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Benchmark / Mac Mini / USB - First Thoughts and a Path Forward


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I am new to this forum and new to the whole music server thing in general. I was trying to figure out which forum to place my post in and believe this is the appropriate one. The RMAF was an eye and ear opener for me and got my butt finally moving in this direction, although I have been doing some research on it for a little while. I wanted to post how things have gone so far so I could get pointed in the right direction in case I have wandered off the true path to the truth and light somehow :).

 

I have a new Mac Mini semi-maxed out going USB into my Benchmark Dac1/Pre playing standard iTunes. Some people love the Benchmark finding it exceptional, while other just seem to think it is OK at best. I have read words like over analytical to describe a certain hardness and un-musicality some find with it. I have not found it to be so at all. In fact I have found it completely un-fatiguing and quite musical using the coax SPDIF in from my transport. Although my system was a bit laid back when this little jem came into my home and brought everything to life. So, I suppose if a system was already on the highly resolving side of things I could see that the Benchmark might over do it a bit.

 

From the USB input the sound is a bit less textured and less 3D. I also find it a bit lean compared to my transport. Vocals are sharp and clear, but lacking in some warmth. However, everything is very focused and precise. When running the Amarra demo I hear an immediate improvement all across the board. It is more 3D, less lean with the vocals taking on a nice musical warmth, but not too much as the focus and precision remain. This is not a subtle change.

 

Before I ran the Amarra demo I was not sure what I thought of the differences between my transport and iTunes. I was thinking that possibly my transport could have nice euphonic colorations that I have come accustomed to and just believe to be correct and better. But, when I ran Amarra and found the sound to move closer to that of my transport, In my mind that has placed the fault and unmusical character on iTunes and the rest of my Mac Mini / USB chain.

 

Purchasing Amarra Mini (which I will do very soon, I see it is on sale now) will improve things greatly. I love the sound, but also realize I still have a way to go. That is what this post is about. I wanted informed opinions on where to go from here? One thing I can think of is getting a better USB cable. I am just using a Belkin Gold now and was considering trying a Polestar to see if things continue to move in the right direction. How much of an improvement can I expect to hear? I would love it to be as dramatic as Amarra, but that is asking for a lot. If this path proves to be a good one, then I can continue down it, if not, then I will look elsewhere.

 

Another thought was to try the Firewire out to a converter to SPDIF. However, this converter would need to be Amarra friendly and reasonable in price. I like the Benchmark and don’t really want to replace it if not absolutely necessary. I would first like to maximize its potential with the Mac Mini.

 

Another thought was to try Empirical's Offramp 3 in place of the Benchmark's internal USB. The Benchmark is supposed to be pretty good, but I read that the Offramp set up correctly is better. That does come at a decent cost though with all the goodies.

 

Sometimes we can get caught up into chasing small issues, like mice out of our listening rooms, when there can be a huge elephant standing there and staring right at us. I would like to handle the big stuff first, then dial and tune things in with the smaller things.

 

What am I missing here and are my thoughts looking reasonable?

 

Dave

 

 

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Thumper's mom says "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".

 

 

I had originally thought to respond to your post, and didn't, as my most immediate response was to consider the Benchmark USB input as a likely candidate for improvement, but I doubt that this helps your cause much, since you like the sound of the Benchmark in your system.

 

Also, I am not a fan of spending gobs of money on a USB cable to 'fine tune' one's system.

 

Further, despite being a fan of Firewire, I'm not a fan of using format converters, preferring to use/recommend direct connections from from computer to DAC.

 

Finally, I'm not a fan of the Benchmark 'house' sound, thus, my comments might be biased.

 

All these factors led to my lack of response to the initial post.

 

The best I can offer would be to suggest auditioning a Firewire to / SPDIF interface converter given my 'perception' (not based on personal listening experience, mind you) that the S/PDIF interface of the Benchmark is superior to the USB input, but these are rather expensive, and you suggested desire for low expense.

 

Perhaps Gordon's new USB converter, or even Bel Canto's?

 

clay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hi Dave,

 

"...Another thought was to try the Firewire out to a converter to SPDIF. However, this converter would need to be Amarra friendly and reasonable in price. I like the Benchmark and don’t really want to replace it if not absolutely necessary. I would first like to maximize its potential with the Mac Mini..."

 

Welcome to Computer Audiiophile.

 

As I read your post, one thing that stood out for me was the mention that using Amarra, the sound moved closer to that from your transport. (Did I understand this correctly?) While I don't know the format of the files you are playing, in my experience, playback from hard disk via decent software always sounds better (i.e. closer to the original) than playback from any transport/player I've ever heard, regardless of price.

 

Hard disk playback using better than "decent" software should take the performance another step up and further from the sound of playing the optical disc via any transport.

 

I'm not a fan of any converter that subjects the audio to real-time sample rate conversion, finding them all to sound a bit hardened and bright compared to the original. (I understand some folks hear this as added "detail" but it is not anything contained in the recording, it is added harmonic distortion.)

 

If possible, I'd suggest trying a Firewire DAC (perhaps a Metric Halo ULN-2) without SPDIF; just Firewire to the DAC and analog out to your system.

 

All this is just my perspective of course.

 

Best regards,

Barry

www.soundkeeperrecordings.com

www.barrydiamentaudio.com

 

 

 

 

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Thank you Clay. I understand that some people do not like the Benchmark sound, but using the coax in from my transport I honestly cannot fault it at all. So, for me that is not the issue. What bothers me is that I do notice a gap in that nice performance when using the USB in from the Mac Mini, and I was under the impression that Benchmark does USB better than most, but may not be the best of course. So, the reason for my post was to pick my next move forward from here.

 

Amarra is a done deal for me as I like what it does.

 

You mentioned that higher end USB cables do not do it for you. So, that may not be an option I would wish to take either, although I would like to try some of the less pricy ones just to see. Are there any that offer a free trial period that you are aware of?

 

If the USB is my current bottleneck, then I would like to try some others just to compare it with. I was under the impression the the Benchmarks USB was on par with, if not better than the Bel Canto. But, maybe it is not. Then there is the Empirical Offramp 3 which I have heard nothing but good things about.

 

Firewire is just another possible option to get around the internal USB. Most of those that work well with Amarra are pricy and would not be practical though.

 

So, I guess I am looking for options to help me max out what I know the Benchmark is capable of with computer audio.

 

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Hello Barry and thank you.

 

"As I read your post, one thing that stood out for me was the mention that using Amarra, the sound moved closer to that from your transport. (Did I understand this correctly?)"

 

Yes, but let me explain a bit better. I was originally comparing the sound of my transport, which I have come accustomed to as being correct, rightly or wrongly, to that of straight iTunes. My impressions were that the iTunes sound was not up to par. It was very nice in many ways, just lacking in others.

 

With Amarra that sound kept what iTunes had originally done with it in the right directions and even improved on those areas, but at the same time corrected most of what I thought was lacking. In that way I thought the sound moved closer to my transport and that which I have grown to like and believe to be correct. My transport remains a bit warmer and the Mac Mini cleaner and better focused overall.

 

Since Amarra is known for improving iTunes, my assumption is that the new sound with Amarra is more correct than without, and so the sound of my transport must be fairly decent. Now, that extra warmth and less detail it shows next to Amarra may just be its weakness, as you suggest. I really do not know what the absolute correct sound should be given my system chain.

 

That is why I am considering what to try next so I can see what direction things take. I will see if I can get my hands on a firewire Dac to try as well as alternative USB / SPDIF devices. I am a bit isolated from other audiophiles and those that I know do not have these kinds of items for me to try, so it takes a little more resourcefulness.

 

 

 

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"So, I guess I am looking for options to help me max out what I know the Benchmark is capable of with computer audio."

 

Take my advice with some grains of salt, but...in my view, if you want the best the Benchmark is capable of you'll need to use it's S/PDIF input, from my understanding.

 

That is, after all, how you're getting the best results now, i.e. via your transport.

 

Gordon's new Async USB to S/PDIF interface converter might be your best bet if you don't want to spend for Firewire converter.

 

If you want to keep both computer and transport hooked up all the time, that's a problem, of course.

 

FWIW, I'm not aware of ANY 'legacy' DACs that are notable for their USB input sounding as good as their S/PDIF input. Most have added USB as an afterthought to their original design, primarily due to market demand, and not due to a competency/fluency with USB.

 

If you want/need a DAC that offers great sound via transport AND computer, I'd recommend a Firewire DAC (for computer) that also has S/PDIF (for transport). e.g., Weiss DAC2 or Metric Halo ULN-2.

 

clay

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hi Dave,

 

I wonder if you might have some settings in iTunes that require a change to get its best. Amarra notwithstanding, I find even iTunes playback sounds better than any transport I've heard. (To be clear, by "better" I'm talking about how close it sounds to the original. In the case of CD, that would be the original master sent to the replication facility, from which the CD is created.)

 

Part of what you're hearing might be the Benchmark's sonic fingerprint. This assumes you are listening to an uncompressed file format, like AIF or WAV.

With compressed formats, even lossless, in my experience, other factors come into play.

 

If you ever get to audition a ULN-2, I think you'll find it an ear opener.

 

Best regards,

Barry

www.soundkeeperrecordings.com

www.barrydiamentaudio.com

 

 

 

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The path seems pretty clear now from the posts so far that I should experiment bypassing the USB in by various means. Where can I find some info on Gordon's new Async USB to S/PDIF interface converter? I only see complete DACs on the website and I would like to look into it as an option.

 

I did mention Empirical's Offramp 3 for USB to S/PDIF as a possible, but since you did not comment I assume you are not a fan since in is not Async?

 

Something like the Weiss DAC2 is worth considering for the future. The Metric Halo ULN-2 is new to me and I will need to read up on that one.

 

I do have plenty of S/PDIF inputs on the Benchmark, so multiple sources are not a problem. I also use it as my preamp ulilizing the single analog in as well.

 

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"I did mention Empirical's Offramp 3 for USB to S/PDIF as a possible, but since you did not comment I assume you are not a fan since in is not Async?"

 

I'm a fan of Firewire (done asynchronously) and Async USB interfaces. As I understand it, even Steve Nugent (Empirical) is going Async, so I would recommend Async connections, either USB or Firewire.

 

[NOTE: please insert the usual disclaimer that great sound can be had from ANY interface!]

 

Coincidence or not, I will also note that Steve's clients seem statistically more likely to report huge gains from expensive USB cables. This could be due to his DACs being the only non Async USB DACs with enough resolution to tell the difference, and/or it could be due to his DACs being overly sensitive to choice of cable, and/or it could be simply an indication that non Async USB interfaces are more sensitive to cable choices, or a combination of any/all of the above.

 

Therefore, in the absence of plausible information to the contrary, it suggests to me that Async DACs are likely a better choice, although even Gordon & Charles Hansen (the two most prominent Async USB DAC manufacturers) say that Async USB is not totally immune to cable differences. Given the above 'coincidence' though, I still maintain a view that Async USB interfaces should be less sensitive to cables that non Async.

 

YMMV, and indeed someone else's most certainly will.

clay

 

 

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