11 January, 2009

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (4) Computer/USb vs iPod/iTransport

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (4) Computer/USB vs iPod/iTransport

EAC/Computer/USB vs iPod/iTransport:

And so after testing briefly the files at my home, we scheduled a test at Danz' home for the second session, in order to test against Music Server playback (for his equipment, click here, for files used click here for details).

Using BENCHMARK USB-DAC-1 we compared:

1. Direct computer playback of EAC-ripped WAV 44.1 files via USB (Opicis special battery-driven Fibre Optic USB).

2. iTunes-ripped Apple Lossless and WAV 44.1 and 48 files, synced to iPod and played back via RCA Digital Out of Wadia iTransport (using XLO 4.1B RCA digital cable to feed into Danz' Benchmark).

I took all the CDs from which the iPod test files were derived to Danz' home and had the tracks ripped into his computer using his usual EAC extraction. We also took the chance to compare the playback of his Music Server with the same CDs played back using Musical Fidelity X-Ray's RCA digital out.

TEST Results:
We have almost total consensus that day from more than 10 people:.

1. Using the MF X-Ray as transport (CDM 12; likely not the greatest), playback via the CD player's digital out was unanimously judged to be superior to Music Server/USB. While tonal balance and details were close, the Server seemed to have lost a considerable sense of dynamics and rhythm and pace. In other words, the Music Server was more "poker-faced". I think most participants were happy that they do not yet have to throw out the CD player. Mind you, there are a lot better transports than the X-Ray.

2. As in my home, Apple Lossless was audibly inferior to WAV 44.1 replay, falling apart a little more during louder passages, with audible distortion at peak levels.

3. While most people judged Computer/USB playback to be superior to WAV 44.1 playback via iPod/Wadia iTransport, I have some reservations. There is little question that the EAC-ripped files delivered through the Sevrer was cleaner and less "saturated" sounding, just as in the CD player vs Music Server test the computer playback had a flat quality that bothered me. As an example, thru the Server Noah's voice and that of God's are not so well differentiated; both lacked the leading edge to the voice that give the impression of authority. The drum solo shadings in Take Five was also much less differentiated through the Server. I was quite happy that through the Wadia this quality is largely ameliorated. (Like sokps, and I think some felt this too) I judged the sound through the Wadia to have more of a "human" and CD player "feeling". I think it boils down to preference. Those less mindful of a loss of presence and value more ceratin hifi parameters may just prefer the Server without reservation.

4. It's too bad I could not play my WAV 48kHz files at Danz' place. Just would not output throught the Benchmark for some reason. I have a feeling that WAV 48 kHz would come very close to the EAC files but with better rhythmic saavy. Overall, I was happy with the quality of playback. Don't forget this is not going to be my main, not to say sole, way of digital playback!

More Questions (than Answers?) and Coming Tests
There are many questions, especially if we compare our results with what have been reported in the press.

1. Chris Martens (not a writer I usually like) of The Absolute Sound had recently given the iTransport a rave review (full report here), claiming the Wadia "...lets you pull digital audio data straight off the iPod and route them to superior-sounding outboard DACs and audio electronics. Plug your iPod into the 170iTransport, and bolt it up to a good DAC and you’ll have an audio player that not only rivals but in some cases handily outperforms multi-thousand-dollar music servers and CD players." Mind you, he claimed the Wadia was at least as good as his CD playback, though I forgot what equipment he used. Ditto HiFi News, which in the last issue (forgot name of author), claimed there is no audible difference between the iTransport results and playback via CD player. So are those just hyperboles by dishonest reviewers? Well, I note that in BOTH of these articles in prestigious magazines, the author (deliberately?) did not really tell us HOW the files were ripped. Given this is the iPod, one assumes iTunes, but there may be a catch...BTW, jules, who attended the test reported: "... contrary to what you reported (and also what we heard in Danz's place), in last issue of Audio Art (Taiwan), there was an article covering of Apple TV and other similar stuff on the market, in which the author made a remark that he couldn't hear any difference between Apple Lossless compression file and the uncompressed versions. To my untrained ears, the difference was not all subtle..." Of course, we all agree with jules and not with the magazines. Our results are clearly closer to what What HiFi reported.

2. Since I harbor the nagging doubt that iTunes is not as good a "ripper" as EAC, I shall prepare WAV 44.1 files with EAC (which cannot do 48 kHz) and compare with those from iTunes, again at Danz'. Watch this space. This is important, as I'd not want to re-rip my files at a much later date.

3. As timing in music is of vital importance to me, I have some doubt as to the quality of USB digital out from the computer. I shall be looking at other Music Server setups (like Firewire etc) where we can conduct further tests. OK, I know, the files in the iPod is loaded via USB as well.

4. As a test of the purity of the Wadia Digital out, I shall try out Anti-jitter devices in the near future.

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