If you're one of those people in search of the holy grail of audio fidelity, there's no doubt that using a PC as a complete front-end solution has probably crossed your mind at one time or another. Saving your entire music library to a hard drive and having all your favorite tracks just a few clicks away is certainly appealing, but what about the sound playback quality? Can it compete with dedicated disc transports costing thousands of dollars?

If you haven't made the move to using a PC as your front-end player, perhaps you've been deterred by the fact that PC's lack the dedicated audio engineering that we find in high-end disc spinners. Or, like me, you brought a cheap CD player and modified it to the nines and are now reluctant to invest your time in starting afresh. Such was my case until a couple of months ago when my aging Pioneer PD-S801 gave up the ghost, leaving me scrambling to find a suitable replacement.

I'd invested so much time into the PDS-801; just about every aspect of the machine had been changed somehow. Modifications to the unit included a directly heated triode output stage, fitting a low jitter master clock, replacing all audio critical electrolytic capacitors with ultra low ESR types, and replacing the stock power circuitry with ultra low noise wide bandwidth voltage regulators. Most of the inspiration for these modifications came from cruising DIY audio forums, where other obsessive-compulsive audio crazed folk like me tend to hang out.

Frequenting such places again in my time of need, I noticed that the buzzword in audiophile circles regarding ultimate digital playback now revolves around using PCs to store and playback music rather than the very best standalone transports that money can buy. It seems the buzz is primarily about three things. The first is the prospect of bit perfect data retrieval when using a suitable lossless format to burn your compact discs to a hard drive. The second is using DRC (digital room correction) to help compensate for listening room resonance and reflections. The third, using software based digital crossovers, thus overcoming passive crossover insertion losses and allowing for a more cohesive integration of drive units in multi-driver speakers.

My previous experiments using a PC with mid-budget consumer grade soundcards fell short of providing the resolution, sound staging, and detail retrieval of the modified Pioneer player. I'd put the differences down to the rampant levels of noise present inside of a PC case. After all, when it comes to soul-stirring audio reproduction, ultra low noise clean DC power is a must, and that's not something that we associate with your typical computer PSU. Computer PSUs are primarily designed to supply huge amounts of current on demand, within a certified noise band of course, but nowhere near the quality we find in a dedicated linear power supply. Hence, serious audio playback requires a soundcard designed to deal with the shortcomings of the PC's internal environment.

This leads us back towards pro audio gear used by recording engineers such as the M-Audio and Lynx range of soundcards. Most of the physical differences between pro audio solutions and your basic consumer oriented product can be put down to better components, trace routing, voltage regulation, and power supply decoupling. In addition, the pro cards feature low latency drivers that bypass Microsoft's K-Mixer and can be used with specialized software allowing all sorts of signal rerouting and manipulation. This adds up to making the pro audio offerings flexible enough for people wanting to engage DRC in a fully customized multichannel setup.

Although user reports on some of the internal pro soundcards are very favorable, my interests are stoked by external affairs. An external box presents far more interesting possibilities and flexibility to me when it comes to power supply and output stage modifications. Both are things that I'm too twitchy to leave alone and unchanged until the unit either dies under the knife or gives me what I want in terms of sonics.

One such solution revolves around using the Texas Instruments 270* range of USB - I2S and S/PDIF converter chips, which are used in several commercial outboard DACs that are rumored to be capable of upstaging even the most expensive standalone players. Better still, a range of attractively priced DIY DAC kits based on the Texas Instruments receiver chips are available that utilize levels of engineering found in commercial products costing much more. The unfortunate upshot with the TI 270* family of converters is that they're designed for two-channel use only. Those demanding external multichannel audio units will have to look towards Pro FireWire audio boxes or standalone units like the Behringer DCX2496, which has more functionality than most of us will ever need. If two-channel playback is sufficient then Logitech's Squeezebox music streamer also deserves a mention. Both the DCX2496 and Squeezebox are products that have been thoroughly adulterated by DIY masterminds and there are plenty of commercial or DIY modification packages available for both units that elevate their performance.

We aim to put some of these products to the test in the coming months while also focusing on commercial loudspeakers, disc players, and amplifiers for a range of budgets from pocket friendly to the spare-no-expense league. Today, we will take a brief look at two DIY DAC kits that we've built up and have been subjectively listening to for the past few weeks. We'll also be looking at PC-based DRC in the form of a software package called Audiolense 3.0 using some open baffle single driver speakers from 3D Sonics. If any of this tomfoolery interests you, read on....

The Test System
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  • Rajinder Gill - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    DRC - ease of use and range of control, plus taking care of things in the digital realm rather than in the analogue.You could fudge some control with a multi band digital equaliser and the means to measure the response, but it'd be damn tedious and utimately limited.
    Reply
  • Christobevii3 - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    What about using a dts/ddl sound card to output to a basic receiver? Reply
  • Rajinder Gill - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    If going to the nth degree for 2 channel it’s hard to look past USB-I2S in async. For multichannel, a DTS/DDL card is perfectly adequate. Although I’d still use an external solution if I could find one. Reply
  • wolrah - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    How do you figure I2S is any better than S/PDIF? S/PDIF supports up to 20 bit resolution at either 48 or 44.1 KHz, so it can carry a CD audio stream natively. The bits on the disc are the bits flowing out the optical port on the back of your gear of choice.

    In theory an I2S signal will be able to take more interference, but when we're talking optical signals in a home environment the kind of interference needed to make a difference would be on the scale that you'd never be able to listen to anything.
    Reply
  • Goty - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    Well that's easy to answer:

    Nope. I'll stick with my Martin Logans, tyvm.
    Reply
  • wolrah - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    In fact it easily can, because plain and simple reading from the disc itself is error prone. A one time rip to WAV or [lossless format of your choice] using cdparanoia on its insane mode output through a high quality sound card will be the same as or better than any silly 4 digit CD player.

    Even playing straight off the disc, there's no reason to believe any "audiophile" gear will play a CD any better than any other CD player unless there's a design flaw like a crappy power supply.


    On the note of power supply, am I the only one who laughed at the bit about the battery vs. the wall wart? Who wants to bet that he's never double-blind tested that one. That's the wonderful thing with A/V gear snake oil, it's very easy to hear what you want to hear.
    Reply
  • mindless1 - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    I've hand-built amps for years and double-blind tested batteries and wall warts. Yes there is a difference. A good (read: overkill for anyone not into building audiophile equipment) localized power filter stage, if not localized regulation, would ideally negate the difference between the two power sources but that can also unnecessarily increase the build complexity, time, and cost.

    PS the battery is almost always inferior assuming the wart has proper shielding or is inadequate in capacity, and generally I refer to a wart as only a transformer and rectification stage, not trying to build an entire high precision linear regulation stage inside of it due to limited space and EMI.
    Reply
  • Rajinder Gill - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    Martin Logan makes electrostatic loudspeakers if I recall.I'm not sure where that fits into using a PC as a transport and for DRC. Unless you're refering to the approval of open baffle design loudspeakers using te supravox drivers?

    Reply
  • plonk420 - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    this is surreal...

    my $20 Chaintech AV-710 just died in the last 48 hours. i've been trying to resist the Head-Fi audiophile talk and try to find cooler heads to verify whether or not i should go X-Fi or DAC (something silly looking like the HotAudio HotUSB1 or Silverstone), or try to figure out if i'm experiencing the placebo effect "falling back upon" my ALC883, which i can swear "doesn't sound as good" EVEN THOUGH i'm fully aware of the power of placebo.

    i'm not sure i liked the mixed bag of positive and negative reports on (cheap) X-Fi vs Xonar vs X-Fi USB vs some DAC vs E-Mu 0404/0202
    Reply
  • mindless1 - Monday, December 01, 2008 - link

    Choose a Creative card for gaming sound effects. Choose a DIY DAC for highest audio quality at a reasonable price. Buying some cheap commodity grade DAC is a gamble, I'm not familiar with those two products you mentioned but generally in the consumer segment and price range you end up buying an idea, a type of tech but not excellence in that execution.

    MOtherboard integrated audio usually doesn't sound as good including one using ALC883, though someone with poor hearing or gear may notice the difference less and less depending on where the weakest link in the chain is and how bad it is.
    Reply

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