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Which USB DAC option is best for audio from a PC?

post #1 of 45
Thread Starter 

Hello, I have an old computer underneath my television on which I play CDs and FLAC files. At the minute I use the onboard sound card, and use the line out of that. Needless to say, this setup is a disaster in terms of audio quality/clarity!

 

But I want to sort this out and am willing to spend in order to get it right - I want amazing audio quality. My plan is to feed the signal out of the PC in digital form, send it to a dedicated DAC, and then on to the amp.  I'm looking to spend around £700 ($1100) for whatever I need to sit between the PC and the amp, and I'm willing to go second hand.

 

My question here is focused around the source - i.e. getting the digital signal out of the PC in the cleanest way possible, to reduce the PC's involvment.  One option is to get an asynchronous USB DAC, such as the Arcam rDAC or HRT Music Streamer.  But another option is to get a Halide USB to SPDIF Bridge, and then get a more regular kind of DAC that just converts SPDIF coaxial into RCA phono.

 

From what I've read, if going for the first option, it's best to get on with its own power supply (rather than using the PC's power), because a poor PC PSU can cause crosstalk and noises.  Is this true?

 

Do you have any advice on what I should get between the two options above?  Which DAC option should I get?  Or are there any other options?

 

Thanks.

post #2 of 45

I really like my m903 Async DAC.  The fewer components in the audio chain the better.  You are absolutely correct about the separate power supply, even though something like a Bithead does work pretty well at eliminating noise from the PC.

 

Something like a MusicHall 25.3 DAC / Amp will do great and sound amazing for the price.  I did some auditioning with a MusicHall 25.2 against my Ultra Desktop and was impressed at how closely it matched the sound.  The MusicHall 25.3 is also pretty easy to mod if the time comes to change the sound so that gives you another option too.  I have no qualms against an all-in-one like the Ultra Desktop, Desktop, or even the MusicHall 25.4.  I find that minimizing power cords is actually a good thing.

 

MusicHall 25.3 comes in around $600 and is built like a tank

 

http://www.musichallaudio.com/detail.php?p=68

 

Desktop Amp from Headroom runs $850

It has a much smaller footprint and is a tad more musical compared to the 25.3

It does have a DAC and if you have questions just ask Headroom

 

http://www.headphone.com/headphone-amps/headroom-desktop-amp.php

post #3 of 45

I'd go with a fully active 2.1 setup from Yamaha, JBL or KRK, or with a 2.0 active system with the JBL LSR 6300 series.  And I'd spend the bulk of my money there, on speakers/amp, rather than on a DAC.  That's where you are likely to hear the most clear audible improvements, in the speakers/amp.

 

Those systems will run you about $800-900, leaving you about $300 for the DAC.  For that money you can get the Matrix Mini-i DAC/Preamp/Headphone amp for $310.  The Matrix has XLR out connectors which I would use to hook up to the active system.

 

Computer USB >>> Matrix Mini-I >>> 2.1 active system

 

Think active.  And think about a DAC-to-amp/speaker expenditure ratio no smaller than of 1:3.  Spending $600 for a DAC, and $500 for amp/speakers is ill-advised.  It would be, in economics-speak, an efficient allocation of resources.


Edited by Mauricio - 3/6/12 at 6:13pm
post #4 of 45
Thread Starter 

Hey guys thanks for the information.  But I might not have explained myself correctly on two points.

 

Firstly, the $1100 I've allocated for the DAC solution only.  I have not begun to really look at amps/speakers yet, but I will have additional money available for at another time (the 3:1 ratio you suggested seems reasonable).  When I say $1100 on the DAC, what I mean is, $1100 for the DAC plus whatever I might need to go between it and the PC in the chain, such as perhaps cabling, or if necessary, something like the Halide Bridge.

 

Secondly, although this is a headphone forum, I do not intend to use these for headphones - I only intend to use them to go straight into an amp and then out through speakers.  The reason I posted here was because I was recommended to come here from another forum, because they said you know a lot about USB DACs.

 

Sorry, I should have made those two points clearer.  Do these two things change what advice you give me?

post #5 of 45

Ok, so you've allocated $1,100 for the DAC and $3,300 for the speakers, right?  If so, I could advise you on the speakers, but not the DAC.

 

For that kind of change, I'd go with a pair of Focal Twin6 Be:

 

focalheader_l.jpg

 


Edited by Mauricio - 3/7/12 at 3:32am
post #6 of 45
Thread Starter 

No, the $3,300 would be for the speakers+amp.

 

I want DA conversion and amplification to be done by separate units.

post #7 of 45

 

Quote:
Which USB DAC option is best for audio from a PC?

 

That all depends on what you want as regards features, support, longevity, appearance, size etc etc.

 

Nowadays they all sound exactly the same.

 

That is to say the technology has been available to make a DAC/ADC completely transparent to the human ear for at least a decade.

 

If you are the kind of guy who can hear differences in alternative brands of cable then you probably don't believe me but it's true.

 

If you've got the money burning a whole in your pocket then by all means buy something from the likes of RME. It won't sound any different to a $100 E-MU, M-Audio or Focusrite but it will last longer, look nicer, have better support and retain a resale value.

 

You might consider a device that uses Firewire whilst they are still available. Buy an add on card of your PC doesn't have a Firewire port. It won't sound any different from the USB equivalent but it does make it much easier to troubleshoot if you have issues with your PC. It'll probably always be the only Firewire device connected. 

 

You can buy DACs that deliberately colour the sound in some way (hi-fi supplier Audio-GD are notorious for this and there are also some very expensive studio tools used to add 'analogue saturation' effects and the like) but why would you want that?

 

 

post #8 of 45
Quote:
Originally Posted by RonaldDumsfeld View Post

 

 

 

You can buy DACs that deliberately colour the sound in some way (hi-fi supplier Audio-GD are notorious for this and there are also some very expensive studio tools used to add 'analogue saturation' effects and the like) but why would you want that?

 

 



Is this true?

post #9 of 45

Yeah. Check it out yourself if you like.

 

It's not as bad as it used to be. They used to advertise DACs in different sound bands or something. Warm, Detailed, Flat. That kind of thing. The current range all contain the word 'neatral' somewhere in the description but some are neutral and something else. Like smooth.

 

I can understand why they do it to some extent. It's a throw back to the halcyon days of hi-fi yore when you bought components to compliment what you already had and didn't want to change. A bright cartridge for a dull loudspeaker. That kind of thing.

 

It's just really not appropriate any more since the only non digital link in most peoples chains is now the loudspeakers. Vinyl excepted I guess. 

 

The perfect DAC is one you don't know it's there. It's not that hard nowadays.

 

I read a review of a 'vintage sound' DAC that was supposed to give everything that 6Ts tube sound. It did cost $5,000 and was meant as a studio tool. An effect applied in a novel way and those guys can afford indulgences like that.

post #10 of 45

I thought those labels, "smooth", "neutral", "bright", were the subjective characteristics that people had come to attribute to certain DAC chips.  I did not know that those labels were the measurable outcome of premeditated and deliberate attempts to color the signal.

 

And yes, I fully endorse your view that the most marginal benefits to be reaped are in the analog link of the signal chain, the speakers.  For $3,300 I'd spend $300 on a DAC and $3,000 on the speakers.

 

I looked into the RME ADI-2, their only two-channel DA converter.  They want $950!  WTF?


Edited by Mauricio - 3/7/12 at 7:22pm
post #11 of 45
Quote:
Originally Posted by meirionwyllt View Post

No, the $3,300 would be for the speakers+amp.

 

I want DA conversion and amplification to be done by separate units.

I'm biased but Benchmark DAC1 USB, ignore fancy cabling and just go with any cheap USB cable. Objective or subjective, forget clean, smooth, neutral, Benchmark is just an extensively and well measured product. It'll pull a bit-perfect signal out of most programs even iTunes (they claim it and I can't hear the difference between ASIO or just iTunes so... yeah don't quote me on that) and it looks nice. Frankly, if you want to go for a perfectly objective and cheap solution, you could do with an ASUS Essence One for $600 or even an ASUS STX for $200.

 

Dedicated PSUs are for the most part voodoo.

 

And again, ignore the fancy cabling. Unless you have a specific fetish for 24/192 which doesn't even improve audio quality, there's no point in getting a Halide Bridge ($400 for a cable to listen to a $200 HRT Streamer? Common sense math would say the improvement would be... no it'd pretty much be nothing). 24/96 is plenty enough to play standard files and vinyl rips if you're into the vinyl sound.

 

Also if you can get the Benchmark you can step up and ignore any intergrateds and go straight to the power amp and use the DAC1 as a preamp, it works well unless you're also into $1000 volume attenuators.

post #12 of 45

i suggest the hrt music streamer II plus at usd 350

 

it can handle 24/88 96 which are enough for most people

 

.

post #13 of 45
Thread Starter 

Right, reading your comments, it has come to light the fact that I was largely ignorant about some of the basics.  It then prompted me to research further.  I didn't realise that active speakers do the amplification themselves, and didn't realise that you could bypass a dedicated amp unit by doing this, and go straight from a DAC to active speakers.

 

My two questions are:

 

1.  Can you go straight from the DAC to active speakers with just about any DAC, or only ones (such as the Benchmark) that have a pre-amp.  How common are DACs with built-in preamps?

 

2.  Is it theoretically a good move to have the active speakers to the job of amplification rather than a separate unit?  Do the active speakers do a better job at it, in terms of audio quality or isolation or whatever?

 

Thanks.

post #14 of 45
Quote:
Originally Posted by meirionwyllt View Post

 

 

 

 

1.  Can you go straight from the DAC to active speakers with just about any DAC, or only ones (such as the Benchmark) that have a pre-amp.  How common are DACs with built-in preamps?

 

2.  Is it theoretically a good move to have the active speakers to the job of amplification rather than a separate unit?  Do the active speakers do a better job at it, in terms of audio quality or isolation or whatever?

 

Thanks.


1.  Yes, you can go straight from DAC to active speakers with just about any DAC.  Some DACs offer variable line output so that you can control volume.  Most do not.  So how do you control volume?  You can control volume digitally at the source (but do this only if your DAC supports 24-bit depth).  Or you can get a DAC with variable line output such as the Audiotrak Prodigy Cube ($99), the Audinst HUD MX-1 ($179), Audio-gd NFB-12 ($200), Matrix Mini-I ($310), ESI Dr. Dac Prime ($479), Audio-gd NFB-10SE ($500) or the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus ($600).

 

2.  Yes, active speakers are technically superior for a variety of reasons, one of which is that each driver has its own dedicated amplifier, tailored to the driver for frequency range, impedance, efficiency, etc.  Given the clearly identified technical superiorities, the burden of proof is for passive designs to prove that they are the equals of active designs, rather than vice-versa.  Before you make a purchase, you owe it to yourself to find out more about active speakers and their advantages.  You can start here:  The Case for Active Speakers

 or here, an interview of Meridian's Bob Stuart.


Edited by Mauricio - 3/8/12 at 6:00am
post #15 of 45

$1100 for a DAC? Audiolab M-DAC, or a Benchmark DAC1 (if remote control operation is not on your list of desired features). Both offer preamp volume control. I have heard both extensively and no, they do not sound the same despite claims to the contrary. $3300 for a pair of active speakers? As mentioned previously, the Focal Twin 6Be is an excellent option (having heard them several times in various studios in and around Los Angeles), one of the most revered options in this price range. Though I would probably opt for a pair of Neumann KH 120 A + KH 810 instead (the KH 810 extends the flexibility of the system). The KH combo is on my short list of buys in the near future.


Edited by adamlau - 3/8/12 at 2:46am
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