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I'm so lost I don't even know where to start


aggielaw

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I'm sold on the idea of at least auditioning a computer-based sytem with my existing stereo, but after doing a few hours of homework I'm really lost. I can't tell if, in my specific application, getting a Lynx soundcard and running it in to a conventional DAC is superior to just sinking the extra $700 in to a firewire DAC.

 

I've ripped my CD collection of about 1k CDs to FLAC on a 1TB hard drive. Ideally, I'd like to copy these on to an external HD, plug it and an DAC up to my Windows 7-based laptop, and have it outperform my Ayon CD-2 CDP as a frontend. If the Lynx is by far a better solution I have an extra XP-based desktop that I could configure for use.

 

The hardware factors are killing me, though. Is there really a difference between using an internal and external hard drive? Or connecting an external drive via eSATA, USB, and firewire? What about the cables between the computer and DAC - do they impact the sound the way interconnects between the rest of the components do? If so, should I be talking to my favorite interconnect manufacturer about a custom cable?

 

Then there's the choice of DAC once I figure out whether to go USB or firewire directly to a compatible DAC or use the Lynx in dual AES mode. (And a fundamental question I still haven't found a definitive answer to is whether you can get a 24/192 signal via a single AES line!)

 

And finally, I guess my first two questions in all of this are:

 

1. is my expectation that a computer-based front end will substantially outperform my a CD player with less cost realistic?

 

2. does the emergency of new technologies (HDMI implementation as an I/O format comes to mind) threaten to render any investment I make in the next 6 months obsolete in a couple years?

 

Oof. My head hurts. Any help on how to sort all this out would be immensely appreciated!

 

My stereo setup can be seen here: http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?vdone&1258245716&view

 

Best,

Howard

 

Front ends:

Digital: Sonore ultraRendu or SOtM 200 ultra Trifecta --> LKS MH-D004

Analog: Clearaudio Performance DC --> Rogue Triton

Back end: SMc Audio VRE-1C --> SMc Audio DNA125 Platinum Plus-->Stealth Dream v10 cables --> Ridge Street Audio Designs Sason speakers, dual Rhythmik F12SE subs

 

 

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You seem to have a good grasp on getting started with computer audio. Not sure what you mean by Lynx running into a conventional dac? What is your definition of a conventional dac? Versus a $700 USB dac? I think you may be well over $700 with a good dac and a Lynx card. Will it be better than your CD player? I am not so sure. While I have not heard your cd player, I know my personal experience was that the cd player I had (Consonance Opera Droplet) was a bit better than my computer setup. Though I liked things about both.

 

On to your question of cost. I doubt you will be able to get better performance than your cd setup for LESS money. As to your second question, I seriously doubt an i/o format that is on the horizon would obsolete your investment. Especially HDMI, from what I know folks said you had to have it for digital tv. In reality, the component jacks give you exactly the same picture. It is just a convenience for those who want video and audio in one cable to my understanding.

 

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If I read correctly, your Ayon CD2 player has an SPDIF input so this would be a good place to start...

 

Assuming you are willing to spend some to begin experiments, you could add a HiFace USB to SPDIF interface to your laptop, install J.River (or Media Monkey or Foobar) software and have yourself a good little system - from here you can assess how close your laptop gets to using the CD transport in the Ayon. Moving onwards, a system such a the CAPS described recently would allow you to move away from using the laptop; possibly with an ESI [email protected] card as an alternative to the Lynx if you at sticking with the Ayon doing DAC duties. Beyond that The options very much depend on your available budget.

 

In answer to some of your othe queries...

The Lynx card interfaces your computer to a DAC via the AES/EBU protocol - demo both DACs with the Lynx and FireWire and USB DACs taking into account the fact that (as you say) you'll new the Lynx (or other interface) if the DAC doesn't have FireWire or USB;

There is very little evidence of differences in SQ between internal and external disks, nor between eSATA, USB and Firewire connections for extenal disks. There is quite a bit of support for using a SSD (solid state disk) as your primary (operating) system drive;

Cables between computer and DAC - especially USB - have been seen (heard) to make a difference;

Yes, you can do 24/192 via single AES (Benchmark and Berkeley both support it amongst many others);

and finally, yes you can get computer audio to equal or exceed the Ayon CD2, but remember a lot of sound comes down to preference so be prepare to demo various DACs - if you likerhw Ayon with it's valves, a Metric Halo ULN8 may not suit you (for example).

 

Eloise

 

Eloise

---

...in my opinion / experience...

While I agree "Everything may matter" working out what actually affects the sound is a trickier thing.

And I agree "Trust your ears" but equally don't allow them to fool you - trust them with a bit of skepticism.

keep your mind open... But mind your brain doesn't fall out.

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With the money you have put into your system, you can almost certainly get better sound with "less" cost. :)

 

My Ayre QB-9 playing 24/96 files is way better than my Meridian G-08 CDP. And it costs less. And it is easy to set up. And the USB interface will probably be here for a long time.

 

Good luck,

Mike

 

 

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The good news is that as the above poster has mentioned, you don't really seem that lost. But here are some pointers that might help. Note that most of my impressions are from reading and not from my personal experience with all manner of dac. Starting at the tail end of your post, my answer is no, I wouldn't worry too much about emergent technologies, especially hdmi. To be brief, part of the lure of computer audio is the promise of reduced jitter, which hdmi solves no more, and possibly less than current usb and firewire implementations. The only other futureproofing I can think of is 24/192 and higher bitrate support. Personally, I feel that the lack of releases at this bitrate in the forseable future make this a non issue. However, if it is something that worries you, companies like Ayre have been very good at offering their consumers upgrade paths when such technologies become available (sometime this year I suspect).

 

Continuing with Ayre as an example, they feel that their $2500 dac is in line with their $5000 cd player. Substantially outperform is such a moveable target in the high end audio world, especially if you have come to love the sound of your cd player.

 

My thoughts on the rest of your concerns are that people buying a lynx card either already have a dac that they very much like, or feel that they have a dac in mind which will allow them to get the very very best out of computer audio (something like the Berkley Alpha). I wouldn't start there. Something like the Ayre or a Weiss unit into your laptop will give top flight performance and probably save you worry and money at setting up a lynx system. As to cables, this is the world of audiophile nervosa, everything matters. :) Although I would imagine less so then a standard pair of interconnects and there are already several reasonably priced firewire and usb cables on the market. Good luck and let us know how it all works out. And remember to enjoy yourself, this is fun.

 

PS Audio Quintet > Powerbook (iphone with apple remote app) > HRT Streamer II > Kingrex Pre-amp > Kingrex QS-01 > Devore Fidelity Gibbon 7.1\'s

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1. Yes. Other things being equal, your expectation that hard-drive-based digital audio playback can exceed the quality of plastic-disc-based playback is entirely reasonable.

 

However...

 

You'll see that a certain amount of pushing and shoving is required to make this happen.

 

2. No. HDMI is not an issue for what you want to do. This connector format is certainly extremely convenient in that one cable can carry high-definition video and multiple channels of audio. However, it isn't necessary for stereo audio, and other methods will give (see below) better results.

 

3. Regarding how you get from the computer to the DAC, my recommendation is to go via 1394 to an external DAC. Many computer-playback DACs support 1394 directly; others will require a Firewire to AES or S/PDIF converter (my preferred route at the moment).

 

The playback experience via USB interfaces, in my experience so far, is radically inferior to S/PDIF or 1394.

 

Caveats:

 

a. Not all 1394-based DACs support Windows 7, even though they say they do. What the vendor has in mind is that their product works on a desktop PC with an accessory 1394 card. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that that their software will work on a garden variety high-spec HP laptop (all of which have 1394). Check on the forums for the current state of confusion.

 

b. Cabling is critical and in many ways, trickier than analog cabling. For the 1394, Audioquest has an excellent part, the 1394-3, that handles 4 to 6 pin 1394 applications. This cable is 6% silver and has high-quality connectors. For the S/PDIF, Audioquest Eagle Eye and Wireworld Platinum Eclipse digital interconnect work well in my experience, provided the length is one meter or longer.

 

Glass optical fiber also works very well, better than USB but not quite as good as 1394/S/PDIF/AES. Wireworld has a miniature TOSLINK to regular TOSLINK cable (some laptops have mini-TOSLINK available via one of the audio output ports). Audioquest has regular TOSLINK at both ends. Both products feature glass fiber. Conventional plastic optical fiber is inferior in performance.

 

Results may vary between specific combinations of DACs and cables. Make sure you audition before purchasing. Digital noise, ground-plane issues, and the dread laptop switcher power supplies all make things interesting (unplugging the laptop drops the noise floor considerably).

 

c. Absolute phase reversal is an essential function on the DAC. The difference between correct or reversed absolute phase is (or should be) clearly apparent on most recordings.

 

d. Recommended DACs: Lavry DA-11 offers superb sound at a bargain price of $1480. It has USB input, but the S/PDIF or AES gives clearly superior performance. There are several other excellent products, at similar and higher price points. Note that the Berkeley Audio Design supports HDCD decoding, for this, you'll need bit-perfect output from the computer/media server. WASAPI-based media players should allow bit-perfect output from Windows 7 and Vista. They'll bypass software volume controls in the computer.

 

Not all DACs support sampling rates higher than 96 kHz.

 

e. System architecture. Get a DAC with a volume control, and go directly from DAC to power amps. Various software media player products are discussed on this forum.

 

 

 

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I'm not going to add a whole lot in detailed information but comment because this OP sounds just about how I felt about computer audio just a few months ago. He clearly has some good understanding of the issues, as did I, but the choices of products and implementation can be overwhelming. I think this stems from computers being sort of a "black box" where I don't understand how or why certain things do or don't make a difference. I was overwhelmed by the decisions. Heck, I couldn't even start ripping music without having to think long and hard about what file type, file storage hierarchy etc.

 

I too have a CD player with digital inputs so it is easy to compare computer playback to spinning the cd with limited variables. It is clear to me that the computer front end can provide better playback. Significantly better? I'll leave that to the ear of the individual beholder. In my system I hear better detail, better focus and less ping ponging and frequency highlighting. Why? I don't know, but I suspect it is due to lower jitter and less error correction.

 

I've found that almost all the variables you listed, do make a difference. However, these are smaller, incremental differences when compared to say swapping out tubes in my preamp. The optical out of the Macbook sounds pretty bad on it's own. Each upgrade made incremental differences until I got to the point where it was clearly better than spinning the disc. Like anything else though, what works at my house in my system may not be what works in your system.

 

At some point you'll have to make some decisions and leap. I made my initial setup decisions because I wanted to see how good computer audio could sound and, while I was willing to spend some money to do so, I didn't want to drop $10k without some proof that it was going to work. Using the digi input of my CD player allowed for that. Cables, outboard drives, extra RAM etc. are all fairly inexpensive things to try or add later.

 

FWIW I run a Macbook Pro with an outboard firewire storage drive, USB out thru a Sonicweld Diverter to SPDIF.

 

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@harrypt, when you mention decent, but not outstanding results via TOSLINK from your MacBook, were you using one of the new AudioQuest or Wire World glass optical fiber interconnects as suggested? My experience for years has been that plastic TOSLINK was mediocre.

 

Just now double-checking my earlier listening notes with some sonic reality... (another excuse to listen to music and procrastinate) the glass optical cable does sound quite reasonable for casual listening on, say, powered monitors in the office, but in a reference system, it's somewhat muffled compared to 1394/S/PDIF; there's definitely less dimensionality to the vocalists and the soundstage is restricted considerably. Dynamics are quite a less, smaller details vanish. Information is missing; timbral coherence is replaced by coagulation, so to speak.

 

Anyway, it looks like you ended up converting to S/PDIF, which is the same place I'm at right now. Even with an "el cheapo" 1394-S/PDIF adapter, results for me, are extremely good, subject, of course, to choosing the correct cabling.

 

BTW presumably your MacBook has 1394? It might work even better than the USB connection, and your observations would be useful data points. This discussion is all about how "it" really sounds. And do try out a glass fiber TOSLINK.

 

My "ranking" so far is USB, TOSLINK, S/PDIF from CD transport, S/PDIF from computer 1394.

 

@chris, I definitely agree that USB as a data protocol is, at this point, a neutral element, and adequate for the very low data rates associated with audio. We're talking kilohertz, not gigahertz.

 

For the benefit of the OP, could you recommend 2-3 USB DACs that you believe are good choices for him to try out, and that equal or exceed the quality of S/PDIF, AES or 1394? Can the best USB products available today be better than 1394, or 1394 converted to S/PDIF or AES?

 

Anyway, the problem, according to the engineers we're working with, is apparently in the analog reality of connecting up two complicated electronic devices. Having built scientific A/D and D/A gear for years, although at way, way higher data rates, this analysis certainly gibes with my experience.

 

The format isn't really the issue: It's ground planes, clock noise coupling and all that awful stuff which applies to any electrical interface. And software-oriented, "digital" designers aren't necessarily up to speed in these areas.

 

If we could time travel back to 1985, with our present reference playback equipment and connect it up to a Firewire link, what would the results be? Firewire/1394 has been optimized for use by the recording industry for 25 years now, while the use of USB for serious audio is perhaps a couple of years old.

 

@Mike in MD, I'm auditioning a wide range of devices, and as alluded to in my posts, we're 0 for 5, so far, on the USB side. Let's see what Chris recommends for USB DACs that are better than 1394, S/PDIF or AES. After all, 1394 apears to be just about universally-available on mid to high-spec, digital-media-oriented laptops, so in a way, so there are alternatives to USB.

 

We have issued non-negotiable demands :) to various designers as to the standards they have to meet for their USB inputs. We've also been giving some private demonstrations so that they can hear the problem.

 

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Okay, you guys distilled a ton of information down to something understandable for me. I appreciate it!

 

I'm going to start with the M2Tech HiTech USB-SPDIF converter and run it through the CD player to see what happens. If I like what I'm hearing I guess I'll eventually start looking to go all out with a desktop or commercial music server for my source. Thanks again to all for your help!

 

 

 

Front ends:

Digital: Sonore ultraRendu or SOtM 200 ultra Trifecta --> LKS MH-D004

Analog: Clearaudio Performance DC --> Rogue Triton

Back end: SMc Audio VRE-1C --> SMc Audio DNA125 Platinum Plus-->Stealth Dream v10 cables --> Ridge Street Audio Designs Sason speakers, dual Rhythmik F12SE subs

 

 

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