PDA

View Full Version : Looking for advice on sound quality



Mike Anderson
2005-09-29, 21:30
Hi all,

I'm a bit of a newbie to computer-served hi-fi audio, and I'm just starting to put together a rig, so I'm looking for some general advice on how to get the best sound out of my SB2.

By way of background, I'm running through a Musical Fidelity A3.2 integrated amp into Magnepan MMGs. At this point I've got the SB2 going directly into the amp from the RCA analog outs of the SB2. My music is sitting on my iBook G4, the vast majority of it coded in AAC at 320 kbps.

Here are my questions:

1) The SB2 is hooked to the network via ethernet cable, but my iBook is going wireless through an Airport card. Will it make any difference whether I hook up the iBook with an ethernet cable too?

2) Does it make any difference how long the ethernet cables are?

3) Am I going to notice a huge difference if I get a bigger hard drive and go to lossless compression instead of 320 kbps?

4) I don't reallly have $1,000 to spend on a DAC; how much am I hurting my sound by going out the SB2's analog outs? With the quality of my amp/speaker setup, should I bite the bullet and get a decent DAC?

5) Anybody tried the Headroom products? I'm looking at the Micro DAC for $300:

http://www.headphone.com/products/headphone-amps/headroom-amps/the-micro-line/headroom-micro-dac.php

This seems like a reasonably-priced quality DAC, but frankly I'm not all that up on this stuff, so I could use some advice.

Thanks,
Mike

tgoldstone
2005-09-29, 21:55
1) The SB2 is hooked to the network via ethernet cable, but my iBook is going wireless through an Airport card. Will it make any difference whether I hook up the iBook with an ethernet cable too?

If you don't notice any drop outs streaming then the transport medium shouldn't make any difference.


2) Does it make any difference how long the ethernet cables are?
Cable length shouldn't impact your streaming experience unless they are very long (>300 feet theoretical).


3) Am I going to notice a huge difference if I get a bigger hard drive and go to lossless compression instead of 320 kbps?
In my view this is a subjective question. I personally don't notice any different between my lossless flac and 320kbps streaming. I don't have a $1000 dac either...however 320kbps is a great way to listen if that is what is available. Others may disagree though. I am a great fan of flac for the pure reason that it is the same as the original cd quality. I have not lost anything ripping it to pc and thus have not lost anything by throwing away my cds.


) I don't really have $1,000 to spend on a DAC; how much am I hurting my sound by going out the SB2's analog outs? With the quality of my amp/speaker setup, should I bite the bullet and get a decent DAC?

This is also one of those subjective questions. I guess if you have never driven the Ferrari then you won't know what you are missing. I don't have...(and probably won't ever buy) a $1000+ DAC. I have a reasonable DAC in my system and it plays music that sounds better than my reasonably priced CD player, so I am happy. My belief is that most people would be happy streaming from the RCA (or digital) outs to a reasonable system. (After all it's the music that counts, right? (anyone up for the LP versus CD digression?)).
The DAC in the Squeezebox is quite reasonable and after reading quite a few discussions on this forum comparing different hardware my conclusion is that the Squeezebox is an absolutely excellent buy for what you get.

gharris999
2005-09-29, 22:13
Your maggies deserve lossless! Try encoding something with ALAC as an easy to accomplish test, and compare it with the AAC at 320. If you do decide to go lossless, you might want to spend money first on hard disks, rather than a DAC. Iíve got an older pair of MG 3.5s and Iím using a modified ART DI/O DAC. So far, itís hard to qualify the difference between the ART and the internal DAC in the SB2. Iím very happy listening to the SB2 analogue out.

pfarrell
2005-09-29, 22:48
On Thu, 2005-09-29 at 22:13 -0700, gharris999 wrote:
> Your maggies deserve lossless!

What he said.


> If you do decide to go lossless, you might want to spend money first on hard
> disks, rather than a DAC.

You can get 250GB disk drives for under $100, so a little money will
eliminate any need to worry about compression rations. Just use FLAC and
be happy.

> using a modified ART DI/O DAC. So far, itĘs hard to qualify the
> difference between the ART and the internal DAC in the SB2.

For example, I would not expect any big difference between a stock
ART DI/O and the SB2, maybe the SB2 would be a little better.

The key is to get a good solid system, get used to listening to it.
And if you get a big bonus, think about what to upgrade. With the
Maggies, you probably won't consider speakers the weak link for a while.

I'd suggest room acoustic treatment as the next upgrade before an
external DAC.

--
Pat
http://www.pfarrell.com/music/slimserver/slimsoftware.html

Mike Anderson
2005-09-29, 23:26
Well, I'd have to get an external/firewire drive or something, so that'd be a little more expensive than $100, and I'd have to keep it hooked to my laptop (I'm assuming).

But I'll do a blindfold test on a random sample of songs and see how much difference I can detect between lossless and 320. If I can tell the difference, I'll step up.

Thanks for the advice.

seanadams
2005-09-29, 23:41
Well, I'd have to get an external/firewire drive or something, so that'd be a little more expensive than $100, and I'd have to keep it hooked to my laptop (I'm assuming).

But I'll do a blindfold test on a random sample of songs and see how much difference I can detect between lossless and 320. If I can tell the difference, I'll step up.

Thanks for the advice.


Also check out this thread for tips on mp3 vs. lossless:

http://forums.slimdevices.com/showthread.php?t=16497

The differences between 320kbps mp3 and 750k-ish FLAC will be all about high frequencies and phase accuracy. You will need a VERY good system, especially the tweeters, to appreciate a difference.

I have always believed that room acoustics and speakers are the most imporant factors, but that's not our business. :) Sb2 aims to be the most accurate source, but there is so much more to the whole systems.

Patrick Dixon
2005-09-30, 00:56
I have always believed that room acoustics and speakers are the most imporant factorsSean, you should meet Ivor Tiefenbrun (the founder of Linn Products)! Just say 10 times every night before you go to bed; "source first".

Fifer
2005-09-30, 01:32
I'll add my tuppenceworth to the good advice already posted. I'd consider a modest spend on a bigger hard drive and FLAC encoding to be a wiser investment than $1000 on a DAC, particularly if buying the DAC means sticking with lossy compression. It's entirely possible that adding a $1000 DAC might just reveal the shortcomings of your lossy files. Moving to FLAC will ensure that your source files are the best quality possible, you have a lossless archive from which you can transcode to other formats and you have a good source on which to base future upgrades if you so wish.

It's also entirely possible that a $1000 DAC may not make a significant difference to your ears. If you are happy with the sound of your system as it stands and do not have £1000 then do not listen to a £1000 DAC as it may just lead to dissatisfaction with a system you are currently happy with. If you are happy with your current system and do have a spare £1000 then audition some high end DACs. If it elevates your music to a new level, then you can decide to buy. If you don't notice much difference, then you've saved $1000 and you have a music system you can go on enjoying.

Trust your ears.

Mike Anderson
2005-09-30, 02:13
OK, I'm sold. I see iTunes doesn't support FLAC; any advice on what the best software is to use for FLAC encoding and iTunes-like file management on my iBook G4?

Thanks,
Mike

cliveb
2005-09-30, 02:25
Does your A3.2 have the ability to connect direct into the power amp side, bypassing the preamp? If so, I recommend you try feeding the SB2 analogue outputs direct into the power amp and use the SB2 volume control. Even the best preamps will slightly degrade the signal, and in my experience eliminating the preamp is a bigger gain than improving the DAC (probably because the SB2 DAC is pretty damn good to start with).

Mike Anderson
2005-09-30, 02:38
Does your A3.2 have the ability to connect direct into the power amp side, bypassing the preamp?

Nope; it's a very basic (albeit high-quality) piece of gear.

Fifer
2005-09-30, 02:47
Even the best preamps will slightly degrade the signal
Yes, we can tend to forget that anything in the signal path, however esoteric and expensive, degrades the signal. I sometimes feel that we should not talk of 'upgrades' or 'improving the sound', but that the focus should be on minimising the degredation. A better amp doesn't improve the sound, it just screws it up less.

Sorry, I know nothing about Apple products so cannot advise on software.

Mike Anderson
2005-09-30, 02:53
^^^ Right, I gather that's what makes this a nice (integrated) amp - It has no tone knobs, no balance, nothing -- just a volume knob and input selectors.

Andrew L. Weekes
2005-09-30, 07:22
Sean, you should meet Ivor Tiefenbrun (the founder of Linn Products)! Just say 10 times every night before you go to bed; "source first".

Or a maybe easier to relate to software analogy: -

"Garbage in, Garbage out"

No amount of fiddling with speakers, amps etc. can replace what isn't there in the first place, just like a better PC can't repair dodgy code ;)

Andy.

P.S. I'm not saying the SB2 is garbage or a sow's ear, quite the opposite :)

Mike Anderson
2005-09-30, 08:51
No amount of fiddling with speakers, amps etc. can replace what isn't there in the first place...

Well then, is it worth considering that 99% of my input is coming from CDs burned at 16 bit, 44khz? Honestly, how much can you really dress that up?

Still looking around for FLAC software for my Mac. I looked around at what's out there, but it's not terribly impressive so far. Looks like it will take well over 30 mins to encode most of my CDs, and I haven't found anything with the convenience of iTunes when it comes to file management.

Keep the advice coming, it's much appreciated, thanks.

pfarrell
2005-09-30, 09:09
On Fri, 2005-09-30 at 08:51 -0700, Mike Anderson wrote:
> Well then, is it worth considering that 99% of my input is coming from
> CDs burned at 16 bit, 44khz? Honestly, how much can you really dress
> that up?

While there is lots of badly engineered CDs at 16/44.1 it does not have
to sound bad. The specs were chosen for some decent reasons. One of the
audiophile magazines a while back took a bunch of SACD and DVD-audio
disks and did frequency analysis of the output, and the majority had
nothing at all above 22kHz. They were clearly the same audio bits as
on the CD.

While CDs will never be "perfect sound forever" they can sound very
good. Of course, I never see my CDs anymore, they are down in the
basement, all my music is on my server delivered by my SqueezeBoxen

I can't help you on the Mac side, I can't spell Mac. But a lot of
people say that iTunes has a very good user interface.

--
Pat
http://www.pfarrell.com/music/slimserver/slimsoftware.html

radish
2005-09-30, 09:17
Looks like it will take well over 30 mins to encode most of my CDs,

Wow. Why? Do you have a very slow CD drive or something? On my PC using EAC a typical rip takes about 2 minutes, with compression happening in the background and rarely taking more than another 30 seconds. I'm afraid I can't offer any specific software recommendations for Mac, though I know there are people on the forum who are Mac users.

gharris999
2005-09-30, 09:19
Iím Mac-ignorant, so I canít advise on a mac to flac tool chain. There has to be something out there, certainly something that can rip and encode a cd in significantly less than 30 minutes. You might want to search over at the hyrdogenaudio.org forums.

At the risk of offending mac sensibilities (which is not my intent) you might also want to consider building yourself an intel based, linux running dedicated slimserver box. Iíve recently put together several systems using the P4P800-MX Asus motherboards in Antec Minuet cases using the Zalman CNPS6500A-Cu for passive cpu cooling. This combination, running Fedora in headless mode, makes an attractive, small and extremely quiet music server from readily available parts. You can fit two (or three with a little work) SATA hard disks into the little case so right off the bat you could have yourself a 800gig music server for less $ than that $1000 DAC.

Robin Bowes
2005-09-30, 12:08
radish said the following on 30/09/2005 17:17:
> Mike Anderson Wrote:
>
>>Looks like it will take well over 30 mins to encode most of my CDs,
>
>
> Wow. Why? Do you have a very slow CD drive or something? On my PC using
> EAC a typical rip takes about 2 minutes, with compression happening in
> the background and rarely taking more than another 30 seconds. I'm
> afraid I can't offer any specific software recommendations for Mac,
> though I know there are people on the forum who are Mac users.

If your rips only take 2 minutes using EAC then you're not using secure
mode whicn means you might as well not use EAC.

I suggest you visit one of the oft-posted links telling you how to set
up EAC correctly.

R.
--
http://robinbowes.com

If a man speaks in a forest,
and his wife's not there,
is he still wrong?

Andrew L. Weekes
2005-10-01, 13:56
Honestly, how much can you really dress that up?

Well, the 16bit part is the only real limiting factor (unless you are a bat ;) ) and since surprisingly few systems actually to manage the full 16 bits in actual reality, you may be surprised!

Andy.

Mike Anderson
2005-10-02, 18:18
OK, well I set up EAC/FLAC on my PC according to all the instructions, and it seems to be running OK.

However, it's still taking somewhere between 5-10 minutes to rip most of my CDs. I've got hundreds of CDs, so it's a major undertaking.

Question: What am I losing by not running EAC in secure mode? Doing so substantially cuts down on the ripping time. So how much difference does it really make?

Can I use secure mode on those CDs I really care about (about 20% of them) and unsecure mode on the rest of them, or would that present problems?

pfarrell
2005-10-02, 20:41
On Sun, 2005-10-02 at 18:18 -0700, Mike Anderson wrote:
> However, it's still taking somewhere between 5-10 minutes to rip most
> of my CDs. I've got hundreds of CDs, so it's a major undertaking.
>
> Question: What am I losing by not running EAC in secure mode? Doing
> so substantially cuts down on the ripping time. So how much difference
> does it really make?
>
> Can I use secure mode on those CDs I really care about (about 20% of
> them) and unsecure mode on the rest of them, or would that present
> problems?

Secure mode is reliable but way slow. Too slow for my 700+ cds.
So I did exactly what you suggest, I used EAC for the ones I knew
I cared about, used CDex (essentially EAC in non-secure mode) for the
rest (or grip on linux) and then when I find a problem,
rerip in super anal secure recheck mode with EAC.

Its lots faster that way, and most of the time, I'm happy.
Anytime I'm not, I go downstairs and grab the CD.



--
Pat Farrell
http://www.pfarrell.com

max.spicer
2005-10-03, 00:04
The ones that you rip in non-secure mode will potentially not sound as good as the ones that you do in secure mode. In secure mode, they are guaranteed to be an exact copy of your cd. It depends on whether you actually sit in front of your pc whilst it's ripping. I did my 300 odd albums in secure mode over a month or so. I'd put a new cd in whenever I noticed that the old one had finished, then would go off and do whatever else needed doing around the house. The difference between 3 minutes and 7 was therefore fairly irrelevant.

The nice thing about the combination of secure mode and flac is that you know you will never have to rerip. With anything else, you're not quite so future proof.

Max


OK, well I set up EAC/FLAC on my PC according to all the instructions, and it seems to be running OK.

However, it's still taking somewhere between 5-10 minutes to rip most of my CDs. I've got hundreds of CDs, so it's a major undertaking.

Question: What am I losing by not running EAC in secure mode? Doing so substantially cuts down on the ripping time. So how much difference does it really make?

Can I use secure mode on those CDs I really care about (about 20% of them) and unsecure mode on the rest of them, or would that present problems?

Mike Anderson
2005-10-03, 00:45
The ones that you rip in non-secure mode will potentially not sound as good as the ones that you do in secure mode.


I guess my question is, how potential is "potentially", and how bad is "not as good"?

I should add that I'm using a Plextor 740A to do the ripping, and I don't seem to encounter many errors.

I frequently work on my computer too, but for whatever reason, it's a pain to do with EAC running. For one thing, the EAC window always wants to be on top.

Patrick Dixon
2005-10-03, 01:30
The problem I've found, is that whilst CDPs use 'concealment' to conceal any errors they detect but cannot correct, ripping s/w doesn't.

So any ripping errors you do get, tend to be very annoying on playback; pops, clicks - that kind of stuff, whereas a good CDP will still sound like music.

A lot depends on the care you have taken with your CD collection (looked-after CDs tend to have fewer errors IME), and how much you value you peace-of-mind. I'd hate to sit down to listen to something only to find it had ripping errors and I needed to dig the CD out and rip it again, so I'd rather just spend the time doing it 'right' in the first place. YMMV

seanadams
2005-10-03, 12:13
The problem I've found, is that whilst CDPs use 'concealment' to conceal any errors they detect but cannot correct, ripping s/w doesn't.

So any ripping errors you do get, tend to be very annoying on playback; pops, clicks - that kind of stuff, whereas a good CDP will still sound like music.

A lot depends on the care you have taken with your CD collection (looked-after CDs tend to have fewer errors IME), and how much you value you peace-of-mind. I'd hate to sit down to listen to something only to find it had ripping errors and I needed to dig the CD out and rip it again, so I'd rather just spend the time doing it 'right' in the first place. YMMV

My experience has generally been the opposite - I have some beat up CDs that won't play at all on any CD player, but they sound fine with maybe some tiny clicks when ripped.

Patrick Dixon
2005-10-03, 13:46
Strange - maybe it depends on your CD player then!

I have one CD with a couple of track that won't rip in EAC secure mode, is unlistenable when ripped unsecure, but plays fine on my Naim CDX.

kjg
2005-10-03, 21:51
If your CDs are in good condition, I wouldn't worry too much about using
EAC in secure mode. I've ripped dozens of CDs in good shape with a
variety of programs (EAC, Plextools, iTunes and DB PowerAmp) and CD-ROM
drives and never found any differences when bit comparing the decoded
files with CDs that are good to fair shape. Your mileage may vary, but I
trust that any of the programs I listed with a modern CD-ROM drive will
do an equally good job if the CDs are not badly scratched, and any
errors that might be introduced are likely to be few and pretty much
inaudible.

There was a thread on AudioAsylum a few weeks back where one poster
listed a few things he did to speed up EAC on his drive. I didn't have
any luck with his suggestions, but they may work for you. The thread is
at http://www.audioasylum.com/forums/pcaudio/messages/6832.html.

- Ken

Mike Anderson wrote:

>OK, well I set up EAC/FLAC on my PC according to all the instructions,
>and it seems to be running OK.
>
>However, it's still taking somewhere between 5-10 minutes to rip most
>of my CDs. I've got hundreds of CDs, so it's a major undertaking.
>
>Question: What am I losing by not running EAC in secure mode? Doing
>so substantially cuts down on the ripping time. So how much difference
>does it really make?
>
>Can I use secure mode on those CDs I really care about (about 20% of
>them) and unsecure mode on the rest of them, or would that present
>problems?
>
>
>
>

seanadams
2005-10-04, 21:24
My experience has generally been the opposite - I have some beat up CDs that won't play at all on any CD player, but they sound fine with maybe some tiny clicks when ripped.

I should mention that the ripping took an EXTREMELY long time compared to a clean CD - several hours. This was done a long time ago using cdparanoia and a plextor drive. cdparanoia doesn't seem to be so popular these days but it did a fine job for me in recovering some CDs that had become otherwise useless.

Also, any opinions as to whether plextor drives are really that much better than the others these days? They earned a good reputation early on, but AFAICT all CD drives are now equally good at ripping.

cliveb
2005-10-05, 05:22
Also, any opinions as to whether plextor drives are really that much better than the others these days? They earned a good reputation early on, but AFAICT all CD drives are now equally good at ripping.
Here's one anecdotal bit of evidence:

I have a Plextor PX712A, and have always felt it was really good at ripping. I particularly like all the facilities in Plextools. However, the other day my daughter asked me to rip one of her CDs, and it was in really terrible condition. There was a scratch on *both sides* of the disc (must have got snagged between something), and I could see that the actual data layer had been damaged. In attempting to rip it in the Plextor, it failed on the last track (where the worst damage was). Even switching off error detection didn't help. The Plextor always ended up reporting "read error", whether I used Plextools or EAC.

I then put it in the LG4521 drive (a DVD-ROM/CDRW combo) in my wife's PC, and EAC managed to read that one track (in secure mode). It took about 95 minutes to rip just the one track, and there were lots of "sync errors" and "suspicious positions" reported, but at least we got a usable rip in the end.

dbls
2005-10-19, 11:01
Arriving late at this thread...

On my laptop, the best I ever get in secure mode is 2.4x. Sometimes "0x" for problem CDs, often those that look pristine.

Among the EAC curiosities I have found:

1. When it employs error correction in secure mode, the "LEDs" on the Error Correction display always fill the first row and only the first row, then EAC advances. I find it suspicious that EAC always finds a valid read after the same number of attempts, if that's what the display is meant to convey.

2. I can often rip a troublesome CD in secure mode by simply ejecting and reinserting the CD.

3. CDs that have problems in secure mode often will rip one track, then bog down on the second. If the eject/insert technique doesn't work, I can sometimes rip the CD by doing the tracks one by one, as long as they aren't sequential (e.g. in reverse order).

I wonder if the last two imply that my CD drive is showing its age.

In burst mode I usually get 8x. If I use "Test & Copy" in burst mode (about 4x) and I get identical Read and Test CRCs, what is the probability that the rip will be worse than secure mode? When I spot check tracks in secure mode that have matching CRCs in burst mode, the CRCs always agree.

I'm about to buy a Plextor 740A myself (for a desktop PC), for better speed, CD burning on a PC that doesn't have it, and DVD burning for backup. EAC can't use the CD-ROM on that computer, anyway.

Nťstor
2005-10-19, 11:41
Hi,

>Among the EAC curiosities I have found:
>
>1. When it employs error correction in secure mode, the "LEDs"
>on the Error Correction display always fill the first row and
>only the first row, then EAC advances. I find it suspicious that
> EAC always finds a valid read after the same number of
>attempts, if that's what the display is meant to convey.

If I remember it well, EAC always re read the suspicios block a fixed time (I guess 8 times the first time) and if, lets say , 7 of the 8 reads of the same block produce the same value, and only one is different then EAC assumes that the most common value is the right value. Thats why it always fill the first line of leds. If EAC finds 4 for one value, and the other 4 for some other value, then it will read 8 times more ( the second row of leds) and then decide again. If by 64 re-reads (or 32 dont remember well now) it cant decide whats the right value for the block, it will give a data error message.

Regards
Nestor

dbls
2005-10-20, 09:58
Hi,

If I remember it well, EAC always re read the suspicios block a fixed time (I guess 8 times the first time) and if, lets say , 7 of the 8 reads of the same block produce the same value, and only one is different then EAC assumes that the most common value is the right value. Thats why it always fill the first line of leds. If EAC finds 4 for one value, and the other 4 for some other value, then it will read 8 times more ( the second row of leds) and then decide again. If by 64 re-reads (or 32 dont remember well now) it cant decide whats the right value for the block, it will give a data error message.


Ah, thanks for jogging my memory; what you say sounds familiar.

But can anyone tell me if Copy&Test yielding identical CRCs in burst mode is as reliable as secure mode?