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the_count posted a topic in Headphones & SpeakersHi folks - I recently finished the first stage of my computer audiophile journey - building a new system from the ground up and getting everything onto a server. When I was starting down this path, forums like this we're absolutely invaluable both for deciding what to do, and even more so what not to do (either because it wasn't important to me or because knowledgeable users found some component, step, etc. wasn't useful). I will not claim that I have found the perfect solution but I know that as a relative newb, the level of detail and the plethora of different opinions in these forums can be daunting. As such, I wanted to share what I learned and ultimately where I ended up - in essence, I'm seeking to answer the question I (and many newbs) want answered: how can I maximize bang for my buck in building a high-quality digital system? Background and caveats: What is the scope of the gear I'm referring to?: I'm being holistic: source, power, speakers, and everything in between - the entire chain required to turn 1s and 0s into sound waves hitting the ears. Budget: This is obviously the determining factor. If you have a tiny budget or an unlimited budget then this won't do much for you. My budget was modest, but to the average person, still pretty large at 5k. I ended up bumping it up to 7.5k or so to meet my needs. That said, you can absolutely bring the price down depending on your choices. My conclusion is that it's really tough to build a high quality (reminder, I'm not claiming highest quality!) system, ground up for under 3k and 4k is probably more reasonable. My goals/constraints: What I learned is that the most important thing for a newb to decide early in the process is "what is important to ME?" Forums like these, are full of people with strong opinions about what is absolutely necessary - some say cables, some that MP3s technology was created by the devil and Hi Res is the second-coming, some like to have every single component separate so they can tweak and change everything, some that they can hear the difference between Intel and AMD. That's all well and good, but don't make the mistake of having other people decide what's important to you. After debating different system architectures, source files, etc. I was completely overwhelmed, and ended up sitting down and writing out a few things I wanted from a system and started over again. Here's what I decided for me (again these represent MY preferences, but I believe the underlying questions are useful to all newbs): Maximum sonic quality across a wide range of musical genres - I listen to lots of different types of music so I wasn't interested in building a system that shines only with club jams, or live recordings, or classical, or jazz. What I realized in auditioning different systems, and reading comments, was that meant becoming comfortable with compromise and accepting that other systems will always shine brighter in certain situations. That's ok because I wanted the best system I could get to cover as much ground as possible. Specifically, I wanted a system that could provide great mid-range clarity but could also give me solid low end. I want to stress how important it is for a newb to be honest about listening habits - lots of professional audiophiles and forum participants focus on styles of music that aren't of much interest to me: classical, folk, progressive jazz etc. All great stuff, but I'm far more likely to listen to R&B garage rock, hip-hop, EDM, metal etc. Practically what that means is people lauding components that fit with their musical tastes but that don't match with mine (or yours). If you want to rock, then admit it and build that system - don't spend money to build the most amazing system to recreate live choral pieces ... I should also mention that, in my experience, this is primarily a matter of speakers and possibly amplification (though with reasonable quality amplification at average volumes I struggled to see much difference) - other components don't seem to care what style of music you're putting through them. As simple a system architecture as possible - If I could get the quality I want out of a single box solution, I'd do it. I don't think we're anywhere near that, but it was a guiding principle of mine. That meant looking for at least one (more on this below) component that could play multiple roles. Not too "tweaky" - I'm not an engineer. I'm not a computer wiz. Generally I want things to be simple. Other people in this forum derive pleasure from tweaking and playing around with every detail of a system, and god bless 'em ... that's just not me. Ease of use - I wanted to be able to easily control playback from a handheld device, and preferably multiple handheld devices. Future proofing - Ultimately this is a fool's errand because technology moves too quickly and too far to truly future proof anything, but I do think there are purchases that can at least help in this regard (a little more on this in the DAC/Amp section below). Maybe more importantly for me, it meant that I only wanted to spend time and money on the stuff I thought would have the longest shelf-life - digital sources generally, and computers in particular, are likely to change quickest, so I had no interest in building a 10 year solution to a 5 year problem. Where I ended up and why: Ultimately I built what to my ear is a really, really, really good system. It certainly beats the pants off of many systems I've heard at many multiples of the cost I paid and (obviously, because I'm writing this) I would recommend it as the "best" system available for someone who's got the same preferences I do. Here is an overview of what I chose, and without going into excruciating detail, why: Digital files: as the, not-so-proud owner, of thousands of Redbook CDs and tens of thousands of mp3s I had to decide what the hell to do with my music. Ultimately I decided that I would: rip all of my CDs Redbook to ALAC files, replace mp3s for my favorite music, live with the lower quality recordings of the majority of mp3s, and then purchase some Hi Res files as they became available. My goal in this process is specific: I want this database to serve as the foundation of my system until I die. That meant sucking it up and ripping CDs (and ultimately, rebuying hundreds of CDs) over the course of months just so I wouldn't have to do it again. It also means that I have started on the process of digitizing my hard-to-find vinyl using a Rega Fono Mini A2D (more on that later if people are interested). Digital source: MacMini , with no tweaks. I recognize that I'm in very dangerous territory here given the site I'm on, but I simply didn't think it was worth it to to build a CAPS system or spend a bunch of time and money on tweaks. I listened to a variety of server products and even a couple of friends' tweaked systems and honestly I couldn't tell a lick of difference. Plus my choice of DAC was designed to help in this regard. I think that for most relative newbs that this is one of the biggest sticking points, and I went a year not doing anything because I was so daunted by options and suggestions. Furthermore, to the future-proofing issue above, this is the area that's likely to change the most and the quickest, so you can put a whole bunch of time and money into something you know you're going to have to replace. Whereas, great speakers for example, are likely to stay great for a long time. My advice, stay simple, and save your money by getting a MacMini and being done with it ... but you can read all the reasons that's a terrible idea in a hundred other posts around CA :-) BTW: I output this source via TOSLINK and USB, but mostly listen via TOSLINK because my DAC can't play 192 via USB. Digital player software: I use iTunes for the majority of my daily listening it's user friendly and familiar. BUT I also purchased Audirvana . I did this for two reasons: 1) iTunes won't play Hi Res files and I wanted to see if they are worth it, and 2) Audirvana has a System Optimization function that basically shuts everything else down that could influence sound quality (I only use this for critical listening). A quick aside on Hi Res: I'm not totally sold, but I think it's awesome this is where music is headed. With storage cheap, I simply see no reason I wouldn't just listen to studio masters if they are available. Additionally, Hi Res files seem to get more care in the re-mastering process, so even if all the debates about human hearing capacity are right, these files will still sound better because they're better masters. DAC and Amp: I have owned some great systems and heard even better ones: and I conclude that DACs matter ... BUT I think this is a really exciting time because it's now possible to get really great stuff without breaking the bank. There are several companies making truly spectacular stereo receivers with on-board DACs that kick the stuffing out of standalone units that cost many multiples (Peachtree comes to mind). Ultimately I chose the NAD C390DD, the little brother to the M-Series. I thought that for 2k or so it was by far the best thing out there. I won't do a full review, but things I liked: simple one box design, a proprietary chip that re-clocks, Hi Res playback, modular hardware design, upgradable software, and DSD architecture that means the signal stays digital to the speakers (i.e. no true D to A conversion). From what I saw with other components, I felt like I would have had to pay at least 50% more to get the same thing out of separate boxes. This area is moving pretty quickly with some great stuff coming on the market, so I won't defend the NAD to the death, but I will say that I think for a newb, you're way better off going with one of the new single-box designs than buying expensive separates. Speakers: Now we're back in familiar territory, at least for me. Despite all the discussion, speakers define the system faaaar more than any other component. It's also the place you can break the bank and, as noted above, where personal preference plays the biggest role. For my budget, this was the ultimate 'bang for the buck' decision, and this was the place I decided to bust my budget. I went with Golden Ear Triton 1s. Simply put, for my ears, they sound better than any other speaker I have heard for less than 10k. For half that price, I believe they are the single best component deal available. You can read the glowing reviews all over the internet ... believe them. The folded ribbon is amazing; the mid-range is super lush; the bass is the crispest I've ever heard at anything approaching the price. The smaller speakers in the Triton line are also fantastic, so if you wanted to save some bucks, you can while still getting amazing quality. Of this entire post, this is the only component that I will absolutely go to the mat for. These things are absolutely spectacular for the price especially because I could get rid of my sub and simplify the system even more. Other bits and bobs and opinions: Bliss - If you're trying to organize a big, ugly, messy library you absolutely must get this, particularly if you care about cover art. This saved me hundreds of hours and is super cheap for the benefit. Rowmote - I use the Rowmote app on my phone to point and click and use basic programs on my Mac. It's simple and easy. Backup - I use time machine with a 2TB Western Digital Passport to back everything up. With the hundreds of hours I have in this project, and the fact that I'm doing this for posterity, regular backup is an ABSOLUTE MUST. Fo' real. Cables and interconnects - I just don't get it. Buy decent quality stuff and spend your money elsewhere. Maybe cables matter in a cost-is-no-object system but for anyone starting out, it's a giant neon red herring ... Power sources/grounding etc. - Frankly I have no real opinions on whether any of this stuff matters at all BUT I must admit that I use a grounded Panamax power conditioner. I don't have it for the sonic qualities, but rather because 1) it has a whole bunch of grounded outlets to cut down on wire clutter, 2) it makes me feel better about my components getting fried during surges and storms, and 3) most importantly, I basically got it for free. My bet is that a solid surge protector is just as good ... In conclusion: I've listened to a bunch of 10, 20, 50k systems and I truly believe that my little rig (Mac Mini>NAD C390DD>Golden Ear Triton 1's) will stand up to them. I've no doubt that you can 1) spend more and get more and 2) that people here will have all sorts of differing opinions on the path to sonic bliss, but I can confidently say that you will be hard pressed to do better in this range. So if you're lurking here trying to find ideas of which way to go, or if you're scraping the money together to upgrade to the next rung on the ladder, I think this is a pretty fool-proof way to go. Even if you go in a different direction, hopefully some of the questions and considerations I brought up will be helpful to you. Happy listening! Best, Eric
I am just in the process of purchasing my new 2 channel stereo. The room dimensions will be 12ft wide x 24 ft with an angled vaulted ceiling. I listen to rock and roll, pop, folk and some classical. When alone I do enjoy some loud music time for sure. I have all my CD's ripped in WAVE or Apple Lossless. I will get into some high rez stuff in the future. I wil be using a PC laptop or Mac Mini. I like JRiver but I may go with ITunes and Pure Music? I will be using Golden Ear Triton 2's or 3's (haven't decided yet) My amp/pream/dac options are as follows: 1. Rotel 1552mk11 (120 x 2 Class A/B) with Rotel RDD-1580 Dac and Rotel RC-1550 (Preamp)-This will cost around (2200-2400) I have a local store, I can demo product, I've had Rotel in the past 2. NAD C-390DD (tota different than Rotel, all digital, all in one solution (DAC, amp,PRE) (150 x 2) I can get a great discount. Normally 2600 and I can get it for 2150. I hear about USB to USB not being that great with the NAD and that the SPDIF s much better. Not sure. I don't want to feel compelled to spend hundreds more on a USB to SPDIF converter but if that will really make a difference. Any thoughts, insights would be greatly appreciated. I recognize these two stereo setups are quite different but similar price. Thanks in advance, Mark
Dear All, Believe it or not this is my first forum entry ever! Reason for joining and making this thread is that I need to convince myself that my newly purchased c390dd is "normal". I got it two weeks ago. Spent I week or so setting up, getting proper cables etc, and have now been using for a week. First off this is an amazing amp. I use it to drive my PM1's and the whole setup sounds great; don't regret a minute... AWESOME! However I have one doubt, and this is where I need your help: When attached to the mains both on, off and when playing, the unit produces a very slight high pith hum. This is only audible when very close and everything around me quiet.... I have tried to contact the dealer and NAD and none of them really know. Note: I have tried with and without speaker/woofer cables attached and running the mains thru linsy 6way mains conditioner.. I have yet to try to ground the unit as recommended in the manual... Everything seems alright and sounds GREAT.. But I need to know; has anybody experienced this; IS THIS NORMAL?
Hi Guys How does it sound. Neutral, neutral, and even more neutral. This is the most neutral DAC and amp combination I have heard - period - no SS steeliness, no valve warmth - all these adjectives simply do not apply. Its not as a fast as my Patek but still pretty darn fast - but it does not have that amps thinness and slight dryness either. How would I describe it - like a power version of the Metrum is my best guess at this stage. Very resolving with great slam - not as resolving as my Patek and PDX which is the most resolving thing I have heard to date in my system - but still really resovling. I think my Patek and Playback Designs could be faster again but I didn't try that DAC on my Patek - I used my Trafomatic SET when I heard that. My Naquadria it likely even faster again but it is being modded right now to accept standard cable terminations so can't check it out - that will need to wait until I get back to Brisbane. Another interesting feature that the specs do not make clear is it in fact has pre-outs so you can use it as a DAC and have an upgrade path. I will check it out that way a bit later. I am using its USB input right now but would really love to see what my Off-Ramp does - however its SPDIF is on the blink - possibly something broke due to twisting the cable on and off - it happened once before but don't really know until I can get a tech to look at it which needs to wait until I return to Brisbane where I have a tech I trust. I may be able to get it working with AES/EBU but need to get a cable. I have not heard a DAC amp combination at this price point that I would rate better - it could perhaps be the leader at this price point. The Metrum with an Audiophellio and Patek costs about that but I think this may have the edge. A must audition against any DAC amp combination you were thinking of getting at about the $3k price point. More to follow as listening continues. Thanks Bill