Need advice on how to dip a toe into digital

There are so many A'gon posts about digital, I think I'd like to dip a toe into the media. You can check my System tab to see what I use. In short, my only experience with digital is redbook CD.

So .... I have a new laptop PC and am willing to pick up a DAC or whatever gizmo I need. Is it worth spending any time with SACD? As the question implies, I just want to dip a toe -- not take a plunge. Suggestions would be welcome. Thanks.
Two questions ... what is your budget for dipping a toe, and what is motivating you to do so (or to put it another way, is it just a matter or curiosity or is there some particular problem that you are hoping to solve)?
Also, in my other post I neglected to ask ... what kind of device (wireless router or wired modem) are you using to connect your laptop PC to the Internet?
I assume you are talking about setting up a computer based music server. What type of music do you listen to and how many CDs do you have? The reason I ask is that depending upon your answers it may not be worth the time and effort unless you're going to be serious about it.
Onh...., yes I was thinking about using my new laptop PC. My music tastes run the full spectrum, from classical to 70s and 80s rock, and jazz. Right now I'm spinning an LP, Delbert McClinton, Plain From The Heart (Capital/EMI ST-12188). I would describe the LP as country/swamp rock of a sorts. Great sound and very musical. I can actually understand the words being sung. I have a couple of hundred of redbook CDs and LPs.

Any recommendations??
The simplest system I can think of is iTunes (free) and an AirPort Express ($99) for streaming and D/A. I use iTunes, on an iMac, and an AirPort Express for streaming and Toslink cable from the AirPort Express into a Pioneer Elite receiver to perform the D/A conversion. The results are very good to my ears.
load iTunes on your pc and copy all your CD's to your computer in ALAC format (apple lossless - close to full CD quality).

Also get Pandora (free) on your PC so you can hear new music in what ever style your existing favorite bands play.

Whenever I hear a new band I like on Pandora, I buy the CD used on EBAY and copy it to my computer on iTunes. Much cheaper than buying new off iTunes at crappy MP3 resolution.

You can now do couple things -
1. transfer your ALAC songs to an apple or android smart phone. I have over 250 cd quality albums on my 64G Droid Bionic and play it thru my car audio, at the gym and when traveling.

2. Run your computer thru a USB DAC into your 2 channel system. There start at sub $200. You could also take the headphone out and split into RCA stereo and run thru aux channel on your pre amp, although that may not sound as good as USB thru a DAC. This way you can have all your CDs playing thru iTunes and never have to actually spin another CD.

3. SACD is worth it in my opinion, as you can buy a lot of SACDs used for 15 - 20 and it sounds closer to analogue than redbook. If you go this route consider the Oppo 105 as it also get's you a pretty good USB DAC. You can run your computer thru this and use the Oppo to play SACD. Unfortunately, SACDs are copy protected so no easy way to rip them to iTunes.
The other option is to pick up a cheap Dac and connect the laptop directly via USB. The Schiit Modi Dac is only $99 and comes with a 15 day money back guarantee.
Thanks. Is SACD something to think about?
I think the easiest way to dip a toe it to get a free player (jriver - free, itunes if a mac, or foobar) and get a audioquest dragonfly outboard dac. output this to a amp, receiver or what do you have? and try it out. I'd skip worrying about sacd or dsd or many other acronyms and see if you like it. I would take some care in ripping your cd's to your laptop. a couple minutes ahead of time may pay dividends later if you continue. several free programs like Exact Audio Copy will work just fine for you. If your a MAC guy consider ALAC and if a windows guy maybe FLAC. both are compressed but also lossless. Avoid mp3. very lossy. you can always go there later if you dont care but you cant go from mp3 to lossless unless you like fooling yourself! total cost about $250. option that may (depending on your system) would be other dacs like the HRT or peachtree idac. too many others to list here. just have fun.
GZ.... I haven't decided on a budget yet. It seems the biggest cost will obviously be the DAC, which can run anywhere from $200 to the stratosphere. For example, I've seen used ARC DAC 8s going for $2K to $3K on A'gon. The ARC route is way, way too much for now.

Motivation: curiosity. If digital sounds as good as vinyl, I'm interested in exploring further. But .... if it's just a tweak or two better than redbook CD, probably will not pursue.
If you are looking to see if digital can sound as good as vinyl I think you will be disappointed if you only Budget a few hundred for a DaC. You have a nice system and a nice vinyl playback rig that might be near impossible to better with digital unless you are spending a lot on it. I don't think of digital as equal to analog just necessary since a lot of music is not available or very expensive on vinyl. I think you would be very impressed with a dac like the ps audio perfect wave II via USB from you laptop and running audirvana playback software. This would allow you to dip your toe into the world of high resolution audio and see what you think of that too. You could even add the transport if you want to play sacd. You have a great system and I think it deserves this level of digital otherwise you may just be disappointed and be one of the ones that thinks digital sucks.
For the longest time affordable digital simply didn't do it for me. I ripped my 850 CDs, argh, and bought the Logitech Touch, The convenience alone was enjoyable but the sound was still flat.

My next step was auditioning the affordable (under $1,000 DACs) a few years ago. YUK.

Thanks to this forum I purchased a Metrum Acoustics NOS Octave direct from the manufacture for just over $600. This DAC finally produced acceptable sonics and I'm still on the cheap.

Today the affordable DAC selection has grown a great deal sonically. Because of my limited experience I have no actual suggestions. I'm confident you'll be able to put together a listenable digital source without going nuts.
Bifwynne Given a motivation of curiosity (can digital sound any better than vinyl or redbook), I doubt you will end up concluding the answer is yes -- particularly in the case of vinyl. But one thing I am more sure of is this: anybody into Audio Research gear is not likely to become sufficiently informed to answer that question by fooling around with low end digital-to-analog converters. If that’s the investigational strategy you follow, the answer you come up with is going to be no, and my suggestion is don’t even waste your time. Not that I am suggesting going out and spending a lot of money, I’m not because my guess is that ultimately you “will not pursue.”

It seems to me the more rational approach for someone using ARC would be to investigate getting your hands on a higher quality DAC than some of those already mentioned (think $1000+ for new). Just make sure that if you buy new, you can use it on a 15-30 day trial basis with a no questions asked ability to return. I suspect you could do this either through The Cable Company or perhaps directly with some of the manufacturers. Alternatively, you could pick up a used, well regarded DAC that can be resold for minimal financial loss. Whatever DAC you try, its specs should indicate input/processing support for at least 96 kHz/24 bit hi-rez audio files and preferably for 192 kHz/24 bit files.

Before settling on any DAC, confirm that it can be connected (and how) both to your laptop PC on the one end and to your ARC gear on the other end. Also, you want to be sure that whatever equipment and connections are used that you’ll be able to use software on your laptop to control the playback through your Paradigms.

Regarding playback software, my suggestion is to obtain JRiver software for your laptop (free during a 30 day trial period and $50 if you want to keep it after that), and do any listening tests using either the WAV or FLAC audio file format. JRiver is designed for Windows computers (which is what I assume you have based on your original post) whereas iTunes software and the ALAC file format are more appropriate for Apple computers and devices.

My last recommendation is to do your testing using hi-rez audio files (WAV or FLAC) obtained from HD Tracks. In theory, it is more likely that you would hear a difference in sound quality by listening to 96 kHz/24 bit (or higher) hi-rez audio files than any audio files that you would “rip” from one of your redbook CDs (which would be 44.1 kHz/16 bit files). Also, in order to compare intelligently, make sure to download something from HD Tracks that you can also play via physical media whether vinyl and/or CD.

Even if you conclude that digital audio isn’t for you, you’ll have some fun exploring the possibility.
On the subject of SACD I can't comment on sound quality comparison with vinyl. I do think SACD can sound better than redbook and usually does, but I don't think that's universal. In any case, as more and more hi-rez downloads become available, it looks like SACD is becoming less and less relevant. In addition, there are audiophile redbook production methods out there (witness xrcd and the like) which to my ears can equal and may even surpass SACD sound quality. Your current player will play them just fine. Their downside is that at $30-$40 per disc they often cost more than SACDs which are high to begin with. In any event, I'd think twice before going down the SACD route at this stage of the game but, if you do then the Oppo 105 is a sensible way to go. Spending thousands on another audiophile player just to be able to play SACDs strikes me as a solution in search of a problem.
I have been using hi res files and computer since May 2010, I've experimented with quite a bit. Considering you own a PC, I agree with Gz3827 completely.... I might suggest Foobar 2000 instead of JRiver, JRiver is good, easier to use than Foobar, but once properly set up and updated to the latest software, Foobar sounds as good as JRiver.... If you don't mind spending the $50 or so, just get JRiver.
If you are not an apple head and you have enough hard drive, I'd use WAV files period, if space is a premium, then I'd look at FLAC. There are several under $500 USB DAC's that are very good...
The newest version of the Schiit BiFrost w/USB, one of the very latest Audio-Gd DAC's are excellent for the money.
Both have Asynchronous USB, at least 24/192 file capability and sound quite good for the budget.
I hope this helps,
Easy and inexpensive way to start is connect your computer to any line level input on you stereo using a stereo to dual mono RCA Y connector. I started that way and results were surprisingly good. General purpose computers are inherently noisy devices ie produce a lot of EM noise, so use a long Y connector so computer does not have to be close physically to pre-amp to connect. I've used a 12' Audioquest G-snake like this to very good effect initially before moving on to using Wifi enabled network players for a wireless digital rather than wired analog connection.
Dipping your toe won't get comparable sound quality to your current CD player or vinyl playback system.

Get the newer ARC CD9 with the built in digital inputs and match it to an Apple Mini or laptop using Pure Music or equivalent software. The downside is you won't have DSD playback.

As Grace Slick so eloquently stated, "either go away or go all the way in".
Gz... and others, thank you very much for your suggestions. I will read them a couple of times and see what I can do. Also, totally unaware of audiophile grade redbook. Where can I source such CDs and how do you know that it's audiophile grade? As I've posted elsewhere, on rare occasion I have some across some redbook CDs that are outstanding. My latest discovery is Michael Buble (Reprise).

Onhwy... excellent quote!! Btw, the newer ARC CD-9 retails for about $13K. Too steep a dive for now. I'd rather switch out my ARC VS-115 for the new ARC REF 150, the latter being a great match for my REF 5 SE. But that's ok. If you're really digitally crazy, ARC recently introduced the REF DAC for the bargain price of $16K.
Bifwynne To me, any CD that is not an SACD is a redbook CD. I don’t know if that is 100% technically correct, but that’s the way I think of it. When I referred to “audiophile redbook” I was thinking of CDs that are labeled with such monikers as Gold CD, HDCD, K2HD, XRCD, XRCD2, XRCD24, UltraHD, Ultradisc, and DXD. I believe all of these are PCM format which is indicative of redbook (as opposed to SACD which is DSD format). Playback of XRCD and the others I’ve mentioned does not require an SACD player; any CD player will do. Presumably CDs that carry these audiophile monikers are superior in sonics to mass market CDs because they are said to employ better mastering and/or manufacturing techniques. FIM (First Impression Music) immediately comes to mind as an example of a record label that specializes in producing such audiophile redbook CDs. The websites of online retailers Acoustic Sounds, Music Direct, and Elusive Disc are three that I know of which put a focus on audiophile redbook CDs. In my experience anything that I’ve heard which carries the FIM label is about as good as it gets on redbook CD. Unfortunately, the price is also about as high as it gets!
Cool. Thanks again GZ... I'll check out the web sites you listed and check out the offerings....and prices.
Maybe something like a used Bryston BDP1 or BDP2 wouldn't be a bad option. Good reviews from a sonic perspective and relatively easy to use versus other options, and I've heard Bryston provides very good support if you have any questions/problems.

As far as good redbook recordings, just about anything from MA Recordings sounds very good and some very interesting and different music (Sera Una Noche, etc.). I have also found many ECM recordings to sound very good as well, and to my ears both of these rival the higher-rez recordings I have. It's also worth noting any digital recording is only as good as the transfer process, so it's possible a redbook CD could even sound better than its 24/196 or SACD counterpart if they screw up the transfer on the latter. Point is, redbook can sound damn good if done right -- you just know where to look. I second the Music Direct and XRCD recommendations as well.

Best of luck with all this, and let us know what you end up doing and how it sounds.
Gz3827 .... was poking around on the Acoustic Sounds web site. Lots of selection. I wound up ordering an LP. Will go back and pick up a couple of hi-rez redbook CDs and see what gives. I'll report back shortly.
Bifwynne ... I neglected to mention in my earlier post, the best time to buy anything from the websites I mentioned is when they run their 10% off sales. ALL THREE of the sites I mentioned do this around EVERY holiday. In fact, they recently had a 12% off sale which wasn't even associated with any particular holiday which is the first time I've seen them do that. It's a safe bet that all three sites will have a sale for Labor Day.