M2Tech HiFace 192 USB to SPDIF/BNC vs. M Audio Delta Audiophile 192 PCI SC
…and some thoughts on hard drive based music for newbies.
I’m no authority on each and every aspect of getting audio and video playback from a personal confuser but felt to share my experiences here so other’s can see to some extent the steps needed for such an arrangement.
Easy does it, but do it.
-Thinking about making the jump into hard drive based music systems? Don’t have a lot of money but want excellent results? It’s do-able for sure, and for less than you might think..
I wanted to note some of my thoughts on two budget priced overachieving digital interfaces that can convey word lengths and bit rates above the norm, or past 24/96.
…and I’ll throw in some of my thoughts on a couple of the more recent Stereovox digital cables just for kicks.
Getting on the bus
Of course, certain criteria needs to be in place for the hard drive based audiophile above and beyond that of the usual ‘plug & play’ audio purist. Initially there’s a more substantial learning curve. It’s not steep, but it is there. Much of it is plug and play but there are some configuring of software & OS’ that will help improve the experience and the end product we all seek. Audio satisfaction. It’s the ‘quick & convenient’ exercise that dreams have been made of since Gates & Allen first began to string bits together and especially for those music lovers which are better “getter outer’s” than they are “putter backers” of their discs and LPs..
Actually much of what we find out with digital players will translate into this server based magnetic medium and optical reading media player affair. That’s right… ‘media’ player, NOT just CD, or DVD discs can be played, but the wealth of one’s library when transmitted to digital .is at the fingertips.
Similar parameters applied to and for one or two or even three box disc players still exists however, and these are most beneficial if addressed along the way in building such systems. Things like isolation, cabling, and the incoming power line conditioning too when or if, necessary. There are other respects which will aid, or confuse the newbie to personal confuser based music systems.
For example… which confuser? pc OR Mac? Desktop or Laptop? Type of storage disc (s), and how much or how many? A simple NAS drive or a dedicated server? For audio only? Or for everthing one can shove onto a hard drive? Then there’s the media players, file formats, and the audio interface output of the machine as well.
This article is more so about the latter… the audio interface which conveys expressly the PC’s audio information OUT to an associated DAC, preamp, or using it’s own embedded DAC, directly into an amplifier of sorts and how using one of a couple modestly priced converting mechanisms can get you down that path a very good ways. A very good ways indeed!
AS with anything else you can throw a lot of time and expense into this one area if you care too. It is a vital concern yet it’s just one of a few links in the digital info chain. Depending upon your designs your 2.0 USB jack or 1394 IEEE Firewire interface may be all that’s needed. Naturally, if that is the preference it must convert the output digital info of the PC into analog at some point along the way so the balance of the audio system can make use of it. Some dedicated DACs use these interfaces exclusively now and only the cable connecting your computer to them is needed.
I’ve tried several types of these interfaces. USB sound cards. PCI slot sound cards varying in price up to $650 USD. I’ve even went direct output via USB into a DAC which supports USB…. And a sound card alone which fed immediately my preamp an analog signal. The only interface I’ve not tried is the IEEE, 1394 (firewire), either iteration, 400 or 800MB respectively..
Once all is in place eg., above, this one integral step will yield a lot of different perspectives on the music. From just OK, to pretty good, and then to startling results,can be obtained. Just as in sports the approach is as important as is the fllow thru. Paying attention to details and trying a few or more if possible, ‘links’ will be quite beneficial for the rig building impresario by mere illumination, if nothing else.
Stumbling thru the litany of modestly priced yet well received cards, from A to Z, as well as with those using USB, for some time now I’ve opted to use the M Audio Delta series Audiophile 192 PCI interface as my means to convey digital media out to then be converted into analog info by my reference DAC, a Bel Canto e one DAC II via a SPDIF/BNC interface..
Tweaking this part or that along the way the performance level I’ve now achieved equals or supersedes my previous SCD xa 777es player and several of those later models I’ve heard from Sony and other manufactures like the middle pieces from Cary, Arcam, Wadia, and Ayre. so off it went and the sound cards, USB & ASIO drivers, and storage devices paraded into Jim’s House of sunburn and Sonics as THE soup du Jour, time and again. The single caveat here is the SACD format is currently not available using this sort of array. Consequently I also own a Oppo BDP 83 multi format player for those SACD instances.
Caution… Windows ahead!
If a Windows based confuser is the ticket for your digital audio adventure there’s a number of avenues to take. The main considerations throughout the inputing & outputting are 3 fold. Reducing jitter, getting the various layers of the Windows OS out of the audio mix, and acquiring a stable and great sounding all format (file type) media player, predominately.
Being the astute audio fanatic you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the term “bit perfect’. Sometimes it’s refered to as ‘bit true’.
Jitter, regardless the other choices, is always a big deal. Don’t allow concerns about jitter become THE deal however. The sound is the real deal and that’s what we’re trying to obtain here, great sound from magnetic drives.
Other questions like the interface, the way the digi info is transmitted, (Y Fi or Ethernet) the manner in which the info is copied from a CD or DVD is both key and obstacle, as well as which hand shake (driver) is made with your interface of record to set Bill Gates’ software aside. Of course once jitter has been injected into the recording itself, there’s no escaping it. Only those other areas prone to produce jitter can be addressed.
Getting past the hype and settling on equipment that operates in a near jitter free environment is where experience will aid you best. Specs are merely specs. Listening is the litmus test for any component and when you find yourself engaged and enjoying the outcome each and every time, one could say the jitter war is over. So don’t let the rags mags, and online forums drive you nuts on this topic. Once the sound is clean tight, and musical without artifacts jitter remains then an afterthought or no concern at all for you any more.
This one aspect alone will serve you best, over and over again. If any one portion of this scheme is vital, this would be it. The ripping or copying from disc to PC or MAC is where significant gains can arise. Use of secure ripping methods and software is a real handy item to begin the HDD based music playback process. Exact Audio Copy (EAC) is one of these ‘checking for flaws in the disc as it goes’ apps. It will recheck and retry sectors of a CD for errors (scratches, pits, blemishes, etc) and either overcome them or note them for you to amend later via a log file and Wave editing.
iTunes J river, and others use their own error correction processes. EAC is a powerful CD ripping application designed for CD copying & CD writing. It’s well past the process many other ‘secure’ copying software provides. But, it’s not the easiest piece of work to operate but with some nosing around and reading of the online help manuals and a tutorial or three, I didn’t have an exceptionally difficult time getting it dialed in and ripping compressing/converting, and tagging very well. I’ve chosen FLAC as my output format of choice. It’s open source and hence contains my favorite word, “FREE”. It also allows for inclusion of ID tagging. Purportedly regardless the compression ratio or bit rate chosen for encoding, the resultant file is considered a ‘lossless’ answer for playback and space savings on the digital drive’s geography.
EAC can be found here:
EAC tutorials for setup and use can be found here:
There are others so do remember, Google is your friend.
Exact Audio Copy allows for numerous other input & output codec’s besides FLAC, which output lossless or if you choose, compressed files…. But for ‘bit true’ playback lossless file types are the ticket exclusively.
Ba Bye Mr. Gates
ASIO, WASAPI, and Kernal straming along with a few other ‘soft’ inventions, dispatch the layers of any untoward Windows operation which degrade the musical stream. ASIO has been around for some time now and available for sound cards both PCI, PCIE, and USB. Wasapi CAME ALONG WITH Vista and now remains in ‘7’ doing equally as well a job in separating out windows OS effects from THE AUDIO itself. Now by design there’s kernel streaming making a claim from some new producers of USB to SPDIF, standared slotted audio cards, or USB to BNC converters. These last USB converters are enabling transmission of word lengths and bit rates above USB’ inherent 24/96 capabilities. Several recent converter makers make USB to SPDIF units so the signal from a 24/96 output via USB enters the outboard DAC as coaxial TO PROVIDE THESE & OTHER HIGHER RATES. They can eliminate the need for a DAC with only a USB INPUT, Naturally then, these converters open a far wider set of choices for your present DAC, or the DAC ‘to come’.
Every interface has it’s own level of nominal jitter related transmission simply via the architecture of the pipeline one uses. Optical appears as the least best way to proceed, then depending on what or from whom one reads up on, USB, Coax/SPDIF, are next best suited then BNC steps in and AES interfaces set themselves amongst the top tier inroads for migrating along, all of those one’s and zero’s.
There are exceptions of course, and as was already mentioned, there are dedicated DACs whose sole purpose is to more efficiently use just one of these interfaces. DACs from Weiss and Wavelength are a couple makers which formulate their DACs for express use of Firewire and/or USB…. Therefore no converter as addressed here is necessary. Just pay, plug & play, with those types.
My M Audio PCI card, as flexible as it is and in spite of it’s surprising performance, doesn’t come with a proprietary ASIO driver. Fear not pilgrim, there’s FREE ones out there that do work with it.
I’ve found too that I now prefer ASIO or other format drivers of a more proprietary origin than most of the one size fits all types. I must say too than whatever the ASIO, WASAPI, or Kernal Streaming driver in use, your path to musical purity will be enhanced by them setting aside one’s operating system’s background influences upon the audio signal.
All one needs then of course is the proper media player that can utilize this driver. I used tons of these players over the years, and settled on iTunes and it’s various iterations for a good while now. Not too long ago, at the insistence of another member here, I’ve moved on to J River Media Center. Beginning with version 12 and now I’m into version 15 Beta.
I installed the MC 15 Beta for one reason only. To compare new technologies versus my reference with it’s heretofore unavailable benefit of WASAPI & KS.
‘4est’, another member here at Audiogon, sent me a M2Tech HiFace 192 USB to SPDIF/BNC converter whose proprietary driver allows for use as a ‘Kernal Streaming’ or Direct sound emitting, device. More insider info on this technique can be found at the M2 TECH website here
Comparably priced yet having different advantages and more or less flexibility the notion of lowering JITTER was the driving force behind such an experiment and to 4est, I am deeply grateful to have had such an opportunity for comparison’s sake, between these two components.
Sorting things out
I required J River MC 15 Beta for just the Hiface 192 KS USB to SPDIF converter. JR MC 15’s newly optioned kernel streaming output facility enabled me to experience what the little bent stick could do...
I found ASIO 4 all v2.9 worked with my XP Pro boxes and the HiFace device in MC too so a fair comparison could be made on just that format between it and the Audiophile 192 card.
Regardless the analog power gear used the differences were slight using the ASIO 4 all driver and either version of JR MC 14 OR 15. Admittedly the use of the Hiface and FB 2K was a real treat for listening sessions though.
The disparities grew when unlike drivers & designs, were in place however. Let’s put it this way… Kernal streaming is a very good thing. The Hiface converter is also a very good thing. Together they are an outstanding thing. Especially given the price tag for the Hiface & Foobar 2K combo.
Trials and errors
With either 192 device in play using Direct Sound, the soundstage geography was uninspiring, reaching out as it normally does with a very good CDP and what I’ve grown accustomed too experiencing normally. It extended beyond the lateral confines of the speaker positions. Had depth of a lesser degree and was naturally set with air or space about the performers making the whole of the affair intuitive and coherent. Easy. Enjoyable. Clean. Clear and as well unveiling more of the instrumental flavor of the presentation.
What about using aSIO 4 All? Purely the addition alone of the A4A driver was clearly a step more towards the musical presentation.
On exactly the same tracks of 16/44 or 24/96, the Hiface 192 had a bit more bite and upper end information than did the MA Audiophile 192. Further disparities were more difficult to determine. I’d give the slightest edge to the Hiface 192 in terms of a tighter presentation throughout the midrange and I found their bottom ends close enough to one another to be satisfied with either one when frequencies plummeted.
All of the artifacts and musical cues contained within the sound stage’ sonic sphere took on greater definition, resolution and minor details were more noteably evidenced. Yeah.. I heard stuff I’d not heard before….. yada yada…
The presence or immediacy were elevated substantially. True enough, each recording gained me a clearer insight to the reproduction. This was to such a degree it became captivating. It goes without saying, but I’m gonna, things were a lot more fun now! Yayyy A4A!
The slightly greater incisiveness of the Hiface 192 from M2Tech did in fact provide for me a whole new excursion through a fair portion of my 14K file library. The illusion of reality seemed more prominent and thus more enjoyable. Nothing within it’s scope was presented harshly, hard, or dried out & pastel colored. Of course then as with many efforts in escalating the level of resolution on hand, the musical reproduction can become too too shiny, hardened, glaring, and ultimately, fatiguing. Not so with the M2Tech or M Audio 192 products.
Who’s ‘Foobar-ling’ who?
Initial trials with Foobar 2000 using the HiFace gizmo and it’s Direct Sound output, and then with the Kernal streaming feature were next up. I wanted to see what all the KS fuss was about first. FB 2K is free to download so why not?. Another member here had my ear on Foobar and his results, so my interest was high as well.
FB 2K 1.01, has it’s own learning curve, though not quite as tall a one as EAC, and as I’m operating with constricted time here for this AB of sorts, I found it over my head for a total operational evaluation for this writing. Maybe for any writing.
I’ll put it this way, FooBar 2000 is it’s own worst enemy as it is undeniably unintuitive. Although I did manage to have it function well enough to allow for bit perfect playback of FLAC & WAV files via playlists, of standard and Hi Res file types with the HiFace converter.
Maybe E. A. C. and Foobar 2k were written by like minded people. One thing is for sure however, if you stick to it and keep nosing around the net for more info on them, the results will DEFINITELY be rewarding!
To it’s credit, be it the fresh installation, or merely a more synergistic combination, FB 2K + Hiface 192 and it’s 103 kernal streaming KS driver for Win XP, are a show stopping team with lossless file playback!
From that combination playing either 16/44K or better still, 24/96 FLAC files the sound was gorgeously rendered. Articulate. Refined. Without glare or digital incident. Well set staging with more depth and rear of stage info readily on hand. Across the bandwidth there was balance in spades.
Tracks took on another level of involvement and fascination. I was more than surprised to say the least. Sibilance too, when present was diminished noticeably. Although it did not eliminate sibilance 100% from every recording it was an easy affair to see something was happening with this combo that is/was special. Things are getting real now.
Take me to the River
Within the confines of JR MC 15 beta wherein both the Hiface & MA 192 were assigned to utilize ASIO the only noteable disparity I could perceive was a very slight attenuation of treble energy in the MA 192. OK.. go ahead and say it Jim, yeah… you could say it was rolled off a smidgen…. VIA COMPARISON TO THE Hiface bent stick gizmo. One then too could say the HiFace unit was brighter, but I’ll stick to the former notion here as it’s a better fit. Both devices though are quite easy to listen too regardless the genre or audio reproduction equipment level as I had on hand to use with it.
Neither device conveyed the attributes of digital Jitter influence however at any time. Only the quality of the recordings became of a higher value, for lesser ones would be easily observed. Of these ‘lesser’ recordings though, none were rendered unlistenable by way of sure shot resolution increases and it’s usual subsequent listening fatigue, IMHO.
For those with numerous poorly recorded fare, I’d recommend the M Audio A 192 over the M2Tech 192…. Not because the MA Card is dark or unresolving, in fact if a track is poorly recorded the MA 192 will reveal that too…. it’s merely the easier sounding device of the ones described here.
Naturally your perceptions and results will vary from system to system and user to user, and I’m going solely from the viewpoint that the hiface 192 has the more revelatory character of the pair in most scenarios.
During this episode I had the good fortune to preview the Stereovox XV2 Ultra cable vs it’s former iteration, the venerable xV2. I mention this here as there was an astonishing number of parallels by comparison in both converter/card & cable venues..
Depending upon the integration of the one cable and this card or that converter, excellent results could be obtained despite the pairings.
The MA 192 is decidedly the smoother card. The Stereovox Ultra cable is the smoother cable of the pair. Here again, this is by a few degrees only, yet easily noticeable. I preferred using the Ultra cable with the HiFace 192, and naturally then, the XV2 with the MA 192. Notwithstanding, the choices in combinations here will yield very good to excellent outcomes.
The Stereovox Ultra digital cable adds another level of refinement to it’s former mate, the XV2. The Ultra retains the minor and major details contined within the presentation yet allows for a firmer geography of instrument placement, and a touch lower noise floor. Leading edge definition is not the main attraction as much as it is with the former iteration. There’s a tad better blending on the whole of things too.
I didn’t find the XV2 Ultra amazingly set apart or a huge step up in performance, and it seems it should not garner such immense strides given only a jacketing of another type has been applied to the XV2 from what I could see for myself. Different? Yes. Better? Yes. Tremendously? Nope.
The most pure playback pleasure from playlists only was acquired via the FB 2K + hiFace 192 + Stereovox Ultra BNC + loss less files… WAV, or FLAC. Plain and simple. Even lossy files took on a different and decidedly firmer and more immediate air, ever convincing me there was more “they’re here” aspects than the “I was there” accolades.
Using that particular ensemble I preferred the hiFace kernel streaming mode with Foobar v101, and whatever other gear downstream..
Below that, while using ASIO it was all a toss up with the choice of which ‘difference’ one wishes to have on tap, being the deciding factor…. And the diffs were again, quite minor.
For an upcoming holiday at a local elementary school cafeteria the children were being ushered up and down the tables containing various tasty treats.
At one of the tables where a variety of cookies were arranged, there was a large sign hanging above the table
for all to see. It read:
Take only one. We’re watching!
As the kids moved along to the next table where all the fruit was displayed one child was stuffing apples into his pockets.
Seeing this the child behind him reminded him of the sign observed at the previous table and urged his friend to take the advice seriously.
The apple stuffing boy turned to his friend and exclaimed
“Don’t worry! They’re watching the cookies!
An Apple a day…
Using iTunes v7.7 on my XP Pro SP 3 desktops yielded improved results though they were more marginal ones as KS was not supported and akin to those coming from Direct Sound output in either Foobar or J River. Though decidedly cleaner and a tad more revealed harmonically, the true potential of the two interfaces accounted for here, was never realized completely.
I feel it still unfair to appoint an overall winner between the two cards here… the HiFace 192 or the Audiophile 192 for one simple reason. The M2Tech uses a proprietary driver and the M Audio folks in the near same price range opt not to be so disposed as to incorporate KS technology. M Audio opted for greater flexibility with it’s associated ins and outs for capturing and transmitting audio information from and to a computer.
M2Tech Hiface is a pure playback item only. It does one thing and one thing only, but in conjunction with the proper setup and media player, it does it very well indeed.
So who’s best?
With mass fi gear no matter the string of apps or interfaces, the resultant diffs were not night and day scenarios. Using mid hi fi equipment some greater range of noteable changes could be distinguished between the pair of audio outputting devices, as was said. Move further upscale with the gear on hand and with the right combination of media player, file types and streaming technology, I’d put my money on the M2 Tech apparatus and it’s kernel output abilities thru the soft player, Foobar 2K v101 to yield the better received presentation.
In the mind of the audio purist this approach may well be all that is required and I found it so personally. Simply by arranging playlists in advance by dragging and dropping files or via adding to the cue in Explorer, it’s a elementary task and in no time at all, musical satisfaction and relaxation could be your’s. Foobar’s GUI shows you much of the music file attributes too such as the original encoded rate, 44K 48K 96K, etc. you can drag across the tabs in the display too so as to rearrange the view quicker and easier without opting for the right click approach and more menu selections.
If more than simple plug & playback are your designs, the M Audio Audiophile 192 bares investigating closer. It’s greater flexibilities might outweigh performance for some.Especially given the performance alluded to here is not in an Oh My Goodness proportion. Possessing the ability to easily introduce and capture analog or digital info from an outside source like a phono line stage, tape deck, tuner or mixer does have some attraction given it’s performance and it’s value packed price point.
Can we talk?
There’s more to things here than meets the ear. Whatever MP we wish to use should not require it’s end user to achieve a computer systems degree or the capacity to write the next operating system for Apple or Microsoft. Media players should be intuitive predominately, and fine tuneable with reference only to it’s user’s guide, not it’s forums.
They should be stable and not hang up when moving from playing one file type to some other. I experienced exactly such instability with the latest ‘release of J River MC 14.155 & the unreleased but available Beta version of MC 15.08, when the M2 Tech Hiface USB to SPDIF converter & kernel streaming or A4A ASIO output, were selected. The latter (KS) modality had far fewer issues however. Issues there came from migrating through various different file types. HOWEVER, MOVING THROUGH FILE TYPES WITH THE SAME EXTENSIONS GAVE NO ISSUE DURING THEIR PLAYBACK WITH EITHER MEDIA PLAYER…. usually”
Overcoming some of these player stoppages required use of Window’s Task Manager to shut MC 15 down, and then a restart was needed. A couple times a full on hard stop by crashing the system had to be done to shut down the trapped application. That’s not good for any PC, trust me here.
I use adaptive software which reads text to me and as well can enlarge the size of any window. I felt perhaps the voice synth reading component of this prerequisite high functioning accessibility application might be interfering with the hiFace unit as at times it was the default output unit for Windows XP Pro SP 3 32 BIT SYSTEM I RUN….. I ALSO THOUGHT Windows sounds could cause some issues going in. They do.
Both aforementioned arenas were disabled so as to reduce or eliminate conflicts…. All this to no or little avail. So there are some bugs still in the MC ver 15 Beta, AND the MC 14 full on ready release, and likely as well with the Hiface 192 when used in KS mode. These instances were not usual fare and most of the time not more than a simple annoyance. The hard shut downs came solely with MC 15, not MC 14 as I recall.
In the previous MC 14 the M2Tech unit had to be used without the benefit of KS… and that’ is where the real fireworks are to be had. KS is the real deal if you run the Hiface converter!
It is my observation that perhaps both M2 Tech & J River need a bit more time to get things figured out, though they do work well together it is simply not yet a flawless or seamless combination at times.
Let us not forget too, many ‘bleeding edge’ releases of even new hardware, amps, processors, etc… have their own issues, so there’s that to chew on.
I was never able to place my finger on exactly when some hanging up of the player & OS would occur and the computer in use did not seem to matter at all from exempting these episodes.
Regardless the combinations of hardware in use, MA 192, or HiFace 192 when set as the Windows default audio output device, iTunes never hung up playing any file it could be associated with…. BUT the ensuing sound quality did not approach what could be observed using other more formidable applications as mentioned herein eg., Foobar v101.
When configured to output in Direct sound or Wave out, few if any issues at all ever arose using any version of J River MC 14 or 15 Beta. It was only when JR MC was in use with a proprietary driver for bit perfect playback that things could get dicey.
BTW.... I used 3 computers… a Vista laptop, and two XP Pro SP 3 desktops w/32 bit OS. One used a dual core 2.7GHz Intel Pentium and the other a 2.8 Pentium 4…. Both were filled with their allotment for RAM. The Dual core machine had the faster front side bus speeds of 800MHz.
Software players need to be stable. Overall, they need to sound good using a variety of file formats. Allow for tagging, search functionality and have an option for perusing one’s library by simply looking thru their album cover artwork. I like the direct input Search feature, but the artwork aspect is an attractive and viable prospect for finding and playing music that more and more folks prefer. Seeing album covers too will be your best reminder of those albums who see less playing time too.
Consequently I enjoy using J River MC for audio playback… yet it does far, far more than Foobar, and is on par with iTunes, albeit the sound quality is vastly superior to that from iTunes playing back the same file types. I’ve just scratched Media Center’s surface in ascertaining all it’s wealth of features and benefits. Seeing what KS can do with a steal of a price unit like the M2Tech Hiface 192 was another ear opening pleasure.
OK.. so I’m only a novice in formally handling JR MC’S powerful command of every imaginable format and file type completely…. But it works for me as my main audio player and I’m comfortable enough with it as is and for just that intended purpose., to stick with it a while longer
We all have to choose that which will do what we want and with as much ease as is possible in lay terms. We aren’t all code writers or I.T. masters after all.
In so far as I’ve now seen that which can come from a good design and a proprietary driver made expressly for it, I feel stronger now then before that stepping up to a pro card will be my next big purchase. I’ll not sell the MA 192 either as it serves up many dishes.
I surely must say, having an M2Tech Hiface 192 converter laying about would be a good thing. A very good thing indeed. At under $200 presently, it’s a real no brainer of a converter despite it’s lack of importing facilities.
I give it a very strong recommendation for those seeking great audio and for those who desire simple ‘plug & playback’ from their computer and plan on using files with greater than 16/44 rates, and aren't looking to hock the ranch to do it.
I’d dearly love to see how the Hiface 192 fares well above it’s head with the likes of RME or a Lynx card. But then aren’t those always the sorts of questions and dreams audio nuts endure and frequent, daily?
Thanks for reading.Associated gear Click to view my Virtual SystemSimilar products
Creative Labs; RME Hammerfall; M Audio; Turtle Beach, etc.