I bought the Marantz SA-10 SACD player about a year ago. It took me a while to figure out how to get the best sound when using external renderer compared to playing CD/SACD on SA-10 and playing music files from USB drive connected to SA-10. There is no audible difference when playing physical media vs playing music files from USB drive with the SA-10. However, I was unable to get the same sound quality when using external renderer until recently. So this is my humble experience sharing, not a review. This is also my first post here.
My system is pretty revealing although it is not really high-end. It’s in the living room. Eventually I plan to have a dedicated listening room.
Torus AVR30 wall mount – isolation transformer plus voltage regulation (230V country)
Digital sources: Marantz SA-10, Oppo UDP-205
Analog: TW Acustic Raven Two turntable with 2 tonearms: Raven 10.5 (Benz Micro LP-S) and Tri-planar Mk7 U2 (Quintet Black). Audio Research Ref 2 SE phono stage
Passive preamp : Bent Audio + Dave Slagle pure silver autoformer in fully balanced configuration (4 autoformers total). Internal wiring using Swiss-made Audio Consulting 0.5mm single core silver wires with cotton sleeving
Slave passive preamp for HT channels: 3 copper autoformers controlling volume of Oppo 205 center and rear channels into MC303. Follow volume setting of stereo preamp
Bryston 10B-SUB active crossover
McIntosh MC452 driving frequencies above 60 Hz into Focal Utopia III Diablo
McIntosh MC303 driving center channel (another Diablo) and rear channels (Focal Electra IW1002 BE in-ceiling)
2 units of JL Audio fathom f113 subwoofers receiving frequencies below 60 Hz from 10B-SUB
So why not just play music files from USB drive connected to SA-10? It’s limited to PCM 192k and DSD 2x / 5.6. When using external renderer connected to the SA-10 USB Audio type B input, the maximum rates double to PCM 384k and DSD 4x / 11.2. Navigating music files inside the USB drive is painful – it can only be done with the supplied remote control with the help of single-line SA-10 display. There is 1000 folder limit, and the SA-10 struggles with reading large SSD drive; most of the times it hangs, sometimes require restart. The USB drive must be formatted as FAT32 and some characters are not supported. Folders and files are ordered based on creation history, not based on file/folder names like Windows. It feels like there is an ancient computer inside SA-10 running DOS! Also, when playing DSD files from USB drive or DVD-R, there is relay click and mute between tracks, hence no gapless playback for DSD. Gapless DSD playback is a requirement for me.
I started computer audio playback pretty late as I use computers too many hours per day. My first digital music player was Sony HAP-Z1ES, but its USB Audio output quality is lacking. I tried building my own streamer/renderer. Using Intel NUC7i5BNH with 16GB RAM, 256GB Samsung EVO 970 NVMe M.2 SSD for O/S and 2TB Samsung EVO 860 SATA3 SSD for music files, I tried various playback software for both Windows 10 and Linux. Among all the players, I was impressed with Euphony. I utilized 30-day trials for version 2 and then again for version 3. Eventually I purchased Euphony version 3.
The Intel NUC was powered by China-made Zerozone 19V 4A linear power supply purchased through ebay. Through Euphony, I throttled down maximum CPU speed to 1.8GHz – temperature of the 2 cores remains around 50 deg C, hence no noisy CPU fan. Curious USB cable was used between NUC and SA-10. Initially I was impressed with the NUC as its sound is better than Sony HAP-Z1ES. But when NUC is compared to SA-10 internal rendering, the sound is inferior; missing details, more digital sound especially with decays, and poor bass control. Even though Euphony supports DSD 4x / 11.2 playback, playing DSD 4x from NUC sounds inferior compared to playing DSD 2x from SA-10 USB drive.
I then purchased a used Innuos Zenith Mk.II with 2TB internal SSD for experimentation purpose. I never like the idea of spending too much on a streamer, especially when I don’t need the CD ripping functionality of Zenith. Not to my surprise, Zenith sounds better compared to NUC, but the low-end slam and bass tightness cannot match SA-10 internal rendering. Musical instruments sound slightly different with Zenith.
My goal is to make external renderers able to match the sound quality of SA-10 internal rendering. When playing CD/SACD or music files from USB drive, I believe the short path of digital signals and isolation from external noise resulted in superb sound. I consider SA-10 internal rendering as the reference sound. Please note that there are no measurements – all tests done by listening, not just by me, but also by my audiophile friends. Previously I had Denafrips Terminator for 4 months but was unable to optimize the external renderer as I don’t know what the right sound is – each digital input gives different sound, with USB not being the best. The Terminator sounds the best when Marantz SA-10 was used as CD transport with its coaxial output into Terminator. The Terminator was eventually returned due to issues with DSD playback. Please note however that Terminator has an updated DSP + USB board recently.
I explored USB regen – read various reviews and forums. Not willing to spend too much, especially regens which require separate expensive linear power supply costing more than the regen, I settled with iFi Micro iUSB3.0. Per AudioStream iFi Micro review’s recommendation, I also purchased Wireworld Starlight 8 USB 3.0 A to B cable for connection between NUC/Zenith and iFi Micro. I ordered a customized Curious USB 300 mm flipped cable and use it for connection between iFi Micro to SA-10 USB type B input (DAC). SA-10 already has USB ground galvanic isolation, so I don’t think another external galvanic isolation is necessary. I also purchased iFi iSilencer 3.0 for fun.
About 168 hours are required to break in the iFi products and Starlight 8 USB 3.0 cable. I put an old, first generation DragonFly into iFi Micro USB output so that it acts as the DAC during the break in. This is to prevent unnecessary aging of my beloved SA-10. Intel NUC was used and a selected music folder was played continuously.
I tried various USB ports on the NUC – some ports are better. The best combination is with the Starlight 8 USB 3.0 cable connected to top rear USB3 port, iSilencer connected to the bottom rear port, and another iSilencer in front. With this combination, the sound quality from NUC/Euphony/iFi is close to SA-10 internal rendering, but the way the music flows and the definition of micro details still cannot match SA-10 internal rendering.
I removed the 2TB Samsung EVO 860 SATA from NUC and use it as an external USB drive, first into iSilencer in front of NUC, and then into iFi Micro second USB port. With the Samsung SSD connected to iFi Micro second USB port, I finally got the aha moment. It sounds exactly the same with SA-10 internal rendering. Finally I was able to hear DSD 4x / 11.2 at its best. So SSD is indeed noisy and it pollutes the 5V power when used inside the NUC.
iFi Micro and iSilencer fixed the NUC issues of missing details, digital sound especially with decays, and poor bass control. All those digital glares were replaced with smooth, analog sounding music. Piano decays sound so good and addictive. Out of my own curiosity, for connection between NUC and iFi Micro, I replaced the Starlight 8 with 1.2m Curious USB cable I’ve used for about a year. Suddenly there are more details, but very digital and scattered. The smooth analog sounding sound is gone with Curious. Either iFi is correct that USB3 can transmit data better than USB2, and/or the Starlight 8 USB 3.0 cable is really good. Between iFi Micro USB output to SA-10, short Curious USB cable remains my choice.
I also tried using the iFi products with Zenith. I’ve seen an advert where someone sold his iFi Micro iUSB3.0 after he bought a Zenith Mk.III since he thinks with Zenith, USB regen is not required. With my Zenith Mk.II, it makes a difference. Zenith has 2 accessible USB ports even though the SuperMicro embedded motherboard has a lot more. 1 USB2 port is for DAC connection and 1 USB3 port is for backup. Technically both ports can work with iFi Micro. Using Starlight 8 from Zenith USB3 into iFi Micro gives better results, but adding iSilencer 3.0 into the USB3 port before Starlight 8 cable gives even better results. This is different from NUC where putting iSilencer adjacent to the port with Starlight 8 cable gives better results. With Zenith, musical instruments sound slightly different. I don’t think I am done yet with getting the best sound from Zenith, or maybe it was voiced differently such that it will never be able to match the sound of SA-10 internal rendering.
I am really happy with the results with NUC/Euphony/iFi and very surprised Zenith Mk.II can be bettered by DIY solution. Currently Zenith OS does not support DSD 4x / 11.2 with SA-10. Nuno promised they will add that capability in the next kernel update, but it was not in 1.4.3 released recently. Euphony still does not support Native DSD with SA-10 even after multiple promises by Robert. DSD 4x / 11.2 is done as DoP. Right now my only choice to play DSD 4x is with NUC/Euphony. I am tempted to build another NUC. Despite its limitations like having DC to DC converter on the motherboard, it can still produce very good sound with the right software and USB cleaners.