If you're one of those people in search of the holy grail of audio fidelity, there's no doubt that using a PC as a complete front-end solution has probably crossed your mind at one time or another. Saving your entire music library to a hard drive and having all your favorite tracks just a few clicks away is certainly appealing, but what about the sound playback quality? Can it compete with dedicated disc transports costing thousands of dollars?

If you haven't made the move to using a PC as your front-end player, perhaps you've been deterred by the fact that PC's lack the dedicated audio engineering that we find in high-end disc spinners. Or, like me, you brought a cheap CD player and modified it to the nines and are now reluctant to invest your time in starting afresh. Such was my case until a couple of months ago when my aging Pioneer PD-S801 gave up the ghost, leaving me scrambling to find a suitable replacement.

I'd invested so much time into the PDS-801; just about every aspect of the machine had been changed somehow. Modifications to the unit included a directly heated triode output stage, fitting a low jitter master clock, replacing all audio critical electrolytic capacitors with ultra low ESR types, and replacing the stock power circuitry with ultra low noise wide bandwidth voltage regulators. Most of the inspiration for these modifications came from cruising DIY audio forums, where other obsessive-compulsive audio crazed folk like me tend to hang out.

Frequenting such places again in my time of need, I noticed that the buzzword in audiophile circles regarding ultimate digital playback now revolves around using PCs to store and playback music rather than the very best standalone transports that money can buy. It seems the buzz is primarily about three things. The first is the prospect of bit perfect data retrieval when using a suitable lossless format to burn your compact discs to a hard drive. The second is using DRC (digital room correction) to help compensate for listening room resonance and reflections. The third, using software based digital crossovers, thus overcoming passive crossover insertion losses and allowing for a more cohesive integration of drive units in multi-driver speakers.

My previous experiments using a PC with mid-budget consumer grade soundcards fell short of providing the resolution, sound staging, and detail retrieval of the modified Pioneer player. I'd put the differences down to the rampant levels of noise present inside of a PC case. After all, when it comes to soul-stirring audio reproduction, ultra low noise clean DC power is a must, and that's not something that we associate with your typical computer PSU. Computer PSUs are primarily designed to supply huge amounts of current on demand, within a certified noise band of course, but nowhere near the quality we find in a dedicated linear power supply. Hence, serious audio playback requires a soundcard designed to deal with the shortcomings of the PC's internal environment.

This leads us back towards pro audio gear used by recording engineers such as the M-Audio and Lynx range of soundcards. Most of the physical differences between pro audio solutions and your basic consumer oriented product can be put down to better components, trace routing, voltage regulation, and power supply decoupling. In addition, the pro cards feature low latency drivers that bypass Microsoft's K-Mixer and can be used with specialized software allowing all sorts of signal rerouting and manipulation. This adds up to making the pro audio offerings flexible enough for people wanting to engage DRC in a fully customized multichannel setup.

Although user reports on some of the internal pro soundcards are very favorable, my interests are stoked by external affairs. An external box presents far more interesting possibilities and flexibility to me when it comes to power supply and output stage modifications. Both are things that I'm too twitchy to leave alone and unchanged until the unit either dies under the knife or gives me what I want in terms of sonics.

One such solution revolves around using the Texas Instruments 270* range of USB - I2S and S/PDIF converter chips, which are used in several commercial outboard DACs that are rumored to be capable of upstaging even the most expensive standalone players. Better still, a range of attractively priced DIY DAC kits based on the Texas Instruments receiver chips are available that utilize levels of engineering found in commercial products costing much more. The unfortunate upshot with the TI 270* family of converters is that they're designed for two-channel use only. Those demanding external multichannel audio units will have to look towards Pro FireWire audio boxes or standalone units like the Behringer DCX2496, which has more functionality than most of us will ever need. If two-channel playback is sufficient then Logitech's Squeezebox music streamer also deserves a mention. Both the DCX2496 and Squeezebox are products that have been thoroughly adulterated by DIY masterminds and there are plenty of commercial or DIY modification packages available for both units that elevate their performance.

We aim to put some of these products to the test in the coming months while also focusing on commercial loudspeakers, disc players, and amplifiers for a range of budgets from pocket friendly to the spare-no-expense league. Today, we will take a brief look at two DIY DAC kits that we've built up and have been subjectively listening to for the past few weeks. We'll also be looking at PC-based DRC in the form of a software package called Audiolense 3.0 using some open baffle single driver speakers from 3D Sonics. If any of this tomfoolery interests you, read on....

The Test System
Comments Locked


View All Comments

  • ccd - Thursday, December 4, 2008 - link

    If you want to be scientific, there is no substitute for double blind testing. It's as simple as that. The human psyche is just too susceptible to suggestion.

    I have been in stores and compared components. But as you should know, all sorts of games can be played with equipment. A common trick is connecting a speaker to a monster amp which makes it sound better. The other key to speakers placement. You can take a speaker that sounds great in the store and sounds crappy when you get home because the listening conditions are so different.

    The most eye opening experience I ever had was taking a home made speaker into a very high end store at the end of the day because on of the salesmen wanted to listen to the transducer I was using. The speaker which also used one made speaker wires out-performed speakers costing over $20,000! The Orions that I have mentioned in previous posts are better than this speaker and the Orion uses electronics which are hardly out of the ordinary. I would put that speaker up against anything, regardless of price. Listen to a speaker like the Orion and you will realize that "high end" audio is mostly snake oil.
  • goshwan - Thursday, December 4, 2008 - link

    Why should we take your 'subjective' (because that is what it is) opinion that the Orion's are that good? How is your opinion any different from when the author says his speakers or DAC's are great?
    Have you heard these components yourself? Have you heard any of the components used in the review?

    Humans are subjective animals and purchaing decisions usually involve sprinklings of logic and subjective preferences. Audio is one of the best examples of this. Even solid state amps sound different depending on topology and operating class. Your statment about monster amps reflects this. They indeed sound different.

    I have heard the TDA1543 on occasion, but I would not be foolish enough to think that every other DAC sounds the same.

    Granted, the Orion's are a indeed a fine speaker based on reports, but it's also possible the ones we see used in the article are too.

    To mee it seems as if everyone is forcing their own subjective opinion in reply. Some are objective, but theirs plenty of subjective, which is funny really.

    I think the article could have offered some more objective stuff. but at the same time, the listening conclusions of both DAC's were pretty much spot on. The TDA1543 is known to sound soft at hf sounds, especially in nonos. The room correction stuff really was great. In fact, I wonder how many readers got that far before exploding their thoughts via the keyboard.

    You have some interesting points on blind tests, arguments for and against seem to rage the web over. I wonder what people would accept though, how much evidence would be needed if something turned out to be spot on?

    I'm interested to see where AT go with the audio stuff.
  • ccd - Saturday, December 6, 2008 - link

    I guess we will have to agree to disagree. Moving right along, I do not have any issues with open baffle speakers. I'm not a techie, but there are theoretical advantages to open baffle speakers. The trick is getting the baffle wide enough so that the baffle simulates the driver being in a wall. The problem with open baffle speakers has been aesthetics, as an open baffle speaker usually have to be very wide. I've seen open baffle speakers with hinged sides to the speaker need not be really wide except in use. The test speaker uses clear sides which would limit the impression of width.

    Actually, my issue with the speaker is that it is full range. I have not heard this speaker, but full range speakers generally have really nice mid ranges and suffer in both the upper range and lower range. I do like that he paired his speaker with a sub. However, full range speakers usually need a crossover at a high frequency than I would like and the higher the crossover, the trickier the integration. In case you haven't guessed, I've hung around DIY circles for a number of years, though not recently.
  • goshwan - Saturday, December 6, 2008 - link

    Well seeing as neither of us have heard the speaker in question it's a subjective assessment. Of course, individual drivers tailor made for the frequency range in question should be more proficient. Given that we hear little over 15Khz though, I bet they sound pretty cohesive. Yes higher range crossover integration does become an issue, but if one is not needed 'subjectively' then why bother?
  • ccd - Saturday, December 6, 2008 - link

    The speaker used in the article could be good, very good for all I know. Since I have not heard it, I can only talk in generalities. The tradeoff is between a full range transducer with no crossovers and a frequency response that is not nearly as flat as a multi-driver speaker with crossover points. Neither speaker is perfect.

    Full range drivers, at their best, have gorgeous mid-range performance which is highly valued by those who favor them. The tradeoff is a fall off in the upper and lower ranges. The limits of human hearing help cover the failings in the upper ranges and there are tricks like the use of transmission lines to extend the lower range, but there are limits.

    The multi-driver speaker has a different set of issues. One is finding drivers that complement each other. Merely matching frequency response is not enough. The other is determining the right crossover points and slopes. Not a problem for an expert, a great challenge for the amateur. From what I have personally heard and from what I know about speaker design, a well designed multi-way speaker, particularly hybrid active (passive crossover between the tweeter and mid-range and active between mid-range and woofer is just a better solution than a single full range driver. Right now, I'm sitting in front of a speaker with one of the widest frequency ranges of any driver and it is still a 3-way design.

    Again, I have not heard the speaker in question. But I also know it is VERY hard to overcome the limitations that come with certain design choices.
  • goshwan - Saturday, December 6, 2008 - link

    That's the beauty of audio, final choices are often based upon what you favor. There is no one speaker that will appeal to all tastes. Which is why I don't diss on people going one way or the other. The calculated final response with sub and DRC was pretty flat. Impressive.

  • ccd - Thursday, December 4, 2008 - link

    This gets back to my original post on this article. A lot of this is very subjective and there will never be any agreement on it. IMHO, things like DAC reviews should not be a part of this site, it would not matter whether I had heard the components or not. However, the DRC part should definitely be featured on this site and was great.

    BTW, I used the Orion as an example of a kit speaker which is both generally regarded as one of the best kit speakers available and one whose design runs counter to many of the assumptions made by this author. I encourage you to listen to the speaker and come to your own conclusions.

    Double blind testing is the only way I know of to accurately determine whether equipment changes actually make a difference. It is opposed by many in the high end because they don't like what double blind testing tells us: much of what they tout just doesn't make an audible difference.
  • goshwan - Thursday, December 4, 2008 - link

    I 'subjectively' disagree, the DAC kits are designed to run off the USB bus. Tha means a computer is involved.

    I don't follow your 'assumption' accusations either, like yours the opinions stated are subjective. Linkwitz backs his up on his site true, but the adoption still involves approval by human ear - not just visionary acceptance of theory. That means verbal expression in the form of words which you too have used to encourage people to listen to the Orions. I have no doubts those speakers sound great. But I have heard great things about open baffle speakers too.

    I agree with you on this, in that guess we can agree to disagree.

  • Flyboy27 - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    How much energy do you have to put into a system before you can actually start enjoying your music. I realized many years ago that I just needed to listen to my music instead of worrying so much about sound fidelity. Since then my enjoyment of music has increased so much. I am a musician, have been trained as a recording engineer, and work in the music industry. There comes a point when you have to stop worrying about your gear and just enjoy your music.

    Having said that it is a shame that so many people listen to 128kbps mp3s. I'm planning on re-ripping my entire CD library in a lossless format. This is part of the reason for me why it is so important to have a physical copy of my music. I'm not "stuck" with a low bitrate crapy itunes copy.
  • kompulsive - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    You guys should definitely check out the M-Audio Audiophile 192 or Audiophile 2496 depending on your needs. I've been using these and similar products for years in my small studio at home and the price, quality, and value are superb. I think Creative products are grossly overrated and overpriced.

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now