Forgive the length of this entry, but I am anticipating questions I am likely to receive and wanted to provide as much useful information as possible.
I focus on listening to the music and am not prone to frequent system upgrades. When I do upgrade it is because the improvement in sound quality is obvious to both my wife and I and seems to be a good value. We both play musical instruments, listen almost exclusively to classical and jazz, regularly attend concerts, especially orchestral works, chamber music and small jazz groups. The classical performances are all in venues with good to excellent acoustics, so over many years of listening we know how live performances should sound.
Several months ago I purchased a Lumin U1 mini digital music player after auditioning a Lumin T2 and comparing the DAC in the T2 to my current Ayre QSB-9 DSD DAC. What became apparent was that the existing DAC was not the most significant limiting factor in our system. By connecting the Lumin to my iMac via an Ethernet switch and cables, and using it as a player only, the clarity of the music improved markedly. I attribute this to the reported higher levels of “noise” transmitted through the iMac’s USB connection. The Lumin was “quieter” - less noise and distortion, and has the added benefit of providing us with an excellent streamer for our Qobuz Hi-Res subscription. So I purchased the Lumin U1 mini, which is a digital player only. (We use both the Lumin app and Roon to listen to our own digitized music and Qobuz.)
Having spent a bit of time reading threads on Audiogon, articles in various publications and talking to a few dealers, it seems that I might achieve further marked improvements in sound quality - clarity, detail and accuracy of reproduction, less noise and distortion, better soundstage - by using a music server as a file source and/or by upgrading to a newer DAC. While the other components in our system may be improved upon, our experience in auditioning various speakers and amps over the years, including in the past 12 months, lead me to believe the digital source/processing is where the biggest gains can be achieved.
Our current system for the main listening room consists of the following components.
Mac Mini i7 with music on an external Thunderbolt hard drive (RAID 1 configuration)
Lumin U1 mini digital music player
Ayre QSB-9 DSD DAC
Ayre CX-7emp CD player
Ayre K5-emp pre-amplifier
Proceed HPA-2 dual mono amplifier
Aerial Acoustics Model 8b speakers
Transparent Plus (generation 5) interconnects
Transparent 10 ga. in-wall speaker cables (bi-wire terminations)
Audioquest Niagara 1000 power conditioner
Transparent USB (Lumin to Ayre DAC) and power cables
The purchases of the CD player, pre-amp, power conditioner and Lumin unit all made very noticeable improvements to sound quality. Our digitized music collection now sounds virtually the same as, if not a bit better than the original CDs played on the Ayre CD player. It was noticeably inferior before the Lumin was added to the system.
I’m seeking input from Audiogon members as to components they believe would provide the most improvement for the dollar to our current system, with an emphasis on digital music servers and DACs. Let’s save recommendations regarding pre-amps, amps and speakers for another time.
With respect to music servers, a simple solution would be to replace the MacMini with the $1,200 Lumin L1, basically a hard drive and associated hardware designed for digital music use. It can connect to my Lumin U1 mini via Ethernet, which I understand to be preferable to USB, with some recent suggestions to the contrary. One downside is the need to reconnect to a computer every time you want to transfer a CD you’ve ripped or a file you’ve downloaded to the L1. Local dealers also carry music servers by Aurender, Auralic, and some other more mass market brands. I have read some good things about the sound quality of Innuous servers, but there are no local dealers and I am hesitant to purchase anything that I cannot demo with my existing equipment in my own listening room.
As to DACs/processors/combo units, I would automatically be disposed to the Ayre QX-5 Twenty given my experience with the company (excellent response to customer inquiries, great upgrade policy, outstandingly neutral sounding products). Local dealers also carry the Lumin X1 (which would require trading in or selling my Lumin U1 mini, which is fine), the MSB Discrete (and its more costly brethren), Berkeley Audio Designs, T+A, Aurender, Auralic. An out-of-town dealer with whom I’ve dealt carries some of these same brands plus Naim, dcs, Linn, and others.
As to budget, let’s say that depends to some extent on the performance the product. For the purposes of discussion let’s say up to $5k for a music server and up to $10k for the DAC. A bit of stretch is possible and the combined total would work for a combo product, but past experience suggests different firms have strengths in different areas.
I am particularly interested in thoughts about whether a music server or new DAC would provide more improvement. I've read the past comments of the bits are bits naysayers and can confirm that just switching from USB to Ethernet connectivity made a big improvement. So bits transmitted with power and circuit noise are inferior to bits transmitted with less of both!
Your feedback is sincerely appreciated.