For many years I have worked with USB audio and having started in the CD era, having fully missed the vinyl era, I was not wanton for that rich analog sound. I was okay with the super crisp and clear digital, and mainly adjusted components and speakers to manage the often shrill digital sonic signature.
No question the analog sound is richer than early digital, and even today there are many digital systems that do not match the feel of vinyl. I have a vinyl setup now, mainly for the novelty, though I do enjoy the spinning record. My DAC just sits there, doesn’t even blink: the analog spin is nice. The popping noises bother me, I don’t like the idea that my speakers are taking abuse from a needle that literally scratches and degrades a piece of plastic, seems so primitive.
This paper is about my views on how to get the richest most detailed sound possible out of your computer, with quality, detail, and feel surpassing all other mediums, even vinyl.
I know this because I have tested high-quality vinyl recordings against their digital counterparts, and with a correctly configured computer and DAC I can unequivocally say that digital is superior in every way to vinyl. With the critical caveat that the digital system is properly configured. You have to do it right!
I like to use the baking analogy: try making a cake without following the recipe, just add ingredients at will, and see what you end up with. It is likely, even mathematically, that a functional cake can never result from random amounts of ingredients. You simply must follow the instructions in order to succeed. The very same thing is needed here, if you want to experience the best in audio, you must ensure the fundamentals are in place.
All you must do is follow some simple guidelines and you will be able to enjoy the richest and most pleasing music your ears have ever heard. That’s a big statement, so let me qualify it: these are my views, this is my recipe for my cake. Some people will likely not like what I have to say about some things, well, that is okay, all I am saying here is that if you follow my recipe, you’re going to get what I believe to be the best sound possible.
Now, what if you could get vinyl sound from a digital source, with all the convenience and low cost of digital? That’s the Holy Grail of digital audio, that rich vinyl sound without the pops or source degradation. I can play a DSD file over and over with no losses, not ever, and no pops. It’s rich, detailed, and sounds exactly as it should: the computer does a great job sending and receiving data, and it’s a real simple task for it to process even the highest resolution audio. Streaming music to a DAC from literally any laptop, it’s going to sound great, there is ample processing power to get that data to the DAC with no issues. There is no need to re-clock, resample, regenerate, or anything else, the computer is perfectly suited for this task.
It does not have to be expensive to sound great. This has been a real disconnect for high-end audio for a long time. The computer is the ultimate democratizer, if that’s a word! We can now all have absolutely pristine audio fed via inexpensive DAC’s to any amplifier and speaker setup. The source you’re providing is so clean, and so crisp, that it makes everything sound great!!
Start with a computer, it can be a cheap laptop, but it has to have a USB port on it. You then need to get some decent music software, and I don’t care what you get though I have had really good success with JRiver. You don’t need an SSD or solid-state drive, or anything fancy. Really any laptop made within the last five years or so should be totally suited to give you the best audio experience of your life, and for a long, long time to come, because it doesn’t stop producing great audio even as it ages. Remember, the files never degrade. Don’t worry about storage, it’s a non-issue today.
You need a USB capable DAC, and those are everywhere, and at every price point. Let’s go through what matters on these DAC’s, because at the end of the day they actually have a lot more in common than you might expect.
First, are you going to listen with headphones, or speakers, or both? That may determine the type of DAC you want, it may cost more for a headphone amp and controls, and maybe you don’t need the DAC to function as a pre-amplifier. Buy what you need and what you’ll use, though there are some important things to consider.
Two key things: the DAC chip and the power supply. This is very important. For the DAC chip I cannot recommend anything but the Sabre ESS line of DAC chips. They are just the best performing DAC’s and decode everything like DSD, etc. Many DAC’s have these chips, so be sure to make sure that you know the type of DAC chip before you buy it. Price does not equate to better sound here because even DAC’s costing thousands of dollars have the very same processing chips as the $250 USB DAC’s that are sold on Amazon, eBay, etc. It’s how you implement that matters here, and power supply is a critical factor.
If you can find a good USB DAC that is powered 100% by the USB cable, you are going to have one less area to manage, that of the DAC power supply. The ones that plug into the wall are very hard to optimize because wall power is just terrible in terms of voltage regulation. People spend a lot of money on power regenerators and power cords, etc., all to manage the power coming out of the wall. I cannot stress enough just how important it is to give the DAC super clean power, from the wall and from the computer. The DAC will determine how everything downstream sounds, like the amps and speakers. So if the source of the signal is not absolutely optimized you’re just not going to get the best experience.
For DAC’s powered by the USB cable you only need to manage the computer power. The USB Disruptor is designed for this condition and can easily feed the DAC with tightly regulated power to run its analog output stages, DAC chips, and USB components. The USB Disruptor is like a self-powered USB cable, and it blocks the dirty computer power and replaces it with clean power. This makes a very big difference downstream, after the DAC. What comes out of your speakers is decidedly better, and very noticeable. I have tried nearly every other method to produce the cleanest digital audio from a standard laptop computer. The USB Disruptor combined with a USB DAC, JRiver media software running on a standard laptop, quality HD music from HDTracks.com, and a certified USB cable should give you the best and most dynamic music reproduction experience you have heard from your setup to date. You just can’t get the data dense recordings out of any other electronic medium. And if you do it right, it’s really an amazing audio experience.
Many, many greatly designed USB DAC’s are out there that can accept a DC power supply, like a wall wart. I have had great success using the iFi line of power products. They use a noise cancelling technology, it’s so smart and simple, and seems to work. In a nutshell, it takes the wall power and copies the exact signal, and then inverts it, all really, really, fast and it drops the wall noise floor to almost 0, almost unmeasurable. Really awesome! I’ve used DAC’s that can accept DC inputs for 5v, 12v, and 15v power supplies.
The best thing you can do is find a DAC that either is powered by the USB cable, and in this case you’ll use a USB Disruptor to supply it with super clean power for the analog output stages, amplification, the DAC chips, and USB components, or one that can accept a super clean power DC input, and look into the iFi line of active noise cancelling power supplies for that, and use the USB Disruptor to power the USB portion of the DAC.
These steps are critical, you have to treat the power coming from the wall and coming from the computer.
One last item on the computer side, the JRiver software has a section where you pick the appropriate computer driver. When you plug your DAC in for the first time it will likely automatically load whatever drivers are needed onto your computer. It will eventually tell you that a device has been installed, this is generally what to expect though there are some variants. Sometimes you have to load a driver to get certain DAC’s to work right. On the JRiver application you select tools and then options. The options screen shows which DAC is currently connected; it should show the name of your DAC. Click on the down arrow to expand the list to see all the options. What you may also notice is that your DAC appears several times with words like “ASIO”, “Direct Sound”, or “WASAPI.” You want to make certain that you select the option that has the name of your DAC with WASAPI. This is very important because with WASAPI the computer will devote the most resources to streaming your music, at least that is my overall understanding of WASAPI. So be sure to check this one thing.
You’ll also want to disable the volume in the JRiver application. All you have to do is click on the speaker icon in the upper left-hand corner and it will give you the option to bypass JRiver’s volume. You want the bitperfect signal going to your DAC, nothing else to color it.
Go and download some high-resolution tracks and try them out. You will likely be stunned by the outcome, because if you do it right you’ll experience things about your favorite music you’ve not heard before.
To sum up, to get the most amazing sound from your computer you only need a few items: a standard laptop, JRiver or equivalent media software, some high-resolution audio tracks (try hdtracks.com), a USB DAC, a USB Disruptor, a certified USB cable, maybe an iFi power supply depending on your DAC, and some kind of amp and speaker setup to plug the DAC into!! I assume you already have that!!
The performance is unmatched, and you’ll be amazed at just how convenient and inexpensive it is to have pure audiophile sound, that is better than vinyl in all dimensions. But you have to do it right!
Send me your questions, I’m happy to respond!