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MacBook Pro vs dedicated streamer


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New member here with a question that’s probably been asked so much that it should be a sticky. I’m currently using a Retina MacBook Pro running Audirvana to stream Tidal. I’m using usb out through a Shunyata usb cable and W4S Remedy Reclocker to the built-in dac on an Anthem STR integrated amp, then out to a pair of Merlin TSM’s. I don’t have any issues with SQ, but I’m intrigued by the simplicity of a one box solution provided by a dedicated streamer. Would I hear an improvement by moving to a dedicated streamer? If so, why? I realize there could be improvements to be had by the change of dac’s, but putting that issue aside, what’s to be gained by a dedicated streamer? Thanks. 

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I had a 2011 Mac Mini until this year running Audirvana/UpTone Regen into a DAC.  With every update of the MacOS and in turn update of Audirvana it felt like I was rolling the dice on the system updates being stable without glitches that would cripple Audirvana.  While I never had any major issues and Audirvana was a workhorse providing stellar quality, I knew that this was not a purpose built system for Audio.  Every time I heard purpose built components there was no comparison. I stepped into an Aurender N100H this year and I am more than pleased.  Very simple to manage, great app interface, solid sonic performance above my Mini that I attempted to prop up.  I say make the jump!!

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  • 2 weeks later...

What I'm going to say isn't meant to upset you or anyone as no doubt it will. Your question is a good one, no doubt many of us weigh very similar ones as I've pondered over recent months.

 

I'm running some old tube monoblocks, Allen Organ 75s, completely rebuilt by my friend who has done a stellar job. I have an old MacBook Pro, it's over a decade old and rigged to run Mojave which it does perfectly fine and Audirvana 3.5.20.

 

Before you throw $500 or more on a streamer, for your consideration, please consider.

 

With my amp monoblocks, running McIntosh LS340 floor standers, the crossovers were completed redone and a Schiit Modi 3. (Prior I had lots of other stuff and some high end solid state amps. I've learned a bit along the way.) 

 

So for the punchline, with all that, you'd think a streamer would be a good revelation to add into the chain. Well, I'm not so sure. I use Audirvana streaming wirelessly to an Amazon Firestick II. The signal up to 96K then runs to the DAC, to a Schiit Sys. (People who think they can enjoy higher res than this may be doing a lot of wishful thinking. It's more what goes in not out the other end of a recording which most any Mark Knopfler recording at 44K can attest.) Why spend a ton on a preamp when you will be cutting the volume back all the time? Also have the Schiit Loki and they both handle everything thrown at them with aplomb, no loss of quality.

 

I've discovered some big improvements with NOS tubes as my monoblocks are very sensitive. My guess is that a good streamer will cost some decent coin and maybe gets a little return in improvement. It probably isn't and won't be as substantial as when I change a NOS tube. So, fwiw, that's my perspective.

 

If you can route your signal through an Amazon Firestick II using DLNA with Audirvana, you may be surprised how good it is. (I have an option to go hard wired with toslink too.) For me, it's producing the best sound in my twenty years in this hobby. That says a lot about what is possible with good matching. I've let go some good components on the way but now don't regret any of it.

 

Best on your hunt! 

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There isn't a clear answer to your question. Objectivists will tell you that measurements at the DAC output don't show any difference between the feed from a streamer vs any old PC. 

I've experienced both - on one system I heard improvement with a streamer built with "upgraded" parts, low noise, etc., and on my present system it doesn't seem to make much difference.  I could also totally be imagining the differences I hear or don't hear, as it were. 

 

Any way, even if a streamer can make a difference, I think it mostly depends on the quality the USB input on your DAC. If you are convinced the USB addons to your present system  improved SQ, then I'll assume you are correct and your system will sound better with some "help". 

Will a dedicated streamer make an additional difference in this case?  I sort of doubt it, as you've basically already optimized the chain. 
 

That said, the one box streaming solution is definitely attractive. The Sonore streamers give you both a good HW and SW solution. and allow you to remove the other addons, with no penalty, IMO. 

Do you have a dealer or friend that will allow you to borrow  a streamer to try? Or a seller that will let you return the item if you think it didn't improve things? 
You won't know for sure till you try one. 

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: RPi 3B+ running RoPieee to a pair of Morel Hogtalare. 

All absolute statements about audio are false :)

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3 hours ago, Cable Monkey said:

Two words. User experience. Get a dedicated streamer with a single purpose, that works and enables you to just relax and listen to the music without worrying about the next update, or dropping your laptop or any off that stuff. Using a laptop is like commuting to work on a BMX bike. Get a road bike and start enjoying the experience!

 

Two words: one box?  And two more: not so.  The only hardware a "streamer" like an Aurender N100H replaces (if you use an internal HDD for your music files) is the laptop - so you already have a one box solution.  If you source your library from NAS, you have 2 boxes in front of your DAC. Add your DAC and you're up to 3 - and your integrated makes 4.  Unless you adopt a true one box approach that incorporates a front end with DAC and amplification (which would not be a streamer), you won't have fewer boxes.  So I'm not sure how the term "one box" came about for streamers, since a laptop is also one box (as are PCs, Raspberry Pis and any other device on which you install player & library management software, plug in web streams, and dump your digital output into a DAC via USB, optical, etc).

 

The upsides to a good streamer are that it's user friendly, less physically obtrusive than a laptop in a general living environment where it will be seen by spouse / SO and guests,  not in use for other purposes or by other people, and at the highest level of tech and SQ that its price will buy at the time of purchase.  But I have a vague memory of a time when a BMX was the hottest bike in the neighborhood and road bikes were for old people.  The market has jumped among thin tires, fat tires, small wheels, huge wheels, aluminum, titanium, stainless steel, etc, etc, etc....and so it goes with audio, cameras, boats, cars, TVs and just about everything else.

 

The equivocal aspect is that the hardware and/or software may or may not be upgradable from what you buy or what's available on a given date in the future.  So, at some point, you'll be riding the asymptote (maybe even on a BMX 😉) and the next big thing will be unobtainable without a new device.  This is not a problem for those of us who live happily with what we have despite the knowledge that there's something a bit better out there - and when that happens, an outmoded device becomes a sunk cost.  And, of course, every once in a while something truly new comes along to advance the state of the art &/or offer the same or better SQ in a more desirable package for a lot less money.

 

The downside is that you're tied to the entire box, its platform, and its contents at whatever the end-of-life stage may turn out to be. And if a function dies, you're without the device while it's down, out for repair, &/or awaiting purchase of a new box.

 

So I don't see a streamer as a particularly attractive option unless the above considerations are irrelevant to the user (which, for many, they are). You can buy a Raspberry Pi 4 with 4 gigs of RAM for $55, drop any one of 3+ dozen open source players on it or go with something like JRMC, and have a perfect bit stream pouring into your USB DAC that will sound close to (if not exactly the same as) the output from a much more expensive streamer. You don't even need a separate processor - you could run Roon etc on a NAS and stream over your LAN/WLAN, build a NUC as a dedicated music server, etc etc.

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I’ll respond to your final paragraph. I’ve done the Pi, NUC and various other options. They don’t sound the same, they don’t look the same and in my time they’ve evolved from barely being able to be a Roon endpoint ( I spent many fascinating hours with a BeagleBone Black) to now where they are pretty effective. If the aim is to make do, I certainly could have done that. But...

Unpack

Place

Connect

Update

Play music

The above is the key to the widespread adoption of streaming. I can then take my laptop and do whatever else I want to do with it. But for so many people if you tell them the answer to their problems will be revealed the moment you have booted your laptop half of them will glaze over before you’ve finished your sentence and you will have lost them. Even as a self confessed nerd I accept that what I do excludes 90% of the population. A plug and play streamer is the answer. 

 

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Another angle in all this is that a MacBook Pro puts you in charge with everything in front of you. Using Audirvana, the song played is saved in memory and the qualitative improvement is major. The better the system, the more enjoyable the benefits.

 

The cost for Audirvana is $80. The cost for an endpoint like Amazon Firestick is $40. Most of the good streamers cost in the $800 or more area with some around $500. That doesn't automatically give you a wireless DLNA option for what may in the end be the same audio quality (if you're lucky) with only a streamer.

 

Just for additional background.

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1 hour ago, Cable Monkey said:

I’ve done the Pi, NUC and various other options. They don’t sound the same, they don’t look the same and in my time they’ve evolved from barely being able to be a Roon endpoint ( I spent many fascinating hours with a BeagleBone Black)

 

 

You may not be up on the latest SBC capabilities. A ‘bone is generations behind, although SQ from MPD playing FLACs & higher res can still hold it head up with proper configuration. I still have a black and an xM in action, but they’re primitive compared even to a Pi 3b+.  

 

I’m currently wringing out a new 4 gig Pi 4, and it’s light years ahead of prior SBCs. With a better processor, much more RAM, a proper USB 3 bus, gigabit Ethernet etc, SQ is excellent and it’ll handle whatever you throw at it as a Roon endpoint or a full JRMC 25 instance. There are some beautiful cases out there that even make it look like real equipment :)

 

My main point was that the very concept of a “one box solution” as an alternative to a laptop is odd - when you substitute a streamer for it, you’re just swapping one box for another.  Maybe I haven’t heard the best streamers & I’m in for a surprise - but to date, I haven’t heard one that truly sounded better than a well set up computer front end.

 

I understand the streamer concept - I just haven’t heard one that was worth its cost to me.  Others obviously disagree, or they wouldn’t buy them. To each his (or her) own!

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Well, I ended up getting a Bluesound Node 2i, using coax out to my Anthem STR. SQ is as good, maybe better, than my MacBook Pro. Tablet navigation between the 2 is different, but equally functional. What I do like is that my laptop is now more easily accessible, and the Node is small enough that it tucks out of sight underneath one of my turntables. 40 years of construction, and too many concerts in the 60’s and 70’s, has left my hearing in less than optimal condition, so I’m not sure if going any higher up the ladder than the Node would yield audible results. 

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8 hours ago, crn3371 said:

Well, I ended up getting a Bluesound Node 2i

 

So how do you like the Bluesound interface compared to the Mac with Audirvana?   I have gone back and forth in my head with this exact question too (BlueOS vs. Macbook).   How about the remote functionality.  The Node 2i has been on the back of my mind for a while too.

 

At one point I had an Auralic Altair which I loved as a one box solution but the software was very unstable and ultimately drove me back to the rock solid reliability of the Macbook with Audirvana.

RIG:  MB Pro - Benchmark DAC3 L | Benchmark AHB2 | Paradigm Sig S6 Cables:   Van Damme XLR Canare 4S11 Lifatec optical Wireworld and IsoTek power

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I haven’t tried the BluOS desktop app yet. When I was using my MacBook Pro I was controlling with my iPad using the A+ remote app. BluOS on the iPad is quite usable, different than A+, but I’d say on par with A+.  I had zero stability issues with Audirvana, and while I haven’t used BluOS long enough to fully form an opinion, I haven’t heard of any stability issues while reading reviews. What you do get with Audirvana, that I don’t think you get with BluOS, is the ability to upsample and tweak your output. 

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+1

I do not think you can compare BluOS with A+. A+ has more metadata-based functionality and tweaking thingies. 

 

My problem with most " hardware-based" apps like BluOS is metadata. However, for most users not a big issue if you are not into classical music (and to some extent jazz).

 

 

 

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I think Audirvana + might have spoiled me. Definitely a better user experience, plus I liked what I heard by using Sox to upsample to DSD. I’m going to put the MacBook back in the audio chain and do some more comparisons. If I really can’t hear any difference between the 2 then the Node is going back, and I’ll save $500.

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14 hours ago, crn3371 said:

MacBook back in

Back to Mac! 

 

It really is a decent platform that provides a lot of flexibility to experiment with different software packages and setups and I really cannot discern any SQ degrading even if it is not "optimized for audio" and is a general purpose computer.  My current Macbook Pro is a 2014 and apparently the last one with Toslink out.

RIG:  MB Pro - Benchmark DAC3 L | Benchmark AHB2 | Paradigm Sig S6 Cables:   Van Damme XLR Canare 4S11 Lifatec optical Wireworld and IsoTek power

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