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  1. #1

    The DAC difference?

    OK, I'll state up front that this is a highly subjective area.

    I have been living happily with the same low-budget high-end system for about 15 years:

    NAD 701 receiver ($350 in 1994)
    Celestion 5 Mk II bookshelf speakers ($400 in 1994)
    Rotel CD player ($250 in 1994 - demised)

    Reviews and my own ears suggested that these components, while modest, were very high quality at their price points, and much better than anything at Circuit City or Best Buy.

    For a while, I've done most listening from my iPod hooked into my receiver with a 3.5mm->RCA cable. Even with high quality mp3s, sound was not to my liking. So I'm now making the switch to PC-served audio using Foobar/FLAC.

    Sound improved, using my laptop as the transport, but was still lacking. I figured the Y-cable was a big part of the problem, and after a lot of research, decided that a USB DAC was the answer. In keeping with my low budget, I was looking for a quality but low-cost DAC, and settled on the HRT Music Streamer II. I've been listening with it for about a week.

    I don't know what I was expecting, but I have to strain to hear the difference between it and the Y-cable from my laptop's headphone jack. So I have to conclude that either...

    1. my expectations were out of wack - DACs just don't yield big results but are more about fine-tuning;

    2. a better DAC would make a big difference - the MSII just isn't the right tool;

    3. my system is not what it was 15 years ago, or maybe was never all that - the MSII would reveal better sonics from a higher-end system;

    or

    4. my ears are not what I like to think they are, and I am just failing to hear the differences that others would.


    I have no experience at all with DACs - for years, I relied on the Rotel CD player's native DAC which sounded great to me and never thought about why it sounded great. And while I did quite a lot of listening to acquire my system components 15 years ago, I have never desired an upgrade, so I'm not nearly as knowledgeable as many of you. So, I'm hoping for some perspective here. As stated at the outset, I understand the subjectivity involved. I'm just looking for some insight into the experience of others so I have some kind of benchmark for making my own evaluations here at home.

  2. #2
    Site Founder The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
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    Hi Spoonie - This sonic

    Hi Spoonie - This sonic difference between your Y cable and DAC should be very evident to even the most non-audiophile listener. My first guess is you are not outputting bit perfect audio. If the music is already degraded before reaching the DAC there isn't much that can be done. I've actually helped people before in this same situation.

    What operating system are you using and what playback application?
    Chris Connaker

    Founder
    Computer Audiophile

    Listening Room | System Details

  3. #3
    Sophomore Member got tinnitus's Avatar
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    Maintain the British make-up

    Maintain the British make-up of your rig and do yourself a favour; audition a Naim DAC.


    Naim 282/250/hi-cap/cd5xs/dac/stageline, mac book pro/fidelia/amarra hifi/halide bridge, rega p3/24, focal utopia scala

  4. #4
    Junior Member
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    What are you listening to?

    The reason I ask is some CD's have sonic limitations. They max out in playback quality with modest systems.
    EG; I made a couple changes to the playback chain. Liked what I heard. It was cool outside for the first time in two months so took the dogs walking for an hour or so.
    The music was left playing and a couple classical cuts played upon return. After a few songs, KD Lang started. Really did not listen closely to Absolute Torch and Twang, but when Drag started it sounded better than I remember. Listened all the way through and the sonic quality was stunning. One of my favorite albums of hers Ingenue was next. The songs are much more interesting on this album. But the sound quality was limited. Opaque, muted dynamics, no staging at all. Very compressed also. This album must have been mixed for car playback.
    If I had first listened to Ingenue I would have dismissed the changes as no improvement at best. The better sonic quality seen in Drag highlighted the effects.
    Guess this is why many use a wide selection of music. I normally just play something I want to listen to.


    George
    2011 Mac Mini, i5 - 2.5 GHz, 16 GB RAM. 60 GB Force 3 SSD, PM/PV software, KRK Ergo with board work, Penasa My_Ref Evolution Rev A amplifier, Thiel CS-3.5 with Blue Sky SUB 212, G-Tech G-Drive 5400 rpm FW Drive, Plextor 880-U external drive for ripping. 2 GB Fanthom drive for 88.2/24 vinyl rips. TC Impact Twin as ADC for vinyl rips.
    Ergo doing quad duty as Dac, Preamp, Crossover, and DRC.

  5. #5

    Good questions, thanks for

    Good questions, thanks for the responses. I have listened to a pretty wide range of material, expressly to try to hear the difference. So I've ranged from Radiohead (OK Computer)to Charles Mingus(Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus) to Mozart (Die Zauberflote). The opera is a recent recoding, DDD, not something recorded in the 50s. The Mingus is remastered, and the Radiohead is sonically pretty wide and deep. That's just an example. Beach Boys, U2's Achtung Baby, an older recording of Beethoven's 9th that WAS recorded with old technology, Bill Frissell solo guitar, and lots more jazz. I've ripped over 4,000 tracks so far and have tried a pretty good selection from among them. The jazz and classical tracks are where I really expected to hear the difference in dynamics and spaciousness. Not so - it sounds decent, just not great, and not much better than with the Y cable. The opera, in particular, surprised me - sound really lacks spaciousness through my system with and without the DAC.

    @Chris, I'm ripping to FLAC (level 5) in burst mode with dBPoweramp with AccurateRip and re-ripping securely on anything that's not accurate. Foobar2000 is my player. I have tried three different PCs as the transport, 2 of which run XP (both have >1GB RAM) and one Vista (has 1GB RAM). My PC volume controls are all maxed and only my receiver is controlling volume. ReplayGain and all other DSPs are disabled. I've tried with and without foobar's EQ. I've tried with and without ASIO. Shouldn't this combination be outputting a bit-perfect signal? I've even set the DAC up to play through powered $100 2.1 desktop speakers, just to see if I got different results, but it was similar - little to no detectable difference between MSII and Y-cable.

    I am no audio engineer, but I think I have pretty sensitive ears and I know what I'm listening for. Hence my puzzlement....

  6. #6
    Senior Member PeterSt's Avatar
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    English

    Hi,

    You could try to find out what type of DAC chips the Rotel has. If it is "multi bit" chances are very fair that you got used to the sound of that, and it is difficult to "go back" from that; Your new DAC won't be multi bit.

    Also, I think Rotel has an "over-fragile" type of sound (maybe not all their equipment ?) which may be hard to find anywhere else.

    And generally, indeed the english stuff is, well, not american.

    Peter
    XXHighEnd (developer)
    Phasure NOS1 24/768 Async USB DAC (manufacturer)

  7. #7
    Senior Member PeterSt's Avatar
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    Bit Perfect

    ASIO will be "bit perfect", but it may not be the sound you like.

    The other two groups of sound devices in the bit perfect realm are WASAPI and Kernel Streaming. You'd have to install the plugins for that.

    But I don't think this is a "bit perfect" problem (also see my before post; I didn't read your last post yet at creating it).

    What about lending a somewhat more real DAC ? just to try and to perceive differences (whatever they will tell you).

    Peter
    XXHighEnd (developer)
    Phasure NOS1 24/768 Async USB DAC (manufacturer)

  8. #8
    Senior Member PeterSt's Avatar
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    One more thing

    Reviews and my own ears suggested that these components, while modest, were very high quality at their price points, and much better than anything at Circuit City or Best Buy.

    ... and following up on my "lending" suggestion ...

    I think your main problem may be that you live in an area where you don't have a real audio shop around. Allright, you are nothing but used to that, and it won't say much to many of you over in the US, but finding a good shop even 500 miles away may be gold for you. It has been said before, but e.g. England has high quality shops in each 10 square mile or 10 in one larger city otherwise. This is a luxury "we" don't realize, and especially if you are in lack of it "we" don't even see it as a problem, but nor do you.

    Ok, this was my Saturday morning chat. I don't even know why I am saying this all, but I guess I feel your "problem" is in this area. You may not even be from the US ... haha

    But I would bring my Rotel to such a shop and listen to it there. Next have it replaced by something within your budget. Satisfied ? buy it.
    Now try to get that running satisfactory in your PC environment.

    I know, there's more to it, like connections means and all. But maybe right now you are too much in the blind.
    And "PC Playback" really outbetters CDP playback, you know ...

    HTH,
    Peter
    XXHighEnd (developer)
    Phasure NOS1 24/768 Async USB DAC (manufacturer)

  9. #9

    My CD player was one bit, and

    Thanks, Peter. My CD player was one bit, and I haven't used it for a couple years. It's gone, in any event, though I appreciate the suggestion. Don't think I'm overly used to any particular equipment setup. I should also clarify: the sound I'm getting is not bad at all. It's just not clearly better or at all different from the DAC than from the Y-cable/native soundcard. This is the thing I don't get.

    Borrowing a higher quality DAC is a great idea - if I can find anyone who has one....I don't know any audiophiles where I live! We do have a few high end shops in Portland, where I live, and checking in with them is good idea too.

    One other factor I didn't think to mention - my room setup is not ideal. The speakers are on opposite ends of a mantle and I sit about 8' from them. The R speaker is situated in a corner, while the L speaker is nowhere near a side wall. I don't have a lot of flexibility here, but I may try moving things around.....still, it's the lack of difference with the DAC that seems most suspect, and I don't think speaker placement explains that lack either.


    PS - As an aside - I DO like the English stuff and prefer a balanced and accurate sound. I am very sensitive to space in the sound, and get frustrated by sound that seems compressed, or where the highs are harsh or the lows boomy. I guess I'm after a vinyl-type sound, fat and natural through all registers, with lots of space and open staging. The sound of being in the room with actual musicians. I'm obviously compromising a lot for the sake of budget, but I don't really have a choice there. But the kind of sound I'm after is what all the stuff I read about DACs in general indicated I'd find, to some degree or another. So I'm looking for that difference.


  10. #10

    I notice a few similarities

    I notice a few similarities in evolution of my system. About 10 years ago I put together a modest Rotel system - 850 series amp, pre and CD player, and a pair of Krix Equinox speakers. I enjoyed the system for what it was. A couple years ago, I set the system up at my computer (minus the CD player), using the 1/8" audio out on my Mac Pro. I was less than impressed with the sound, and blamed it on my speakers (being put into near-field service in an awkward arrangement)

    While in the process of speaker shopping, I decided to add a DAC. I was skeptical, and didn't really believe it would make a difference. Well adding the DAC (a Little Dot DAC I) totally blew me away and "fixed" what I thought was a speaker problem. It was very obvious, music became more clear and focused, imaging improved bass was more decisive and generally, the system was fun, and not fatiguing. I could all the sudden hear the difference between compressed and uncompressed files. I just replaced the Rotel pieces with a Virtue Sensation M901 and it took another huge jump in sound quality.

    I don't have magic ears by any means. If anything, the effects of esoteric gear is usually lost on me. But this DAC made such a huge, obvious jump in sound quality for me. Little DOT is a great company to work with. They are based in China. The DAC I is similar in spec to the DAC Magic, using a pair of Wolfson chips, and quality components.

    The thought that comes to mind, is that maybe there isn't that huge of a difference in quality between the Streamer II and the DAC built into your computer. I know the Streamer has gotten good reviews, but I wonder if you have to get into a slightly higher price point to get a noticeable improvement. $150 is pretty cheap. My inclination, based on my research was that I needed to be getting into around $200-300 to get the level of spec that I'd see some benefit. The LD was around $300 shipped. I haven't even listened to any of the higher end DACs, but can only imagine the difference would become more subtile moving upscale.

    I know you feel like you got "burned" on the Streamer, but I would encourage you to do some more experimenting. Maybe you don't want to throw more money at it, but maybe you could try something a little more substantial from a dealer that will take it back if you are not satisfied. Then sell the Streamer. The real over-performers are from Chinese companies that sell direct. So while the local shop may have some good DACs, with the benefit of an audition, you're going to pay 2-3 times the price for something with a western brand name in my opinion.
    The Fusion & Instrumental Music Forum: http://fuze-zone.com/

  11. #11

    The problem with WinXP...

    ....is that it tends to resample everything to 48 Khz without telling you. You may be outputting 44.1 khz but under the hood WinXP may have upsampled to 48 then back to 44.1.

    Try ripping a cd track at 48 Khz and see how that sounds. If it does sound clearer, then some part of WinXP is still resampling.

    My digital audio workstation is WinXP pro, and the main reason I bought the Echo MIA soundcard is because of the purewave sound drivers. They were specifically designed to bypass the kernel mixer in XP and their documentaion taught me alot about WinXp's 48 Khz achilles heel. When I use Cooledit 2K to play wav files using the purewave drivers and outputting co-axialy thru to my DAC, the results are excellent.

    With Vista, did you use the WASAPI driver to output your audio? My basic understanding is that it is the best way to get the cleanest audio out of Windows Vista.

    Hope this helps.

    CD

  12. #12

    New Dac problems

    I would be very surprised if the basic HRT didnít have the capability to outperform your Rotel tbh; it tore my modded Exposure 2010 to shreds.

    Most of what Iíve read would suggest it would do much the same to the Little Dot but having not made a direct comparison I canít say with any certainty.

    It sounds to me as if there may be a problem here not related to the Dac itself, maybe something to do with how you have set it up.

    Dedicated Mains Cond dis block. Custom Linux Voyage MPD server. HRT Music Streamer Pro, Linear mains powered ADUM Belkin Gold USB cable. TP Buffalo 11, Custom XLR interconnects/Belkin Silver Series RCA. Exposure 21RC Pre, Super 18 Power (recap & modified). Modded World Audio HD83 HP amp.Van de Hull hybrid air lock speaker cables. Custom 3 way Monitors,Volt 250 bass&ABR, Scanspeak 13M8621Mid & D2905/9300Hi. HD595 cans.[br]2)Quantum Elec based active system self built.

  13. #13

    @Codifus

    My understanding is that by using the HRT, I am bypassing the PC's soundcard, and that by using ASIO, I am bypassing whatever else the OS does to the audio signal natively.

    I don't fully understand the 44.1/48 thing. I mean, I understand bit depth, but I don't know why Windows converts between the two. So I'm not sure what to do with the ASIO option to "Automatically resample 44.1 48 kHz." I'm also not sure how to rip something at 48, and I don't have any SACD or HDCDs, so isn't everything I have 16/44.1 anyway? Some help here would be appreciated.

    I have not tried WASAPI because my Vista machine isn't really my audio machine; I was just trying it to see if my HRT DAC suddenly "worked." It didn't make an easily detectable difference.

    Thanks...

  14. #14

    @Funkle

    I agree that $150 is cheap! I was looking closely at reviews for the MF V-DAC @ $300, saw references to the MSII, and began looking into that. Many reviewers compared it positively to the V-DAC. If I can get even 95% quality at 50% cost, I'm interested. I don't feel like I got burned, I just feel like I'm getting something wrong somewhere and I'm not sure where it is. I got the MSII on Amazon and have some time to return it. I am more likely to check out a DAC in the $300 range and see if there's a difference. But, from what I read about the MSII, it still surprises me that it wouldn't seriously outperform my crappy XP and it's native-on-the-MB CrystalFusion soundcard.

  15. #15

    @Tipper and others

    Set up.... I am using brand new Belkin PureAV RCA cables (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00022TN86/ref=oss_product) from the DAC to the receiver, and a Monster Digital USB audio cable (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000FZ292W/ref=oss_product) from the PC to the DAC. I know these aren't exactly high end cables, but they ought to be sufficient to support an audible difference between the DAC and the PC's native audio, right? That is, it seems unlikely to me that this is the source of the sameness.

    Also - my AC power is from a probably crappy source in a very old house. A dedicated power box would likely be an upgrade, but again....could that really be the reason that the DAC isn't making an audible difference?

  16. #16

    I donít know what the problem

    I donít know what the problem is frankly.
    You shouldnít need any changes to your power supply, or any special cables, or anything else for that matter. The HRT should work just fine with basic kit.
    I didnít use fancy cables when I had the HRT 11 and I donít use them now.

    Nor do I believe that you donít have the necessary ďgolden earsĒ to discriminate between how components sound and what you find comfortable to listen to.

    In theory any Dac (within reason) should give improved sound quality compared to your now retired CD player if youíll forgive me for saying so
    This canít really be a case of some system synergy mismatch.
    I very much doubt if you cant get on with the HRT whether a V-Dac or any other Dac will produce magical results to your ears with the components youíve mentioned.
    You say youíre using ASIO, is it ASIO4all?

    If you are using foobar this is about the best set of instructions on how to set it up on the net.
    http://www.ayre.com/usb-foobar_setup_xp.htm

    Once youíve got this part sorted and are confident that asio4all is working and you are bypassing the windows kmixer and any nasty sampling your sound card may be doing, and you are at least getting sound through your NAD receiver in this configuration then itís a question of looking at how your receiver handles the input from the HRT.

    Unfortunately I know bugger all about your NAD receiver. I would assume providing it has RCA input direct to the amp circuits all should be well.

    There is always the possibility that you have just got to like the sound of your old kit.
    Donít get a bad case of audio nervosa just because youíve read that you need this bit of kit or that bit of kit to enjoy your music; frankly it s all bollocks.

    However, being a bit of an HRT fan and having found any and all the models performance in my system excellent Iím very interested in why you are not getting a similar result.

    Dedicated Mains Cond dis block. Custom Linux Voyage MPD server. HRT Music Streamer Pro, Linear mains powered ADUM Belkin Gold USB cable. TP Buffalo 11, Custom XLR interconnects/Belkin Silver Series RCA. Exposure 21RC Pre, Super 18 Power (recap & modified). Modded World Audio HD83 HP amp.Van de Hull hybrid air lock speaker cables. Custom 3 way Monitors,Volt 250 bass&ABR, Scanspeak 13M8621Mid & D2905/9300Hi. HD595 cans.[br]2)Quantum Elec based active system self built.

  17. #17

    You are correct in that eveything should be bypassed...

    ...but it's a simple thing to try. I don't know what application your are using to RIP your CDs, but iTunes, for example, can RIP CDs at 44.1 or 48 Khz rate. Of course 48 isn't bit perfect, but it's a quick and easy way to test your config by comparing the sound quality of a 48 Khz ripped file to a 44.1 Khz file. If the 48 Khz file sounds clearer, then, at some point you can conclude that WinXp is still touching (resampling) the 44.1 file somehow on its way out of your computer.

    CD

  18. #18

    The problem is simple, but

    The problem is simple, but you are not going to like it.

    Your system is like so many other mid-fi systems that are plagued with noise and distortion. These artifacts are masking any benefits of the new DAC.

    This is a common problem that budding audiophiles dont understand. It's a system thing. All it takes is one disruptive component and all the benefits of a really expensive piece are lost. It could even be just a single cable, a preamp, power amps or speakers. One cannot simply improve one piece and expect the system to sound world-class. The entire system must be up to snuff.

    Let me give you an example: A customer of mine recently purchased a $15K Wadia DAC hoping to get miraculous improvements. His old DAC was a Stello, about $1.5K. He could not hear any difference between his old DAC and the Wadia using either his headphone system or his mid-fi speaker system. He took it to his friends house, where again he could hear no difference in his mid-fi system. I explained to him that it was the other components in these systems that were the limiters.

    Finally, he took my advice and borrowed some high-end amplifiers and cables from his local stereo store and finally he could hear the difference. He ended-up spending a lot more money to achieve his goal, but finally got there.

    Steve N.
    Empirical Audio

  19. #19

    Update

    Well, I wanted to close the circle here for anyone who's interested. I took Peter's advice and looked around for local shops. I found one that, had I known of when I started this project, I would have gone to in the first place: 32 Ohms in Portland, OR, run by the folks behind ALO Audio cables. I was able to do a fair bit of listening to some other DACs in the store (including, for fun, the Red Wine Audio Isabella, which was astonishing) and take a few home to evaluate in my system.

    The Music Streamer II+ was a significant upgrade over the base Streamer II, and unquestionably better than the Y-cable/soundcard. Bass was rich and tight, highs sharp, mids clear and resonant. But the KingRex UD-01 was very similar - in fact, my wife ran blind tests for me and I had a hard time distinguishing between the two. With the $150 price difference, HRT was eliminated from contention. The KingRex, in some cases more than the MSII+, had the rich, velvety, full-sounding vinyl quality I was looking for. The PopPulse PCM1796 DAC MKII was, upon first impressions, the best of these three, both at the store and at home. The jazz track I was using as my primary tester (Dave Douglas's "Blue Heaven" from his Soul on Soul release) really shone through the PopPulse. Detail and precision was impressive. The attack in the horns was incredible, the highs were crisp and tight, bass was as good if not better than in the others. That attack, and the texture in the tenor sax especially, really sold me. But then, thinking my decision was made, I let my collection random play for a few hours through the PopPulse, and it began gradually to disappoint. Lush rock tracks (Radiohead, Dark Side of the Moon, Abbey Road side 2), especially, seemed held back pretty badly - the sound just seemed to stop an inch in front of the speakers. I couldn't shake it. So the next day, I spent hours listening to just the PopPulse and the KingRex. I did a lot of blind testing. And while the PopPulse was unquestionably the more sensitive, more detailed performer, the KingRex was unquestionably the more musical overall, with the richer sound I was looking for. I suspected that 50-100 hours of burn-in might bring the richness out of that PopPulse, which I also preferred for its looks and its cool power source separation, but I could not find any evaluations of it anywhere online. Nothing. I did, however, find a few folks online claiming that adding a PSU to the KingRex made a huge difference, and I like that relatively low-cost upgrade potential. So with nothing else to go on and needing to get the stuff back to the store the next morning, I went with the KingRex. I've been listening for about a week now, and I have no regrets.

    In the end, it appears that the Music Streamer II just wasn't enough DAC for me. Surprising based on what I've read here and elsewhere, but in the end I've got to trust my ears. Thanks to everyone who replied here - it was helpful! This has been a fun process for me and for the first time since I acquired my original system, the component bug has bit me. I hope I can afford the consequences.

  20. #20
    Trouble maker... Audio_ELF's Avatar
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    Thanks...

    @Spoonie B

    Thanks for letting us know the outcome... Great to know you found the solution which suits you... At the end of the day YOU enjoying the music is all that matters!

    Eloise
    ...in my opinion / experience...
    While I agree "Everything may matter" working out what actually affects the sound is a trickier thing.
    And I agree "Trust your ears" but equally don't allow them to fool you - trust them with a bit of skepticism.