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Even more Musical Fidelity V-DAC versus the Cambridge Audio DacMagic

I’ve become increasingly interested in hard disk playback of audio and the many variables, that each creates a slightly different playback quality.  I’m increasingly beginning to believe that jitter while it’s become the well known bête noire of the audio industry is not the only serious concern.

I was listening yesterday to the Cambridge DacMagic connected to my HP2133 via USB. The sound quality was really unpleasant: especially in the treble where it was very splashy and relentless. I then connected the DacMagic via an optical isolating USB hub.  Not a practical solution as the hub, which is designed more for medical applications, is more expensive than the Cambridge. I won’t say the music was transformed into something truly audiophile but it was significantly better. The splashy quality was still there but much less obvious, the sound was more three dimensional and the bottom end was easier to follow. Realistically the jitter shouldn’t have changed (much). If anything, one would perhaps expect jitter to have increased but the sound was definitely better.

Today I played the DacMagic versus the V-Dac both connected via USB and using the USB isolating hub.  I think I can here now where the differences in opinion between CA and MF come from.  Back to Bananarama: Robert DeNiro’s waiting and the Cambridge sounds faster but the MF has a more airy 3D feel which is instantly appealing.  As I listen for longer though I become aware of a irritating quacky quality to sibilants from the MF.

Bananarama isn’t the last word in great quality recording so I chose Tumbleweed from Bill Miller’s album Reservation Road, a live recording of Bill singing and playing guitar. Again the MF does an excellent job and had I not compared it with the DM, I would have been happy.  The Cambridge just has more dynamics; it goes quieter.  Bill’s guitar playing  improved as it was now possible to easily here how hard he was strumming.  On this track the DM had the better sense of acoustic space and, most important of all, it communicated the passion of the song.

A friend is popping round tomorrow so I’ll play all this stuff to him and see if we hear any more differences.

Previous post on the comparison

My sentiments entirely

Very interested to read on Amarra’s website and I paraphrase ‘it’s easy to make music sound good on a computer but hard to make it sound fabulous’.  I think they have been listening to my conversations.

Next week I’m in Munich for the High End show and by coincidence will be sharing a booth (or to be more exact one of my clients Thorens is sharing a booth) themed Sources of the Future – as it’s vinyl and streaming – with Higoto who are Germany’s streaming experts.

The demos will be of Thoren’s new Tri-Balance turntable, the Logitech Transporter and a Macbook running iTunes with the Amarra software into a Weiss DAC.

Should be very interesting.  It’ll bring out all the digits is digits posts again, especially as Amarra is around $1500.  That means the price of Mac Book Pro , Amarra and DAC will be around £5-6k.  Cheaper than my CD player. But will it deliver as much?

Will it be fabulous hi-fi or fabulous music?

Don’t you just love iTunes not

For reasons mainly to do with a second interest after music/hi-fi, I’m often swapping computers and playing about. Nearly every application on this planet is easier to reinstall, without losing stuff, than iTunes.

I’ve just moved to the beta of Windows 7 because even in beta it’s more stable that Vista. To give it a fair chance I thought I should start with a clean install. Sorted everything out but bloody iTunes. Haven’t lost the apps for the iPhone but have lost all the music on the hard drive. Not the one I installed Win 7 on – I’m not that stupid yet, but a second drive used for miscellaneous data and iTunes.

Luckily the music is still on my iPhone but getting it back to my HD seems to be very difficult. I’ve done it before but that was when it seemed to be possible to tell the iPod it was a HD. Doesn’t seem possible with the iPhone.

I’m sure someone out there will tell me it’s easy. Hopefully.

ASIO v K Mixer v Kernel Streaming

Computer audio seems to generate emotions when discussing what products to use that really are odd. Why do people get  so wound up?  I’d be interested in your comments. Ideally one would take a computer, connect a good DAC and play one’s favourite music using one’s favourite app.

If only it were that simple to get a great sound from CA.  The more I experiment the more I realise that CA is absolutely similar to analog audio or indeed any audio when taken seriously.  Every change is audible. Assuming one has a good enough system.

Of course, just because a change is audible doesn’t mean it matters.

The expression bandied about on forums about Computer Audio is bit transparent.  The theory is simple: it’s getting the bits from the Hard Drive out of the computer without them being manipulated/changed in any way.

I’ve tried many music playing apps and they all seem to sound subtly different.  Even different releases of iTunes are reported to sort different.  Life is far to short to bother to try different releases.  As they say, I tried it once and didn’t like it.

For convenience for quick playback I tend to use VLC www.videolan.org.  It seems to play almost everything audio and video and can even stream stuff over  my network.  It works well for Radio Paradise too.

If I want to get serious say when I’m comparing DACs I tend to use Foobar.  It’s not my favourite user experience but it is easily configurable. For use under Win XP it’s possible to use the ASIO add in to bypass the K Mixer (assuming you have a suitable sound card). I use the M-Audio Transit. For Vista the WASAPI add in also bypasses the Windows (Kernel Mixer aka K Mixer) mixer.  With volumes set at 100% one should be achieving bit transparency and the sound should be just that little bit cleaner, less splashy and the space between notes will be greater somehow.

CA still never gets truly close to good CD playback.  Not yet for me anyway.  And it’s not ’cause I haven’t tried hard.

It’s a bit simpler with a Mac (the classic Mac and a DAC route) assuming you remember to set the right bit depth and bit rate in the Midi settings but I can’t say it sounds any better.

Another DacMagic power supply trial

Decided to use Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but slightly more unusually, the DVD-A rip so the source is 24/96. Unlike quite a few DVD-As, this one appears to have some content above 22k. Amazing though, that given the total available dynamic range they still needed to ‘clip’ the recording.  Still sounds rather good though.
To start I compared the standard power supply with the Maplin L54BR.  Pleasant surprise, the Maplin delivers a subtlety of delivery that doesn’t emphasise any particular instruments. The original PS, in comparison, seems to make the bass line and the hi-hat a little more obvious in the mix of Dreams and decreases the importance of Stevie Nick’s voice.

Using track 7 , The Chain, showed the original as having a slightly ‘sharper’ delivery, more detail perhaps but certainly less music. The main difference was in the low end but this changed the overall presentation. The Maplin just delivered more music but in a controlled and balanced manner.

I then dug out the 500VA transformer I’d tried before – now in an aluminium box and with a ferrite on the output – in common with the original Dacmagic’s supply.  This PS delivered more power to the presentation, more extension apparently  but was slightly slower. It had better separation of instruments, but not really more music.

The more comparisons of power supplies I do with the Dacmagic the more impressed I am of the overall balance of the design.

I will carry on using the Maplin PS.  It is easier to hide away, as it isn’t a walwart, and more importantly it improves the performance making it just that little more balanced and even handed.

The music playback system was a HP2133 netbook running Foobar and ASIO drivers connected by USB2 to a M-Audio Transit sound card which was connected with a  Chord Optichord to the Cambridge.

Wolfgang’s Vault

This site should truly sort the music lover from the hi-fi lover.  Register for free on www.wolfgangsvault.com and listen to a choice of a huge amount of live recordings of great bands from years ago.  So far I’ve listened to Elton John, Black Sabbath, Little Feat and  Grateful Dead.  There’s enough music to keep me listening for weeks.

Sound quality is generally rather good.  Good in a bandwidth limited, obviously live but solid sort of way, but one recording did sound as if it was made of a fluttery cassette.

I played it back from my HP2133 into a M-Audio Transit into my Behringer SRC2496 upsampling to 24/88 all feeding my Naim system.  Maybe a bit OTT but well worth the effort.

Thanks to John Atkinson, editor of Stereophile mag for bring this superb resource to my attention

Highly recommended