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Found 553 results

  1. Tribalism. It seems to be baked into human DNA. The compulsion of most of us to divide into groups. To associate with those that think like us, look like us, worship like us or worse, actively exclude those perceived as different from us. It invades our politics, our religious thinking. Audiophiles are not immune to tribalism as we all know. From tubes vs. solid state, to vinyl vs. digital, we see and hear the same topics brought up and discussed ad nauseam in various audio related magazines and on websites, like The Computer Audiophile. Even the digital tribe is further broken down into what sounds better, PCM or DSD. Some extoll the virtues of converting all PCM to DSD as that is the path to audio nirvana, and visa versa. Of course, simple DSD is not enough. We need quad DSD or even octa DSD to sound the best. Of course, red book Is not enough on the PCM side, hence the move to 24/96, 24/192, 24/384 etc. The higher the number, the better the sound, right? And, let’s not even get started with MQA. Please? My personal philosophy is that I am format neutral. For me, the format of the digital file is one of the least significant factors in getting true audio fidelity in the home. Assuming that one has competently engineered and manufactured electronics, which I find to be generally the case, the most significant and most often overlooked factor by audiophiles, is the room itself. The room can make or break the aural experience, the illusion of real musicians, playing in a real space. Perceived issues with our equipment can be room related, or a simple matter of dialing in speaker placement. Audiophiles can far too often find themselves essentially chasing their tails, constantly changing their equipment or cables or trying the latest and greatest USB dongle when simple room treatments or the tweaking of speaker placement will yield far more satisfactory results and more importantly, long term listening pleasure. As for the format of the recording, I find that the quality of the recording itself to be far more important than the format. The skill of the recording engineer, the microphones used, the placement of same, the recording venue, the placement of the musicians in that space all trump whether the format is DSD or PCM or analog tape. With great engineering and or course, a light touch by the mastering engineer, all of these formats can yield spectacular results. An example of this is a stellar recording by a local Philadelphia area group, The Hazelrigg Brothers, and their CD, “songs we like”. This group performed recently at the Capital Audio Fest. While I was not able to attend, I obtained a copy of their CD and was gobsmacked by the quality of the recording. The recording and the performances are superb. Beautiful piano sound, deep, tuneful and impactful bass and realistic drums that all recordings should strive for. The recording was made in their home studio at DSD 128. Despite the fact that the recording was “downrezed” to redbook, I really can’t imagine how this recording could sound better in my room than as presented on this CD. The CD is simply that good. A beautifully recorded album will sound sensational regardless of what format it was delivered to the listener. The fidelity of this recording comes through in spades on this CD, even if it was originally recorded in DSD. Whether it is delivered to you in redbook or some higher rez format simply does not matter, at least to me. Kudos to whoever performed the transfer. I think we can all agree the digital has come a long way since the introduction of the CD. The newer DACs available today are superb. The advent of computer based playback has further improved the sound we can get at home, with software programs that can playback all digital formats with aplomb, and convert PCM to DSD and visa versa at whatever resolutions one’s heart and ears may desire. Just give me well engineered recordings in whatever format the engineer or artists think sounds best to them. I will play them back in my format of choice depending on the formats my DAC or DACs support. That will make me a very happy audiophile. In short, it is the engineering that matters, not the format. Joe
  2. Danny Kaey

    Introducing the Wilson Audio TuneTot

    Wilson Audio TuneTot – Official Announcement Danny Kaey Here we are, a week following the teaser announcement of TuneTot and thusly, all systems are a go. We have lift-off. Full boost. That is, boost your expectations of what the most densely designed Wilson speaker to date has yet to offer. A full, formal review is still forthcoming at a later date, so think of this as a Star Wars-y prequel to the main show. No doubt you are wondering just what sort of loudspeaker, nay, transducer, Wilson Audio is able to scale down to their most effective price point ever, US $9800 ($10500 for upgraded color options). Not merely content with condensing their technologies, Wilson of course, went into overdrive: you see, TuneTot is really the birth of an all new speaker design and ecosystem for Wilson Audio. Whereas designs you see come and go, offering up an actual ecosystem is something genuinely new and genuinely unheard of in HiFi circles. The story goes something like so: In 2018 you are used to accessorizing your iPhone or iPad or Apple Watch, but your HiFi…? As mentioned in my previous teaser about TuneTot, Wilson realized that our listening habits have changed over the years. The days of enthusiasts owning just one main system have been superseded by days of multiple systems across multiple rooms. Your options for true high-end multi-room setups are somewhat limited: sure, one could easily buy say a Sabrina for your office or den, but what if even svelte Sabrina is too much of a good thing? There are quite few one stop, tek-y sort of options on the market today, but what if you wanted dramatically more? What if someone applied all their material sciences to a package small enough to fit on your desk or library and you wanted to stick with say the same brand of high-end speakers you already own and love? There, the air is suddenly mighty thin and lacking oxygen, perhaps even ripe for genuine disruption. Wilson Audio approached this conundrum the Wilson way. TuneTot contains all their proprietary sciences scaled to a desktop sized speaker, including the ability to add a properly designed (and quite massive) base, aptly named ISOBase (Installation Surface Optimization, $2100), for your pair of tots. Furthermore, Wilson Audio’s Special Applications Engineering team designed a RING system ($649) for TuneTot which – since most Wilson owners listen to their speaks without grills – offers up an additional accessorizing opportunity (think easily interchangeable Apple Watch bands) that can change based on your preference for the day, month or year. Legit I say. Given your choice of five new Wilson colors specific to TuneTot and your choice of anodizing hardware (in multiple cool new colors) and grill ($299) options, it’s quite easy to see that Wilson Audio went an entirely new route here. If I may say so myself, quite ingenious and potent this little package is and I have no doubt that Wilson are working on expanding the depth and breadth of this ecosystem. A formal review will be transcribed in the weeks ahead, for now, based on my very limited time spent with TuneTot (I was hustling to Vienna for some R&R prior to Munich’s yearly gala), it’s fair to say that Wilson appears to have hit a home run. For now, then, enjoy my first ever unboxing videos and living room action shots – there will be more, much more to come. This story is just beginning… Cheers! Price (U.S. MSRP): TuneTot—$9,800.00 (pair) In Upgrade Colors—$10,500.00 ISOBase—$2,100.00 (pair) TuneTot Ring—$649.00 (pair) TuneTot Grille—$299.00 (pair) Photos Copyright Danny Kaey Photos Copyright Wilson Audio
  3. The Computer Audiophile

    Should You Rent or Buy Audio Software?

    When CA started in 2007 audiophiles had a handful of choices for playback and library management applications. Some popular apps were iTunes, JRiver Media Center, Foobar2000 and MediaMonkey. Over the years many apps have come and gone, some haven't changed much, and others have continued to get better. The fact that we have options is a great thing. If I was still stuck with iTunes on macOS and the Apple Remote app on iOS, my listening experience wouldn't be nearly as good as it is today. Along with application options, buyers also have what I'll call acquisition options. These options include renting, buying, maintaining, free, or software that's included with the purchase of hardware. Again, options are great. I want to touch on what I see as differences between the models and more importantly I'd love to read feedback from the CA Community. I know there are many strong opinions on this and I enjoy reading all the perspectives. Buying This is what I call the traditional model of acquiring software. You pay X dollars for an application and it works as long as your computer supports it. From a consumer perspective many people like this model because of the fixed cost and they feel like they own something. No matter what happens to the software company in the future, as long as the consumer has a capable computer the application purchased this way will work like the first day it was installed. The pay once model can be difficult for software companies due to the ongoing cost of keeping the applications updated for security and features in addition to providing user support. In a constant world without changes, it would be simple to release it and forget it. However, the world of software and technology never stops changing. Examples: JRiver, Audirvana+, HQPlayer Maintaining This is a subset of the traditional buying model. In this case you can upgrade the software purchased or pay another lump some to continue to receive updates to the original software. This model follows a yearly or dependable cycle. JRiver has used this model for several years. It's perhaps the best compromise between the traditional buying model and a subscription model. A one-time up front purchase of the software entitles the user to updates until the next version is released, usually one year from the previous version's release. The cost to upgrade is usually substantially less when purchased early. The Beauty of this model is that users can stay with whatever version they want and it will continue to work as long as their PCs meet the requirements for the software. No maintenance upgrade is required, it's optional. Users who want the newest version can pay for the upgrade and continue to get frequent updates and newer features. I like this model because it allows great consumer choice and provides revenue for the software companies to continue updating products and supporting users. Example: JRiver Rent / Subscription This isn't new in the grand scheme of things, but it's fairly new to many consumer markets. You pay a monthly / yearly fee for access to software. The subscription model is the one that seems to irk HiFi consumers the most. It's not a money thing. The cost of a subscription to apps isn't even as much as the sales tax paid on some experimental accessories in this hobby. The model just rubs people the wrong way or goes against their belief in owning something. Even though a license to use "purchased" software doesn't equal ownership that's a discussion for a different day. Subscription apps such as Roon have a large ongoing cost to the company because of licensed content. The metadata, album lookups, images, and hardware certification done in-house can all cost money behind the scenes. This cost is passed on to the user though a subscription. Of course the subscription helps pay for user support and ongoing product updates. One thing this model doesn't provide consumers is as much choice as a maintenance model. If a user doesn't want to keep updating or keep receiving metadata etc..., there is no option to put the subscription on hold and continue to use the app as intended. Roon requires an internet connection at least once every 30 days, or the user is logged out of the app, crippling functionality. I'm not suggesting this is good or bad, it's just the way ti works. Roon offers a limited time $500 lifetime subscription that places it almost in the traditional buying model, but if Roon Labs (the company) is purchased or licensing agreements aren't renewed, there's no guarantee the app will continue to work even though it may install on a computer without issues. I believe the company has indicated it can make some of the functionality work if something like this happens. This lifetime license is a good compromise for those that prefer the purchase model but want a software package that isn't offered via that model. Example: Roon Free Yes free as in beer. If you don't like these apps, you're entitled to a full refund of your purchase price. Only kidding. Some offer support through forums while other such as iTunes offer support online and in person in the Apple Stores. Of course iTunes is heavily subsidized by consumer content purchasing and Apple uses user information in any way it sees fit. Free doesn't equate to bad or even a worse product. Consumers just need to beware they may be the product and their expectations with respect to updates and support should be adjusted accordingly. Examples: iTunes, MusicBee, foobar2000, MediaMonkey, AIMP, Clementine Included This software isn't free although it also isn't purchased in a line-item type of way. You can't purchase it on its own. These apps are included with the purchase of hardware. Some hardware requires the use of the company's custom app while other hardware is offered with an optional app for consumers. For example, the Aurender servers only work with the included Aurender Conductor app (sure AirPlay works but that's not even close to full functionality) while dCS products work with the included dCS iOS apps, Roon, or any number of UPnP/DLNA apps and Spotify. Most of the meta data functionality in these apps is public knowledge. Thus, I'm unsure if they will continue to function should the company(s) go out of business or have a licensing agreement altered. Some apps don't license anything from third parties. Some apps pull in free content not in need of a licensing agreement. Examples: Aurender's Conductor app, Auralic's Lightning DS, and apps from dCS, Lumin, Naim, and Sumaudio to name a few. Wrap-up There you have the options as I see them. There are many more nuances to each model and many more pros & cons. I'd love to hear from the Community about its thoughts and any "purchasing" decisions individuals have made based on any of these factors. Has anyone selected hardware because of software or vice versa? Did the model of acquisition sway your decision?
  4. Danny Kaey

    Announcing the Wilson Audio TuneTot

    Editor's Note: As mentioned in my Superphonica introduction here on Computer Audiophile, I said I wanted to grow CA and take it to the next level. Part of this growth will come from hiring additional writers. Today marks the first step in our longterm business plan, as we publish the first article from Danny Kaey. I was introduced to Danny a few years ago by our mutual friend Maier Shadi of The Audio Salon in Santa Monica, CA. I've spent time with Danny on several occasions since then and we've shared our mutual love of music in many conversations. Danny is not only a smart guy with excellent knowledge of HiFi, but he's a great person (the great person part is most important to me). Most of Danny's listening these days is done through a turntable, but he is no stranger to the digital side of our wonderful hobby. Danny's career at Apple Inc. demands that his knowledge of all things digital remains sharp. I look forward to reading Danny's perspective on all things HiFi, right here on CA. Please welcome Danny to the CA community, he is excited to join us. - Chris Connaker Announcing the Wilson Audio TuneTot Question: how often does Wilson Audio announce a new speaker? Answer: not very often. Except today of course. Since I first heard of this, all new design, I have genuinely been biting my tongue not to spill the beans. Wouldn’t want to spoil an early Christmas and all. Fact is, Wilson Audio has been on a roll these past few years. Alexx, Sabrina, Yvette, Alexia Series 2 - undeniably, that’s a whole lot of development, engineering and design time over just the past two, three years. Add to that all other work associated with a new speaker launch and one quickly sees the Herculean effort needed to accomplish such feats. Fortunately, Wilson Audio isn’t just any high-end speaker manufacturer, so if anyone could pull this off, my wager would be on precisely the Provo, Utah based team to do so. What makes these developments even more praise worthy is that during this time, Dave Wilson retired and the reigns of the company were handed over to his son, Daryl Wilson. No stranger to the company’s business, Daryl had been his dad’s sidekick since before he was even a teenager. Things always come full circle. In the case of this all new loudspeaker, this circle spans a giant ark, since Wilson’s latest is in many ways a direct descendent of Dave Wilson’s very first speaker built exclusively as a location monitor for his now legendary recordings. What came next was genuinely historic in the world of high-end audio: the WATT / Puppy speaker system which across all of its iterations is by far the single best selling high-end loudspeaker of all times. To those who perhaps are reading about Wilson Audio for the very first time, the who, the WATT, refers to Wilson Audio Tiny Tot. As mentioned, it was born out of necessity: Dave Wilson needed a reference quality monitor for his location recordings and nothing available on the market proved worthy for the challenge. Today’s speaker landscape looks rather different than back in the 70s, Wilson Audio literally having given birth to the concept of a very high-end, very high-quality loudspeaker system. Competitors have come and gone; yet, undeniably, today’s high-end speaker market is larger and more segmented than ever before. New technologies, manufacturing and materials sciences, have enabled speaker designs that are quite literally able to transform your own personal listening studio into a full scale musical nightclub. Listening habits have also grown and changed significantly: with dramatically increased fundamental wealth across the globe since the 1970s, HiFi aficionados have grown accustomed to having not one but sometimes even two or three different “systems” to enjoy their favorite music. A “main” living room or dedicated listening room setup has been augmented with an office or even bedroom system. Whereas there are obvious choices to be had for any of these secondary HiFis, in Wilson lingo, even Duette is quite a large loudspeaker. Was it genuinely possible to scale the Wilson sound of say Alexx, Alexia, to something even more compact, even more potent in a small space? For such a speaker to make sense, it would have to bear all of the hallmark technologies Wilson Audio is famous for: time alignment, phase coherence, advancing both materials and manufacturing sciences and of course built to Wilson’s incredibly demanding and high-end standards. Just how much can you shrink such extraordinary high expectations? How far could you take this model? Where would this road lead to? Well, friends, the wait is almost over and it’s time for the cat to come out of the bag: please welcome Wilson Audio’s latest and most compact loudspeaker to date, TuneTot. Based on what I know today, and what I will be able to share May 10 and beyond, I genuinely feel this to be a breakthrough speaker in more ways than it would speak to just us, the initiated HiFi aficionados. TuneTot is by no means entry level: it is a genuine Wilson Audio loudspeaker built for a new generation of HiFi. With that, Frankie can say no more. Tune in to the Tot next Thursday, May 10. More on the Wilson Audio website - Wilson Audio TuneTot
  5. The Computer Audiophile

    Audio Research DAC 9 Review

    The sound of Minneapolis can't be nailed down to anyone or anything specific, but if I had to select an artist and equipment on which to play this artist, I would likely select Prince and components from Audio Research Corporation. Prince and Audio Research provide the quintessential sound of Minneapolis. Both are originals, both have large well-deserved fan bases earned over decades, and both are at the top of their industries. Prince and the ARC is one band name that we'll never get to see officially replace the NPG, but those of us lucky enough can listen to Prince & ARC in our homes seven nights a week. Over the last several weeks, I've combined Prince's amazing music with the Audio Research DAC 9 on many occasions. The results have been fabulous. Listening to Prince's song Avalanche from his One Nite Alone album, one can really get a sense for his talent. This track is far from overproduced with an R128 dynamic range score of 10 / 9.6 LU. The track features Prince and his piano, that's it. Through the Audio Research DAC 9, the opening notes of his piano ebb and flow from mellow taps to sudden strikes of the keys. The transients in these strikes are reproduced wonderfully in that they help each abrupt note serve up the rest of the rolling melodic beauty on a platter. Listening to the remaining four minutes of Avalanche, Prince's main and backing vocals have an incredibly natural, raw, and unaltered sound through the DAC 9. Even if one disagrees with Prince's politicized lyrics, it's nearly impossible to not feel the emotion and conviction in his voice. Had the DAC 9 imparted an overbearing sonic signature on this track, much of the emotion would've been lost. The ARC DAC 9 provides Prince and his piano a chance to naturally aspirate and appears to be right in its wheelhouse reproducing the acoustic artistry of this Minneapolis treasure. DAC 9 Details I certainly can't be accused of burying the lede in this review or stringing readers along like Allen Collins and Gary Rossington during the four minute guitar solo in Free Bird (link), but I should dig a bit deeper into what makes the DAC 9 tick. The Audio Research DAC 9 is a major step up from the DAC 7 and a solid step up from its predecessor the DAC 8. Whereas the DAC 8 was a purely solid state design, the DAC 9 has an advanced tube output stage with solid state regulation. This analog design was taken from elements of the ARC LS27 and LS28. This design stops short of what's available in flagship products such as the REF 6 preamp and Reference DAC, both with analog volume controls. Digitally the DAC 9 evolved from the ARC GSi75 integrated. Audio research engineers started with the GSi75 digital platform, and advanced it significantly. Of note, is one piece of technology that will frustrate some people and excite others. There is a digital chip in the DAC 9 that is being used for purposes other than its intended design. This chip is not available in any other ARC DAC. Squeezing information about this chip from the Audio Research team is tougher than finding highly classified information online. This is the frustrating part for many people. As consumers we are just supposed to believe ARC and rely on the fact the company has a very stellar reputation. Fortunately, we can check their work in a different way, by listening to the final product. Secret design or not, if the DAC 9 sounds good, then most people will be excited about the product. Some control freaks won't rest, or even trust themselves that they like the sound, until this secret is unmasked. Oh well, keep waiting while everyone else enjoys thousands of hours worth of great music. Before detailing some of the better features of the DAC 9's digital side, I must mention my biggest issue with this product. The USB interface used in the DAC 9 is less than great. It's the only part of this DAC that's not first class. The current DAC 9 USB interface is manufactured by Switzerland's RigiSystems. In and of itself this interface isn't all that bad, but in practice there are some serious issues. Most important to many computer audiophiles will be RigiSystems' lack of Linux support. Several years ago this wasn't really an issue because "nobody" used Linux computers for audio playback. Now however, many people are using Linux based products from Aurender, Auralic, Sonore, SOtM, etc... None of these devices work with the RigiSystems USB interface used in the DAC 9. I tried to get Sonore to support the DAC 9 on its microRendu, but without serious assistance from RigiSystems, it just won't happen. The USB interface also has some issues with Apple computers. In the recent past, after an OS update, Apple computers running OS X / macOS lost the ability to send audio to the DAC 9 at sample rates higher than 192 kHz. In addition to this current sample rate limitation, the DAC 9 is also limited to PCM playback when connected to a Mac. The DAC 9 uses macOS built-in Class 2 USB drivers, thus it has to accept DSD over PCM (DoP). Therein lies the issue. The RigiSystems USB chip doesn't use a version of DoP that works with Macs. I have a positive feeling about the long-term outlook for the DAC 9 and its USB interface. Audio Research has committed to a solution by the end of 2017. I'm unsure if this will involve a firmware update, software update, or hardware update. Some additional nuggets of information I picked up from my discussions with Audio Research are that the USB interface in the DAC 9 is internally powered. The DAC 9 doesn't accept power over the 5V VBUS wire in USB cables. The DAC doesn't feature galvanic isolation on the USB input, but this power configuration may serve to partially nullify this need. With respect to MQA, the DAC 9 doesn't currently support this technology, but Audio Research may provide an MQA upgrade in the future for the DAC. Any MQA upgrade for the DAC 9 would require an internal hardware change. Briefly touching on some of the specs, the DAC 9 features two distinct digital audio paths, one for DSD and one for PCM. The DAC has two TCXO crystal master oscillators from Integrated Device Technology, one for 44.1 kHz base sample rates and the other for 48 kHz base sample rates. The DAC 9 has quad D to A converters onboard. Both the left and right channels use dual stereo DACs in a mono configuration. This is supposed to increase dynamic range, currently at 114 dB (AES17), and reduce the noise floor. Two other features that are user selectable are native rate upsampling and digital filters. The DAC 9's upsampling can be enabled for all PCM content. It will upsample this content to either 352.8 kHz or 384 kHz, depending on the base sample rate of the original music (44.1 or 48). The digital filter can be toggled between a fast or slow roll-off, directly from the remote control for easy user A/B'ing. Upsampling can also be enabled/disabled via the remote, with only a short one second pause in playback. Listening Through The DAC 9 I listened through the Audio Research DAC 9 with most of the same components that are in my system for all reviews. The TAD CR1 loudspeakers, Constellation Audio Inspiration Mono amps, and preamp, and Wire World cabling are all stalwarts of my system. One addition to the system was the dCS Network Bridge. I used the Bridge as an Ethernet to AES/EBU converter that sent audio signals to the AES input of the DAC 9. Given that the DAC 9 has no volume control, a preamplifier was required. Last weekend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted my favorite band, Pearl Jam. Given this, what kind of PJ fan would I be without one of its songs in the review? I dug deep for this one and it payed off. In 2004 ten members of the Walmer High School choir from Port Elizabeth, South Africa traveled to Seattle, Washington. During their stay, the choir recorded an album with Pearl Jam's Eddie vedder. The album is titled the Molo Sessions and it contains three Pearl Jam tracks. It's not a traditional audiophile recording, but it has a dynamic range score of 15 and the music beats out any Diana Krall piece of "muzak" any day of the week. My favorite track on the Molo Sessions is Betterman. Right from the opening chord of Eddie Vedder's acoustic guitar, the track sounds naked. I don't notice any DAC 9 flavor covering the music. The guitar sounds very natural as Eddie's fingers can be heard sliding back and forth over the frets and across the strings. Unedited and untouched describe the sound really well. The best part of the track is at the 2:42 mark, when the South African kids chime in singing the chorus. Through their thick accents, they sound like ten real kids singing in the room as they repeat: She loved him, yeah, she don't want to leave this way She feeds him, yeah, that's why she'll be back again Can't find a better man Of course they are real kids, but on so many recordings and through products with much less fidelity, real kids may not sound like real kids in one's room. There can be an artificial distance placed between the artist and the listener. Not so with this non-audiophile recording through the Audio Research DAC 9. Great stuff. Moving to a bit more complex material, I tapped play on a favorite of mine, Michael Stern conducting the Kansas City Symphony in Britten's Orchestra. This is an out of print recording by Keith Johnson and Reference Recordings. Due to the agreement with the Symphony's union, RR can't sell any additional copies of this album. Track nine, Passacaglia, is always fun and a good system test. As the music starts from a barely audible creep, the strings are very sweet sounding. One can almost smell the wood of the instruments, if the listening room lights and one's mind are turned off. As the horns slip in, they have great definition even at very low volume levels. This is always the mark of a good DAC. One area where the DAC 9 falls short of reference DACs may be with full scale symphonic transients. Around 5:00 minute mark of Passacaglia things start to heat up with major string, horn, cymbal, and drum action. 45 seconds later when everything comes together in a big bang, the DAC 9 sounds a little slow or perhaps less fantastic on the transients than it was with simpler music. I don't sense any shift in tone of the instruments or compression of the dynamic range, just a bit of rounding of the edges where I've previously heard them as razor sharp. If anything, this may make the case for the Audio Research Reference DAC, if one is very focused on music of this ilk. Before finishing up with another song from Prince, it's worth mentioning another sonic characteristic of the DAC 9. Keeping in mind that all components impart a sonic characteristic on the music, I can best explain this with a visual photography analogy. Whereas some DACs can be like glossy photos / reproductions, the ARC DAC 9 leans toward a matte finish. It's not a dull DAC, just right of center on the glossy - matte continuum. This sonic signature can be heard through Nat King Cole's music on the album The Very Thought of You (Analogue Productions remaster). On both the opening title track and But Beautiful, Nat's vocal can be gloriously glossy. The glossy effect of smoking KOOL menthol cigarettes right before entering the recording booth, was something Nat thought he needed to perform. Right or wrong, the gloss can and should be heard. That said, without being at the recording the first week of May, 1958, I have no idea if the recording should be as glossy as I am used to hearing it or if the DAC 9 presents a more accurate picture. Like all things in this wonderful hobby, it comes down to taste and preference. Getting back to the Minneapolis magic that is Prince and Audio Research, I must also go back to the One Nite Alone album. Those unfamiliar with Prince's true artistry and musical genius, must find a copy of this album. One Nite Alone ... Solo Piano and Voice by Prince is the official title. This isn't the three disc live set from his 2002 One Nite Alone tour, it's an NPG Music Club limited release album never sold in stores. On the album, Prince's talent can be heard without any trouble or the wading through of overly sexual lyrics and a massive band. As only Prince can do, he delivers a cover of Joni Mitchell's A Case of You by skipping the first three verses and starting with "I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints." The backing music on this track is nothing to write reviews about, but I love Prince's elegant vocal performance on this one. The DAC 9 reproduces his high, low, loud, and soft vocal swings wonderfully. His voice sounds very smooth in both the highest and lowest registers. This is a tribute to his vocal ability and the DAC 9's ability to let this through without imparting too much warmth or enhancing the edges with unnatural noise. In typical Minneapolis fashion both Prince and the DAC 9 are, for the most part, understated and comfortable away from anything that causes the spotlight to shine in their direction on this track. Conclusion The quintessential sound of Minneapolis is an apropos description of Audio Research, the company that trademarked High Definition in 1977. Its DAC 9 digital to analog converter is the best DAC ARC has released to date, short of its reference series. The DAC 7 and DAC 8 have both been eclipsed by design, technology, and sound quality. In my extensive listening sessions with the DAC 9, I heard unaltered, raw, and natural sound on some of my favorite recordings. This DAC will of course reproduce audiophile standards and performances captured by Reference Recordings, but the most enjoyable experiences I had while listening through the DAC 9 were with standard definition, "regular" music. I frequently listened through the DAC 9 while sitting at my computer working all day and while sitting in my listening chair in front of two loudspeakers. Either way, listening fatigue didn't even enter my mind. The only thing I wanted from my system during the Audio Research DAC 9's residency, was more music. Product Information: Product - Audio Research DAC 9 ($7,500) Product Page - Link User Manual - Link Where To Buy (CA Supporter): Your browser does not support SVG Associated Music: Computer Audiophile 100 Playlist Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist Associated Equipment: Source: Roon DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 D-to-D Converter: dCS Network Bridge Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference Remote Control Software: Roon Remote Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2 Playback Software: Roon Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables, USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0 Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
  6. The Computer Audiophile

    Naim Audio Mu-so Review

    Imagine this: You place an audio playback system in your living room and enjoy the hell out of your favorite music with your family and friends. This is something I could only imagine, but for many people this is something they remember. Back in the day people placed a stereo console in their living rooms and partook in all the fun that goes along with listening to music with others. Sadly, over the years these “beautiful” pieces of audio furniture were replaced by separate components and soon relegated to man caves. The wonderful hobby of listening to music moved from a shared experience to a companionless commitment. Even worse than a room in the basement, where there’s a chance the guys could hang out for a while and listen to a couple tracks before being summoned upstairs to join the rest of the party, is the solitary loneliness of listening to music through headphones. The shared experience of listening to music has been obliterated by keep-it-to-yourself audio and the antisocial pseudo-communal experience of sharing yourself with others online, but only from the comfort of your empty house. I am way over on the introvert side on the introvert / extrovert continuum, but I still enjoy sharing the things I love with friends and family … while the friends and family are physically in the room, not simply reachable via Internet Protocol from an iPad in an isolated nook of my living room. In addition to sharing the music I love with others, the ability to share high quality sound with others is also important. Without an easily accessible and conveniently placed high end audio system in a common living space, this sharing of good sound just isn’t going to happen. Sure, my three year old daughter comes down to my listening room now and then, but imagine if I could bring all the music and all the quality to her on a daily basis. That would be priceless. While the dream of doing this is priceless, the reality of doing this here and it’s made possible my England’s Naim Audio. Having the Naim Mu-so in my house has enabled me to bring my favorite (and my daughter’s favorite) music, in high quality, to her and has enabled me to share the fine qualities of a high end component with friends who had no idea such a product exists. I don’t know how many times I’ve told friends that a Bose iPod dock isn’t the height of living, but now I can casually let them experience the joys of high quality music and fine craftsmanship while getting together to create new shared experiences we’ll remember for a lifetime.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK] The Mu-so In the last several years there have been all kinds of somewhat similar products that while cool, just didn’t do it for me. Or, maybe I was simply blind to what was in front of me and it took me longer than most to realize what a critical role this category of product can play in the lives of high quality music aficionados. Either way, the Naim Audio Mu-so is here and it’s high quality in both sight and sound. The technical specifics of the Mu-so are very good, but are much less interesting to me than its end game, producing music for people’s enjoyment. Briefly, the Mu-so has six custom drivers setup as a pair of three way loudspeakers. Each physical drive unit is powered by its own 75 watt digital amplifier. The entire system is controlled by a 32 bit digital signal processor, making this active loudspeaker system completely optimized for high end playback. One of my favorite technical features that intersects with aesthetics is the Naim engineered internal antenna. I don’t know how many products I’ve had in my system that feature the ultimate in ugliness, the old faithful of WiFi devices since the late 1990s, the rubbery plastic wireless antenna. The Mu-so does not “feature” this antithesis of high quality. The Mu-so’s built-in antenna not only can’t be seen, but it works terrific. The wireless worked so well during this review period that it blew well past Naim’s stated specs for high resolution file support. According to Naim, the Mu-so only supports sample rates up through 48 kHz when sent to the unit via 802.11 b/g (2.4 GHz) WiFi. Yes, you read that correctly, the Mu-so only features 802.11 b/g wireless, not 802.11n or 802.11ac. I guess good engineers can eek out every ounce of performance from even an old WiFi standard. When streaming music to the Mu-so I monitored WiFi traffic to and from the unit. My monitor showed the Mu-so maxing-out the 802.11g WiFi capabilities at 54 Mbps, but playback remained problem-free. Back to streaming higher resolutions than the stated Naim maximum of 48 kHz. The maximum sample rate supported by the Mu-so is 24/192, so I figured I would cut right to the chase and stream 24/192 via WiFi. To my surprise 24/192 files played back without a hiccup. These high resolution files even played gapless! That’s better than some high end components can do wired, let alone wireless. Is my situation an anomaly? I’m unsure. A search of Google did indicate some users experiencing week WiFi issues with he Mu-so, but I’m sure a Google search of any wireless product would reveal the same. When it comes to WiFi, there’s no substitute for trying the product in one’s own environment. Those lucky enough to have wired Ethernet near a Mu-so can simply plug the unit in and never worry about any WiFi issues. The Mu-so supports a surprising number of input methods and services including UPnP, AirPlay, Bluetooth (aptX), USB (for USB drives or portable players), Tidal, Spotify Connect, Internet radio, optical (TosLink), and even good ole analog. Bringing all of this together is Naim’s very well designed iOS / Android application. Selection of the input or source service is done with a simply tap of the finger on a specific icon. The app is one of the only apps that I’d recommend people stick with, even if they are using UPnP. I usually tell people to just use JRiver with JRemote if they want to stream UPnP. However, the Naim app is very good and worthy of people’s time to get used to it. Sure there are some things that JRemote can do that the Naim app can’t, such as edit metadata embedded in the file or display tag values for dynamic range, but for the most part most people will probably be very happy with Naim’s app. Well done Naim. My one complaint about the app is its inability to preset some podcast channels for easy access. To listen to The Adam Carolla Show I had to browse into Podcasts by Genre > Comedy > the search for Adam Carolla to find KFIR’s ACS channel. It would be so much better if I could set KFIR as a preset like I can with other Internet radio channels within the Naim app, but this in’t the case right now. It would also be nice if Naim could embed full Spotify browsing and playback within the app for Spotify Connect, but Spotify has allowed almost nobody to do this. Selecting the Spotify icon within the Nam app simply brings up a page that says, launch the Spotify app. once something is playing, the Naim app can control it a bit through forward and back and volume buttons, but it’s too limited for practical use with tens of millions of tracks available. Fortunately, this wont’ be an issue for most audiophiles because they likely don’t stream Spotify’s lossy offerings anyway. Using the Mu-so I briefly touched on some of the technical aspects above, but what really thrills me about the device is my experience listening to the Mu-so. To me, the Mu-so is all about good aesthetic design, good sound quality, and good Tidal integration within the Naim iOS app. There was no way I was getting a component into our living room unless it visually appealed to everyone in the house. By everyone, I mean my wife. To us, the Mu-so passed the looks test and it’s pleasant to view every day. The switchable front grills are nice as is the ability to raise and lower the intensity of the lighting underneath the unit. Sound reproduction through the Mu-so is better than 99% of the devices in this category. I didn’t say 100% because I haven’t heard them all, but I can make an educated guess based on what I’ve heard and what I know is available. One can’t expect the Mu-so to replace a full HiFi system, but they also can’t expect a full HiFi system to replace the Mu-so in a civilian living room. What one can expect is for the Mu-so to easily outperform products like the ubiquitous Sonos and likely all the other devices sitting next to the Mu-so in the Apple Store. Many dealers I’ve talk to over the years have always said they wish they had something to offer customers that worked like a Sonos but offered something more high end in all categories namely sound quality. The Naim Mu-so is definitely the product to replace Sonos in homes where people care about sound quality. During the review period I sent everything in the direction of the Mu-so, from Metallica to Menudo (wait, what? Did I just write that) to Leonard Cohen to Iggy Azalea to Prince to Nicki Minaj to Peter, Paul and Mary, because that’s how I listen to music when using a device like the Mu-so. I don’t sit in my kitchen listening for the back hall ambiance of a Keith Johnson Reference Recording while I prepare something for my daughter to eat. Rather, walk around the house or sit in a room listening to whatever moves me at the moment or whatever is going to get my daughter to dance and recite lyrics. Since she was two year old my daughter has been really in to the band Journey. For example, today she came to me and asked me to play Journey and wanted to skip the first track, going right into her hat trick of favorites, Don’t Stop Believin’, Wheel In The Sky, and Faithfully. And yes, she sings the words, dances, and plays the air drums during Faithfully. This is what it’s all about. Exposing my daughter to great music and high quality sound and to watch her be a toddler dancing like nobody is watching. What’s more, I can do this every day of the week because I’ve brought the experience to her rather than wait for her to come down to my listening room. The Mu-so enables me to accomplish all of this while checking off the required boxes of aesthetics, sound quality and great app with Tidal integration. Note: The settings within the app allow the user to dis/enable the Loudness function. I preferred listening with Loudness disabled as I thought it added a bit too much bass. Speaking of the app and Tidal integration, the Mu-so to me is all about accessibility. Accessibility in that it’s easy to use the app and stream tens of millions of lossless quality tracks with the tap of a finger and it integrates with how I live, playing music at home and while mobile with Tidal in both scenarios. How so? Naim’s Tidal integration enables the user to create or add to a Tidal playlist within the Naim app, and have that Tidal playlist appear wherever one uses Tidal. On my iPhone and within Roon the Tidal playlists are the same as they are in the Naim app. It’s great when technology follows what the user wants rather than when technology makes the user act a certain way that is the opposite of anyone except a software developer. The Naim Tidal integration is a bit like Roon in that it displays some of the information surrounding an artist or specific release. For example browsing the Artist St. Paul and the Broken Bones, one can tap on a paragraph of text that explains a bit about the band. Within the text one can tap artists names such as James Brown and be taken directly to the James Brown Tidal page. Browsing this band’s album named Half the City enables the user to view information about the album such as a write-up and guitarist, bassist, producer, and mastering engineer. None of the aforementioned metadata is hyperlinked like it is in Roon, but Roon is the exception to the rule when it comes to music discovery in this manner. As expected by now, the Naim Tidal integration displays all of one’s favorite artists, albums and tracks, in addition to all the Tidal selections for What’s New, Tidal Rising, and Tidal Discovery. Granted the Tidal-selected music in these areas has changed since new management took over, but nonetheless this is still available for one’s perusal within the Naim app, as is the age old method of simply searching for what one wants (it’s very fast by the way). Wrap Up The reason all of us entered into this hobby was because of the music and how it made is feel emotionally. We didn’t start purchasing sterile HiFi gear only to find out we could play something called music through said gear. Music brings out emotion like few other things in this world. What can make the emotional experience even better for many of us is getting closer to the performers and the actual sound of the recordings through great HiFi components. In addition, the ability to share both our favorite recordings and high quality reproduction with our friends and family is hard to put a price on. The Naim Mu-so enables us to overcome many barriers to bringing music back into our every day lives. The Mu-so’s high end build quality, aesthetic appearance, comparatively small size, high sound quality, and well made remote application make it the perfect piece to place almost anywhere in one’s home or office. When tens of millions of tracks are available in high quality at our fingertips we are guaranteed to enjoy this wonderful hobby even more and share what we’ve known forever with our loved ones. Great music is one thing, but add in the element of high quality playback and the listeners can be transported to places only limited by the imagination. The Mu-so has enabled me to share more music and high quality sound with my daughter, in a short period of time, than any piece of HiFi gear I’ve used in her three years on this planet. That fact alone makes the Mu-so worth its weight in gold. As soon as my daughter asks for Pearl Jam in high resolution, the Mu-so will literally be priceless. Product Information: Product - Naim Audio Mu-so Price - $1,499 Product Page - Link User Manual - Link (PDF) Where To Buy (CA Supporter): Your browser does not support SVG
  7. The Computer Audiophile

    Schiit Audio Reference System Review Part 2

    It's five below in evidence. The winded eves and sideways snow. His eminence has yet to show. - Eddie Vedder | Strangest Tribe It's literally five below here in Minneapolis. Last night, there was literally sideways snow. Thus, there isn't a more appropriate Pearl Jam song to use for review than Strangest Tribe from the bands' Lost Dogs compilation (Tidal). I'll get into that a bit later. It's time for number two, the Schiit Audio reference system review part two. It feels great to be back in my listening chair after the past several months of burying my head in html and php code working up to the Superphonica launch. My HiFi system feels as important to me now as it has ever felt. Sometimes a break from an item of importance can remind us how much we enjoy that item. It's easy to get complacent or even jaded when one has access to nearly any HiFi component in the world. This break from my system has erased all complacency. Note: If you missed part one, here's a link. On With the Schiit Show This time around I spent extended time with both the Sonus Faber Venere S ($5,000) and Focal Sopra N°1 ($9,000) connected to the Schiit reference system. I wanted to use speakers that are priced a bit higher than the Dynaudio X34 used in part one, and I wanted to test different speaker loads with the system. With respect to price, it's common for HiFi buyers to spend the most money on loudspeakers. Given this fact, I searched for loudspeakers that fit the ohm and sensitivity bill and fit within a reasonable price range to be paired with the Schiit system. Sonus Faber Venere S First a couple dry details. The Venere S is the Signature, or flagship model of the Venere line of loudspeakers from Sonus Faber. It's a three-way design, manufacturered and assembled by hand at the Arcugnano, Italy factory. The speakers feature drivers designed by Sonus Faber including a 1.1 inch fabric dome tweeter, 6 inch polypropylene textile cone midrange, and three 7 inch aluminum cone woofers. The Venere S covers a frequency range between 40 Hz and 25 kHz, with a 90 dB sensitivity and 4 ohm nominal impedance. Like all Sonus Faber loudspeakers, the finish is what I'd expect from a handmade Italian product. The Venere S comes in black, white, and a wood finish. Back to Pearl Jam, cold weather, Schiit Audio, and the Venere S from Sonus Faber. Using the Schiit Vidar amps in mono configuration requires a balanced connection. This is cool with me because I much prefer the noise rejection of balanced interconnects. Connected to the amps is the Schiit Freya preamp and the Schiit Yggdrasil DAC with the USB Gen 5 and Analog 2 updates. Getting warmed up for my listening session I started with my PJ4CA Tidal playlist. A little Pearl Jam is good for the soul. My immediate reaction to the Schiit / Venere S system was wow, these speaker match very well with the electronics. Mush better than my TAD speakers. On Pearl Jam's cover of Victoria Williams' Crazy Mary, I could hear all the garbage in the recording, and the emotion was still present. Through my TADs, the song was a little dead and emotionless. It's kind of crazy when a $4,400 system can make $5,000 speakers sound better than $42,000 TADs. Such is life. The one item that was lacking in this reproduction was the last few percent of detail. On some systems this is evident at low volume levels. Not the case with this specific setup. As is typical in HiFi, the price goes up like a hockey stick when one wants that last few percent. For most people, $4,400 for almost everything will suit them just fine. What started as a warm up listening session kept going as I couldn't stop enjoying this time relaxing and listening to great sound (with my cat sitting behind my head in my listening chair). A few more Pearl Jam tracks were in order. On Yellow Ledbetter, the hihat had huge space around it. I could visualize the depth in this very rock and roll recording that was likely made without audiophiles in mind. On Dead Man, the bottom end was fantastic. I also felt as if I was in the vocal booth with Eddie Vedder. Then came Strangest Tribe and everything gelled together. As soon as I heard Eddie's baritone sing "It's five below in evidence. The winded eves and sideways snow. His eminence has yet to show." I thought it was made to be. The weather here in Minneapolis has been cold and snowy. This song really hit home. Jeff Ament's bass comes into the track at about 1:15 very softly, but provides the foundation for the song. Listening through this system, I heard just enough of the bass, appropriately enough, but I wanted more. The bass-junkie in me wanted more, but more isn't in the song. I listened to this track on repeat several times. It has never been one of my frequent-listen favorites, but the closeness and connection I felt when listening through this system made it seductive. I wanted more. On Pearl Jam's Gone, I could tell Matt Cameron was playing Zildjian cymbals as he smashed the crash and tapped the hihat. There was a brash sound to the cymbals as he hit them, no softness allowed here. This system reproduces it as it should be reproduced. It would hurt my parents' ears, this rock and roll music, but I love every bit of it. A less than good system would have smoothed over the cymbals in this track and homogenized the sound. Not so with Schiit and Sonus Faber. Pearl Jam's Black is my favorite song of all time. It sounded absolutely delightful through the Schiit / Sonus Faber system. Each instrument had its own space. Within these spaces, each drum and cymbal had its own space. Yet, when listened to as a whole, the sound was one. It wasn't not a bunch of pieces of a puzzle sitting with inches between their edges. Black sounded like the song that first sent me into a Pearl Jam binge as a sophomore in high school. The song is the same, but the sound is much better than the stock Delco radio in my 1990 Chevrolet Beretta. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts as it transported me back in time, and to each concert where the crowd joins-in to sing da da do do dodo do (Pearl Jam fans will instantly know what I'm writing about and hopefully feel the vibe as well). On this version of Black, the original, Rick Parashar playing the "da da do do dodo do" on a Fender Rhodes piano is likely the most unmistakable part of the track as it comes to an end. Listening, I can picture each tap of Rick's finger as he plays the simple yet perfect backing piano. Isn't this what a great HiFi system is supposed to do? At least give us a chance to visualize an event, be taken back in time, or be transported into the recording studio (in this case London Bridge Studios in Seattle, Washington). Schiit and Sonus Faber have done it well. Elvis Costello's North (Tidal | HDtracks)album is a favorite of mine that I hadn't listened to in a long time. I've always loved the sound of the vocal on You Turned to Me. Through the Schiit / Sonus Faber system the foundational piano sounds gorgeous, just as Costello's deep and smooth vocal puts the listener at ease. Elvis will never win a vocal contest, but that's beside the point. His so-so vocal ability sounds fantastic. It's about the performance and how much of the performance a HiFi system lets through or conveys. The piano at end of this track has terrific decay. Hearing this is what's beautiful about a great HiFi system. At a live show, the crowd would be clapping already, right over the top of the piano decay. At home, I played this a few times only because it's beautiful. That's the power of a great system. I could listen to this track, this entire album, on this system, all day long. In fact, my fondness for Elvis Costello has been brought back to life because of this album, on this Schiit / Sonus Faber system. The Focal Sopra N°1 Note: I Had to switch speaker cables from the Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 to a pair from little-known 512 Engineering in Northern California. The switch was required to get rid of a loud hum through the loudspeakers. These amps are a bit more finicky than other amps I've had in my system, namely the Constellation Audio Inspiration series and Pass Labs XA160.5. I haven't had to switch speaker cables to remove a loud hum prior to using the Vidar amps. First some dry detail about the Focal Sopra N°1. Focal calls this a two-way bass-reflex high-end bookshelf loudspeaker. My only complaint, not really aimed at Focal, is that we need to stop calling these types of speakers bookshelf speakers. Nobody has a bookshelf large enough for them and a bookshelf would be a terrible place to set them. Compact is the category, OK people? Anyway, Focal has pasted all the patented and trademarked technologies all over the Sopra N°1, like only Focal can do. Focal makes everything and has invented so much speaker technology it's crazy. Most other manufacturers would just be called assemblers. Especially when they put Focal drivers into their speakers. The Sopra N°1 features a 6.5 inch midrange driver and a 1 inch beryllium inverted dome tweeter. At +/- 3dB these speakers cover from 45 Hz to 40 kHz, with a nominal impedance of 8 ohms and a sensitivity of 89 dB. Like most Focal speakers, they come in an array of cool colors including Carrara White, Black Lacquer, Imperial Red, Electric Orange, Graphite Black, and Dogato Walnut. The Sopra N°1 were the best match for the Schiit reference system when compared the Dynaudio X34, Sonus Faber Venere S, and my TAD CR1 Compact Reference loudspeakers. Perhaps it's the combination of the Sopra's 8 ohm nominal impedance and 89 dB sensitivity that makes them the best match. Plus, at $9,000 they have to sound better than the Venere S and X34 or Focal would be laughed out of the user forums everywhere. Anyway, let's get to listening. The opening of Elvis Costello's track Could You Be True from the North Album, sounds incredibly rich and textured through the Focal Sopra N°1 loudspeakers and the Schiit reference system. The strings, with layers of lows, mids, and highs, sound better in this setup than anything I heard through the other loudspeakers. Similar to the piano in other Costello songs on this album, the strings have wonderful decay that seems to last forever. This can be heard fairly well at medium to high volume levels. The decay just isn't there at low levels, as it is when I use the same loudspeakers combined with the Constellation Audio Inspiration electronics. In other words, it's not he speaker's fault. Listening to Joni Mitchell's album Hits (Tidal), on the track Woodstock the fuzzy and eerie "tremoloed" Wurlitzer electric piano comes through this system in what I'd call the antithesis of a crisp Steely Dan recording. This song has life, it has warts, and it brings out emotion. The Schiit reference system and the Focal Sopra speakers convey every bit of this beautiful ugliness. Joni's vocal through this system has a refinement that isn't matched on the Sonus Faber or Dynaudio speakers. Perhaps it's my fondness for beryllium tweeters or just that this system is much better. A more audiophile type of recording and one that got me started with Classical music is Reference Recordings' Bolero! Orchestral Fireworks (Tidal | RR). Track one, Colas Breugnon: Overture is both fantastic sounding and a fantastic piece of music. This track has a dynamic range score of 21, yes 21! By playing this track I can hear both the limitations of the Schiit electronics and the limitations of the Focal loudspeakers. The easy one is the Sopra loudspeakers. These are compact stand-mounted speakers that reach down to 45Hz (-3dB), so they just can't reproduce a full orchestra. It's physics and I don't think anyone at Focal would tell me differently. That's why Focal produces the larger Sopras and Utopias. When playing frequencies within its wheelhouse, the Sopra N°1 is a fantastic loudspeaker. The Schiit system, while really good with many types of music, may struggle just a touch with something like Bolero from Reference Recordings. This album has fine details to be heard at the lowest and the loudest of volume levels. Soft and tiny little bells, followed by huge crescendos, followed by the texture of a string section laying the groundwork for an elegant flute passage. For the most part this all sounded really good and more than satisfying. Because I'm a knuckle dragging audiophile I have to take everything to the limit and attempt to compare the Schiit reference with other high level components on the market. It would also be a disservice to suggest the best in the business can be had at Schiit prices, when it's my belief this isn't the case. Compared to the Constellation Audio Inspiration system that is my everyday reference, the Schiit reference system doesn't have the last few percent of detail, low level resolution, and seemingly endless punch and power. The Schiit system reproduced Colas Breugnon: Overture with detail, delicacy, and the grandiosity it deserved. Enough so as to please all but the most discerning or "diseased" listeners. Switching gears just a bit, I listened to the Steve Hoffman Audio Fidelity 2016 remaster of Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut album (Amazon). What a fantastic album, made to sound as good as I've ever heard it. Through the Schiit / Focal combo tracks such as Killing in the Name and Freedom were powerful yet controlled. On Killing in the Name, this system reproduced everything from the hard-hitting deep bass line to the delicate but powerful crash and hihat cymbals and exhaustion inducing drum performance. Even toward the end while the musicians are making serious noise, the tap of the hihat can clearly and easily be heard through the Sopras. The crunch of Tom Morello's lead guitar throughout the track is wonderfully abrasive and nicely conveys what Rage is all about. Playing Rage Against the Machine will max-out the capabilities of the Sopra N°1 loudspeakers long before the capabilities of the Schiit system are maxed-out. Again, it's just physics. Rage is meant to be played loud and on full range loudspeakers. The overall tone and sound presented through the Focal Spora N°1 speakers is that of a pretty refined system. Refined was the first word that came to mind after I tapped play on my iPad Pro for the first time. What does refined mean? That's a tough one to convey. The sound through this system is varsity level, while the other speakers are on the junior varsity team. Instruments have better tone, the soundstage seems to be more appropriately contained, and most importantly I can hear more detail through the Focal speakers. Keep in mind that without three speakers in one's listening room, it's very likely the sound of any speaker I've used would be more than satisfying. It's the Focal Sopras that really enable the Schiit reference system to show what it's made of, both good and bad. If I had to pick the Schiit system apart, I'd say the preamp is the weakest point, followed by the finicky-ness of the amps. With the right match of cables and speakers the amps are absolutely terrific, but one must understand there may be issues. Buying a $699 Vidar to pair with your $10,000 speaker cables, may cause one to toss the speaker cables if they don't pair well with the Vidars. Some audiophiles aren't comfortable with that scenario, while others would be happy to sell the cables for something that fits with the system. No judgement, just facts of audiophile life. The Freya preamp is good, but it doesn't set the audio world on fire. I definitely have no problem recommending the Freya to people looking for low price and high performance. The Freya is a great preamp to start with because one may not have to spend any more money if he/she is satisfied. I always tell people to start with the least expensive component they're comfortable with, then work to the more expensive stuff. The Freya makes sense in so many situations. I've talked to a few Freya owners who've used different vacuum tubes with the preamp and had great results. During this review period I wanted to use the Freya how I believe most people will use it, and that's in its stock configuration. Lastly, based on my conversations with people in the industry, unrelated to the Freya specifically, I've gleaned that the best preamps aren't easy to design and manufacture inexpensively. I think Schiit did a great job with the Freya, but I'm also being honest by mentioning what items I like least about the Schiit reference system. Wrap Up This has been a really great experience reviewing the Schiit reference system. It's really crazy just how much sound quality and build quality one can get for $4,400 or less. I'm very happy I brought in Dynaudio, Sonus Faber, and Focal loudspeakers to supplement my TAD CR1s. Each of the speakers I brought in work great with the Schiit system. Selecting the right pair is a matter of taste, budget, appearance, availability, and cohesion with the rest of the system. I don't recommend using TAD Compact Reference with the Schiit Vidar amps. I just wasn't thrilled by the sound. Now that I've spent serious time with the best Schiit has to offer, I am extremely comfortable recommending Schiit Audio to my friends, family, and other audio enthusiasts. One can spend all the time in the world looking at the specs, reading the manufacturers blurbs, and reading what others have to say in the forum, but without actually getting the stuff in one's system it's very hard to make a solid decision. Come to think of it, the Schiit reference system may be my default, go-to, recommendation for all the people that ask, what should I get? The price is low, the quality is high, and they may never need to purchase anything more expensive. Good Schiit indeed. Products in this review: Schiit Audio Vidar $699 Yggdrasil (with Gen 5 USB and Analog 2 upgrade) $2,399 Freya $699 Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Excite X34 - $2,800 Sonus Faber Venere S - $5,000 Focal Sopra N°1 - $9,000 TAD Compact Reference One (CR1) - $42,000 Associated Music: Computer Audiophile 100 Playlist Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist Associated Equipment: Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Sierra) DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 D-to-D Converter: Sonore microRendu, Sonore Signature Rendu SE, dCS Network Bridge, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference Remote Control Software: Roon Remote Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2 Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables, 512 Engineering Speaker Cables USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0 Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka, Wire World Starlight and Chroma Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, ASUS RT-AC3200, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
  8. The Computer Audiophile

    The Complete Guide To HiFi UPnP / DLNA Network Audio

    Intro The following guide was designed for audiophiles. The guide describes UPnP based home audio reproduction, provides use pro and cons of UPnP, examples, and recommendations for successful UPnP audio implementations. Overview Network based audio can be delivered using several different protocols and technologies such as UPnP, DAAP (Apple), and Ravenna among others. UPnP is the most common network audio protocol in use today. It's used in both two channel single room systems and whole house network audio distribution. Ironically UPnP is extremely simple for end users and a bear for product producers. The more one digs into the UPnP protocols the more divergent information with common frustration one finds. This guide will not turn a novice into an expert. I hope it will provide all the information computer audiophiles need to understand and enjoy UPnP based audio playback. [PRBREAK][/PRBREAK] What is UPnP? Universal Plug and Play consists of several protocols or rules that enable networked hardware devices and software applications to communicate and work together without end user configuration. UPnP devices don't use device drivers, like USB printers and other hardware, for communication and interoperability. Through use of common protocols UPnP devices automatically advertise their services or capabilities enabling auto discovery of devices on a network. UPnP can be seen as a high level framework that has been refined by the UPnP AV architecture for increased performance in audio and video environments. What is UPnP AV? UPnP AV is a refinement of the general UPnP protocols. A main goal of UPnP AV is interoperability between controllers and AV devices. For example enabling audio to flow from a NAS to an audio playback device without intervention from a controller. The descriptions below are tailored for computer audiophiles by referencing audio and music rather than all the media types (video, photos, etc…) UPnP AV can accommodate. The UPnP AV architecture specifies three important devices, each with its own services, for audio playback, the Media Server, Media Renderer, and Control Point. 1. Media Server A Media Server is a device that stores content, advertises the availability of this content for streaming across the network, and enables browsing/searching this content from control points. Media Servers can stream content to multiple devices and be controlled by multiple control points simultaneously. Most UPnP AV Media Servers contain three services, a ContentDirectory Service, a ConnectionManager Service, and an AVTransport Service. a. Content Directory Service enables a control point to browse the Media Server and view information about available music such as metadata (album title, artist, track name, etc…). This service also identifies the data formats supported by the server for its content. Using this information a control point can determine if the playback divide (renderer) is capable of handling the content. b. Connection Manager Service is what manages Media Server connections to playback devices (renderers). Through this service a control point instructs a Media Server for its next content delivery to a renderer. c. AV Transport Service is used by a control point for actions including Play, Pause, Stop, Seek, etc… This service also duplicates itself on the Media Server to enable streaming to multiple playback devices simultaneously. Example - A very common Media Server for computer audiophiles is a network attached storage (NAS) unit. Synology NAS units ship with a Media Server application. When enabled this application advertises the NAS as a UPnP AV Media Server and allows control points to browse music and stream it from the NAS directly to a UPnP AV playback device. The Synology NAS simply broadcasts on the network that it's available. Other UPnP AV devices can then see information about what it contains, what communication protocols it supports, what type of music it can serve, and details such as album, artist, track, etc… 2. Media Renderer A Media Renderer is a device that either converts and/or reproduces audio. Computer audiophiles are likely most familiar with renderers as several HiFi companies manufacturer components that render (convert and/or reproduce) audio. A renderer can convert network based audio into another form of digital audio such as S/PDIF and pass this audio along to another non-UPnP AV device or a renderer can convert the network audio into analog for playback. Frequently a renderer is the final device in the UPnP AV chain turning music from streamed content into something audiophiles can hear. Advanced renderers also enable limited control of Play, Pause, Stop, Seek, Volume, etc… Similar to the Media Server a Media Renderer usually contains three services, a Rendering Control Service, a ConnectionManager Service, and an AVTransport Service. a. Rendering Control Service enables a control point to specify how the renderer operates. This service enables commands such as Volume and Mute. b. Connection Manager Service, in addition to managing connections to the renderer, enables a control point to read its supported communication protocols and data formats. Using this service a control point can determine what types of music file formats or codecs a renderer supports. c. AV Transport Service is used by a control point for actions including Play, Pause, Stop, Seek, etc… Example - The most common Media Renderers for computer audiophiles are made by Linn, Naim, PS Audio, T+A, and other notable HiFi companies. Other non-audiophile type renderers are TVs and game consoles such as Xbox. A Linn DS series renderer accepts music streaming from a Media Server such as a Synology NAS and outputs this music as either an analog or digital signal. Another Media Renderer is the Simple Design Rendu. The Rendu also accepts audi from a Media Server, as directed by a control point, and converts it from Ethernet to S/PDIF output for connection to a DAC. 3. Control point A pure Control Point simply acts like an air traffic controller viewing planes ready for takeoff and sending them to a destination. A Control Point is often handheld like an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Android device. Through the Control Point's user interface, usually an app or web page, end users browse Media Servers and select music for playback. The Control Point then instructs the Server and Renderer. Once playback instructions are given to the UPnP AV devices the Control Point isn't part of the device to device communication. In other words, music streamed from a Media Server doesn't flow through a Control Point on its way to the Media Renderer. This is an important piece of UPnP AV as most standard UPnP devices only communicate with a Control Point by receiving instructions rather than taking the next step in communicating with other UPnP devices outside the communication link from device to Control Point. This is also known as out-of-band communication. The following is an example of a sequence of events between a Control Point, Media Server, and Media Renderer. Computer audiophiles will be especially interested in step "i" as it pertains to gapless playback. a. Discover AV Devices - The Control Point (CP) automatically discovers Media Servers and Media Renderers on the network. b. Locate Desired Content - The CP browses the Media Server's available music and receives information about the Server's supported protocols and formats. c. Get Renderer’s Supported Protocols/Formats - The CP asks for and receives the Renderer's list of supported protocols and formats. d. Compare/Match Protocols/Formats and Check Playability - Information from both Server and Renderer is compared. The CP then selects the protocol and format supported by both devices. e. Configure Server/Renderer - The CP informs and Server and Renderer about upcoming connections and the protocol & format to be between devices. f. Select Desired Content - The user via the CP identifies the specific track, album, playlist, etc… to be delivered from the Server to the Renderer. g. Start Content Transfer - Selected music is sent directly to the Renderer. h. Adjust Rendering Characteristics - User can select Play, Pause, Stop, Seek, and Volume, etc… via the CP as the music is playing through the Renderer. i. Repeat: Select Next Content - This is the critical step for gapless playback. The CP uses the command SetNextAVTRansportURI to identify the next track to be sent from the Server to the Renderer. If a Renderer doesn't support SetNextAVTRansportURI it will not support gapless playback as specified by the UPnP Forum. J. Cleanup Server/Renderer - The CP closes the communication session between devices. Example - The most common Control Points are Apple (iOS) and Android devices. The Control Point hardware must also feature Control Point software. A common CP app for iOS is PlugPlayer. PlugPlayer can run through the aforementioned steps with a Synology NAS as the Media Server and Linn DS as the Media Renderer. In my explanation of a Control Point I specified a "pure" Control Point. However, apps like PlugPlayer are more just a Control Point. PlugPlayer can also use an iPhone as the Media Server and Renderer. Or, PlugPlayer can use the Synology NAS as the Server and the iPhone as the Renderer. What is DLNA? Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), like UPnP, is an organization. What computer audiophiles commonly refer to as DLNA is really a set of guidelines, restrictions, or rules for interoperability that are broader but tighter than UPnP. By governing more items on the network the DLNA guidelines create a more restrictive ecosystem. These DLNA guidelines are based on the UPnP architecture v1.0 and UPnP AV. DLNA guidelines identify Device Discovery and Control, and Media Management as key ingredients leveraged from UPnP and UPnP AV respectively. DLNA isn't a subset of UPnP. It mainly differs from UPnP in scope. DLNA's broader scope includes specific file formats or media codecs and content protection. In general a DLNA certified device will work with UPnP devices but not all UPnP devices work with DLNA certified devices. The fact that a device doesn't display the DLNA certified logo doesn't mean it isn't 100% compatible with the DLNA guidelines. Some manufacturers elect not to pursue DLNA certification because of the added cost. DLNA guidelines separate certified devices into three classes, Home Network Devices, Mobile Handheld Devices, and Home Infrastructure devices. Within the Home and Mobile device class are devices similar to the UPnP AV specified devices. DLNA specifies a Digital Media Server, Digital Media Renderer, and Digital Media Controller nearly identical to UPnP AV's Media Server, Media Renderer, and Control Point. One difference in the Home device class for DLNA is the addition of a Digital Media Player. The DMP functions as a Control Point and Renderer. Both browsing a Media Server and playback are capabilities of the DMP. UPnP AV non-DLNA devices have the same capability but the UPnP Forum doesn't separate the devices into a separate class. The Mobile Handheld DLNA device class includes devices similar to the Home class such as Mobile Digital Media Server and Mobile Digital Media Renderer. The Mobile class also includes a few devices such as an Uploader and Downloader. The capabilities are similar to other devices and cover the Mobile devices, and DLNA Home Infrastructure Devices, in depth is outside the scope of this guide. UPnP / DLNA In HiFi UPnP based audio/video has been around for years in mass market products such as TVs and disc players. One of the first HiFi manufacturers to release UPnP products was UK based Linn. In mid 2007 Linn released its Klimax DS network player to a technically unsavvy HiFi marketplace. The original Klimax DS was far from perfect but it was Linn's first network audio product. Plus much of the audio press failed to completely grasp the concept and rated the unit's usability poorly. Since the original Klimax DS release Linn has been on an unwavering UPnP network audio course. Ethernet is Linn's interface of choice no doubt about it. In recent years other HiFi manufactures including T+A, Audio Research, Naim, and dCS to name a few have released UPnP based products. Most manufacturers see UPnP as a good option but not the only option for computer based audio. I think this is the correct approach. UPnP or Ethernet based products aren't for everybody in every situation much the same as USB isn't for everybody all the time. Both interfaces have pros and cons. Neither one will completely kill off the other. UPnP software has slowly improved over the years, but remains far from perfect. Some products install directly on a NAS while others require the Windows operating system on a standard PC. Finding a software solution for a Media Server can be frustrating as each program functions a bit differently and offers different capabilities. Pros UPnP based network audio is a dream come true for computer audiophiles who can't or won't place a music server or computer in their listening environments. Aesthetically UPnP renderers such as the Linn DS series and dCS Upsampler look far better in a HiFi rack than any standard computer. UPnP renderers and servers connect to networks via varying lengths of ethernet cables rather than USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt. A single Ethernet cable can typically run 100 meters whereas USB is limited to around 16 feet. Noisy network attached storage units / Media Servers can be place anywhere on the Ethernet network eliminating the possibility of noise creeping into the listening environment. Playback from a UPnP Media Server to a Media Renderer is less prone to bit transparency issues as it doesn't use audio playback software or an operating system's audio engine for audio output. Thus, output modes like WASAPI and ASIO don't apply to UPnP playback. Playback of different sample rates is automatic without the need for additional software as long as the UPnP renderer supports the same rate of the music being played. UPnP Media Servers and Media Renderers usually require far less maintenance or zero updating where as computers running jack of all trades software require user attention more frequently. Easy to electrically isolate Computer and NAS from the audio playback system. Cons Network must be stable and robust for UPnP to function correctly at all sample rates. Learning curve can be steep for users unfamiliar with UPnP terminology and networking. An optimized system from network to NAS to Media Server to Media Renderer to Control Point is more likely to require professional setup from dealer than a standard computer based playback system. Ideal configurations are much more complicated than the minimum requirements and much more complicated than music servers such as the Aurender or SOtM sMS-1000. Ripping CDs in most cases still requires a computer because neither Media Server nor Media Renderer can rip these discs. Editing metadata and music library management in most cases requires a computer running the same or similar software one would use for USB based playback. Knowledge of network attached storage units and basic file sharing terminology is highly recommended for continued smooth use and operating of the entire system from CD ripping through final playback. Troubleshooting issues such as dropouts, pops, ticks, lack of remote control, among others is much more complicated than troubleshooting with a locally attached music server. Recommendations and Examples UPnP audio playback requires a Media Server, Media Renderer, and Control Point in addition to a solid network infrastructure. The bare minimum requirements for UPnP playback will not lead to a successful or satisfying UPnP implementation. Computer audiophiles could squeak by with something as simple as a wired PC acting as the Server and Control Point sending audio to the Renderer of their choice. This type of configuration doesn't take advantage of UPnP's capabilities and doesn't invite one to use the system frequently. Stepping up to a high quality wired and wireless network and using separate UPnP devices when needed can increase one's enjoyment of his UPnP based audio system greatly. Selecting solid hardware and software, and configuring both correctly can eliminate most of the ills associated with UPnP audio such as pops, ticks, dropouts and unintended gapped playback. The following non-exhaustive list contains examples of Media Servers, Media Renderers, Control Points, and UPnP software. Readers should keep in mind that Media Servers and Control Points require both software and hardware. In addition, not all hardware and software are compatible with each other due to support for specific operating systems or serving and rendering hardware. UPnP AV Media Server Hardware Synology Network Attached Storage (NAS) - Many NAS units can be UPnP AV Media Servers. I've had great success with Synology hardware and software. Using a NAS as a Media Server enables users to stream directly from the NAS to a Media Renderer. There are caveats to this approach such media servers software's lack of configuration options and possibly more limited support for file formats and navigation menus compared to PC or Mac based Media Server software. Apple Macintosh - With the proper software any Mac can be a UPnP AV Media Server. UPnP Software choices for Mac are more limited compared to Windows based PCs. Windows based PC - With the proper software any PC can be a UPnP AV Media Server. UPnP AV Media Server Software Synology Media Server built-in application - This application is functional and gets the job done enabling users to stream music directly to HiFi systems. However, it isn't the most configurable, flexible, or thorough server software. JRiver Media Center - JRMC is my favorite server software because it's highly configurable, flexible, thorough, and supports more file formats including DSD/DoP/DoPE than most other servers. Plus, JRiver support and responsiveness to feature requests is unmatched. Illustrate's Asset UPnP - Asset is my second favorite UPnP software. It doesn't support all the formats that JRMC does and the support, while good, isn't as good as JRiver's. MinimServer - This is an upcoming application that was first to support streaming DSD. Installation can be more difficult and frustrating than other UPnP server applications. MinimServer supports more platforms than any other server software. it can be installed directly on NAS units, Macs, PC, and LInux machines. Watch this application in the future for continued improvement. It has great potential. Twonky - Twonky has been around for quite awhile but has been complained about for about as long as it has been around. It has improved over the years but remains inferior to other media server applications. Linn Songbox - A Linn centric app that works well with Linn's Kinsky Control Point software. Songbox enables easy access to a user's iTunes library when installed on a Mac or PC. UPnP AV Control Point Hardware Apple iOS based devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) - iOS devices have become a HiFi industry standard for use as Control Points. I use them daily and highly recommend them. Android based devices - Android devices have great flexibility and give users great freedom. But, the UPnP AV Control Point application selection is not as large as iOS devices. Apple Macintosh - With the proper software any Mac can be a UPnP AV Control Point. Windows based PC - With the proper software any Mac can be a UPnP AV Control Point. UPnP AV Control Point Software PlugPlayer - PP has undergone a few updates over the years that have improved its performance and stability nicely. It's still not the most stable app, but it's the most universal UPnP AV Control Point software. It's available for both desktop and mobile platforms. Linn Kinsky - Linn centric. Available for both desktop and mobile platforms. dCS HD - dCS iPad app works with Vivaldi Upsampler. Available for iOS devices only. JRiver Media Center - JRMC is in a unique position because it functions as a Control Point, Media Server, and Renderer if enabled. As a Control Point on the desktop it works exactly like it does when playing music locally to a USB DAC. All the capabilities to edit metadata and curate one's music library are available in JRMC even when used as a Control Point. Here's where things get a little tricky. JRMC can also be controlled by JRemote for iOS. JRemote doesn't become the Control Point rather it's controlling the Control Point. Using JRemote it's possible to send music to multiple zones, control volume and of course select music among many other items. My favorite UPnP AV configuration includes JRemote. Bubble DS - Android based Control Point software developed by a Linn DS user. I haven't used this app Songbook - Has been around for awhile and has expanded to support Linn, Naim, T+A, and other UPnP hardware. Songbook runs on iOS devices and OS X desktops. Bookshelf Apps, the creator of Songbook, also develops similar apps for HiFi customers in need of custom Control Point software. Many HiFi companies using the Stream Unlimited UPnP platform also use a custom version of this app created by Bookshelf Apps. UPnP AV HiFi Media Renderers Linn - DS Series T+A - E Series, HV Series Naim Audio - Uniti, ND Series Simple Design - Rendu Audio Research Corporation - Ref DAC dCS Vivaldi - Upsampler PS Audio - PWD w/ Bridge PS Audio PWD A successful HiFi UPnP implementation requires a robust and reliable wired and wireless network. I haven't used all makes and models of routers, switches, and wireless access points but I have used some good and some bad equipment over the years. My recommendations are based on experience with products at home and in an enterprise setting, conversations with colleagues, my understanding of the technology, and countless hours of research. Any or all of my recommended network components can be exchanged for something different easily. I can't say if other equipment will work as well, worse, or better than what I'm using, but I can say there are countless ways to achieve the same goal of a robust and reliable network infrastructure. I've settled on a very good combination of products for my own network that I recommend to nearly all UPnP audio users. I created my network to handle relatively high data throughput and simultaneous multi-zone high resolution audio/video streaming. Here is a list of what I use and why I use it, starting from the Internet and working my way inward. My Network Internet Service - Comcast Extreme 105 Mbps - I live and work on the Internet and want the fastest connection I can reasonably get to save time and not inhibit any online activity I may need to test. Bring on the highest resolution downloads :~) Modem - Cisco DPC3000 DOCSIS 3.0 - This modem supports Gigabit speed on both the WAN and LAN ports. It has been very solid. I've never had to reboot the modem. Router - Cisco RVS4000 - This router supports Gigabit Ethernet on both the 1 WAN and 4 LAN ports. The web configuration of this router is fairly straight forward with enough features for me to accomplish what I need. I prefer a wired router without wireless capability because wireless is far better implemented by other devices and works better when located based on signal strength rather than proximity to the cable modem. Ethernet Switch - Cisco SG200-26 - I like this Cisco switch because it has enough Gigabit Ethernet ports for my network devices, is highly configurable, has a large backplane, and it supports 802.3ad (Link Aggregation Control Protocol). The SG200-26 also works without any configuration when dropped into a network and plugged-in. This switch has a 38.69 Mpps switching capacity and 52 Gbps forwarding performance. This 52 Gbps forwarding performance is equal to the number of 1 Gbps ports x 2 because full duplex 1 Gbps ports are capable of 1 Gbps each way for a total of 2 Gbps. Some switches and many routers have what is called an over subscribed backplane. These switches may feature 26 ports but only offer forwarding throughput of 10 Gbps. It's cheaper to manufacturer a less capable switch and the companies are guessing the average home user won't put much data through the switch at one time. The chances of my network activities maxing out this Cisco switch are very small. But it's nice to know bandwidth isn't a problem if I have an issue streaming audio. I also like the SG200-26's support of 802.3ad (Link Aggregation Control Protocol). This enables me to connect both 1 Gbps ethernet ports from my Synology DS1812+ NAS to the switch and bond them into a single 2 Gbps (4 Gbps full duplex) port. My music servers only support 1 Gbps connections max so they can't take advantage of the additional bandwidth when pulling music from the NAS. However streaming 24/192 audio to five or six zones simultaneously is another story. Ethernet Switch - Netgear GS108 - I place this switch right outside my listening room because I don't want to run eight individual Ethernet cables from my main Cisco switch to this area. The GS108 is a great performer. The unit has a fanless design as well. This Netgear switch is connected to the Cisco switch rather than through the Cisco router. I prefer to keep my network traffic on the high speed switches rather than send it through a router with questionable performance capabilities beyond its Internet traffic duties. Wireless Access Points - Apple AirPort Extreme & Express- I use two AirPort Extremes in my house and one AirPort Express. The Extremes are set to Bridge mode acting solely as wireless access points with a single Ethernet connection back to my Cisco SG-200-26 switch. I don't believe the wired switching capabilities of the AirPort Extremes are nearly as robust as a Netgear GS108 or Cisco SG-200-26. Apple claims the Extremes have a four port switch, but Apple was unwilling to confirm this in writing or verbally when I asked if it's a true switch or simply a hub. The AirPort Express is configured as a separate wireless network that handles only the traffic from my Dropcams. Each of these cameras sends live audio and HD video back to the Dropcam mothership DVR 24/7/265 and can really slow down a wireless network. My main UPnP AV devices are the following, in order of preference. I have several other items running on my network for testing, but don't consider them my main devices or applications. Media Server Hardware / Software CAPS Topanga running JRiver Media Center Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) running Asset UPnP Synology DS1812+ NAS running its native Media Server application Synology DS1812+ NAS running MinimServer Note: It's possible to run several Media Server applications on the same Media Server hardware. My Intel NUC runs Twonky, MinimServer, Asset UPnP, and JRMC without issue. Control Point Hardware / Software Apple iPad running JRemote controlling JRiver Media Center Apple iPad running PlugPlayer Here are four recommended UPnP configurations. Each one has its pros and cons. Users must decide for themselves what level of complexity they are comfortable with and what they want to accomplish with a UPnP based system. Some people prefer simple and stable while others prefer cutting edge even if a few issues arise from time to time. These recommendations have components that can be mixed and matched or combined. I highly recommend readers think about their needs first and foremost before settling on hardware and software devices and applications. System One This system is the easiest to use and setup because one computer is the Server, Control Point, CD ripper, library manager, and the network is very basic. The limitations of this system may be lack of disc space that's available to a NAS based system, it requires a powered on computer to steam audio, and may not be able to handle simultaneous high resolution audio streams. Media Server - CAPS Topanga running JRiver Media Center and an external USB hard drive for music storage. Control Point - JRiver Media Center running on the CAPS Topanga, but being controlled by JRemote on an iPad. It's much easier to think of JRemote running on the iPad as the Control Point, but that's technically inaccurate. Media Renderer - Users choice of many HiFi components Network - Apple AirPort Extreme connecting to the Internet modem, CAPS Topanga, and Media Renderer via wired Ethernet. The iPad controller connects to the Extreme via WiFi. Misc. - The same CAPS Topanga PC can be used to rip CDs and manage the music library using JRMC. One additional note: A recent update to the JRemote application enables an iPad or iPhone to become a lossless Media Renderer by streaming audio from the JRMC Media Server directly to the iDevice without transcoding into MP3. System Two This system should be popular with audiophiles seeking to keep a computer out of their listening rooms and powered off much of the time. This is a classic UPnP AV system with clearly defined Server, Renderer, and Control Point for straight forward use an it's fairly easy to understand the concept. The major benefit is no computer required while playing music. All music is stored on an expandable NAS with redundant drives and sent directly to the HiFi Renderer. Limitations of this system are an acceptable network and Media Server software that isn't flexible and doesn't provide a great menu structure for navigation. The Synology Media Server software also doesn't support DSD streaming. Control Point app PlugPlayer can be finicky and require the app and iPad to be on to continue playing audio in the queue. Media Server - Synology NAS running the built-in Media Server UPnP AV / DLNA application. Control Point - iPad running PlugPlayer Media Renderer - Users choice of many HiFi components Network - Apple AirPort Extreme connecting to the Internet modem, Synology NAS, and Media Renderer via wired Ethernet. The iPad controller connects to the Extreme via WiFi. Misc. - A PC running dBpoweramp for CD ripping and JRiver Media Center for curating the music collection, or a Mac running XLD for CD ripping and JRiver Media Center for curating the music collection. System Three This system increases in complexity but also flexibility and network performance. Asset UPnP is a great Media Server application with several configuration options and rock solid performance. This system is better than the previous two systems because of Asset UPnP. Browsing and searching the music collection is nice and quick from an iPad. Asset enables the user to specify several folders to watch for new music added to the collection. I use this feature because I keep all my publicly available music in one folder, my private unavailable music in another folder, and other files for testing in several other folders. Asset watches the two important folders whereas the Synology Media Server app can only watch a single folder. Using the Synology app I would have to select the top most folder. Thus, my library would contain all kinds of test files that are named weirdly or have the same track compressed in every format available. Limitations of this system are the PlugPlayer Control Point app, as compared to JRemote, and no DSD streaming support. Users with Renderers from dCS or Linn could install a custom Control Point app on the iPad to enhance the browsing and selection experience and remove PlugPlayer. However, this is still not as good as JRMC with JRemote. The Netgear switch in this system keep all audio traffic local to the switch without routing through the AirPort. Media Server - CAPS Topanga or Intel NUC with a mapped drive to the Synology NAS, running Asset UPnP. Asset is configured to watch the appropriate folders on a Synology NAS. Control Point - iPad running PlugPlayer or Custom app from manufacturer. Media Renderer - Users choice of many HiFi components. Network - Apple AirPort Extreme connecting to the Internet modem and a Netgear GS108 switch. The Synology NAS, Asset UPnP PC, and Media Renderer connect to the GS108 via wired Ethernet. The iPad controller connects to the Extreme via WiFi. Misc. - A PC running dBpoweramp for CD ripping and JRiver Media Center for curating the music collection, or a Mac running XLD for CD ripping and JRiver Media Center for curating the music collection. If using a PC the ripping and curating programs can be installed on the Asset UPnP computer. System Four This system is exactly what I use most often. I don't believe there is anything related to UPnP / DLNA that I can't accomplish with this system. The network is rock solid and very fast. The CAPS server has plenty of power to handle multi zone playback of high resolution audio including DSD. I stress tested this system using one local USB DAC connection and five UPnP Renderers simultaneously. I successfully played 24 bit / 192 kHz high resolution audio in all six zones without the PC or network hiccuping once. The HiFi renderers included a dCS Vivaldi Upsampler, Linn Akurate DSM, Simple Design Rendu Ethernet DAC, and two Simple Design Rendu Ethernet to S/PDIF converters. Using JRemote on my iPad I was able to select each zone, control music selection and playback, and adjust the volume levels of each zone individually. JRiver can also be set to link two or more zones for playback of the same music in the linked zones. This system has similarities with each of the previous systems, but doesn't compromise at any point. Potential pitfalls with this system are all related to complexity of setup and user knowledge of computers and networking. Once setup the system operates wonderfully. However, if a specific Renderer has issues reproducing audio without dropouts, pops, or ticks it is very helpful to have an understanding of each component in the chain, how the components might effect playback, and how to make configuration adjustments. I much prefer this type of system because I can adjust each piece independently. System one using a single PC and a minimally adequate network is easier to use, but lacks ultimate flexibility and performance. System two using the Synology built-in Media Server app is primitive compared to the flexibility of system four. System three has a very nice Media Server but lacks a great Control Point application because of this Media Server application. System four has it all. Here is a screenshot of JRiver Media Center playing 24 bit / 192 kHz high resolution audio to six zones simultaneously. [ATTACH=CONFIG]5539[/ATTACH] Media Server - CAPS Topanga running JRiver Media Center with a mapped drive to a Synology DS1812+ NAS. JRMC's main library (on the NAS) is used rather than connecting to another library. This NAS doesn't run any UPnP Media Server software. The NAS currently has 16 TB of disk but can be expanded to 108 TB with larger drives and a Synology expansion unit. The NAS runs RAID5 for redundancy and has two USB 3.0 4 TB drives attached directly to it for automated backup of my music collection. As an added layer of backup protection, simply because I can, the DS1812+ backs up over the network to another Synology NAS on a weekly basis. All of this is automatic once configured in the Synology DSM control panel. As mentioned previously the NAS is connected via two Gbps Ethernet cables to a Cisco switch where the ports are bonded into a single port capable of doubling the speed to 2 Gbps. Control Point - Similar to system one, system four pushes the boundaries of the precise definition of a Control Point. According to UPnP AV specifications the CP only sends instructions not music. Here JRMC controls playback but also uses its main library to serve music. If JRMC was set to use another library such as one from an Asset UPnP Server, then it would better fit the definition of a Control Point. In addition to all of this, I use an iPad running JRemote to control JRMC. Again, it's a remote control for the Control Point. For ease of understanding, but never to be written on an exam, readers can think of the CAPS PC with JRMC as the Media Server only and JRemote on an iPad as the Control Point. Media Renderer - Users choice of many HiFi components. Network - I recommend my exact network that is listed and explained extensively in a previous section. Misc. - I rip CDs using my MacBook Pro retina running Parallels with Windows 7 and a USB Blu-ray drive. I use dBpoweramp for CD ripping directly to the Synology DS1812+ NAS. Once the music is on the NAS and imported into the JRiver Media Center library I use JRMC to edit metadata. One additional note: A recent update to the JRemote application enables an iPad or iPhone to become a lossless Media Renderer by streaming audio from the JRMC Media Server directly to the iDevice without transcoding into MP3. Wrap-up This Complete Guide To High End UPnP / DLNA Network Audio covers important elements for a successful UPnP HiFi implementation. It doesn't explain every last detail or every possible configuration. A book could be written about each step in the UPnP playback chain, but I elected to leave out tedious information of no use to audiophiles. Documents from the UPnP and DLNA organizations were used as reference material when needed. I would like to thank Simple Design for loaning me three Rendu UPnP converters for testing while writing this guide and Matt at JRiver for answering a few questions about UPnP/DLNA. Links Apple Asset UPnP Audio Research Corporation Bookshelf Apps Cisco dBpoweramp dCS DLNA JRemote JRiver Linn MinimServer Naim Netgear PlugPlayer PS Audio Simple Design Synology T+A Twonky UPnP
  9. The Computer Audiophile

    Schiit Audio Yggdrasil Analog 2 Released

    Hey Guys - It's really cool to finally announce this to the CA Community. All the fans of the Yggdrasil will be happy to read that Schiit Audio has made it even better. Schiit update the analog stage of the Yggdrasil big time. I've been using this analog 2 update for several months, but couldn't say anything. In fact, in my Schiit Audio Reference System Part 1 article, I was using the Analog 23 update in my Yggdrasil, but had to just call it "the upgraded Yggy." Anyway, I'm writing part two to the Schiit series as you read this announcement. Here is the info directly from Schiit: Hey all, It’s hard to believe that it’s been 4 years since Yggdrasil shook up the high-end DAC market. But hey, time flies. And now it’s time for an update—to Yggdrasil Analog 2. Yggdrasil Analog 2 includes many refinements, including all-new Class A, DC-coupled discrete FET buffer stages and completely different internal board structure. The result is increased line driving capability, slightly lower noise and distortion, and…most importantly…significantly better sound!* *Yeah, that’s subjective. Yeah, we’re biased. So sue us. In any case, Yggdrasil Analog 2 has been shipping since late October, so many Yggdrasil owners have been enjoying it for some time. And, keeping Schiit’s promise of upgradability, all older Yggdrasils can be upgraded to Yggdrasil Analog 2. Yggdrasil with Analog 2 is available now for $2399 Yggdrasil Analog 2 upgrades are available now for $550 Product Page: http://www.schiit.com/products/yggdrasil Upgrade Page: http://www.schiit.com/products/yggdrasil-analog-2 Press Release: http://www.schiit.com/ All the best, Jason Stoddard Mike Moffat Co-Founders,
  10. The Computer Audiophile

    Schiit Audio Reference System Review Part 1

    One challenge when writing product reviews is to select the audience for which one is writing. Given that this site has a large contingent of readers with very high end audio systems and discerning ears, this usually helps narrow the scope of items to address in the review. However, writing for the faithful readers only, doesn't help our wonderful hobby expand beyond its current boundaries and expose civilians to the joys of great sounding music. I usually don't have to think about the audience, because products like the dCS Rossini or the Aurender W20 aren't items with which one dips his toes into HiFi. I can write for the audiophile who aspires to purchase such a product and who needs information that will help him make a purchasing decision. Sadly, on the other end of the spectrum, more than half of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts and a growing percentage have absolutely nothing saved. I'd love to write for everybody, but this large group of folks has bigger fish to fry than HiFi. I look at reviewing a complete Schiit Audio system as a different animal than the typical products reviewed on this site. Schiit has managed to serve more than just the audiophile community with its well engineered and inexpensively priced products. The company offers a headphone amp/DAC for $99 and a standalone DAC for $99. Schiit has brought more people into the HiFi fold than most high end companies combined. If the phrase, "the smartest guys in the room," didn't have such a bad Enron-esque connotation, I'd use it to describe the Schiit Audio team. What I'm getting at is this, I'm going to write this multipart review for more than one audience. Schiit has managed to sell products to more than one audience, so I will attempt to toe the line and write for more than just the audiophile niche. If spending $699 on a single amplifier is more than you'd ever dream about, or have nightmares about, spending on an entire home theater in a box (mom, I'm looking at you), then I suggest bowing out now. I also recommend doing a shoulder roll and heading for the exit to those who aren't interested in spending less than five figures on an entire system. Nothing wrong with either group of people, we are free to spend our disposable income on whatever we choose. Who is best served by this review? I hate to say it, but this review is very self-serving. I was fortunate enough to spend several weeks with Schiit's best components and a few pairs of speakers that manufacturers happily sent for use during the process. Other than my own enjoyment, almost everyone else will be well served by this review. Whether one needs to upgrade from lesser quality products or one needs a second system or one is designing an aspirational system, this Schiit and this review should help. On With The Show I call this a Schiit Audio reference system because it consists of the best components offered by the company at this time. Schiit has never referred to these components individually or as a whole as its reference system. Hopefully, Schiit doesn't have plans to release a new series of components call the Schiit Audio reference System. Such a release would make this review look pretty strange. Schiit Audio doesn't offer a source component to feed its digital to analog converters, so I used the Sonore signatureRendu SE throughout the review process. Yggdrasil ($2,299) - Digital To Analog Converter The Schiit Yggdrasil DAC is one of my favorite converters on the market. I wrote extensively about it in a previous review (link). The product has been upgraded (link) since my review back in November 2015, so I'll just call the version in my system now the upgraded Yggy. Part of what's so nice about Schiit Audio products is the upgradable design. Spending $2,299 on a Yggdrasil is much easier to swallow knowing that the product is built in a modular fashion. When the Gen 5 USB upgrade arrived at my door, I opened up the Yggy and swapped out the USB boards in a matter of minutes. Now, my Yggdrasil from 2015 is using Schiit's most advanced USB technology and is identical to the Yggies being shipped out today. All of this for $100, or a measly $150 to have the factory install the upgrade. Anyone comfortable with a screwdriver can handle the upgrade themselves and save the cost of shipping and the time without the product in one's system. Given the ease of the process and the great sonic benefit, I'll be the first in line if Schiit releases any further upgrades to the Yggdrasil. Yes, the Yggdrasil is the most expensive product in Schiit's lineup and can be a stretch for many people's budgets. If one can afford it, I highly recommend it. On the other hand, I always recommend starting with the least expensive product with which one is comfortable purchasing and only upgrading if necessary. My 2003 Honda Accord is just fine for driving my daughter to school in the morning. I do envy her classmate who is driven to school in a Volvo V60 Polestar, but I just don't want to spend that much money on a car. Those who know they won't be satisfied with anything less than the Polestar, should start with the Yggdrasil and not look back. Freya ($699) - Preamplifier The last time I asked Schiit co-founder Mike Moffat about building a volume control into his DACs, he looked at me like I had a third eyeball in the middle of my forehead. I'm sure he made a comment or two, like only Mike is capable of making, but I don't remember exactly what was said. Needless to say, I started investigating Schiit preamplifiers so I could adjust the volume when listening. The Freya is Schiit's top of the line preamplifier. The Freya features both single ended and true balanced differential outputs. Those who aren't interested in balanced in/outputs should consider the Schiit Saga, a modded version of the Sega Genesis game console. Only kidding. Saga is less expensive and only features unbalanced connections. I much prefer balanced in/outputs for their terrific noise rejection. The Freya offers listeners three choices of output modes, passive, JFET buffer, and tube gain. In my system, I prefer passive mode because I only use a preamp to control volume and want to do this in the purest way possible. Above all, I prefer the sound in passive mode. JFET buffer mode is more desirable for those who need to drive long cables between the preamp and amplifier(s). During my extended listening time with the Freya, I didn't notice much sonic difference between passive mode and JFET buffer mode, but my interconnect cables are only two meters in length. Freya's tube gain output may increase the flexibility and fun to be had with this preamp, but also changes the sound quality quite a bit compared to the passive and JFET modes. Some readers will find this blasphemous while others will enjoy the ability to adjust the sound to one's preference. The Freya uses 6SN7, 6N8S, or 5692 tubes, so one can try different makes and models until their heart is content with the sound. I'm more of an audio purist and usually steer clear of tubes. That said, I love the ability to use them and try some esoteric tubes if I wish. In addition to flavoring the sound a bit, the tube output stage is very robust, running on 300v rails. The most obvious different one will hear when switching from passive or JFET to the tube stage, is a big increase in volume. It isn't called a gain stage for nothing. If extra gain is needed the tube output should handle the job without breaking of sweat. My favorite feature of Freya is its relay-stepped attenuator / volume control. This attenuator not only enables excellent channel matching (ever turn down the volume on a low quality audio product and have the right and left channel at different levels?), it doesn't suck as much as other volume controls. What I mean by that is, volume controls are notorious for having negative consequences on sound quality. A volume control can only degrade the audio signal. Good ones just degrade the signal less than the others. Schiit's 128 step, microprocessor-controlled, attenuator in the Freya only uses thin film resistors in the signal path, as opposed to a potentiometer wiper or bit-reducing digital volume control. Based on my listening experience with the Freya, this relay-stepped attenuator is really nice. Plus, there's a coolness factor to the clicking sound it makes when the volume level is adjusted. According to Schiit's Jason Stoddard, "I personally would like to put a relay attenuator in everything we do, but sometimes it’s not possible due to price or, more typically, space. A resistor ladder implementation is a bit of a space hog." One last note about the Freya. Upon first receiving the unit, I was disappointed with the minimalist remote control. It felt very much like a Sony "My First Remote" type of product. After using it a while, I came around a little bit. I really like that the remote fits in my hand, with my fist closed, easily. I can grab the whole thing, with my hand off the edge of the chair's armrest, and not worry about dropping it. The same can't be said for some of the solid billet aluminum monstrous remote controls in HiFi. Note: Schiit has started shipping a new upgraded remote with the Freya. Here's a shot of the new (top) and original (bottom) remotes. Vidar ($699) - Power Amplifier (stereo or mono) When Schiit announced the Vidar amplifier, I was very surprised. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, given Schiit's history, but a $699 amplifier with great specifications and design, that's made in the United States isn't something I see often. I'm much more used to press releases announcing amplifiers starting around $30,0000! The Vidar's design will surprise the know-it-all audiophile in that it's Class-AB, not Class-D. There's nothing wrong with Class-D in and of itself, but I've been more underwhelmed than overwhelmed by the performance of most Class-D products. Class-D is kind of like Linux. For many years people used to say, this is the year for Linux, it will take over the desktop. Followed the next year by, no really THIS is the year for Linux, it will take over the desktop. Similarly, Class-D fans and supporting manufacturers have been telling me for years that the technology has finally caught up with or surpassed Class-AB designs. Every year, I hear about the new product that is so much better than the last design, that was previously so much better than Class-AB (according to them). Again, big build up, big let down. In fact, last week I heard a pair of $16,500 Class-D Mola Mola mono amps driving a pair fo Dynaudio Evidence loudspeakers. I and three others in the room all thought the amps did an injustice to the loudspeakers and weren't capable of showing what the speakers could do with respect to performance. Just like Linux, I want to love Class-D because it has cool benefits, but so far the other options are still much better. Bringing it back to the Vidar Class-AB amp in a package the size of a Class-D amp. Before anyone thinks this review is just a Schiit love-fest, think again. Schiit calls the Vidar an "ultra-high-end amplifier" on its website. I must disagree. Vidar is a high end amplifier with great performance, but it isn't in the class of ultra high end amps nor is it priced like ultra high end amps. For example, Constellation Audio Hercules II Mono amplifiers that retail for $170,000 per pair are ultra high end in my view. In fact, I've been using Constellation Audio Inspiration Mono amps ($20,000 per pair) in my system for over a year, and think they sound better than the Vidar. I only bring this up because Schiit calls the Vidar ultra high end. I don't agree, but I still believe the Vidar is a terrific amplifier. Not terrific for the price, unequivocally terrific despite price. Technically, the Vidar is a pretty great amplifier. Class-AB, linear power supply, microprocessor controlled, and intelligently managed. Features like doubling the power into 4 ohms are equally as cool. As is the ability to run in a true balanced mono configuration. I could go on and on about specs and features, but that's why Schiit has a website. I'll briefly touch on some other aspects of the Vidar. The intelligent management by a microprocessor is really nice and operates without a sonic penalty. Schiit designed this system without safety devices in the power supply path. One aspect of the Vidar that must be considered, is its lack of rating for mono configuration into 4 ohm speakers. According to Schiit, "Vidar will probably work fine at sane volumes, but at higher output, you may trigger the protection." Based on my testing with 86 dB efficient 4 ohm speakers, I believe the Vidar will work without triggering protection for most people using this configuration. I pushed the Vidar really hard and was unable to trip its protection mechanism. I didn't go crazy by putting on Nine Inch Nails at 110 dB and let it run over the weekend, but I did listen to Nine Inch Nails, Hip Hop, Big Band, and some heavy bass at loud levels. At no time did the pair of Vidars flinch. In fact, I concluded a listening session by playing Marcus Miller's Intro Duction from his Silver Rain album at what Faber Acoustical's Sound Meter app said was a 123.4 dB peak, and 11.3 dB max. The Vidars appeared to have very good control over the speakers, even at very high levels. Here is a screenshot from my iPad Pro. The question that should one asked by all potential Vidar customers is, should I purchase one or two Vidar amps? If one amp in stereo works great for a given pair of speakers and system configuration, there is no need to use two in a mono configuration. The decision will ultimately come down to one's desire to use balanced connections and how much power is needed to drive the loudspeakers to a desirable level. Like I say about DACs, people might as well start cheap, with a single Vidar, and upgrade to two only if necessary. Or, if one is the type of person who just has to max out everything, then start with a pair. Given the price of most HiFi components, an additional Vidar is still cheaper than the sales tax on many power cables. Listening to the Schiit Audio Reference System As I mentioned in my preview article, I had several pairs of speakers sent in for testing with the Schiit system. I really wanted to hear how the system reacted to different speakers in my listening room. First up is the Dynaudio Excite X34 ($2,800), a two-way loudspeaker. The X34 is an 8 Ohm speaker with an 86 dB sensitivity rating, and a 28mm soft dome tweeter and two 14cm woofers. Its frequency response (± 3 dB) is 37Hz – 23kHz. I listened first to the X34 using the Vidars in a balanced mono configuration. There was enough power to go around, and then some. The Schiit system had plenty of punch to drive these speakers as loud as I wanted to listen. I ran into room rattling issues rather than audio system issues. Unexpectedly I heard something that I don't totally understand when I compare the sound through the X34 to my TAD Compact Reference CR1 loudspeakers. When listening through the CR1s, the upper mid-range and higher frequencies were a bit veiled. Switching to the X34, this veil was gone completely. I don't think anyone at Dynaudio would suggest the X34 is a better loudspeaker than the, $45,000 Andrew Jones designed, CR1, but I consistently heard a veiled mid to top end with the Schiit system. Perhaps the X34 has more energy in these frequencies, giving me the false belief that there is more clarity. I really don't know. Switching to a single Vidar in stereo configuration, which requires unbalanced interconnects, changed the sound more than I expected. Power-wise the single Vidar had enough to blow my ears out, even on the deepest bass notes. However, I didn't like the sound nearly as much in the midrange. It sounded much more edgy, like there was a grunge (not the genre) audible right over Eddie Vedder's vocals on the track Society from the Into the Wild soundtrack. Vedder's vocal range in around A1-A5 or 55 Hz to 880 Hz. Perhaps the lack of common mode noise rejection with the unbalanced configuration is causing this audible different. After listening a while, without the balanced configuration in very recent memory, I tended to forget about the grain in the unbalanced config, and started to enjoy the single Vidar much more. On Diana Krall's version of Almost Blue, everything about the track was really wonderful. From the deep bass notes to the ethereal sounding piano and of course her vulnerable sounding vocal. Everything on this track was incredibly enjoyable through the stereo Vidar, and the bass at the end of the track was as extended as possible given the speakers' frequency limitation of 37 Hz (on a good day with the wind at its back). The stereo Vidar is an excellent amplifier by itself driving the X34s, but because I heard the mono pair first, I believe I was tainted by the benefits of the balanced configuration. Anyone looking for a great system at a very reasonable price, should look into a stereo Vidar paired with the Dynaudio Excite X34 loudspeakers. So much greatness for so little money. Part 1 Wrap-up As I close out part one, at around 3,000 words (2,000 too long?), I want to reiterate how capable the complete Schiit Audio reference system is and how much I've enjoyed it thus far. The designs are awesome, inside and out, and I've never heard better performance near this price. For the most part, I don't consider price when evaluating components. It doesn't make sense. I evaluate component based on performance and let the readers decide if something is valuable to them or worth the price. What does "great for the price" mean anyway? Something is either great or it isn't. This Schiit is great. In Part 2 I will dig deeper into the system with other speakers and configurations and offer many more listening impressions. I'd also like to test the Freya ($699), a single Vidar ($699), and the multi-bit Bifrost ($599) I have here. This would reduce the cost of the total system by over 50% and I believe would still sound great. I'd love to answer everyone's questions and test all configurations, but that's not possible. I'll do my best to accommodate any requests below before finishing up the second and (hopefully) final part of this review. Product Information: Product - Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC Price - $2,299 Product Page - Yggdrasil Owners Manual - PDF Link Product - Schiit Audio Freya Preamplifier Price - $699 Product Page - Freya Owners Manual - PDF Link Product - Schiit Audio Vidar Amplifier Price - $699 Product Page - Vidar Owners Manual - PDF Link Associated Music: Computer Audiophile 100 Playlist Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist Associated Equipment: Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Sierra) DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 MQA D-to-D Converter: Sonore microRendu, Sonore Sonicorbiter SE, dCS Network Bridge, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference Remote Control Software: Roon Remote Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2 Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables, USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0 Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka, Wire World Starlight and Chroma Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, ASUS RT-AC3200, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
  11. Editor's Note:The following is a guest editorial from long time CA member @sdolezalek iFi Audio might be referred to as the “millennial division” of the more mature and highly regarded Abingdon Music Research (AMR). Where most of the audio world builds highly expensive “State of the Art” products and then hopes that sales of those products will lead to trickle down products at more affordable prices, iFi have adopted the opposite approach, selling a dizzying array of affordable and innovative but very specialized solutions. Trickle-down theory has been with us for a long time. It has even served highly innovative companies like Tesla well. But, it may be less relevant in an audio market now dominated by younger, more mobile consumers, living in smaller rented spaces and spending less than hundreds of thousands on their audio systems. By comparison, the group of well heeled, in their 50s+ “audiophiles” who do spend $50k on speakers, $25k on electronics and $45k on cables just isn’t the leading edge of the market in the same way that buyers of Tesla Model S cars are. Building products for rich old men doesn’t trickle down well to the products the millennial consumer wants. IFi is getting out a variety of products at millennial price points. It has separated several formerly one-box solutions into smaller more modular components that can be easily upgraded one component at a time. That means iFi is in constant dialog with its customer base – something it is also explicitly doing by engaging directly with those customers here on Computer Audiophile or on Head-Fi. They can get a new product on the market quickly, test it with its core audience and see how it performs. If it performs well then you are likely to see “Nano,” “Micro” and “Pro” versions of that product come out over the successive periods. If it doesn’t, it is easy to move on to other components that will do better in the market. We as consumers play an important role in helping iFi fine-tune product offerings, assisting their R&D process through our live feedback, and helping to define long-term product direction not only for iFi, but ultimately for AMR. Since the time that AMR released its highly regarded AMR DP-777 SE DAC, iFi has introduced: the Nano iDSD BL, iGalvanic3.0, iONE, iDSD LE, iUSB 3.0; the Micro iTUBE2, iDSD BL, iPHONO2, iCAN SE, iUSB3.0, iDAC2; the Retro Stero50 and LS3.5 and the PRO iESL and iCAN, and earlier generations of these products. While many of us have long waited for the about to be released PRO iDSD DAC, it is clear that product is benefiting not only from AMR DP-777 “trickle down” but more so from Nano and Micro “trickle-up.” iFi also benefits from the continuing improvement of third-party software products that work with their hardware products. I have previously written about just how much using the combination of Tidal/HQPlayer/Roon to upsample all Tidal content to DSD512 can improve the sound (and ability to fine tune the sound) of the iDSD Micro BL. But all of these products work well in a compuer-centric world that also chooses among Roon, HQPlayer, Audirvana, Amarra, Jriver, etc. and among Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Qobuz, etc. In the “old world” of consumer audio, people walking into brick-and-mortar stores would have been looking for an affordable one-box-that-does-it-all solution. In the world of Amazon and other on-line retailers and rapidly moving technology-following sites like CA, customers seem much more willing to buy iFi products like they buy mobile phones and accessories – upgrading annually to the latest and greatest. This approach also plays better into the millenial attitude of buying that $200 or $500 upgrade now, rather than previous generations’ wait 12-24 months to save for the $1,000 new product patience. That pricing/upgrading sweet spot is one that the mobile phone makers and flat-screen TV manufacturers seem to have honed in on. Perhaps it is something more of the audiophile hardware industry should also think about? Rapid, continuous innovation of modular products is where the future is for audio right now. In the more distant future, there will come a time where the ability to eke out the next higher level of performance gets harder and harder (we are already there with computers and digital cameras and getting close with smartphones and TVs, but digital audio still has years to run). When we get there, products will return to a more comprehensive solution we hold on to for 3-5 years or longer, but that isn’t where the action in audio is today. It will be interesting to see where that balance works out with another popular and innovative audio product – the KEF LS50 Wireless; a product that at $2,000 is still too expensive to be upgraded every couple of years, but one where the technology is likely to continue to get meaningfully better every couple of years for a decade longer. Should KEF have adopted a more modular approach that might allow us to upgrade the innards of our LS50 Wireless speakers every couple of years for ~$500? I don’t know, but for the moment, I believe that iFi are on very solid ground in their approach to designing and selling audiophile products for and to a millennial customer base and I suspect other manufacturers would do well to more carefully think about the iFi approach. Manufacturer's Note: iFi is a brand new line of electronics with trickle-down technology licensed from AMR and aimed primarily at the future, Computer Audio generation. All iFi products boast Class A analogue circuitry with no DSP and the signal stays ‘Bit Perfect’ throughout. How a product looks and performs matters, but so does its impact on the environment. That’s why nearly every iFi product and its packaging are made from highly recyclable materials like aluminum, paper, recycled plastic and why we refuse to use harmful toxins in our components. We do this to ensure that every product we release meets our environmental standards. iFi has a sponsored forum here on CA -> AMR / iFi Forum iFi's website -> https://ifi-audio.com Abbingdon Music Reasearch -> http://www.amr-audio.co.uk/
  12. The Computer Audiophile

    USB Audio Driver Security Risk

    Breaking story, more to come. P.S. Hm, I remember saying recently that the SaviTech USB audio drivers were the worst drivers I'd ever used. P.P.S. I remember several years ago arguing with a manufacturer about the negatives to using custom drivers rather than USB Class 2 drivers built into the operating system. Looks like another vote for native OS drivers. Thanks to Twitter user John Doyle for notifying me about this one. Savitech Audio Drivers Caught Installing Root Certificate "Savitech drivers used by several companies that provide specialized audio products expose computers to hacker attacks by installing a new root certificate into the Trusted Root Certification Authorities store in Windows. The USB audio drivers from Savitech, a company that offers application-specific integrated circuits for audio and video solutions, are used by several vendors. The CERT Coordination Center lists products from Accuphase, AsusTek, Audio-Technica, Creek Audio, EMC, FiiO Electronics, HiFime, Intos, JDS Labs, McIntosh Laboratory, ShenZhen YuLong Audio, Stoner Acoustics, Sybasonic, and TeraDak Audio as possibly being affected." Here's the complete story from Eduard Kovacs at Security Week > LINK
  13. The Computer Audiophile

    Schiit Audio Reference System Preview

    In July 2017 Schiit Audio introduced its Vidar power amp for $699. The Vidar was the final piece of the puzzle for us "full system" music lovers. I use the term full system to refer to those of us who listen through a DAC, preamp, amp, and loudspeakers, as opposed to more headphone focussed listeners. As soon as I read Schiit's Vidar announcement, I emailed Co-Founder Jason Stoddard, requesting a pair of them for review. Like all customer centric companies, Jason told me he'd send the amps to me as soon as Schiit finished shipping orders to actual paying customers. I have to respect such an answer, even though I was itching to get a pair of Vidars in my system. While I was at it, I asked Jason for a Schiit Freya preamplifier to round out my system Fast forward to August 1, 2017 when a stack of Schiit arrived at Computer Audiophile headquarters. Jason sent a pair of Vidar amps for testing a mono configuration and the Freya preamplifier. Shortly after connecting the amps, I ran into a strange issue, as documented here (link). I mention this only to show how responsive Schiit is to customer service issues and how quickly the company found and resolved the issue. Sure the process was delayed because of Jason's travels to see the August 24, 2017 total solar eclipse here in the US, but rest assured he won't delay any repairs again until April 8, 2024 when the next total solar eclipse is visible here in the US. Only kidding. Jason did see the eclipse and that did delay his looking into the issue, but I would have done the same thing. Plus, because of this delay, he sent me two brand new Vidar amps so I could continue my review without waiting for a resolution. The CliffsNotes version of the issue: Jason changed the compensation capacitors to current production parts in the Vidar amps I returned, and all was just fine. The Current Situation After receiving the new Vidar amps, taking a short family vacation, and attending the CEDIA 2017 trade show in San Diego, I'm ready to jump into the Schiit. I have the Schiit flagship Yggdrasil DAC connected to the Freya preamplifier and a monoblock pair of Vidar amps. This is what I consider the Schiit Audio reference system. I also have a Schiit Bifrost DAC ($399) for comparison as well. Prior to starting the Schiit review, I talked to a few manufacturers about sending loudspeakers here for use with the Vidar amps. Given the conservative power rating of the amps into a 4 ohm load, when configured as monoblocks, I think it's wise to test different speakers and report my findings. Here are the components and loudspeakers I plan to use for this Schiit Audio reference system review. Electronics Freya preamplifier - $699 Vidar amplifier - $699 (x2 for monoblocks) Yggdrasil DAC (with USB Gen 5 update): $2299 Speakers Dynaudio Excite X34 - $2,800 Sonus Faber Venere S - $5,000 Focal Sopra N°1 - $9,000 TAD Compact Reference One (CR1) - $42,000 My plan is to use the Schiit Audio reference system in many different configurations and really give the Vidar amps a workout. Based on my first cursory listening sessions with the complete Schiit system, I am very impressed. I've had my TAD CR1s connected to the Schiit electronics while awaiting the arrival of the other loudspeakers and while playing music throughout the day while I work. Of course I frequently spin my chair around, away from my desk, to crank the volume when feeling inspired. I've yet to find the breaking point of the Vidar amps, and that's saying quite a bit. I like to play my favorite music at levels that indicate, to the neighbors, that it's my favorite music. I don't plan on pushing the amps until they shutdown, but I won't shy away from using them how I listen to music. So far, so good. Actually, so far, very good. Much more to come in my full review of the Schiit Audio reference system in combination with several loudspeakers and sources. I'm seriously looking forward to the fun.
  14. The Computer Audiophile

    Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS2 MQA Update

    Note: I can hear the sirens and see the red lights spinning on top of a few computers as I write this article with the letters MQA in the title. Fear not, this article is neither a referendum on MQA, nor an endorsement or rejection of MQA. Take a deep breath before continuing to read on. Berkeley Audio Design recently released an update to its Alpha DAC RS 2 digital to analog converter. The official name of the product is now Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA. At first blush, one may think this firmware update just enables MQA on the RS2. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Ok, in this world there are many things further from the truth, but I used the phrase as a figure of speech. This update is for MQA AND non-MQA playback. Berkeley Audio Design started the process of investigating MQA and figuring out how to best implement the technology over a year ago. The team at 'Berkeley' just can't leave well enough alone, it has to go over the top with everything implemented in its products. As such, they worked nearly that entire time on 1. How to best implement MQA and 2. How to improve overall DAC performance at the same time. To begin, Berkeley Audio Design didn't just "upload" sample code to the Alpha DAC RS2 and start listening and tweaking. Oh no, 'Berkeley' engineer Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer wrote the entire update in assembly language! Yes, assembly language. This update, to firmware version 3.0.0, was written in assembly language to enable the absolute most control over everything and make sure nothing extraneous was included in the code. One detail that gives the CA community a view into how this company works, is that this update was written to optimize processing in the DAC so that it remains uniform over time. Sure, 'Berkeley' could have enabled the processors to run at 100% and call that "uniform over time." But, that's not the 'Berkeley' way. Pflash spent many months perfecting his code to optimize both MQA and non-MQA PCM playback. The MQA part of the update enables the RS2 to handle MQA rendering only. That's the final step in the MQA process. Berkeley Audio Design believes that the decoding process, prior to rendering, is best done outside of the DAC. Similar to the company's belief that USB interfaces are best kept separate from the DAC (i.e. Alpha USB). The theme here is to keep all forms of noise outside the DAC and to keep its operation as stable as possible. Playing MQA content through the Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 requires an application or piece of hardware that decodes the MQA music for output to the DAC. This can be as simple as the Tidal desktop application, Audirvana+, or a hardware decoder such as the dCS Network Bridge or Aurender (coming very soon) that outputs AES into the Alpha DAC RS2 MQA for rendering. For most of my testing with the updated RS2, I listened to standard PCM material, of which I am very familiar. I know what this music sounds like on many DACs, including the pre-upgraded RS2, making comparisons very easy. Bringing MQA content into this evaluation doesn't really help anyone at this time. There are too many unknowns to make a fair judgment and provide a service to the CA community. A couple weeks ago I received a nice surprise from a friend in Northern California. Having previously expressed my love of the album Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, this friend made me a copy of his SAFETY MASTER tape of this album, at 24 bit / 192 kHz. Not only that, it was done on a Pacific Microsonics Model 2 A to D converter and HDCD encoded. That's where this story ties into Berkeley Audio Design nicely. The principals at 'Berkely' were founders of Pacific Microsonics, where they invented HDCD and spent exorbitant amounts of money on audio research. Actual research in audio, not Audio Research components. With this single 38 minute high resolution file of one of my favorite albums, I listened to the Miles Davis Quintet like never before. You're My Everything is my favorite track on the album, and it didn't disappoint. Through the newly upgraded Alpha DAC RS2 MQA, I could hear into the recording incredibly well. I'd really never noticed the cymbal work at the very start of the track by Philly Joe Jones, until I played this master tape transfer and used the RS2 MQA. I feel incredibly dense that I was unaware of the drum / cymbal roll that's so delicately played by Jones. He lays the groundwork, in addition to Red Garland's block chords, for Miles' unmistakable trumpet. Once Jones, Garland, and Davis are joined by Paul Chambers on bass and John Coltrane on tenor sax, the track elevates from really cool to something that's out of this world. I could literally listen to this combination of master tape transfer and Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA for days on end. If the RS2 MQA could pump smoke into my listening room, I'd swear I was in a Jazz club or even Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, New Jersey on May 11th and October 26th, 1956. The Actual Saftey Master Moving on to Jack Johnson's Brushfire Fairytales (2011 remaster 16 bit /48 kHz), was absolutely delightful. Jack is no Pavarotti, he's a surfer and a musician, but his voice, when played through the updated RS2, sounds incredibly intimate and realistic. It's as if I can relate to him more because he sounds like a real person singing in the corner of my listening room. On track number 3, Posters, I can't get over how much decay I can hear in this pop recording, through the upgraded RS2. For example, listen to the track at about 0:05 seconds to hear a crashing cymbal with incredible space and decay that floats away from the drum set. By far, the most incredible decay in this track is at 1:00, 1:12, 1:53, 2:04, and 2:22. Percussionist Jack Tool gently taps a bell, and the deal goes on forever. It seems to just hang in the air and is clearly audible even though other instruments are playing louder. The updated RS2's ability to convey these low-level details and delineate each instrument is really something special. Because of a hectic travel schedule of late and using a completely different system while writing about the Schiit Audio components, I had forgotten how special this DAC really is. Of course, I remember my glowing praise for the original Alpha DAC , the original Reference Series , and Reference Series 2, but the sound I hear through the newly upgraded RS2 MQA is on another level. Perhaps I don't remember this sound because I hadn't spent much time with the upgraded unit and haven't ever heard it like this prior to the upgrade. Performance improvements such as this RS2 MQA upgrade can be very frustrating for me. I love the fact that this DAC is now even better than all previous Alpha RS DACs, but I want nothing more than to explain to the CA Community why the performance is so much better. I want to lay out, step-by-step, exactly what Berkeley Audio Design did to squeeze a few extra percent out of the RS2, but that's just not going to happen. A company with a large intellectual property advantage over many competitors doesn't take out a billboard in Times Square to give away all its secrets. If I didn't hear such a big improvement, I'd call BS on this upgrade. However, based on my listening tests, I am 100% certain Berkeley has engineered the Reference Series into a new league. The Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA upgrade is available direct from Berkeley or from Berkeley Audio Design dealers worldwide for $595, plus $20 for shipping. Berkeley sends instructions, identification stickers for the rear of the RS2 MQA, and a letter certifying the upgrade for each specific serial numbered unit. No hardware changes are required to RS2 DACs. Berkeley says the upgrade also provides a great improvement in fidelity when installed on an original Reference Series. Yes, this update will also enable MQA and the PCM benefits on an original Alpha DAC Reference Series. Those of you with non-reference series Alpha DACs, should also be excited because this update is coming very soon for your hardware. The price of a new Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA is now $19,995. That's up $495 from the previous RS2, but includes the MQA upgrade. Product Information: Product - Berkeley Audio Design, Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA ($19,995) Product Site - Link Product User Guide - PDF Where To Buy: The Audio Salon Ciamara Associated Music: Computer Audiophile 100 Playlist Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist Associated Equipment: Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS High Sierra) DAC: Emm Labs DA2 , dCS Rossini, Schiit Audio Yggdrasil D-to-D Converter: Sonore Signature Rendu SE, dCS Network Bridge, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference Remote Control Software: Roon Remote Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables, USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0 Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka, Wire World Starlight and Chroma Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, ASUS RT-AC3200, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
  15. Best Of Both Worlds? Best of Neither? The Holo Audio Spring Level 3 Kitsune Tuned Edition R2R PCM/DSD DAC The world of digital audio is often a confusing one to the prospective buyer. How does one differentiate between technical jargon and marketing terminology, especially within an industry segment that is changing rapidly and offering supposedly the same sample and bit rate playback from $199 to $99k? Does one need to buy a PCM dac and convert any good DSD-based music to it? Conversely, buy a DSD-rich system and then upsample to that system's DSD sweetspot? Which upsampler? Own two dacs?? Yikes. Nowadays there is a sub-sub segment of this confusing DAC market that seems to be offering two dacs in one, a PCM side and a DSD side. Keeps cold things cold and hot things hot...how does it know? This review is not hugely technical (duh, mine never are) for many, many reasons, not the least of which is due to my brain stem and Catholic school math and science burnout. When I got to a Marianist university I discovered pot, sex and philosophy (mostly in that order). I realized that technical things need to be explained via the soul, not the brain, in order to make sense for me. It's really well-justified laziness, but I had finally found my comfortable skin.....if I don't need to know what ketones are used for, I don't need to know ketones! Period. B.S in English and Journalism, career in software sales/management. Dumb down tech jargon to make sense to a burned out elitist. Enough about me. The subject of this rambling is the new Holo Audio Spring Kitsune Tuned Edition DAC (aka HSKE for short). The designer, Jeff Zhu, is a Chinese manufacturer who has created the Spring dac, a unique approach to R2R ladder design. Instead of finding one-in-a-million perfectly spec'd resistors to create a PCM ladder, he created a dual set of resistor networks, one for PCM, one for DSD, and then created a second set for each, whose sole purpose is to (digitally) linearly compensate for any out of spec resistor tolerance on-the-fly. This is ridiculously oversimplified. Google it to understand more fully, or go to the US distributor's website at Kitsunehifi dot com to read more. The net of this is that Jeff has offered this design for under $2k, and then Tim Connor (aka Kitsunehifi aka @bimmer100) has worked with Jeff to enhance and tune the design with a custom 99.99% silver transformer, better capacitors and wiring, upgraded audiophile fuse, etc. to provide for a fully warranted official production Holo Audio Spring dac at $2399. This dac is what they also call Level 3. (note: I never heard any other level so cannot answer any comparative questions, sorry). Build quality is first-rate. Black case with nice copper sides. The dac front panel has a large but reasonable display, and a set of copper buttons provide for the requisite changing of inputs (USB, I2S, optical, coax and AES/EBU), display brightness, standby button and a unique oversampling set of modes (NOS, OS, OS PCM, OS DSD). Although The OS modes do internal oversampling (PCM, DSD or forced to one or the other) I listened to this DAC in only NOS mode, where no oversampling was done by the dac at all. If oversampling was done, it was done prior to reaching the dac. I may experiment with these features later, but it is clear that NOS mode is easily the best of the four modes. The back panel includes all described inputs (both BNC and RCA coax) as well as two sets of outputs, RCA and XLR. The design document claims a truly balanced design, and an inherent lower noise with XLR outputs, but I have only single ended preamps (Perla and Concert Fidelity) on hand, so I listened to it via RCA. When I get my passive Bent TAP back from a buddy I may try and a/b the XLRs, but it's not my go-to preamp so it would be merely academic. IEC output and fuse holder (includes Audio Horizon Platinum audiophile fuse) completes the back panel. A remote control is not a feature this dac has, nor does it contain a preamp or headphone functions either. From the website, here is a description of the I/O: "There is an Op Amp used for input stage and discrete component used for the output stage. The discrete output stage is working in pure class A. The output voltage is 2.5 Vrms for single ended output and 5 Vrms for balanced output. The single ended is RCA. Balanced is XLR. They both use the same output stage. It’s Bipolar Junction Transistors, direct coupled. The big MKP capacitor you can see in output stage are for the power supply, not for signal coupling. And the output impedance is 200Ohm." The dac seems to be relatively normal (compared to ther dacs) in its sensitivity to better user-provided cabling, whether digital, analog or power. I used High Fidelity analog cabling from dac to preamp, TotalDac D1 USB cabling (or microRendu hard USB adapter( and either my own Nordost or loaned Wireworld HDMI cabling for I2S. My go-to power cables are Sablon Petit Corona. So, how does it sound? First a little about the signal paths used. My listening was done 100% via HQPlayer, which is my go-to software. I listened to three different signal paths, via HQPlayer's Network Audio Adapter sitting on my microRendu in Linux, and my Caps Carbon in Windows, feeding either the DAC directly via JCAT USB card and a TotalDAC D1 USB cable, or indirectly via the DACs I2S input (using a Singxer SU1 DDC via same USB path, and then I2S output via an HDMI cable). All of these paths were being fed, via my fiber optic network, via my large Win 10 i6700k Audiophile Optimized server, sitting in my home office, running the latest HQPlayer build. Net/net, this setup allowed me to listen to the Holo's USB via either its newly capable raw DSD512 microRendu Linux certification, or it's beta Windows driver (USB and I2S). Edit: the official signed Windows driver (Win7/8 or Win 10) is now available and on the Kitsunehifi site. So, how does it sound? I will describe in chronological order. Seriously? Why? Because when you evaluate a DAC purchase, you evaluate the support and real world response of the dealer and manufacturer, and in this case, the capability and sonics of this DAC improved with every week I had it, in no small part thanks to the great support provided by Tim and Jeff (and Sonore's Jesus, too). For example, when I first got the DAC, it was incapable of showing its full potential via my go-to microRendu (set up as HQplayer NAA). And no Windows driver was available. I knew this going in, but wanted to hear this R2R implementation regardless. In just a matter of 2 weeks we had raw DSD512 Linux "certification" (Juergen and Jesus, thank you) and an evaluation Windows driver from Jeff. A little note about Jeff and Tim: They were skeptical about the need for DSD512, as I expected, since no recordings were available at that rate. But after hearing about the growing excitement for software like HQPlayer, and the magic that often comes with properly engineered upsampling to this silly deep space 22+ MHZ rate, Tim convinced Jeff it was worth an effort. Well, it took all of like 5 days for Jeff to provide firmware and updates that brought the Spring to the level it is now capable of (in production, no less). So.....how does it freaking sound?? My obstacle-course playlists consist of favorite tracks of all sample and bit rates, where the music is inherently recognizable down to the chair creaks and dimensions of the recording studio walls (a sickness inherent to this hobby, thank you). In all seriousness I am a stickler for tonality/timbre, attack/decay, image density and the blackest noise floor I can find. It is usually not until all of these aspects of musical playback are achieved that I will find toe-tapping and outright laughing-to-myself musicality happiness (embarrassing when spouse breaks in to listening session, but she gets over it ). The playlist content ranges from Radiohead to Cassandra Wilson to the Cleveland Orchestra to Beck to Bill Frisell to the Budapest Festival Orchestra to the Cowboy Junkies to Daniel Lanois to Peter Gabriel to Keith Greeninger, among others. Um...how does this DAC sound? Well, it sounds like no other DAC I've owned or listened to. It sounds like a great PCM DAC (I've heard a few that sound as good); it sounds like a great DSD DAC (I've heard a few that sound as good). It sounds ok at DSD512. Confused? Let me explain. As I have stated before, I review and own reasonably priced DACs. Not that I cannot afford to own (and certainly review) expensive ones, but my approach to the digital world prohibits me to want to listen to something that has a high degree of obsolescence vs. investment. It's a somewhat flawed approach, but it's mine. In that light, I've never really heard a good sub-$10k R2R PCM DAC that didn't sound too polite or maybe even rolled off at the high end (caveat: I've never heard an MSB or TotalDAC in my own system). So I had no real great expectation for the Spring in PCM mode, and had skepticism for it doing native DSD at all, period. Best case, it would excel at some PCM rate and would be capable and polite in DSD. This Spring DAC is the first DAC I've heard in my own system that excels at both PCM and DSD. Yet, I am not currently using any upsampling in HQPlayer as it does not seem to excel there. So all this work (as I explained, Jeff may have done a boatload of work to get it to DSD512 but he delivered it in record time so not sure how much I put him out) to get to DSD512 is not really necessary to my ears. Yes, that is weird, I agree. But to my ears I enjoy the sonics of simply running PCM with all filters off, and running DSD in DirectSDM mode, meaning no upsampling. Sure, you can upsample to DSD512 if you'd like, but I find it to be a percent or two too polite (I use that term a lot; to me it means less alive, less air, less dynamic, but listenable nonetheless). I cannot say whether this is due to HQPlayer (I doubt it) or the DACs first foray into DSD512. I will publish follow ups (such as upsampling some music to DSD512 offline and comparing). When played via the microRendu the HSKE is capable of all sample rates in native mode (aka HQplayer's "SDM pack equals none" setting). I did 50% of my listening via this path, and found the DAC to extract every nuance of detail, yet provide timbre and color that did not call attention to hyper-detail, as is so often the case. Bill Frisell's "gone, like a train" redbook album is one of my great timbre tests. The recording is beautifully rendered and full of color and tonal densities. These colors are played back wonderfully on the HSKE, with just the right amount of saturation. (Note: I have stated elsewhere on CA that the only downside of the microRendu is my use of its hard USB adapter. I cannot do without it as every other USB cable reduces the dynamics and air that is so unique to the microRendu, but it comes at a cost. The "hard" adapter is aptly named, as it adds a few percent of hardness to the lower treble region. I discount this when explaining timbre or color capability in a dac, as I also run a Windows NAA and the timbre/color aspects are easily revealed there). Image density is a term I use to describe how well instruments and the human voice are played back with real world shape, size and depth. Of course this depends heavily upon speaker and room setup, let alone recording engineering, but since those are constants, once setup correctly the DAC must come through. It is possible to have a dac that portrays a well-recorded piano, for example, too wide or too shallow. Performance style notwithstanding, Penatatone's Mari Kodama Beethoven sonata cycle is my standard for piano image density in DSD. I'd never heard a piano sound like an in-room piano before I heard this DSD recording (Sonatas 16-18 specifically) on my Meitner MA-1 a few years ago. I was smitten with DSD that day. Well, the HSKE sounds like my Meitner. Enough attack/decay, but not too much. The piano sound is visceral but not 20 feet wide. The sustaining/dampening pedal sounds are real. It's beautiful, but not overly sweetened nor ethereal. It's a percussive experience, as it should be. Lately I am lucky to get unedited DSD256 masters from Tom and Jared, my compatriots at Channel and NativeDSD. When played back through the HSKE they sound as real, as dynamic and as void of all noise floor issues as any DSD256 capable DAC I've heard. As with most ultra-high sample rate recordings, the you-are-there micro dynamics are palpable and sometimes scary. It is here where this DAC shows, however, a slight politeness when upsampled to DSD512. I currently have no good explanation for this, but it's also a moot point, as native DSD256 playback sounds just fine, thank you. Switching to Windows NAA playback (via Caps Carbon and JCAT USB card), the nth degree of immediacy from the microRendu is replaced with a calming of the lower treble (hard adapter no longer in play). All else is identical, as is the capability to play native/raw sample and bit rates ad nauseum, up to DSD512. Some slight handshake issues with the HQP GUI (playback doesn't stop immediately when pressing stop button, etc) are likely the fault of the eval Windows driver and not a blame of the DAC per se. Enter the $399 Singxer SU1 DDC (also on loan from Tim). This allows me to use the HSKE's I2S input via HDMI cable (this is not a cable review; I used Tim's .5M Wireworld and my 1M Nordost Silver Screen, both to perfect use). The I2S added a slight back the slight bit of immediacy and sounded best of all three signal paths, a sort of microRendu-if-hard-adapter-would-settle-down sound that hit all the buttons. I'd never heard Keith Richard's 1992 redbook solo attempt, "Main Offender" sound so live and sizzling, as if the guitar amps were plugged into my home outlets. This album is a sleeper (bad word choice; no sleeping during listening) as it shows 16/44 micro dynamics to be a very real thing. Another I2S track standout was Gillian's Welch's alt-Americana masterpiece "Harrow and the Harvest". Her voice achieves a warmth and depth that is often difficult to recreate on this otherwise fine recording. Dave's great minimalist guitar work is the best I've ever heard it sounding. An album that is difficult to turn off. Another clear winner on I2S, especially due to the blackness of the noise floor, is the newest Radiohead masterpiece (yes I use that word too often, but in these cases it's appropriate), the 24 bit Moon Shaped Pool. The understated palette of color and complex rhythms (took me at least five full listens to "get" this album) from these slower tempo tracks are perfectly captured by the HSKE via I2S. However, currently the I2S would only play back with any stability in DoP mode, DSD256 max. Via the XMOS Windows ASIO driver it does not play direct DSD currently. No big deal, just trying to be fully transparent here. This could very well be user error, and I am not here to review the SU1 in any detail. But if I was offered a commensurately sounding microRendu hard adapter for $399 I'd have a tough choice to make. And the Singxer has more flexibility of inputs/outputs, etc. Downsides: As seems to be inherent, in my system, in all designs that can handle both PCM and DSD, there are numerous combinations of software playback parameters that tend to cause various levels of clicks or even thumps when switching amongst formats in playlists. We have discussed these ad nauseum, and even the more up-to-date DSD extraction tools do not ameliorate them. These anomalies occur with the HSKE too, the worst of which is (currently) in the Linux-direct world of the microRendu. Just be forewarned. I'm not here to say this dac uniquely causes them. Stay tuned though, as I have asked Tim and Jeff to give me their $.02. I am sure that the MSBs and TotalDacs of the world have created wonderfully sounding dacs that can excel at both formats with custom R2R designs. So, spend lots more money and you get there, no doubt. But I am allergic to investing that kind of dough into digital at this time. I have zero issues with those who do, however, as several close audio buddies already have. As stated earlier, I will update this review as I find more to report. But certainly at this time I am intrigued enough at this implementation of linear-corrected/compensated R2R to invest my own monies in this DAC, and in Tim and Jeff's approach to customer service. And it's not like they do this for reviewers only; I've chatted and read enough from other users to know they treat their first customers all the same. Can that scale? Well, by their enthusiasm and knowledge I can only assume it will...that's a good problem to have. PART TWO I'm starting a part two section that will be updated in real-time, rather than adding edits and updates to the response thread (which will be difficult for some readers to even find, let alone make sense of). First off, I decided to buy the Singxer SU-1. It is high value at $399 and offers a great I2S signal path. I will write more about I2S sound vs USB sound soon. Second, for those of you jumping on the Holo Audio/Singxer solution, a note of possible incompatibility, and a solution. My Singxer was shipped with XMOS firmware V2.02 (not driver number, firmware number). When playing DSD via I2S I discovered that the DSD channels were reversed, but not PCM.. If one is using a product like JRIver this is easily solved: switch your dac to preamp interconnect leads and tell JRiver to swap your PCM channels in DSP. Since JRIver does no DSP in DSD all is well. However, for HQPlayer users (and for purity sake) I am not comfortable with that work around. After chatting with Leter from Singxer I was given a slightly earlier V2.00 firmware to install, and now all is well. Thanks Leter. P.S I have no idea what v2.00 does for other I2S dacs, sorry. I assume V2.02 exists for a reason. Third, and this is a little Rube Goldberg-ish, but I will try and feed the Singxer from the microRendu just to hear what it does. I will report back. Update: it plays only to 384k PCM via native (SDM pack none) but up to DSD256 via DoP. So far, sounds excellent in both modes (first background listen). I had to use the Belkin 4" USB as my hard adapter would not fit (90 degree turn would help). I have the diagnostics into Jesus for addition to the native Linux list. That may take awhile, though, as Sonore usually only adds when there are more than a couple to add at a time. Also, my loaner Yiggy arrived and I will be putting it in play tomorrow. Thanks again to the generous CA reader. I have to report to bibo01 and others that I "think" I like 16/44 upsampled (via HQplayer) to 24/352.8k (via I2S) as it renders a more accurate (to my ears) upper extension and a slightly tighter bass. But so far these changes are so subtle as to be easily mistaken for expectation bias if not careful. This redbook upsampling is no-brainer-easily-heard in HQplayer via other dacs. It is certainly going to be tested with the Yiggy (since DSD is out of the picture). I have yet to retry any PCM-to-DSD since getting the stable Windows drivers or better appreciation for the Singxer. I will also retest any HQP upsampling via the microRendu too. Net/net, this dac likes its NOS and although I may be discovering some very subtle improvements in upsampling, they are not big issues at all. Yes, redbook NOS sounds great, and that is something I'd never believe. I have been lambasted on other forums for not taking more space describing how the Spring sounds in its upsampling modes (OS, OS PCM, and OS DSD). I tried to explain that the reason for that is due to the CLEARLY obvious NOS superiority (why listen to a dac in its worst modes). But to appease a few, I will try some more serious listening. A good test is to see what the DAC will do internally upsampling MP3, for example. Stay tuned. Part two (continued): Yiggy comparo Thanks to the generosity of a CA member I had the chance to listen to the Schitt Yggdrasil in my own system for the past 10 days or so. I listened to 3 inputs on the DAC (USB from microRendu and it's own adapter, AES/EBU and BNC from Singxer SU-1). The SU-1 was first fed USB from the microRendu, then from my Windows NAA (TotalDac1 USB cable). I tested both upsampled (to 192k) and non, via HQplayer. Let me first say that the Yiggy is a very good PCM dac, and I would imagine in certain systems it would all that is needed to have a musical setup. However, in my own system (and I am getting a bit niggly here) I could not get rid of a slightly bleached lower midrange (affecting last ounces of color) and a nagging mid-treble sheen that took the Yiggy from being a possible keeper in my view. I am sure it is nothing more than system synergy, and while trying to tame it I found that my Windows NAA-to-Singzer-to-BNC (Sablon Panatela) coax was the best combination. The Yiggy has a slightly less deep soundstage than the Spring, while image density and overall soundstage width are close. The Yiggy presents music with a touch of smoothness overall (probably where lots of users get their "analog" sound comments) compared to the Holo, but this is a classic case of 5th row vs 30th row. The Spring is more 5th row dynamics and micro-dynamics, which gives the illusion of less smooth. But there is no fatigue with Spring's 5th row, and yet the Yiggy's calm 30th row still combines with that nagging shine to provide a small touch more fatigue (in my system..not a small point!!). The Yiggy has nice, taut but powerful lower frequencies and just the right amount of detail, not too much that the mid-treble shininess would turn into harshness. These slight maladies would likely be easily tamed via a different combination of (maybe) power cords or something like a good tube preamp, etc. Dunno. But I tried other USB cables (JCAT, DH Labs) and other SPDIF ones (Black Cat, generic) and the result, if changed at all, was a slight change in overall dynamics or air, but the lower mids and mid-treble hiccups remained. They manifest mostly on female vocals (Rickie Lee Jones, Cowboy Junkies, Norah, etc) and jazz. HQplayer's poly sinc mp (minimum phase) can often be a game changer but the Yiggy seemed somewhat unaffected except for the slight expected differences in air between mp and non (and air is not a Yiggy issue; it recreates natural ambient cues nicely). I need to send back the Yiggy tomorrow so is there anything else I need to try with this DAC? I'm open to suggestions. Edit: by the way, the leanness of the lower midrange is receding over time (although I did not notice that trait with it feeding the Spring dac), and in line with other SU-1 reports (thanks tboooe and others) that state the same during break-in. I know the Yiggy is well-broken in, but my Singxer is only a several weeks old. Part Three: Update listening impressions It has been more than a few weeks since I reported on the Spring Dac listening, and I need to update the readers on what has changed. First off, Alex (superdad) was nice enough to let me hear an LPS-1 (and it's not going back ). I am using a y-splitter dc cable to have it power (at 7V setting) both the microRendu and it's Trendnet 100/1000 FMC box (a 5V fiber converter). This new combination (replaces a JS-2 for the microRendu and a stock wall wart for the FMC, using a Meanwell laptop style ps to power/"energize" the LPS-1) has vaulted the microRendu into a newer stratosphere of both musicality and rock steady imaging. This new level of musicality has created one MAJOR change to my evaluation of the Spring dac. I now prefer DSD512 as the upsample choice of all native sample rates, both PCM and DSD. For PCM, the 8x (352 or 384, depending on original rate) PCM upsample sweetspot, using Poly-Sinc and NS4, is a close second, but hardly worth switching, although as reported earlier, the use of the uRendu in native Linux DSD does produce some slightly less than gawd awful thumps/clicks when starting up a new DSD session. Since this has been reported with other dacs, I can't say it's anything Holo can improve without some help from the wonderful open world of the Linux community. But assuming the user is aware of it (turn down volume at first or create a large playlist and add to it so you don't go in and out of DSD512) all is very beautiful. I complained about a slight lack of dynamics in DSD512 when first commenting on it, but that is eliminated with the combination of the LPS-1 (dynamic, speedy and tight), the poly-sinc-mp/ASDM 512 setting and likely further burn in of all components. I have yet to try the LPS-1'd microrendu into the Singxer cuz I hate not using a hard adapter (won't fit) and all I have here is the nasty 4 inch Uptone-included generic USB dongle (Alex agrees) or use a full 1 meter top notch USB cable, neither of which provides the you-are-there of the hard adapter (note: the LPS-1 setup seems to help settle that hard-adapter-brittleness in upper midrange too). I've requested a Cardas one, but not even sure it will fit at the back of the very crowded Singxer back panel. Nevermind that the Singxer isn't Sonic Orbiter/mR certified for native Linux yet (I see their FU-1 is on Jurgens github approved list no but not sure that is relevant for the SU-1, and am sure Jesus and company have not written updated code yet for it anyway). I could still test I2S with quite a few PCM and Dop'd DSD rates, but not going to yet. So, please feel free to keep asking questions. The Spring dac continues to surprise (positively) and with Black Friday on its way I understand Tim and folks at Kitsune are running some sales deals. I am not associated in any way, other than a mighty happy customer, but I am always open to save $$. Happy Thanksgiving to all (in the US and elsewhere, the theme "to give thanks" is universal). Part Three will continue..... Happy New Year. Part Three continued: I have recently gotten a new pair of glasses (went years without the right ones) and now can see the tv, my golf ball in flight, and driving has become high def! Note: yes, I drove with a fuzzy view for many years. Why do I mention this? One word: Intona. I now have my microRendu connected via hard adapter to the Intona (industrial version) connected to my Spring USB inpout via the Sonore Cardas 90 degree twisted adapter. The Intona is described elesewhere on this forum, but suffice it to say that it is another USB isolation device, one that I assumed would not provide better isolation and sound quality than the tremendous job done already by product-of-the-year microRendu. Well, I WAS WRONG. So wrong, in fact, that my recommendations for the Spring DAC have changed! Now, with the Intona in place, I am recommending the following: PCM setup in HQPLayer (poly-sinc-mp, NS4, 352k) DSD setup in HQPLayer (poly-sinc-mp, AMSDM7 512+fs, 22579200) Yes, I am back to preferring to hear my PCM in 352k, as the Intona seems to magically clean up (take the edge off) the top end of PCM and allow the dynamism more than DSD512 does. For DSD material the DSD512 preference remains a no-brainer. May the arguments begin again. Sorry, just telling it as I hear it. Ted Brady CA Profile Product Information: Product - Holo Audio Spring Level 3 Kitsune Tuned Edition R2R DAC Price - $2,399 Product Page - Link
  16. The Computer Audiophile

    Peachtree Audio nova150 Review

    I've been a fan of Peachtree Audio ever since I saw the team demonstrate its products using an AppleTV as a source, way back before the HiFi industry realized someone moved its cheese. Peachtree Audio introduced products with USB inputs long before most of the industry realized it was possible to connect a computer-based product to a "real" audio system. This was around the time when a notorious New York City audio dealer would kick people out of his store for bringing in iPods to use as a source. It's funny how life works, that dealer's business is now a shadow of its former self and computer audio is taking over the world of HiFi. After Peachtree Audio's meteoric rise and success all over the world, the company had a a few growing pains that one could expect from any small company growing at record speed. During this roughly 2-year transitional period, Peachtree turned out a few products to make sure the company stayed healthy; all the while working on the line they always wanted to do. In the Spring of 2016 the company re-launched, with co-founder David Solomon back on-board, as Peachtree Audio 2.0, during an event at Stereo Exchange in NYC. The Peachtree team was at the event to let people know what was in store with Peachtree 2.0. This wasn't a smoke and mirrors type of HiFi event, rather it was a brass tacks type of event. Peachtree Audio had undergone some big changes, during Solomon's absence, in how it designs and builds its products, and the company wanted everyone to know. In fact, there was a big sense of pride visible in the Peachtree team because of what it had accomplished with its new products. The main attraction at the NYC event was the nova150 integrated amplifier. Since listening to the nova150 in NYC in March 2016, I've been waiting for my review sample to arrive. The nova150 sounded great at the event and looked fantastic with its gloss ebony mocha finish. But, there's no substitute to hearing a component in one's own system and spending serious time playing gigabytes of familiar music. After spending the last week listening to the nova150 for hours on end, I can say without a doubt that Peachtree Audio 2.0 is much more than just a number. Compared to previous Peachtree products, the new nova150 is in a different class. A different class of design, and more importantly a different class of sound quality. Better Engineering = Better Sound Anyone familiar with product development cycles and the time it takes to bring a product to market, understands there aren't concepts such as "add to cart" and "free two-day delivery" in this world. Real products take real time to design and deliver. Two years ago, about the time David Solomon took a break from the company to work for and launch Tidal HiFi in the US, Peachtree's Jim Spainhour and Andrew Clark hired a completely new engineering team to redesign its nova series. This new team, who must remain nameless due to contract obligations, has designed some of the best products many members of the Computer Audiophile community have ever heard. I guarantee it. Following the engineering team change, Peachtree Audio also moved its manufacturing to a facility in Canada. This new facility also specializes in high end, life and death type of medical devices. Sure, we are talking about audio here, but it's nice to know the new Peachtree Audio products are manufactured to very high standards. The new nova150 is the first Peachtree Audio 2.0 egg to hatch. Both inside and out, this new nova150 offers features unlike many previous Peachtree products. The nova150 features the ESS Sabre32 9018K2M Reference DAC, that many computer audiophiles have come to love. It also features a nice Unity Gain: Direct Amp In setting. This works by holding an input button for five seconds to enable the feature. Once enabled, the nova150's volume level is set to unity gain and provides direct access to the amplifier section. The cool thing about this, is it enables the user to control volume with an application such as Sonos, Roon or JRiver Media Center's 64-bit volume control. If people prefer to stay within a remote control app on their iPhone or iPad to select tracks and control volume, this is the perfect feature. My preference is to not use this feature, and use the included metal-faced Peachtree Audio remote control for volume adjustments. One feature of the nova150 that's exclusive to Peachtree Audio is the Dynamic Noise Elimination Circuit (Dy-NEC). Before describing this new technology, let's back up a bit. The nova150 features both USB A and USB B input ports. The USB B port is the normal USB DAC input that most people recognize. The USB A port is the type that is on almost every computer manufactured in the last 20 years. This USB A port on the nova150 is compatible with Lightning iOS devices (iPhone / iPad), and is asynchronous, just like the USB B port. It's possible to connect an iOS device directly to the nova150 and send the unaltered digital music stream right to the nova's DAC. This is a great thing, but comes with a serious issue, and that's electrical noise. On some audio components, using an iOS device and swiping one's finger across the screen can cause some ugly noise to emanate from the loudspeakers. This noise, and unacceptable design, is anything but high end. To bring the USB A / iOS device input on the nova150 up to HiFi standards, Peachtree's engineers developed the first system in the world that eliminates audible power supply fluctuation noise and screen-derived noise. This technology is what they call Dy-NEC. Based on my tests using both an iPhone 6 Plus and iPad Air 2 connected directly to the nova150, I believe Dy-NEC raises the level of sound quality of this type of input to a new level. The sound quality from the USB A / iOS input is nearly as good as the standard USB B input. I'm willing to bet the remaining sonic differences have more to do with the source devices than anything (I used a Sonore microRendu with the standard USB input and the iOS devices streaming Tidal on the USB A input). One additional feature that goes along with the USB A / iOS input, is the ability to control playback on the iOS device with the physical Peachtree Audio remote control. Similar to USB DACs that send HID commands back to the computer, the nova150 sends the infrared signal through to the iOS device enabling the user to control track forward/reverse and play/pause without toughing the iPhone/iPad. A feature that Peachtree Audio was famous for has been removed in the nova150, and that's the vacuum tube. Those who love the tube sound will be happy to know Peachtree is considering a separate tube buffer that works in conjunction with the nova150's loop in/output. The reason Peachtree removed the vacuum tube in the nova150 is because of the great signal to noise ration in the new units. Previous Peachtree products have a S/N of about 95dB and about 88-90dB with the tube engaged. The new nova150 has a S/N of 111dB. If a tube was enabled and raised the noise to 88dB, a swing of 23dB, the sound quality may be unacceptable to even the largest tube lovers. Readers should also note that the nova150's 111dB S/N is a preamp level and 105dBA at speaker level. The Peachtree Audio team is very happy to demonstrate this to anyone willing to listen, by setting the nova150 to an empty input and cranking the volume all the way to its maximum. With the volume set at this level, one can place an ear up to the tweeter and hear next to nothing (or absolutely nothing in a normal room). The amplifier section in the nova150 features the new Class D ICE Power ASC modules. These modules deal with power supply noise by sampling the switching power supply at over 400 kHz per second. According to Peachtree Audio, and backed by my listening tests, these amps offer better performance than anything the company has done with Class A/B amplification. Two additional features that are great, but I don't use are 1) home theater bypass and 2) a dedicated analog phono section. If you have a home theater and want to use a better DAC/amp for two channel listening through your main FL and FR speakers, then this is the feature for you. If you have a turntable ... go sick with this all analog phono stage that keeps the analog signal analog all the way. Because my house is like the town in Footloose where dancing was banned, there are no turntables allowed on the premises. Only kidding, but I didn't test the phono section of the nova150. The new nova150, and all novas in the new series, are WiFi ready. Peachtree is working on a new WiFi module that will internally upgrade any nova150, nova300, or nova500 to use its new wireless platform. I've seen what the platform looks like and it's very nice. It's loaded with streaming services, DLNA, and more. The upgrade charge will be $200 for the WiFi module. In the future, novas will be available with or without the module, saving those who don't want WiFi about $200. Those purchasing a nova now can upgrade the nova with WiFi, when released by Peachtree, without a labor charge. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the beautiful cabinet of the new nova150. The gloss ebony mocha finish is something only seen on much more expensive components. Sitting near my $45,000 TAD CR1 loudspeakers, the finish on the nova150 looks very similar in quality and attention to detail. According to Peachtree, "The gloss finishes take two weeks to complete. The process is very old school by applying a coat of clear finish, allowing it to dry, sanding to an even finish. Then repeating this same process 13 times to give a finish that looks like water on a surface." Listening Enjoyment Given that the best album of all time was released on this day in 1959, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, I have been in a Miles kind of mood. I've used KoB in many reviews and this time want to mix it up a bit with the album Relaxin' With The Miles Davis Quintet (XRCD K2) and the track You're My Everything. Throughout the track, there's a clarity and purity to Miles' trumpet, yet it's still harsh (as his trumpet should be). Coltrane's tenor sax comes in very smooth, lush, and every so appealing to the ears. The contrast of harsh to smooth sounds just wonderful through the nova150. This is what it's supposed to sound like. Paul Chambers' bass is ever-present throughout the track, but just underneath the action, in the background. There is delineation in all his individual notes even though the bass isn't very forward in the mix. The nova150 appropriately gives you just enough of his bass to make you want more, as if this was a Ray Brown album. I must have listened to this track three or four times today alone, and really liked what I heard through the nova150 each time. The nova150's ability to convey the feel and aura of a recording that may not sound the best is also very good. Blind Faith's self titled album is one of those with great music, but less than stellar sonics. My favorite track, Do What You Like, sounds really good through the nova150. The sound of Steve Winwood's keyboard has such an organic, somewhat smooth feel to it amongst a sea of gritty rock and roll. The star of this show is clearly Ginger Baker's drum solo. At high volumes, how I tend to listen to great rock music, the nova150 has great impact and at the same time reveals the essence of the drum head that's being struck. In contrast to previous versions of the Peachtree Audio nova, the nova150 has much more impact or ability to reproduce the transients with punch, whereas the other novas may have had a much more, almost too much of a sound people may consider "analog." When comparing the sound of old versus new novas, I can only describe previous models as less clean, clear, and detailed in what, again, may be considered more analog by some listeners. Maybe it's the much better signal to noise ratio and the lack of a vacuum tube circuit that pushes the nova150 so much further in my direction of what appears to be accurate reproduction. Switching from gritty rock and roll to pop, I listened to Elton John's Candle In The Wind (acoustic at 24 bit / 96 kHz) through the nova150. The hallmark of this recording is Elton's amazing glossy vocal. Systems that aren't very transparent will dull this vocal into an unemotional drone. The nova150 reproduced it as glossy as it should be and at times a skosh bright, as it is on the recording. Accompanying Elton's vocal is a very natural and clean sounding acoustic guitar. Through the nova150 this guitar has an in-the-room sound that amplifiers at this price rarely, if ever, have. Despite what you may hear folks, not all amps are created equal and not all amps sound the same. I've been listening to quite a bit of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks lately and this hasn't subsided with the arrival of the nova150. Although not my favorite song on the album, the vibraphone and guitar juxtaposition on The Way You Lovers Do is a treat for the ears. The nova150 does a great job of reproducing each instrument in its own space, naturally, followed by an aural mess of musical notes and screaming vocals to finish the track. The title track, Astral Weeks, is my favorite. Listening through the nova150, this track still brings out as much emotion in me as it does through much more expensive gear. The little flute in the background floating around Van's stressed vocal sounds quite exceptional. Continuing to listen to this track and hearing all the details in the acoustic guitar and bass, I must remind myself that this is a $1,599 component that contains a DAC, amp, and preamp. The nova150 is truly capable of excellent sound reproduction at a price both a novice and an enthusiast can enjoy. An amp at this price certainly can't do everything as well as amps such as my Constellation Audio monoblocks combined with my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC RS2. The two areas where the nova150 falls a touch short of much higher priced options are 1) transparency and air around the recording space, and 2) ultimate punch and control over the loudspeaker. When listening to Jack Johnson's song Inaudible Melodies, from the 2011 remaster of his debut album Brushfire Fairytales, there is a distinct lack of air around the drums compared to my reference system. Listening to Marcus Miller's Silver Rain album through the nova150 gives the amp a chance to really show how much power it offers when reproducing fast and deep electric bass. Overall the nova150 has very good power and can power through track like Intro Duction just fine. However, when paired with speakers like my TAD CR1s at 86 dB efficient, the nova150 could use a bit more gas. I'm willing to bet 99% of people would be very happy using the nova150 in combination with these speakers and demanding, bass heavy tracks, but those of you who are equally as demanding, you know who you are, may want to bump up to the nova300 or nova500. The bottom line is this, if one doesn't expect some less than perfect aspects of a $1,599 integrated amp, then he will be searching for perfection for ever. It doesn't exist. Conclusion The new Peachtree Audio nova150 integrated amplifier is a wonderful example of what better engineering and manufacturing can do for sound quality. These improvements can be objectively measured and subjectively enjoyed by anyone. Whether one is using the standard asynchronous USB input that supports DSD128/PCM384, or the iOS USB input with its Dy-NEC isolation, the quality of the output is nearly identical. Peachtree has packed a number of great features into the nova150, that place it on a pedestal for the competition to attempt to dethrone. World class engineers, made in North America, reference grade DAC chip, unity gain: direct amp in, Dy-NEC, 111dB S/N, home theater bypass, true analog phono stage, dedicated headphone amplifier, and an absolutely gorgeous cabinet for $1,599. The nova150 embodies the new Peachtree Audio 2.0 ethos with unmatched features and sound quality at an exceptional price. For those of you who thought previous Peachtree components were great, and for those of you interested in dipping your toe into the Peachtree waters, you must listen to the nova150 and the sound of Peachtree Audio 2.0. P.S. I'm told the 300 watt per channel nova300 will be released any day now for those who need a little more power. Product Information: Product - Peachtree Audio nova150 ($1,599) Product Page - Link Where To Buy - Dealers Locator User Manual - PDF USB Driver - Link Where To Buy (CA Supporter): Your browser does not support SVG Associated Music: Computer Audiophile 100 Playlist Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist Associated Equipment: Source: Apple iPhone, Sonore microRendu DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, Mytek Digital Brooklyn D-to-D Converter: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference Remote Control Software: JRemote, Roon Remote Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2 Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Media Center Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables, USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0 Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka Ethernet Cables throughout system Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, Apple AirPort Extreme, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
  17. The Computer Audiophile

    The Disruption Continues At Schiit Audio

    Today Schiit Audio announced a couple new product and an upgrade to existing products. The first email from Schiit's Jason Stoddard, was about the new Gen 5 USB upgrade and a similar box called the Eitr. More about those in a bit. Jason's second email is what made me really stop and think. I actually said "Holy Shit?" When I read the message. Schiit Audio now has a front to back "no-excuses" lineup. What I mean is this, the company launched it's top of the line Yggdrasil DAC a while ago, and has its Freya top of the line / no-excuses Preamp. Now, Schiit has Vidar, a no-excuses, top of the line power amplifier. It's now possible to have an entire Schiit Audio system, not just an audio system, but a no-excuses, built for sound quality, system for $3,697 or $4,396 if using the amps as mono blocks. Seriously, that's less than the sales tax on many of our audio systems. Here's the price breakdown of a top of the line Schiit Audio system. Freya: $699 Vidar: $699 (x2 for monoblocks) Yggdrasil: $2299 Total: $3697 ($4396 if using mono amps) I have an email into both Jason and Mike at Schiit, requesting review units of the Freya and Vidar (monos). Last time I wanted a Yggdrasil for review I was put at the end of the line, behind paying customers (what a great company. seriously). I'm not sure when, or actually if, I'll be able to get these for review. but, I'll do my best to get them asap. Here's a link to the forum discussion about Vidar - link Here's a link to the forym discussion about the USB upgrades and Eitr - link Here are more details about the announcements today and a link to my Yggdrasil review from November 2015. USB Gen 5 and Eitr Announcement: Hey everyone, In today’s morass of USB decrapifiers, recombobulators, and other clean-upperers, it’s easy to get jaded. USB input? What a pain in the butt. And maybe not the best choice for sound. Not anymore. Introducing the new Schiit Gen 5 USB input—the USB so good that even Mike Moffat admitted it sounded great. With galvanic isolation (uniquely, via transformers), self-power via the DAC, and precision crystal local clocking for both the 44.1k and 48k sample rate multiples, it’s the highest performance USB input we’ve ever offered, by a large margin. Sounds expensive? Nope. Come on, you guys know us. USB Gen 5 is the same price as the outgoing Gen 2. It’s standard on all our DACs. And, of course, everyone who already has an upgradable Schiit DAC can move up to Gen 5 for $150—with installation! What’s more, we’ve taken Gen 5 technology and put it in a standalone USB-SPDIF converter. It works with any DAC that has a coaxial digital input, and it’s $179. The Gen 5 USB input, the Gen 5 upgrade, and Eitr are all available now at Schiit.com Product Pages: schiit.com/products/gen-5-usb, schiit.com/products/eitr Press Release: http://schiit.com/news/news/usb-solved-introducing-gen-5-and-eitr Book Chapter: https://www.head-fi.org/f/threads/schiit-happened-the-story-of-the-worlds-most-improbable-start-up.701900/ If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us anytime. All the best, Jason Stoddard Mike Moffat Co-Founders Schiit Audio Vidar Amp Announcement: Yeah, I know, you’re probably thinking, “Didn’t I already get an email from Schiit today?” In short, yep. But here’s another big announcement: Vidar is here. Vidar is our true no-excuses power amplifier—for $699. Yes, I said, “No excuses.” No Class D. No switching supplies. No coupling caps. No DC servos. We’re talking a fully discrete, fully complementary, dual-mono-back-to-the-transformer, power-doubling-into-4-ohms, stereo-or-mono, intelligent microprocessor-managed power amp. Think 100W RMS x 2 into 8 ohms, 200W RMS x 2 into 4, and 400W into 8 ohms mono. Sounds like we left a zero off the price tag? Nope. Welcome to the value revolution. Vidar is available for purchase now at schiit.com. Product Page: http://schiit.com/products/vidar Press Release: http://schiit.com/news/news/no-compromises-power-vidar All the best, Jason Stoddard Mike Moffat Co-Founders Schiit Audio
  18. The Computer Audiophile

    iOS Roon Audio Endpoint With iPeng - Almost Perfect

    Fairly recently Jörg Schwieder, the creator of iPeng, announced a really cool add-on to the app. The add-on, or in-app-purchase, enabled an iOS device to turn into a Roon audio endpoint. Yes, I know Android devices can be Roon endpoints without any hoops to jump through, but due to Apple's rules, the Roon team hasn't enabled this feature yet for iOS. This is actually a really cool feature. I've been streaming audio to my Android Pixel phone for a while now and I love that Roon sees it as a Roon endpoint. Now, I can do the same with with my iPad. Not sold on this yet? In addition to streaming audio to your iOS device, say out in the backyard, it's also possible to connect a USB DAC to the iOS device and stream directly from a Roon core to iOS and a DAC. I was talking to David Solomon of Peachtree Audio about an upcoming event we are doing in Atlanta (stay tuned for details), and I told him about using iPeng to make an iPad a Roon audio endpoint. He immediately connected his iPad to a Peachtree nova150 and flipped out. Seriously, he was super happy. There are many more use cases for this, even if it's not the ultimate in high end, knuckle dragging audiophiledom. However, all is not perfect in the Roon audio endpoint / iOS device world just yet. I did several hours of testing and discovered an issue. Fortunately Jörg has been really cool to communicate with and is looking very hard into what may be happening. More details below. Roon sending audio to iPad Air 2 What you need To make this work, you need: Roon running with the Enable Squeezebox Support option enabled. The Roon iOS app running on an iPad or iPhone or iPad Touch. The iPeng 9 iOS app with. Initial Setup The initial setup is very simple. As I mentioned, enable Squeezebox support within Roon on the Setting > Setup tab. Roon > Settings > Setup > Enable Squeezebox Support Launch iPeng and complete the iPeng Playback in-app-purchase for $4.99. I'd show screenshots of this, but I've already purchase it and the option is no longer available. Once this is purchased, iPeng displays a menu item that says Roon App. Tapping this, displays a large With to Roon App in the main window. Tapping the Switch to Roon App icon, launches the Roon iOS app. Once the iOS Roon app is launched, go to Settings > Audio and look for the Squeezebox heading. Under this heading your iPad should be displayed and say iPeng. Enable this device and you're now ready to send audio to an iOS endpoint. iPeng with Playback in-app-purchase installed Roon > Settings > Audio > Enable iPad/iPeng endpoint The Caveats I've had terrific success sending 16 bit / 44.1 kHz audio to my iPad Air 2 from a Roon ROCK. The success has been largely whel I select the music for playback on the iPad itself in the Roon app. Switching to my desktop Roon remote app and trying to send audio to the iPad has given me mixed results. Sometimes the audio plays and sometimes it doesn't. Back to the issue I found through my testing. At 16/44.1 the iPeng / Roon / iOS combination is bit perfect. Meaning, the bits are sent from the Roon core and output to a USB DAC unaltered. Unfortunately, when playing 24/88.2 and 24/96 music, something is altering the bits. Currently iPeng doesn't support sample rates over 96 kHz, so my testing of these was only to see if the music was downsampled and played, which it did nicely. Back to the supported sample rates up through 24/96. Using a both a dCS Rossini DAC and the combination of a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB and Alpha DAC Reference Series 2, I was able to determine that 24/88.2 and 24/96 content is passed to the DAC at 24/88.2 and 24/96. There is no resampling going on, but the bit depth is altered in some fashion. Yes, the audio is still 24 bit, as indicated by the dCS Rossini, but the least significant bit is not being sent to the DAC without alteration, as identified by the Berkeley combination. For example, when playing 24/96 audio through the Apple USB 3 camera connection kit and out to the Berkeley combo, all audio is bit perfect when using the FLAC Player app. This app is a standalone app that outputs local music from the iOS device. When playing the exact same music using Roon and iPeng, the 24/88.2 and 24/96 audio is altered after about 3-5 seconds of playback. The first tiny bit of audio is bit perfect, but is soon (3 to 5 seconds) altered. Exchanging emails with Jörg, he was eager to identify what was happening. He suggested there could be several areas where this alteration is happening. Here is some of Jörg's email to me (without an confidential details). Volume control. iPeng usually doesn’t apply digital volume control (unlike the Squeezeboxes) but hands over volume information downstream to iOS but iOS might still apply digital volume control, under iOS Apps can’t speak directly to the USB driver. So to be sure output volume should be set to 100% or at least you should test with that setting. The equalizer in iPeng needs to be off (the default) The server must not apply any replay gain etc. This is a point where I’m not 100% sure how Roon’s Squeezebox emulation works. I’ll have to look into this, if this is the reason maybe we could just ignore it or something. In the Squeezebox system there are several different gain control mechanisms (and iPeng even has more) that are being applied in different ways. Basic volume control is usually digital (except in iPeng) so changes the data. Then there is an additional replay gain field that’s being used to normalize volume between tracks and to apply fade effects. This is separate from the main volume control and iPeng also uses a separate mixer for it if applied. What makes things more difficult is that this method is also being used temporarily during transitional volume changes, this has to do with the timing of volume changes (the gain information is sent earlier than the volume information which can lag by several seconds) but any effects due to this should be limited to the time during which you change volume. But any differences between how Roon handles these various gain fields and LMS does might make iPeng apply the gain mixer. Which formats do you use to stream? iPeng currently only supports linear PCM formats (no floating point PCM) and only 24 bit word size and a maximum of 96kHz sample rate, everything else probably will have to be transcoded by the server. Taking Jörg's advice, I double-checked that all my volume controls were at 100% even the volume controls that didn't have any effect on the audio. With the camera connection kit and the dCS or Berkeley USB devices, the volume has no effect. Per Jörg's suggestion, I also tested Roon sending to a Sonore Signature Rendu SE setup as a Squeezelite endpoint. I was able to send audio bit perfect up through 24/192. This leads be to believe the issue is somewhere in iPeng or the Roon / iPeng combination. At any rate, I'm sure Jörg will figure out what's going on. He is a very capable developer and was very willing to work with me on the issue. Wrap-Up The combination of Roon, iPeng, and Roon Remote on iOS is really great for sending audio directly to the iOS device. There are many use cases that cry out for such a convenient way to play music. Audio that is 16 bit / 44.1 currently plays bit perfect when output to headphones directly connected to an iOS device or to a USB DAC connected to the iOS device. I tested this with many DACs including an AudioQuest DragonFly, dCS Rossini, and Berkeley Audio Design RS2. iOS doesn't support all USB DACs, but that has nothing to do with iPeng and Roon. Although iPeng supports audio up through 24/96, I was unable to send this content bit perfect to my DACs. There is some alteration taking place. I have confidence that iPeng developer Jörg will resolve the issue in the not too distant future. Plus, I believe he is working on some great additional features such as higher sample rate support and even DSD. All good stuff. Links: iPeng | Roon
  19. It's a bummer that headline is from 2017. Apple released a good working version of class 2 USB audio support on June 15, 2010 with Snow Leopard 10.6.4. Linux has supported UAC2 for ages as well. I guess it isn't surprising though, given the word on the street about Microsoft's Windows audio team. Sometimes there's one guy on the team who really gets this stuff, other times the whole team has pretty much left, etc... Sorry to burst your bubble if you had visions of a well-oiled Windows audio team with vast knowledge and interest in ... audio. This news is still nice to read, but is it too little too late? For the most part it's a good thing, but it won't change anyone's life like the same announcement would have back in the first decade of the 2000s. What Is It, Do I Need It, and How Do I Get It What is USB audio class 2 support? In the simplest terms, UAC2 support, as it's known to some, is what enables you to play high resolution audio to a USB DAC without the need for additional software / drivers. To be precise, class 1 USB audio support enables playback of PCM music up through 24 bit / 96 kHz. Class 2 support enables much higher sample rates such as PCM 24 bit / 384 kHz and DSD (DoP) up through DSD256. It may support higher sample rates, but I have no way of testing anything higher at the moment. Windows has supported class 1 USB audio "forever." This is why early USB DACs were plug and play. Remember when CEntrance licensed its adaptive USB technology to several manufacturers back in the day? This enabled us to play up to 24/96 on Windows, and we didn't need to install any custom drivers. When high speed USB audio came to the HiFi market, everyone using Windows had to install third party drivers. Many of these drivers were from Thesycon for XMOS based implementations or even M2Tech for all the companies that licensed its technology. With third party drivers also came the pains of keeping up with technology changes. HiFi companies had to keep drivers updated whenever new operating systems were released or even a minor update that caused something to stop working. Many members of the CA community are well aware of the pitfalls of third party drivers and waiting for a HiFi manufacturer to fix a software issue. I don't blame anyone here. HiFi manufacturers have always been hardware guys, so this is new territory. Now, Windows 10 features native support for class 2 USB audio. Plug in a USB DAC, and you'll be able to play high resolution audio without installing anything. Of course this won't work for every DAC in the planet. Do I Need It? If you use Windows and your DAC is working, then no you don't need it. You may want it though. In the future, HiFI companies may elect to not release custom drivers and to depend on the native class 2 USB audio support from all major operating systems Windows, macOS, and Linux. At such time, you'll need it. How Do I Get It? Currently, you need the Windows 10 Creators Update. This is a free update. Microsoft has seen some issues with the update and has held off from pushing it to everyone through Windows Update. If you want to install this, manually go to the Windows 10 Creators Update download site here - link. Wrap Up Again, this would have been big news back in 2009. Today many people have moved on to Linux based systems or network based systems. People using Windows 10 for playback should be happy that there is another option. They no longer have to depend on HiFi manufacturers to release updates to software (for the most part). Windows 10 UAC2 support is via WASAPI, not ASIO. Those of you who demand ASIO are out of luck.
  20. At the Munich High End show this year, I talked to Merging Technologies' Dominique Brulhart about network audio, AES67, Ravenna, and many other items. Needless to say, I learned wait a bit and was really impressed by what is happening in this area of HiFi. After our conversation I asked Dominique if he would be willing to help educate the CA Community on all of this stuff. Dom was 100% on-board and agreed that we didn't even have to discuss Merging Technologies products, as long as we could educate the community. Thus, last week I (virtually) sat down with Dominique via Skype and we talked about all things network audio. I couldn't resist asking some questions about the new Merging Technologies ZMan module and a few other items that I thought were too cool to pass up. Here is the recording of our conversation. Links: AES67 Ravenna Merging Technologies
  21. Cones, Domes, and MQA It has been many years since I have been to an audio show, so I was pretty excited to be invited by Archimago to attend the Vancouver Audio Show. I must say I had a great time! I was very fortunate to be able to sit in the sweet spot for most of the demos, including the MQA demo with the Tidal Sunray G2 loudspeakers and Burmester 909 Mk 5 amp above. Rather than detailing equipment specifications and prices, I take the approach of how each exhibit sounded to my ears. As a reference, I compare to a sound reproduction system that has been calibrated for accuracy. My definition of accuracy means the frequency and timing response of the music arriving at my ears matches as closely as possible to the content on the recording. I wrote a book on the subject.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK] Listening Guidelines Speakers and rooms typically have the greatest influence on the tonal response for any given sound reproduction system. Therefore, my review is from this perspective. What do I listen for? If I were to categorize from bass, mids to high frequencies, I listen for smooth bass response (+- 3dB tolerance) and is it balanced with the rest of the frequency band? Does the bass transient response sound tight with no overhang (i.e. narrow impulse response)? Or is it blurry sounding (i.e. non-linear distortion)? Integrating subwoofer(s) without sounding boomy (i.e. peaky room modes) takes considerable skill and effort. I feel this is the primary reason why I did not see any subs on exhibit. Listening to midrange frequencies, in addition to being balanced with the rest of the frequency range, (i.e. tone) does it sound smooth or nasally sounding (i.e. peaky frequency response)? Does the midrange sound distorted or harsh at program reference level (i.e. non-linear distortion)? The show was dominated by dome tweeters. To me, the sibilance sound that our voices make when singing an s word is the hardest to reproduce accurately, assuming one prefers accuracy. It can range from real s sounding to overly sibilant SSSsss sound, to slightly rolled off ssshhh sound, to a ssszzz zingy top end at reference program level (i.e. 83 dB SPL C weighting, slow position on a Sound Pressure Level meter measured at the listening position). Reproducing “s” sounds were further complicated by the number of turntables at the show. I have not seen that many turntables since audio shows in the 70s and 80s. Cartridge and the mastering/pressing of the vinyl vary with respect to how sibilant the sound reproduction is, which may mask what the speaker’s tweeters are capable of. Notwithstanding if the cartage vertical tracking angle was set up right in the first place. Kudos to the all of the exhibitors for carting and setting up the gear – having done it myself, it is a lot of work and hard to get right, especially being room dependent. Which brings me to… It’s a crying shame man… that the room acoustics of hotel rooms are difficult as they are small, mostly square-ish rooms that typically sound boxy and/or boomy, no matter where the speakers are placed. Naturally, the larger rooms, or rooms with a favorable room ratio, tended to sound better than the boxes. I would love to have heard these systems with the rooms neutralized to hear more of the system’s sonic characteristics. I am not talking about anechoic chambers either. Physical room ratios play a large role on how boomy and/or boxy a room will sound. Further complicated by every room at the show had different room ratios, much like our own listening environments. Want to gain a better understanding of why we hear what we hear in small room acoustics? I recommend James (JJ) Johnston’s presentation on Acoustic and Psychoacoustic Issues in Room Correction, including the Power Point presentation to slide 31. What to do for future audio shows? One suggestion is for the Vendors to agree on a target frequency response (i.e. tone) and have every system tuned to that response in all demo rooms. That way, I (we) would have a chance to actually hear more of the characteristics of the sound reproduction system that is not being influenced or masked by the room acoustics, or lack thereof. The thing is, the research has shown over 40 some years of objective measurements and subjective listening tests, that the target frequency responses are not only well known, but are also well correlated: Here is an example of four target frequency response curves that result in the most neutral or balanced sound to one's ears at the listening position: The point is that all four target frequency responses are close together gathered from 40 years of research and listening tests. One can read the details for free, including links to the research, by clicking on Look Inside and clicking on Recommended Target Responses in the ToC. Room acoustics are frequency dependent based on room ratio, construction, and absorption. Given that top-end DSP loudspeaker and room tuning systems use 64 bit calculations, for all practical purposes, are completely transparent, so one would be listening more to the gear than anything else. I know right, a giant leap for many, but once one hears an accurately tuned system, both in the frequency and time domains, it is hard to go back to boomy, boxy, and/or nasally with poor imaging. Bottom line, it would simply be nice to hear more of these systems capabilities with less interference from the hotel room acoustic environment. What about the timing responses of these speaker systems? From Stereophile, few speakers are time coherent. If you have not heard and lived with a time coherent speaker system before, how can one compare? To me, this is an area where speaker designers should optionally offer time coherent crossovers for their speaker lines for folks that want a more accurate representation of the audio content. There were a few time coherent speakers at the show. Time coherence takes design skill and is expensive to implement with an increase of passive XO parts or active XO with electronics and/or DSP software. The timing response of loudspeakers also has a tie in with MQA, but I will explain later. Listening Impressions The ArtVibes Audio are interesting looking speakers that can be ordered with original artwork from select artists. From a sonic perspective, they sounded a bit boxy and somewhat rolled off. Most likely the room… I would love to drop a measurement mic and take some measurements at the listening position to see what I was actually listening to. I think folks would be surprised to see the variance in frequency response. The frequency response is unlikely to be smooth in the bass and typically has a boxy or nasal characteristic which is representative of the rooms influence on the frequency response of the system at the listening position. Nonetheless, they did sound pretty smooth. These are not time coherent speakers. Totem’s Element loudspeaker sounded very smooth with good imaging. Not time coherent. Sounded to my ears on the warm side with a bit rolled off top end. I am wondering if I am hearing the natural roll off of the woofer as there is no bass XO on the woofer. Unlikely, but did sound on the warm side, I am not complaining. Very interesting design and implementation. Audio Note loudspeakers in a less than ideal room = boom city. Really too bad. If you look closely, there is a Black Sabbath album under the amplifier. Should have played that to take advantage of the boom. The room was so boomy, I could not really hear the balance on the tweeter. Wilson Audio Sabrina sounded quite smooth and balanced to my ears. Some room boxiness to the sound, but they imaged incredibly well. I attribute the excellent imaging to Wilson’s claim that the speakers are time coherent. Looking at Stereophile’s measurement of the step response, Figure 6, indeed shows time alignment. I am also impressed to see in Sabrina’s service manual a large section on room acoustics and speaker placement. I have used the Wilson Audio Setup Procedure (WASP) before in lieu of measurement gear with good results. One can never underestimate the value in properly setting up one’s speakers to get the best sound quality for any given room. Devialet Silver Phantom sound very impressive. I would love to review these in my home environment. Big sound from a small speaker, with excellent imaging. Manufacturer claims they are time coherent, but I could not find anywhere on the net any actual frequency or time response measurements for this DSP speaker system. It would be interesting to see measurements of this speaker, especially their step response. Kef Blade 2’s hooked up to Naim’s Statement amplifiers. The Statement amplifiers remind me of early Cray computers. The Blade 2’s sounded incredibly smooth to my ears, with very good imaging. Kef makes the claim that these speakers are “single apparent source”, but Stereophile’s step response measurements Figure 9, show that the speakers are technically not time coherent. The tweeter leads first, then the midrange, then the woofer. Compare the step response to the Wilson Sabrina’s above to see what I mean. Aside from that, the speakers measure incredibly smooth and that is how they sounded to my ears. They especially sounded good on the s’s sibilant sound. I remember they image quite well, but something about the depth of field did not sound quite right to me. After looking up the step response (timing) measurement linked above, I can now understand why the depth of field sounded slightly different to my reference. There is a step response measurement below of the reference time alignment that I am referring to in which we will get to a bit later. The Davis Acoustics Renoir sounded really good, even in the smallish room they were in. Smooth and extended in both frequency extremes. These are not time coherent speakers. A blast from the past, the infamous Speakerlab Super Sevens. When I was in high school, a long time ago, I built a version of these for a friend and they sounded fantastic to rock out on. Even though they are sitting on the floor in this demo, they have a tight acoustic suspension low end response, coupled with what arguably could be the smoothest top end of the show. S’s sounded real, yet not strident sounding like some of the dome tweeters when pushed hard, at least in my experience. Those planar magnetic midrange and tweeter really sounded super smooth and fast in reproducing transients. Best value buy at the show, even with the speakers on the floor. Must have forgot stands, look at that pile of Boulder electronics. Magico S5 Mk II sounded very flat to my ears, meaning a ruler flat frequency response past audibility. Very revealing highs with extended low frequency response with some room coloration. Not time coherent from any material I could find on the speaker. Would love to see a step response of these ones. Dynaudio Focus speakers. Another technically advanced active DSP loudspeakers. Very clean sounding at volume, a trait I note in all bi- tri-amp powered systems, including my own. This is another loudspeaker I would love to measure up and have a look at the step response. I could not help sneak in a picture of VKMusic’s KT150 push-pull amplifier with micro-controller bias adjust. A combination of old school tubes with modern day micro-controller. Very cool. MQA Impressions Before we get into it, I want to discuss again the timing response of loudspeakers as to how it pertains to MQA. As mentioned in Stereophile, very few loudspeakers are time coherent or time aligned. It is worth reading the entire article to better understand why a step response is used to measure time coherency as opposed to viewing an impulse response. What does an ideal time coherent loudspeaker step response look like? Pretty easy to model using a digital filter that is flat from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, with the bass rolling off at 15 Hz at some dB per octave as loudspeakers don’t reproduce 0 Hz or DC very well. Here is the step response of the model specifications: The vertical “step” represents all frequencies playing at the same time and the downward slope is the corner frequency rolloff of the filter. From the Stereophile article above, here is what a good measured step response of a time coherent speaker looks like: Note the vertical step is the tell-tale sign of time coherence, and pretty much matches the shape of the ideal step response above, except that this is a measured response of speaker and room. Below is a step response, from the same article, but representative of a non-time coherent speaker: Here we see the tweeter arriving first with a positive going step, just after 4 milliseconds, then we see the midrange arriving next, with a negative step, and then finally the woofer arriving with a positive step. This, and variants, are typical step responses of non-time coherent, multiway loudspeakers. Have a look on Stereophile if you can find your speakers measured step response. Below is a measured step response of my 3-way, high efficiency speakers. These use a simple 3-way passive crossover, with high quality parts: This is a zoomed in view on the time scale. Tweeter arrives first, negative step, then midrange, also negative step, then woofer, positive step. Even with frequency correction for a flat response, the timing response is still representative of the chart above. Meaning these speakers are not time coherent and therefore distort the timing of the music arriving at my ears. However, by disconnecting the passive XO and using digital XO and time aligning the drivers, I am able to turn my speakers into time coherent speakers that do not distort the timing response that arrives at my ears: I have also overlaid the ideal step response from the beginning of this section to show how close to ideal I was able to transform a typical 3-way speaker system into a time coherent system that can accurately reproduce the timing response that is on the recording. It does make a difference to my ears, especially the transient impact and imaging. Especially the depth of field imaging that make the speakers “disappear.” What the heck does all of this have to do with MQA? If part of MQA’a claim is to deblur or , then what use is it if one’s loudspeakers smear the timing response as demonstrated by the measured step responses above? The fact is that the mass majority of loudspeakers on the market are not time coherent and therefore are smearing the timing arriving at ones ears at the listening position as the loudspeaker is the final output device in the playback chain. The reality is no amount of MQA deblurring is going to fix a non-time coherent loudspeaker. The signal arriving at ones ears is still going to be time distorted. Photo courtesy of Element Acoustics With respect to the MQA demo with the Tidal Sunray G2 speakers, Burmester 909 Mk 5 amp, Burmester 111 MusicCenter/preamp and MQA decoding from the Meridian 808 V6 Signature CD/DAC, sounded excellent to my ears. Disappointingly, there was no comparison between a regular recording and an MQA encoded version of the same recording. Therefore there is no way to detect, determine, or decide MQA’s contribution to the sound quality other than one is listening to a $300K system with excellent recorded, mixed, and mastered source material. If one’s speakers are not time coherent, and distort the timing response similar to the measured step responses above, then what sonic value is MQA’s deblurring filter? This precludes that one is striving for accurate playback of what’s on the recording. I certainly am interested in playback accuracy, both frequency and timing response to my ears at the listening position. If that is your preference, then either investing in a pair of time coherent speakers or applying frequency and timing correction to an existing pair of speakers by using DSP are the only two ways today to get playback timing accuracy to one’s ears. Conclusion I had a great time at the show. There were only one or two systems that succumbed to hotel room acoustics (i.e. the room was simply too small). Most systems sounded very good, even though I could still hear either boom or boxiness or both depending on the hotel room and speaker setup. Many exhibits sounded excellent despite the acoustics. What I find fascinating is that the majority of these systems were in the tens of thousands of dollars and with quite a few in the hundreds of thousands. If I were to setup a system worth that amount of money, I would want to neutralize the effects of the room and ensure the interchannel frequency response is as identical between the speakers as one can get across a broad seating area so that the listeners were getting the best representation of the speakers and equipment as possible. While it is ideal to audition audio gear in one’s home, it is often very difficult to make those arrangements. Sometimes the gear one is interested in can only be heard at an audio show. While loudspeaker and room DSP software is available, not too many use it at these audio shows. In the pro audio market for touring bands that take their speaker rigs from venue to venue, all use some level of speaker and room correction both for frequency and timing response tuning. For sure, other than the push button, auto-tuning correction software, one does need to understand what is going on in order to correct both frequency and timing response effectively across a listening area. I wrote a couple of CA articles on basic DSP and advanced DSP if you want to get a flavor of how it is achieved. In addition to the skills required to neutralize the effects of a room, there may be fear that if all of the systems were smoothed the same way using the same target fr curves, then the unskilled listener may not be able to tell the difference between systems. However, the referenced target curves are a great place to start, many will fine adjust to one’s own preference, which may bring out the voicing of the speakers even more. That’s the beauty of designing your own custom frequency response and timing correction filter to match one’s own speakers to one’s unique acoustic listening environment. My preference is for accurate sound reproduction so that the music arriving at my ears is as identical as possible to the music that is on the recording, regardless of format. In my case, I have used loudspeaker and room DSP software, as the number of time-coherent speakers are still far and few between. However, I am excited by the audio show to see the number of speakers that do use DSP, I wish there was more of them correcting the speakers timing response for accuracy. Enjoy the music! Thanks to Archimago for letting me use your pics from the show. About the author Mitch “Mitchco” Barnett 
I love music and audio. I grew up with music around me and worked ten years as a professional recording/mixing engineer. Recently, I wrote an eBook on Accurate Sound Reproduction Using DSP.
  22. The Computer Audiophile

    Google Home Hub for HiFi?

    Gigantic corporations don't always have consumer's interests in mind when pushing new technologies. They frequently have their own interests in mind when trying to persuade everyone else that their interests should align. Fear of missing out plays a huge role on the consumer side as does technological change for the sake of commerce on the hardware manufacturers' side. Anyone seen all the publications jumping to video and vacating written articles over the last few years? Facebook was behind this big push when it told everyone that millennials only click on videos. It turns out facebook lied and covered up the evidence of this untruth until it recently came out in court documents. Where am I going with this? VR, VR, VR oh wait, it's now voice, voice, voice ... For me, voice control is a technology that has interested me greatly, but has disappointed me even more because it's in its infancy. Amazon, Google, and Apple have pushed voice control so hard over the last couple years that people feel like they're are missing out if Alexa doesn't spy on them and send a copy of their conversations to friends. Voice control is all about ordering products from Amazon without thinking about which brand (see Amazon's push to get rid of brands) and searching Google without a chance to think about anything else (enabling Google to control the total experience). Using voice to control our homes and audio systems is an afterthought to these companies. That said, when I received a Google Home Hub on Monday I was excited to weave it into my HiFi system. Much of what the Home Hub can do is possible with the other Google Home products, including the $49 Home Mini. However, the Home Hub interests me much more because of its touchscreen and the capability to offer some other features such as showing my Nest cameras as quickly as I can say, "Hey Google, show the backyard." The loudspeaker inside the Home Hub is ridiculously bad compared to anything an audiophile would place on a desktop. I have zero interest in listening to music though the Home Hub, but I have immense interest in listening to music via the Home Hub. Ideally I want voice control to save me time or labor by doing things that take me several steps or doing repetitive tasks. My goal with the Home Hub was to get music started on my HiFi system. Sure I have grandiose dreams of Google automatically selecting a Mobile Fidelity version of Dark Side of the Moon, but I can wait for that. I want to enter my office and say. "Hey Google, play Miles Davis." I want that music sent directly from the cloud to my Chromecast Audio device that's connected to a dCS Rossini. I also want the music to be lossless. Is this possible? It depends. The easy part is using the Home Hub with Google's Home app to connect with services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Deezer. Currently Deezer is the only service offering lossless audio through the Google Home products. Just as easy is selecting a Chromecast Audio device or HiFi component with built-in Casting support as the default speaker / audio device. If this default speaker isn't selected all the music streams out the Home Hub speaker. I played around with Spotify and Pandora as a test. Both work great via the Home Hub and my HiFi system. But, one goal of mine was lossless audio and neither of those services are on that train as of today. I set Deezer as my default streaming service via the Home app. Deezer HiFi is required for lossless audio or a Deezer Premium account is required for streaming lossy MP3 via the Home Hub. Hey google, play Kind of Blue. In no time Deezer was sending music to my HiFi system shortly after I gave the Google Home Hub the voice command. Unfortunately, the lossless version of the music wasn't being streamed. According to Deezer, Google Home products support lossless audio and this will be the default for HiFi accounts. The Home Hub appears to support lossless, but given the terrible built-in speaker it doesn't really matter. In addition, Deezer supports lossless streaming via its iOS app to a Chromecast Audio device. I tested this with an HDCD capable album and DAC to confirm the HDCD light illuminated (indicating bit perfect playback of lossless audio). I tried for a couple hours to stream lossless audio using both the Home Hub and Chromecast Audio, but the combination was a bridge too far. Separately the devices work with Deezer HiFi and lossless audio, but not when combined. I asked Deezer support but have yet to hear back from anyone there. I started chatting with Google support online, but that was like a soup sandwich. All over the place and impossible to work with. The "person" on the other end of the chat had no idea what I was talking about, so I gave up. As of right now, I'd say lossless streaming via the new Google Home Hub output to a Chromecast Audio device is a no-go. I hope to hear back from Deezer about the issue, but I don't have high hopes. I'll update this article if I have any news or breakthroughs.
  23. The Computer Audiophile

    Naim Uniti Atom Review

    Here's my video review of the Naim Uniti Atom. In short, I loved it and placed it on the C.A.S.H. List. Products Informtion: Product - Naim, Uniti Atom ($2,999) Product - Link Quick Start Guide - Link Associated Music: Computer Audiophile 100 Playlist Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist Associated Equipment: Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Sierra) DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA, EMM LAbs DA2, dCS Rossini D-to-D Converter: Sonore microRendu, Sonore Signature Rendu SE, dCS Network Bridge, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference Remote Control Software: Roon Remote Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables, 512 Engineering Speaker Cables USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0 Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka, Wire World Starlight and Chroma Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti IniFi Switch 8-150W, Ubiquiti UniFi USG Router, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
  24. austinpop

    RMAF 2018 Show Report

    At Chris’s request, I’ve consolidated my contemporaneous postings about RMAF into this show report. This is my second year attending RMAF at this venue, and like last year, it was very enjoyable. With the benefit of past experience, I was able to organize my time better, so got to see more of the rooms and exhibits than I did last year. Before I get any further, a word about what this report is, and what it isn’t. It IS a highly personal chronicle of my experience at RMAF. It ISN’T a preplanned show report, as the idea of publishing this on the CA front page came after the show was over. I make no claims of full coverage, as I planned some of my meanderings based on things I wanted to see. I could not visit some rooms, often because the room was too full or “a reviewer is in there.” I am only going to mention rooms and systems that caught my ear or fancy. General Thoughts RMAF isn’t really a show with much direct intersection with computer audio. Occasionally, a few relevant vendors will show and/or announce new products, but for the most part, attending RMAF is about experiencing mainstream audiophile systems. Also, it is a tough job to show a stunning system in a hotel room. In my experience - both last year and this time - I'd say less than 10% of rooms sounded even remotely good. However, I do feel this year was a little better. Of course, this is moot, as next year the show moves to a brand new venue, so we shall see if the ratio of good to bad changes. It’s all about people, people! Although the rest of this report will focus on my favorite sounds, the best part of the show is about meeting old audio friends and making new ones. Like last year, @limniscate (Eric) was my show buddy, and we visited most of the rooms together. Meeting CA’ers in person for the first time was certainly one of the highlights. Shouts out to @ted_b, @barrows, @The Computer Audiophile, @Rt66indierock, @Derek Hughes, and last but not least, @David.. Qobuz, Hi-Res Music Evangelist, with whom we had a memorable happy hour. I apologize if I missed any other CA’ers I met but forgot to list. Eric and I also hung out with Jay and Siao from Audio Bacon - great guys. Beyond that, there were spontaneous conversations with everyone from industry icons to fellow audiophiles throughout the show. Making and renewing friendships is truly the best part of these shows. Computer Audio Products While RMAF isn’t really focused on computer audio, one product did stand out: the new Innuos Statement Music Server (MSRP $13,750). It was showed in a system comprising QLN Prestige Three speakers ($9,999), LinenberG amplification, Aqua Formula xHD DAC. They had their previous flagship ZENith MkII SE (MSRP $7000) hooked up for A/B comparisons with the Statement. While the Statement is a massive uptick in price, you do get a separate PSU with 8 rails, OCXO clocks for USB and Ethernet, among many other improvements. The A/B experiment did a good job showcasing the SQ improvement with the Statement. Photo Credit: Well Pleased Audio Vida My favorite headphones of Canjam RMAF: Meze’s new Empyrean headphones ($3000) had a captivatingly smooth, dynamic, and spacious sound. I will definitely be giving this a closer look. Warwick Sonoma Electrostatics ($5000 with DAC/amp) were my favorite electrostatics after the iconic Stax SR009. Photo Credit: Abyss Headphones I enjoyed the new Abyss Diana Phi. When I first tried these a couple years ago, I found they had the clamping pressure of a vise on my admittedly large head. No more. This is one of many improvements in the Phi version. Photo Credit: Abyss Headphones One of my favorite headphones of the show was the Abyss AB-1266 Phi CC. Like its predecessors, the sheer slam and physicality of this bad boy, coupled with its neutrality and dynamics, make this a real flagship. These Quad ERA-1 planar magnetic headphones sounded very clean and smooth - reminiscent of Quad electrostatic speakers! - at the Woo Audio table at CanJam, driven by their diminutive but impressive solid-state WA11 Passport DAC/amp. Especially next to the just-released Focal Elegia closed-backs, which I found distinctly underwhelming. These Quad's may just set the new benchmark for the sub-$1k segment. Best sounding Rooms - Cost no Object I had loved the Nagra room last year, and this year again, it was one of my favorites. This year featured Nagra HD electronics, Nagra reel-to-reel deck, and Rockport Cygnus ($62,500). As you’ll read, Rockports seemed to find their way into several great systems at RMAF! Raidho’s room had these lovely TD-4.8 ($158-177k), driven by top-end Simaudio Moon electronics. The Vandersteen Model Seven MkII's ($62,000) with Sub 9 subwoofers ($18,000) and Granite upgrade ($10,000) sounded mighty fine, couple with VTL electronics. Constellation electronics driving Rockport Avior II ($38,500) speakers was another standout room. These $200k Von Schweikert Ultra 9s, powered by other expensive electronics, did one thing that too many other 6-figure speaker systems didn't do at RMAF - sound amazing. I visited twice, and was underwhelmed the first time they were playing Beethoven's 9th on a turntable. The second time was digital, and that was outstanding. These Wilson Benesch Resolution ($69,500) speakers really stood out with their pinpoint imaging. I was able to play some Mahler 10th from my own music, and it was an excellent system and sound. Another great-sounding room with Rockport Avior II speakers, this time with CH Precision electronics. Great Sound with Speakers under $20k It is easy to lose one’s sense of perspective and proportion at these shows. The prices on the best systems are, well, obscene. $100k+ speakers are commonplace, with preamps, amps each north of $50k. Heck, the aforementioned Nagra system had a DAC north of $50k. What madness! In order to showcase systems that were not insanely priced, I’ve placed more sanely priced speakers in this section. I focused on speakers, because some systems used really expensive electronics even with sub-$20k speakers - I guess because they could. Excellent sound from Canton Reference 3k speakers (MSRP $15,600), driven by electronics that were um, Esoteric-ally priced. Photo Credit: Legacy Audio Legacy Focus SE speakers (MSRP $13,975), driven by Raven electronics, impressed me with their fantastic imaging. Joseph Audio Perspective (MSRP $12,999) speakers on Doshi electronics. Another sanely priced speaker that sounded really nice. Good ol' Vinnie (Rossi). He sets up his rooms so well. And this year was no exception. LIO L2 electronics driving these Harbeth M40.2 Anniversary Editions (US MSRP $17,990) was really rocking. Room acoustics weren’t perfect, and I've heard this setup sound better at another show, but even so, the soundstage at the sweet spot was incredible. Speakers under $10k Raidho’s room alternated demos between the top end TD-4.8 mentioned earlier, and these Scansonic MB-5 (MSRP $7500) speakers. These sounded stunning at this price point! Just to highlight how show conditions matter - these GoldenEar Triton References (MSRP $8498) were sounding rather nice here, paired with Hegel electronics, unlike what I heard at AXPONA where I didn't like them. These Dali Callisto active speakers sound wonderful for the $5700 price point. I'm a sucker for the BBC LS 3/5A design. These Falcon units ($2195) sounded fantastic for their small size. This was one of my favorite rooms of the show! Falcon had a setup of 6 different generations of the BBC LS 3/5A, including a restored original BBC version, all the way to the latest version from Falcon. Listening to the same track switched between each generation was a real treat. I've got to say - these speakers are astounding, even to this day. And last but not least, my first exposure to the Wilson TuneTots (MSRP $9800). Very, very impressive sound. These would be killer for a nearfield setup - at a price! Other Interesting Rooms Here are some Spanish Maggies. Just kidding. These are AlsyVox full range ribbons and Omega electronics. Very nice. These German Physiks Borderland (MSRP $38,500) speakers sounded great. Only downside was it made my brain loop on "We are the robots" as long as I looked at them. Can we talk about the elephant in the room? Is that a giant horn or are you just happy to see me? These ESD Acoustic monsters were certainly worth a listen, if not my cup of tea. Plus listening to Chinese erhu music on these was a bit surreal.
  25. The Computer Audiophile

    McIntosh MS500 Music Streamer Review

    I've never hidden my love of McIntosh products. I proudly display my MC275 amplifier in the front right corner of my listening room when it isn't in use. The MC275 is also one of the first items I show everyone who visits this room. My friends aren't impressed by $20,000 DACs, $40,000 speakers and certainly not impressed by $10,000 cables in a positive way. The McIntosh MC275 on the other hand easily impresses everyone. I love this amp so much that I'll let my daughter use it when she is old enough, but only on the condition that she gives it back to me when she's done. This isn't a hand-me-down product. I'm keeping it. Compared to my beloved MC275 the MS500 Music Streamer is a bit of a different animal. It combines a touch of McIntosh with technology from Autonomic. Autonomic has produced its Mirage line of digital products for many years, mainly focused on the custom integration market. It's this Mirage series on which the MS500 is based. Looking inside the MS500 it's possible to see how the product is split nearly in half between Autonomic and McIntosh. Autonomic's Mirage platform and technology are used for everything computer related that resides on one board. McIntosh has designed everything audio related on a different board and the beautiful chassis. I say everything computer related for Autonomic because there's a full Linux based computer running inside the MS500. Much the same as there's a full computer running in your pocket right now in the form of a mobile phone. McIntosh aficionados will be happy to learn that Autonomic does the computing (streaming, library indexing, serving up a graphical user interface, etc...) but hands off the digital audio signal to the McIntosh audio board inside. Once the digital signal is received the McIntosh audio board sends out both an analog signal via RCA and XLR connections and a digital signal via coaxial S/PDIF and Toslink. When I first began using the MS500 I assumed I'd stick with the digital outputs. I love the dCS Rossini DAC currently in my system and try to use it whenever I can. Plus, my familiarity with this DAC helps me evaluate anything new in the system. Fortunately for the MS500, I decided to give the analog outputs a spin quicker than I had planned. What I heard was very nice. The sound was about what I expected from a McIntosh product with this split design philosophy. The MS500 certainly isn't a D1100 all-out McIntosh DAC, but the product doesn't pretend to be McIntosh's flagship digital to analog converter. The target customer for the MS500 is someone seeking ease of use, multi-zone audio (optionally), good quality sound, McIntosh pride of ownership, solid customer service, and zero interest in the technical minutiae. The MS500 is certainly simple to use. It worked right out of the box with the iOS app on my iPad Pro and the sample tracks included on the built-in sold state drive. The user interface leaves much to be desired for many who eat sleep and breathe this stuff, but could be just what the doctor order for those who want an app that's much more straight forward. For example, there is no Preferences section within the app to customize something. It's all preconfigured without anything to screw up. Much of the content browsing is also text based. People who get overwhelmed by metadata and albums covers should be right at home with an understated format of artist, album, and track names (no track numbers or lengths to be seen when browsing streaming content). Multi-zone fans will appreciate the capability to have synchronized libraries between several MS500s and complete control via the iOS or Android application. Given that I only had a single unit in for review I couldn't test multi-zone features. I mentioned the MS500 target customer having zero interest in the technical minutiae a couple paragraphs earlier. What I mean by this is the MS500 has some quirks that may bother diehard technical audiophiles but those quirks are likely something the average MS500 customer doesn't understand or want to understand. For example, the MS500 can't output bit perfect audio. This means it's incapable of outputting the exact audio via its digital outputs that came in through a digital input (Ethernet or local storage). To some this is blasphemous. However, many MS500 customers may be asking what's bit perfect and concluding they don't really care as long as the product works and checks all the other boxes. These music lovers also likely don't care that the MS500 outputs all audio at a single user specified sample rate and bit depth. What makes the MS500 a tempting unit for music lovers such as myself is its built-in access to content. The MS500 can access all the usual suspects such as Tidal, Deezer, and Spotify. Taking things to the next content level, the MS500 can access SiriusXM and Pandora. Hardcore audiophiles may not care about these lossy services but people who are fans of content / programming unavailable elsewhere find them invaluable. In addition, both SiriusXM and Pandora are nearly impossible for most manufacturers to integrate into their products. These guys are too big to care about HiFi and have told many companies to take a hike unless they can move millions of units. The MS500 also supports internet radio via TuneIn, which I came to really like over the course of this evaluation. For Your Listening Pleasure As a music lover and audiophile the sound quality of the MS500 is important to me. Even if I wasn't an audiophile and I just wanted "something better," the quality of the MS500's sound would be important as well. We've all seen countless devices with terrible sonics being purchased by millions of people for decades. When something better than those options comes along, it's a good thing. I haven't had an Autonomic Mirage unit in here for several years, so I can't really compare the Mirage to the MS500 from memory. I'd venture to guess that the McIntosh MS500 is substantially better given its split design (Autonomic/McIntosh). The McIntosh designed audio board is a premium upgrade compared to what's available in mass market products and many custom installation products. I connected the MS500 to my Constellation Audio Inspiration preamplifier and Constellation Audio Inspiration mono amplifiers. The amps fed my TAD CR1 loudspeakers much the same as all other reviews I've conducted over the last several years. I set the MS500's analog output level to fixed gain (disabled or variable gain are also options) as I wanted to use the attenuation of my preamp. I think this is a logical configuration for many in the target audience who may also use a pre/pro for volume control. An additional configuration I'd like to try is connecting the MS500 directly to a pair of powered speakers on my desktop. The built-in volume control and McIntosh aesthetics could be a thing of beauty. I divided up my listening evaluation between music I coped to the local SSD inside the MS500, streaming lossless audio from Deezer and Tidal, lossy audio from Pandora, and a local Jazz radio station (KBEM Jazz 88.5) via TuneIn. I'll start with what the diehard audiophiles would call foolish, internet radio. I've had a TuneIn account for years, but forgot the password and couldn't get TuneIn's password recovery options to send me an email to reset it. Fortunately, one doesn't need an account to use TuneIn with the MS500. I tapped the TuneIn Radio tab in the iOS app and browsed to my local radio stations with a few additional taps. I settled in with Jazz 88.5 and leaned back in my chair. Given that all my listening to this station is in the car when I drive my daughter to her Waldorf School, the sound quality I heard through the MS500 shouldn't have surprised me. I knew it would sound better via the MS500 than my 16 year old Alpine / Boston Acoustics car system. But, I assumed this lossy source, no doubt 64 or 128 kbps, would sound terrible because my system would present all its flaws right in front of my face. It also doesn't help that I can A/B this station with a local high resolution copy of whatever it's streaming. The bottom line is that I loved streaming my local Jazz station through the MS500. It sounded so much better than I expected. In a way this is the essence of what HiFi is all about. Taking whatever source or music one listens to and making it sound as enjoyable as possible. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I instinctively grabbed my iPhone to Shazam several tracks I heard. Sure the MS500 iOS app would have told me the artist and track, but old habits die hard when listening to the "radio." The track that sounded best to me, and was most memorable, was What Will I Tell My Heart by Lou Donaldson. I could have flipped over to Tidal or Deezer to stream the lossless version, but I enjoyed the Jazz 88 stream so much I didn't bother. Sure the highs and lows weren't as extended and the air around the instruments was as spacious, but I didn't care. So much of the MS500 is all about content and how to make it sound as good as it possibly can. This is a message I wish the HiFi industry would send out to the world. We don't care what you listen to, but we'll make it sound better than you've ever heard it. No more forcing great recordings of terrible albums in ultra high resolution upon civilians. It should begin and end with content and giving the listeners an experience they won't soon forget. Switching to Tidal lossless streaming and locally stored music on the internal SSD, I was very impressed by the sound quality of the MS500. The MS500 is definitely that "something better" for which many consumers are looking. The McIntosh analog output stage really gives life to the music where many products in this category fall flat. Listening to Eric Clapton's new album Happy Xmas, yes I listened to a Christmas album while evaluating a high end audio component. Call me crazy, but I challenge everyone to give it a listen and tell me it isn't a great album. Hell, I'm an atheist and I can't stop listening. Clapton's version of Home for the Holidays is not only wonderful but it sounds really good through the MS500's analog output. His voice, guitar, and backing vocalists all have a very pure sound. Clapton's voice has a calming effect on me that when mixed with the terrific tone emanating from his guitar amp and reproduced through the McIntosh MS500 is incredibly enjoyable. Throughout this track one can also hear an appropriate amount of what I'll call Christmas bells. The level and amount of the bells is perfect and keeps the song enjoyable rather than kitschy. Through the MS500 these bells are crystal clear when one wants to hear them and fade into the background at other times. This displays a good level of separation between the instruments that most lesser quality music streamers just don't deliver. Note: Clapton fans seeking a dose of his guitar and great tone should most certainly put on track one, White Christmas. It sounds fantastic. Note 2: This album may be the one that finally displaces Mariah Carey's Merry Christmas album in many households (yes!). Guys finally have a comeback to that album when our wives request it :~) OK, I was going to get a little more audiophile to wrap up the listening section of this review, but I think Clapton's version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from the same album accomplishes everything just as well. A great little opening bass line followed by a deep bass groove throughout the track lays a great foundation. Through the MS500 this bass sounds really good. Deep, foundational, and very crisp. The decay of the cymbals within the first couple seconds of the track and continuing throughout also sounds just beautiful. For the musically obsessed like me, it's also possible to hear the recording environment when listening to the drummer play the hi-hat. The reverberation off the studio walls is clear and present. Clapton's smooth vocal sounds very soothing and pure on this track. But, it's his judicious us of guitar that makes me want more. It's as if he is teasing us with tone. A lesser musician would no doubt take over and push the guitar in our faces, but not Clapton. I could seriously listen to this track all day through the MS500 without a hint of fatigue. The sound is pure yet lush, very enjoyable, and classic McIntosh. Conclusion I'm fond of saying everyone has his/her speciality. I look at a turntable like it's a rocket surgery project, but give me the most convoluted digital product and it'll be right in my wheelhouse. These specialities hold true for audio companies as well. McIntosh has always nailed the analog side of HiFi. The company also offers a great D1100 DAC that I reviewed and placed on the C.A.S.H. List earlier this year. However when it comes to a complete digital platform capable of streaming, integrating with Crestron, and building iOS/Android apps, etc... McIntosh has elected to outsource this specialty. I don't blame them, it's difficult work. The MS500 has Autonomic technology where it counts and McIntosh design and DNA where it counts. I must also note that it's impossible not to enjoy the beautiful design of the McIntosh MS500. It's black glass, glorious green illuminated logo, distinctive red power button, and classy aluminum end caps are legendary and look even better in person. The MS500 is a great product for the music lover who isn't obsessed with technical details and just wants to listen to his/her music in high quality. This music may be internet radio at 64 kbps or high resolution audio from the local SSD. I'm guilty of enjoying a very sonically limited stream of my local Jazz station equally as much as I enjoyed the high resolution Pearl Jam albums copied to the MS500's local drive via the included music synchronization app. The MS500 handles both sources equally as well. It will reproduce one's favorite music from less than perfect sources better than most people have ever heard. Image Gallery Product Information: Product - McIntosh MS500 Music Streamer ($6,000) Product Page - MS500 PDFs - MS500 Product Brochure (1.6 MB) | MS500 User Manual (8.5 MB) Associated Music: Computer Audiophile 100 Playlist Computer Audiophile PJ4CA Playlist Associated Equipment: Source: Roon ROCK, 2018 MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Mojave) DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA, dCS Rossini, EMM Labs DA2 D-to-D Converter: dCS Network Bridge, Sonore Signature Rendu SE, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0 Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference Remote Control Software: Roon Remote Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro Playback Software: Roon, JRiver Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables Power Isolation: Transparent Audio Reference Power Isolator Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi USG Router, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x4, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload
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