The Truth About Computer Audio
The audio world is currently going crazy about the new and exciting world of computer audio. It's a world that promises unlimited songs for free (or nearly free), higher resolution than has ever been available before, and the convenience of listening wirelessly with no physical media to ever worry about again! Sure sounds like paradise!
But, like every gigantic promise of "perfect sound forever" or "the world at your fingertips", there's usually a good deal you're going to have to commit to if you want to become part of this brave new world. Let's look at how the whole system works together and what you should think about in each aspect.
The first and most obvious component of computer audio is a computer. A computer isn't strictly necessary anymore with the various streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal etc., however the highest quality still comes by having a computer involved and there are many other benefits to having real songs locally.
While many people have no problem getting their heads around this, a lot of people don't currently have a computer anywhere near their audio systems. How do you connect it?
The simplest option is to put it on your audio rack. If you want to connect a computer directly to your stereo, we recommend using a laptop running iTunes because it is an affordable way of getting a nice interface to look through your music library and it requires no network setup, which can be beyond many people's abilities.
An Apple Macbook is a beautiful machine and is generally a pleasure to use. It uses USB-C ports for output, so it is easy to connect via a variety of methods using appropriate adapters. There are many Windows laptops that will offer similar functionality and design. Your personal preference will come into play. Choose a machine that you like to interact with.
Consider adding an external hard drive (and a 2nd backup hard-drive). These start at $100 for 1TB and are getting cheaper all the time. This reduces use of your internal hard-drive and the backup provides peace of mind that your audio files won't just disappear if you spill a drink on your main drive/laptop. Don't ever trust a single drive for your one-of-a-kind files or if you have a large library that took hundreds of hours to import. It's not worth running without a backup.
You will need a program to organize your music and also do the importing. For ease of use, we strongly recommend Apple's free iTunes Jukebox software, regardless of the computer. It's definitely the easiest and most logical music interface out there and since computer music involves a lot of abstract thinking we tend to put value on anything that lets you forget about the method of interaction and concentrate on the act of listening itself.
By setting the iTunes Import Settings to Apple Lossless, any CDs you rip will result in files identical to the audio on the CD. There is no fear of losing quality in the files themselves. You can even turn on the error correction if your CDs are not pristine. Unless you have a lot of CDs or limited hard drive space, this is the safest legacy format which can be freely and easily converted to any other format in the future.
If you prefer to get a bit more adventurous, there are many other jukebox programs such as JRiver, Foobar2000 or Roon. The preferred format for your files if you plan to use anything other than iTunes is FLAC which is again identical to the CD audio. It will also be future-proof, but iTunes doesn't play FLAC out of the box and it's likely that most people will find their way to iTunes at some point due to the overwhelming popularity of the iPhone. If you're intent at going against the grain, use EAC (Exact Audio Copy).
Streaming services all have native or web based apps that allow you to use the nice large screen on the laptop to choose your songs and navigate to find new music sources, even Youtube. The low cost of a laptop should not be underestimated considering it has a good interface and perfect digital output.
If you do not want to have your computer connected directly to your stereo, you will have to employ some sort of network connection, either wireless or wired via ethernet. The general idea of a network is to get the audio data from one distant room to the audio room and then have it converted to analog for playback.
Computer networks are far from easy or reliable, despite what all the companies tout, the devices don't usually recover gracefully when there are problems. We will most likely see the number of wireless product options increase over the coming years but unfortunately many will continue to miss the mark. There are two requirements we look for - ease of use, and sound quality. You are lucky if you are able to get even one! Wifi networks are notoriously temperamental and can have bottlenecks in speed when you're streaming hi-res files and someone else is watching netflix.
Until recently Apple made the excellent AirPort Express which featured an analog output sounding warm and natural. It would compete with any DAC up to $300 and bests many up to $1000. It also had an optical output for connection to a superior DAC. For $129 (or the now used price), it is still an incredibly simple and reliable wireless way to listen to music from any Apple device or iTunes. Apple's remote app even allows you to control a huge iTunes library from your iOS device. It really works well. Additionally you can add multiple Airport Expresses around the house and control them all from the same iPhone with Airplay 2. And because Apple is the market leader, there are many wireless speakers and A/V receivers that have the same AirPlay protocol built in. Airplay really integrates well. Alternatively Google Chromecast does basically the same thing, but without the iOS integration and some slightly inferior interface issues. Still, the cost is so low, it's an incredibly easy thing to try.
A slight jump up the price ladder are less universal streaming devices such as Cocktail Audio, ELAC Discover and Sonos. Each of these uses its own software to index your library, connect to streaming services and remote control from your phone.
The Sonos Connect offers basically the same system as the AirPort Express but at a higher price. You will also have to migrate to using their App which isn’t quite as intuitive as iTunes.
The Cocktail Audio N15 can work with iTunes natively via AirPlay for those devoted to Apple, or it can be used with its own app or even another 3rd party software such as Roon for hi-res streaming. It has a clear advantage over the lower price AirPort Express because it is easy to use, sounds good, doesn't lock into using any specific software, and offers hi-res streaming.
The ELAC Discovery Streamer is another great device that checks all our boxes. It also works with AirPlay 2 so you can stream directly from any iOS or mac with no software or it can be used with its own app. Best of all, it comes with a free version of Roon Essentials so it is very easy for even a novice to setup.
Really far up the price ladder are proprietary systems from other major hi-fi companies which have receiving devices with or without internal storage. We find these are universally overpriced, in most cases costing 10-20 times as much for no more functionality than the cheaper options mentioned above while providing some drawbacks in interoperability and usability. Even in most cases there is zero benefit in sound quality. For those who have no time or computer knowledge, and a very large budget, it may be worth paying for this kind of solution, but for the rest of us, there are far more compelling solutions. Remember too, that a Mac laptop around $1500 does everything the most expensive streamer in the world can do, plus it can be updated and used for other things.
There are also many other free or inexpensive home brew options as well - Linux media servers, Raspberry Pi, Xbox, etc. etc. These are all in the computer hacker realm. We'll assume that most of you are looking for something easier and more supported.
Regardless of what streaming device you choose, it might be a good idea to look at using a new software called Roon as your player interface. Roon is an independent company that is trying to standardize all the disparate protocols and hardware standards so that its app just "sees" everything the same. You can put your music on a NAS and stream to a Sonos box or an Airplay device or a proprietary device. The interface is particularly nice if you just stream from Tidal and don't have to worry about the info tags on your own music files. It is like a mini music web browser with clickable links to related artists and genres. It works on a computer, iPad or iPhone. Nobody knows which streaming protocol will be the winner in the next 5 years so Roon is a bit of a hedge that no matter who you choose as the music source or device, it will not leave you out in the cold. We recommend also that any streaming device has Airplay as a backup method because there are so many apple devices out there and it's unlikely Apple is going anywhere, it should extend the longevity of the device.
THE DIGITAL TO ANALOG CONVERSION
Whether you go direct connection or connection over a network, you have to start looking at the actual music quality coming out at the stereo end. The sound has to cross over from the computer domain into the analog domain.
In the same way it took 25 years for companies to figure out good sound from CD players, the current Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) design philosophy is not exactly mature and there are a plethora of different approaches which all have their strengths and weaknesses.
The DAC takes the stream of Ones an Zeros and converts them into voltages so that your amplifier can provide a signal to the speakers. How well your DAC does this can have a pretty large effect on the quality of the sound you hear.
In general, we think that the vast majority of inexpensive DACs are missing the boat on audio quality. Like digital cameras 5 years ago, they are largely focussed on the technical specs of the system and there are no objective expert qualifications of the performance. It's got 24/96 USB! It has ASYNC! It has AKM chips! It has a Wolfson chip! It up-converts! None of these things in themselves mean anything if the product doesn't sound good. There are a lot of people shouting on the internet about products they have never heard, never owned and will forget when the next ‘wonder component’ comes out.
Our rule is simple in any of these cases. Has anyone actually heard it? If they have, do they have any reputation, any disclosure of their taste, or even a description of the system they heard it in? In 99.9% of the cases the reviews don't pass muster. To make matters worse, there are probably now over one hundred DACs in the sub-$1000 price category. Nobody outside of the best hi-fi sellers, or magazine editors will have heard even a small percentage of these. Most are made in the same factories in China with the same designs and just different boxes. If you don't listen first, you're making an investment no better than putting $500 on "17 Black" in Vegas. You're going to lose your investment most of the time.
In our experience, the vast majority of sub-$1000 DACs do not sound good. In fact, the vast majority do not sound better than the $99 Apple Airport Express which in itself is on par with the best $300-$500 CD players. For that matter, the headphone jack on your iPod (at max volume, no EQ) sounds about identical. When you go to a store, A/B your iPod against the DAC you're looking at. We'll bet 9 times out of 10, you won't be able to tell a difference, or you will prefer the iPod.
Day-in-day-out we have so many people coming in looking for the magic $300 DAC that is going to finally transform their stereo system and people's expectations are unrealistic. It ain't gonna happen!
It's taken the last 5 years of listening to almost 70 products to find one at each price point which we feel offers tangible value. These are:
Ifi Micro iDSD DAC $699 - The best DAC at this price point. Hands down. The only DAC at this point. Can be fine tuned and matched to any headphone. Enjoy fantastic detail and clarity with this state of the art product
Marantz HD-DAC1 $999 - Extremely transparent and neutral sounding high resolution DAC. Also has a wonderful headphone amp and built in preamp for use direct to a power amp or powered speakers. Great build quality too.
North Star Supremo $4,499 - One of the finest DACs regardless of price. Immersive 3D sound with effortless dynamics, totally unforced limitless resolution and a totally natural midrange.
Weiss DAC501 $8,799 - The big brother of the DAC202. Many notable extra functions and a slightly larger soundstage and more "float in the air" precision. 98% as good as any digital we've ever heard. Not analog, but equally expressive.
Accuphase DC-37 $17,999 - The finest DAC ever made. Built by hand in Japan, this DAC will transform any system to create a level of clarity and detail that is unmatched. This is perhaps the only DAC that comes close to top tier analog.
HIGH RESOLUTION MUSIC
The other big buzz amongst the audiophile community right now is high resolution downloads. CDs have 16 bits, 44,100 times per second. Theoretically this is more than the human ear needs to perceive the sound as perfect, but in practice it's not. When you go to 24 bits, it's noticeably more continuous and less artificial and when you increase the sampling rate to 48,000, 88,000, 96,000 or even 192,000 times per second, it just gets better.
But, there are caveats as always. First of all, most cheap DACs don't show much of a difference between the sampling rates because they have terrible clocks or no jitter suppression. Buy first on the actual sound quality, then consider the high resolution performance.
Secondly, most DACs have relatively huge flaws in their analog sections where the tonal impurities are dramatically more noticeable than any improvement in the sampling rate of the files they're converting.
Finally, most people's stereos are incapable of providing enough resolution to properly show the differences between sampling rates. In a good system it's obvious and can account for perhaps 20% subjective performance improvement from 16/44 to 24/192, but on your average $2000 system, or even an expensive system that is not well balanced, you will be lucky to hear anything.
There is no free lunch. Always address the basic sound of your system before falling into the false belief that something like high resolution files will solve everything.
Finally, we've found that many of the hi-res reissues are actually inferior sounding to the CD quality ones we've had for many years. This is down to the quality or source of the master tape, or the tape player used, or the mastering engineer himself "preferring" a particular sound. One such example is Miles Davis Kind of Blue. The hi-res version is bloated, tubby, rolled off and completely non-engaging compared to the 1997 CD. It's just a hatchet job on the part of mastering that the higher resolution has no hope of fixing.
AVAILABILITY OF DOWNLOADS
There is also a huge disconnect between the enthusiasm people are showing for high resolution downloads and the actual number of albums you can listen to. Like with DVD-A or SACD, there just isn't much music out there in higher bit-rate files and most of it is audiophile test music that nobody really wants to listen to. Record companies are hesitant to release files that for all intents and purposes are the same as the master tapes (especially for new music where they are the master recordings). Illegal copying and downloading on the internet will likely put a serious long-term damper on how much music you can get in high resolution format.
In our opinion, it will be 2-3 years before the average audiophile owns even 1% of their collection in high resolution. Consider this seriously when prioritizing your DAC purchase. It probably isn't important that the DAC have high resolution capabilities. It is FAR FAR more important that the DAC sounds good at CD resolution.
DIRECT CONNECTION METHODS
Depending on what source you use there is a range of digital connection options which all seem to subtly influence the sound. Different sound cards and different computers all seem to sound slightly different, even with the same connection option. The reasons why are not fully understood yet. Our general recommendation for connection options in order of preference is:
2. XLR or RCA coaxial
3. Optical SPDIF
This will not be true of all combinations, but we are confident in our testing that these methods give a greater chance of getting good sound if all are hypothetically offered in the same DAC.
Another reason to go towards a computer audio source is the ability to listen to Internet radio. Of the network options, the Logitech and Sonos currently offer the easiest access to a wide range of internet radio stations. You can get everything on iTunes, but it takes some manual bookmarking of stations. Apple seems to be catching onto this though and their most recent revision of the Remote app has added more direct access to Internet Radio.
Quality of Internet Radio is universally bad. Most stations broadcast at 128kbps MP3 or less which is a pale comparison to even CD. In most cases there are noticeable compression artifacts such as splashy treble. Will this improve in the future? Certainly. But for the next 2-3 years, is it worth investing in a great DAC to convert these files? Definitely not. Consider this as access to a huge amount of free music for background listening.
OTHER WAYS TO GET ON THE COMPUTER AUDIO TRAIN WITHOUT GOING ALL IN
Consider spending $100 on a good 3.5mm to RCA cable and connecting iPhone or iPad to your stereo. The DACs in these devices are a lot better than the media would have you believe. Even the Apple 3.5mm to Lighning adaptor is pretty great sounding. You likely already have tons of music on your device and it sounds as good as most $300-$500 CD players. Invest the money you'll save into more music, or towards a speaker upgrade. Your overall enjoyment will be exponentially higher!
If you want better sound from your iPad, buy the camera connection kit or buy a DAC with a USB input on it. iPads are pretty great transports, about as good jitter as a $500 CD player, but you can gain some dividends from the analog sections of a good DAC. It won't compete with a laptop connected to a great DAC via USB-C, but it's a great stepping stone for people who don't want to deal with networks and choosing tracks off at a computer screen. The iPad is a bit more tactile.
PUTTING IT ALL INTO PERSPECTIVE
Having all your music on your computer allows you to listen to it in a completely flexible way with overwhelming choice at your fingertips. It also can sound better than CDs if you really spend some time hunting down the best combinations of system and when high resolution downloads become common place, we are entirely convinced that they will provide the closest thing to vinyl for people with very well-sorted stereos. We may even admit that our serious listening experiences are equally, although differently satisfied by the best 24/192 through a world-class DAC such as the Weiss.
However, the technical world of computer specs is not some panacea of universally better sound. In fact, in most cases the sound we've heard thus far from computer sources is on average inferior to the simpler CD based world we're leaving behind. It's a case of too many choices of devices and too much reliance on marketing and technospeak. It's too easy for any company to go to China and buy a cheap DAC design and wrap it in a fancy case. Hopefully the market will mature quickly and the number of available products will shrink to a manageable level of tried and tested products. Things change very quickly and in the computer audio world there are a lot of companies used to making a quick buck any way they can.
Also, while we believe the source and DA conversion can be extremely important, if you're spending in the lower price brackets, your chance of being wowed are a lot smaller than if you upgrade any other part of your system. You may receive 10 times the return on your investment by putting the money in a pair of speakers than by adding a DAC. Keep this in mind before you spend money in the wrong place.
Finally, we have been doing computer audio for a lot longer than most of our customers, in the store as well as in our home systems. Fundamentally, we like the convenience, but we must advise that after nearly 10 years of using iTunes, the overwhelming choice and the lack of tactility does seem to sap some of the ease and enjoyment that comes from sitting and listening to a great record. Psychologically, with 28946 songs currently in our iTunes library, it is too easy to be thinking about the Skip button even when you're listening to a masterpiece by John Coltrane or Beethoven.
More and more, we find ourselves longing for the "slow" appreciation of putting on a record. It's something to think about when you're diving into computer audio. Why are we listening in the beginning and what do we want to get out of the experience...