Music Source Shootout: MacBook Pro, Pro-ject Stream Box S2 Ultra, Allo USBridge Signature, ... SOtM sMS-200ultra Neo
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chrisdrop

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This is a long tale of music sources. I had a several weeks shootout comparing and contrasting these: {MacBook, Pro-ject Stream Box S2 Ultra, Allo USBridge Signature, (… eventually SOtM sMS-200ultra Neo)}.

I am sharing my notes in case they are helpful to anyone else. Perhaps it will be a self-musing at most, but I am posting nonetheless. This is all subjective and as a human, I am prone to all the usual biases. I am reasonably detailed in my note-taking and attempts to make "clean experiments". It may still be all psychoacoustic confusion nonetheless.

Device descriptions (all #s are £RRP for reference):
Configurations tried (end of the chain is constant: > Lampizator Amber 3 DAC > RCA > Glenn OTL amp > Single-ended > ZMF Verite Closed). Ethernet to NUC and streaming device, although I have tried Wifi. (Core = Roon Core, Endpoint = Roon Endpoint)
  1. [Core and Endpoint] MacBook Pro > USB ... (The baseline for the exercise)
  2. [Core and Endpoint] MacBook Pro > IdeonR3 > USB ...
  3. [Core] NUC > [Endpoint] MacBook Pro > USB ...
  4. [Core] NUC > [Endpoint] Pro-Ject > USB ... (The one I expected to settle on)
  5. [Core] NUC > [Endpoint] Pro-Ject > IdeonR3 > USB ... (The one I expected to 'win')
  6. [Core] NUC > [Endpoint] USBridge > USB ...
  7. [Core] NUC > [Endpoint] USBridge > IdeonR3 > USB ...
Punchline #1 (not really it turns out, but carry on): In my setup, the best my favourite of the bunch was (USBridge+IdeonR3). That said, I am very happy with just the USBridge (i.e.; no IdeonR3) AND A GOOD USB CABLE. I really, really expected the Pro-Ject to be the winner at this stage. I was surprised by this given there are several really positive reviews of it. Granted, they are all comparing to the older USBridge (i.e. not Signature, no Shanti power supply), but still... All my biases were with the Pro-ject. I spent days trying to go back and "see what I was missing" about it, but no matter how much I tried, my ears liked the USBridge Sig w/ LPS more.

But wait… There’s more...

8.
[Core] NUC > [Endpoint] SOtM > USB ...

Punchline #2 (my real punchline): … So after all of that was done (and I started this note) I got a hold of an SOtM sMS-200ultra (good used price). IMO It rocks. The USBridge solution without the IdeonR3 sounds great and awesome value for money, and the IdeonR3 adds to the sound. BUT - they did something great with the sMS-200ultra. It works in my setup. For me, this was another shocker because I was "sure" I really liked the USBridge solution as the (?)end solution. My biases were now with that pretty firmly. Lo-and-behold; I really like the SOtM setup.

Something like: 8 > 7 > 6 > 5 > 4 > 2 > 1,3

** The distance between {7,6,5,4} is smallest. Reading the comments, that should be kept in mind.


Other comments:
  • USBridge without IdeonR3 was also very, very good IMO. The better quality USB cable made the most difference in this setup for some reason. It is a solution I would very happily live with and totally recommend it.
  • Pro-ject: It did generally sound good, a notch better than my MacBook. Leaving WiFi enabled was audible on occasion so I don't recommend that.
  • The MacBook was hard to beat in by a big distance, however on the occasions that it would get busy and get its knickers in a twist, it would stutter. SOtM and USBridge solutions were well-better than the MacBook source in the end.
  • The IdeonR3 added a degree of smoothness and clarity to any setup. (I did not add it to the SOtM because I won't buy it all!)
  • Lampizator devices have good USB boards (Amanero) so this will be different with a different DAC.
  • I have a bias towards having "less stuff" in the chain. Of course, I'd like to spend less too.
This post closes on a good tune:
 
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chrisdrop

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In case of interest, @leftside and @Zachik you both had some chatter on these topics in the Amber 3 thread. I thought I'd move off to an independent music source comparison thread.
 
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