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I was into "budget audiophile" stuff in the late '90s, but sort of dropped out during the last decade, as my living arrangements didn't allow fiddling around with much audio stuff (other than headphones, which I started toying with a few years ago). Last year I moved into a new apartment and cut the cord with the cable company, using a Mac mini (the mid-2010 model with HDMI out) as my A/V server, with an Oppo DVD player as second fiddle. Even though my amp is a fairly good low-end surround model (Marantz SR4002) I only had two front speakers. (Qysonic Tads--later Lantana Tads--which are an interesting story if you're a speaker nerd.)

 

Anyway, I'm dipping back into the audiophile world, slowly, after upgrading my front speakers to Monitor Audio RX6s. There's a few questions I have that I suspect people here could answer quickly, but it's been hard to find out through searches:

 

First, if I want to use the DAC in the Marantz (which seems to be a reasonably capable 24/96 model), is it better to use the HDMI audio cable or the optical digital out? Or is there really a noticeable difference? My inclination is the optical, but I'm not sure I have any real justification for that. :)

 

Second, while this may be naive, what's the advantage to using an audio player like BitPerfect or Decibel (or the more substantially expensive ones!) over straight iTunes? I understand that it matches sample rates--is the premise that letting the Mac do conversion is a bad idea for sound quality? What about letting BitPerfect double the sampling rate (44.1 to 88.2, for instance)? I'll note I've actually gone ahead and bought BitPerfect--hey, only $5, right?--but haven't been able to do critical listening yet.

 

I'll confess up front that I've done ABX testing between lossless files and 256K AAC files using reasonably good equipment (a Keces DA-151 USB DAC, a CKKIII amp, and both AKG701 and Grado SR80 headphones) and can't reliably tell the difference. I'm aware telling a group of audiophiles this is sort of like telling a bunch of steakhouse chefs that, hey, that new promo at Burger King is actually pretty good! ...but, at least I'm being honest. :) The majority of my files are ripped as 256K AAC, although I have a few purchases from HD Tracks and a small number of SACDs and DVD-As lying about. (24/96 recordings I can certainly hear the difference in.)

 

 

Life was so much cheaper when I couldn't hear a difference between these things.

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to give you more details, but the biggest difference is sound quality.

 

Use optical digital (Toslink) out.

 

With just a cheap pair of headphones plugged into my MacBook, the difference in SQ between iTunes as a player versus software like BitPerfect, PM, Amarra, Fidelia, etc, is radical, at least to me. I believe some of these players avoid the Mac's core audio. Audirvana Plus even looks after turning off Spotlight and Time Machine temporarily to improve the sound.

 

Right now, I'm using Audirvana Plus, free to try for two weeks, and you should hear a big difference as compared to iTunes alone.

 

Secondly, these players look after 'Audio MIDI' changes automatically for you, so if the last song played is, let's say 44/16, and the next song in your playlist is 96/24, the player will change it for you on the fly.

 

Finally, if you have an iPhone, players like Fidelia offer amazing remote control of your playlists on your Mac.

 

Finally, watch out for diminishing returns. I personally limited my investment in Amarra to the $99 version, which is limited to 96/24. Otherwise, IMO, it's too expensive. Follow the threads here on difficulties some have had with Amarra. I like Fidelia, but don't buy it on the Apple App Store, that version has updates, but doesn't have the ability to use optional (to purchase) upgrades that you can only accomplish on the version that's purchased directly from the Developer.

 

IMO, there are so many great software player choices now, try not to spend more than $50. Some have a better GUI than others. I have Pure Music, and it's a little tougher to set up than some of the others.

 

Some players are less CPU intensive, and have 'hog' mode and load music into memory as well.

 

Good luck! Your Grado headphones will be enough to hear the difference between iTunes and these other players. As far as a difference between these other players, I have a hard time, I'm not sure which is better. as I type this, I'm listening through Audirvana Plus. Some days I use Fidelia. Some days PM. The point is, stop using iTunes. At least for more critical listening.

 

Enjoy!

 

Dave

 

MacBook->Audirvana Plus->Naim DAC-V1>Naim Nait XS->Naim Intros/nSATs

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Well the SQ on 256 kbps files is pretty good; I have some files like that since Amazon occasionally has good CD albums you can download for free. I've been pleasantly surprised by how they sound. Almost all my files are in lossless formats ripped from CDs or downloaded from the net, though. I'm also not surprised that you are pleased with the sound quality of the dacs in your av receiver. I've been happy using the digital inputs on my NAD AV receiver. Insofar as a better player is concerned, I've used itunes for a long time but I'm seriously considering getting bitperfect. The price is obviously attractive and it allows you to listen to hi res files without having to fiddle with the audio midi settings. It sounds like you are on the right track. Experiment with what you have and don't get caught up in upgraditis unless, of course, you have a burning desire to do so or you find there is a weak link in your system you would like to improve.

 

Macmini (as server)-> AE Express/SB Touch-> Dacmagic plus -> Outlaw RR2150 -> PSB Image T6 (dedicated 2 channel audio system)

Macmini (via toslink)-> NAD T747 -> PSB Imagine B/SVS SB2000 subwoofer (home theater)

Macbook Pro-> Peachtree idecco->PSB Imagine Minis, Energy ESW-M8 subwoofer, Beyerdynamic DT880 (home office)

IMac->audioengine D1 dac->airmotiv 4 (work system)

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I'm probably going to stick with BitPerfect for now: I've already bought it, of course, but I also like the way it entwines itself with iTunes so from a UI perspective I'm still using iTunes to play things. I've been using iTunes since version 2, so it's rather ingrained now. :)

 

I'm sticking with the digital optical out, yes, I think -- it avoids a quirk that I suspect is in my receiver: turning the TV on or off will disrupt the HDMI audio signal between the Mac and the receiver, and has even caused applications to crash on rare occasion. This doesn't seem to happen with the optical out.

 

I'm assuming that once I get speaker cable set up and actually have a five-channel system, the digital audio out will correctly send 5.1 signals to the amp, right? (I presume this only works with iTunes videos and Plex.)

 

Life was so much cheaper when I couldn't hear a difference between these things.

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Kudos, firstly, for admitting that 256K files sound the same as lossless to you. One of the few universal rules on this forum is "your mileage may vary." Despite whatever theories and claims may be bandied about, the final decider is your ears. And if your ears are happy with 256K, then -- you're happy! And you may be able to save a lot of money.

 

For what it's worth, I can't tell the difference between 256K files and lossless when played on my iPhone. (This is why I think Apple's iTune Match service -- which will provide access to all of your music files via a cloud -- is perfectly acceptable for mobile devices.)

 

But I can certainly tell the difference on my big rig. So I would like to suggest that you go out and audition some premium equipment. Take a listen to stuff that's clearly out of your price range, because -- in a few years -- that level of quality will be affordable.

 

As for ripping, you might want to reconsider ripping your music into a lossless format -- at least going forwards. Storage is so cheap now that the expenditure is relatively minimal. And this way, you "future-proof" your music -- you will have bit-perfect copies of the CDs you purchased. Re-ripping a music collection is a remarkable pain. Ripping into a lossless format means you'll never have to do that again.

 

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I would like to second akapod's observation that re-ripping is, indeed, a remarkable pain.

 

-Richard G.

 

 

Vinyl: Rega P3-24 (a red one), Rega Exact, Mistral phono preamp, Kimber Hero WBT - Server: Mac Mini 2.66 Core2 Duo, 8GB addressable RAM, Lion 10.7.4, iTunes 10.6.3, Pure Music 1.86, Halide Bridge, Rega DAC, Kimber Hero WBT, Denon AVR-2807, pre-out to Theta Dreadnaught, Kimber 8TC, Linn Majik Isobariks "Passive Bi-Amped" and Linn Ekwalls for surround

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I could also add that, once you have your music in iTunes in ALAC, you can simply instruct iTunes to "Make a AAC copy" or "Make a AIFF copy" of the files you've already ripped.

 

Do make a backup of your iTunes library, however.

(See akapod's observation again!)

 

-Richard G.

 

Vinyl: Rega P3-24 (a red one), Rega Exact, Mistral phono preamp, Kimber Hero WBT - Server: Mac Mini 2.66 Core2 Duo, 8GB addressable RAM, Lion 10.7.4, iTunes 10.6.3, Pure Music 1.86, Halide Bridge, Rega DAC, Kimber Hero WBT, Denon AVR-2807, pre-out to Theta Dreadnaught, Kimber 8TC, Linn Majik Isobariks "Passive Bi-Amped" and Linn Ekwalls for surround

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Do make a backup of your iTunes library, however.

 

Heh. Yes, if I go that route -- which I've been considering, since the original storage constraints that led me to decide not to "bother" with lossless simply aren't there anymore in these days of getting 1TB drives free with cereal boxes -- I'll be creating a second iTunes library and leaving the first one intact, or possibly doing the ripping with XLD, which I have around to convert FLAC to ALAC.

 

How do others handle having both a lossless collection and an iPhone/iPod? Do you end up keeping multiple copies of the same song in two libraries, just keep the "lossy" files in iTunes and use something else to play the lossless, check the box for iTunes downsampling to 128K when you plug the iPhone in, or something else? (If only you could set it to downsample to 256K...)

 

Life was so much cheaper when I couldn't hear a difference between these things.

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I know that there's always a "yet" qualifier, as in, "I don't think I've heard an appreciable difference between 256Kbps AAC and CD yet." It's possible with different equipment I would, or even with different sample files -- IIRC, I used a half-dozen or so of varying kinds of music, but there may certainly be others in my library which would be better at showing compression artifacts.

 

The only time so far I'm fairly sure I was hearing a difference was actually auditioning speakers I couldn't afford -- and ironically using the iPhone as a source, which I normally never do, but for listening tests at a couple audio stores I'd converted three HDTracks files to 48-bit/24hz and added them to a playlist along with three of the 256K AACs. When that was plugged into a Peachtree Audio iDecco and driving Magnepan 1.7s, two of the three AAC files sounded... lacking, although it's hard to really describe why. (The one that didn't was "Famous Blue Raincoat," ripped from the remastered version of Jennifer Warnes' CD of the same title. I actually wanted to bring that one along in lossless, but naturally I can't find the original CD right now...)

 

Life was so much cheaper when I couldn't hear a difference between these things.

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As there is no way I could co-ordinate having two iTunes libraries, I just load up the ALACa into my iPhone, which takes up a ton of room. I just find the 128K files ... not quite good enough for mobile use. If Apple were to bump that to 256K, my problems would be solved. As it stands now, I always get the largest iPhone/iPad I available.

 

I'm very curious to play around with iTunes Match.

 

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I thought Apple did upgrade all the music on iTunes to 256kbs? I know there was a process where I let iTunes run through and replace all the 128kbs files in my library with 256kbs versions redownloaded from iTunes.

 

Or at least, most of the 128kbs files. I see there are a few left. Must have been downloaded from one of the kid's accounts.

 

-Paul

 

 

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

Robert A. Heinlein

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Yes, they did; "iTunes Plus" switched the store from 128Kbps DRM-locked files to 256Kbps DRM-free files. (As near as I can tell, iTunes Plus switched at some point after that from 256K AAC CBR to 256K AAC VBR, but they didn't tell anyone because, well, most people wouldn't know.)

 

What I mentioned earlier, though, is that starting in... iTunes 9-point-something, I think, Apple quietly added an option to convert all your files on the fly to 128Kbps just on the iPhone/iPod, so that way you can have higher-quality files on your computer but get more data on your portable device. It's a really neat idea, conceptually. What Akapod and I would both prefer, I think, is an option to let you set what to transcode the files to for iPod use -- that way you could have a lossless library but get 256Kbps, not 128Kbps, files out of it onto your iThing.

 

 

Life was so much cheaper when I couldn't hear a difference between these things.

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