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 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.      

Op here is our take on what direction you should take

Personally we would recommend that you try a high end ref integrated.

We know you tried a Luxman and it clipped there are better sounding and much more powerful integrated amplifiers.

Before clipping did you experience greater resolution?

A T+A  3100 hv is a 300 watt 8 ohm 500 watt 4 ohm integrated based on $40k seperates you would gain transparency with an improved sound stage. 

The Gryphon Diablo is another massively powerful unit. 

Both of these ref grade int will dramatically outperform your Ayre Proceed combo.

Next upgrade your old Aeriels with a modern set of speakers.

Then upgrade digital.

Then cables.

Dave and Troy
Audio Doctor NJ

@audiotroy the Luxman was a bit brighter sounding than my gear at lower listening levels, but not necessarily better.  Its bass response was inferior.  Overall resolution may have been a bit better on the high frequencies.  It was not tiring or electronic sounding.  (I owned an excellent Luxman receiver many years ago, and the Luxman was paired with Magico A3 speakers at a show we attended - a very good pairing.)

The Gryphon Diablo has been suggested by a local dealer.  But why purchase a new integrated before speakers?  

If new speakers require less power, wouldn't it make sense to start there?  Frankly, after auditioning Magico A3, B&W Diamond series, Wilson and others, I am less convinced that newer speakers will sound better, just different in some instances.  The Magico was the best in our view. A bit more accurate than our speakers, but with a bit less realistic bass response, particularly when listening to say a jazz piano trio and its acoustic bass, and a bit sterile sounding. After 30 minutes of listening, the B&W 800 and 801 were tiring (too bright and electronic sounding).  The Wilson Sophia and Sasha auditioned a number of years ago were similar to our Aerials and I didn't see any improvement in imaging or resolution even though that was suggested as their strong points.  What would you recommend for someone who prefers speakers that lack a lot of coloration, have great resolution, don't sound electronic and tiring, and have good full-range frequency response?

Thanks in advance for your input.  
1) Upgrade source, Qobuz 96/24 is the start point, or SACD

1) Upgrade speakers will give you the best SQ improvement. Newer speaker not necessary better. You will find many decent used speakers on used market. That also include speaker placement, room treatment, seat position.
2) Upgrade amp accordingly with your speaker need,
3) Improve DAC and pre-amp

4) cable
@sameyers1 - I think a NAS’s powers supply is no better or worse than a Mac mini’s.

I got the L1 cheap because the seller thought it was fried.  The drive needed to be formatted.  I removed the 2TB drive from the L1 and replaced it with a 5TB drive which is currently the largest 2.5inch HDD you can buy.  The 2TB drive works too.

I don't notice any difference streaming from it or the NAS, but I also haven’t compared them in any kind of listening test.  The power supply is much more robust in the L1 then the Synology NAS, and the L1 doesn’t function like a normal NAS as their is no file management when on the network.  

To add music to the L1 you have to disconnect it from the network and connect it to your computer with a USB 3 cable (regular USB cable works too, just slower).  Lumin believes the L1 is superior to a NAS due to its power supply and stripped down NAS software.  

FYI, I use my Synology NAS for files other than music as it has (2) 10 TB HDDs.  Also, I have more than 5TB of music files so I find myself using the Synology NAS.  I recently purchased a lifetime license to Roon, however Roon doesn’t recognize the L1 as a storage device as it can’t be mapped like a traditional NAS.

I would suggest evaluating speakers, i.e. Maggies as well as room treatments.  The best bang for the buck is often the least expensive. 

I recommend listening to Magnepans due to your choice of music.  We all have our favorites, but listening costs nothing and it may be eye opening from box speakers.