In Praise of Computer Audio

I just added a Red Wine Audio USB Select to my system as a source, and I am in heaven. My current signal path is: Apple Lossless on iTunes (PC) to USB Select to Ack dAck! 2.0 (hi-rez option). For now I listen exclusively through headphones.

I had not had all that much time with my dAck! before the Select arrived. With the time I did have I was using my Music Hall CD25 player as transport. With that setup, the music had good resolution, but was hurting my ears a bit with its harshness. When the USB Select was inserted instead, not only did the harshness vanish, but the music took on a clarity I have never heard before from digital.

I have long noticed that CD’s have a certain fuzziness to the sound. The best way I can describe it is to compare it to a photograph that is slightly out of focus. Everything is there, but it’s just not focused and clear, but sort of muddy. I notice it the most with lyrics - the voices sound kind of smeared. With the USB select, I feel like singers have all attended speech class, over-annunciating the words to their songs. I mean this in the best possible way…it seems this way because their voices are so crisp and clear. The other thing I notice is cymbals…which actually sound like cymbals. Hearing a well-reproduced cymbal struck me…it really made me realize how unnatural it had sounded before.

I am now a huge fan of non-oversampling DACs and USB sources, when they are done right. Sourced from the USB Select, the Ack Dack! 2.0 sounds ridiculously good. I am getting a level of performance that makes me wonder how better digital sound can even be possible, although with upcoming technologies like direct I2S connections, I’m sure I will be proved wrong. My combo cost me a little over $1000, and I totally understand why I have heard of people getting rid of their $5k-$10k sources after hearing setups like mine. I should point out this is my first USB source, so I can’t compare it to others. But for the $400 I paid for it, I’m thrilled.

For no good reason, I will give my opinions on the factors that make this combo sound so good:
1. Non-oversampling - This has been described as the most analog sound possible from digital. My ears could not agree more.
2. Computer source – Exact Audio Copy lets one rip a CD perfectly, making multiple passes if needed. This is something no transport can accomplish. The data then gets converted to S/PDIF from USB. USB data contains no audio timing information, so the timing starts from the clock in the USB source, which can be done with very low jitter.
3. Battery power – Both the USB Select and the dAck! run from rechargeable batteries. (They charge automatically when turned off, so since I never listen for more than 6-8 hours at a time, it’s no inconvenience for me.) Taking out the AC noise I believe allows the USB Select to provide the cleanest S/PDIF signal possible. It also allows the dAck! to create analog sound from a black background. It is commonly known by audiophiles that records sound better than CDs, and it is commonly explained that it is due to the fact that the analog signal is never digitized, thereby providing a much more natural sound (as well as better transients). I agree this is true, but I’m wondering if it isn’t another factor that causes the majority of the improvement in sound. I can’t prove it, but I think a lot of the reason why records sound so good is that the sound originally emanates from a needle, which isn’t plugged into the wall. AC power (especially unfiltered power) is noisy, and ultimately you’re shaping this noisy signal into music. Any noise that makes it into the music at this very low volume level is then amplified to line level, and then amplified again to listening level. In other words, a little noise goes a long way. Using battery power allows for a far less noisy analog source, just like a cartridge needle. Given that many good power solutions cost more than my battery powered source and DAC combined, I’m happy not to have to go down that upgrade path.

My reasoning could be wrong; I welcome those in the know to correct my hypotheses.

I should issue a caveat, which is that I have never owned a really good CD player or DAC before now. It’s possible I’m just hearing for the first time what others have been enjoying for a long time. But for me just changing the source from CD transport to USB (while keeping the DAC the same) made a big difference. I think all audiophiles owe it to themselves to try computer-based audio. It’s not just the amazing convenience. You can get ridiculously good sound for “steal” prices in comparison to traditional CD players.
I agree with you about AC noise and its affect on the sound of digital sources with average power supplies. An isolation transformer between my CDP and the powere source... transforms the music.
I share your enthusiasm regarding your new digital setup. I too recently made the conversion going the ethernet vs. your USB setup. I'm sure both are very close in overall sound.

I am using an Audio Mirror non oversampling DAC in conjunction with a Roku Soundbridge. My previous digital setup was a Marantz SA14 SACD player, then later adding the Audio Mirror for redbook playback. The Audio Mirror was an improvement over the stock Marantz. I'm now using iTunes with music ripped to AIFF files. I've experienced the same improvements you have.

In my opinion to answer your question, what you are hearing is better than what most are getting from digital systems valued of at least four times your investment. I went from a digital setup that was valued at over $3500 to my current set up of about $1000 plus home PC which most everyone already owns and I'll never go back to spinning discs with a conventional transport.