New to digital high-end, need help


I'm a long-time audiophile that ripped all my CDs to flac over the past year. I've been listening through Duets/Touch for office and casual use. I have not really had a high-end home system in 6 years. Now I'm building a high-end system that will use a digital/flac source.

I have Aerial 10t speakers and currently looking for a pre/amps (possibly Audio Research or Classe). I'm familiar with the arguments for SS or tubes, etc. I need help with the source/dac/volume control because, after all my research and reading, it feels like I still don't have a clue . . .

1.) I'm using a Squeezebox Touch connected with wifi. At what price point can I expect a DAC to make a dramatic difference? $500? $1,000? $3,000?

2.) I would consider bypassing a preamp/linestage for now and using a DAC with volume control (or similar setup)I use an iPad mini for the Touch remote at this point, but the volume can be finicky and I would like to use the volume control on DAC/preamp to limit the max while using the ipad.

3.) I have read the digital volume controls (such as Touch/iPad??) actually decrease resolution as the volume is decreased. Is this true? Does that mean the Touch volume should always be at 100%?? 75%?

4.) I've heard $60k systems and owned $20k systems (just to provide a reference point). Are digital files successfully used in that level of system? Can they sound as good as a quality CD source? If so, what caliber of equipment is necessary/desirable?

Thanks to anyone that can help me muddle through this process.
Convert?fit=crop&h=128&policy=eyjlehbpcnkioje1mdexmta0nzasimnhbgwiolsicmvhzcisimnvbnzlcnqixx0%3d&rotate=exif&signature=50c8bc08a392812471f01d3461a791e1a6910fae81ac4f268be2877af363b6ae&w=128amansker
Visit several audio salons if you can. Almost all will have a range of systems that can stream via Toslink, Coax USB, and will be able to show you how to set up and let you listen.

Take some of your favorites on a USB stick. They will have several DACs and probably a windows laptop or MAC to play with. There are Many, many options and competing products available right now and more on the way.
Personally, I like analogue volume controls much better than digital. I usually leave the digital set at 90-95% and make all adjustments with the pre-amp. Keep in mind that most pre-amps or integrated amps have some gain with the volume which can tremendously help an amp but may also exaggerate any unwanted noise.
I am getting exceptional sound from my Digital front end, which consists of...
- Droid tablet controls playback using Retune software to control iTunes
- iMac + iTunes (librabry control) + Audirvana (playback)
- Schiit Bifrost DAC connected via DH Labs USB cable
- connected to NAIM 5i amp via KLE Innovations gZero3 Interconnect
- Gershman Sonogram speakers connected via KLE Innovations gZero2 Speaker Cables

The DAC has an asynchronous USB-2 port and it re-clocks - which minimizes jitter. A friend compared the DH Labs USB to a very expensive silver USB - we both thought the DH Labs sounded better on his $50 system

I download FLAC/WAV files up to 24/192kHz and convert to AIF because its easier in the world of Apple

Audirvana is capable of playing FLAC, but AIF is just as capable

I use Audirvana because it bypasses the crappy Apple software that inserts digital volume - it sounds much better playing the raw data file from the CD's

Apple or Windows or Linux all have their particular "Warts", so there is no clear advantage from one platform to the other.

I switched to streaming to get away from the inherent issues with CD's - I think it sounds as good, if not better and is far more convenient.
There are a number of folks who argue for taking analog output of an Oppo BDP-105 directly to amps. The 105 accepts input from a computer via asynchronous USB or regular USB, HDMI, and optical and coax S/PDIF. The 105 provides speaker configuration, bass management, and a fine volume control. It's analog processing is thought by many to be SOTA. It also can play nearly every disc know to man.

The BDP-105 has no analog inputs, so I use a bypass preamp to accommodate a phono stage.

db
"At what price point can I expect a DAC to make a dramatic difference?"

more than $1K but maybe not as high as $3K

A Qute DAC ($1795) with the right power supply ($699) and USB cable filter ($199) is quite excellent. The ripping/playback software and the computer platform also matter however.

"I would like to use the volume control on DAC/preamp to limit the max while using the ipad"

This is a good strategy and one that I often use as shows. The problem is finding a really good volume technology in the DAC. This one has it:
http://www.audiostream.com/content/empirical-audio-overdrive-se-usb-dacpre

" I have read the digital volume controls (such as Touch/iPad??) actually decrease resolution as the volume is decreased. Is this true?"

I have done these comparisons. If you do more than about -10dB, you will notice degradation. I like to adjust the volume to a quiet track and then when a louder track plays, I reduce the volume digitally using Amarra by no more than about -9dB.

"Are digital files successfully used in that level of system? Can they sound as good as a quality CD source?"

Yes and even better than a CD transport. The front-end is the most important thing because jitter in the digital source impacts everything downstream. A good metric for the digital source is $1500 minimum, better to spend $2200.

If you cook-up your own server, it will generally sound better than most OTS servers, with the exception of maybe the Antipodes server. I recommend for you own server to use a 2009 Mac Mini and powered from a Hynes power supply.

You can get close to this quality using your squeezebox provided you reclock it and power the reclocker from a Hynes-type supply and use a really good coax cable.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Steve, when you say

"Are digital files successfully used in that level of system? Can they sound as good as a quality CD source?"

Yes and even better than a CD transport. The front-end is the most important thing because jitter in the digital source impacts everything downstream. A good metric for the digital source is $1500 minimum, better to spend $2200.

If you cook-up your own server, it will generally sound better than most OTS servers, with the exception of maybe the Antipodes server. I recommend for you own server to use a 2009 Mac Mini and powered from a Hynes power supply."

Just to be clear, you are recommending using a 2009 Mac Mini, with the Hines power supply as the front end of a digital system, and it can be controlled successfully by an iPad?
Test post due to technical issues with forum.
Sorry about the delayed response. Got busy and over the past week there was a software glitch with the forums and I couldn't post.

All of the info above is GREATLY appreciated. I've had the chance to do some research on the comments and I feel far more informed. I'm a computer geek and lifelong audiophile, but this all seems rather awkward. It is odd seeing all of these companies and technologies I've never heard of. I'm sure they will be continuously changing for another decade or more. On top of this learning curve, my GF wants a turntable and my last knowledge of that technology is from 1977 and a BIC 960. Ha! Thanks for your help.
Assuming, down the road, we add a turntable to the system. Are there pre/dacs that allow for analog connections? Everything I see only has inputs for digital.

Do any of the phono amps have xlr outs?

Or is more common to use an actual "preamp" with volume, etc. and run the pre/DAC into the inputs of that?
Nightfall - yes 2009 Oct Mac Mini. Hynesdesign.com SR5-18.5 supply. I control mine from iPad at times.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Amansker - the Final Drive transformer buffer/selector allows for introducing other analog inputs betwee DAC and amps. Improves SQ dramatically as well as other benefits like galvanic isolation. Breaks ground-loops.

See:
http://www.empiricalaudio.com/products/final-drive

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
test post
Good choice on the 10T's... I also use them and still think they are fantastic speakers.

I've tried tons of different pre/amp combos with them. Give them plenty of clean power and you will be rewarded.
Hello Amansker.

I used to have a SB Touch as my digital front end. It's a great piece, and I still have it, but in a secondary system. At one point I took the digital out and fed a Metrum Octave ($1k) about 2.5 years ago, and it was a significant sound improvement - as it should, as I added $1k to a $250 unit!

Later I replaced the SBT with an ancient Win XP laptop playing JRiver and an Audiophilleo with PurePower (another $1k), and the sound again was very noticeably better. This was 1.5 to 2 years ago.

Early this year I built my custom server, similar to the most powerful CAPS v3, but with a server board, etc, using Windows Server 2012 and AudioPhil's Optimizer and the sound improvement was super noticeable.

Over the past two years digital has evolved a lot and we now see DACs under $1k that have features we couldn't hope for only 2 years ago.

I'm in the process of getting two new DACs: I already received an exaSound e22 ($3.5k) and I'm getting an iFi Micro iDSD ($500). I wish I had the Micro iDSD with me so I could answer if it beats the SBT and by how much. It has gotten a lot of praise, though. And has volume control.

DSD is something to consider even if you don't plan to buy your albums again yet in a different digital format - I know I am not. But there seems to be something about upconverting regular 16/44 files to DSD at the server and feeding that to DSD capable DACs.

When playing 16/44 and even 24/192 files natively and feeding the DACs, the Audiophilleo+Metrum sound a little better than the exaSound (so far, after 2 weeks, in my system, etc). But when upconverting to 2xDSD on JRiver and feeding that to the e22 it does sound A LITTLE better than the AP+Metrum. A little means it's not worth the price difference in my book, but then JRiver is not best regarded for its upconversion ability, so I'm still exploring. Many claim converting to DSD makes a very significant difference.

Sorry for the long post. Bottom end: at $3.5k you definitely surpass the SBT by a very wide margin. The exaSounds are designed so the hardware upstream doesn't affect them and they have a good hardware volume control. But there are many more DACs you should look at too in that price range: Auralic Vega, Chord's Qute and Hugo, etc.
from my readings, my guess is for $500 the iFi is likely to surpass the SBT. But it is a guess so far.
Playback software: within Windows, JRiver has the best interface and sounds good. If doing DSD, look into HQPlayer (I'll be doing that today!).
Consider your server as part of your digital playback chain budget, and also the USB cable. And also linear power supplies for the DAC and server. Some DACs are designed to isolate themselves from hardware-induced jitter so it doesn't matter much. As an example, the e22 is expensive but you wouldn't need to spend much in a server or its linear power supply, or the USB cable. And that would be more expensive than a $500 DAC.

Yet another route is to get a VERY good used DAC. One option could be the PS Audio PWD, which has seen its used-price significantly drop as PS has introduced the new DSD-capable unit.

I hope it helps.