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USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter? (Read 335 times)
RiversideBlues
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USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter?
11/07/17 at 14:04:48
 
I am looking to set up an audio system based on a MacMini. In the process, I realize that I have one question: I can’t quite understand whether the things between the computer USB port and the DAC really matter that much. Specifically, because I’ll be using the coaxial input on my DAC, the question comes down to whether
USB-SPDIF converters make a difference. (And, additionally, do usb cables matter?)

I hope this is not too basic a question, as there seems to be more and more companies, from iFi, Schiit to Bryston, that put out USB converters each claiming the problems related to USB conversion all solved in better ways.

I've been a long time lurker, but I have thankfully benefited much from the discussions on the Decware forum. I have a Torri Jr that I am quite happy with. I’m appreciative of your thoughts on or experiences of USB converters.
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will
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Re: USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter?
Reply #1 - 11/09/17 at 01:04:44
 
Hey RiversideBlues,

From my start with my computer audio, back when this stuff was not so worked out, I have heard USB cable differences. Also, small forays into toslink and coax revealed cable sound differences. And when my early ZDAC USB went haywire, I got a relatively inexpensive Music Fidelity V-link USB-SPDIF converter, and it also effected the sound notably. I would say better than that particular USB implementation...more solid, but perhaps a little sterile.

It makes little sense if we look at it simplistically...bits and bytes, "cables make no difference" as long as they fulfill correct impedance, capacitance parameters, etc. But when they sound different, why?

Most of my experience is with USB though, from the Mini to USB-in on my DACs, which by-the-way, can sound really, really good. With this, five different cable approaches sound different enough to really matter to the quality of the music.

Then, once some innovators like AQVOX, Uptone, ifi, etc got on the map with relatively reasonably priced refinements in improving clocking and noise, things got better faster. If you read up on these, I think you will find that most of the developers are working on the same basic issues, perhaps by different means. It seems to come down mostly to corrupted data, jitter, and electronic noise, including noise directly conveyed between pieces of gear over the wires.

But with a revealing source and system, the listening tells it. All parts of my digital source are optimized to decent degrees...from power, to computer and software, to cables/connections, to DAC. I now use a Jitterbug out of an i7 Mini (and one usb plug on the Mini sounds a bit better than the others), into a DIY USB cable which sounds better than the rest I have tried, into an Uptone Regen, into a Curious Cable USB-Regen link cable, into my modified Gustard x20pro DAC USB. With these in different order, or from removing something from the equation, or when trying my DbAudiolabs Essential cable (or the Wireworld starlight) in the place of my cable...... any way I go, the sound is different, then being a matter of choice for "the best."

I think coax converters do similar things to what I have done, and even now, many say it is a better approach than straight USB. I can only say that I got deeper into USB with my Tranquility DAC, a DAC designed and tuned by crazy good listeners and engineers, and they chose only good USB implementation for the DAC (which sounded great). So I stayed with it as I changed DACs, and I like my USB enough to keep me from changing so far.

Sorry I can't point you in the direction you are looking, but yes, in my experience, it all matters if your source and system are revealing. Then, the research for the best sound at the best value. Do you know John Darko for reviews...and computeraudiophile is loaded with discussions.

Good luck!

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« Last Edit: 11/09/17 at 01:05:26 by will »  

PSA P5/modified Brickwall/Shunyata Defender/more; MacMini/Audirvana>Jitterbug/Regen> modified Gustard x20pro DAC; DIY + Pi Audio PCs; DIY ICs + USB; Decware-Jupiter CSP3, Torii MKIV, HR1-all modified; DIY Speaker Cables; feet-Madscientist, Archie's, isocups, DIY
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RiversideBlues
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Re: USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter?
Reply #2 - 11/09/17 at 13:47:41
 
Thanks very much for your reply, Will. It would seem setting up a computer audio system entails a lot more new itches that'll need to be scratched...

I can understand USB wires, like other cables, will have different effects. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this USB conversion thing. On top of their tech claims, companies seem to have distinct emphases (transformer coupled output, built-in power supply, etc.) that add to the time-consuming learning curve I’m experiencing right now.

The Tranquility DAC looks quite interesting. At the very least it eliminates a few itches that need to be dealt with. Hope I’ll try it someday.
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will
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Re: USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter?
Reply #3 - 11/10/17 at 01:26:29
 
I agree, it is a labyrinth. Good DACs work to try and resolve incoming noise, along with cleaning, buffering, re-clocking, etc, but most seem to still benefit from computer connection help. I have heard from a few folks though, that some DACs, like Auralic’s Vega, were quite successful with their internal USB treatment, making using a regen or converter less important, if not irrelevant.

My Gustard x20pro DAC, with intelligent design, still benefitted from modifications...power supply clean up...damping and using cut up WA stickers on certain parts to reduce noise...madscientist graphene contact conditioner on internal connections...a better clock near the DAC chips...all these were about noise and cleaner data.

Done progressively they were all quite audible. And the complex ones, like damping and sticker sizing and placement, were sort of amazing, adjusting by ear over weeks and months to find the cleanest and most musical sound. The stock DAC, though really nice out of the box, could clearly be taken quite a bit further. And others have taken it further than I did.

I think this is the sort of thought going into converters and regenerators...cleaning noise, and retaining/restoring the data optimally, seems to be most of the story. Basically, the least noise created and passing through to the DAC, and the most data integrity on error free data is the goal.

When I first got into refining USB, I got an AQVOX USB adapter that blocked the 5v power from the computer, normally passing to the DAC receiver via the USB cable. The adapter replaced computer power with cleaner/stronger power from a separate linear power supply. Then only data lines were direct from the computer to DAC. Apparently, noisy power into the DAC can disturb the USB input circuitry quite a lot, including clocks (adding jitter), and adding noise to the DAC in general.

Then the Uptone Regen came along, doing advanced power cleaning/isolation, as well as regenerating the data. This was more complete than the AQVOX, so pretty easy to keep. For me (and many others), the improvements and expense did not stop there though...The Regen came with a USB connector, and for better sound, Curious Cable made a “regen link,” a short, very good sounding USB cable made specifically to fill that need. Hearing good things about it, I got one and it stayed. Then I got a jitterbug from musicdirect (returnable) and kept it too. Finally, I used a pretty nice MAC power cord I had around on the Regen power supply. So just this USB treatment added up to a fair bit of money for me.

On consideration, this makes the relatively inexpensive converters (for what they are) like Singxer, or maybe LKS, seem more worth investigating. But then, all the tech is getting better and smaller, so lesser setups may well be good enough depending on everything else.

These problems start in part with computer power/noise, so quieting noise before the computer helps. With better power, good cables, good connectors, and vibration treatment, the computer itself can be made quieter to begin with. For the more serious, separate power supplies for the computer take a self-noise maker out of the computer.

Then there are pretty easy ways to reduce noise produced in the computer...Solid state drives, minimized operating system setup, and storing music on quiet external drives that are on a different buss than the data. I use USB data to the DAC, so use a Firewire drive for music. Then with system/software optimization, quality player software, and enough RAM to play the music from, computer processing is focussed and minimized, creating less noise.

So to get the best from a system, there can be a bit of work before isolating what noise there is left in the output...Which brings us back to the reason for all these computer connection devices and nice cables... Whether a convertor or a USB setup like mine, different noise cleaners and data organization/reorganization methods are all about reducing noise, isolating noise, and getting data to the DAC chips in the most complete shape.

I think this is what you are seeing when they talk about using a converter power supply rather than powering one from the computer (or better yet and external power supply), or transformer coupling, etc... these are ways of avoiding damage from noise.

Then there is the how much is enough? I guess the last 10% is as or more important to me as the first 90, and Decware is good enough to allow digging in for the last percents if we are inclined.

Seems in a revealing system/room, anything that makes electrical noise, be it from noisy power, vibration, bad component power supplies and other parts, digital anomalies, or whatever, noise corrupts what makes the sound...the signal. And even with really good gear, subtler noise is important to solve for the last percentages. I have been plugging away at all this for a long time, quieter gear and system/room, making hearing differences easier. After having done a lot with components, power, room, cables, tubes, vibration, etc...I started going inside, progressively modifying the amps and DAC. And lately, things have become stepped up in increased complexity, spacial information, micro detail and textures, ambience and musicality….to a point where changes made are notably more audible than similar ones made before in the same, but less refined system.

Again, this shows that less noise allows more signal integrity in quieter space, less smearing, etc. Trying to retain Steve's foundational signature traits, while carefully adjusting, the detail and quieter/cleaner space it rises out of have increased without pain, sounding to me like more smaller “particles” in emptier space, and transforming what was harder edges into feathered and textured edges, while bringing out a lot of subtle information, speed, and nuance.

Which brings it back to the basics of this computer audio thing. Glare, digital edginess, etc, are being solved easier these days with more awareness of what causes them and more refined solutions.

With improving tech and design, many folks are content with more straight forward approaches to computer audio than the way mine organically developed, while others would imagine mine to be deficient...way too noisy yet.

But looking at the big picture today, it would seem that with a good DAC and converter, and with good cables, the converter could conceptually solve a whole lot in one box.
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« Last Edit: 11/10/17 at 05:10:17 by will »  

PSA P5/modified Brickwall/Shunyata Defender/more; MacMini/Audirvana>Jitterbug/Regen> modified Gustard x20pro DAC; DIY + Pi Audio PCs; DIY ICs + USB; Decware-Jupiter CSP3, Torii MKIV, HR1-all modified; DIY Speaker Cables; feet-Madscientist, Archie's, isocups, DIY
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RiversideBlues
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Re: USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter?
Reply #4 - 11/10/17 at 05:44:01
 
Thanks very much again! When I look at all this computer audio stuff I had the feeling of coming out of the cave in the stone age trying to catch up to the twentieth-first century...

And thanks for the tip about computer audiophile. Lots of useful discussions there indeed for a starter like me.

Speaking of reducing jitter/noise upstream, would you think using network player like SOTM SMS-200 or microRendu would help, in comparison with MacMini?

I read in your post and signature you use a Macmini, so I guess that would be your preference. I too was looking to use a dedicated Macmini as transport, but recently read a lot about mRendu and got really intrigued by their streaming approach.
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« Last Edit: 11/10/17 at 05:46:38 by RiversideBlues »  
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will
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Re: USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter?
Reply #5 - 11/12/17 at 01:13:13
 
Thanks for the reminder about microRendu. I was pretty excited about it when it first came out, but getting caught up in pressing life stuff, forgot about it. Conceptually very intelligent; put together by smart folks with good ears; liked a lot by many customers who have long been computer audio folks….it seems quite good. And ultraRendu sounds even better!

I am from the dark ages too and have no network or need for one. All the acronyms in these threads are mind bending. But finally, looking at diagrams, it looks pretty straight forward, and it looks like this tech may be good enough to figure it out for music even without any need for networking. Looking around today, while suffering through the many disorganized sets of posts, I had a hard time finding more essential information around the best setup parameters and limitations. It about bent my mind and wore me out, so I sympathize with your "learning curve" concerns!

Then I ran across a thread where a thoughtful and valiant soul made an index of useful posts to help the rest of us to get what he found as best quality audio:  https://www.computeraudiophile.com/forums/topic/30376-a-novel-way-to-massively-i...

I have just begun it, but it looks useful for learning.

Mac Mini:

I got into using a Mini pretty easily having used Macs from the my early days with computers. Then, much later, wanting to use a computer for audio, the Mini was getting a lot of attention. The small size easy to fit in; heavy aluminum case good for EMI/RFI rejection and vibration; Macs using careful design considerations in many areas that are not strictly bottom line dependent; associated, the small size of a Mini required better parts to avoid too much heat and the fan running, noisy fans not fitting with the Apple aesthetic….and inefficiency and noise create heat, so conceptually it was inadvertently quieter for audio than many; no screen/monitor like laptops with associated extra electronics (noise); intuitive software design objectives from the start primary for Apple development; associated, Apple attracted many early computer music and graphics folks....less-linear minded people were attracted to Apple, including creative software designers ...and more...but you get the idea.

When I got my first Mini, I did some basics, enough RAM, carefully separating the power supply, using some passive noise filters, stripping down system activity, and got player software that ran from memory and further optimized systems. But before doing this, I compared it to my wife’s Macbook pro, and with iTunes only, the Mini sounded better to me than the laptop, a good verification.

Then came power refinement, software optimization, better cables, vibration management, damping, separation of music files from the computer and from the DAC buss….

A lot of this learning for me was from Eric Hider, one of the dbAudioLabs guys, the Tranquility DAC developers. When checking out the DAC, I was impressed with Eric’s creative thought process and intelligence. I conceptually agreed with everything I heard from him over many conversations, so I trusted their intensive listening research and findings.

They were devoted to good tech, but serious listening defined the Tranquility choices (and the Mini setup), many conclusions not expected...like finding an old NOS DAC chip to give the best sound for them. Or a relatively inexpensive cap sounding better in the output than more popular audiophile caps of the time…not being able to beat the synergistic simplicity of their NOS Tranquility with much of the recent tech for matching references of great analog masters and good vinyl on many systems. Trying hard to find ultimate (and affordable) quality with hi-res, upsampling, async and other things most designers were focussed on at the time, but finding the simple 44k NOS DAC to sound more like music to them….at least more than many popular DACs up to maybe several times as much money.

With extensive work to make a good DAC that made digital files sound like music....their research, listening and experimentation also left them with optimized Minis being a really good choice for feeding the very simple Tranquility.

In this process, over many years, they (and others) discovered loads of ways to make the Mini good for audio. Last I spoke with Eric (maybe 6 months ago?), they had created/written a highly stripped down operating system specifically for the Mini as an audio server, and he thought it made really important improvements. Along with better drives, memory, power, cables, etc, (all tested for sound) he was still making killer music servers out of Minis last I checked. This tells me that the optimized Mini is not dead yet.

And Eric is one of many who have devoted a lot of attention to Minis as servers, including the Uptone Regen guys who have contributed to microRendu, and loads of users who have been experimenting and describing ways of improving sound using a Mini. A call Eric to get his take on all this could be pretty intersting and useful. And perhaps his variations of solutions may as good or better and good value.

But the main reason I have not been looking past the Mini is that I love the sound I am getting. The wild thing is that each change I make makes the musical experience better! When it is this good, how can it get much better? But then I will refine some software adjustment, EQ....or amp connectors, or caps or something, and WOW.

So it would not surprise me if micro, or ultraRendu, and all that has been figured out to make it work best so far, could be very good here!

I have just been so content listening and playing with refining all my system and room....at the same time as refining the Mini, that I stopped looking around. With Audrivana 2 playing in the tuned up Mini, and into my modded Gustard DAC, the source is just really, really good! So good I could not quite agree with Audirvana 3 as the great improvement most find it to be, which is interesting.

Trying 3 with minor software adjustments, I found it a bit overstated, too dense, too clean, maybe implying I had already gotten a lot of what 3 offered from tuning my system and version 2 ??? I still figure 3 may well be better overall, likely just needing to adjust some player parameters, dither settings, etc, to bring it out for me, but 2 was sounding better to me at the end of the 3 trial period. Also I was having a couple quirky things with 3 I did not take the time to solve while upsampling my 44K files (everything I have is Rebook) to 352.8 PCM in Audirvana, as PCM playback allows live EQ adjustments in the app, a great tool for fine-tuning system room. Probably not a big deal, but a hassle with 2 sounding so good anyway.

Interestingly, for years it seems everyone focussed on reducing computer processing, minimizing noise. But now, using Audirvana to resample to DSD 11.2 uses a whopping 32% of my processor while loading files to memory, whereas, 16/44 files without up-sampling took maybe 1.5 – 2%! Also with DSD resampling the fan runs more as the computer works more...Got me, but this creates amazing sound quality so I am guessing software development has come a long way, and that my noise is relatively under control.  

Re-sampling in the computer as opposed to in-DAC is interesting, the theory I gather being that a powerful computer may be better able to do complex sampling than a lot of resampling hardware used, supporting really good sounding alternatives to quality re-sampling DACs. My DAC with the mods I did was around $1000 and sounds incredible being fed 11.2 DSD resampled from 16/44 PCM with Audirvana’s very good software sampling and powerful user adjustability.

So though I am still using an older version, Audirvana is really a big player in my music, and I would have to find out how well ultraRendu does with sampling to DSD, software adjustments, and internal EQ, things that massively improve my system.

But exploration is fun for me, so the Mini has stayed and keeps getting better. If playing with adjustments, cables, damping and all were not fun, I may have moved to more current tech by now.

My sound is truly beautiful though, so when I run across posts saying Minis are not great, I wonder….is it not great, or are some folks not using it well, or maybe some of both???

I also suspect some comments may be clouded by general computer dislikes, or perhaps in part by Mac neurosis remnants from the Windows campaign started way back in the day that was pretty successful in discrediting the creative competition. While Windows continuously “utilized” Apple development ideas, there was a lot of suspicion in the press and public about Apple, in part for good reason when the market share was so low and Jobs so determined for quality and quality experience over quantity...Would they survive? But even after the iMac, Mini, and powerbooks started to take off, and lots of music and graphics pros using Macpros....and even when the iPhone and iPads came along, the bias was still strong enough to remain today for many. Personally, it is all sort of daunting today with supper complex software and all, but Apple’s skill in tech has sure been useful and worth it for me!

When we first started considering computers we asked folks: How do you like your computer? This was in like 89 and 90, and the Mac people ALL said something like “I really like my computer,” whereas, the Windows people typically said something defensive like: “you should get a real computer (Windows)” or “Windows are just as good as Macs” and the like. Never did we hear affection from the Windows folks. So for us, there was no choice.

Now it seems you can get great sound from either with careful attention to avoiding or solving known problems with hardware and software, and as you are finding, there are many other choices specifically made for music as well. So I would say this is a good time to join in computer audio for sure. A point of the above though, to me, web research has really amazing potential, but can get tricky and confusing, often requiring "feelers" for the depth of knowledge, experience, hearing sophistication, and possible biases of the presenter.

That said, from my minimal research, MicroRendu sounds very compelling to me. And they are working with the Uptone Regen folks too, also very serious and innovative small audio tech enthusiasts. And as the growing community of users experiment and interact with developers, things appear to be getting really good fast...lots of folks helping each other find better solutions.

Another thing that has set me back in terms of moving into this exciting new digital music tech, is restricted internet bandwidth. Where we live we use a Verizon Jetpack...no DSL, cable or fiber. So the trends of high bandwidth internet interaction create challenges for me and I seriously avoid streaming even from utube and have to think about my system upgrades more toward the end of the month cycle to be sure we don’t go over into big bucks per MB. Downloading hi-res files (or even 600MB CDs) is a big deal with monthly limitations, and more-so streaming, making very useful seeming stuff like streaming and networking the home not possible or necessary.

So I have stayed in the dark ages too. But maybe this network/super tuned computer tech will bring me into today a little!

Since it is mostly new to you, I will tell you some things I will be looking for if I were to go further in this direction aside from all the noise abatement and Sound Quality work this tech has uncovered:

1. Can I use all of Audirvana’s powerful tuning tools I have come to need?
2. Would using my Mini, avoiding buying a dedicated server, work well for sound?
3. I like a good visual interface, now a 19” monitor hidden in my cabinet. I don’t care so much about a remote, liking standing up and changing records or amp settings as I have since the 60’s. But as far as I can tell, this setup seems to require a controller separate from the computer. Not having a smart phone, and liking a bigger interface anyway, I guess I would have to look into getting an iPad, something I may like but don’t need at this point.
4. My computer audio system is very reliable, and its quirks easy to figure out and fix. Is this network thing more complication prone? And if so, what are reliable ways to set them up?
5. What is the bottom line with server, power supplies, routers, switches, cables, interface, and ultraRendu?

Long story short, I think you are on to something. There seem to be a lot of good ideas and methods combined in this tech, and it is being developed by computer-music-heads working hard to make digital music better. I did not look at the sms-200 you mentioned, not because I think microRendu is necessarily better. I just liked the smallgreencomputer approach and was familiar with them already, so I focussed more on microRendu in this initial research.

I look forward to further insights from you and others. If there is more interest in this, maybe we need an audio devoted computer thread, or more specifically, a microRendu thread?

Thanks for the tip!
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« Last Edit: 11/12/17 at 18:03:14 by will »  

PSA P5/modified Brickwall/Shunyata Defender/more; MacMini/Audirvana>Jitterbug/Regen> modified Gustard x20pro DAC; DIY + Pi Audio PCs; DIY ICs + USB; Decware-Jupiter CSP3, Torii MKIV, HR1-all modified; DIY Speaker Cables; feet-Madscientist, Archie's, isocups, DIY
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RiversideBlues
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Re: USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter?
Reply #6 - 11/13/17 at 12:11:40
 
Mmm … lots to digest here. The said CA thread is quite informational. I do hope this thread/board will see more conversations. I’d love to know more about how to get computer audio & streaming right.

I have used Mac since OS9 so always feel at home with Apple. For the Mini I was planning to have a guy tweak the hardware, but not sure in terms of software what more can be done, aside from using Audionirvana or Amarra. If Eric Hider’s single-purpose OS can be commercialized, I’ll jump right in.

I still have my eyes on the m- or uRendu, though. Small footprint, cost-effective, said to sound really good. It’s an idea hard to resist, really.
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« Last Edit: 11/13/17 at 12:14:55 by RiversideBlues »  
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will
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Re: USB-SPDIF converters – Do they matter?
Reply #7 - 11/14/17 at 23:15:53
 
Yes, I understand the digestion thing! I will write more tomorrow hopefully. I talked some with Eric today, and as usual when I talk with him, I learned a lot. Have to digest a bit before getting back, but can say that from his extensive experimentation and listening, he still finds an optimized Mini the best platform for an audio server. He is offering an installed Mac OS that removes about 200,000 lines of code processing unnecessary for music. He is also offering various levels of hardware modifications for what sound like reasonable prices. So it is still a Mac that could be modified further for music if new audio improvements came along, or used as a regular computer one day if wanted.
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« Last Edit: 11/14/17 at 23:56:20 by will »  

PSA P5/modified Brickwall/Shunyata Defender/more; MacMini/Audirvana>Jitterbug/Regen> modified Gustard x20pro DAC; DIY + Pi Audio PCs; DIY ICs + USB; Decware-Jupiter CSP3, Torii MKIV, HR1-all modified; DIY Speaker Cables; feet-Madscientist, Archie's, isocups, DIY
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