Shine a light on your Music

Taken for Active Assignment Weekly - Pimp my 'Puter

 

This has turned into quite an essay, hang in there...

 

 

Everyone loves music, and by pimping your computer with a dedicated DAC, you can get honest-to-goodness high-end sound for ridiculously low cost. If you have a computer (and you must because you're reading this) and a USB port, you're already two-thirds of the way there.

 

DISCLAIMER

I'm in no way associated with any of these products, just a very happy consumer.

 

WHAT IS A DAC?,

It is a Digital to Analog Converter.

 

Music on a CD (Compact Disc) is stored in 1's and 0's, digital form.

A CD holds about 800Mb in WAV (wave file format).

Typically one track is about 50Mb in size.

MP3's are just another form of digital storage. It is a lossy form of compression - discards bits it thinks you wont miss, and can get one track down to 5Mb in size or less.

 

To hear either a CD or a MP3, it has to be converted to sound waves - Analogue, this is the job of the DAC.

 

There are DAC's in just about everything, computers, ipods, phones, and they are certainly not all created equal.

Your PC probably has a built in sound card. It will be terrible, bass will be chopped off, non-existent, treble similarly truncated, and everything in between will sound flattened. You can recognize the song, but just barely.

You think your iPod sounds great, compared to the PC sound card it probably does, but it is nothing compared to a high-end DAC.

With a high end DAC, it will sound like you are 2 feet in front of the performer. You can hear the intake of breath, the scrape of the fingernail on the silver wound guitar strings, the bass is heart arresting, and unbelievably deep.

It is the DAC that performs all the magic, and what magic it is once you have heard a good one.

 

WHAT TYPE OF DAC TO GET?

There is a plethora of dedicated DACs available, and it can be mighty confusing.

There are different types of connection to the computer - coaxial, optical, spdif, usb. The beauty of usb is you don't need any hardware or software on the computer, just plug in the USB cable, and the Operating System detects it as an external sound card. USB is the type to get.

 

The next choice gets very technical, the details are here:

www.sakurasystems.com/articles/Kusunoki.html

Having listened to both types side by side, I agree with this reviewer:

www.6moons.com/audioreviews/audiozone5/system.html the non-over sampling filter less concept is winning in my listening room. So you want a NOS (non over sampling DAC).

The other type can be over analytical, ear bleeding harsh, and fatiguing to listen to, which is why some audiophiles still prefer vinyl.

 

WHAT DOES A NOS USB DAC COST?

You can spend insane amounts of money on high-end audio equipment.

Paganini DAC (PDC) - $17,999

Paganini Upsampler (PUP) - $10,499

Puccini uClock (PUU) - $4,999

That is $33,500 USD, just for the DAC components in your rig.

(from the CASH list www.computeraudiophile.com/computer-audiophile-suggested-...

 

For a truly great USB NOS DAC like the Red Wine Audio Isabella you are still looking at major money like $3000 USD.

 

However for a 9/10 Audio Zone dac-1, you are down to a somewhat more palatable $1300 USD.

 

Now for the best bit, the exact same USB NOS DAC is available in a kit set form, marketed as Audio Sector for a mere $300 USD - now that is awesome.

 

If kit set freaks you out (like me), you can get it assembled by the designer himself, Peter Daniel.

 

Peter's signature states:

"Do something really well. See how much time it takes. It might be a product, a work of art, who knows? Then give it away cheaply, just because you feel that it should not cost so much, even if it took a lot of time and expensive materials to make it."

Get the Audio Sector DAC here: www.diyaudio.com/forums/audio-sector/149601-audiosector-u...

 

Even in the kit set form, a work of art it is: www.flickr.com/photos/richardmayston/sets/72157622990565738/

 

REVIEWER COMMENTS

www.6moons.com/audioreviews/audiozone5/system.html

 

I'm amazed by designer Peter Daniel's ability to get so much from so little. No doubt the incredibly short signal paths, an obsessive attention to the minutest of details and ridiculously low parts count contribute to AZ's growing reputation for stellar sonic performance in small boxes

 

The non-over sampling filter less DAC.

The venerable TDA1543 converter and CS8412 input receiver remain as does the completely passive I/V stage. There are no op amps in sight.

The transparency, clarity and detail were staggering as was the sheer lack of noise. No hum, no hiss, no tube rush - nada. I can't ever recall hearing music emerge from as silent a backdrop as this. The result was a sense of heightened realism, with a plethora of subtle musical details and a stunning rendering of recorded venue. Transparency, resolution and lightning reflexes.

DAC was smoother, more natural with a lovely, detailed midrange yet utterly lacking in edge or glare. Music gushed forth with a more natural rhythmic bounce. presenting a fuller, more naturally balanced midrange without glare or hyped-up detail.

As for the DAC-1, if there is a more inviting and organic-sounding DAC or CDP retailing under $2000, I'm blissfully unaware of it.

 

VALUE

Need more evidence of value?

Have a look at this list All the DACs money can buy

They are ordered by price (USD) and range from position #1 at $39 to #176 at $69,220.

Now remember the $300 Audio Sector kit set is exactly the same as the commercial Audio Zone #98 at $1,167.

$300 would normally only get you as far as #42.

Not only that, Audio Sector design of non oversampling twin Philips TDA1541 and lack of Op-amps, is almost identical to #167 at $15,470.

The Audio Sector kit set is an incredible bargain.

 

It is not just me who thinks this is an incredible bargain, check out what some other Hi-Fi enthusiasts think:

I paid about £100 for the DAC, and the more I listen, the more I think this is one of the bargains of a lifetime.

Quite simply, if I'd paid £1000 for it, I wouldn't be disappointed.

It blows beresford/caiman/dacmagic etc into the weeds.

 

OUTPUT

The Audio Sector DAC has RCA output, so you have to put it into an amplifier.

As an AUX input to my 30yr old Denon amp & energy speakers, the Audio Sector DAC is like an injection of rocket fuel, they have never sounded so good.

However, in my continuing quest for sonic excellence, headphones are the way to go.

 

HEADPHONES

With good headphones, a good source, and a good headphone amp you'll be pleasantly surprised at the level of audio performance you get. In fact, while speaker systems can out-perform headphones in terms of imaging and visceral impact, headphones can deliver much superior resolution and detail. The most common reaction folks have with their first experience listening to good headphones with a good amp is, "I've heard stuff I've never heard before, I'm going to have to listen to my whole music collection over again."

 

The Sennheiser PX100 headphones are one of the best things I ever bought, they sound like chocolate for your ears. They are in the HeadRoom's 10 Best Headphones as "Great sound, unbelievable ergonomics, fantastic price". The reason they sound so great, is they are Open:

 

Open/closed

Also known as open-back ("Open-Aire") and closed-back. Generally speaking, a distinction is made between open and closed headphones. With closed headphones, the ear is completely sealed off from outside noise (pressure chamber principle). Typical featues of closed headphones are the acoustically sealed housing and the ring-shaped (circumaural) pads that completely surround the ear. The sealing around the ear has a decisive influence on the sound reproduction of closed headphones. If it is insufficient, the quality of the bass sounds will deteriorate. For this reason, the contact pressure of closed headphones is higher than that of open headphones. Closed headphones are often used by sound engineers to allow them to concentrate on the music without disturbance from outside noise. The problem of sealing does not exist with open headphones. In this design, the space behind and in front of the diaphragm lets through sound. Therefore, open headphones allow music to pass straight through the diaphragm without being "muffled", thus resulting in a more transparent and natural sound image. The distinguishing features of open headphones are their small size and low weight. These in turn make them extremely comfortable to wear, and no discomfort is felt even after prolonged periods of listening.

 

I bet you've only ever heard closed headphones, and probably mediocre ones at that. You owe it to yourself to try a PX100, everybody should try them. They made me want to listen to every piece of music I owned over again, just to finally hear it how it was meant to be heard.

 

For home use open headphones are better than closed.

Anything of this headphone top 10 list is going to be good:

www.headphone.com/selection-guide/10-best-headphones.php

El cheapo the Sennheiser PX100 at ~50USD is a good start.

Next step, but a big sonic jump the Grado SR60i at ~100USD.

I didn't intend to go so high up the ladder myself, but once I'd heard them, I thought you only live once, and got the Sennheiser HD650.

www.headphone.com/headphones/sennheiser-hd-650.php

"Once considered (at least by us!) the "world's best," the Sennheiser HD650 remains one of our absolute favourite headphones. This full-size open-back headphone delivers silky smooth sound with a laid-back delivery; a truly gorgeous can for acoustic music of all kinds."

 

For commuter you need closed headphones for isolation, I use Sennheiser HD25-1-II with a Cowon J3 player. The combination of lossless flacs, with the Wolfson DAC chip in the Cowon J3, and the HD25 headphones - never fails to put a big smile on my face. I look forward to my commuter time. Anyone I play it to is stunned.

 

I have about 1.5hrs commuting and listen to flacs on the Cowon J3. I wanted something that sounded like open Grado RS1 headphones but that had some isolation and portability, the Grado GR10 EIM sounded ideal. Initially I was somewhat disappointed. The highs and mids were great but the bass was significantly recessed. The solution was a Ray Samuels Hornet, and the marriage is a match made in heaven. The Hornet has a ‘upfront’ sound to it. The vocals are pushed a bit more forward and it has a tight, punchy type of sound to it, it really is suited nicely for pretty much everything except possibly orchestral. The hornet opens up the GR10 's fully, the bass is back! The GR10's are breathtakingly revealing, much more so than my sennheiser HD650. An analogy would be instead of being at the back of the hall at say a Buena Vista Social Club concert, you are right on the stage, and can choose to examine each instrument in turn. The detail gives you much more to examine in each piece, you can focus on something new each time you listen. Now I treasure my travel time. I think the Grado GR10 are an incredible bargain, well worth their price, but I do recommend you amp them.

 

AMPLIFIER

For a really good, but still affordable desktop Amplifier I got the Little Dot mk V.

www.head-fi.org/forums/f5/review-little-dot-mkv-dual-mono...

 

ANALOGUE CABLES

I used to be a cable sceptic, but I was loaned a Crimson Chord, and became a Cable Convert, it does make a difference.

www.chord.co.uk/chordweb/crimson.htm

"A superb all-rounder that will suit any sub-£1000 system."

 

DIGITAL USB CABLE

I was definatelty in the cable skeptic camp when it comes to USB cables:

 

>one big placebo, assuming the cable is not defective.

>If the cable meets the IEEE standard, there should not be a difference.

>There is a world of difference between analog type cables and digital ones.

 

Yep, that was what I thought.

 

>Spoken like a person with either no real world experience or not a particularly revealing system.

>Digital cables do matter and can sound starkly different assuming your system is transparent enough.

>The only way you will be able to make an educated decision is to try the different cables in your system

>to see if there is a difference in your system and, if so, which cable you prefer.

 

So I did.

So when I needed a 2m usb cable, I thought I'd proove it to myself, and despite a vanilla cable being NZ $3.50, stump up the $110 for a Wireworld Ultraviolet USB Audio Cable. I had it at home for about 1 hour, swapping it back and forward at least 10 times listening to a range of music through my Sennheiser HD650's and Little Dot mkV, and I quickly decided to return it...and order the $250 Wireworld Starlight USB!

 

The difference was way bigger than I'd believed possible. I had thought it already sounded pretty near perfect, but after swapping it back & forth it was apparent the smearing of detail & particularly the silibance around 'S' sounds on the old cable.

 

Considering the wild price differences in RCA cables, I have to say I agree with several reviewers, the Wireworld Starlight USB is a no brainer bargin.

 

RIPPING

You can't play music from your computer unless you upload (or download) it first. To rip bit-perfect music files to hard drive I use the renowned Exact Audio Copy (EAC). This easy-to-use wonder does a fantastic job of pulling every last bit off Red Book CDs and is the standard by which all other rippers are judged. EAC is free.

 

Disk space will be under $50 per Terabyte this year - abandon those lossy MP3's, and use lossless compressed FLAC format. This sounds exactly the same as the original CD, but 1/2 the size. Once you have this type of gear, MP3's really do sound - compressed. MP3's do still have a place, on your 4/8Gb iPod where you can't tell the difference, but it is time to flac up your main collection, your software can convert it on the fly to mp3 for your portable ipod.

 

SOFTWARE

A lot of audiophiles swear by Foobar2000 (FB2K). It isn't the most user-friendly software. I agree with the FAQ

Does foobar2000 sound better than other players?

No. Most of 'sound quality differences' people 'hear' are placebo effect.

I use MediaMonkey, because of it's auto tagging from the web, auto organize, duplicate titles finder, auto play lists. It really helps managing my library.

 

OPERATING SYSTEM

Operating systems can be an issue. Windows XP routes audio through a nasty bit of work called the K-Mixer, which is effective at dramatically reducing sound quality. Not to worry, though, because a free utility, Asio4All, bypasses the K-Mixer and keeps the signal clean.

Windows 7 & Vista are fine.

Ubuntu, the easiest-to-use Linux variant no problems (no EAC though), not sure about Mac, but I expect they work fine.

 

GETTING STARTED

Putting this together would be a big leap of faith. I'd suggest starting with the Grado SR60i headphones. These have low impedance 32 Ohms, and can be driven directly off your iPod. That will give you a start in good sound. Then you probably have an amplifier with RCA inputs already, and can make a move on a DAC.

 

MY SETUP

With a Hard Y-Adapter the Audio Sector now does double duty, and also feeds a superb Unison Research Unico SE parts conneXion Level 2 modified, driving a stunning pair of ProAc Studio 140 speakers.

 

CONCLUSION

To put all this cost in perspective, my complete kit, headphones, amp, dac & cables cost less than my dSLR body alone.

My Canon 40d was second to the bottom of the dslr range at the time, this audio config is very close to the top, and will last 10yrs or more - if my old denon is anything to go by.

The universal response from everyone hearing this rig is OMG!

 

The Audio Sector DAC at $300 is a no brainer, just DO IT.

Pimp your computer, pimp your music, pimp your life.

 

UPDATE:

 

Comparing old technology and new:

 

TDA1543 dual 16bit developed in the 1980's

lightning reflexes

utterly lacking in edge or glare

more naturally balanced midrange without glare or hyped-up detail

Music gushed forth with a more natural rhythmic bounce

Has P.R.A.T Pace, Rhythm and Timing

 

 

Sabre ES9023 32bit 2012

slow

upper register edge glare hyped detail

bass lacking

flat, lifeless in comparison.

 

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Taken on January 5, 2010