Computer Audio @ SSI

The Computer Audio 2010 seminar on Saturday was very well-attended—I barely managed to get a seat. The presentation was by Steve Silberman of Ayre Acoustics, with technical commentary by John Atkinson. Silberman took an admirably generic and non-partisan approach, barely mentioning Ayre products, and refusing to answer the question "Should I get a Mac or a PC?" I've taken a wait-and-see approach to the whole computer audio subject, and Silberman did not convince me it's time to introduce a computer into my audio system, but I must say that he did an excellent job of describing the options, and if I were to take the plunge I would certainly use the information on the Ayre web site.

Some of Silverman's statements were intriguing—and sure to give grief to the bits-are-bits folks. In discussing USB cables, he said that the cheap generic cables can significantly limit sound quality. Yes, USB cables have a sound! There are three USB cables that Ayre recommends: Cardas, AudioQuest, and Transparent, none very expensive. For a computer dedicated to sound reproduction, Silberman recommends having 8GB or more memory (for those with 64-bit operating systems; a 32-bit OS will only handle up to 4GB of RAM). Less than 8GB will work, but won't sound as good. Perhaps most puzzling: the sound will be better if instead of a conventional spinning hard drive the computer is equipped with solid-state memory to store the operating system. This is in spite of the fact that the music computer files themselves are stored on an external hard drive of the conventional sort. "Why does this sound better? We don't know. But it does." There are more things in heaven and earth. . . (In later discussion, JA suggested that some of these effects may stem from hard-drive access stressing the power supply and introducing datastream jitter.)

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AlexO's picture

After an hour or two of suggesting to an already pre-disposed audience that premium USB cables make a difference, the audience miraculously decided that this was indeed the case. I'm sure they were unanimous in their decision as well. Bravo! A job well done!

Steve Silberman's picture

He AlexO- The point of the talk was to answer questions about computer audio and offer some suggestions that may help improve peoples computer based audio systems.We were just as surprised that USB cables sound different. Have you tried this yourself and if so, where and with what cables. If you,re ever in the Boulder/Denver area and you'd like to stop by for a tour and a listen I'd be happy to switch cables and you can post your conclusions. Thanks,Steve

AlexO's picture

Hi Steve,I don't believe my subjective assessment would be conclusive. Sometimes we hear the differences we want to hear. Assuming USB cables make a difference, what is it about the construction of the premium cables that makes them better? What is it that the cable manufacturers know that you or I don't know? Which properties have they identified that result in their cables being better? I assume they're still within the USB specification. An audience that's been predisposed to hearing cable differences, that has been subjected to a protracted lecture on how cables make a difference will most likely "hear" that difference when offered a chance. Their conclusions are hardly indicative of anything.I appreciate the offer of an audition, however, I am currently in South East Asia and I don't anticipate coming back to the States any time soon.

Steve Silberman's picture

Hello Alex-Thanks for the note. Please let me know what country you are in and I will set up a listening session for you at my distributor. Then you will know if there are improvements to be made or not from USB cables. Best,Steve

AlexO's picture

Thanks Steve, but as I mentioned before, my subjective assessment wouldn't be indicative of anything. Besides, my time can be better spent than sitting around, trying to figure out whether USB cables sound any different. It's a ridiculous endeavor.

Steve Silberman's picture

Hello Alex-A blind test would be simple. Our distributor would change the cables but you would not know which ones you were listening to. That way you could not be influenced either way."Besides, my time can be better spent than sitting around, trying to figure out whether USB cables sound any different. It's a ridiculous endeavor."Interesting statement. You seem to have the time to comment on this thread so I would assume you'd have the time to prove this notion true or false. Regards,Steve

AlexO's picture

Steve,If you read my comments above, I've been consistent in that I do not believe a subjective test of USB cables to be meaningful. Even if I "heard" the difference, I wouldn't necessarily know if I'd hear that difference the next day. Furthermore, it takes me 30 seconds to answer this thread, whereas it would take me quite some time to plan the logistics of a trip to see your distributor, spend time there waiting for the setup and figuring out the logistics of a set up to see whether various components, settings and drivers are configured properly, etc. It's an all day affair and I really have no inclination to spend a day or even half a day doing this.

Steve Silberman's picture

Hello Alex-I'm curious. When you purchased something in the past, such as a disc player, did you listen to it and possibly compare it among other brands? Was your decision based on your subjective preference for the sound of the product you chose?Steve

Steve Silberman's picture

Hello Alex-I'm curious. When you purchased something in the past, such as a disc player, did you listen to it and possibly compare it among other brands? Was your decision based on your subjective preference for the sound of the product you chose?Steve

AlexO's picture

My purchasing decisions are complex and are based on a number of factors. I do research to familiarize myself with the products. Then, I decide which features are important. Then, I decide which players will provide me with the best value and then I listen to the few models that fall within the outlined criteria. However, please note that a major process takes place BEFORE I audition anything and one of the major factors has to do with whether or not something makes sense. For example, I would not run out and audition a pet rock just because there are people out there who claim that a strategically placed pet rock will enhance my listening experience, tighten the bass, extend the highs, etc. At this stage of the game, the claimed differences among USB cables fall within the pet rock realm.

Steve Silberman's picture

So did you pick the one that sounded the best?

AlexO's picture

I never bothered to audition the pet rocks. I figured it was a safe bet that they would have no bearing on the sound.

Steve Silberman's picture

The granite ones sound far better then the marble. Since you like to dance, let me be more specific. When you made your final decision on your last audio component purchase; did you pick the one that sounded the best? "Define is..."Bill Clinton

AlexO's picture

The components I bought were the ones that I thought were the best value.

Steve Silberman's picture

Hi Alex-I guess you're going to continue to dodge the question, which is did the sound of the product have anything to do with your decision. Because if you admitted to that, you would contradict your original statement,"I don't believe my subjective assessment would be conclusive."

AlexO's picture

I answered your question. You asked me whether the product that I bought was the BEST sounding of the bunch. My answer was that the product that I bought was what I considered to be the best VALUE. That means that there were other considerations at play such as reliability, price, support, etc. So, to clarify my answer: I did not necessarily buy the best sounding player. Furthermore, even if I did, it would not contradict my statement because my buying decision has NOTHING to do with objective facts. My SUBJECTIVE opinion of whether cables tend to sound differently on a particular occasion does not PROVE anything. The proof is in the pudding. Once the USB cables can reliably and consistently transfer digital data from one device to another, and the data is consistently identical, they are PROVEN to work. Therefore, they will not affect the sound of a digital music stream to an external DAC. I don't buy into John's argument that USB cables affect jitter ESPECIALLY when jitter can be addressed quite easily with a small buffer. So, a properly designed USB DAC will not be susceptible to jitter and should be capable of being used with ANY USB cable that meets the USB spec. End of story. There's no magic here, there's no voodoo and there's no bullshit arguments.

John Atkinson's picture

" I don't buy into John's argument that USB cables affect jitter ESPECIALLY when jitter can be addressed quite easily with a small buffer."In what world, AlexO? I referred you earlier to the jitter measurements in my many reviews of digital products that suggest that eliminating the effect of jitter upstream of the DAC is not as easy as you suggest. Did you not look at those measurements?

AlexO's picture

John,A buffer with a reclocking circuit will address most of the jitter issues. Try measuring pro grade equipment rather than the audiophile stuff that's been designed by god knows who. Besides, one thing's for certain is that cables will not be able to reduce jitter.

John Atkinson's picture

"A buffer with a reclocking circuit will address most of the jitter issues."Repeating the statement doesn't make it true, AlexO."Try measuring pro grade equipment rather than the audiophile stuff that's been designed by god knows who."Which products are you referring to, AlexO. I have done jitter measurements on a number of pro-audio devices. Like consumer equipment, they vary widely in their rejection of jitter, with a Daniel Weiss product being among the best and a Behringer converter being among the worst. It is too simplistic to divide the audio world into "pro-audio = good; high-end audio - bad" as you appear to be doing.And a final thought on the subject of cables: none of the cables discussed are expensive. Compare them with the cheapest and if you don't hear any difference, then the matter is resolved.Why aren't you willing to try that under your preferred blind conditions, as has been proposed?

AlexO's picture

Hi John,The reason I'm reluctant to do a test is because it is very time and effort consuming. I would have to check the settings on the computer to ensure that all is as it should be, try multiple DACs, etc. Too much time, too much effort, not worth the bother. Why don't you try measuring the jitter using various cables. This would be far more conclusive than whether or not I hear a difference.

David's picture

I had a Digital Audio Workstation a few years back running Windows 98SE with Allegro 2002 feeding a MIDI stream to GigaStudio with a real sampled piano. The purpose was to generate piano pieces.On the DAW, I had an M-Audio sound card which I used to feed the analog output via RCA connectors to my high-end audio system to monitor the sound.The sound does not come close to the sound I get with my Kinergetics KCD-40 CD player in my high-end audio system.I would like to put my entire CD collection on a hard drive, or the flash memory replacement for the hard dire when that happens on mass. I am watching the industry for a commercial product, or I may go DIY.I write about my high-end audio system in my web page http://This1That1Whatever.com/blog/h/high-end-audio-who-cares.php.

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