With a reclocker like Synchro-Mesh, you could use a stock Sonos, squeezebox or AppleTV. The Sonos ZP-90 is very popular and fun to use. I like it better than Apple iTunes, and it does not change the stream to apple losseless first. The reclocker will lower the jitter to improve audio quality over the Zardoz. The best thing is to eliminate the AirPort Express and replace with a good stock WiFi device and the reclocker. The AE is a bad device. Even extensive mods and reclocking dont make it great.
Once you have a good device and reclocker, the system can be further improved by upgrading the reclocker power supply and your S/PDIF cable. These can elevate the quality to world-class, beating all transports and music servers.
Def need a DAC. I've not tried a reclocker so I can't comment on that but taking the optical signal from the airport express into a good DAC would make a big improvement the airport express sounds horrible via analog out in my opinion.
What Steve (Audioengr) suggests is certainly a valid route. Then he also manufactures the product he's recommending. Just be aware of that.
Another option that would be very simple too is getting a laptop to be used for music only, and a DAC with asynchronous USB input. You would have a USB cable between laptop and DAC, and analog IC between DAC and pre, and that's it. The laptop does not need to be powerful. You could use iTunes since you are familiar with it. Then, choose a DAC within your budget, and with the output connectors that match your pre.
Later, if you feel like it, you can get an iPad or iPod to use as a remote. You would probably love this!
This should be rather simple to implement and not expensive, and will get your toe in the water.
My two cents.
Appreciate the input. Currently using an iPod Touch for my remote. I understand that the Zardoz already has a reclocker but will confirm with manufacturer.
One issue with Lewinskih01's suggestions. I like his ideas a lot, but as a Squeezebox Touch user, I am always thinking about what I will do when it dies (Logitech has discontinued the Squeezebox platform, and replacements for failed units are no longer available). So, I thought I might use my laptop, which is already dedicated to ripping CDs onto my server (a Vortexbox appliance) and controlling the server via the web-based GUI for functions other than playback. I could just use the Logitech Media Server program, already installed on my laptop, for playback. Last night, however, I realized that, during quiet passages, the fan in the laptop is indeed audible, too much for critical listening. I am trying to avoid buying a tablet, which I guess could be fanless, but I guess I may have no choice. So consider the laptop self-noise before you have that whizzing in your ear while trying to enjoy your music.
With a reclocker like Synchro-Mesh, you could use a stock Sonos, squeezebox or AppleTV.
Only after gutting and modding the piss out of them (ala Boulder)....
There is a misperception of the Z at work here. It is a highly modded entity with its own master clock, dual power supplies (one of the clock), proprietary shielding, etc, etc. According to the designer, it is a low jitter affair. The French audiophile who turned me onto it used to own an Empirical Audio offramp along with a highly modded Squeezebox, and the Z thumped it. He also did shootouts with Weis, Alpha Berkley, etc, etc. The Z was found to be superior. Dan from dbSystems has developed a plug-in the hacks Airtunes to circumvent the downsampling to Apple Lossless during transmission. I own it and it is much better than stock Itunes and even Pure Music.
You can tweak the unit further by putting in a synergistic fuse, and floating the transformer on audiopoints. I have also pondered using the Bybee music rails to lower the noise floor further.
WiFi is still limited in what it can transmit in terms of file type (RB only as far as I know). Hopefully Apple will uncork it soon. Its only a matter of time.
Since audio is an endless, open-ended experiment, you could always try Steve's new product and see if it improved things....
Zardoz only does what the AE does, but with a better clock. Still not god enough IMO. I used to have a product similar to Zardoz. I discontinued it.
As for USB , be prepared to do some work. Upgrading the computer (DRAM and SSD), computer power supply, playback software and other OS tweaks. All of this is needed to match the performance of a Sonos or SB with reclocker and good power supply for the reclocker. A lot more expense and time consuming. The advantage of USB is native up to 192 playback.
SB without re-clocker + external DAC to tweak the sound as needed ain't too shabby even IMHO. I listen to this setup all the time and am hard pressed to say I am missing anything. AEs reclocker is probably better technically regarding jitter, but better enough to hear a difference in practice? Dunno. AE thinks so but then again he is the designer and seller. Does one need one to start? I doubt it. Looks easy to add one later if one feels the need or desire.
Can't vouch for SOnos but many like those as well. A wireless network connection between server and streamer is a good thing! It helps isolate the parts that make music from the commercial computer, which can be a huge source of noise in many cases.
Mapman - I agree that SB Touch is probably the best stock network source, but it can be improved with mods, power upgrades or reclocking. I have had them here and both modded and reclocked them. I use a Sonos myself, but I also have a SB3. Both SB and Sonos provide one with a clean digital signal compared to Apple. Once you have this, there is no drawback to the source except jitter which can be improved several ways. Its an excellent starting point.
My suggestion was an attempt to keep it simple, per the OP request.
bondmanp, if you are looking for a fan less solution look into the CAPS 2 servers described at computer audiophile.com.
I didn't mean using the laptop on his lap, but rather having it sit by the stereo, likely several feet away from his ears. Surely some laptops are still audible, but many aren't and still his priority is simplicity.
Agear - I also made the AE sound pretty good, but there limitations of the chip being used in there, namely the PCM270X. Crummy chip. There is also the fact that Apple encodes the stream to ALAC.
I have had the Zardoz from another customer here, so I know it.
I also made the AE sound pretty good, but there limitations of the chip being used in there, namely the PCM270X.
Mine uses a chip from Marvell. I do not know the chipset used in the Sonos or Logitech, but I cannot imagine they are any better.
There is also the fact that Apple encodes the stream to ALAC.
There is a workaround. See above.
Steve, you promote the use of multiple wifi transmitters in conjunction with your Synchromesh device (Apple TV, Express, Sonos, etc). Why does it matter which device is used if it is reclocked?
Like everything else in audio, I think sound quality can be influenced just as much or more by the quality of the parts and their implementation. The digital noise floor on the Zardoz (now La Rosita) is very low (<-102dB), much lower than any CDP. It also has a proprietary power supply. All that matters IMO.
Disclaimer: I am no way affiliated with dBSystems. Just an end user....
I can add to this discussion with my experience. I am using synco-mesh with a sonos zp-90 along with red wines tube based NOS isabellina DAC to stream from a music library of ripped cds using dbpoweramp to flac on a NAS, and MOG music service. I have compared this to two very well reviewed DACs that retail for twice the price of the synco-mesh isabellina combination, using USB and jrivers media center. In both comparisons, the USB alternatives provided more noticeable pin point imaging, but I could never warm up to the sound. It became artificial after a very short while of playback, and after time I could no longer listen for long periods. The isabellina is a lush sounding DAC, sweet with wonderful tonality. I can only explain the addition of the re-clocker, as snapping the sound scape into focus, and providing an enhanced sense of ambient retrieval. Sonos is a joy to use. A wonderful interface that makes browsing music very easy. Streaming is a gift to the arm chair music lover, but for me it took time and patience to achieve a more natural sound from the digital source. For my sensibilities, the synco-mesh/NOSdac combination provides for a beautifully relaxed natural sound, without question superior to any the other alternatives I have tried, and this is from files ripped from standard redbook Cds that provide a whole world of music variety.
"Steve, you promote the use of multiple wifi transmitters in conjunction with your Synchromesh device (Apple TV, Express, Sonos, etc). Why does it matter which device is used if it is reclocked?"
It doesn't matter, except for Apple WiFi, which encodes ALAC. Still a lot of customers use it with Apple TV.
Steve, any early opinions on DSD? I have some buddies who are raving about it....
IMO, an external DAC would definitely be helpful. Just keep in kind that you will need to pipe digital in and out of Airport Express. I assume that you are using the AE as a wireless receiver for your pre, so the DAC would go between the AE and your preamp. The AE is going to limit you to 44.1kHz resolution, so if I were you I wouldn't spend a lot on a DAC.
Mas1951, your findings are no surprise. My first introduction to wireless was via the Sonos. It is an excellent product.
I have used the Zardoz since 2008, and I believe wireless is the shizzle. They are too many gremlins and too much fiddle factor in using a computer. I just wish they would uncork it so hi rez was possible. I have been told that is coming. If we can stream video content, why not....
I think DSD DACs are a good development. Im not sure it is a critical element for a new DAC however. The tracks are limited and if one has to make any sonic sacrifice to get DSD, its probably not worth it.
I recently heard an Off-Ramp 5 driving a Wyred 4 Sound DAC2 using I2S. Definitely World-Class. This indicates that the Sabre chip has potential. Its not jitter-proof as advertied, but the digital filtering is better than most.
For streaming audio, I'd think a used, tube-modified ModWright Transporter would run circles around the Zardoz. Logitech's server software is quite good, as are its smartphone and tablet apps. It's an ease-of-use/ease-of-setup winner IMO. Of course, Slim/Logitech no longer makes them, and you'd be limited to 24/96 - but still, for streaming audio (or any audio) it's pretty freaking spectacular, and it's very easy to setup & use. You can also use it as a DAC. New products to look at (I just did a bunch of research in this area, so...):
PSAudio PerfectWave Mk.II w/Bridge
Linn Akurate DS
Problem is, all of these leverage UPnP - and IMO none have done it really well. If you were to go down that road, I'd say just be sure of the dealer support/return policy, as your mileage may vary. I wound up keeping my Transporter after some frustration with UPnP implementations.
For streaming audio, I'd think a used, tube-modified ModWright Transporter would run circles around the Zardoz.
With emphasis being placed on the word "think."
Friends of mine who owned the Transporter, which is/was a fine product, either sold it due to sonic thinness, or had it modded with a tube buffer ala Modwright and later sold it to chase other computer-related offerings with more flexibility with files types (hi rez).
Again, cannot wait for hi rez streaming.