If I had my druthers, there'd be an easy way to carry a good turntable setup and LP's around, as the best I've heard from analog sources still trumps (to my ears) the best I've so far heard from digital. That said, I ended up abandoning vinyl a long time ago (I know, sacrilege!), as it simply didn't fit in reasonably with my lifestyle anymore. Be that as it is, digital audio is something of great interest to me, and, more specifically lately, computer audio.
When Tyll Hertsens stopped by my office several years ago (on his way to New York) with a HeadRoom DAC he wanted me to hear (which was my first experience with a good USB DAC) I decided to begin my personal search for computer audio solutions with the goal of supplanting the spinning silver disc that had long ago displaced the spinning vinyl disc for me years before that. It has been a fun journey, playing with a wide assortment of gear within a wide price range, that pointed me to where I am now. (And I know for certain the journey isn't over, and may never end.)
One of my DACs of choice right now is the Lavry DA11 by Lavry Engineering. Dan and Priscilla Lavry sent it to me on loan, and, quite honestly, all I was really interested in initially was the PIC feature (PIC = Playback Image Control)--a digital soundstage/crossfeed feature that Dan had developed. What I didn't expect was to be so wowed by the DAC that I all but forgot about the PIC feature (although I do use the PIC feature for the mega-pan pseudo-stereo that was more common in the older stereo recordings, and that I find rather intolerable through headphones). Priscilla asked what I thought of the DA11, and I asked how much I owed them for it, as I wasn't returning it. In fact, I dig the DA11 so much I'm probably going to buy another one.
If you ever get a chance to meet Dan Lavry--and you're interested in digital audio--exchanging a few words with him is a must. I've had the good fortune of spending hours with the man, in person and on the telephone, and, though I'm still a digital audio technical greenhorn, I feel like I've gone from zero to one (pah-dum-pum) from my discussions with him.
Some of the most interesting, accessible posts about digital audio that I've read anywhere have been here, and made by Dan Lavry. Here are just some examples:
And if you want to see his whole post history here, here's the link:
I mentioned "async" in the thread title, so if you were wondering when I was going to get to that, now's the time (but don't expect me to discuss the technical merits of it, as you can look it up "async USB" or "asynchronous USB" yourself). As many of you are aware, the asynchronous USB code (developed by Gordon Rankin) is discussed at length on this forum and others (like Computer Audiophile). Even those in the know rarely argue the merits of what Rankin's doing with async, which is to address jitter-prone USB. But there seems to be a growing belief among some enthusiasts that async may be the only audiophile-class way to receive USB audio. It sure had me convinced, and the Ayre QB-9 (for which Ayre licenses Rankin's async USB technology) was on my list of must-hear components, and has been almost universally well received by the audio press. I've used and heard it, and it sounded excellent.
At CanJam @ RMAF 2009 last October, I brought my Lavry DA11 (among other gear), which I had hooked up to the optical output of my MacBook Pro. I had the Ayre QB-9 on top of the DA11, hooked up to my MacBook Pro via USB (the QB-9's only input type). It was only one rig (the rest of the rig being a Ray Samuels Audio Raptor, a heap of some of Nordost's best cabling and power conditioning gear, driving Sennheiser's HD800 with Moon Audio cabling, and other headphones as brought and borrowed by others), but many people listened to both DACs through it. From my time with those DACs in that rig at RMAF, I observed only two people (of a good number of folks) who preferred the QB-9 to the DA11. (Again, it was only one rig, so I'm not arguing this is how the outcome would be in other systems, only how it was with that rig then and there.)
NOTE: I did not have Amarra (by Sonic Studio) running at the time. Some day soon, I intend to compare the QB-9 and the Lavry DA11 both via USB, and through Amarra, now that I am running Amarra in my system. (I am an Amarra fan, by the way, so maybe more on that another time.)
Another interesting guy I've met in my audio adventures is Michael Goodman of CEntrance (he goes by mgoodman here). Several companies, including Lavry, license CEntrance software. With all the talk of async USB, Michael one day posted the following here on Head-Fi:
This was in response to the general take by many computer audiophiles that "adaptive" is somehow the opposite of "async," and is, thus, inherently bad or inferior. Based on what I'd read, I had all but accepted that as a truism myself.
A little bit of backstory on meeting Michael Goodman: I met Michael when I placed a call to him, out of the blue, to ask him a question, and the conversation just kept going and going. I like talking digital audio, and Michael is another guy who has much to say about it. Well, actually, there are a lot of people who have much to say about digital audio, but Michael is one of the handful I've met that has much to say that I find both illuminating and interesting (like Dan Lavry). We talked about many things over time, and it got to the point that he wanted me to hear his 24/96 USB microphone preamp (the MicPort Pro), which has a built-in headphone output for live mic monitoring. As a DAC/amp, I told him I thought the MicPort Pro sounded good, not great, and gave him my opinions on where, as a headphone driving device, I thought it could use improvements. Several calls later, and he told me he'd taken the feedback about the MicPort Pro, and was developing what would become the DACport.
Michael had the stones to show up as an exhibitor at CanJam @ RMAF 2009 with a couple of very rough prototypes of the DACport--fidgety prototypes that required the designer's touch to make function. (Sadly, one of the prototypes was stolen at the show, but Michael and I both laughed about it, as there's no way that twitchy proto unit was going to be much fun for the thief.) Anyway, the response to the DACport prototype demos was quite positive. The DACport has since acquired the polish of a finished product, and was reviewed in the most recent issue of Stereophile. Even John Atkinson (Stereophile's editor, and the reviewer of the DACport for that issue) seemed to initially approach it with some amount of reservation, as it is an adaptive mode USB audio device, not async. His subjective review of the DACport, however, was glowing.
Just as interestingly, in my opinion--and the primary motivation behind this now very lengthy post--was that John's measurements of the diminutive DACport yielded one of the lowest (if not the lowest) jitter measurement he's published in a digital component review (that I can recall anyway, and I've been reading Stereophile for a long time). Among the numbers was an estimated 91 picoseconds of jitter peak-peak, apparently below the Miller Analyzer's effective resolution limit--and, again, this coming from a device that is only the size of a partially-smoked Double Toro (and that draws its power entirely from the USB bus, which many would say is not the ideal power source, and power supply design being of absolutely critical importance in good DAC design). In short, as far as jitter goes, I think John Atkinson's review and measurements helped bolster Michael Goodman's earlier point.
Some who know me here know that I am not really a measurements guy. Yes, my portable CD player probably measures better in every respect than even an exceptional vinyl-playing setup--but I know which I prefer (vinyl). Yes, many portable solid state amps probably measure better in most respects than my desktop tube amps, but, again, when it comes to driving most of my favorite non-IEM headphones, I know which I prefer (the tube amps).
So I'm not here to tell you I know what jitter sounds like, or to say that, between two DACs, I'd always prefer the sound of the one with lower jitter. And I'm not here to debate about async versus adaptive, as what technical knowledge I have on such matters would be depleted in a blink. I'll let the more learned debate the fine points of all that if they way want to. I just thought it was interesting that it appears that Dan and Michael are right when they talk about there being more than one good way to deal with the likes of jitter, at a time when a lot of audiophiles were starting to believe (or already firmly believe) that when it comes to low-jitter USB there's only one solid solution.
As Dan Lavry said in one of his posts here (and as Michael Goodman has also similarly said to me in conversations):
"...Yet it matters very much WHERE that jitter is. It is only important to have the low jitter AT THE CONVERTER, right where the digital is converted to analog. That is the "conversion jitter" and that is the jitter that matters. Moving data around can tolerate 100 times the jitter level with no sonic impact. We call that "data transfer jitter". If we have say huge jitter on say the spdif cable, but we get to "clean it" before it gets to the critical circuitry, then we are doing fine..."
These guys, it seems (and others, too, I'm sure), are doing that, and not necessarily the way many of us budding computer audio enthusiasts were starting to believe they had to. And, to me anyway, that's interesting news.
NOTE: I haven't heard the production version of the DACport yet (I will very soon, though), so none of this is a commentary on how the DACport sounds.
(Of the several companies mentioned in this post, HeadRoom, Lavry Engineering, Moon Audio and Sennheiser are sponsors of Head-Fi.org, at the time of this post.)