Music Server Computer transport - Is It Worth the Effort?
So we finish the previously described modifications to the Musiland and install the Magic Black Box. The system boots up and recognizes all hardware. After a ten minute warmup we play music.
Playing 'Dreams of Likembe' we hear bass notes that weren't noticeable before. Soundstage is more focused and detailed, less starined. In fact a pervasive 'hardness' that was there before in varying degrees is gone.
This is a big step forward. The effect of swapping bad clock/good clock is sometimes subtle, sometimes way obvious depending on how much it's needed. In this case it is very obvious. If you've used vinyl playback it most reminds of what happens when you tighten up a cartridge that is loose in it's headshell -- things snap into focus, bass goes deep, there is more dynamic spread and less noise/more music.
But the real question is how does it compare to a standalone CD transport. Are we close?
We have 4 listeners present. We cue up the CD transport and the Computer transport - each playing through a Satch DAC. For about 20 minutes we play tracks from All For You (great voice) and Mozart Salsburg Sympnony (great strings), switching back and forth without knowing which is the source.
We can't hear a difference. This is the first time that happens (usually we hear a difference but may not be sure which is better until after a long listening session).
It may be that something else is masking the difference because surely there must be some. I plan another listening session with fresh ears and music (actually that listening session fell through as the 'ears' didn't show when expected so will do this later). We will either confirm or refute the result.
In either case this is encouraging because there are still more things we can do to make it better:
A linear DC supply for the computer to replace that SMPS provided.
Underclocking the CPU (we are only using 5% so if we underclock by 50% or so we can get rid of a lot of heat/noise, ie turn the hose on Dante's Inferno).
One other thing which we'll try before mentioning as it's a little 'unconventional'.
The question was asked if the Musiland really is asynchronous? Something to help understand the issue and food for thought:
"In a synchronous system, operations are coordinated under the centralized control of a fixed-rate clock signal or several clocks. An asynchronous digital system, in contrast, has no global clock: instead, it operates under distributed control, with concurrent hardware components communicating and synchronizing on channels."
So either it is or it isn't. The Musiland uses an onboard local clock and its own driver instead of an MS driver. I'm not sure that is an issue relating to sound quality.
The key here is how good the audio clock is. Being asynchronous means its output jitter depends on how good the Musiland audio clock is.
In the Musiland a simple 24MHz clock generator is used that runs off the main powersupply, which is fed directly from the PC's USB power line. This will create a very jittery reference clock for starters.
This clock forms the reference of a "fractional division PLL". Such a PLL is used to make non integer multiple clocks from a reference clock. It can never be any better than the reference clock. The DIYHFS EZ Clock with a 0.5ppm clock generator provides as close as possible to the ultimate as reference clock, eliminating this issue.
There are many varying PLL implementations, however a crucial thing here is that the PLL will contain another clock generator which is MUCH more subject to jitter from power supply noise. So by feeding this PLL a clean supply, jitter is minimized.
Purely from a viewpoint of potential jitter (which we cannot verify as having been achieved or not) the Musland system (the chips used) seems to be capable of sub 100pS jitter results, something the Musiland guys also claimed (but their actual design does not achieve it).
All that said, the common Cirrus Logic (Crystal) Receivers and most others add over 100pS jitter of their own, so I should think the SPDIF Receiver would be the limit in the DAC.
If receivers used have low jitter of their own and equally good suppression of external jitter, all of this is moot anyway.
The Musiland is cheap and the mods done do not cost the earth either (there are more expensive USB2SPDIF boxes out there that do less). So I think one can easily defend the Musiland USB to SPDIF converter with modifications as a good way and economical way to make a computer transport for a pre-existing SPDIF DAC capable of 24/192KHz.