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Audiophile Laptop Setup- Budget

post #1 of 27
Thread Starter 
Hey guys,

I've searched the forums for quite a while and although there are similar threads everyone seems to have slightly different needs.

I have a MacBook Pro, AKG K240s, and Klipsch ProMedia 2.1

The headphone jack out of the MacBook doesn't provide the greatest source possible so I wondering if you guys had any suggestions for an external sound card, DAC, or any combination that would provide the best possible sound.

Budget- up to $400

Thanks in advance.
post #2 of 27
Are you after a PCMCIA card or an outboard box?
post #3 of 27
Thread Starter 
An outboard box would be the best. The Macbook Pro uses the Express Card 34 as an expansion slot and it's not very versitile at this point. Something that connects via USB would be ideal unless anyone has other suggestions.
post #4 of 27
Thread Starter 
I'm thinking that simply purchasing the DIYEDEN Great March DAC and connecting my headphones directly to it may be the best bet for the money. Does anyone have any suggestions. I'm not really sure if any combination of DAC's and headphone amps or external sound cards would produce better sound for the same price. Please let me know.
post #5 of 27
Well, I would steer clear of USB DACs unless you know another Mac user that can confirm they work well. Never know how compatibility goes. I'd look at something from Echo Audio or M-Audio. Both have outboard interfaces, USB and Firewire, and both make Mac drivers. For example the Echo Audio Fire 2 would do nicely. It's just a little Firewire box with high quality D/As and A/Ds. $200 or so is probably what you'd have to spend. I would then get a separate headphone amp. While you can use the amp included, or shop around for one with a better amp (I have no idea how good the amps are in these kind of things but I do know it's not where the money goes) but it's easier to just find a good amp made for that purpose, and use the high quality line outs.

I suppose you could look at a HeadRoom Total Bithead. That's a headphone amp, but has a DAC and a USB bridge whacked on to it making it able to plug in to comptuers. However they lack information on Mac compatibility so I'd be wary.

Really I think the way to go in that range, if you are willing to carry some gear, is a pro card and an amp. The pro cards are designed with goo line in/outs in mind so you get a quality source, and a good amp is designed just to be an amp.

You could, of course, get the soundcard first and see how you like its internal amp, might be better than I think. Texas Instruments did recently release a 1-chip headphone amp that's like $10 in quantity and is on par with soemthing like a PIMETA or PPA on paper.
post #6 of 27
Thread Starter 
Hmm... that looks like it would be a pretty good setup. Have you used the Echo Audio Fire? If so, what do you think it does for the overall sound?

I guess the Audio Fire is basically an external sound card.?.?.
post #7 of 27
No I've never used their Audiofire line. I've used their Gina and Layla units. I was very pleased with both in terms of sound quality. Unless they've screwed up their build process, I imagine the Audiofires are similarly high quality.

You can also look at M-Audio's lineup, they have USB and Firewire cards. I owned a Firewire 410 (little overkill for what you want) and really liked it. The M-Audio Transit seems to be popular around here, though I've not heard it myself. They seem to have Mac drivers for all their outboard interfaces so you should be able to choose any one you like.

Yes, these are just external soundcards.

I should note that's all that a USB DAC is as well, it's just an external soundcard, just a very simple one. In theory you get better quality because the money goes just to sound reproduction. In practise I'm not so sure, I'm rather underwhelmed with the quality of components in many USB DACs. There's something to be said for economies of scale. While the Audiofire may pack a D/A and an A/D in a unit for $200, it's probably the same ones they use in all their cards and thus something they get for real cheap. A USB DAC built be a smaller provider may have to settle for lesser quality components because they buy less of them and thus pay more.
post #8 of 27
Thread Starter 
I have looked into M-Audio's external cards but something about them doesn't agree with me.

What do you guys think of the following:

Macbook Pro>Echo AudioFire 2>HeadRoom Total AirHead>AKG K240s ?

By the way, thanks for all of your help Sycraft.
post #9 of 27
I think that looks reasonable. Couple things I'd look at:

1) If you go the Audiofire route, get it first. Try it, see how you like it. No sense in getting an amp if you decide the one in the Audiofire is good enough. Not saying you won't want an amp, just saying make sure.

2) The Total Airhead is just a Total Bithead - USB. If it is Mac compatible, that would get you the same effect but save you needing the audio card. However I would only do that if you talk to a Mac user that confirms it works, and works well.

3) I'd give Headroom's amps a miss. IMO they charge waaaaay too much for what they give you. Their Max amp is rather similar to a PPA, yet while you can build a PPA for like $300-400 they want $3000. In general, they just seem to be a pricey place. Even their headphone prices are higher than you find elsewhere. I'd consider maybe a Audio Technica amp from audiocubes.com or something like that.
post #10 of 27
Thread Starter 
That sounds like great advice. I'll definetely go with the AudioFire first then. I guess there is no sense in spending money on something that may not be necessary. And yes, I was thinking their amps seemed a little expensive too, but I wouldn't know the first thing about building my own. I guess I'll go with a sound card first and if I feel that it's necessary, I'll look into some different headphone amps.

Thanks a lot.
post #11 of 27
Google search:

'os x usb audio'

Should give you all the information you need about choosing a USB or FireWire device, and whether or not drivers are available...

HTH.
post #12 of 27
The (Total) BitHead works just fine with a Mac. The only problem is that the amp is rather wimpy when powered by the USB and there's no way to connect an external power supply -- you have to use batteries.

Within your budget, you should be able to find a used Corda Aria. That would give you an amplifier that is mains-powered. The USB DAC in the Aria is good (at its price point) and it works with a Mac.

Note that with any USB DAC/amp combination that has its own volume control, you will get the best results if you set the volume to maximum in the Sound Preference Panel.

Another good option is a Scott Nixon USBChibi DAC. This costs $250 new and a bit (but not a lot -- they hold their value well) less used. That leaves $150 for an amplifier. For that sort of money, the amplifier won't be anything too flashy but the Chibi is good enough to make it worthwhile upgrading the amp when you can afford to. You'll probably want to upgrade your headphones somewhere along the line as well, but that's another story... Just don't expect that your initial investment of $400 will be the end of it!

Long term, you should start saving up for a (used) Benchmark DAC 1. There's one listed on Audiogon right now for $700. This combines a Stereophile "A" rated DAC with one of the best solid-state headphone amplifiers around. Remember that your MacBook Pro has a S/PDIF digital output as well as USB and FireWire.
post #13 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by dillon157
That sounds like great advice. I'll definetely go with the AudioFire first then. I guess there is no sense in spending money on something that may not be necessary. And yes, I was thinking their amps seemed a little expensive too, but I wouldn't know the first thing about building my own. I guess I'll go with a sound card first and if I feel that it's necessary, I'll look into some different headphone amps.

Thanks a lot.
Quote:
Originally Posted by dillon157
The headphone jack out of the MacBook doesn't provide the greatest source possible
The macbook pro's earphone jack is also a mini-toslink jack. Use this superior optical connection directly to your future DAC instead of messing with usb or firewire.
post #14 of 27
Thread Starter 
Ok, thanks Jeff.
post #15 of 27
Thread Starter 
Machead, when you recommend the Corda Aria, are you recommending it as a stand alone source. In other words, will the Corda Aria alone increase the sound quality a good deal or would it be adventagous to by a seperate DAC or anything later?
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