Have you made sure the "settings in preferences" are set correctly?
1. No "sound check" and "sound enhancer".
2. Make sure "error correction" is checked.
3. No EQ. Turn it off, not just to "flat".
4. Use a good glass toslink cable.
5. Make sure the midi settings are correct. I think this is automatic with Snow Leopard, but you might want to check just in case.
6. Make sure all other apps are closed, especially browsers and other audio apps.
Hope this helps. A Mac can make an excellent digital music source.
I would think something is amiss in your system. For me the Mac Mini playing Apple Lossless files sounds better than the CD playing from a transport. I think that it sounds marginally better to use a USB-SPDIF converter such as the Bel Canto USB link as well. The cables can have an effect as well. I don't think that the optical connection sounds as good but still can sound pretty good. Even 320 MP3s sound really good and there is a small improvement with FLAC or ALC files. I think something must be set wrong for you if you are hearing night and day improvement via CD transport. It's frustrating how many options we have regarding computer playback but the benefits I think outweigh the negatives.
Since you can re-create a bit accurate copy of the original from an Apple Lossless file, the difference must be somewhere else.
Thanks for all the help!
In the mean time since posting I tried with the WAV format. Same result.
Im thinking maybe it was the eq because I did have that on.. I am going to try that now and see. I didnt even think of that. I figured since it was "just sending bits" it wouldnt even matter. Ill keep you all posted.
Recently experimenting, I tried connecting my iMac directly to my dac via usb, and also used a high end power cord.
Three things here: 1 eliminated AE which may be a week link, 2 installed high end power cord to the iMac, and 3 connected via USB link; improvement in all those qualities you mention on your original post was significant - WOW!
Try it; you may be quite surprised at Apple LossLess quality. I was floored.
Skip Wav files, use AIFF. I can hear a slight hardening of transients when using ALAC. I think something may be set wrong as Hellofidelity suggests. If his suggestions do not work, I'd try going straight into the DAC as well with the GLASS toslink. The worse digital connection I have heard in my system is using a cheap plastic toslink- loss of definition and awful PRaT.
a friend and I compared WAV, Apple lossless and the original CD on his (very nice) stereo one day and we really listened for any possible change or difference in sound and could not hear one.
Based on that day I think Apple lossless is the best choice.
ALAC ripped by programs like MAX or EAC should sound better than CDP since program reads CD as data multiple times until it gets correct checksum. CDP cannot do that, working in real time, and skips over wrong data. It get worse with older (scratched) CDs.
Sometimes the Airport Express can cause trouble. Can you hook your Mac directly unto your DAC? If that solves the problem, then you might look at two things.
1. Your network and/or Airport Express need to be checked. Which version of the AE do you have? Newer (802.11n) units sound better and are more reliable. Also make sure your router is setup and working correctly.
2. There might be an electrical problem or interference with another electrical device. Microwaves can cause trouble in older networks. I have experienced the need for power conditioning on AEs before.
Thanks for equalizer tip. Just turned it 'off'....it was set to flat.
Does that effect recording or just playback?
Magfan, the EQ only effects playback. You're welcome.... :)
In my system, Apple Lossless sounds great running over my AppleTV through my processor. I've compared it very closely to my Oppo BDP-83 and really can't notice a significant difference, and the Oppo is no slouch as a transport.
However, it sounds like you're using AirTunes over an Airport Express. I'm 99% sure that when you stream over AirTunes to an Airport Express, the Mac converts to a lossy format on the fly for AirTunes to decode.
Airport Express uses native ALAC so it is better to store in ALAC to avoid additional conversion. Stereophile tested Airport Express for bit transparency and it recovers exactly uncompressed data bit-for bit true. They concluded that Airport Express has very low jitter but rather mediocre analog output section. Airport Express has few second buffer and unless you hear dropouts quality should be fine. I use it with Benchmark DAC1 and cannot tell the difference between AE and CDP to Benchmark.
Here is review: http://www.stereophile.com/digitalprocessors/505apple/
That is a very good question. What DOES happen when you use an AE?
Does the confuser convert everything to say.......MP3@160 than transmit, as some kind of reconstructed full bitstream to an external DA via the AE?
I don't think so. I HOPE that however a song is saved, it gets changed back to a full 44.1 bitstream than transmitted as digits, so the AE is just a 'passthru' device. And since you can make a bit perfect reconstruction of the original tune from Apple Lossless...there you go. That is, if you use the optical. If you use the analogue output where is the DA conversion done...in the AE or back at the confuser?
If anyone really knows, feel free to chime in.
Apple uses Apple Lossless to stream all the music data on a Airport network. Kijanki is correct, Apple Lossless and the Airport Express digital output are "bit perfect". It's limited to 16/44, but does it very well.
Hellofidelity - it does it very well indeed. 16/44 limitation doesn't bother me since all my music is 16/44. The only problem I know of is that it drops clock during gaps and some DACs are late to sync and mute beginning of the song (Benchmark doesn't do that).
Kijanki....yes, it's best to have a DAC that can "lock" correctly. I think most DACs can do this now, but it was a frustrating years ago.
I also have a collection that is all 16/44, so I'm not too concerned about 24/96 yet. I have found that 16/44 Apple Lossless playing into a nicely designed NOS DAC is extremely musical. :)
I use Apple lossless. I tried the Bryston DAC (current model, right?) in my system. Via the USB input it was not very good unless I used a reclocker ahead of it. The other inputs were fantastic, and the USB was excellent with a reclocker. So you ought to get great results with Apple Lossless except possibly with a raw USB input.