Upgrade advice needed


Let me tell you my story.

Piece by piece, I've been gradually building an audiophile quality system.

My system is a Toshiba Laptop w/ J River playing FLAC files into a Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2. The laptop is dedicated exclusively as a music server. I've stripped most of the background processes from the Laptop and disconnected from the internet. The only external connections are the USB line to the DAC and a Mouse connected by the other USB connector

I don't have a preamp, the W4S DAC has onboard volume control.

I'm using a NAD 356 BEE Integrated amp but bypassing the preamp module and routing the DAC input directly to the power amp. The speakers are Vienna Acoustic Beethoven Baby Grands. I use LAT International SS-800 MkII 6 ft speaker cords and Pangea AC-14, 14 Gauge after market power cords for the NAD amp and the DAC. I installed Albert Porter Outlets. I do not have any power conditioners.

I live in an apartment so room treatments and dedicated circuit wires are out.

Musical tastes are primarily chamber music and some classic jazz of 1950s and 60s.

I listen near field - 6 feet from speakers and prefer moderate volume. I don't have much interest in Home theater or television in general.

My biggest source of frustration is the reproduction of violins and pianos. I recently ripped a CD of Bachs Violin Sonatas by Arthur Grumiaux. The sound is so harsh a cannot listen for more then 10 minutes.

My issue with pianos is the percussive aspect of the instrument seems to overwhelm the musical tone. I have a collection of Chopin Polonaises and it sounds like the artist is playing the piano keys with a hammer.

Other instruments sound better -- Cellos, brass, woodwinds, vocals.

I'm wondering what the next step in my upgrade evolution should be. I been intrigued by the First Watt line of amps. They seem to be a good fit for me. But, I don't know, will that address my issues with violins?

I could spend up to 5K now and, perhaps a year from now, I could swing another 5K for the next component

I'd welcome any suggestions.
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Try using the W4S as a DAC only, and use the pre-amp section of the NAD, just to see what happens.

The symptoms you are describing are usually early in the chain and I've owned the W4S and NAD, and neither are harsh.

If you are looking to upgrade, stop using the W4S as a pre-amp, it's a good DAC but not a good pre-amp. I'd be looking for a much better integrated amp in the short term, along with a review of your USB cable and interconnects (dac to integrated). They will have the biggest impact at resolving your issues.
Focus on the DAC and pre-amp.

Maybe consider a wireless connection from a music streaming device like Sonos to computer music server to help isolate computer from music making gear. At this point in particular, what else you do with teh computer should not matter much.

At this point, maybe consider adding a tube DAC or tube pre-amp for that type of music in particular if still not clicking.

I use Logitech Squeezebox via Wifi currently to SS mhdt Constantine DAC which is a fantastic sounding bargain. DAC as well as phono for comparison goes to ARC sp-16 tube pre-amp.

Squeezebox is a thing of the past now though, so a newbie is better served starting elsewhere perhaps, though SB system is fantastic still in every regard.

There are android based devices available as media streamers these days, some with digital audio out to feed a dac. PLEX media server can run on these. I have an Amazon FIre TV box that can work this way with PLEX app but have not tried yet. I am testing out PLEX currently for mobile access to my FLAC files, and that is working out well to-date. THis is alongside Squeezebox at present for in-home streaming, but I will eventually need to move on so prepping for that.
I agree with Meiwan, just use the W4S as a DAC and get a nice tube integrated amp and use it's preamp inputs.

It would also help to switch to just plain copper speaker cables. LAT's Silverfuse alloy is mixing silver with copper, which will help enhance brightness and harshness. They even talk on their website about the warmth and mellowness of copper, but they "add" the clarity and definition of silver. The silver is part of the problem. It may work alright with a tube integrated amp, but you may find that just switching to pure copper cable may help alleviate much of the harshness you are experiencing.
06-27-14: Meiwan
Try using the W4S as a DAC only, and use the pre-amp section of the NAD, just to see what happens.

Wow. As soon as I read that I had a Homer Simpson "Duh!" moment. When the W4S DAC arrived I immediately hooked it into my system and bypassed the NAD preamp. I never looked back.

For 6 months I've been bitching about the violins and not once did it occur to me to just reinsert the preamp. This weekend I have time from work. I'll try some A/B testing with the preamp then celebrate with a Homer lunch of donuts and beer.
I would suggest a good quality tubed preamp in there. Your treble sucks.. So a tube preamp and a power conditioner.
My (cheap) digital is wonderful due to buying a used VAC Standard for $1,500 here, plus the various power conditioning the treble is delicious. And I am a treble freak, I find i to be the most important part of the music. I have Magnepan 3.6 speakers. Bryston 4B-SST²amp. cables matter too. I found Kimber Hero for balanced. And Cardas Parsec for RCA to be the best bangs for the buck.
I agree that integrating the W4S as a DAC only makes sense. I also agree that all copper cables may be a better fit (it was in my case).

The quick review I read about your speakers are that they can handle up to 250 watts and I note the NAD puts out 80. While they're moderately efficient (91 db sensitivity), they may relish more power? Also, if I'm not correct, you're mating $5000 speakers with an $800 integrated so that may be a worthwhile upgrade path.

Just my 2 cents.
06-27-14: Meiwan
If you are looking to upgrade, stop using the W4S as a pre-amp, it's a good DAC but not a good pre-amp.
06-27-14: Mapman
Focus on the DAC and pre-amp.

At this point, maybe consider adding a tube DAC or tube pre-amp for that type of music in particular if still not clicking.
06-27-14: Jmcgrogan2
I agree with Meiwan, just use the W4S as a DAC and get a nice tube integrated amp and use it's preamp inputs.
06-27-14: Elizabeth
I would suggest a good quality tubed preamp in there. Your treble sucks.. So a tube preamp and a power conditioner.

Thank you for the response. I guess I was naive. I thought with a well regarded DAC and some attention to the computer configuration, the front end would take care of itself.
My instinct was to remove as much circuitry from the signal path as possible, ie; the less components, the less noise, distortion, etc. One thing I liked about the W4S DAC was the volume control. It seemed like an opportunity to remove the preamp from the signal path.

I think I'll go back to the forums and start looking again at discussions about preamps

I suppose there are two philosophical views here. One perspective is to simplify the signal path as much as possible. First Watt seems to have made that the basis of their design philosophy. To me, that's a very persuasive idea

The other view seems to accept noise and distortion as unavoidable and pursues the objective of reproducing the music by moderating the deficiencies of one component by the strengths of the next component in the sound chain.

06-27-14: Jmcgrogan2
It would also help to switch to just plain copper speaker cables. LAT's Silverfuse alloy is mixing silver with copper, which will help enhance brightness and harshness. They even talk on their website about the warmth and mellowness of copper, but they "add" the clarity and definition of silver. The silver is part of the problem. It may work alright with a tube integrated amp, but you may find that just switching to pure copper cable may help alleviate much of the harshness you are experiencing.
06-27-14: Elizabeth
.... cables matter too. I found Kimber Hero for balanced. And Cardas Parsec for RCA to be the best bangs for the buck.

Good insight about the silver. When I purchased the Vienna Acoustic speakers I thought I should get something better then the Monster cord I had been using. These were available used and locally at a very low price. I didn't give it much more thought because I've always been skeptical of the claims (and price) made here for IC, power cords, etc.

I've always thought once you get above a the minimum baseline of quality, the claims and subtle distinctions between types and brands of cords seemed dubious.
CJ,

Thing is when something is not working as hoped and you have options in-house already, try them first before buying more.

That includes addressing room acoustics by tweaking speaker placement and orientation.

There are usually many things to try, including different component configurations.

Once you find the best combo with what you have, then you can access how to make it better, if still even needed.

DO not neglect power conditioning as Elizabeth suggested either in your case, in that this may be missing at present and usually only helps and not hurts if done right. Its particularly relevant for the common issues you cite with treble, but generally a good thing overall.

Once all option are investigated, and power conditioning addressed, then a tube or two upstream might be the next thing to consider, if still needed, but by then it could be a non-issue.
Before you start chasing a solution to your problem by replacing electronic's (or speakers, even) take a few moments to insure that your problem can't be reduced substantially by speaker placement re the walls (1st reflection points) and the amount of toe in you are using. Perhaps you might even post what your set up looks like to see if anyone has specific suggestions.

The easiest thing to check out is the toe in - toe your speakers in so that the axis crosses well in front of your seat and see what happens, especially in the highs.

Another thought that crosses my mind is that these speakers might not be as suitable for near field listening as some others. Perhaps the listening position is too close for the speakers to integrate properly and you are getting an unbalanced sound with emphasis on the highs which have a shorter signal path to your ears. You can check this out by moving you listening position back to 9 ot 10 feet (even though you might no be able to live with it in your apartment due to size etc. At least you might learn something about your speakers.

FWIW, you have a lot of money at your disposal to solve your problem - if it is not a speaker/set up problem my first attack would be to replace your amp/pre amp with a tubed integrated amp known for warmth, such as the Primaluna Dialogue stuff. The only down side to that is, if you are really critical, finding the right tubes to establish synergy (the right tone) with your source and speakers.
I mostly agree with Liz on this, use Copper for all your cables and use a tube power amp, not just pre-amp! Ask the First Watt forum people for the warmest variant out there if you really want to try that. Not all of them were warm and fuzzy. Good luck and listening.
there are so many things you can do. Since none of us are there it's impossible for any of us to fully know what to do. PUtting a real pre back into the equation makes more sense starting than most anything other than checking your room and placement. Personally, I'd go and buy a turntable for the type of music you listen to. Not to be a jerk, but your amplification has maxed out. That's the reality. SUre, they are fine to start off with, but as you see there are too many trade offs with the NAD or the Wyre gear. I was running the NAD on Proac Super towers with top of the line MIT gear, because I was told that I had to get remote into my system as I was using Quicksilver silver monos and full function Quick pre. The tubes sounded awesome and the NAD was, well, NAD. It collapsed the stage and everything else was ragged. Once I put my new Ayre into the system, it fixed most everything and made the speakers sing even better than before with tubes.

Bottom line is that you need to put a system together and not the best audio products according to a magazine or what we posters tell you is best. Synergy is what makes systems work and anyone who's been around this block will tell you that. I've heard those speakers sound awesome a few weeks ago with the Ayre AX7e integrated and all Audio Quest cables. It was even digital I heard it with, but when we put on a simple Rega 3 it all just relaxed and sang. I don't even love the Rega, but it relaxed the sound and I got into the music instead of listening to components. Good luck and let us know what you do and how it goes
What settings of the DAC's volume control do you typically find yourself using, within its 0 to 70 range? And how have you set "USB minimum volume level" and "USB maximum volume level" in its menus?

I'm envisioning that the DAC's volume control function is implemented digitally, in which case it is very conceivable that sound quality could degrade significantly if the control has to be set such that it introduces large amounts of attenuation (i.e., if it is used in the lower part of its range). That is sometimes referred to as "bit stripping."

Also, are any and all volume controls that may exist in the computer operating system and/or the playback software either disabled (i.e., out of the picture, so that they cannot control the volume), or else set at max?

Regards,
-- Al
Do you have a solid state hard drive? It made a huge difference on my laptop with jriver. Faster, quieter and runs cooler.

Also, not only can an analogue volume control in a preamp be better at controlling the volume than the digital volume, the gain from a preamp will alleviate over-driving the amp or needing too much gain from the digital pre. I would set the DAC to a fixed volume out and use the NAD.
Don't assume the problem is in your system. Pianos and violins often sound harsh live (pianos especially), and the "better" your system, the more you'll pick it up. Then too, recordings sometimes unwittingly add or just emphasize distortion in the upper register of the piano. Solo piano, especially starting with the octaves one or two above middle c, and especially classical piano, are a recording engineer's nightmare.
Reading through all of this, the only thing I can see for certain is that you really don't know what the problem is. Sure, it can be the cables, amp, preamp, room acoustics, tubes, power, sources or speakers, but unless you have other components laying around that you can swap out, you may want to start eliminating some of the potential causes to your problem.

Looking at your system, I would say that using your PC as a source is the most likely place for something to go wrong. I would start there. Take the CD's that you ripped and find a CD or DVD player that has a digital out. Most do and it doesn't have to be anything expensive. Try using that as a transport going to your DAC instead of the computer. Don't change anything else. After trying that, was it a step in the right direction?
The first thing I'd look into is what Almarg suggested about the volume settings because I had that happen to me once. It wasn't with my laptop but the volume remote for my integrated was turning up the volume control on my CDP and result was similar to what you're hearing.
It may be that your primary problem is your source. A turntable is perhaps not on your horizon, but what about DSD or similar digital sound quality? I have a good turntable system, it blows digital out of the water, but DSD or other high level is much better than standard digital, even 24/96.

This may not be relevant for you, but in my experience one easily attributes to components failures that are in fact in the source.
Use the tone controls on the amp to tone it down. You may be overly sensitive to high frequencies. I've seen it before.
Cjk5933,
Did you reinsert the preamp?
Did sound improve?
Thank you all for the help.

I've made a number of changes based on the suggestions and the harshness has definitely diminished.

I've connected the DAC to the preamp of my NAD amp and switched the W4S to fixed mode. That automatically moves the DAC volume to Max so there shouldn't be anymore bit dropping from trying to control the audio with digital.

I disassembled the outlet and cleaned all of the wires with deoxit

06-27-14: Almarg
What settings of the DAC's volume control do you typically find yourself using, within its 0 to 70 range? And how have you set "USB minimum volume level" and "USB maximum volume level" in its menus?
I also checked the various digital volume controls on the computer and J River. I had J River volume dialed down to 25%. I pushed it back to max.


06-28-14: Stewie
Don't assume the problem is in your system. Pianos and violins often sound harsh live (pianos especially), and the "better" your system, the more you'll pick it up. Then too, recordings sometimes unwittingly add or just emphasize distortion in the upper register of the piano.
I spent some time comparing recordings and I suspect the ones I cited may have been carelessly produced. But I find most piano and violin solos hard to listen to for long periods. Some like Chopin are really obnoxious

06-27-14: Elevick
Do you have a solid state hard drive? It made a huge difference on my laptop with jriver. Faster, quieter and runs cooler..

06-28-14: Zd542
Looking at your system, I would say that using your PC as a source is the most likely place for something to go wrong.
I take your point about the limitations of computer servers but I'm committed to this for the convenience and simplicity. This was my old general purpose laptop I repurposed as a server primarily by clearing most of the extraneous software and background processes.

I've resisted adding a SS hardrive to this laptop because my long term upgrade plan is to switch from a Wintel box to a Mac mini with external power and SS hardrive.


That includes addressing room acoustics by tweaking speaker placement and orientation

Positioning speakers in a small apartment is problematic. That's one reason I lean towards a near field system -- I think that's a more practical approach to my lifestyle. I could afford to buy a house but I just don't want the hassles. I have a similar approach to audio. I want good sound with minimal fuss. I wonder if I should sell the Vienna Acoustic floor standing and get a small Single driver monitor like Omega
" 06-28-14: Zd542
Looking at your system, I would say that using your PC as a source is the most likely place for something to go wrong.

I take your point about the limitations of computer servers but I'm committed to this for the convenience and simplicity. This was my old general purpose laptop I repurposed as a server primarily by clearing most of the extraneous software and background processes.

I've resisted adding a SS hardrive to this laptop because my long term upgrade plan is to switch from a Wintel box to a Mac mini with external power and SS hardrive."

I didn't mean that using a PC was inferior compared to other sources. When I said that the computer was the most likely place that something could go wrong, I meant that literally. Its easy to get music out of a PC, but to get best results requires a lot of work. Ripping music, configuring the OS, picking up the right player (and setting it up properly), cables, AC products, different kind of file formats... Getting all of that stuff right is what I was talking about. In the end, the results shouldn't be inferior, or why bother?

How you go about fixing a problem like this is very important. You're either going to fix the actual problem, or you're going to cover it up. Some people like to through tubes and cables at problems. You can go that way if you want to. Its your choice. For me, the only way to fix a problem like this is to find out the root cause, and then fix that. Its not as easy, but I think you will be much happier with the results. That's why I said in my first post, that you have to isolate the problem. Looking at your last post, I still think this is a PC issue. I would still try a CD transport in place of the PC to confirm this is where the problem lies.
This thread was intense, fast... and over, but I offer one other simple suggestion that came to mind in reading about the OPs situation and the suggestions received. When the NAD preamp section was returned to the loop, I would insert one of your best interconnects from the drawer, closet or shoebox under the bed in between the pre and amp sections, replacing the metal jumper bars that come stock from NAD. Audioquest makes and sells some purposed copper preamp jumpers, but I find that a decent well-made 0.5 meter IC or simple home brew jumpers with good wire and IC connectors work better than the stock bars or the AQ jumpers.