What is the missing element?


My pc audio setup currently is as follows

PC (Lossless audio through Jriver) > V-link (first model) > Rega Dac > Jolida JD1501 > KEF LS50s

The Rega was probably the first component I bought that completely transformed the sound of my system. The difference it made was simply huge.

I then added the v-link to support higher resolution audio through the s/pdif connection. Again, the sound noticeably improved. The soundstage was bigger, and the music just sounded fuller. Without the v-link the music sounds quite a bit smaller through the usb input.

The Kefs were the next big leap forward for my system. I simply cant believe how big a sound these tiny little speakers put out.

Now, originally most of my listening was through the setup listed above. However, the addition of a thorens TD-160 has gotten me into vinyl in a big way and now I really don't like the sound of digital. By comparison it sounds like congested chaos, has a rough texture (especially noticeable in voices)and overall is just very brash sounding. I simply can not stand it at loud volumes. Nothing like the polite orderly smoothness I hear on vinyl which constantly has me turning up the volume.

I had all but completely switched to listening to music on my turntable while the rega was relegated to streaming pandora or youtube as background music and always at low volumes. Then, some time spent with a naim cd player reminded me just how good a digital source can sound. So my question is how can I bridge the gap? I have been reading a lot about jitter and I am wondering if that is holding the rega back. I've read that the v-link measures at right around 400ps while other digital transports like the audiophilleo measure well below 100ps. Would replacing the v-link with an audiophilleo or another s/pdif converter give me the sound I am looking for? Is the problem with the nature of computer audio itself and I should just be looking for a good CD player? I am slowly driving myself crazy over this.
megido
There are so many things you can do to improve the sound of your PC setup. Personally I found good improvement with addressing power and tweaking the OS. My next step is to look for a better USB converter (I have the Vlink as well).
I have the V-link192 going into my Wyred Dac. It sounds wonderful. I also use J Rivers 16 and use a dedicated laptop for music only. All the music files are on a 2TB usb3 hard drive. Which lossless codec do you use? I use flac. J Rivers outputs to the dac in wasapi mode. My digital rivals my vinyl setup which is a VPI Scout and a ZU DL103 mc cartridge. What kind of cables are you using for digital? I use the Wireworld starlite 6 usb cable and coaxial cable. I am extremely satisfied and have no desires to change.
Megido, save yourself money and get into the best PC audio you can by abandoning usb and getting a $150 ESI Juli@ soundcard. The spdif out of the card blows away any usb output.
"The spdif out of the card blows away any usb output."

That's amazing. How long did it take you to compare your sound card to every usb device on the market?
I've read that the v-link 192 is much much better than the first generation in terms of Jitter measurements. One review shows it to be anywhere from 20ps to 160ps. Still way ahead of the nearly 400ps of the v-link I. I have read several sources that state jitter needs to be under 100ps to really be inaudible. They are discontinued but it might be worth tracking one down. They are significantly cheaper than the audiophilleo.
I forgot to mention, I am using flac files through Jriver in wasapi mode.
As of about a week ago I could have written your post. After several years of digital, I decided to give analog a try with the LP's gathering dust in my basement. Couldn't believe that my system could sound so much more musical and alive.

Michael Lavorgna at Audiostream gave a fairly good review to the SOtM tx-USBexp PCIe card and associated battery supply. Someone on Audiogon just happened to be selling the card with a Welborne power supply and thought I would give it a chance.

Assuming your PC is a desktop, uses Windows 7 and higher, and has a spare PCIe slot, just connect your USB cable to its USB port after installing the drivers. Somehow it cleans up the USB signal, resulting in a better downstream signal. The complete SOtM solution is $750, not cheap.

Chris Connaker at Computer Audiophile has articles on building or buying a PC optimized for music playback called a "CAPS" machine. Three of the four designs are built around the SOtM card. I'm also finding references on Audiogon and other web sites where people claim that less expensive cards give equal or better results.

The bad news is that a clean LP will still sound better. The good news is that you should notice more detail, separation, and greater musicality with your digital files. You may actually wish to raise the volume. I have tried it on my Eximus DP1 with Audiophilleo and currently on the Schiit Loki DSD DAC. Both sound very good.

"it sounds like congested chaos, has a rough texture (especially noticeable in voices)and overall is just very brash sounding."

Two things are likely causing this:
1) too much audible jitter in your digital source - typical for rough textured vocals
2) FLAC files - typical for listening through a cave effect

#1 can be fixed by upgrading your USB converter and using a better power supply and S/PDIF coax cable for it

#2 is more difficult. You either have to be willing to live with .wav files and minimal tags or get a server like the Antipodes that sounds identical with both. Another option is to try JPLAY in conjunction with Jriver. This may or may not help.

Jitter numbers are all but useless when they get to these levels. The problem is that jitter like most phenomena is not something that occurs in one instance or repeats the same every time. There are billions of instances and each one is different. This creates a Gaussian distribution of jitter events that can be examined. Some of the jitter events may be data correlated and others may be random. When one says that a particular device has 500psec of P-P jitter, this is incomplete information because the 500Psec event may only occur every 30 seconds, or it may occur every millisecond. Big difference in these two. Also, the shape of the peak of the distribution may be very narrow in one case and very wide in the other. In other words, the distribution of the jitter events must be studied in order to determine whether one device is actually better than another. Then of course, one must listen to music as well. The human ear is the only thing that will tell you definitively whether one jitter distribution will sound better than another.

I would recommend upgrading the USB converter first, as well as an upgrade power supply and Coax cable. Most of these have money-back guarantees, so your risk is low.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
It is possible to match or even beat your vinyl with the RIGHT digital:

www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=95464.msg960567#msg960567

www.audiocircle.com/index.php?topic=105049.msg1159717#msg1159717

forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?icomp&1351958193&openusid&zzErndog&4&5#Erndog

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Thanks for the info. I'll definitely look into upgrading my usb converter first. I've played around with comparing wav and flac but at this point I can't hear any difference. Who knows, that may change once I get the jitter under control.
Megido,
Would you consider trying Cerrot's modest cost suggestion of the 150.00 sound card before spending more on a USB converter?
I'm certainly open to it if it will give better performance. I can't seem to find any jitter measurements on it though and see several reviews of it's s/pdif output being bested by usb converters such as the audiophilleo.
There is no usb on the planet that has lower jitter than an spdif output-it is impossible. Remember, USB transmits data in packets, not streams, which is why it is so poor. Music should be transmitted in data streams, not packets. The whole USB to spdif converter thing is a sham. They cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000 and none of them do it as good as not doing it at all.
Cerrot,
Why the popularity of USB if the less expensive sound card-SPDIF is better sounding per your assertion? I find this interesting.
Steve (Audioengr) knows his stuff and is expert on this subject....expert. Hard to find folks who are truly expert, but Steve is one. Read the links he gave. Follow his advice and experience computer based audio that transcends.

I have followed his advice and can confirm he knows what he is talking about. The last piece of advice from Steve that I listened to was using the Amarra EQ tool to assure a flat room response curve. My room response is now flat from 25htz to 25,000 htz! This has been the single best improvement I have heard in my system in over 25 years of this passion.
My room is treated, but it was not until I actually measured my room response and used the Amarra EQ tool to fix it, that I was really able to hear my great gear as intended. Absolutely astounding.

My $12,000 speakers sound like $50,000 plus speakers!

Read what he says in those links and on his site if you want the best sounding source possible.......period. I know as I have tried all manner of front ends for the past 25 - 30 years and Steve is into something.
First of all in addition to Steve Nugent you have Gordon Rankin. Both of these guys were pioneers in the computer audio world and have contributed a great deal to it. Without them computer audio wouldn't be where it is today. As to the best format for computer audio, IMO I prefer Ethernet or FireWire interfaces. I suspect USB won out for a number of reasons that were more product marketing driven than audio driven, but nonetheless there are some great USB converters out there and very little to choose from on the Ethernet or FireWire front. Maybe UPnP will get there some day. For me it was a failed experiment.

Sound cards are in the same group as Ethernet and FireWire. A well designed sound card (Lynx for example) should theoretically provide the best output. However, as has been evidenced in the past the best format theoretically does not always win out. You could see this in the days of analog tape, digital tape, and video tape (Betamax was clearly superior). Vinyl was supposed to die when CDs came out but has never been more alive and kicking), etc. What does it say when the vast majority of people listen to MP3 as opposed to WAV?

Maybe USB is not perfect, but it has mass appeal and two guys that put their money where their mouth was to make it a more than acceptable alternative to the traditional digital transport. It has server a number of audiophiles well from what I can gather. Even someone like me who is not a big fan of digital has found new enjoyment from my computer server set up featuring a USB converter.
Clio09,
I understand your well stated good points. Cerrot isn't questioning the popularity of USB or the efforts of Audioengr or Gordon Rankin but believes the sound card is superior sonically to a flawed? USB.
Yes, my remarks are for the poster not cerrot.
Megido - another thing that can prevent you from hearing the difference between .wav and FLAC is the active preamp. Most people use one and it's not a $15K one. Eliminating this in favor of a good DAC volume or a transformer linestage makes a big difference. Eliminating ground-loops in the system also helps a lot.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Cerrot - Based on this post you do not know much about the technical aspects of USB. A PCI card and a USB interface can perform equally well from the S/PDIF output based on the design and implementation of each and the supporting power systems.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Thanks audioengr. I will certainly look into your advice. As to the whole usb s/pdif argument, I don't deny that as an output, s/pdif has some definite advantages over straight usb and I admit that I possess only the most basic understanding of how these systems work. As I understand it though, If s/pdif is being used on a source that already has high jitter, it will do nothing to reduce that jitter. It just wont add any more, at least not on the level usb would. I can't imagine a computer being a low jitter environment. One article I have read mentions the s/pdif out on a mac mini measuring at over 1000ps. I will definitely be researching the option of adding a straight s/pdif output from my computer because I like the much more affordable price but I also wont completely dismiss usb converters that are backed up by both professional as well as independent reviews and measurements.
Megido,
That's a smart decision to get more information on both alternatives before spending perhaps unnecessary money.
"As I understand it though, If s/pdif is being used on a source that already has high jitter, it will do nothing to reduce that jitter. It just wont add any more, at least not on the level usb would. I can't imagine a computer being a low jitter environment."

Actually most modern S/PDIF receivers reduce jitter a bit when regenerating the clocks for I2S to drive the D/A chip.

Async USB on the other hand generates a new master clock and ignores the clock from the computer, therefore the jitter on the USB cable is of no consequence. It is ignored. This is because the Async USB interface is the MASTER and asks the computer for data packets only when needed. These packets are put into a buffer, which is clocked out using the local free-running low-jitter Master Clock.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Megida has little to lose here. Most of these reclocking and USB converters have money-back guarantees. If it does not wow you, send it back.

I guarantee my products will wow you, or there is something else seriously wrong with your system.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Does it matter if the data is delivered as "packets" vs "stream" transmission in terms of sound quality?
11-24-13: Cerrot
There is no usb on the planet that has lower jitter than an spdif output-it is impossible. Remember, USB transmits data in packets, not streams, which is why it is so poor. Music should be transmitted in data streams, not packets. The whole USB to spdif converter thing is a sham. They cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000 and none of them do it as good as not doing it at all.

11-26-13: Audioengr
ASYNCHRONOUS [emphasis added] USB on the other hand generates a new master clock and ignores the clock from the computer, therefore the jitter on the USB cable is of no consequence. It is ignored. This is because the Async USB interface is the MASTER and asks the computer for data packets only when needed. These packets are put into a buffer, which is clocked out using the local free-running low-jitter Master Clock.
I usually try to avoid ideological debates about whether one design approach is inherently better or worse than another, because the answer is usually (and perhaps almost always) that it comes down to the quality of the specific implementation, as well as system matching and listener preference.

In this case though, in addition to seconding Steve's comment (which I agree with completely) I want to add that S/PDIF and AES/EBU are "streaming" formats only in the loosest possible sense, and not in any sense that necessarily implies an advantage with respect to jitter.

A true data stream consists of an unbroken string of 1 and 0 data (emphasis on "data," as opposed to other information), usually represented by voltages, and accompanied by a separate clock and other timing signals. S/PDIF and AES/EBU signals are nothing like that. There are subframes, frames, blocks, preambles, status bits, bits used for error detection, etc., etc. And further, all of that is multiplexed (combined) with timing information (i.e., the clock) via something called differential Manchester or biphase mark encoding, which allows clock and data to be combined into a single signal.

The receiving component has to sort all of that out, extracting the clock from that single signal, and processing both the data and the non-data information appropriately. And, particularly if the source component is a computer, it will have to do all of that in the presence of what will inevitably be a good deal of jitter-inducing digital noise.

While there are design approaches that are used in SOME DACs that are largely immune to jitter when receiving S/PDIF or AES/EBU signals, such as ASRC (Asynchronous Sample Rate Conversion), those approaches arguably have some significant downsides. Packetized protocols, on the other hand, inherently utilize a clock for the DAC chip itself (which is the place where jitter matters) that is different than the clock that is used to communicate the data between components. There are no downsides to that approach that I can conceive of, other than quality of implementation.

Regards,
-- Al
Charles - Most devices that deliver low jitter are buffering either packets over the ethernet or WiFi or they are buffering bursts over USB from a computer. The data is then clocked out of these buffers with a free-running clock. The latter is mor like a stream, but it is still bursty.

In the early days of computer audio uninterrupted streams did exist, but these were clocked from the computer as master and it was difficult to achieve low jitter using these protocols. These methods have been all but abandoned.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Does anyone know if jitter can be introduced in the recording process? If so, is there a way to deal with it?
Steve, you have been absolutely awesome. I genuinely wish I could afford your products but they are just out of my price range. I will definitely keep them in mind for down the road though.
Well speak of the devil. I think my v-link just died on me. One second it was working fine and then the sound just disappeared. If I plug the dac directly into the computer through the usb I have sound. I think it new I was talking bad about it.
Thank you, Al, for a very informative post. Cerrot, please take note. :-)
They use USB because its easier for them. Ever PC has a USB port (or 4). Many users don't want to open their puters to install a sound card, download drivers, etc, so they used the USB bus to dumb everything down, including the sound.
It all came to play because its...universal!

Remember, USB was designed for peripherials, not sound. Think of it - there is absolutely no audio gear that uses USB. There are no dacs with USB out; nothing else at all uses USB. If its so good, why not???
No note for me to take. USB was an afterthought. It will be gone in 2 years. I will still have my $150 soundcard but what will everyone do with their USB converters?

Besides, they do sound very poor. Just listen!
Al, all due respect, there is enough 'wrong' with the packetized USB data flow to allow 'streamed' spdif data to just sound better. USB can sound better if you use a real USB card, not the crap found in a puter, but still not as good as the soundcard. Comes down to output voltage and stability and isolation (and jitter) of that signal.

I totally agree it comes down to implementation. What I am trying to explain is that USB is the poorest implementation. Just because everyone exploits it does not mean it is better.
Al and Steve,
Thanks for your explanations and technical expertise.
I have to confess that Cerrot makes an interesting case, is this convenience/ universal use(USB) vs ultimate sound quality(SPDIF sound card). Historically sometimes "better" loses the battle vs convenient pragmatism.
Charles,
I also wold have purchased Steve's products however can't afford them at this moment. I purchased a used audiopilleo2 with purepower and am happy. Haven't had it in my system long enough to provide a great deal of feedback beyond that. Can say that it is superior to my M2tech hiface.
All tech stuff thrown out for a second, my USB cable from my 2009 mini to my Lampizator dac USB input is sonic heaven beyond anything I have ever heard on my front end.

No separate USB converter, just beautiful sound beyond any CD player or disc spinning transport I have owned or heard in my system.

Follow Steve's advice and get a late model 2009 mini, power supply for the mini, perform all software mods, use Amarra with EQ option to negate poor room response, and yes a good quality USB cable (WyWire and others). Boom, Done, Killer Sound!

So the devil is indeed in the details wether sound card or USB cable.

Steve, can this sound card Cerrot speaks about be loaded into the 2009 mini? If so, any real sonic pluses? My Lampizator has a nice USB port so no outboard converter is needed for great sound with my set-up.
I really do not think enough credit is given to the advances made to enable USB to be a very viable solution for computer audio. I was a skeptic for a really long time. I still have my CEC TL-51X transport lying around. With my Lessloss DAC I can slave the CEC to the DAC which is a superior implementation. However, even I have to admit that my DAC slaved to my Audiophilleo 1 USB converter yields no sonic degradation. I cannot tell the difference.

I have a good amount of experience with the Lynx sound card as a friend of mine has a server that uses one. We did a comparison against a laptop system using an Offramp 4 and the difference was definitely noticeable. The USB converter was better, even with the USB signal coming off a laptop versus a dedicated music server.

I have to admit the Juli@ intrigues me because it has a clock input. As my DAC has a clock output it might be possible for me to slave the card to my DAC. Unfortunately I may never find out since my email to the fine folks who make the sound card seemingly went into the black hole.
11-26-13: Zd542
Does anyone know if jitter can be introduced in the recording process? If so, is there a way to deal with it?
Good question. The answer to the first question is yes, in the sense that the amount of jitter introduced in the recording process will not be exactly zero, to an infinite number of decimal places. I don't have any particular knowledge, though, as to how likely it is to be great enough to be audibly significant, with modern recording equipment.

Just as jitter in the playback process is produced by small rapid fluctuations in the timing of the clock that is supplied to the D/A converter chip(s), jitter in the recording process will be produced by small rapid fluctuations in the timing of the clock that is supplied to the A/D converter chip(s).

Since the A/D converter function and generation of the clock signal that is supplied to it can be performed within the same component, however, I would suspect that a GOOD design would result in the introduction of minimal and perhaps negligible amounts of jitter during the recording process.
If so, is there a way to deal with it?
Nope, aside from the possibility that it may be masked by, or even be complementary to, sonic issues in the playback system. How perceivable and how objectionable it may be, if it were to have any significance at all, would be dependent on the sonic quality and the sonic character of the playback system.

Best regards,
-- Al
"Does anyone know if jitter can be introduced in the recording process? If so, is there a way to deal with it?"

Absolutely. No way to fix it once the recording is made.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
USB stands for UNIVERSAL serial bus. There hundreds of DACs with USB input, some with USB output, lots of USB converters and more and more music servers with USB out. Get educated.
"I have to confess that Cerrot makes an interesting case, is this convenience/ universal use(USB) vs ultimate sound quality(SPDIF sound card)?"

Absolutely not. Nothing to do with convenience. Has more to do with choosing among the various protocols available. Only Firewire, Ethernet and USB were options. USB makes perfect sense. Nothing wrong with the protocol. In fact is is actually superior to Ethernet in some ways: the connection is isochronous. Ethernet is never isochronous. This means that the stream cannot be interrupted by other message traffic on USB, only on Ethernet.

You must understand here that Cerrot has not had a positive experience with USB and has had with PCI bus, so he believes that USB is inferior for this reason. There are no technical arguments that he has made that hold water.

On the other hand, I can make lots of technical arguments why PCI is a bad idea for music streaming. The first being that it is in close proximity to the CPU and clocks that all radiate emissions inside the computer chassis. IT is also sharing a DC power supply or transformer/switcher rather than having its own separate power subsystem. This is why even the best PCI based systems can get positive mentions at shows, but usually do not get best of show like the USB based systems do.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
"I have to admit the Juli@ intrigues me because it has a clock input. As my DAC has a clock output it might be possible for me to slave the card to my DAC."

Another reason that this is not a good choice. In order to "slave" a clock like this, the clock must be a PLL, not a free-running clock. PLL clocks NEVER EVER have the low jitter that a free-running clock can achieve. The Lynx is another case. Used it. Been there, done that.

If you have a DAC with a good master clock in it or a way to get word-clock out of a USB converter, such as the Off-Ramp, then the clock in the PCI card is no longer of any consequence. The master clock can be in the converter or DAC, not the PCIU card. For these systems the cards can be useful.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Thanks Steve
Nothing to do with convenience??? Kidding, right? The fact that EVERY computer has 4 usb outputs but you need to install a good sound card is not a convenience issue?

Note how there are no CD transports with USB out. Why???

Cause no one in their right mind would convert a signal TO usb.

Riddle me this - if you want to go usb, why not let everyone know the stock USB on the motherboard is VERY poor and it should be upgraded. Why don't we tell anyone? Because if they are going to open their computer, they will install a sound card!

Get educated. I have heard some great sounding USB systems - they do not come close to spdif. No ambiance, emotion. I can walk between the instruments in my soundstage. Can you?
Guys - USB was created for the very reason of PROVIDING CONVENIENCE. These sham PC Audio guys embraced the wrong protocal years back because they did not believe the average Joe would open his puter and install a sound card, deal with drivers, IRQ settings, etc, so they dumbed everything down with USB and some of these guys are still stuck in the dark ages with antiquated USB. You can easily improve your USB sound by installing an actual USB card into a PCI or PCIe slot - notice how no one tells you that. Steve, care to elaborate on that? Or, again, on how no CD transport outputs usb. Or, how engineers TODAY are planning on phasing out USB in a few years. Sticking your head in the sand on that one? My arguments don't hold water? But, yet, you have been unable to dispute me.
The world of High End Audio is not "One Size Fits All (though manufactures who peddle their wares on this site don't want you to understand that).

As that is the case, shouldn't we keep away from anything "Universal"? I like things one on one, just for me. My equipment. My set up. My room. My preferences.

Universal? Like health care? Not good.
Only Firewire, Ethernet and USB were options. USB makes perfect sense.

But, SPDIF & high end sound cards WERE available. Why do you not advise that all agreed engineers wanted an idiot proof solution that did not require opening the computer?

Firewire was better, as that is what the proaudio world embraced (of the 3 you mentioned, only because ethernet was a little behind the times, then). USB was CHEAPER to implement. This is why everyone things USB is the way to go - it was cheaper and easier for the engineers to implement.
Technical talk is enlightening but sound quality is the final determiner of what is the superior signal route. Ears trump theory.
I'd love to be able to hear and compare Steve's best USB based effort vs Cerrot's best sound card implementation side by side.
Charles,
Should be easy enough to do since the sound card is only $140.
Everyone remembers the sound of the lynx card and thinks that was and is the sound card standard. It isn't for two reasons. First is no one could configure the drivers properly as it was usually used on the wrong platform and, secondly, dacs are much better today (and so is driver interface to OS architecture) so even the dreaded. lifeless ol lynx will sound better in a stripped windows environment today than it did 6 years ago.
Logic just seems to define to me to take as less steps as possible, and usb ain't it. Its also silly to believe a $200 usb converter does the same job as a $2,000 one. And even crazier to believe you need one.

Have a great Thanksgiving everyone.