Brief Digital Front-End Buying Guide
Note: In an older article (here), I detailed how an unfortunate encounter with a bad digital setup compelled me to write this article. If you think digits are digits, I urge you to read the link based on a true event.
The Audio System Hierarchy It is commonly acknowledged that, with the exception of the Loudspeaker, The Source is the most important part of the audio chain. Not everyone will agree with this but I mostly do, though I think the Preamp is just as important.
Many audiophiles never get the best out of their loudspeakers (there are plenty that are no good anyway) because of various factors (like gear choice, placement restriction, room anomaly, etc.) Fortunately, when it comes to the Front End, it should be easier to get at least semi-decent sound, though most could be better, and some can even be disastrously bad (as witnessed above.)
Digital Front End/Physical Format or Not? Today, there are many ways to get digital playback. Many, especially neophytes, eschew physical formats and rely solely on the computer. In my opinion, it is not a good way to start/go, fraud with trappings, for reasons that I shall mention later.
Although I am an analog man, for more than twenty years in humid HK I listened mostly to my CD's (I have several thousands.) I have always paid the utmost attention to digital sound and equipment in my own and others' systems and probably have experienced more models than most people, including most reviewers; this is just to say I know exactly what I like.
My Basic Digital Beliefs
Using the Right Player and Ancillary Equipment (do not have to be expensive,) 16/44.1 (Red Book CD) can and should sound Excellent. This is a belief held for a long time by a minority but reasonably large number of current audiophiles. Today, this is even more true as, judging from the large number of recent CD's I listen to (mostly from the library), I personally believe Red Book digital recordings have improved and reached maturity. Unfortunately, in my view, when it comes to consumer hardware (even those from companies with professional roots,) be it CD/SACD/Multi players, CAS servers or streamers, no improvement of similar magnitude has been wrought - perhaps there are more competent players around, though inspiring designs, as always, remain few and far in between.
A Well Implemented Digital System should sound like a good Analog System (and vice versa). Up to a certain point, that is. While a good analogue system shall always and decidedly outperform a good digital system in important musical aspects, these are frequently on the somewhat subtle side and require trained ears. In a good system, at least when listening not so critically, the two should sound quite similar in tonal balance, dynamics and PRaT. For me, it is important to achieve this near-parity in my systems.
However, in home visits this balance proves more elusive to find. While many people simply have unmusical digital sources, a surprisingly high number of self-proclaimed analogue die-hards actually mess up their vinyl setups. This is because they over-tweak their vinyl setups for "improvements" and let them deviate badly from the norm - without knowing it. In a way, this is as much a sign of over-confidence in one's setup skills as deficiency in knowledge of what the norm sounds like, the latter of course a common fault among audiophiles. One time, I visited an experienced turntable addict and heard all his turntable setups (almost ten), yet they all sounded a little off. I then asked him to play his Studer A730 (16-bit) CDP and everything was well. This is yet another reason to have a good digital system - to serve as a benchmark and baseline for analogue. Of course, there are those who believe analogue should be highly "flavored", and who can argue with them?
In Digital Design, there has been Little Progress. For more than 30 years, we have been told about advances after advances. Each new chip or DAC du jour is "state of the art", according to the same reviewers (this is particularly bad in many head fi sites). This makes me really angry: almost all of these serve only to illustrate that the "state" is transient and their making sorely needs "art".
In each era and with each technology, there are some outstanding designs amid the sea of also-run's and losers. Just because two manufacturers use the same and latest chip and technology doesn't at all mean that they will both sound good or the same.
If you ask me, even prehistoric 14/44.1 (given a Revox 225 or Philips CD100/200/300 series) can sound very good. The 16-bit era produced the largest number of classics. This was followed by the uninspiring true 1-bit bitstream era, which serves to illustrate that improvement in numbers is not an advance although, even then, there were a few outstanding designs from Micromega (and Revox).
And then there is the issue of Non-Oversampling (NOS). But this method (or rather, just repudiation of the method of oversampling) did not even merit a mention in Robert Harley's recent article on the history of digital (of course, he is a prototype of the type of reviewer I mentioned above). Even in this modern world of high sampling rates and high bits, there are still many adherents, so there must be something about it. I, for one, find NOS generally more musical. Now the NOS Sparkler S306 is my reference DAC.
For the longest time my reference DACs for large scaled orchestral works are two highly disparate products: the more than 20-year old tubed "20-bit" Sonic Frontier SFD-II (using the unique UltraAnalogue chip) and the even older 16-bit Sony DAS-R1 (using the classic TDA-1541). These are not NOS DAC's, but they are exceptionally built.
Physical Format/CD/SACD Disc Playback
For this, we rely on Transports/DACs/Players, which I believe is absolutely necessary even in a CAS based system.
Assessing Your Disc Player Aside from reading reviews or testing them in friends' systems (it is an important part of audio), how do we assess their merits, or lack of? I say, not difficult at all, and it depends on which level you feel confident at.
vs DVD/BR/Multi Players At the very basic level, many people have a DVD or Blue Ray Player (no matter how old) somewhere. Provided it is a quality brand, say Sony (my favorite, but other major brands, say Philips, Marantz, Toshiba etc will do too), measure your equipment (as transport or as player) against it, and it better be better (not as easy as you think, especially when it comes to blu-ray audio, given the general competence of any BR Player, such as my cheapo Sony BDP-190)! Or, get an old universal player by the reputable Oppo or Marantz and the likes (like my old Marantz DV-6001, which plays SACD's surprisingly beautifully) and measure your gears against it.
vs Digital File Or, even measure your setup against a digital file (here is an example where an overpriced German CDP fared badly against an iPod/DAC as source). CAS to me is not the ultimate word in digital, but a simple setup, like my MacBook (iTunes AIFF files) + Meridian Explorer (here) can be a very useful tool (I have taken it to many people's setups to embarrass their digital setups, and it has never shamed itself).
vs Old Players Don't believe in what the magazines constantly proclaim, that newer is better - top shelf old gears sell for a pittance and they can really show you up! Up one level, if you have experience with vintage players of repute, measure your stuff against them.
Transport As we witnessed in the link above (and here it is again), Transports can make a huge difference. I still like my various Theta Data's and Roksan DP1, but they are getting quite long in the tooth and some are impossible to restore (like my defunct Audiomeca Kreatura) and so I do not recommend them to others. At our friend jules' place, we also prefer his ancient and monstrous Forsell Air Reference to his sleek and modern Orpheus.
I'd also avoid modern transports that ask for silly money and opt for a DVD/Blu-Ray Player instead - they are quite reliable in use and surprising in performance. I use my cheap Sony BDP-190 with my Sparkler S-306 DAC to great effect. Do I feel anything lacking? No!
DAC I'd buy an old 16-bit TDA-1541 DAC (Philips, Marantz, Arcam etc) to have a reference. For more money, the Sonic Frontier SFD-2. As for modern DAC's, I haven't heard anything better than the very reasonable Sparkler S-306 (anecdote: a friend who also had the Metrum basically ditched it after hearing the Sparkler; I'd love to do an A/B with jules' Totaldac); it is small, non-oversampling and using TDA-1543 (see here). This link also tells you about why I disliked the Weiss Minerva, which is well reviewed by the audio press and serves as epitome of what I think is wrong with modern hifi. Anecdote: our friend Joe L was recently flabbergasted by the sweet sound emanating from one of my favorite classic 1-bit Micromega products, the Microdac; he ditched his modern Moon CDP.
CDP Some people prefer a one-box solution. I can understand, but modern CDPs are way overpriced and underwhelming (even the latest Naim dedicated CDP is not at all as good as their old classics, like the 16-bit CD-2), and I'd go the Transport/DAC route, since a cheap DVD/BR player can be used as transport and the DAC can also play files! But I'd forget about hi-res and get a good old DAC like the ones I cited. But, if you see a classic CDP in good condition, like Philips/Marantz to Meridian or Linn, do some research (laser etc) and think about it.
SACD? This is controversial, and I can see why. I personally like anything that is well recorded, and many SACDs are. But I am not sure at all SACD is inherently superior to the best PCM. Note that in NYC I have the Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD player, no slouch. It is also worth noting that some older multi-players like my Marantz DV-6001 in HK, which is not real SACD playback, just PCM conversion, somehow makes SACDs sound surprisingly beautiful (and I have heard hundreds of SACDs from th local library). Go figure.
Upsampling Simple. Usually it is a give and take scenario. It can safely be said that most of the ears I trust do not believe in it. It is a bit like the Proac Response 1 - the 1S is an upsampled version; the 1SC even further upsampled, but the original remains by far the best. YMMV.
NOT as Sole Source Make no mistake, I am not against CAS, rather quite against Computer Audio as Sole Source. As I am writing at my desktop now, I am listening to my MacBook Pro/iTunes/AIFF files played through the Micromega Myamp and Yamaha NS-10M - quite enjoyable (here). If you check my Label "Talk CAS" you will see I have written quite a bit on this subject, but from the vantage point of the occasional (though musically discriminating) user. I am also a keen observer, and have witnessed quite a few long time audiophile friends who have switched their digital playback from physical formats to CAS, but the changes to my ears were not for the better. Some of these systems were documented in my Blog (usually labelled "Home Visits"). Note too these people had never given up their analog rigs, despite proclamations that CAS could be just as good or better.
On the Cheap I have personally experienced a considerable number of people, including industry people, who use CAS to horrid effect (and don't realize so). There is a common denominator to these setups: they are expensive. Many use expensive clocks, convertors and exotic connections. This is a bit like the world of vinyl - if your quest for the "best" is based on numbers or theories or heresays and is not supported by discriminating hearing ability and musical values, you are much more at risk of going astray than the budget person using simpler and money for value gears. I have never heard a Squeezebox (Touch or not) sound bad, but in HK all the expensive CAS systems that employ some Weiss (including the dealer's demos) sound quite bad to me (even my iTunes/Meridian Explorer sounds better). In my opinion, there is no point to do CAS the expensive way - it should almost by definition be on the cheap.
Have a Reference The problem with the audio neophyte is that he has to have some references, and that can be peers or shows. But equally effectively, I'd urge someone with only files to compare against the same physical format as played in an old machine, as detailed above.
Files Sampling Rates and Upsampling One of the biggest promises of CAS is that with hi-res files (such as 24/192 PCM or DSD) you can get higher resolution than CD and this problematic promise has caused many an audiophile to invest unduly in CAS playback. But the drawbacks are many, to name a few: 1) there are very few real hi-res files available; 2) many files are found to be upsampled fakes; 3) they are intangible, which means they are susceptible to system failures; 4) you don't even own it and legally not allowed to make a copy; 5) as usual, the classical music fan is ill served.
Connection USB is the most ubiquitous, but others have championed connection with I2S, Firewire etc. The neophyte is left wondering and susceptible.
Streaming Partly because of the File Problems, Buying Files is rapidly on the wane. The other reason is because of the emergence of Streaming, which is imho a good thing. For a small fee, one can get to explore a lot of new music, ideal for the urban dweller with little space.