Sunday, November 20, 2005

How to get the sound from your PC to your HiFi

Any music server is not a complete audiophile solution, in that it simply rips, stores, and organizes music for playback, but does not currently provide a proper output to your hifi system. By proper, I mean that most PC's (Mac, Linux, or Windows), typically have a sound card that has audio and digital outputs. These sound cards are a mostly inferior method of tranmitting the audio to your hifi, and even the best sound cards outputting S/PDIF introduce measurable jitter. If you are wondering why the audio outputs of the computer aren't sufficient, well, they suck. Fine for casual listening, but no more "fidelity" (and probably less) than having an IPOD hooked up directly to your system via the headphone outputs.

You have four legitimate options when transferring the signal to your system, depending upon whether you will use an external DAC or use something with a built-in DAC and analog output.

1: Higher end sound card with S/PDIF outputs, like an M-Audio. There are lots of competitors with supposedly better sounding cards, and lots of folks who mod these cards. I think these cards are on their way out, personally, but they make it easy to work with an existing computer. You take the S/PDIF output of the card and send it to an external DAC; you could use the audioputs of the card, but again, these are generally seen as inferior.

2. External USB Box, converting from USB to S/PDIF. There are several options, from cheaper solutions like the Xitel (which I used to send digital to MiniDisc) (~$100) to the Waveterminal U24, which hooks up to your PC via its USB port, and outputs a S/PDIF signal to your DAC (about $225), to the expensive Apogee Mini-DAC used by pro-audio types. Except for the Apogee, all of these devices require an external DAC with analog output stage. The Apogee has balanced analog outputs. Another well-reviewed product is the Empirical Audio Offramp, based on highly modified M-Audio guts and with a SuperClock.

3. External USB DAC. There is one current audiophile champ, the well-reviewed Wavelength Brick. The Brick employs both a high quality USB DAC and a high quality tubed analog output stage. Wavelength also makes a gorgeous looking USB DAC, the Cosecant, which I would love to own for looks alone. The Brick has one downside, at $1700, it is not cheap. But neither is a high quality external USB box coupled with a DAC. For example, a Waveterminal plus a Benchmark DAC would run about $1250 plus the cost of a good S/PDIF cable. I'll have to audition a Brick when I can.

4. Squeezebox ("SB"). What is the Squeezebox? I have read more about this unit than anything else. Think of the SB as a combination of #2 and #3 above, plus an all around Internet appliance. A clock radio meets wireless or wired digital transport. It has a built in DAC and analog and digital outputs, and hooks up to your computer via an Ethernet cable or a wireless connection. At $250-$300, who could take this thing seriously? Well, actually, lots of people, starting with 6 Moons, Positive Feedback, and a whole host of audiophiles. I was so intrigued by what I read, I decided to buy two myself, one wired and one wireless. I planned on having the the wired unit modified by one of two well-known modders.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Apogee Minidac should actually be in the USB Dac section. It is, in fact, a Dac and not a usb to spdif converter. It does not actually have a spdif out. I have owned the minidac along with many other fine digital pieces (Cary, Meridian, dCS, Levinson, Audio Aero, Audiiomeca) and can say that it is on par with audiophile dac/cd players multiples its price. I would say it is competitive with the Brick DAC though I have not heard the Brick. Nice info though. Thanks.

8:49 PM  
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11:50 AM  

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