Positive Feedback ISSUE 66
march/april 2013

 

Computer Audio on the Cheap! (Part 2) - Getting Sidetracked, a Quick Look at JRiver Media Center, and Some Affordable DACs …
by Steve Lefkowicz

 

Sorry readers, I had no intention of Part 2 of this series taking so long to write. Audio as a hobby is an adventure, and adventures sometimes have twists, turns and delays. Though I am retired after many years as a Senior Technical Specialist for a large Japanese technology based company, I have to admit that sometimes I get myself into situations where my desire to make something work the way I want should take a back to seat to the realities of the project. Sometimes, it just takes me a while to accept that. This was one of those times. My desire, as indicated in Part 1 (Issue 61), was to use an older notebook (in my case an IBM T42) that would be reliable, but very low cost.

I had fully well expected Part 2 of this series to be about a few moderately priced USB DACs that I've been trying out. I've been using the CEntrance DACport LX (now $249) since I started on this venture, and also have on loan the Wyred 4 Sound μDAC ($399) and more recently, the iFi iDAC ($299) and Audioquest Dragonfly ($249). Along with the W4S μDAC, came a suggestion from the fine folks at Wyred 4 Sound that even in the context of my keeping costs low, running iTunes in the Windows environment may not be the best choice. They suggested that I look at alternatives, principally JRiver Media Center. At just $49, if it performed better than iTunes, then it seemed like it certainly still fit my focus.

I originally looked at changing from iTunes out of simple convenience, as iTunes has some issues that I found irritating. The primary issue for me, now that I have started acquiring 24/96 files, is that iTunes won't automatically switch output sample rate. It locks on whatever is played first, and stays there. To switch from 44.1 to 96 K, I had to open QuickTime and select the appropriate sample rate. If I left it on 96K, then all my 16/44 Apple Lossless files would be up sampled to 24/96. If I left it on 44.1K, then my 24/96 files would be down sampled to 16/44. I do spend a lot of time listening to my library on shuffle, and so the idea of having to always switch back and forth between 44.1, 48 and 96K was irksome.

One of the benefits of a program like JRiver Media Center (JRMC from now on) is that it allows for direct streaming of data to the DAC via USB, so everything is sent in its native bit depth and sample rate. Since none of the DACs I had on hand indicated the input sample rate they locked on to, I borrowed an HRT Music Streamer II for that purpose, as it has indicator lights on its front panel for 32K, 44K, 48K, 88K, and 96K. Using this, I was able to confirm that via iTunes, once the sample rate was set, it remained there until manually changed through QuickTime.

Let's back up a little. From what I can gather, most people who are setting up stand-alone computers as music servers are going with Macs. That does seem to be the general consensus as a better choice, as the Mac operating system seems to handle a lot of this stuff better (or at least easier) than Windows. However, since a Windows system can still be set up for much lower cost than a Mac system, and since many (most?) of us are probably more familiar with Windows than Mac, it was my decision to stay in the Windows world for my server project. Remember, I started this with an old notebook acquired for $50.

Then, for people who want to move past iTunes to more capable software, there are a lot of choices for Mac that aren't available for Windows, from the like of Sonic Solutions, Pure Music and many others. For Windows, there are few real choices, though products like Foobar2000 have been around for quite a while, and are free. JRiver has also been around quite a while, also, and in fact, the version of Media Center I received was Media Center 17 (since upgraded to version 18).

Being new to all of this, there was certainly a bit of a learning curve involved. First, the realization that some programs work with iTunes, taking over control of the iTunes library (requiring iTunes to be installed and operational), while others operate instead of iTunes, and do not need iTunes to be installed. JRMC is of the latter group, and does not need iTunes to be loaded. However, to make conversion to JRMC easier, it will import your iTunes library, including most of the metadata. Then it will continue to use that library as you add more files under JRMC. That makes switching seem less daunting, especially if you have a large library. My library is not overly large yet, as I've only loaded up a little over 500 full albums on it so far; mostly Apple Lossless, though now FLAC files since switching to JRMC. I have loaded a little over 300 higher resolution files, mostly 24/96 and a few 24/48 in either Apple Lossless or FLAC. I have one DSD (dff) file as a test.

Typical of Windows based software, and one of the things that makes Mac people snicker arrogantly, is that there is the required configuration and a bevy of settings that need to be addressed in setting up JRMC. They will be largely dependent on which version of Windows you use, and the configuration of your server PC. For example, since I use Windows XP Pro SP3, WASAPI wasn't a choice for me. TO get "bit-perfect" output, I used either ASIO or Kernel Streaming, depending on which worked better (or at all) with each DAC.

Purchasing, downloading and initially installing JRMC is quite simple. Go to their web site (www.jriver.com), click on the "Download Now" button, and download the free trial. You have thirty days to purchase it, accessed from the program's Help Menu. Initial installation is as simple and automated as any other Windows program. Since Tom Gibbs wrote a nice review of JRMC already (see Issue 62) I'll not include a full review of it here. Suffice to say it's absolutely worth $49, sounds better than iTunes, handles multiple file formats and resolutions easily, and is what I use on my server now. I have given it my Writer's Choice Award for 2012.

However, getting back to my long delay in getting this article out, JRMC had some issues for me. Whereas iTunes seemed to work fine with all the DACs I had on hand, within its own limitations, with JRMC I initially had some glitches. Though the DACs I had that ran in adaptive mode (DACport and one from Brik Audio) worked fine, the two that ran in asynchronous mode did not, even after loading the necessary drivers. The HRT Music Streamer II kept producing numerous "clicks" and "pops" that were highly intrusive, rendering it unusable. The W4S μDAC, after much playing with buffers sizes and other settings, started working okay and actually sounded wonderful, but occasionally (three to six time per hour on average) would exhibit a brief, few-tenths-of-a-second long dropout. In spite of the high quality sound, this was still not acceptable behavior.

I spent the next few months trying every adjustment I could think of via JRMC's settings to resolve these issues. Finally, I sent the μDAC back to Wyred4Sound (at their request) to have it tested. They returned it to me, saying it tested out just fine.

One side note here is that I used this server setup exclusively during my ModWright KWI200 review, and it played flawlessly through the ModWright's built in (and extremely good) DAC. However, for that DAC, I had to load the M2Tech HiFace USB to SP/DIF driver. I had thought about getting a standalone HiFace USB to SP/DIF converter to try, but since only two of the DACs I had would allow for an SP/DIF input (the Brik and the μDAC) I decided against it. Plus, that should have been an unnecessary expense, since this was supposed to be about low cost computer audio using USB DACs.

Still, after all that, the realization set in that the problem was mine all along, not theirs, and not JRMC's. My old IBM T42, for this application at least, was just too old and underpowered. It did test within acceptable levels using JRiver's included benchmark test, but just barely.

It was time to retire the aging IBM notebook and its early Pentium processor, limited RAM and slow BUS. Fortunately, I had another old, but much newer and more powerful notebook, my 2006 era Dell E1505, that had recently been retired from daily use. The Dell had more RAM (2.5 GB, its functional maximum) and more importantly, a dual core Intel processor. Its performance benchmark was about 50% to 60% better than the IBM, including better USB specs, faster RAM and a faster BUS.

I reformatted the Dell's hard drive, did a custom install on Windows XP Pro to keep it as minimal as possible, and only loaded those things that were necessary to its intended use as a music server. Even with JRMC, Dropbox, Team Viewer (used for remote control) and AVG antivirus running, there are only 50 total processes listed in Task Manager. I've never set up a Windows notebook with so few processes before.

Amazingly, even at JRMC 17's default settings, everything now worked fine with all the DACs except the HRT Music Streamer II (appropriate drivers loaded as supplied by the manufacturers). The HRT still suffered from numerous pops, clicks and noises. However, since that was a borrowed unit from a friend, and to whom I had to return it, I did not have an opportunity to pursue resolving the issue. There are enough people happy with their HRTs to assume with a little more time, I would have found the settings that worked. I may take a look at that at some future point.

It probably shouldn't have taken me close to six months to resolve these issues, and wouldn't have if not for my own stubbornness! Assuming you are willing to get an appropriate new Windows PC you shouldn't have any of these issues. Heck, the new Samsung notebook with an Intel Core I-3, 4 GB Ram and a 500 GB hard drive I bought to replace the Dell as my personal computer (on which I am typing this) was under $400 at the local Best Buy. I would say that for $500, you could buy an appropriate Windows notebook and JRiver Media Center, and be well on your way to music server happiness.

After running this new server for about a week, and assuring myself that all the DACs available to me worked well with it, I upgraded JRMC from version 17 to version 18. Although 18 looks and feels just like 17, it offers some nice improvements and additions. It will know handle DSD files natively if you have a DSD compatible DAC, otherwise it will still (like JRMC 17) convert DSD to 24/96 on the fly. I have one DSD file (a dff) to try, and it works well enough, though JRMC does indicate that playing it is not a "direct connection," as in not bit perfect, since it going through a DSD to PCM conversion. The whole list of changes in version 18 is available on JRiver's support wiki.

So, finally, my server was set, and I had several low cost DACs to try out. I used the server and DACs with the system as indicated in my equipment list, and also with the ModWright KWI200 integrated amp, though only for a couple of weeks before I had to ship that back. I also was able to use a full Jolida set that arrived for review, including their top of the line (all mods installed) Fusion preamp ($2199) and JD1000P 100 watt EL34 amplifier ($2249). I switched back and forth between the Direct Acoustics Silent Speakers ($498), Tekton Lores ($999) and a new set of SVS Ultra Bookshelf Speakers ($998) pretty often (almost daily). The presentation from the three sets of speakers were so compelling, yet so different, I felt using all three gave me the best handle overall on the sound of the different DACs.

A few things before I get into specific descriptions of the individual units. First off, all the DACs (once I got things sorted out with the server) worked well enough to be usable, enjoyable and worthy of a listen. For each, I used Kernel Streaming, ASIO or Direct Streaming in JRMC, whichever recognized the DAC when I selected the output device. I played with various and adjustments in JRMC's Playback Options mode, but since those seem to be highly dependant on the PC and operating system you are using, my settings aren't likely to help you. You'll have to play with those yourself if you choose to go this route.

Also, I didn't get caught up in cable issues. The CEntrance DACport LX uses a mini USB connector, and I mostly used an Audioquest Forest cable ($29). The iFi iDAC and W4S μDAC use standard USB-B connections, and I used a Straightwire USB Link ($42) for those. The Audioquest Dragonfly plugs directly into the notebook's USB port, and requires no cable. To connect the DACs to the rest of the system, I used my normal Nordost Solar Wind interconnects for the iFi and W4S. The CEntrance DACport used its own "Reserve Y Cable" ($75) due to its ¼ inch headphone style jack. The Dragonfly needs a mini 3.5 mm headphone plug, and I used an Audioquest Evergreen interconnect ($35 for 2 meter) for that.

Finally, I'm not going to get into the technology or internal workings of each of these DACs here. I look at most audio products as "black boxes" and care only for how they work in my system. I'm not that hung up on whether a DAC runs in asynchronous mode or not. Though I understand the theory and reasoning behind using asynchronous mode, I look at the simple case that very high quality units like the Benchmark, CEntrance, and some others do not run in asynchronous mode. As I understand it, asynchronous mode may make it easier to get high quality sound, but it doesn't necessarily always make it better than other methods.

Otherwise, I'm not an electrical or audio engineer, so I won't comment on the design or engineering of the units. Just how they responded when I listened to them.

Also, I know everyone is looking for me to describe the amazing not-so-subtle, jaw dropping differences between all these DACs, but in all honesty, the amazing, jaw-dropping experience for me was how similar they all sounded.

So, in order of increasing price, here they are:

CEntrance DACport LX ($249.95, $299.95 bundled with Reserve Y-Cable)

centrance dacport

The CEntrance was the DAC that started all this for me. When I first started setting up my server, and only had the 16/48 capable Headroom Total Bithead to use as a DAC, the ever so nice folks at CEntrance offered to send me the DACport LX to use in the system. The DACport LX, is basically the same as the better known DACport, but without the headphone amp or volume control. I like simple things, and when things minimize the need for me to make decisions, I like that too, provided they work well. The mini USB input and the ¼ inch headphone jack output certainly took cables out of the picture, and made that decision much easier. I just used what they sent me until receiving the low cost Audioquest Forest.

I discussed the DACport LX in Part 1 of this series (Issue 61) and you can read more about my initial thoughts there. Having used the DACport daily for about a year now, and especially after upgrading to JRMC, I am even more impressed that I was back then. This is a remarkably neutral, detailed, transparent and dynamic little DAC.

One thing I couldn't account for was that it always sounded like it added emphasis to the mid bass region. Especially noticeable on well recorded electric bass, where there was always a little more power, a little more pressure, and a little more oomph. Yet, after saving FLAC files of the bass decade tracks from Stereophile Test CD 2, and measuring the output from 250 Hz and lower (with a Radio Shack digital SPL meter), compared to the other DACs there was no measurable difference between the three (within the resolution of the meter). How do you measure oomph? Who cares, I could continue to live with this DAC, and have been very satisfied with it for the past year.

However thanks to the wonderful world of computer audio, we can now get upgrades and improvements without changing hardware. Near the end of the review period, I downloaded the free CEntrance Universal Driver. The Windows driver upgrade allowed the DACport to run under ASIO instead of Direct Streaming, which is important because, in spite of the name, Direct Streaming is not a direct connection, and therefore not bit-perfect. ASIO is, and sounds noticeably better. The sound was certainly more transparent, more neutral, and the bass emphasis was gone. Nice improvement in sound for no extra cost. Don't use your DACport without it!

Overall, I love this little DAC. Simple in operation, wonderfully musical in sound, and a joy to listen to for extended periods of time. It's been my reference for the past year.

http://www.centrance.com/

Audioquest Dragonfly ($249)

http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue65/images/audioquest_dragonfly.jpg

The Dragonfly has already been fully reviewed by Tom Gibbs (Issue 65). I don't have anything to quibble with or dispute regarding his review. As I heard it, the Dragonfly is pretty much as Tom described it. It is consistently neutral, detailed and tuneful. It's about as plug-ang-play as you can get, but I was only able to get it to be recognized under Direct Streaming, which may have put it at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the others, that all ran under ASIO or Kernel Streaming. However, near the end of this review period, I discovered that the Dragonfly will play with other devices drivers, and I was able to use ASIO also, with a noticeable improvement in sound.

If I do have any concerns with the Dragonfly, my primary concern would be how it plugs  straight into the USB port. This initially seemed like a good thing, since it eliminated the need for a costly USB cable, but with all three notebooks I used, it just worried my that the strain of having the DAC acting as a bit of a cantilever for the interconnect put extra load on the USB connector. Initially, I resolved this easily by using a Velcro strap to secure the cable to one of the legs of my equipment rack, thereby carrying the load. Later, as I'll discuss separately, I didn't plug it into the notebook directly, but used it with the iFi iUSB Power Supply. That also worked well.

I loved the Dragonfly as a headphone amp driving my 600 ohm Beyerdynamic DT770Pro headphones. Though I missed the crossfeed circuitry of my aging Total Bithead, I was able to create that using the crossfeed feature JRiver Media Center. I spent about fifty hours at my job editing down raw training videos I shot recently. Going through these for six to eight hours per day made me glad I had the Dragonfly handling the audio.

Hooked up in the big system, the sound may have been slightly less dynamic and transparent than some of the other DACs mentioned here, though I do emphasize slightly. I was actually rather surprised at how close four of the DACs sounded to each other while handling 16/44 and 24/96 files from my server.

Overall, a cute and fun product, that certainly earned all the accolades it's received.

http://www.audioquest.com

iFi iDAC ($299)

 

ifi dac

iFi Micro products are designed by Abbingdon Music Research (AMR) and are billed as benefiting from trickle-down technology from the pricier brand. Trickle-down may be silly and contemptuous as an economic plan, but it certainly is reality and beneficial in terms of technology.

Like the other DACs mentioned here (except the W4S), the iDAC is powered via its USB port and has only a single asynchronous USB input. It also includes a very nice headphone amp, with a separate volume control for that purpose. For Windows, it does require downloading and installing a driver from the iFi website, which was quick and easily installed, and allowed operating under ASIO.

I used this DAC for about two weeks feeding directly from the USB port of the server, before the iUSB Power Supply arrived. During this initial listening, I kept how subtly this fit in right between the DACport and W4S. I say subtly, because in al realty I don't think I can reliably describe the differences between these units. And for most of us, that's a good thing, because they all perform at a level way higher and more musically accomplished than I would ever have imagined.

If there was one area that the iDAC was a little ahead of the game, it was in its imaging capability. All of my speakers are set up for optimizing tonal balance, bass response and dynamics, with the soundstaging and imaging being however it turns out. I do get reasonably good and enjoyable imaging with my system, but it's not a priority for me. Yet, with the iFi, the soundstage is larger, deeper, and images in that stage are more precisely defined. That may make a lot more difference to some of you.

And I loved this DAC as a headphone amp. My Beyers aren't the easiest headphones to drive, but 24/96 files from the server through the iDAC and the Beyers made me happy as can be, and put thoughts of buying newer (and more expensive) headphones off into the distant future. There's a reason I used the DT770 Pro since 1997, and the iDAC just reinforced that.

But the best of this unit is yet to come…

http://www.ifi-audio.com

Wyred 4 Sound μDAC ($399)

wired 4 sound dac

I was very excited to get this little DAC at the Newport Show last June. W4S has built a solid reputation with their higher priced DACs, and I was curious how much of that would carry over into this little unit. The μDAC is nice and small, has inputs for asynchronous USB, optical and RCA. It can be powered by your computer's USB, but they supply a wall wart that can also be used. Of course it is 24/192 capable. For Windows, it did require loading an asynchronous driver, but that took all of a minute or two. This driver worked best using Kernel Streaming, which is fine, as it is still a direct connection.

As I mentioned in the intro to this article, I spent a few months battling short, random dropouts with this DAC when using JRMC (this did not happen with iTunes, or with the other DACs) until I upgraded my server notebook. Replacing the IBM with the Dell solved this, though I find it hard to fault the μDAC, since the IBM T42 is a very old, outdated, and in modern terms an underpowered computer. Even the Dell I replaced it with is fairly outdated, but it worked fine, and I had no further problems with the μDAC.

For $150 more than the CEntrance, what does the μDAC offer? The first thing, is versatility. Though I thought I only really wanted or needed a USB DAC, I found having the SP/DIF input quite convenient. For example, the Jolida Fusion preamp only had three analog RCA inputs. After plugging in the Jolida phono stage, the Marantz SACD player and a DAC, all the inputs were used. With the μDAC, I could run the server through the USB, my Pure I-20 iPod dock through the SP/DIF, and my ATT Uverse receiver through the TOSLINK input. I also could run the digital out of the Marantz into the SP/DIF, and free up an analog input for something else. It's nice having options.

Of course none of that would be worth it if the μDAC didn't sound good. Fortunately, there was no problem in that regard. In fact, in some regards, the μDAC is the best sounding DAC in this group. Using the USB input with the server, music was beautifully rendered with an airy, smooth, extremely transparent sound. There were fine levels of detail, as even the smallest and most subtle sound in a mix was easier to pick out than with the other three DACs, though the margin is very small. The μDAC produced the large soundstage with the Tekton Lore speakers, while also producing the more specific images with the Silent Speakers than I am used to, approaching the capabilities of the iFi (a difficult task with those speakers, which are not prone to precise imaging).

One area where the CEntrance was slightly better, was in overall dynamic ability. The μDAC certainly wasn't lacking dynamics, and didn't sound restrained at all, but the DACport LX, was just a little more expressive dynamically, especially after its driver upgrade.

Using the μDAC's SP/DIF input, I used two digital sources; the Marantz SA8001, playing CDs, and the Pure I-20 dock with my iPod Classic. Listening to standard CDs from the Marantz through the μDAC's SP/DIF input, using a Belkin PureAV digital (RCA) cable (about $8 through Amazon.com) sounded very different from the analog outputs of the player. Through the μDAC, everything was substantially more transparent, with an almost eerie, deep soundstage. But played straight from the Marantz, though there was a loss of that see through transparency, there was a little more energy and excitement, though that may have been partially due to a slightly (and I do mean slightly, in comparison only) accentuated upper frequency range. Which I preferred depended on the music being played. Loud, exciting, bang and crash rock was better served straight in. Introspective, moody, or more emotional music was more gripping through the μDAC. I would think that an older, or lower priced CD player with a digital output would be well served acting as a transport for this DAC.

That sounds more critical that I actually wanted it to sound. I can't emphasize enough that the μDAC is a superb unit, that I have spent many hours listening to, and enjoying every minute.

http://www.wyred4sound.com

Additional thoughts, and an exciting addition!

I was fortunate enough to have both the DACport and the μDAC in house while I had the mighty ModWright KWI200 integrated amp in for review. The ModWright sported their $1150 optional internal DAC, which I used extensively, running my server in to the USB input, and the SP/DIF of the Marantz player into the appropriate input. Truth be told, neither budget DAC could match the built in DAC of the ModWright KWI200 when I played them through that amp. The ModWright's DAC was more transparent, more dynamic, more detailed and offered up a better defined, larger soundstage. However, the ModWright DAC is an $1150 option, while these USB DACs in question were one-quarter to one-third that price. Sometimes you do get what you pay for.

The BIG STORY – the iFi iUSB Power Supply ($199)

ifi usb power

The iFi iUSB Power Supply is a $199 accessory that targets that most favorite of audiophile concerns—the power supply! What were you expecting with that name? It serves one purpose, that being to supply isolated, clean, noise free power to a USB powered device. In use, it couldn't be simpler. Plug its wall wart in to an AC receptacle, plug the USB output of your computer into the input side of the iUSB (using a standard USB-B plug), then plug the output into your USB powered DAC. As I understand it, it passes the USB data stream straight through, while ignoring the USB power from the computer, replacing it with its own super clean, stable power. It also has some proprietary grounding method that is supposed to reduce ground noise substantially.

To merely say that it works is more understatement than I can justify. With each and every DAC mentioned in this article, improvements in background noise, signal-to-noise, dynamics, transparency, and every other characteristic that might be effected by a power supply are improved, and by no small amount. It's strange that, though none of the DACs seemed to have a noise issue, or seemed to have any S/N issues, the iUSB Power made a substantial difference in quieting down the background.

Any of the DACs in this article being powered by the iUSB Power, is noticeably improved and better than any of the other DACs not using it. The Dragonfly, which you may have gathered I like, but which was not my favorite overall in this group, was clearly the best of the bunch when plugged into the iUSB Power (if the other weren't). Its dynamic capability punched up, its transparency stripped of another proverbial veil, and its imaging now wide, deep, and focused in its vividness.

And, the subtle difference I said couldn't say I could reliably identify, were now more clearly understood. The overall transparency and dynamics of the DACport, the huge soundstage and eerie image realism of the iDAC (now extending several feet to each side of the speaker), the overall consistency and coherency of the μDAC, were more differentiated from each other.

Let's put it this way. When I started out with my original server and iTunes, as good as any of these DACs sounded, I still preferred listening to the original CD played on the Marantz SA8001. Switching to JRiver Media Center (and the new server) made it a toss up, where in some cases I would go with the server, and others with the disk player. Now, with the iUSB Power driving the DACs, I am seriously considering retiring the disk player. I have only used it either to do direct comparisons and "serious evaluation" listening, or to play the few single layer SACD disks I have. Yes, a FLAC file ripped from a CD, played through any of these DACs into my system, is in just about every meaningful way, superior to the CD being played directly. Needless to say, it just gets even better when I play part of my growing collection of 24/96 files.

Though I did not have the ModWright handy after receiving the iUSB Power, the overall improvements in sound make me think that these budget DACs would now be competitive with that unit. And this is without fancy, expensive USB cables. The Audioquest Forest was $29 and the Straightwire USB Link was $42.

A remarkable product and maybe an essential part of any USB based computer audio system.

http://www.ifi-audio.com

A summary, and other nonsense…

I started this project to see if I could put a usable server system together cheaply. I wanted to find out if there were lower limits that needed to be surpassed, and if there was hope for those who wanted to get into serious computer based audio without going crazy financially. I think I have succeeded, and in a way that exceeded my expectations by a large margin.

With the price of new laptops, it would make more sense to simply buy a new laptop, but if you happen to have a functioning, reliable older CoreDuo, or better laptop, it should do. I'm getting by with 2.5 GB RAM and a 250 GB internal hard drive. However, my new Samsung notebook (Core I3, 4 GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive) is far superior in every way to my old Dell, and only cost $399 at a Best Buy. It would make a great budget server notebook. Look for one a USB 3.0 connector for the external hard drive.

A confession here, if you don't mind. As reviewers we're supposed to wax poetic about all the subtle and not so subtle differences that we hear in every piece of gear or accessory we listen to. It's supposed to be impossible for any two pieces of gear to sound terribly similar. I've done several comparison articles over the years. Back in the Listener Magazine days, Bruce Kennett and I co-wrote a comparison of eight small speaker systems, and not only were the differences easy to hear and to write about objectively, our subjective opinions of what we heard had us picking the same "winner" and then ranking the rest pretty much the same. Later I compared six integrated amps, and the differences I heard and wrote about were consistent and easy to describe. Overall, hearing differences and describing them writing is what we, as reviewers, are supposed to do.

Yet, here I am with four excellent low cost DACs, all sporting different internal design, different chips, different functions, different whatever…

…and I can't for the life of me describe any substantive differences between them beyond the most subtle of characteristics, none of which are enough to make me prefer one over the other. All achieve at an extremely high level, and I could easily and happily live with any one of them. Whichever one is playing at the moment strikes me as my favorite.

If I had to choose one over the other, I'd actually be looking at the features they offer. If all I needed was USB input and an analog output to feed my system, the DACport LX does it great and only costs $249. If I wanted a headphone amp also, I would go with the iFi iDAC. If I needed multiple inputs, the W4S μDAC would be my choice. If pocketable portability and a headphone amp were needed, the Dragonfly would be it.

That sounds like an old Stereo Review article, dammit….

What I have been doing, is simply switching the DACs out, rotating them into use every three days. That goes along nicely with swapping speakers out at least once or twice a week, too. But, whichever I might choose, the iFi iUSB Power would be part of the system.

That's it for Part 2. I'll try to get Part 3 out sometime soon.

Next up should be about improving on file storage. I am using a single 250 GB external USB drive, and now part of the internal hard drive to store my music. I will be looking at reasonable ways to set up larger external storage, with automatic backup and redundancy. I'll also try to keep it off the USB BUS, maybe using a Firewire drive or maybe a networked NAS drive.

But two things I can definitely say about the future of my computer system. It will never cost too much, and it will have the iFi iUSB Power Supply for the DAC.

 

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