Computer/DAC vs. DAP as source component
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headfirocks

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I've spent a lot of time tuning a desktop and laptop for hifi audio.  They run Gentoo Linux, mpd direct to hw(0,0), real-time tweaks, a Wavelength Proton USB DAC, and Wireworld Starlight USB cable.  I've been at it for years.  I'm on the road so I'm using the laptop (Dell XPS 13) and a powered FOXL portable with a Nordost iKable.
 
The other day I decided to try a Sansa Clip+ with Rockbox into the speaker instead of the DAC and I was amazed.  It sounds better than my entire computer/DAC setup.  I even unplugged the laptop from the wall and from all other USB devices and disabled all but one CPU core.  The DAC is a little punchier but the highs are so much cleaner and more pure sounding from the Sansa.  It's a lot less fatiguing and overall I greatly prefer the sound from the Sansa.  I'd like to do this comparison on a real system but I'll be on the road for a long time.
 
I think the advantage the Sansa has is that it's an isolated, simple little device that doesn't generate so much EMI to pollute the sound, plus it has a much shorter signal path with no USB cable.  I'm thinking of trying the Sony PCM-M10 in place of it since I need a recorder for needledrops anyway, and that should be even better.  It's also worth mentioning that I have the FOXL, DAC, and Sansa on little plywood platforms with Herbie's Baby Booties underneath.
 
What do you make of this?  Am I using the wrong DAC?  With the Sansa sounding so much better than my computer/DAC, I'm tempted to call BS on the entire music server thing and go with DAP units from here on out.
 
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nick_charles

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If you have a setup you like just enjoy it. Once you start engaging in speculation about possible problems and fixes to your computer rig you might end up convincing yourself into expensive and ineffective tweaks, that way lies madness. The biggest source of differences between systems is the speakers or headphones they have a definite "signature" i.e they are seldom close to flat and the deviations from flat (and differences between units) are orders of magnitude greater than between copmpetent SS components. Even a crappy $20 ebay Sony microsystem can be improved greatly with different speakers...
 
PS. some commentators might suggest that your speakers are not good enough to take advantage of the superior quality of your computer rig, this may be so but addressing that puts you firmly on the slippery and expensive slope...
 
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headfirocks

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Nick, everything you say above is true.
 
I just tested the computer vs. the Sansa over again but this time on my HiFiMan RE272 IEM's and I hear the same thing as before except I don't hear any extra punch from the computer/DAC this way.  The Sansa actually sounds a little more filled out on the bottom end.
 
I'm very interested to hear what anyone thinks of this.  Has anyone else done the same sort of comparison and come up with different results?
 
EDIT: I'm listening to more music on the IEM's and on the higher fidelity stuff the computer/DAC does sound somewhat more full and rich.
 
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urbanhusky

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I too was quite astonished by what a Rockboxed Clip+ can put out. Neat little thing (aside from the audio and skipping glitches when using rockbox).
 
Regarding your USB DAC setup: I'll throw the following theory into the mix:
Not every DAC is running asynchronous over USB or non-upsampling. I don't know if your DAC would fit in either category but I imagine that both features (synchronous, upsampling) could lead to degraded sound quality.
Also how the DAC is set up (isolation from USB, how the audio path is designed) could all attribute to a different sound signature.
 
 
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headfirocks

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The DAC is asynchronous but it doesn't provide USB isolation.  I think the noise from the computer via USB is to blame for the sound quality difference between the Sansa and DAC, but it's an extremely well-regarded DAC which is why I'm puzzled that the Sansa sounds better.
 
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estreeter

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I have no reason to doubt that the Clip/Clip+/Zip is an excellent sounding device - even if you discount the subjective impressions and insist on measurements, V has confirmed that the little silicon wunderkind measures very well in almost every area. What I am a little wary of is that you seem to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and giving ammunition to an entrenched group who would have us believe that computer-based audio is a waste of time and money. I'd really like you to spend a few weeks with the Sansa exclusively, see how well it scales with better kit etc and, most importantly, rule out the impact of new toy joy and placebo. Each new DAP to hit the streets is greeted with wild enthusiasm, often by Clip owners as well as those coming from the iPod etc. It the Clip was the  answer to all our prayers, iBasso wouldnt have sold a single DX100.   

 
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headfirocks

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Maybe I've entered a minefield here.  I had no idea that DAP devices were ever taken seriously or compared against computer-based playback so this is all new to me and I'm trying to figure out the lay of the land.  It sounds like some folks say a computer sounds better and some say a DAP sounds better so there is no clear answer here?
 
I know I've done a lot of research and experimentation with the electrical interference generated by computers and a DAP would seemingly skirt the entire issue.
 
EDIT: I did not mean to suggest that a Clip+ is the be-all-end-all of audio playback, but I wonder if a DAP is.  I've ordered a Sony PCM-M10 so we'll see how much better that sounds.
 
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estreeter

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Relax. You wont find consensus here - about the only group which are consistent, year in and year out, are those who insist that you need turntable+SET amp to even begin to hear music the way it should be, and even then they often disagree on the best choice of tube for a given amp. 

 
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