Help Me Tweak System...

Greetings folks,
I have a working PC based system. I am wondering what I can do to improve/tweak my sound?

PC: custom built PC running Windows XP. Operating system on it's own HD. Data (including iTunes files) on a separate internal 500GB HD

DAC: Cambridge Audio DacMagic, connected to PC via generic USB cable

Software: Apple Lossless files in iTunes

Thanks in advance.
First, never use iTunes on an XP PC.

Use Foobar 0.8.3 and Directsound or Jriver. Rip to .wav files, dont use compression, not even lossless FLAC.

Then unmap the device that you are using (USB interface) to avoid kmixer. Instructions:

Go to Control Panel - System Hardware - Device Manager - Sound Video and Game Controllers – (your device) - Right-Click and select Properties - Audio Devices – (your device) - Properties - Set "Do not use audio features" and set "Do not map through this Device"

You will need to reboot and then if you change it back to mapped, then you must re-boot.

If you dont have Foobar 0.8.3, then email me.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Thanks very much for the reply and specific suggestions.

Why Foobar? Somebody I know is using MediaMonkey. Would this work as well?

I will try your recommendations and report back.

I'm curious why you're steering him away from FLAC or other compression formats? Is this only an XP platform issue in your mind, as I thought the general concensus 6 months ago was compression formats don't impart any measurable sonic degradation (aside from taxing the processor slightly to "uncompress" the file before playback)?

I'm not intending to open up another debate on who thinks WAV is better than FLAC, or ALAC is better than WAV, but I've flipped back and forth between WAV and ALAC on a Mac and there's very, very slight differences. From a resource standpoint, an uncompressed format is doable given how cheap memory is now compared to the past (maybe that's the answer to the question...).
Steve (or others):

A few questions regarding your post.

(1) The latest version of Foobar2000 is v0.9.6.5. Is this version appropriate, or is there a specific reason I want version v0.8.3?

(2) When I googled Jriver, I came up w/ the J River Media Center. Is this what I want?

(3) Could you please explain the function of Foobar, Jriver, and Directsound? I was unclear from your post which combination of programs I would need to replace the functionality of iTunes.

Thanks in advance.
Meanwhile in the land of the simple, here are a few suggestions that I have been successful with.

First, since you mentioned a generic USB cable, there is a growing group who believe that upgrading the USB cable can make a nice difference.

The consensus entry point is the Belkin USB Gold which will set you back all of $15 if you google a bit. Moving up the food chain look to CryoParts, then to Locus Design Group. (Kimber and Ridge also have their proponents.)

I have found all but the most robust DACs (like the MF TriVista which has a massive power supply) to be very sensitive to power cords. There are of course specifically designed digital cords like the VH Audio Flavor 1/2. But most anything upscale should make a noticeable difference.

I have spent a lot of time playing with tweaks like an Aurio, Roller Ball, wood slabs etc. I have found that most of these units - especially the lighter ones - benefit from damping (weight on top) and isolation. I don't see draining vibration as a particular issue. Play with whatever you have around, see what makes a difference then focus on that approach.

To beg the obvious - the DAC is a source. It should have the best ICs in your system between it and the preamp - with the possible exception of the turntable.

As far as the computer itself... I am a Mac guy but I have to believe the following is relevant to PC owners as well.

I keep my Mac, monitors etc on an APC UPS. I use an audio grade power cord to the Mac tower. I installed a an extra USB card so that the DAC has its own dedicated output. Frankly I am not sure what that means in terms of processing but I am sure it ensures full voltage.

I keep all of my audio on a BPT power conditioner. Ideally it will be on a separate circuit from the computer gear. Essential - yes at least hypothetically.

Practically speaking having the PC gear on a UPC and the audio gear on a separate conditioner gets you most of the way there.

The last piece of advice I can give you is to get a Mac Mini for your music and enjoy life. When you need aggravation you can fire up the blue screen of death...
Then unmap the device that you are using (USB interface) to avoid kmixer. Instructions:

Go to Control Panel - System Hardware - Device Manager - Sound Video and Game Controllers – (your device) - Right-Click and select Properties - Audio Devices – (your device) - Properties - Set "Do not use audio features" and set "Do not map through this Device"

Interesting… Steve N. would doing the same thing be beneficial for: XP based PC/external hard drive – wireless router – Squeezebox Duet – external DAC? I assumed that I was bypassing my PC’s hardware/audio devices????
Just use the latest version of Foobar2000 (0.9.whatever). Those who are recommending earlier versions are fooling themselves.

DirectSound is one of the output options for most music programs (e.g. Foobar2000). If you are using Windows Vista or 7, DirectSound will be just fine. If you are using Windows XP, however, I recommend trying KernalStreaming. Forget about ASIO for, like KernalStreaming, provides a way of bypassing DirectSound, but is generally more problematic, and few devices support it without some workaround.

I don't recommend using WAV or AIFF because 1) the files are larger, 2) they don't sound any better than a compressed format like FLAC or ALAC, 3) they lack proper tagging support so they are more difficult to deal with, and 4) they offer no indication of when the file has become corrupted due to hard drive problems (which is more common than you might think). Use a lossless compression format (I prefer FLAC) and KEEP BACKUPS OF YOUR ENTIRE COLLECTION ON A DIFFERENT COMPUTER (OR BACK-UP HARD DRIVE).

Also...a lot of so-called "experts" will tell you all kinds of things about computer-based audio. Most of them are just parroting something else they read on the internet. Make your own decisions about what sounds better (e.g. FLAC vs. WAV, DirectSound vs. KernalStreaming, Foobar2000 0.9.x vs. 0.8.3, etc.), preferably using blind tests (let a friend help you out with that to achieve some sense of blindness on your, or their, part). If you read about A being better than B then you will think you are hearing it when you try an A/B test...blind tests are the only ones you can trust, in my experience.

Let's see...what else...DACs in general are overrated as far as their significance in the overall sound of your system. Yes, they are important, but keep in mind most of them are based on the same few DAC chips, and therefore the sound differences between them is surprisingly small (blind tests will help you make this determination for yourself). This basic fact being brought into the light is Steve N.'s worst business nightmare, but it's the truth. Here's how I'd rank the importance of components in a computer system:

1. Speakers/Headphones - 80%
2. Amp - 12%
3. DAC - 7%
4. Cables and Power Quality - 0.75%
5. Software, Drivers, OS Version, Audio Data format - 0.25%
Scrith - Everything makes a difference.

DACs - Tube versus solid state. NOS versus upsampling. Ones that reclock versus ones that do not. Digital filter implementation. The list goes on and on. If you get it wrong with your DAC, you're in for a headache.

Amps - Tube versus solid state. Wattage. Impedance matching. Etc, etc.

Speakers - Impedance. Soft dome versus hard dome. Efficiency compared to the amp driving them. Speaker location (crucial).

Cables and Power Supply - Just as big a difference. Particularly if your house or electrical grid is a mess as is mine. Moreso given you're dealing with computers here that throw off all kinds of trash. Put a Shunyata vx cable on a PC oomputer or IMac for example and listen to the difference. Interconnects make a big difference. I had to can a pair of silver ICs because they were tipping the balance.

Approaching computer audio cold can be a maddening and expensive endeavor. Manufacturers like Steve can be helpful at times, but more confusion is to be had when posts are left instructing someone to do this or that w/o backing it up with further explanation (i.e. leaving an opinion).

Headshrinker2 - If you have plenty of cash and months and months to go about trying this, have at it. It can be a blast, but also extremely tiresome/frustrating if you run into component missmatches, bad cabling, the wrong speakers, etc.

My suggestion, pole people on what setups they have and whether they're satisfied (based on what their listening preferences are). One thing I will say, jitter control is a must as is clean power.

If it helps, my setup is -

iMac 20 2ghz core 2duo with 4gigs of RAM, running ALAC lossless files via Itunes(computer paired with a VX power cable), Turbo-3 USB converter, MHDT Tube DAC, Rogue Stereo 90 tube amp. Shunyata Altair ICs, Van Den Hul Breeze speaker cable (2 runs for bi-wire). Quad 22L2 speakers. Shunyata hydra conditioning (a 2 and a 6) and Shunyata helix power cables. Cryoparts 10' USB cable.

That said, I'm still messing with my setup after a year and a half, though it's the best it's sounded since I started.
Also to help -

My system may be geared more to the music I listen to - classic rock, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Tool, Tori Amos, some butt rock, etc. I listen to some instrumental(Ottmar Liebert), some country and other odds and ends stuff. Drums sound like drums, there's dimension to the music, good imaging, etc. The biggest fight all along - Trying to keep cymbals (i.e. upper frequencies) and related sibilance in check with digital music.
True, everything makes a difference. The part most posts leave out is how little of a difference all that stuff you mentioned actually makes. :-) Don't get me wrong, I'm in it down to the cables, power filters, speaker RFI/EMI tweaks, etc...but, honestly, most of the sound is coming from the speakers, amp, and DAC. Yes, we can argue from now until the end of time how much better brand X or tube or interconnect is vs. brand Y...but, for someone getting started in this hobby, you're really just wasting their time until they have the rest of their system set up.
Scrith - before you start pontificating, do you read?

"I have a working PC based system. I am wondering what I can do to improve/tweak my sound?"

Do you really think that its just about K-mixer?

Do you wonder why nobody else tried to help this person understand that a DAC needs to be treated like any other source?