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Hifi Vs Computer Audiophile DAC’s


Opusover21
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Just an observation really – I’ve been interested in hifi for many, many years. What I have noticed is that the DAC’s suggested on many a discussion involving computer based systems are not what I would recognise as the well established hi-end manufacturer’s.

 

I have been familiar with the Audio research, Esoterics, Wadia, dCS, Resolution Audio, Meridian, Bel Canto not to mention many others and indeed got to know these brands, the direction they take digital replay, including the “house” sound these manufacturer’s.

 

Whats struck me about computer audiophile is that these names seem less talked about when its comes to connecting our Mac or PC. Weiss, Berkley Audio etc are not names that trip off the tongue traditionally for me at least when talking about “digital” excellence.

 

I’m not suggesting for one second that these products are not the best possible solutions for computer audiophile currently available…far from it, I’m looking forward with great anticipation to trying out a Weiss DAC2 with my iMAC.

 

Storage, software regardless of system one set-up correctly seem largely academic and a matter of personal choice but signal output/DAC’s seem’s to be where a system is won or lost. In my limited exposure to computer based audiophile it seem to me that the critical part of the system is extracting the digital domain and presenting it to the DAC hence components like the Lynx Cards etc.

 

The point of this post is what difference (if any) is there between traditionally highly regarding digital products such as Wadia, Esoteric and computer based DAC’s?

Is it for example that the Weiss, Berkley are just better at dealing with computer based digital? Is this what separates them from the crowd? Or is it that all DAC’s in principle should be the same regardless of how the signal is presented by PC or transport?

 

 

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No, a high end dac is just as good provided that you pay attention to interfacing and relock the PC output. Most PC soundcards have cheap nasty components in the signal path and poor clocks, whatever they say.

 

I have spent time developing parallel systems and would not use usb dacs because of the problems of unexpected interruptions.

 

Think about it; is it desirable to use a packet data transfer interface for ordinary audio? The PC audio enthusiaist will tell you to diasble half the services, leaving your pc as more or less a hardware transport with an HD attached. Or they will tell you to buy a Mac in order to use some stuff!

 

fmak

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Hello Opusover21,

'What I've noticed is that the DAC’s suggested on many a discussion involving computer based systems are not what I would recognise as the well established hi-end manufacturer’s.'

Absolutely right!

I've owned and listened to quite a few Wadia DAC's and I now own a Jadis JS1 Mk3 DAC (in a Jadis/Genesis system.

I intend to go for a computer-based source viz MacPro with Lynx card but I tink I'll stick to my DAC until I can compare it with the likes of Weiss and Berkeley Alpha.

Ditto for my Jadis preamp.

Last week, I've been comparing (with other fellow loonies) the latest Wadia 521 with (old) Wadia 9 and my DAC in same system using Jadis preamp.

Although some thought the 521 might have been more 'precise' with a bit more slam, the Jadis was more involving and more... musical.

As for the 521 directly driving Electrocompaniet monoblocks, it was not as good as using a proper old-fashioned preamp.

We'd reached the same conclusion years ago with the Wadia 9 driving Jadis or Metaxas amps. And again with a Wadia 27.

So it seems that I should stick to good old hi-fi names with a reputation.

Which dœsn't mean that I wouldn't gladly try a Weiss or Berkeley when they're available on the old continent.

Now, what's happening with the Almarra gear?

All the best,

GM

 

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...and I'm not just talking about computer audio vs. high-end DACs.

 

a) The analog to digital converters, studio clocks and DACs that are used to create the music are often far less expensive than audiophile DACs used to play it back.

 

b) Any "house sound" is surely coloration, yes? Yes.

 

c) The best possible implementation of a DAC should be the simplest, with the chip doing its job of converting bits to volts and nothing more, and the output stage bumping the resulting analog signal up to line level in the simplest, most direct, most transparent possible way. That gives the subsequent signal chain an adequate analog signal to work with, and that's all a DAC should do beyond converting bits to volts in a way that minimizes jitter to below human perception.

 

In other words, I can think of no good reason for the existence of audiophile DACs. A "house sound?" I have nothing against color, I just think the source is a very bad place for it. In fact, I prefer to avoid it, even through the next couple of stages of the signal change, saving it for the transducers.

 

YMMV and all of that.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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a) The analog to digital converters, studio clocks and DACs that are used to create the music are often far less expensive than audiophile DACs used to play it back.

 

A pont I have made in many contexts over the years. Log long ago, in a galaxy far far away it was supposed that the best amplifies would use only discrete transistors: op-amps were the work of the devil, yet the recording chain was full of them.

 

There is little point in building the replay electronics to a higher standard that that used in the recording chain.

 

Brian

Squeezebox Classic - Beresford Caiman-Gator DAC - Quad 520f with Dada refresh - Quart 980s German Tower Loudspeakers.

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"There is little point in building the replay electronics to a higher standard that that used in the recording chain."

 

Of course, the critical question is ARE they built to a higher standard, or just a more complex one?

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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Hi Opusover 21,

Computer audiophile is a relatively new market were only young and innovative companies had set foot. In a way we are just at the moment where it is changing as the traditional players are beginning to offer products (audioresearch, naim, linn, cambridge).

Traditional companies are traditional, ok, and it has taking them a few years to realize that cd is dying. Every brand will come soon to computer/server music but the large companies will certainly join the last: inertia and conservatism are ruling the large companies. Also old people are managing those large companies and they have little clue about computer music. Obviously Wadia and Jadis (i own or have owned quality material from both and I respect them) are not large in the usual sense but very traditional both of them. Wadia was innovative in 88, in 08 they are less. It is only normal. With each generation of media there comes new brands which in turn become conservative... Obviously there are exceptions...

Now on the notion of a good dac and how simple it should be, Yes it should be simple but we are in the world of audiophile where the big basic principles are given and where only the minutest details are discussed to the infinite. Beyond the principles common to all brands (from mainstream to ultra high end brands and whether it is amplification, conversion or speakers) obviously implementation makes a big difference but the audiophile company will specifically look at some small details. Audiophilia is a sickness (but we like it). Look at the number of companies dedicated to just cables it is simply amazing. So we are back to the old discussion between objectivists and subjectivists. We like hi fi, we are sick and we know it. Fortunately there is music: the sanity comes from music: when a good song gives emotion one feels better (whatever the system in my opinion).

 

Dac202/LebenXS/MagicoV2 Stealth cables www.bluedy.com

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The fact is that the Pro Audio side is years ahead of the hi fi Industry and the business is worth far more to it's suppliers. 20 years ago Audiophile Companies like Telarc were using Apple Computers for mastering and editing their work. The sound quality of the best mixing consoles was better than hi fi and it's kept on improving when hi fi hasn't, it's remained as a pile of separate and expensive boxes with all the problems an audiophile faces in trying to establish that these are happy with one and other.

 

Some years ago when I used a Desktop PC, I bought an M-Audio 2496 for £50 and compared it with various hi end CD players. It was at least as good and I posted on a Forum to say so. Subsequently I got a PM from a chap, not wanting to face a full on broadside from angry posters, to say that he'd sold a £2K CD player because it was better and thanking me for the advice. "Hi enders" weren't amused. M-Audio is a division of Pro-Tools (or vice versa) which is a large and well respected Pro Audio soft and hardware company.

 

If any of you want to turn any old Laptop into a good music server and M-Audio Transit is cheap and hard to beat and it will digitise your old analogue stuff so you can put it into iTunes. And then people have found the even better Edirol UA 25 (part of Roland) that has a few mike inputs and other additional features that professionals find useful. Professionals realise that a DAC is a very cheap thing these days and they need more in a box than it alone.

 

15 years ago it cost half to a million to equip a studio and now some Albums are made using Garage Band (free with your Mac) and some tracks are recorded from the inbuilt Microphone! (24/192 A to Ds, but probably not a great S/N ratio)

 

What I'm saying is that Studio gear is better and cheaper than specialist hi fi equipment because the companies that make it are larger, more successful and have better engineers. I urge everyone to dip into the Sound On Sound site, because they may be the world's most influential Pro Audio Magazine. Studio gear is where to look if you need good DACs to experiment with.

 

Ash

 

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The M Audio Fasttrack USB...

 

 

 

...if they would just eliminate most of its features and all of its knobs, package it in a heavy metal box and label it something like "Penultimate Sound Solutions 201.4" they could sell these for a few grand. Easy to find for less than $100. :)

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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Oh, I don't know that all the high-end manufacturers are deliberately selling snake oil, haiku. I think there's a good chance that they may be living the same fantasy as their customers. They measure a difference (sometimes), then they hear it. Even if it is inaudible. They put the best components and wire into their products, spending more money (if not nearly enough to justify the difference in their prices). The rest -- convincing themselves that very small (even inaudible) differences are much larger than life, is easy. It is the dna of psychological bias.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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I have had the same question as I am beginning to experiment with computer audio. My current system consists of a Toshiba Satellite laptop (Vista), XMPlay, Wasapi, Farstone Virtual Hard Drive Pro (RAM storage playback), and Edirol UA-5 USB interface. I also auditioned a much more expensive Audio Note Dac 1.x Sig. I found the UA-5 to have a larger soundstage, more detail, and dynamics. Also, the superior "warmth" and musicality associated with all tubed dacs is, at least to my ears, a myth.

 

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I just want to be really clear before someone comes in here with justifiable outrage: I'm not saying that all manufacturers of high-end audio equipment are either delusional or dishonest. Far from it. Many are great engineers, ethical businesspeople and good human beings. But the problems that drove the high end for 50 years are rapidly disappearing with the advance of digital technology. The points that were addressed by the shortest signal paths, the finest wire, the most transparent resistors and capacitors, etc, are rendered closer and closer to moot as the analog signal path shrinks closer and closer to a non-issue. Some are not slowed a bit by all of this. They find the smallest ghosts in the new machine and imagine them to be large enough to keep the dream alive. But it is a dream. The gap between midfi and the high end, from source to the business end of the speaker wire, is dissolving away. Especially at the digital end of the equation (which is most of the chain in my case...).

 

MHO, YMMV and all of that: I can't tell anyone else what they hear. But what I hear, and I've listened to a lot, and I've listened pretty closely, tells me that if I buy a $5,000 DAC, I will have spent at least $4,500 too much. Probably a lot more.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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Let's face it the bits to make one of the best DACs available would probably cost less then $20 and whole lot will fit on a PCB the size of a credit card and the same goes for preamps and other bits and pieces.

 

The point to remember that electronic integrated circuit manufacturers have only three and a bit goals: To get the price down, the performance up, the electrical consumption down and if possible the size as well. This is because all the devices that use these bits are coming down in price. The problem for hi enders is that they've ignored this and allowed a big price gap to open up between them and normal consumer electronics. Worse still, some have stuck with old fashioned assembly methods and designs and need sky high prices to cover it.

 

Ash

 

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...and you really long for an elegant solution, it doesn't get much more elegant than the Apogee Duet...

 

 

 

...it's probably a couple of hundred dollars too much for the DAC, but you get full mobile recording capability and a pretty great headphone amp thrown in. And it looks fabulous, especially sitting next to a Mac laptop.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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If we use Lavry as an example , the 924 is a better dac imho etc ,than the DA10, more dynamic , more natural timbre and tone, less metallic treble but it is 10 times the price , judgements regarding value for money are best left to the individual. Nearly all my favourite dacs have tended to come from companies within the 'pro' side of the industry , who have specialised from the beginning in digital products.

 

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Every audio manfacturer is different, but there are a few in the emerging computer audio market that stand-out. This is because these manufacturers are focused on computer audio as a specialty and they are mostly small companies that sell direct. Some of them have already had careers in the computer industry.

 

Selling direct over the web and having a small staff and low overhead allows these manufacturers to deliver great value, at the same time ultilizing many "boutique" parts that would not be touched by the well-known names in high-end audio. This new market approach is foreign to most of the old-school "brick and mortar" audio dealers and manufacturers. They historically spend an enormous amount on advertising and off-shore all of their assembly. The new companies are more nimble and can respond quickly to their customers demands, turning boards quickly and building in lower volumes, either in-house, or with local assembly. The direct sellers cost multipliers are more like 2X rather than 5X-6X for traditional manufacturers with distributors and dealers. Once they have a board outsourced to Asia, it cannot be changed and they expect many thousands to be built.

 

Some of the new designers are also from the computer industry, so the performance of their gear can be superior as a result. This is typically not the case for the "well-known" manufacturers. In fact, the digital design from even Sony in their CD and DVD players shows how "junior" their designers are.

 

IME, designers having backgrounds in digital were simply rare in the high-end audio industry, until the advent of computer audio. This was reflected in their designs, of which I have modded and reverse-engineered many for the last 7-8 years. Now, we have some very good designers in computer audio that understand digital and the deficiencies and pitfalls with computer-driven audio. Jitter reduction for instance has become one of the most important factors. There are those that will throw rocks at this, but this is the simple truth.

 

Steve N.

Empirical Audio

 

 

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Thanks for your replies guys. All interesting stuff ..even though there is a certain audiophile snobbery within the hifi industry maybe this will fall fall apart when someone actaully listens to a mac and a decent DAC...I've had this battle with myself for many years....like "errr its a cable..how can it be $1000 a foot"..I've stettled on speakers being THE biggest factor on the sound...a good valve amp is just that..made up of a healthly power supply and basic good quality components that could cost £1000 or £10,000 depending on what lable you stick on it...DAC's I see a less complex job than spinning a disc at huge rpm and all the mechanics involved..i can see the sience involved with a good design..but DAC's?? Dont get me wrong I would be happily pay for that extra something but are we paying a premium for basic design thats been around (more so in the professional arena) a while with a new coat on it? maybe i'm getting cynical about high end hifi manufacturers giving us the run around..!

 

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Actually a good DAC is a non-trivial undertaking. However, there are more and more good chips available and the datasheet essentially gives you the design. This has raised the average quality of a DAC nowadays. For instance, the Benchmark DAC-1.

 

The problem is: most still dont sound anything like analog.

 

This is where the really innovative DAC designs come in. Clever I/V conversion. Ultra-low jitter digital path, ultra-simple analog signal path. ultra-low noise and distortion volume controls. The right output driver designs. Careful selection of components, particularly capacitors.

 

These will bring you closer to the analog experience. Certainly these can give you the emotional experience that high-end audio is all about.

 

Steve N.

Empirical Audio

 

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Hi Opus - I agree this has been an interesting conversation. I don't know how I missed the early posts!

 

I've seen it mentioned a few times in the last couple weeks that speakers are the biggest factor or the most important and deserve the largest percentage of money in your system. I'm not a supporter of this line of thinking and here's why. Everything starts with the source computer / DAC solution. If these components are less than great there is no way to recover great sound quality. What consumers usually do is purchase components further down the chain that make up for the shortcomings of the poor source. The poor source is a major contributor to constant upgrading and the endless search for better sound. The components downstream are all corrections for something wrong upstream. Speakers often make a huge impact on the sound of a system, but impact does not equal resolution or better sound. A great amp can make a night & day impact even with a poor set of speakers. So, I am a fan of starting at the source computer / DAC and working my way out from there. A great signal is not a bad way to start the music traveling through the rest of the system. As far as money and percentage of spend on components I don't think there is any formula that makes sense to me.

 

Just some random thoughts during a blizzard / snowstorm here in Minnesota :-)

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

Announcing The Audiophile Style Podcast

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I think your strategy is sound, Chris, I just think it has finally been out-run. When the source was as variable as speakers, and your choice of cartridge in your turntable colored the sound of your entire system, or a bad compromise in preamp or power amp could introduce significant distortion that could not be changed anywhere downstream in the signal chain, starting with the source and working your way out from there made great sense. I just think the variables in source components are typically so small these days that the most important factors are headroom and transducers, and everything else falls way behind. At least that is my experience. One poster to this thread talks about a Lavry DAC that has metallic trebles, and I have to wonder what on earth Lavry did to make the trebles metallic. I've only heard one DAC manufactured in the last 10 years that had metallic trebles. Another poster says the real trick to the high-end DAC is making it sound like analog. And I wonder why on earth I would go to the trouble and expense of building a digital system only to seek the compromises of analog.

 

Tim

 

I confess. I\'m an audiophool.

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To my ears digital sounds a million times smoother and nicer than analogue and always has!

 

Some years ago when DAT recorders first appeared I visited two recording studios where they were being used in parallel with Studer Mastering machines. The Sony portable DAT recorders cost £1000 and the Studer 1/2" 15 ips machine about £10K.

 

The first recording was simply the dawn chorus of garden birds in Oxfordshire and yet the difference between the two was significant with the Sony obviously better. About a week later I heard an African Choir recorded in BBC Pebble Mill Birmingham with the same to machines and the same big difference. Digital was way better. For the record, the best digital analogue machines softened and blurred the bass and added a gritty harshness to the top, the rest just wasn't as comfortable as a Digital tape recorder.

 

Anyone interested in this analogue sound will hear it on the recent John Mellencamp Album which is available as a 24 Bit WAV on a DVD. I believe that the Steely Dan Albums that Audiophiles have always liked were done on an early 16 Bit open real tape recorder, so a comparison may be possible. Lot of other things in the chain have changed since then, but you might still be able to hear the difference.

 

Which brings us back to Loudspeakers that have far more distortion than any other part of the system and are our only way of verifying the quality of the source. It's not easy, but I'd have to say that since we know that products like Cambridge Audio are very good and cost effective, we're going to have to spend the most effort on finding good Speakers.

 

There are bound to be some crap DACs, but as Tim has said the gap between the worst and the best has narrowed considerably, the little old M-Audio 2496 shows that and is more than good enough as a reference, so that leaves the speakers and they are all over the place IMO.

 

Ash

 

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I can only assume that Tim and Ashley have never heard a really good vinyl front end, Steve's point is very well made good engineering practise can make a worthwhile difference. I don't compare vinyl to digital I compare them both to the sound of real instruments.

Chris C I hate to disagree but speakers make the biggest difference to a system imho, Merry Christmas everyone, and a peaceful and prosperous New Year to you all. Keith.

 

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Gentlemen, I recognize many of the statements made in this discussion about Pro Audio versus consumer companies, and the (slightly OT) statements about not the DAC's but the speakers being the most important factor in achieving great sound, and that it would therefore be good to spend most of your budget on them.

 

That makes sense, but I wonder if a key contributor to the sound reproduction has been forgotten here, and in what place it should come...: the room.

 

Since this is even more OT, I decided not to put this in the "Hifi Vs Computer Audiophile DAC’s" discussion but instead start a new one on room correction:

 

How important is (Physical / Digital) Room Correction?

 

I'd really appreciate your insights / opinions on this subject, especially those of the very experienced and well regarded forum members who contributed to this discussion.

 

Thx, VincentH

 

VincentH, Pro Audio and Headphone enthousiast. Currently using Vista + Foobar + WASAPI bitperfect --> FireWire --> RME FireFace 400 DAC --> Vovox unshielded balanced XLR interconnects --> Focal Twin 6Be active monitors + Focal Sub6 active sub; Grado RA 1 + Grado RS 1; Etymotic ER-4P.

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I've answered this in the new thread and pointed out that if you have a problem in your home you'll know it because nothing will sound right. It may even be tiring to have a conversation.

 

However Studios do have problems because they are built to keep noise both in and out. To overcome this they employ the services of a professionally qualified Acoustician who may work with an Architect. What he does is to use a device that puts noise into the room and uses it to calculate the reverberation time of all frequencies in the range of human hearing. Usually it breaks them up into bands to establish which ones are causing the problem by taking longer than others to die down. All he then has to do is construct absorbent panels designed to soak up these reflections. Sponge and cloth materials do mid and high frequencies and typically Kevlar reinforced plastic sheet over a specific size of frame with absorb bass boom.

 

Altering the amplitude response of speakers doesn't work as explained in my other response.

 

Ash

 

 

 

 

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