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How inferior is an internal computer DAC really?


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Background: I finally got my B&W MM-1 speakers. They have a USB connection to a DAC in the right speaker. They work rather like the Zeppelin mini.

 

I'm not pleased with the sound. It is possible they are limited by the small home-office room I have them in, but on the other hand, isn't that what they are made for?

 

I've attached them to my iMac, and have alternated between the USB and the analogue input. I hate to say it, but I think the analogue sounds better. In other words, I think the DAC in my iMac must be better than the one in the B&W speakers.

 

Two things come to mind:

 

1. The B&W USB connection indicates (via Audio Mini) that the DAC is limited to 16-bit, 48kHz. The internal DAC on the iMac can do 20 and 24-bit, and can output 96kHz. Of these, I think the 16-bit limitation is more noticeable. If I play a 24-bit recording via the 16-bit USB connection, I hear what sounds like a popping noise, and I can reproduce this if, using the analogue connection, I reduce the setting from 24-bit to 16-bit.

 

2. The B&W USB connection uses "DSP". No details are given, but I think the base is artificially enhanced. It definitely sounds more fake than with the Zeppelin. The sad thing is the speakers sound better without it, via the internal iMac DAC. I wish there was a way to over-ride this.

 

So this got me thinking about our implicit assumption that a computer's DAC is something that should be bypassed. Maybe we need to be careful...

 

For $500 I expected better.

 

 

 

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  • 3 years later...

It's hard to know what we are actually talking about when we refer to the "DAC": is it the DAC chip, or other circuitry, etc?

 

In any case I've compared several computers, those with onboard sound cards and those with specialized audiophile soundcards: all sounded inferior to even a modest outboard DAC. On their own they sounded good through modest desktop speakers, but when fed to a good stereo system the PC based sound has always been noticeably inferior. Just flatter and not as lifelike. Not bad sound. Just not top notch.

Main listening (small home office):

Main setup: Surge protector +_iFi  AC iPurifiers >Isol-8 Mini sub Axis Power Conditioning+Isolation>QuietPC Low Noise Server>Roon (Audiolense DRC)>Stack Audio Link II>Kii Control>Kii Three >GIK Room Treatments.

Secondary Listening: Server with Audiolense RC>RPi4 or analog>Matrix Element i Streamer/DAC (XLR)+Schiit Freya>Kii Three .

Bedroom: SBTouch to Cambridge Soundworks Desktop Setup.
Living Room/Kitchen: Ropieee (RPi3b+ with touchscreen) + Schiit Modi3E to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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I've got headphones plugged directly into the audio analogue out of my 2013 iMac at the moment. The internal DAC on this thing is quite respectable.

 

The DAC and analog output in our Mini's is perhaps not "audiophile quality" - but it is astonishingly good. Much better than people give it credit for. Sure, a $500 external DAC can beat it, and a $900+ USB DAC sounds noticeably better. I suggest however, the output is much better than people give it credit for.

 

I figured this out a year or two ago when Teresa was talking about how she preferred the analog output from her Mini to a Bryston DAC. I found that very difficult to accept, so I borrowed a Bryston and compared them myself.

 

Damn if she was not right- at least to my poor old ears. My little Wavelength is better, much better, but it has top quality USB connections.

 

I am slowly learning to trust my ears over specifications more and more often. The reason is of course, that as much as I love the gear, if it does not absolutely please me with the sound, then it is a minor form of torture to listen to it.

 

Annoying, but there it is.

 

Even more annoying to realize I was concerned about being wrong in my preferences. Heck, Plugging in the analog output from your mini will probably sound as good as most of the DACs out there in the under $500 category, and not really embarrass itself when put up against even higher end DACs.

 

(Grin) I will shut up now since that opinion will annoy some folks, but honestly? Trust your ears here. Return the B&W and find something that really pleases you more. There are a lot of options!

Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat DAC.

Robert A. Heinlein

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The DAC and analog output in our Mini's is perhaps not "audiophile quality" - but it is astonishingly good. Much better than people give it credit for. Sure, a $500 external DAC can beat it, and a $900+ USB DAC sounds noticeably better. I suggest however, the output is much better than people give it credit for.

 

I figured this out a year or two ago when Teresa was talking about how she preferred the analog output from her Mini to a Bryston DAC. I found that very difficult to accept, so I borrowed a Bryston and compared them myself.

 

Damn if she was not right- at least to my poor old ears. My little Wavelength is better, much better, but it has top quality USB connections.

 

I am slowly learning to trust my ears over specifications more and more often. The reason is of course, that as much as I love the gear, if it does not absolutely please me with the sound, then it is a minor form of torture to listen to it.

 

Annoying, but there it is.

 

Even more annoying to realize I was concerned about being wrong in my preferences. Heck, Plugging in the analog output from your mini will probably sound as good as most of the DACs out there in the under $500 category, and not really embarrass itself when put up against even higher end DACs.

 

(Grin) I will shut up now since that opinion will annoy some folks, but honestly? Trust your ears here. Return the B&W and find something that really pleases you more. There are a lot of options!

 

Paul, I just wanted to expand on why I preferred the internal DAC of my Mac Mini over the Bryston DAC I reviewed. As you may know I value warm, comfortable sound over raw resolution. The Bryston DAC had more resolution however it was cold sounding to me, thus I didn't enjoy listening to my high resolution music files through it as well as the internal Mac Mini DAC.

 

My current DAC is the Teac UD-501 which I admit I got mostly to play my DSD music files natively without having to convert them to PCM first. Unlike the Bryston I find the Teac DAC warm sounding and a real joy to listen to high resolution music files through. The Teac DAC offered me both warm comfortable sound and more resolution increasing my enjoyment of music.

 

For those who use internal DACs with iTunes, I want to pass along the way to play high resolution music files:

 

Changing sampling frequency has to be done manually if using iTunes only. Open "Audio MIDI Setup" which is under Finder > Applications > Utilities > Audio MIDI Setup. A brand new MAC Mini it will be set at 44.1 - 2 channel 24 bit by default.

 

To change the sample rate to match the file playing:

 

  • Right click on the music file, click "Get Info", under summary look at the sample rate.
  • Close iTunes
  • Open Audio MIDI Setup change the sample rate
  • Open iTunes and play the file.
  • Do this all over again when you want to play a file with a different rate.

 

Before I got Pure Music I was too lazy to do all this and just set Audio MIDI Setup to 96kHz - 2 channel 24 bit and Core Audio would then resample all my music files regardless of sample rate to 24/96.

 

The best solution is to get a software player with automatic sample rate switching. After all these years I have no clue why iTunes doesn't offer automatic sample rate switching when most other aftermarket players do.

 

So, yes the internal DACs are much better than many people give them credit for, however if one looks around they can find a great external DAC with sound qualities they like. As I always say make sure to get a 30 day satisfaction guarantee and let it break-in for about two weeks.

I have dementia. I save all my posts in a text file I call Forums.  I do a search in that file to find out what I said or did in the past.

 

I still love music.

 

Teresa

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Yikes! This is just too funny to believe Bill. How personally appropriate I thought your post was!

 

I was cussing myself for a fool last week about how can I possibly like 35 year old speakers better than modern high tech well designed speakers that *should* sound better? Then I got into philosophical argument with my wife over what "better" is and I definitely should have know better than that. She always wins those arguments somehow or another... :)

 

-Paul

 

I got them in 2010. (Necropost -- sorry.) The youngest kid now uses these $500 speakers for Minecraft.

Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat DAC.

Robert A. Heinlein

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Yikes! This is just too funny to believe Bill. How personally appropriate I thought your post was!

 

I was cussing myself for a fool last week about how can I possibly like 35 year old speakers better than modern high tech well designed speakers that *should* sound better? Then I got into philosophical argument with my wife over what "better" is and I definitely should have know better than that. She always wins those arguments somehow or another... :)

 

-Paul

 

As a more general philosophical question, have you ever won any argument since getting married? I don't think it is possible.

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After all these years I have no clue why iTunes doesn't offer automatic sample rate switching when most other aftermarket players do.

 

I think it has to do with averting breakage for the average consumer. If iTunes sets itself to play a 96kHz track into (for example) a 48kHz limited DAC, no sound output. So the idea is to set Audio MIDI for the particular playback device and then forget it, letting core-audio resampling take care of the rest.

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I compared the dragonfly to a couple much more expensive dacs -- it sounds much warmer to me, because it has less resolution I think , and at first I found it kind of beguiling, but ultimately I found the loss of ambient information made for a less goose - bumpy listening experience. My point is that fuzzy sound can sound pretty good but it's a different experience than what I think of as the special kind of experience you get from more hi end . BUt many might prefer the warm sound .

mac mini 2011, Transparent audio usb cable, bryston bda-2, hegel h300 integrated amp, audio physic virgo 25 speakers, transparent audio speaker cables interconnects and digital cables.

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As a more general philosophical question, have you ever won any argument since getting married? I don't think it is possible.

 

I know this was directed to Paul, but I'd like to chime in here. For me, the answer is: yes, many times. Now, the real question would be: Have I won any argument since getting married, when it mattered? Different question, different answer :D

Home: Apple Macbook Pro 17" --Mini-Toslink--> Cambridge Audio DacMagic --XLR--> 2x Genelec 8020B

Work: Apple Macbook Pro 15" --USB--> Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 --1/4\"--> Superlux HD668B / 2x Genelec 6010A

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That is a sly way to say many people are unable to recognize how much better some gear is than others.

 

Which is is not at all what I said, which is that some low cost or older gear is better than some of the newer gear. You may disagree of course, but that opinion does not come from any inability to judge or hear the differences in the equipment.

 

Old or cheap does not equate to "fuzzy" or inaccurate sound any more than new and expensive equates to "ear ripping" or "screeching" sound.

 

 

 

I compared the dragonfly to a couple much more expensive dacs -- it sounds much warmer to me, because it has less resolution I think , and at first I found it kind of beguiling, but ultimately I found the loss of ambient information made for a less goose - bumpy listening experience. My point is that fuzzy sound can sound pretty good but it's a different experience than what I think of as the special kind of experience you get from more hi end . BUt many might prefer the warm sound .

Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat DAC.

Robert A. Heinlein

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I agree that the 2012 MacMini internal DAC isn't bad... The DragonFly and MyDAC both were returned because they didn't reprint a clear upgrade (mores) with the DragonFly. While waiting for my Geek delivery I've been running my computer straight into my Class-A pass. Can't wait for the Geek and I have no doubt that it will be significantly better, but for the time being I've actually been pretty happy with the MacMini.

A Digital Audio Converter connected to my Home Computer taking me into the Future

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The DAC and analog output in our Mini's is perhaps not "audiophile quality" - but it is astonishingly good. Much better than people give it credit for. Sure, a $500 external DAC can beat it, and a $900+ USB DAC sounds noticeably better. I suggest however, the output is much better than people give it credit for.

 

[delete]

 

I am slowly learning to trust my ears over specifications more and more often. The reason is of course, that as much as I love the gear, if it does not absolutely please me with the sound, then it is a minor form of torture to listen to it.

 

[delete]

 

 

I agree with this persons post. There is not much "magic" and technical "wizardry" that goes into the design of a DAC. IMO it is the analog amp part that would make the greater difference. So it would not be the mini's DAC that I would first replace.

 

I also think a person should ultimately go by their ears. What difference would anything else make, beyond this and reliability and features? And I suspect it will cost the audiophile much less than they expect in order to satisfy their ears in a DAC. Anything else is the "whipped cream" of the banana sundae, so to speak. I personally go without the "whipped cream". It imply costs too much with a very debatable difference.

 

JMO.

 

BG

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I compared the dragonfly to a couple much more expensive dacs -- it sounds much warmer to me, because it has less resolution I think , and at first I found it kind of beguiling, but ultimately I found the loss of ambient information made for a less goose - bumpy listening experience. My point is that fuzzy sound can sound pretty good but it's a different experience than what I think of as the special kind of experience you get from more hi end . BUt many might prefer the warm sound .

 

I think that is why many prefer tube amps.

 

BG

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...Even more annoying to realize I was concerned about being wrong in my preferences...

 

Paul, that's a nugget of gold right there. The beginning of audiophile wisdom. I am constantly trying to learn not to second guess myself, it's a hard process, especially when friends and big names in the audiophile press say one thing and my ears tell me something different. In the end though, we have to be happy with our systems' sound.

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