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bobedaone
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advice on unleashing computer audio

Hi, binary brethren! I've been examining my options for computer audio recently. I'm a card-carrying (student ID?) member of the iPod generation, so computer-based digital audio is nothing new to me. I have a substantial (>100GB) music library and manage it with iTunes. Currently, I've been upgrading my stereo, as some of you who have read my posts asking for turntable and amplifier recommendations may recall. I've experimented with a couple ways to connect my computer to my system. I tried the painfully muddy Behringer UCA-202 USB I/O interface. At $35, I suppose I should not have expected its DAC to match the one in my $300 NAD 525, but it was not even tolerable. So, that item has taken up permanent residence in my cable drawer, populated chiefly by cheap interconnects and extension cords.
Before I bought the Behringer, I actually let my iMac's sound card feed my receiver directly with an inexpensive 1/8" jack-to-stereo RCA cable and it didn't sound half bad; far superior to the USB interface.
My goal is to achieve CD-quality sound (entry-level audiophile, guys ) from my computer, at least with my lossless files. If I had a bigger budget, I'd go all-out and get myself an Olive Musica, which would do everything I could ask for. Unfortunately, I have to stay grounded in college reality and limit myself a bit more.
As far as I can tell, I have 3 options at my price point (somewhere south of $200, if possible):

1. Stick with the humble but unoffensive mini jack solution (FREE!!!)

2. Purchase a decent used DAC and stream files through an Apple Airport Express and a TOSlink cable

3. Use the Airport with the mini jack cable, utilizing the router's internal DAC, although JA's review seems to indicate that sending the digital signal to a DAC

4. Feed the DAC directly via my computer's mini optical output and a TOSlink. This solution, as well as the mini jack cable, would obviously require having my computer very close to the stereo, which is less preferred logistically.

Is there a setup that I'm missing here? I'd love to hear your ideas. Also, if getting a DAC is the way to go (as I suspect it will be), what are your recommendations for something very affordable that sounds good? I've been thinking about maybe an Audio Alchemy DDE v1.2 or MSB Link III. An optical input is a requirement. If it's good enough to improve the sound of my CD player, that's icing on the cake. That duty would require a coaxial input, which just about every unit has. I want to liberate my files, and will accept small sonic compromises, but not drastic ones. Please feel free to share your experiences with implementing your own systems.

bobedaone
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

Oh, I forgot. Someone is selling Entech Number Cruncher 205.2s on eBay for $89. Is that DAC any good? Is it worth that kind of money or should I hold out for an older model from an "audiophile" brand? Thanks.

MLZ
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

I have a cheap HP Wintel machine. I first tried the minijack into the provided soundcard on the motherboard into my 2 channel receiver. Sound quality was poor.
I installed an M-Audio Revolution 5.1 internal sound card. Sound quality was much better, except it picked up a lot of noise whenever the machine read or wrote to the second hard drive I installed to hold my music collection (in lossless format) so I returned it to the seller.
I then purchased a SilverStone EB01 USB external soundcard (2-channel and with its own DAC) and now I am pretty happy.
I was on a low budget and both soundcards were below $90.00
Another option is to get a Slim Devices SqueezeBox (~$300), a Roku Soundbridge (~$200) or similar device and stream the music over your home network into your sound system.

bobedaone
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

Thanks for your input, MLZ. I'd love a Squeezebox and the Soundbridge is cool, but I'm trying to keep costs down because I recently dropped three bills on my new CD player. My recent experience with USB has more or less scared me away, but I'll keep an open mind.

struts
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

Dear Erik_B,

My friends will tell you that I am just as good, if not better, at spending other people's money as I am my own. Thanks for offering this forum an opportunity to do the same for you!

In this case (I hope you're sitting down) my advice would be to stick with what you have. Although I can't claim any experience whatsoever with the DAC options you're looking at, if it's audiophile sound quality you're after then I doubt any will give you really long-term satisfaction. A good DAC will indeed lift the quality of all your digital sources so I would consider a good one a worthwhile investment.

John Marks has a lovely phrase about sitting on the merry-go-round and being pecked to death by the ducks (search the archives). Basically the merry-go-round is the endless micro-upgrade spiral and the ducks are either the quick hits of audiophile crack or the dealers who supply them (but you can quit any time you want to, right?) Anyway, counting up a lifetime's collection of duck-peck scars on my mighty audiophile rear end I would have to agree with him.

So my considered advice would be enjoy what you have, secretly relishing the knowledge that you are diligently saving towards your purchase of a Benchmark DAC-1, Grace m902, Wavelength Brick or whatever as soon as funds allow. One of those products could keep you happy for ten, twenty years or forever and you'll be sitting pretty right on the inflection point of the diminishing returns curve. Of course if you're studying law there's no need to stop there...

Audio dealers' kids need to go to college too, and I for one have been an enthusiastic donor to the cause. My advice is that while funds are tight, sit back and let others do the heavy lifting.

Also, on request, I can supply suggestions for much more fun ways to spend the $200!

Good luck!

Elk
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

The DAC's you are considering are wonderful for the money and are excellent options. I think they would keep you very happy as long as the rest of your system is relatively modest. Once you get a good headphone amp/headphones or other better equipment you will start hearing the limitations of these DAC's. But again, good thinking on your part!

It's a tough call. If you can postpone gratification and live with the distance between the desire and the object of desire for a while you may want to hold out for a Benchmark DAC1 (for example). This instantly gives you an excellent headphone amp and an excellent DAC which will do a great job for you for a long time.

I agree with Struts, better sound is like horsepower in cars (enough is never enough) and just as addicting. Finding a happy medium that allows you to truely enjoy your system so that you are not impatient to upgrade is an art in and of itself.

BTW, I have an Olive server and like it. However the sound out of its analog outs is simply good, not great, so I use an external DAC. Your computer works just as well as a server so stick with it and aim for upgrading the DAC.

Happy Audiophiling!

(Are you at the U of M? Great school!)

bobedaone
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

Thanks struts and Elk! I think your arguments that I should hold out for a truly excellent DAC are valid, guys. As much as I want a nice DAC, though, a purchase like that is barely on the radar screen. An amplifier (I'm using a Sony receiver right now. lame) and a turntable are higher on my list and it will be awhile before I have either of those. Digital is something of a side-project for me because I believe in investing my money where I'll realize the most joy, which for me is in LP playback. That being said, digital is still the future and I'm married to it at this point, for better or worse. The Benchmark DAC1 makes me salivate and is something I'd love to have eventually, perhaps when I graduate. And yes, Elk, I attend U of M. Go Blue!

bobedaone
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

I went ahead and got an Audio Alchemy DDE v1.2 with its companion power supply. I already have a mini optical-to-toslink cable of high quality, so I'll go straight from my computer for now and maybe add an Airport Express soon so that my iMac isn't tethered to my system. I don't know a lot about DAC technology, but my impression is that it's similar to computers in that the technology improves and the price falls over time. The AA is a decade old. Is there any chance that it could improve the sound of my new CD player ($300)? In other words, is it worth getting a digital coax cable to find out, or will my NAD necessarily have better processing capabilities?

Elk
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

I agree, DAC's are like computers; the newer ones are much better than tht eolder units overall.

NAD makes very good sounding equipment so it may very well sound as good as the DAC (or better).

I suggest trying listening to the same CD played back by your computer (lossless file) into the DAC versus the CD player to learn if there is a difference.

Keep in mind that that a composite video cable is also 75 ohm and makes a good coaxial S/PDIF digital interconnect. You might have one of these around to play with.

struts
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Re: advice on unleashing computer audio

Trying to predict if older but theoretcially higher-end equipment will sound better than newer theoretially more modest gear is a favourite preoccupation on these forums. It is very hard to do by guesswork alone unless you have a lot of experience but Elk's suggested comparison should give you a very good indicator indeed.

If the outcome of that test is in the AA's favour then a S/PDIF cable of good basic quality can be had for as little as $13.50 for 3 feet, for instance the Belden 1694A available here. So even if you don't already have a cable lying around this definitely doesn't need to break the bank.

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