Outboard DAC solutions

Scouring DIY audio forums proved beneficial as I found plenty of attractively priced DAC kits based upon some of the most revered DAC chips available. The availability of USB to I2S and S/PDIF converter boards opens the doors to team commercial outboard DAC solutions as well as complete DIY kit builds to provide a high-end sound experience. DIY solutions are still confined to 16-bit 44.1KHz-48KHz resolution via USB due to hardware/software limitations in the DIY small scale market. It is expected that 2009 will see the availability of 24-bit USB to I2S and S/PDIF chips while Vista should provide native output support for these formats. For now, 16-bit resolution and two-channel playback is adequate for most audio seeing as practically all of our music is recorded with CDs in mind.

Two kits stood out from the pack and present complete solutions that are available in either a modular approach or a single PCB with all components in place to convert data from the digital realm to an audiophile grade audio output. The first is the Doede Douma USB to I2S converter. Doede's solution uses the Texas Instruments 2707 USB to I2S and audio out chip. The venerable TDA1543 is the centrepiece of this kit, favoring a purist mindset as it does not use any kind of oversampling of the digital signal. Audio output from the TDA1543 is configured to use a minimalist passive I/V approach with a final output of 0.6V, which may be a little low for power amplifiers that require higher input voltage to reach full output power. PCM2707 audio output is also available if required, although most people put its subjective abilities behind the TDA1543. Pricing options start at the €49 for the basic kit, while dropping an additional €29 will allow you to experiment with a low jitter master clock based upon a 12MHz VCXO from Tentlabs.

The best two features on this particular kit (aside from cost) are the asynchronous clocking that frees us of the sonic confines imposed by CPU and system loads at the USB end of things. Secondly, Doede does not rely on the USB bus to power any of the circuitry on the PCB. This leaves us with the chance to explore various low noise linear PSUs and batteries with relative ease. Either way, the sonic performance should be in excess of designs that rely solely on internal PC power. Also worthy of a mention here is that the I2S output allows us to try out various DAC kits in the future. For example, we could use the Doede kit solely to provide the USB to I2S conversion and proceed to add a separate I2S input DAC kit as an alternative to the TDA1543. This element of flexibility is especially important to me as I already have the outboard tube stage that I used to provide the audio zest from the Pioneer player. Most modern DAC chips available today feature balanced voltage or current outputs. In my case, a balanced voltage output DAC chip allows me to transplant the tube based audio output stage and enjoy its sonic merits at my leisure.

Doede's kit is available either pre-stuffed and ready to go, or with all of the thru-hole parts loose, leaving you to stuff the PCB and do the soldering. As the PCM2707 is an SMT device, it comes pre-mounted and pre-soldered regardless of the kit option you choose. I decided to purchase the kit without the thru-hole components soldered in, as I felt confident enough to tackle this element of construction myself. I must note that there are no part-by-part instructions supplied with the kit. However, basic instructions and pictures on the DDAC homepage are clear enough to provide a good point of reference should you wish to confirm device orientation or placement in some situations.

If you've never built or soldered a kit before you're best advised to go for the pre-built option at additional cost. Either way, you'll have to provide a suitable case to house the kit. Do make sure to buy a case large enough to house additional PCBs for discrete regulated power supplies or additional DAC boards should you get the bug to upgrade things later. Audio output from Doede's module is configurable via the TDA1543 or from the output of the PCM2707 chip itself. In either configuration, the audio performance is quite good, although the TDA1543 is clearly the better performer in most situations (there will be more subjective stuff later).

The Test System, Cont'd Twisted Pear Audio Opus
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  • notanakin - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Generally I found the article interesting, but why on earth was Vista 64 used for the review? The author admits he couldn't find USB-ASIO drivers, and that ACXO doesn't support Vista 64 properly. Surely first you check what would be interesting for the review and then choose an appropriate OS? Also, I'm pretty sure that Vista 32 or Win XP are far more likely to be used by most readers of the article.

    Thank goodness he wasn't running Win ME on his PC.
  • milosz - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Single Ended Triode amps add a considerable - and DEMONSTRABLE- amount of low number even-order distortion to reproduced sound. To their devotee's, this sound is "full," "rich," "harmonically complex" - etc. But what they're hearing has been ADDED by the electronics. If you listen on speakers like the single-cone types used in the review, adding some additional harmonics to the overtone structure can compensate for the lack of upper treble and poor transient presofrmance of these single-driver systems. These single driver systems store a LOT of energy in the low treble- just look at their waterfall plots. When the signal stops the cone keeps moving, from the high mass storing energy. A ribbon tweeter has a moving mass of 0.01 g while a single-driver speaker like these has a mass of about 10 grams. You tell me which will be able to faithfully folow the motions demanded of complex high frequency reproduction, and which one will have some much inetria that it will keep moving long after the signal has stopped. But if you use a SET on these things, it generates a lot of extra low order even harmonics to sweeten things up - it masks the problems introduced by the speaker to some degree.

    I think it preferable to use electronics that add as little of their own coloration as possible. That's why I try to use the best electrostatic or ribbon speakers I can afford, with the best class-A amps (tube or solid state, a good amp is a good amp) I can afford, as well as high-slope digital crossovers and top-notch D-to-A converters. I've also tried some SACD and DVD-A audio and frankly it doesn't sound any different to me from CD. Vinyl also has a lot of good music in it if you can tolerate the light hiss and crackles that even the best vinyl playback has. Of course the thing I've spent the MOST money on is the MUSIC. For a n old guy like me who has made a little dough, $75,000 for CDs and LPs, $25,000 for a 2-channel audio system is about the right ratio.
  • Carnildo - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    I noticed one word missing from this review: "double-blind". To evaluate something as subjective as audio quality, you need to do double-blind testing to make sure the results aren't being influenced by your expectations of what the sound should be like.

    One thing I'd like to see is an all-digital sound system: the sound is read off the disc, converted to 64-bit floating point, processed for playback (mixing, volume adjustment, room compensation, frequency separation if you're not using full-range speakers, etc), sent out over the wires still digital, and then converted to analog just before it hits the coils in the speakers. Keeping it digital will avoid most noise sources, 64-bit floating-point will give you a noise floor far below what anything analog or integer digital can manage, and you've got the full processing power of a modern computer to adjust for things like an imperfect room layout.
  • RagingDragon - Saturday, December 6, 2008 - link

    Floating point leads to rounding errors, and processing the floating point signal would increase those rounding errors. Todays top DAC/ADC are mostly 24-bit (unsigned) integer, so using 32 or 64 bit integers would be a more than sufficient, and without the rounding errors inherent to floating point math.
  • headbox - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    So you tested audio in a bare room with hardwood floors. Hardly a room for an "audiophile."
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    IMO that is the kind of thing they should focus on - what can be done with computers to get the best sound possible in normal rooms? Kinda like Anand's home theater, music rooms are interesting tech but not something most people have the time, money, or space to implement. So what can be done to get the best sound in a dorm room, or multi-purpose family room, etc.
  • pcfxer - Tuesday, December 2, 2008 - link

    "One of the chief perpetrators of this revival was a fellow named Throsten Loesch. "

    You mean Siegfred Linkwitz, yes?

  • ccd - Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - link

    Sigfired Linkwitz has been a major proponent of dipole speakers, not open baffle speakers.
  • ccd - Tuesday, December 2, 2008 - link

    Like many here, I think the DRC discussion is best suited for a website like Anandtech. As for some of the other issues, I highly recommend that you visit www.linkwitzlab.com Not only is the Orion the best speaker that I have personally heard, but Sigfried Linkwitz is an engineer who designed a line of very well reviewed commercial speakers. At his site, you will find a number of papers written by him on speakers and how we hear. You will find some good science there, not snake oil or myths passed among audiophiles as truth. You will find that the speakers he offers at his site as well as the literature there runs counter to many of the assumptions made by this author.
  • royboy66 - Tuesday, December 2, 2008 - link

    Now to the meat of this audio is not something we know everything about -battery power isolates all power line noise if done properly, tube amps and tube microphones and recording equipment -when properly maintained have made magnificent lifelike recordings -i have many of them -close your eyes and you are there! I have a large hifi collection and had 19 amps at one stage -i got sent over a mint 1966 Fisher X10D valve amp owned by a guy who looked after it -original box, valves everything and maintained by a valve technician –it had not had a hard life – i never ever thought it was going to sound any good hooked it up and nearly fell over the sound was alive –i sold almost all the amps i had after that experience –they were sterile crap! I still had some very fine solid state though eg Electrocompaniet for example and it too made beautiful music .Now you guys who just blast your ipods at 120db in your ears have no idea about sound quality –if you know anybody passionate about audio go listen to their setup –chances are it will sound great because they have put the effort in to make it so. I do not believe in voodoo or bullcrap –but never underestimate power line noise and rf contamination etc
    Also i can comment on speakers and dacs –they all make a difference –if i ever have to listen to a tda1543 again it will be too soon !the cymbals sound dull because that dac is barely 15 bit in quality –would you use a commodore 64 now to surf the net – of course not. This dac is so far outdated it is not funny –listen to cymbals on a good record they do not sound like the tda1543 reproduces them –it simply does not have the resolution in the mid to upper frequency to sample properly the lifelike sound of a cymbal –but the other did because it was a better computer for those same frequency
    I have as one of my system the NHT XDA digital active system –are we supposed to believe it is the last word in audio because it is digital and has one of the flattest responses irrespective of room –it basically does not need that. I asked a few friends how they thought it sounded compared to my 20 year old Infinity Kappa9 and not one of them liked it over 20 year old speakers driven by valve or solid state. what does this mean? –there is more to audio than we think –so guys keep an open mind and hopefully through these articles we will end up with great computer sound –i personally at the moment use a squeezebox with lossless Flac and or digital out to it or a city pulse dac11 for computer audio –amongst other options
    Pc noise is definitely the big problem – i live in the country it is quiet so my background noise is lower and the pc is loud –totally silent or in another room is the go –but my power is crap due to being in a rural area –hence i say if everything could be run off battery or solar it would make a big difference –listen to Jack Johnsons solar powered album –how good does that sound –awesome! Lastly guys I am no audio snob –i have no car but plenty of audio equipment and cds ,records, dvdaudio, sacd, upsampled music etc – i get given bucket loads of mp3 and use that to find music worth listening to –the pc can and is going to be the source of quality music for the future so let the articles continue

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