.

They sell decent cables for very low prices. I bought their best USB cable that had heavier guage wiring almost similar to the Kimbler USB. It also had gold plated conectors. So I ordered a 1 meter version. It cost $.75. That's right less than a dollar. Their best RCA Coax was less than $3.00 for a meter. Again I figured I had no where to go but up.

 

When I finally had all my components I ripped a couple of my reference CDs using Itunes ALAC on to my Laptop, hooked up the HagUSB to my CD digital input and turned on the audio components.

 

My initial reaction was "Not Bad!". Sounds like a CD. After listening to a few selections I switched to the actual CD and then back to the Laptop. The more I listened the more it was obvious that the computer based sound was definitely better. As I increased the volume slightly on both sources the CD source was not as transparent and smooth as the computer source. The Computer source opened up dynamically, the bass was fuller and more deep, the highs smoother with less glare on upper strings and cymbal crashes and most noticeable the stereo soundstage was more three dimensional with instruments positioned more clearly.

 

Wow! I was impressed. Still am.

 

I was running he Laptop off the battery so I now plugged in the power supply. The sound was still very good but slightly less clear. Not sure if it was just me or the power having an effect. I still need to explore that variable a little more.

 

I then tried an external USB drive. I moved my Itunes library to an external drive and listened again. Sounded great. The external drive had no effect.

 

So what did I learn:

Computer based audio is better than a CD player.

 

It does depend upon the quality of the DAC. I know the Quad has a good one so my fears about Jitter being a problem with the USB connection were unfounded.

 

XP offers excellent sound even without attempting to bypass Kmixer although I noticed that when I was playing music the volume control on the laptop had no effect on the sound. So was I in some way bypassing it anyway? I was using the latest Itunes Version 8.2.1.6

 

Of course these are my subjective results and others may and have had different results. But I can tell you that I consider myself an Audiophile. I have been for years. I listen to all forms of music and am very happy with the approach I followed. Can I still get better sound by bypassing Kmixer, using a different player with plugins, buying more expensive cables, switching to Vista, getting a Mac, etc? Who knows. Music has never sounded sound so good on my system so for now I'm going to enjoy it as it is.

 

I think the message I would like to convey is that you can get excellent sound from a computer. Just invest in a quality DAC and don't worry about all the other issues for now. You can always upgrade and experiement or you can just enjoy the music.

 

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Very nice story and the most easy to read (wish I could do that).

And congrats with the results !

 

Peter

 

Lush^3-e      Lush^2      Blaxius^2      Ethernet^2     HDMI^2     XLR^2

XXHighEnd (developer)

Phasure NOS1 24/768 Async USB DAC (manufacturer)

Phasure Mach III Audio PC with Linear PSU (manufacturer)

Orelino & Orelo MKII Speakers (designer/supplier)

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to Vista, used Foobar + WASAPI and the results are radically different to XP. There is a slight delay, some 20-80ms on starting some tracks, but Foobar on continuous playing is fine. There's also a slight repsonse lag on volume control, but it's not a biggie.

ITunes (ALAC) on Vista, despite other opinions here is very good on my system, but I find Foobar more resolving especially on 44.1 material. I can now hear many sounds and instrumnets that I never heard before from CDs that I had for years. Listening to music from a computer is certainly a new experience and has sparked my interest in appreciating music again.

So the players do sound different! Enjoy the selection process.

 

AS Profile Equipment List        Say NO to MQA

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