Please help me improve my system - next steps?


I have only recently been introduced to the world of high quality music, and I must say, listening to good tunes on a nice system is a revelation. I am by no means an audiophile (and if anything am inclined to be skeptical of some claims), but I have begun to get better at differentiating good sounding music from bad (eg, low bit-rate MP3).

I first noticed how good music could sound at a buddy's place. He had a nicely put together beginner system - nothing too crazy. Because of a limited budget, and less than stellar help from a local audio store, I ended up just getting some of the same stuff as my buddy. However, we do have some key differences.

One very important thing to me was to have a computer based audio set-up. The convenience of it is unparalled, and while I really enjoy the sound of vinyl, starting a vinyl collection is just not a practical step for me right now (maybe down the road). I do the right things with my digital audio - I rip with Exact Audio Copy (with error correction) and I encode as FLAC (lossless).

So, here is what I have (most of this I got from the good people here at Audiogon): Simaudio i-5 integrated receiver, Totem Acoustic Hawks, Logitech Transporter (digital front-end and built-in DAC), Blue Jeans Cable speaker wires (14 gauge, bi-wired) and interconnects, and Richard Gray 400Pro power conditioner. I am using all the stock power cords I received. The Transporter is hooked up to a music server via Cat6 ethernet cable. Like I said, I play mostly FLACs.

On the whole, I really like what I have. Things sound good (friends give unsolicited compliments). However, I have noticed that I like the sound of my friend's system a little more. Whereas my system sounds a bit "bright" and "clinical", his sounds a bit warmer and softer and just overall nicer. (I admit that I may not be using these terms correctly, but it's the best I can describer it.)

Here is his system: Simaudio i5.3 integrated receiver, Totem Acoustic Hawks, Mac Mini with a Wavelength Brick (USB DAC), Straightwire Octave speaker wire (not bi-wired, uses jumpers), and Chang Lightspeed line conditioner. I'm not sure of the brand of his interconnects, but they're $100-$150 each. He listens to Apple Lossless files (which should be identical technologically to the FLAC files - both lossless).

I would prefer to avoid being completely unoriginal and simply copying the rest of what he has. So my dilemma is what should I focus on?

I was thinking as a first step to change up my speaker wire, if not to the Straightwire Octave then to something similar.

I was also thinking about maybe getting a ModWright modification to the Transporter, but I don't know if that kind of improvement would be noticed/appreciated given the rest of my gear. I would prefer not to go down the Wavelength Brick route because I like the functionality of the Transporter (I have other items from Slim Devices in my house). However, I wonder if the Brick is really what's giving my friend warmer music.

Thanks for reading this far! Any help/comments/insights would be greatly appreciated.

get a decent cd player.....they still sound better than computer audio
Why don't you ask your friend if you can borrow his Brick for a day or two? The only way to know for sure is to try it in your own system.
How well are your speakers set up in your room compared to your friend?

Also, you have different DACs (yours is in the Transporter, I believe). That could make a difference.

Try his DAC with your Transporter and see what that does.

I'd expect the Transporter's DAC to be pretty good, but it is solid state I think. An external tube DAC might make an interesting difference.

Also I found FLAC and EAC complex and difficult to use and know I got it right, so I dumped it in quick time, and I am pretty computer literate even. I switched to Window Media Player, Vista, and Windows lossless and .wav format and have not looked back. Apple lossless might be easier to get right as well. Simplicity matters with this stuff, as long as you can be confident that the tools are doing things right based on what you hear.
@Sidssp: I would love to give that a try, but unfortunately my friend moved to the other side of the country six months ago. At the time he was moving, we were planning on doing some A/B comparisons, but unfortunately, it never panned out.

@Mapman: Interesting point on the room. The speakers are on the short side of a 18' by 22' foot room. The speakers are about 1.5' from the wall and are about 6.5' apart. I have high (11.5') ceilings. Hardwood floors. I have not done any acoustic treatments. I don't think I can plug his DAC into the Transporter as the Wavelength Brick takes a USB input. As far as the files, this is honestly the first time I've heard that the file formats may be a problem. Maybe what I'll do is send my friend a CD with some of my FLACs and see if they sound different on his system. If they sound the same as his Apple Lossless files, then we'll eliminate that as a potential problem (I like how his set-up sounds and don't mind using it as a reference point).

Thanks for the input so far. I'm likely going to go down the least cost route first and change up the speaker wire. I am hoping someone will advise whether or not that will really accomplish anything given some major unknown deficiency elsewhere. I've received some private messages relating to jitter in the Transporter and the AKM DAC not being a great DAC. Viewpoints such as this (in support of or against of any component) would also be appreciated.

I bet the answer lies in your DAC.

I usean AudioNote Tube DAC (2.1 Signature Kit) with USB input and it is really really nice. I use i-tunes and .wav files. I also use a Stello DA100 DAC, inferior to the AudioNote, and a Jolida JD-100 tube CD player. The AudioNote DAC is the best sound of the three.

Happy Listening,

First, don't listen to Larryken, I'm not sure why he posted that opinion on a PC Audio forum unless he owns an expensive CD player and hasn't heard a well thought out computer setup.

Like Henryisland said, a tube dac has a lot to do with it (i.e. the wavelength dac you were making judgements on). I believe it is a non-oversampling DAC, it has a tube stage and runs I2S(?) which is supposed to be very clean and low jitter.

Power cords can do a tremendous amount of good if you get the right ones, but even lower end ones should yield some improvement over stock cords. Cabling can do A LOT to improve your system. Bad cabling choices (depending on tastes/gear) can also make you extremely frustrated and disappointed.

I would focus on your source gear first, then the amp/speakers and when that's close to where you want it, try cabling to fine tune things to your final taste. You already know the speakers/amp sound good if you liked your friend's setup. Bear in mind, you're using a computer as a source. Often times isolating the computer power and taking care of the AC on the computer/dac can do a lot to smooth the sound of a system.
In my opinion its the DAC.

The Brick has a reputatation for a warm sound. The Transporter's DAC has a ho-hum reputation and many people use an external DAC instead.

In my expereince, buying more expensive speaker wires results in (a) little or no improvement or (b) notcieable improvement in soundstage and clarity, but not "warmth".
Good thoughts here.Chances are you like your friends better cause of the room not equipment.That being said do ,as some say and try out diff components.Its all about synergy and the room.Good luck,Bob