Getting good sound from MacBook via DAC.


Hello everyone,

I decided to go down the digital path and picked up a Bryston BDA-2.  I hooked up an Audioquest USB 2 cable from my MacBook to the BDA-2  to play music from my Itunes and it sounds awful.  What am I doing wrong?  I tried playing with the sampling rates thru the MacBooks Audio Midi set-up but no help there. it sounds compressed, over extended bass, lack of detail and soundstage, just plain awful.  

Ive been using the DAC with my Simaudio CD player with excellent results. I also have a WADIA 177 hooked thru the DAC for my IPod which sounds surprising good. I like the idea of using the MacBook and was thinking about getting a dedicated Mac Mini for music files.  
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Try running on batteries. From several comments, the problems seem to come from the switching power supplies.
No difference.  I'm thinking it has to do with the music file format in Itunes but Im not sure. 
You aren't doing anything wrong, iTunes sound quality sucks, as mentioned the power supply on your mac doesn't help, spinning discs in your computer add noise,and it all adds up to not great sound. You can go a few routes, and all is far from lost...
FWIW, I did the same as you many years ago and learned from all the pain. I replaced mac with dedicated mini for music server, used all the major software(e.g. Audirvana+, Amarra, etc.), added USB isolators/filters, etc. 
The best route by far IMHE, and agreed with by many on computeraudiophile is to store your files on a NAS in another room, run ethernet into your audio room and use a dedicated single purpose renderer/streamer to bring your files to your DAC from the NAS via the ethernet cable. Read the Sonore microRendu review by Chris Connaker on CA (product of the year) and you will understand. Other products like Aurelic Aries and their Mini, Bluesound, Aurenders(at higher price points), and Melco all head in this direction although some focus more on internal storage than taking full advantage of an isolated NAS). 
There are plenty of threads describing how many here have switched away from PC & mac based solutions and got happier.
Cheers,
Spencer
Ran a MacBook Air via USB out to a Gungnir DAC for a good long while. Listened to ripped CDs from external hard drive and also to Spotify from the MBA. I was very happy with the sound. Sounded better than direct from the CDP. But then, maybe I’m not a true audiophile (though the improvement over the CDP was confirmed by a gust who owns some very fine gear).

A couple of things I believe helped the sound: 1) Installed BitPerfect on the MBA to be the "music server" instead of iTunes. $10 from the App Store. It accesses the iTunes files but in Hog Mode it keeps iTunes from mucking around. Better sound with BF than without (i.e., letting iTunes run things). Just be sure to follow the set up instructions. It’s not hard and the folk(s) at BP are very responsive and helpful.   There are a number of other pricier/more feature-laden music services.  Pick your poison.  2) Ran USB out from the MBA to a V-Link 192 USB/SPDIF converter.  SPDIF from the V-Link to the DAC. Had a double headed USB cable so power to the V-Link was from an external source and not from the MBA. Things sounded very good to my ears.

Another thing I believe helped was that the MBA itself ran from a solid state drive and NOT from an internal hard drive. Seemed like SSD makes for a very quiet setup.   V-Link 192 not made anymore but there are other USB/SPDIF converters.  I'd look at something from iFi were I buying new today.  Still using the V-Link with the Auralic Aries Mini that has replaced use of the MBA.  It made a huge difference with the Aries Mini.  

Good luck.
Good stuff, thank you all for chiming in on this. !   

@jetmek
I’m thinking it has to do with the music file format in Itunes but Im not sure.

It does make a difference it you’re comparing playing a CD and comparing the sound quality to the same album purchased and downloaded through iTunes.

Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, so to speak. That the file you’re playing through iTunes is a lossless rip from the same CD.

I can easily detect the difference between a lossless rip from CD and a 256kbps track (or rip) from iTunes. I’m only so-so and distinguishing at being able to distinguish a 320kbps rip from a lossless CD rip.

Good luck.




iTunes could be the problem. I use Audirvana Plus on a MacBook Air and get excellent results. See my previous post on this subject.
@ghosthouse @mgattmch You guys are one small step away. I have been basically where you both are. Replace the MacBook Air or the Aries Mini with Sonore microRendu with a linear power supply and you will not believe how much improvement you will get and it won't cost anything vs. the MBA, and just a bit vs. the Aries Mini. BTW, I compared in same system vs. the higher end Aurelic Aries with linear power supply, and also ran Audirvana+ on a macbook for years in same system.

The microRendu isn't computeraudiophiles' product of the year for nothing! Really, I am not a guy to go nuts for the flavor-of-the-month stuff...hell I am running 14 yr old Lamm amps and 28yr old Sound Labs, but the microRendu is the true giant killer and provides a simple to use solution for everybody going down this road for ripped CDs, Tidal, Roon, high rez downloads from HD Tracks, all of the above....Cheers,
Spencer 
@sbank
Hi Spencer -
Thanks for the input.

I might not be understanding all that the microRendu does but what I like about the Aries Mini is that it can stream Tidal, Spotify & internet radio wirelessly. In addition, I can use it to play ripped CDs from an external hard rive. If my preferred external DAC fails, I could fall back on the one in the Mini.

I had looked at the Sonore site several times. I think the microRendu is a streamer only and requires hard wired (Ethernet) connection to support that. I didn’t think it could work wirelessly or be connected to a 2TB external hard drive and play local music files. The various capability acronyms listed for it didn’t mean that much to me. I do like that it is "Roon Ready". The Aries Mini is not. Like I said, I might not understand fully all the mR’s capabilities.

I see Sonore recommends the iF Power as one possible power supply option for the microRendu. I purchased an IFi Power for the Aries Mini. Not linear but (reportedly) a very quiet mod’d. switching device. Much discussion about it on Computer Audiophile.

Pretty content with where I’m at right now. Enjoying Tidal that was part of the Aries Mini purchase. Still, I’ve no doubt, as with everything in "audio", there’s always something better just around the corner.

Thanks again.

Itunes should not make any difference, since you're transferring data and not the music.  As long as it is bit-perfect you should be OK.    One possibility is that there is something in the MACs software (or USB) settings (or Bryston settings) that is not right.  Perhaps USB port is faulty - try different one.  It is always possible that you're injecting noise into the DAC (try 2 wire USB cable), but it is not very likely.  It would not make it sound that awful.
You can always borrow another Mac and repeat it.  Async USB should give you the best sound available.
I use both a MAC mini and a Mac Book pro as music server sending AIFF files to a Bryston BDA-1 via Audiophilleo/PurePower USB/SPDIF converter.. Using Pure Music is an improvement over iTunes, however neither sounds 'horrible'.  
Hi, Spencer,

Don't wish to thread jack the discussion here, but I have some even MORE basic questions, and from the content and tone of your responses above, you might be willing and able to help me.  Not sure how to navigate around here, so will leave my email address and invite you to drop me a note.  Thanks!

Ron 
rritcher@att.net

@rritcher email sent.

@ghosthouse You raise some good questions/issues, sorry for long reply:

Yes, the Aries Mini has many convenience features built-in, but the sound quality won't be up to the same standard because many of those conveniences are implemented in a way that works against better sound quality. The microRendu approach can provide basically the same level of convenience in a more structurally advantageous fashion. More specifically...
You are correct that mR has only ethernet input. This is because using ethernet will give you the benefit of a hard connection(minimizing RFI interference and other sonic degradation inherrent to WIFI wireless connectivity). I highly encourage you to run ethernet cable into your listening room with the other end in the next closest room, basement or attic space, wherever you can locate your internet cable coming into the home, your router and a NAS(Network-Attached-Storage) which is simply a hard drive that connects with ethernet cable directly into your router and is accessible over your network. The previously mentioned Synology and QNAP are the two most popular/worthy brands of NAS...the Toyota and Honda(maybe Lexus and BMW) of network storage products.

If you have an impossible situation for running ethernet cable into your listening room, you can get "powerline adapters" that are a pair of jacks that plug into your a/c(one in listening room, the other in the room wth the router) and allow a short ethernet cable in the listening room to connect by utilizing the home's copper a/c lines to pass the ethernet signal to the router.  This is a whole topic in itself, but you can read threads on CA explaining $100/pair adapters that sound better than wifi for many.

So now assume you have ethernet input to the microRendu in your listening room. You use a free small hard connector that's included to connect the USB output of the mR to the USB input of your DAC. Yes, there is only USB output on the mR!, if you're DAC has no USB input, you are SOL(sh*t out of luck!). The mR is a bit smaller than a deck of cards and it will sit directly adjacent to the DAC's USB input(pic in situ on my system page). 

If you have learned or read over the years that USB sound quality is mediocre vs. coax, AES/EBU etc or optical, that is obsolete thinking. USB is typically weaker, but John Swenson who is a renowned designer of the UpTone Regen and many power supply products worked with Sonore to build an innovative USB output implementation that just sounds better than anything I've heard or read about (and it's far from just me). 

Eliminating the very expensive USB cable (Harmonic Lightspeed) that I used to own and all the filters/add-ons like IFi power splitters, Audioquest Jitterbug, & event the Regen whose tech is basically built-in to the mR USB output, is a huge added savings.

This approach appeals to me because I usually find myself preferring gear that takes uses fewer gain stages, better parts and shorter signal paths. This is the mR approach. It's basically a single-purpose computer running simple Linux based programming that can run on a totally audio-focused board that doesn't run a bunch of extra noisy processes like a Mac or PC.

Yes, the mR can stream Tidal, Spotify & internet radio. I've done Spotify and internet radio using the mR's Squeezelite mode, which is a menu choice that lets you use iPad apps and/or computer browser control that was originally designed for Logitech's Squeezebox players, and already familiar to many users. 
I prefer the graphical style and functionality of both Linn's Kazoo app and the even more so, Lumin player app, which is another free iPad, Andriod, iphone app that lets me control music play using DLNA mode, which is a different choice(just a click on the menu) on the mR. 

Regarding "2TB external hard drive and play local music files". That's what the Network Attached Storage is for. By keeping the music files in another box in a different room, you can eliminate any mechanical drive noise of traditional drives and other noise / sonic artifacts still present with solid state drives controlled by a shared function audio board. Also NAS drives will give you more bang/buck in terms of expandability and backup. They also can be used for general storage, for family, video etc. if you are so inclined. Also important, you minimize risk of "one broken box" taking down more of your system. Owners of failed one box products like Olive servers have learned the hard way. Investment in a NAS could still be worthwhile even if digital renderers change in a few years. 

Yes, the iFi is a good sounding inexpensive power supply, but if one can spend the $399 for the new linear power supply from Uptone Audio, I've read great things about it specifically regarding use with mR and would think it's probably worthwhile. That wasn't available when I was looking for a power supply. 
IMHE, this approach provides near SOTA performance at a fraction of the price, and many visitors here have headed down this road from more expensive alternatives after listening to it. Cheers,
Spencer
Jetmek - I had an iMac connected to a V-link192 via USB, connected to a "tricked out" Bifrost DAC and streaming content from a NAS drive. Sound quality was great!

But...

I had to install Audirvana to bypass all the silliness that Apple deems necessary, in order to get the raw data only to the DAC

I purchased a special dual USB cable and separate power supply to eliminate the problems associated to the computers inadequate USB power.

I suffered the various software version upgrades from both Apple and Audirvana.

I suffered spurious glitches during playback

Then recently...

I purchased a Bluesound NODE 2 - loaded the player software onto my various Droid devices - plugged it in - pointed it to the NAS drive’s iTunes configured library - and started playing music.

The Node2 also provides access to various streaming services.

Basically - it took less than one day to achieve the same thing it took weeks, no months, to achieve playback from a NAS drive with a computer - and the quality is better!

I have read of software glitches with the Node 2 software and it’s Library Management features pertaining to playlists are not perfect, but it does play great quality music straight from the LAN - so, no USB issues!

I have experienced dropouts at 24/192 when connected via wireless, but that was when the wireless Lan was very active and my router is old (no "N" mode). I now connect via Ethernet and have no issues.

I recommend the Node 2 based on music quality alone - it may not provide the streaming services you require, but you can look that up on their web site.

Yes - the computer is infinitely more configurable, but I like to listen to music rather than play with settings and web sites.

I was so impressed with the Node2 - I purchase the PowerNode 2 for playback on my A/V system.

Hope that helps
@sbank

Spencer - Thanks for your detailed response and suggestions.

I might well experiment with ethernet via the power line adapters you mention. Odd coincidence, just learned about them last night (another A’gon member is using them to provide signal to a Salk Streamer). Right now, however, am very pleased with the sound quality going wireless. My router is in the same area so have a nice strong signal. Would be interesting (and a little surprising to me) if "co-mingling" signal with the house electricity resulted in an improvement.

I’m not opposed to USB though my Gungnir is not equipped with a USB port. I tried non-USB connections out of the Aries Mini when I first set it up. USB to the V-Link and then via coax to the Gungnir sounded markedly better. Might have had to do with the unit not bing fully burned in...not sure. Regardless, the sound was fuller/more fleshed-out through the V-Link. Haven’t been interested in re-investigating that connection. I did play with a DH Labs Silver Sonic D-750 coax vs Stereovox XV2 SPDIF. I preferred the D-750.

As mentioned previously, I’m pretty content with how things are sounding right now (though curious about ethernet over the house circuitry). 

Thanks again.
@ghosthouse I've no doubt that with your Aries Mini that the USB>spdif adapters yield an improvement over USB, but my point about USB isn't "USB is always better" only that "WITH A SOURCE OPTIMIZED WITH SUPERIOR USB OUTPUT" like the microRendu, then in that case, USB output quality will surpass most coax or spdif and adapters to use them. 

I forget the name of the recommended powerline adapters, but you can search the powerline thread on CA and find it available on amazon for under $100. Cheers,
Spencer
I’ve had good luck running out of my Mac Mini USB out to a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha USB box.. out of the ALPHA via AES into various DACs. (Berk REF DAC, Pacific Microsonics Model 2, Trinity, CH Precision, etc..)
I run JRiver on the Mac and all files are .WAV or .AIFF.
The Bel Canto USB box sounded great as well.
This combo has always bested any DAC i’ve tried via direct USB input on the DAC.
 Seems a dedicated USB processor to my ears really cleans up a lot of the issues surrounding USB audio..
Just my 2 cents..
Lot's of good points in this dialogue, and I'll try to add a couple more.  I've been running a Mac Mini with a DAC for sometime.  Tried the BlueSound for a while but went back to the Mac.  The glitchiness and the difficultly with accessing my library on my main iMac finally got the best of me.  Sounded great though, and the interface was really nice.

Regarding the Mac...

1) google "improving Mac for audio" and you'll find some great hints, like turning off processes running the background (I'm assuming this is a dedicated computer for audio)
2)  Connect an external hard drive for your music data, preferably on Thunderbolt.  Keep that separate from the USB that is feeding your DAC.  In through the Thunderbolt (or Firewire) and out through the DAC. The NAS approach is equally viable.
3) Run another player software like Roon or Audirvana.  Despite someone's comment above...they definitely sound better than itunes.  Plus, itunes doesn't play back at the resolution of the file, but rather on the computer's settings.  The other players send the full resolution file to the DAC. 

This approach has worked well for me.  Add Tidal to the mix and you've got a very handy music player on your hands.  The newer stand alone streamers/players are definitely coming into their own, but until you spend Auralic money, I don't see that there is a sonic benefit over a clean, well organized Mac.  
I’m gonna weigh in here and say something that’s gonna be unpopular, but it needs to be said.

It’s possible to get excellent sound from a MacBook. You DO NOT need to invest in a dedicated NAS and an expensive streamer. NASes can make sense in a setup, especially if you want to stream music to multiple zones (or stream music to a single zone but need wireless for one reason or another). But if you have just one zone, and your computer is already there, they are overkill. As for "audiophile" streamers, I’m not going to claiming that streamers with no caps in the signal path and separate linear power supplies are snake oil. Some may be able to hear a difference over a properly set up MacBook, but we are talking last 1%. Unless you are already ’maxed out’ on your other components, my feeling is that there are other places to spend your money that will make a bigger sonic difference.

The key, however, is that the MB must be properly configured. As others have said, lose iTunes. For a while I used JRiver, but it was kind of unstable on my system so I switched over to Kodi (formerly called XBMC), and I haven’t looked back. JRiver, has several features that Kodi lacks, but I wasn’t using them so I don’t miss them. I have no experience with Audiovana and other software, but they each have their fans. One thing is certain -- iTunes is crap.

Next, select DACthe output devices in the Sound control panel, then go into Apple MIDI and select 24 bit 192 kHz (and verify that the DAC is already selected as the output device in MIDI). After that, go into your software (not iTunes) and find the option to configure output devices (it’ll be in one of the drop down Kenzie’s or possibly in setup). Choose the option corresponding to your DAC with the word "CoreAudio" after it. Then find the option for "Integer Mode" and check it.

If you are storing your music on an external drive, as educeus said in the previous post, it can be helpful to make sure that the drive does not share the same controller as the output device. Since the output de ice s using USB, then make sure your drive is connected either Thunderbolt or FireWire. (This may mean that you need to buy a new enclosure that is equipped with either FireWire or Thubderbolt and drop your drive into it.) if you are using your internal drive to store your music, then this is moot.

Now, if you still don’t like the sound you are getting, the first and least expensive piece of hardware you should consider adding is a USB to SPIDF converter. Run USB from the MB into the converter and then digital coax from the converter to the DAC. There are several out there. Personally I like the Peachtree X1. (I have also used the NuForce U192S, and sonically it was fine, but the driver can be finicky.) These converters will do 2 things. First, they reduce jitter by reclocking the signal and sending the reclocked signal over coax, which is more stable than USB. (The Peachtree X1 has two separate oscillators, one for multiples of 48 kHz and one for multiples of 44.2 kHz.) Second, they are a low cost means of stripping the power out of the USB. In other words, they do the same thing that those separate linear power supplies for dedicated streamers do, but at a fraction of the cost.

Good luck!
Why bother a MacBook way too much noise with all the digital switching. 
No comparison to a good player with built in HD I compared and ended up with the best player ,as well as best buy and award winning.
CHECK OUT the Aurender 100-H player. It has a very hood Linear power supply,
A 120 Gigabyte Solid State drive just as a memory buffer,No other does at under $2500 as well as a 2 Terabyte Hard drive plus allows for a external  HD hookup.
ALSO THE Proprietary Conductor App for all your library organization 
With Tital with MQA . Please do compare  and excellent build quality weighs over 
10 pounds. And have won a bunch of awards .please do compare .
The BDA-2 is a fairly high end DAC, right?  So why would the OP want to buy a new player that has its OWN DAC, like the Aurender?  Do you think that an Aurender + BDA-2 would be appreciably better than a properly configured mac -> BDA-2? I'd be a little surprised, but am not judging, just saying.  The DAC in the aurender is pretty good though, right?  So maybe that would be a better solution - just sell the BDA-2 and use the $ to buy Aurender?

FWIW Tunes -> audirvana works pretty well for a lot of folks for about $80 for the software.  Worked pretty well for me at least. 

Personally, I'd humbly suggest that it would might be worth playing around with the mac first before investing in another box.   I'd second the suggestions about bitperfect, and audirvana (again, worked well for me into a bifrost and later into a Schiit Yggdrasil).  Might also try different power supplies etc.  Also he/she didn't say anything about file formats, so we're not sure if they're compressed low-res files, or sweet lossless ones.  Given the BDA-2, would suspect they're in a reasonable format though.

If the OP is going to invest some $  - just throwing it out there - maybe a Bryston player (BDP-1, BDP-2, or Pi) playing from a NAS or maybe from an external HD might be another step up the audio chain - maybe?  The pi at least is not crazy expensive.  After using a an old Mac -> audirvana -> Schiit for a while, I wound up making that step but I've got to say that, for me, a bigger bang for buck was installing audirvana - i.e audirvana -> gungir was probably at least as good as awful iTunes -> Yggy.

One question I'd like to bring up is: NAS vs attached HD?  In the AS review of the BDP-2 they said that direct connection sounded better than NAS, which would seem to contradict some of the advice above.  No personal experience with that, just sayin' what they said.  Could see it working both ways, the total isolation of NAS from player with electrons flying through space vs a close and friendly external HD sharing noisy power supplies? Would be a good experiment ....


Do an experiment. Take a MAC Mini, Mac Book or PC, download Pure Music, Amarra, Audirvana Plus, Bit Perfect. Pick your track, load them all up with the track at the same place, and A/B switch play the track. Use the same DAC.

You will hear the differences. Why? Isn't digital digital? And that difference is without considering all the colouration the PC/MAC is adding along the way with noisey power supplies, audio filters etc.

This has driven me to develop a 'no compromise' media server. It's nearly there. Ground up best practice design and build - software - hardware. Bit-perfect codec, lossless digital signal processing, ultra high spec DAC and power supplies.

It will satisfy me, because I'll know exactly what I've got from source to destination. Whether it becomes a product for others remains to be seen.

From that test I did three years ago, I concluded my MAC Mini setup would always be sub-optimal.

I spent a year trying to tweek out the best sound from my audio dedicated Mac mini but always felt there was a layer of "hash" separating me from the music.  Bought an Aurender N100H with a Nordost USB cable and aaaaahhhhhh...  Nirvana!  Rest of my system is Classe Sigma SSP, Amp5, ProAc Response 5, MIT cables, LP12/Benz.  In retrospect, I feel like I just wasted a year.  It is that much better.
Guys, he has the MacBook already, and he hasn't yet explored the free and low cost options. If he configures the Mac properly and tries adding a $100-150 USB-SPIDF converter, and he still doesn't  get the sound he likes, then by all means replacing the Mac with an Aurender or similar dedicated streamer makes sense. But until then, it seems irresponsible to recommend replacing existing hardware for thousands of $$$ when there are free and low cost options that can make a world of difference. In particular, the USB-SPIDF converters can do wonders for cleaning up noisy USB signal. I don't doubt that some of you can here the difference using a purpose built streamer, but that doesn't mean it should be the recommended solution of first resort in a situation where OP already has hardware.

My two cents, of course ...
Also, consider that the issue may be with the Bryston's USB implementation, in which case no streamer that uses USB is gonna fix the problem. (As a point of comparison , my NuForce HDP DAC sounds great through SPIDF but horrible through USB, regardless of the source.)

OP, have you tried the Bryston DAC using any alternative USB sources, and did they sound any different than the MacBook?
I have a Bryston BDA 2 and using an iPad, I stream music from iTunes onto a Sonos device and it sounds superb. I also stream Tidal music via a Bryston media player that you can download.

I have a Bryston BDA 2 and using an iPad, I stream music from iTunes onto a Sonos device and it sounds superb. I also stream Tidal music via a Bryston media player that you can download and play directly through the BDA2

Digital

MacBook Pro ------> JRiver Media Center ----->TOSLINK from audio out connector -----------------> CHORD Qute EX DAC -------> Audio Research Ref 6 ------> Audio Research Ref 610T"s ---------> Wilson MAXX II's 

I also have an analog front end with a Bergman Turntable and AR phono preamp.  The digital side of my system is VERY good and I do know how it sounds compared to an extremely good analog system on identical recordings.

I do have high quality interconnects as well.  So,  I am in agreement that a computer based digital system can sound great.

LH 




When some of you reference ’losing’ iTunes, does ’Roon’ fit the bill instead of JRiver Etc.?