Question for Alan Taffel

Pat Brody -- Sun, 07/05/2009 - 13:16

Hi Alan-
Enjoyed reading your articles in the latest TAS on USB connectivity, and converters.  Coincidentally, I have just (last month) hooked up my MacBook Air to a musical fidelity v-dac.  I run a couple of external hard drives, 1 terrabyte each.  The whole thing is hooked up via USB and the sound, as you described, is 'lacking' at best.
I'm confused about something - in the article on USB you say that the airport express (which I just ordered on Amazon a few minutes ago, based on the article) is one way to get out of the USB issue if you are using a laptop.  Then in the article on format converters you say that firewire is 'hardly a step up from USB.'
Am I going to get S PDIF quality sound from airport express connected to the VDAC SPDIF input from the airport express output (the digital audio out.)?
Since it only costs $100 to find out, and I can always use the AE to send music to another room anyway, while I await a reply I'm just going to give it a shot.
My next step is to build a server with a  pro audio sound card that supports 24/96 files, and hook it straight to the VDAC.  That's a $600 or so solution (by brother in law builds computers, so it's a lot less than buying a purpose built server, and I will already have the drives, etc....)
But will the AE through the SPDIF connection on the VDAC give me the same fidelity (should I save the six hundred in other words)?
Thanks to you and Steven Stone for your articles on music servers and related, I read them all a few times each....
Pat Brody

bobboyer -- Mon, 07/06/2009 - 08:33

And while we're asking questions, I'd be curious to hear Alan and Steven's comments on the juxtaposition of viewpoints between Alan's article and Steven's review of the USB DACs. There appears on the surface to be an incredible discrepancy in what each is hearing from USB audio at this time...

Steven Stone -- Mon, 07/06/2009 - 10:48

 Since neither of us are involved with the layout the magazine I think the Robert Harley would be the one to ask about this.

Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound,, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

bobboyer -- Mon, 07/06/2009 - 12:06

Hi Steven,
It's not the layout; it's the almost completely contradictory findings that intrigue me so much. I probably noticed it more because I went to your article first (am interested in the MusicStreamer as a "get my feet wet" DAC for my old Mac Powerbook) and read good things about USB DACs before reading Alan's article to hear a radically different assesment of USB sound.
I'm now much more curious about what each of you heard and if it is possible to reconcile the two experiences. Or, are your findings of a more narrow nature - IOW, are you listening and commenting on three DACs within the confines of what Alan describes as the less than optimal (perhaps less than adequate) sound that USB delivers, or are you comparing against an absolute and saying the sound from the MusicStreamers compares favorably to other DACs and digital pipelines (firewire, SPDIF, etc)? And if so, how are your conclusions so radically different from Alan's?
It's quite the interesting pair of articles if read back to back.

Steven Stone -- Mon, 07/06/2009 - 12:28

 I can only comment on what I wrote. 
With my Mac Pro (2.66 dual processor with 10 GB memory) I use both Toslink SPIDF and USB outputs. The stock MacPro does not have coaxial SPDIF. To have this option would require a 3d party sound card. I didn''t use FIrewire since none of the DACs I have use Firewire.
With DACs, such as the April Muisc Stello DA-100 I had the option of both inputs (USB and Toslink) for direct A/B. WIth this particular device I did not hear any differences between these two inputs. I used both ITunes 8.1 and 8.2 (during the final week of listening) as well as the Amarra software.
On my desktop system using a variety of speakers, amps, preamps, and cables I found the MusicStreamer+ to be both musical and natural and in the end a very satisfying musical experience. As to where it stands in terms of the of ultimate computer-as-music-source experience I don't honestly know since I haven't tried to do a comprehensive survey.
Frankly, I feel that the whole point of audio journalism is to provide direction for each reader's own audiophile journey.
Both Alan and my articles will hopefully pique your interest sufficiently so that you will try listening and form your own opinions and conclusions, which in the end will be far more valid and important to your enjoyment and understanding of the hobby than ours could ever be.


Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound,, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

bobboyer -- Mon, 07/06/2009 - 13:24

I understand completely. And i'm not criticizing in the least. It's just such a fascinating divergence of opinions from two astute listeners; I'm not sure I've seen a similar difference in 25 plus years of reading TAS. And oh yes, my interest is increased because of it...
But without a local retailer, I'm forced into the position of making my judgements before listening. And I still have a second mortgage to remind me of what it's like to be on the bleeding edge of technology (computer video/3D modeling in the mid 90s). Fortunately, the basic MusicStreamer won't kill me. Sampling several $300 and up DACs by purchasing them online isn't in the cards, however. (See previous comment about second mortgage.)  :-)

Steven Stone -- Mon, 07/06/2009 - 13:41

 I understand than sampling multiple DACs might be financially prohibitive, but I believe that most of the on-line retailers selling the MusicStreamer+ offer a liberal return policy (obviously you should check first) so if you find it doesn't deliver enough performance to justify its price you may return it and at worst all it will cost is shipping, which on a small item such as the MusicStreamer shouldn't be more than $15 both ways..

Steven Stone
Contributor to The Absolute Sound,, Vintage Guitar Magazine, and other fine publications

Alan Taffel -- Mon, 07/06/2009 - 14:53

This is in response to Pat's original question:
My discussion of Airport Express envisioned its use with a desktop machine that was not co-located with the audio system. In the case of a laptop, which seems to be your situation, the PC itself can be brought to the listening room and directly connected to the DAC, obviating the need for AE. However, if you still plan to use AE, for whatever reason, then you have a choice of its stereo analog output (via mini-connector) , or its S/PDIF digital output (via the same connector). Which will sound better is anyone's guess, since the first scenario uses AE's internal DACs (which, at this price point, can't be terrific), and the second uses TosLink (which, as the article stated, is "hardly a step up from USB".) Also, whether either of these sounds better than USB is also unknown; all three involve compromises, so you will have to experiment and see. I would expect your "next step" solution of a server with dedicated sound card (hopefully outputing coax or BNC S/PDIF) will sound markedly superior to any of these scenarios and will be well worth the investment.

Alan Taffel
TAS Senior Writer

Sam -- Mon, 08/03/2009 - 22:10

Mr. Alan Taffel
I have been following your reviews of Bryston BCD 1,  Bryston DAC 1, and Audio Research DAC.  Some of them getting many awards by you. You mention that the bryston makes even a budget transport sound near State of the art.  What budget transport did you use to test this and what transport did you compare it with? Also you mention that these DAC's outshine your reference CD playback, What is your reference CD player. Please comment on that....thanks.

Mistergreek -- Sun, 09/18/2011 - 16:04

Hello Allen Taffel, I read the review of the Esoteric K-03. I have the K-01. Would the best filter selections for the K-03 also apply for the K-01? Isnt upconverting pcm to dsd and digital filters off the best choice? Or should i upconvert pcm X2 and set digital filter to S_DLY1? Do i need to break in dsd filter for 400 hours and the S_DLY1 filter and pcm X2 for another 400 hours. Greg

Robert Harley -- Thu, 07/09/2009 - 14:43

Alan's article concluded that SPDIF sounds better than USB, which is not really a startling conclusion. The fact that Steven Stone liked the sound of the MusicStreamer USB DACs isn't a conflict; he had no way to compare the sound of the MusicStream fed by SPDIF and USB. It's likely that they would sound better than they do if fed by SPDIF.

Harold Albert (not verified) -- Mon, 08/03/2009 - 15:27

With regards to the SPDIF sounding better than the USB, wouldn't using a computer on battery power along with an 'upscale' USB cable (such as those from Locus Design) narrow the gap?  From what I've read in TAS and Stereophile, the issue here is jitter, and the jitter measurements seem to be greatly improved when using battery power as oppposed to AC.  Perhaps reviewers should try to use battery power and decent USB cables when reviewing USB Dacs in a computer-audio environment.
Harold Albert
Bangok, Thailand

Mr Plus -- Tue, 08/04/2009 - 12:32

We're still at the jumping-off point with regard to USB-based audio. We would anticipate jitter having a significant effect on the performance through USB as it does across S/PDIF. On the other hand, it's hard to determine as yet what part the USB reveiver chip plays in the process. It may be that it is more of an influence over the sound than jitter. We'll become more robustly aware of what influences the sound as we get to test a wider range of USB based products.
Only then realistically can we say definitively whether the battery power is influencing the sound through jitter or the receiver chip.

Alan Sircom
Editor, Hi-Fi Plus Magazine
London, England
editor [at] hifiplus [dot] com

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