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Mayfield 4
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How to make my computer/media streamer sound better than my CD player

 

Perhaps you more experienced folks can help...

Posted: February 18, 2013 - 3:14pm

Hi, I new here and new to the idea of using digital media to replace my cd collection. 

I have a luxman cd player, Cambrige Audio DACmagicplus, and NAD amp,  I have been unable so far to get my computer or Sony Google Media box to sound as good as the Luxman (they of course go through the same channels, just one is a CD in a CD player, the other is an digital file through the box.

Some questions (please be gentle as some may be stupid - I am new to using computers to generate high end audio)

- Is the Vaio laptop I have sufficient, or do I need a specific computer or soundcard?

-Same for  the Sony Google media box  - is it just too low end? (I am hoping that the box would be sufficient with a few tweaks because that way I could just have one device for video streaming and my music collection. I have a digital optical going from the box to the DACmagic.

-Would I be better off to buy a device specifically made to stream music at high quality?

-Do the files have to be lossless? ***I know its a dangerous question! *** But from much of what I have read human ears can't tell the difference between lossless and 320kbs compression. To that end I have done some comparisons for myself:

I used the Vaio laptop connected to the DAC and listened on my pair of Sennheiser HD595 headphones to do the comparison.

I used a CD in windows media player, and a couple tracks each ripped at WMApro 256kbs, MP3 320kbs, WMA Lossless, and .WAV I compared each of them to the CD and to each other and found the CD sounded better than even the lossless, and the lossless and MP3 320kbs were pretty well identical.

Similar result when I listen to my main system (mentioned above using either headphones or my towers) and found a similar result - the CD just sounded better. If lossless is identical to my ears (and scientific waveform studies) as MP3 32kbs, then I should be able to stream a 320kbs MP3 from my media device and have it sound the same as the CD, but it doesn't. CD is noticeably better. This leads me to the conclusion that the CD player is just a better device than my laptop or the Sony box and that I need a better media device (or sound card)

Thoughts or opinions? I appreciate any advice!

jazzfan
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Try foobar

Hi and welcome to the forum.

I've been using the Logitech Squeezebox line of music streaming devices for over 6 years now and i can safely say that I don't miss CDs or SACDs or DVD-Audio discs one bit. There could be quite a few reasons why you not getting the best possible sound from your computer and streamed audio. First and foremost: Windows Media Player is completely worthless. Stop using it at once. Pure garbage, in fact it is so bad that it actually makes iTunes seem like a good program. For what it's worth iTunes is a very close second to WMP is the POS department.

Anyway I strongly suggest that you download the latest version of Foobar and then do a little research to find out how to enable bit perfect playback via Foobar. Since, as stated, I use Squeezebox devices I'm not personally familiar with all the setting of Foobar but I know that it is considered the best audio player for windows computers. Plus I am not familiar with the Sony Media device you are using but based on the results you are getting I would guess that this device may also be causing some problems.

You might also want to check that you are using the latest USB drivers for the Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus since non-Asynchronous USB can result in less than perfect playback.

Finally try ripping a few CDs into flac files using Exact Audio Copy (EAC). Again I will have to ask that you do a little research on how to set up EAC to get accurate rips and proper wav to flac conversions. By the way rest assured that there is plenty of good information readily available for Foobar, EAC and flac so it should not be that difficult to get everything properly set up. Once you have a few good CD rips, properly encoded flac files and Foobar I think that you will not be able to notice any difference between computer playback and CD playback.

struts
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There's a big difference...

...between a bit-perfect rip and bit-perfect replay.  In my experience most of the problems folks experience with PC audio are to do with their replay settings rather than their rips.  Remember, a ripping error will almost always manifest itself as a noticable "click" or worse, not a subtle sound quality degradation. 

You need to make sure that the media player is just decoding the file and passing the PCM samples along to the DAC, nothing more and nothing less.  The easiest way to destroy the fidelity of a digital file on replay is to apply too much digital attenuation.  Each bit equates to about 6dB so as you reduce the volume you lose resolution.  So the No.1 rule is to play back at full volume on the PC and adjust the volume in the analog domain on your amp.

Then there are plug-ins that can cause mischief if present, things like "replay gain" that try to equalise the volume between songs etc.  Make sure any such are disabled or uninstalled.

The other common gremlin with PC playback is RFI, particularly from the computer itself being transmitted through ground planes (this can happen with USB as well as S/PDIF connections).  Experiment playing back with the laptop on its charger versus on battery, and plugged into the same distribution block as the component (e.g. DAC) it is connected to.  I wouldn't mind betting that one of these will sound clearly better than the others.

The above advice all applies primarily to the PC.  I'm not quite sure where the Google box comes in since you said you are replaying via WMP.  I assume the PC and the Google box are alternative digital sources, right?  The same point about digital volume control and possible plug-ins apply to the Google box, although not the point about ground-borne interference since you said you are using an optical connection.

Mayfield 4
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thanks, and a little update

Thanks guys. I have since wiped windows from my laptop and now have Ubuntu - much better. I find it convenient to stream my google music via bluetooth to the DAC when I'm working around the house - the audio is not satisfactory when I just want to sit and listen. After reading the above posts (thanks again) I am thinking of doing this

-using my laptop as the player rather than the google box.

-My drivers for the DAC are up to date, but I there are some higher levels of usb that it will support...maybe I can get those drivers for my laptop.

-buy a better soundcard for the laptop

-I have already started ripping new discs as flac rather than WMA

-get foobar player

I'll let you know how it goes...

struts
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Sounds good!

..except for the bit about buying a better soundcard for your laptop.  I checked out the DACmagic + online and it looks pretty well thought through - even has a ground lift switch for dealing with ground loop problems!  Connecting this to your laptop with USB obviates the need for a soundcard.  As long as the USB driver under Ubuntu works (the Cambridge Audio website says Ubuntu is unsupported but known to work) then you should be good to go.  Ripping CDs losslessly to FLAC and replaying at full digital volume via foobar with no sound altering plug-ins through the DACmagic + via USB I would expect you to enjoy sound quality way better than any correspondingly priced CD player.  

However rereading your original post it isn't quite clear to me whether you were comparing the laptop versus the Luxman both via the DACmagic (i.e. using the Luxman as a transport only)  or the Luxman versus the laptop + DACmagic (i.e. using the Luxman as a CD player).  I suspect your Luxman cost a deal more than the DACmagic +, depending on which model it is maybe as much as an order of magnitude more, so if the latter I think you have to ask yourself to what extent this is a fair comparison.  If the former I would expect the sound to be pretty similar.

Mayfield 4
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Thanks for the reply. I was

Thanks for the reply.

I was comparing the luxman+dac to the laptop+dac. I did another comparison this morning using a ripped flac file on the laptop+dad with USB 1.0 and the CD still sounded better - not by a ton, but noticeable. 

So big question - if I use the dacmagic, are you saying the computer sound card is unnecessary? So if I were to buy a better sound card I wouldn't notice an improvement?

The dacmagic works fine with Linux, but they don't make foobar or EAC for it, so I have to use other programs.

struts
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I would have said yes
Mayfield 4 wrote:

So big question - if I use the dacmagic, are you saying the computer sound card is unnecessary? So if I were to buy a better sound card I wouldn't notice an improvement?

I would have said yes, i.e. you wouldn't notice an improvement, but since your last post I am less certain (please remember I have never heard the DACmagic + so my opinions and advice regarding it are entirely theoretical) .  That advice is predicated on the assumption that the budget has been apportioned equally between the S/PDIF and USB inputs and they sound more-or-less equally good.  If in practice the former sounds better then of course that assumption may not be valid.  A soundcard with a high quality S/PDIF output may well in that case level the paying field against the Luxman.

However I can't help thinking that the comparison is anyway skewed.  If the Luxman cost $3-4-5k then it plays in a completely different league to the DACmagic.  Spending that kind of money you would be able to afford a really good asynchronous USB DAC that would very probably best both on SQ grounds (I am thinking something like an Ayre QB-9, a Berkeley Alpha DAC, Calyx 24/192, Mytek 192-DSD, T+A DAC8, or many many others).

The DACmagic is a competent $400-ish product, but even at that price level there are arguably better products (for instance the Arcam rDAC).  So I still think spending money on a soundcard is probably the least effective use of funds here.  Why not sell the DACmagic and the Luxman (if you are prepared to abandon optical entirely - I did 7 years ago and never looked back) and get a really decent USB DAC.  Alternatively be happy and spend it all on CDs!!

Maybe not what you wanted to hear but I'm just calling it as I see it.

Mayfield 4
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lots to think about...

Thanks for the input. I just bought the DACmagic+ so I am a little reluctant to sell it for such a loss - but having said that I am open to whatever is the most streamlined system with the best sound quality.

I contacted a local computer guy who custom builds computers for a living and explained to him what I was after and the price range of about $500 and this is what he sent me: (note his recommendation for using optical). What are your thoughts?

If I were to stay with the DACmagic+ (I'm kind of leaning that way now) would this spec be appropriate? I would be using it as an overall media server for movies and games for my kids too. I'm thinking I would rip my CD's FLAC and store the whole collection on a 1TB drive. The mother board would also have 2 usb3.0 and 3 usb2.0.

I guess the part that I still don't see clearly is the role of the sound card prior to the dac. If i use  a cd player using an optical out you're basically bypassing the machine's own DAC and using the external one - the same as with a computer - but does the sound card do 'other stuff' outside of that bypass to the external DAC?

 

Hi Dwayne, thank you for the extra information. I configured another computer to meet your needs

 

Intel Pentium G860 Sandy Bridge 3.0 GHz Dual Core Processor

GeForce 210 Graphics Card

8GB RAM

500GB Hard Drive or 1TB for $25 extra

ASUS Xonar DS Audio Card

MSI B75MA-E33 Motherboard

APEX MJ-16 MicroATX Mini Tower Computer Case with 250W Power Supply

Total Cost: $500 or $525 for 1TB HDD

 

From what I've read the best setup using an internal sound card with an external DAC is to run a digital optical cable from the sound card's optical output to the DAC, as opposed to using USB. Also, even if you don't need 5.1 surround sound, it's a standard feature on modern sound cards, so any card is going to be capable of 5.1 or 7.1 output.

struts
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I'm baffled..

I don't understand why you think you need a new PC or a soundcard.  I checked out the Ken Rockwell review of the DAC magic and even if he makes a whole raft of very strange claims it was interesting to see his measurements.  The RCA S/PDIF input of the DAC magic does indeed seem to be the cleanest, but both the optical and USB inputs seem to perform well too.

So if you're happy with the DAC magic (and I'm not for a moment suggesting you shouldn't be, I'm just a bit baffled why you spent so much less than I am guessing you spent on your CD player yet expect it to perform as well) then I think your most cost-effective upgrade maybe a USB-to-S/PDIF converter such as the Halide bridge as reviewed by JA here.  That way you can use your existing laptop to feed the DAC magic's best quality input, and I would expect it to give about the best sound the DAC magic is capable of delivering.

By all means get a new PC if you feel you need one, but although it may bring you all sorts of ther improvements, it hardly focuses he funds on sound quality improvement which is what I think you are trying to achieve.

And to answer your question, yes, the only thing a soundcard does when used with an external DAC is serve up the bits.

Mayfield 4
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ahh

Oh, I see where you are saying. Perhaps I should have been more clear - my luxman CD player and NAD amp were both acquired on a trade - they are several years old and so I didn't actually spend any money on them - I just lucked out and found a guy looking to off load some of his stuff because his wife wouldn't let him buy more until he did;) 

Because the luxman is probably about 15 years old he suggested that I buy the dacmagic+ to make best use of the CD player. 

Perhaps I will check out the converter - as I happens the RCA SP/DIF  is how the luxman is connected to the dacmagic, and the computer via USB - perhaps that is one reason the luxman sounds better.

So if i have this correct, you are saying

1) better sound card won't improve quality since I'm using the dacmagic

2)get usb-rca converter because the RCA spdif in the dacmagic is best input For it.

Before I carry here I just want to thank you for all your value able advice here...I really appreciate it.

I am running Linux because I have come to despise windows (no offense to windows users out there)and I am in the process of configuring the best quality ripping and playing programs - there is some jiggering to do with it but I think it will work great.

So I do have one more question...my laptop runs USB 1.0 and the Cambridge audio website says for perfect transfer of the things you need is USB 2 or 3.0. If I were to get this converter, would USB 3.0 work better with it? As in it would provide a 'better' signal to convert. Its good to know that a new computer isn't the answer for sound quality - this is stuff I am interested in learning. 

I am considering a new mini computer anyway for logistical reasons as I think it would fit better as a media server for my whole entertainment setup but thank you much for clarifying the sound quality issue - it will help dramatically in deciding whether to buy a new computer, and if I do, what features to look for.

 

 

Mayfield 4
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holy cow Struts!

I just checked out the Halide bridge and it costs nearly as much as the custom media server I posted above! 

Perhaps (bear with me please) if I am thinking of this new media server I could the sound quality I am after using USB3.0 and the proper audiophile software on Ubuntu. I will also check with the builder of the computer and see if he can just build it with a digital coax.

Thanks again for all the info!

struts
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Let's try to straighten this out

I'm afraid I have confused things a bit here by answering questions with too little information, would have been simpler if I asked you to explain the background from the get go.  Sorry about that.

Despite my confusing explanations I think you have mostly got the right end of the stick.  Let me see if I can summarize:

1.  A well implemented DAC is more important than a well implemented transport.  A well implemented DAC will ignore or correct sources with high levels of jitter.  This is one of the few cases in audio where garbage in doesn't necessarily equal garbage out.  So before spending a lot of money on a transport you should spend as much as you intend to on a DAC.  Once you have the DAC of your dreams a better source can still improve the sound, although maybe only marginally depending on how well your DAC rejects jitter.

2.  There is a way of implementing a digital connection over USB that enables a very low jitter connection from just about any USB host.  It is called asynchrounous USB, DACmagic plus has asynchronous USB.  An asynchronous USB connection from a completely standard laptop can have less jitter than a S/PDIF connection from a high quality transport.  This has nothing to do with which version of the USB standard it is running over, USB 1.1 at 12 Mb/s is ample for CD-resolution material and more bandwidth doesn't improve things.  However USB is a bus, anything connected to it can use it, so the more devices you have hooked onto the bus the more contention there will be for that bandwidth.  In that sense dedicated audio compluters have an advantage, because the audio doesn't need to share the USB bus with a bunch of other devices.  USB disks are the worst because they transfer lots of data.  Connecting an external disk with the music on over USB and using a USB port on the same controller for the DAC connection is the absolutely worst scenario.  The data coming off the disc will be fighting the data going to the DAC for bandwidth. 

- Implication for you.  Since DACMagic plus has asynchronous USB so you should be able to get good sound from this input, even from your USB 1.1 laptop, and avoid any expense associated with high quality S/PDIF sources.  The Halide Bridge has a very high quality asynch USB input and a S/PDIF output so will effectively turn any DAC into a high quality USB DAC but on reflection I don't think it would be the right product for you, especially given the price of the Halide relative to the price of your DAC. 

- Implication for you.  You should be able to get decent sound via the USB connection, even with your existing laptop.  Remove any other USB peripherals and check the factors I mentioned earlier (full-resolution rips, full digital volume and no sound-altering plug-ins).  Does the Luxman still sound better??

3. If you are using a DAC the only thing the source component does is supply the bits.  Since most digital sources are bit-perfect (CD player unless the disc is damaged and PC if it is set up right - per earlier posts) then the only influence the transport can have on the sound quality is the amount of jitter in the signal.  Okay, some people believe there is something else influencing sound quality that we haven't discovered yet and I can't disprove that, but until we discover it i suggest we ignore it.

Implications for you:

- If one source sounds better that another on the same DAC input it is likely the better sounding one sounds better because it has less jitter.  Remember, jitter is very hard to measure properly and specs are likely to be misleading.  Home trials and comparing by ear is the only really reliable way to decide here.

- If one source sounds better than another on different DAC inputs then either it has lower jitter or the better sounding input is just better implemented in your particualr DAC.  Which of the two is pretty much impossible to ascertain so don't waste energy speculating about it.  It's just the way it is so accept it and act accordingly.

4.  A sound card typically has analog inputs (ADC) and outputs (DAC) for two, four or more channels.  Some additionally offer one or two (RCA and optical) digital outputs.  On a typical soundcard a digital output will be one very small piece of functionality that will account for a miniscule fraction of the cost of the card.

Implications for you:

- By all means get a new media PC, just don't bother to specify a soundcard if you only intend to replay via a USB DAC. 

- USB 2.0 vs 3.0 makes no difference at all for the audio stream (altough of course USB 3.0 is much faster which will improve the performance of other peripherals like discs but the additional bandwidth offers no benefits for audio fidelity). 

- However do specify at least two USB controllers (USB 2.0 or 3.0) so you can use one for connecting to the DAC and one for other peripherals (mouse, discs, BD drive etc.)

Summary:

Even though the measurements showed the RCA S/PDIF to have lower jitter than the USB in the tested configurations both were very good.  You should be able to get good sound from your existing PC over USB 1.1 if the rips are good and the replay environment is properly optimized.  If you try this and are still unhappy then you can start throwing money at the problem!

Hopefully this will help you decide your next steps.  Sorry for muddying the issue!

Mayfield 4
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sounds as good as CD! now onto the next step!

Thanks for all the help struts. You were quite right. I have been using gmusic browser through my usb 1.0 and that seemed to be the difference. The other player I was using just didn't sound quite right. Now with gmusicbrowser it sounds just as good as the luxman.

I did purchase a couple HD tracks though and it seems I can't output 92khz or 192khz (the resolution of the albums) with usb 1.0 (although the dac manual says I should). Tested it on a friends macbook using VLC player and it usb 2.0 and it output both 92 and 192.

struts
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You may be right..

..but the test you mention above certainly doesn't prove it. 

If I've understoood it correctly you're comparing your laptop with a completely different computer running a completely different media player, operating system, and USB device driver (essentially all the software and firmware the digital audio is passing through is completely different) yet you ascribe the difference in behavior, more-or-less arbitrarily as far as I can tell, to the different USB versions. You might just be right, but this is what an engineer would call "selective cause-effect linkage". 

Moreover 24/192 program requires 9.2 Mb/s of bandwidth, and USB 1.x is certified up to 12 Mb/s, so in theory bandwidth shouldn't be a problem (especially if the DAC has the USB controller all to itself, per earlier posts).

I would suggest posting on Cambridge Audio's forum (assuming the have one) and asking if any other customer is successfully able to play hi rez material over USB from a PC running Ubuntu before you dive in and buy a new machine.

Glad you're making progress anyway.

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