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Tabaplar
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Compact Computer Audio

Hi,

I'm fairly new audio, although I like to get things right and like learning as much as possible.

I'm in the process of setting up a small computer audio system. The primary input will be a Dell laptop, running iTunes, with most tracks as 192k MP3's (some higher, some lower, none lossless). I also stream audio from various sources as well. At some point in the future I hope to upgrade much of library to lossless.

I have a pair of Audioengine A2's on the way, which I'm expecting good things from given all the positive feedback that I've read.

Given the low quality of the source material, will the improvement offered by an external DAC like the NuForce uDAC-2, upcoming Audioengine D1 DAC, or HiFiMAN HM-101 be apparent?

Will the use of higher quality RCA cables between a DAC and speakers be any help?

If I get a DAC I'll be using a pair of Shure SE-215 earphones along with the A2's.

This will all be travelling we me on a plane so compact is key. Any setup or gear suggestions would be appreciated!!!

Great forum!!

jazzfan
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Tough to say

Hi Taba,

Pretty good question but unfortunately not that easy to answer. If it's true portability that you're after then you will have to make some compromises along the way. The system that you described (laptop feeding Audioengine speakers) ain't bad and it's doubtful whether or not the addition of an external DAC will add all that much to the overall sound. The best advice I can offer is for you to start with this highly portable system and listen to your mp3s, then as you begin to upgrade the mp3s to lossless do some A/B tests of the mp3s versus the lossless files and see if you can hear the difference. If you can't hear any difference then try to borrow an external DAC and run the tests again. If you can now hear the difference between the mp3s and the lossless files then you will know for sure that external DAC is a worthwhile upgrade. Just remember that each additional piece of equipment will require a power source, such as a small transformer, or "wall wart", and that means more space and more weight.

As for cables, please don't go overboard - any well made cable will do for this type of system.

Tabaplar
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Great Advice

Thanks for the advice Jazzfan. Very helpful and grounding.

I'll start with the powered speakers and go from there for now. I'll definitely stick to basic cables....although I'll probably get something a little more solid than the $2 stuff from Amazon that I have now. That stuff kind of scares me.

Truth be told, whether listening through my old home setup or through various decent quality earphones I can rarely detect a difference between my lower quality and higher quality MP3's. I'll try the same tracks in MP3 and lossless to investigate the differences and then maybe add an external DAC into the mix down the road.

I have noticed that Dell laptops seem to have relatively poor audio (through the 1/8" jack), at least compared to the iPhone, HP Touchpad, etc.

Speaking of lossless, what file format do you recommend?

Thanks again!

 

 

 

 

jazzfan
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Lossless

Thanks for the feedback.

Now onto more detailed recommendations.

I prefer and use flac for all my lossless digital audio files. However since you are using iTunes and iTunes does not recognize flac I would just use Apple lossless. The beauty of lossless is that lossless files can be converted from one lossless format to another without any loss in sound quality.

When using an external DAC connected to a laptop I am assuming that you would be using a USB connection. If this is the case then I would recommend that you look for a DAC specifically made to handle USB and that eliminates the jitter problems inherent in the USB connection. Check the main Stereophile web site for info on this subject.

BillB
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no extra cords

For the mentioned USB DACs, no wall-wart power supplies are used, they are self-powered through the USB cable, good news.

jazzfan
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Not 100% true
BillB wrote:

For the mentioned USB DACs, no wall-wart power supplies are used, they are self-powered through the USB cable, good news.

Bill,

While there be a few USB DACs that are powered via USB I don't believe this is the case for all DACs with a USB connection. Since I have no interest in USB DACs (I use various Squeezebox devices to listen to my computer based digital audio) I do know the specifics for every USB DAC but I know enough to know that many of them require their own power.

Tabaplar
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Joined: Dec 7 2011 - 4:42am
USB DAC

I believe the DAC's mentioned in the original post are USB powered (I'm really trying to minimize complexity). I'm commited to compact and cost effective for now.

In response to your suggestion about file types jazzfan, I ripped a track from a CD that I saw lying around at a friend's place (R.E.M. Drive, from Automatic For The People). I imported the track in 192kbps MP3, 320kbps MP3, Apple Lossless, and WAV and honestly....I really couldn't detect the differences. I *think* the lossless and WAV sounded just a little more spacious and crisp but it was really too close to call. This was through iTunes > my Dell's headphone jack > Shure se215 in-ear headphones.

I'm going to try a DAC and see if there is any notable difference (to my ears).

I have a pretty wide range of tastes, but I'm going to try a few different tracks during my listening tests. I'm thinking electronic (Radiohead Kid A), heavy rock (maybe White Stripes), acoustic-ish rock (maybe M. Ward), and classical (probably Chopin). Is this a good sample set? Any specific recommendations that will really expose differences in sound quality between file types?

I suppose the best sample set is whatever you listen to on a daily basis.

Tabaplar
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A2 Observations

Just an update,

I received the A2's from Audioengine recently, and....I think I'm impressed. Certainly with their clarity and sense of space. They feel surprisingly powerful but crisp and controlled too. And they do sound bigger than their size suggests.

It does seem like there is some muddiness in the midbass(?) frequencies though, at least on some tracks. And certain tracks sound 'different' to me than they do on other systems or headphones that I've used. Specifically, some vocals sound slightly higher in pitch overall. Weird, right?

I've only used them for a few hours so I'm thinking that the sound will even out a bit as they wear in.

There is plenty of bass impact, although I can definitely hear the low frequencies cutting off a little early....the lowest frequencies just aren't there, understandably given the size. With that in mind, I'm considering some kind of subwoofer, at least at some point. The Audioengine S8 subwoofer appears well designed, although I haven't found much feeback on line. And it's extremely heavy so not very portable (although it is compact).

Does anyone know of another compact sub that will work with powered speakers like the A2's that don't have a sub output?

 

 

 

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