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"Upgrading" out of the '80s, Making a wise economical transition to tolerable digital
FiddleMinger
post Apr 6 2013, 19:58
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Hello all,

As the title says, I've finally reached my limit with a good deal of '80s equipment and need to do some things better. I have, for example, converted a sizable CD collection to one or another compressed format. Flac for things that are well-recorded and/or I particularly like, and higher bitrate VBR MP3s for everything else. I've also spent countless hours getting the tags in some semblance of order.

Having said and done all of that, now I have to deal with the hardware side of things. At the moment, I have a basic preamp (everything is single-ended RCA-plugged everywhere) selecting analog audio from CD player, cassette deck, and an M-Audio card. Due to physical constraints, the signal generating end has to be remote (30') from the amplifier/speaker end, which, not surprisingly, causes all kinds of ill effects due to normal household electrical noise sources. Though I've tried to work-around the lack of good grounding practice, nothing has been particularly successful.

So my plan is shaping up something like this: Dump the preamp, CD player, and tape deck. Add a serviceable DAC that offers 1) optical input, 2) volume knob, and 3) balanced outputs. The latter should solve the ground-noise issues since there are balanced inputs in the destination amplifiers.

So now I need advice.

First the DAC. After hours of browsing, it looks like there are a handful that more or less meet my requirements without completely busting my budget. Something like the Cambridge Audio "DAC Magic Plus" ($600) or the ASUS "Xonar Essence One" ($570). There are others but they cost even more. The limiting factor appears to be the volume control requirement -- cheaper similar products just don't seem to offer one. Now the reason for this is that I don't want to have to use a software volume control which obviously performs a multiplication of the bitstream and introduces all kinds of quantization problems (The ASUS performs analog volume control post DA conversion; CA has a "digital volume control" and no mention of exactly how they implement it, leading to speculation that they multiply the bitstream prior to conversion and are too embarrassed to admit it). Plus, they're just too annoying to use. Grab mouse, find onscreen control, diddle with it. That's just too user-hostile for me. So question one is: are these reasonable choices for this scenario, or am I missing something equally effective at lower cost?

Which brings up the second issue: After painstakingly FLACing hours and hours of music, I do NOT want Windows or some other "driver" or whatever in the digital path to go messing with the bitstream. What is the best way to circumvent Windows "Help" with audio processing? There are references here to Foobar2000 having the ability to work around Windows Audio Mixer by use of an ASIO driver. That sounds like a great idea. I've been using WMP but would consider a change if that's what's necessary. Or, it is similarly possible to get WMP to bypass the decoder output around any subsequent processing and send it directly to the optical output to the DAC? The motherboard contains Realtek ALC887 audio. Can that be counted-on to pass the bitstream from the decoder to the optical port without "improving" it? Or will it be necessary to use a USB interface with the ASIO option.

Oh, and by the way, if I'm forced to use a USB connection to the DAC, I'll be sure to use the gold-infused carbon-fibre high-fidelity hyper-bit-aligned type of cable, because, after all, we wouldn't want an ordinary jitter-inducing USB cable to suppress those "creamy midranges". (just kidding)

Comments and suggestions greatly appreciated.
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JasonQ
post Apr 6 2013, 20:26
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Does your real problem just relate to getting the signal noise free to the amplifier? You believe the M-Audio card is somehow the culprit?

I take it you are also paranoid about using windows as volume control, which I'm guessing people here will deem to be an irrational concern. Is the main issue just wanting a volume control knob, or do you really believe in this "Windows bitstream" problem?
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RonaldDumsfeld
post Apr 6 2013, 20:28
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Focusrite Scarlet 2i4

There are shed loads of alternatives for more or less the same price (~$200).

All you will ever need.

If you really have bundles of cash load you can go top of the range, in quality if not price and get a

RME Babyface

That's it. Job done.

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Roseval
post Apr 7 2013, 00:01
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If you want to bypass the win mixer, you need a media player allowing you to choose different drivers.
WMP donít but Foobar, MusicBee, JRiver, etc do.
ASIO can only be used if your hardware supports it.
A good alternative is WASAPI, works in general nicely with USB DACs


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FiddleMinger
post Apr 7 2013, 01:05
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QUOTE (JasonQ @ Apr 6 2013, 15:26) *
Does your real problem just relate to getting the signal noise free to the amplifier? You believe the M-Audio card is somehow the culprit?

I take it you are also paranoid about using windows as volume control, which I'm guessing people here will deem to be an irrational concern. Is the main issue just wanting a volume control knob, or do you really believe in this "Windows bitstream" problem?


Aren't the words "paranoid" and "irrational" just a bit over the top for someone you don't know and who asked a reasonable question? If you didn't like the question, don't answer. There's no reason for you to start throwing around insults.

No, the M-Audio card (one of the early ones, too) is a paragon of reliability and performance. The problem stems from all the unbalanced connections and consequential ground noise issues.

I want a volume control knob. Non-negotiable.

Maybe you can explain to me how you start out with N bits and use a scalar multiplier for volume without losing resolution. I know... Irrational (goes with "paranoid"!). But since I'm not very bright sometimes, explain it to me. "Belief" normally pertains to the unprovable. However, I'm pretty sure that a 16-bit sine wave attenuated digitally by 12dB is going to contain fewer bits than it started out with, rendering it now a ... (estimating here) 13-bit sine wave that's going to spray around a lot more harmonic content. Etc. And while we're on the subject, you do realize that there are hundreds of posts here discussing how to avoid Windows Audio processing, e.g. configuring Foobar2000 to bypass the Windows Audio Mixer. Why do you suppose so many people seem to be interested in doing that?
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FiddleMinger
post Apr 7 2013, 01:13
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QUOTE (RonaldDumsfeld @ Apr 6 2013, 15:28) *
Focusrite Scarlet 2i4

There are shed loads of alternatives for more or less the same price (~$200).

All you will ever need.

If you really have bundles of cash load you can go top of the range, in quality if not price and get a

RME Babyface


Dang. Goes to show no matter how thoroughly you think you've looked, there are always things you miss. Both of these have a lot more functions than I need, but at least it's something else to consider. Thank you.

I'd really like to find something along the lines of the Cambridge Audio or ASUS processors for $200. THAT would be a good deal.
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FiddleMinger
post Apr 7 2013, 01:22
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QUOTE (Roseval @ Apr 6 2013, 19:01) *
If you want to bypass the win mixer, you need a media player allowing you to choose different drivers.
WMP donít but Foobar, MusicBee, JRiver, etc do.
ASIO can only be used if your hardware supports it.
A good alternative is WASAPI, works in general nicely with USB DACs


As a result of reading a lot of posts here today, I gave Foobar a try. Nice! While I think that WMP has its good points, there's a lot to like about Foobar, not the least of which is what you mention. I was especially impressed that the developer thought to read the library registry entry for WMP to auto-populate Fubar's list. That's real attention to detail.

The Cambridge Audio box has software support for the USB interface that's exactly as you describe. I suspect that the ASUS box does too, but their documentation isn't nearly as good as CA's.

Thank you for your input.
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JasonQ
post Apr 7 2013, 01:22
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QUOTE (FiddleMinger @ Apr 6 2013, 19:13) *
QUOTE (RonaldDumsfeld @ Apr 6 2013, 15:28) *
Focusrite Scarlet 2i4

There are shed loads of alternatives for more or less the same price (~$200).

All you will ever need.

If you really have bundles of cash load you can go top of the range, in quality if not price and get a

RME Babyface


Dang. Goes to show no matter how thoroughly you think you've looked, there are always things you miss. Both of these have a lot more functions than I need, but at least it's something else to consider. Thank you.

I'd really like to find something along the lines of the Cambridge Audio or ASUS processors for $200. THAT would be a good deal.


What do those overpriced products offer that this one doesn't for far less? BTW, your earlier concern is irrational.
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FiddleMinger
post Apr 7 2013, 01:43
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Jason. Do yourself a favor and don't waste your time posting in this thread anymore.
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Propheticus
post Apr 7 2013, 02:11
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He's right though... Win 7 uses 32bit floating point in it's sound stack. The volume control won't degrade the bit depth.
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JasonQ
post Apr 7 2013, 02:29
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QUOTE (FiddleMinger @ Apr 6 2013, 19:43) *
Jason. Do yourself a favor and don't waste your time posting in this thread anymore.


Ok, I won't. I am just guessing that your sound quality issue isn't as expensive as you think it is.
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greynol
post Apr 7 2013, 04:31
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Wow, just wow.

Bit-depth reduction will have no audible impact so long as the quantization noise stays below the ambient noise of the listening area.

I'd like to see some evidence of "spraying around harmonic content," especially if we are expected to believe this will have any audible impact. Backing up a bit, you might want to experiment to see if this notion even has any validity before tackling the idea that it could be audible. The same needs to be said about the other concerns that aren't well-rooted in reality.

This post has been edited by greynol: Apr 7 2013, 04:52


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saratoga
post Apr 7 2013, 06:56
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QUOTE (FiddleMinger @ Apr 6 2013, 19:05) *
But since I'm not very bright sometimes, explain it to me. "Belief" normally pertains to the unprovable. However, I'm pretty sure that a 16-bit sine wave attenuated digitally by 12dB is going to contain fewer bits than it started out with, rendering it now a ... (estimating here) 13-bit sine wave that's going to spray around a lot more harmonic content. Etc. And while we're on the subject, you do realize that there are hundreds of posts here discussing how to avoid Windows Audio processing, e.g. configuring Foobar2000 to bypass the Windows Audio Mixer. Why do you suppose so many people seem to be interested in doing that?


FWIW, the Windows volume control does not use digital attenuation, so your concern here is unfounded.
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Mach-X
post Apr 7 2013, 07:25
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Imagine the simplicity of this generations media consumers. With google play consolidating everything into one service, todays kids only need a cell phone, mhl link cable, a tv, and a powered soundbar. XD
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greynol
post Apr 7 2013, 07:49
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QUOTE (saratoga @ Apr 6 2013, 22:56) *
FWIW, the Windows volume control does not use digital attenuation, so your concern here is unfounded.

I don't know enough about all versions of Windows nor all hardware, but if my hardware doesn't have an analog volume control then this must happen through digital scaling, right? Mustn't this also be the case with a digital output that can be attenuated?


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Roseval
post Apr 7 2013, 09:56
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QUOTE (saratoga @ Apr 7 2013, 06:56) *
FWIW, the Windows volume control does not use digital attenuation, so your concern here is unfounded.


Saratoga

If I play over USB or Toslink, I can reduce the volume to 0 using the Win system volume control.
I do think this can only be done digital.

As your posts shows a solid engineering background, Iím curious to know what you had in mind when you wrote this.


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db1989
post Apr 7 2013, 14:58
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QUOTE (FiddleMinger @ Apr 7 2013, 01:43) *
Jason. Do yourself a favor and don't waste your time posting in this thread anymore.
Your decision to flounce angrily instead of providing any actual response to JasonQís points is noted, and perhaps indicative. Do you have so strong an emotional desire to spend $500+ on a DAC that youíll dismiss anyone who questions whether itís worthwhile?

Also, I see this thread is at risk of turning into another argument over whether Product X controls volume digitally or not. I hope it has fewer uncited generalisations than the last couple of times that happened.

This post has been edited by db1989: Apr 7 2013, 15:02
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Propheticus
post Apr 7 2013, 15:08
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As long as you use a soundcard that can handle 24-bits per sample (hint: even most integrated ones can) you will probably not hear any quality loss due to volume changes. Win vista/7 automatically feeds the soundcard the highest bit depth it supports. See http://blog.szynalski.com/2009/11/17/an-au...ws-vista-and-7/
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carpman
post Apr 7 2013, 15:36
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QUOTE (db1989 @ Apr 7 2013, 13:58) *
Your decision to flounce angrily instead of providing any actual response to JasonQís points is noted, and perhaps indicative. Do you have so strong an emotional desire to spend $500+ on a DAC that youíll dismiss anyone who questions whether itís worthwhile?

db1989 - see para 4 and 5. smile.gif

C.


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Satellite_6
post Apr 7 2013, 15:56
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If you want to correct someone no need to insult them jeez. Not everyone knows everything, and this does not necessarily mean that they are irrational. I really do not understand why this forum is so hostile. I think most of you guys need to see a shrink for anger management. :\

(feel free to delete this as off topic after you have read it)



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Propheticus
post Apr 7 2013, 16:02
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If someone (rightfully) tells you your worries are irrational (unfounded, unnecessary, etc, whatever you might call it) which prevents you from buying stuff you don't need (and/or won't make a noticeable difference other than placebo) I wouldn't call that insulting... That said, I think the 'wanting' to buy (and looking for justification) was stronger than the actual 'need' to buy.
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RonaldDumsfeld
post Apr 7 2013, 16:25
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QUOTE
I'd really like to find something along the lines of the Cambridge Audio or ASUS processors for $200. THAT would be a good deal.


That's exactly what I recommended. With respect. I think you are missing a trick here.

The Focusrite costs half as much as 'ideal' choices. Does everything they do, for all practical purposes at least as well (check the specs), is portable AND comes with shed loads of extras which you don't think you need now but once you have them you will wonder how you ever managed without.

You did say you wanted to move out of the 8Ts, right?
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saratoga
post Apr 7 2013, 16:55
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QUOTE (greynol @ Apr 7 2013, 01:49) *
I don't know enough about all versions of Windows nor all hardware, but if my hardware doesn't have an analog volume control then this must happen through digital scaling, right?


When you change the volume Windows asks the device driver to adjust its output gain. This is done via changing the gain on the device's output amplifier.

QUOTE (greynol @ Apr 7 2013, 01:49) *
Mustn't this also be the case with a digital output that can be attenuated?


I think it depends on the output. I've never seen a PCI or USB device that used digital attenuation (although maybe one exists somewhere). For HDMI, I think they're usually digital based just because HDMI doesn't (AFAIK, correct me if I'm wrong) support volume control since its intended that the HDMI receiving device will implement volume control.

QUOTE (Roseval @ Apr 7 2013, 01:49) *
If I play over USB or Toslink, I can reduce the volume to 0 using the Win system volume control.
I do think this can only be done digital.


For USB, it'll be analog. I don't know about Toslink. Its older then even Windows, it may not support volume control commands.

When you set volume to zero, typically that enables the device's mute register, which puts the output amp into powersave mode.

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db1989
post Apr 7 2013, 17:06
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QUOTE (Satellite_6 @ Apr 7 2013, 15:56) *
If you want to correct someone no need to insult them jeez. Not everyone knows everything, and this does not necessarily mean that they are irrational. I really do not understand why this forum is so hostile. I think most of you guys need to see a shrink for anger management. :\

(feel free to delete this as off topic after you have read it)
Where is anyone being insulted? Even FiddleMingerís response to JasonQ doesnít qualify as an insult, at least not directly. My post was just questioning the motives behind that with a speculative possible reason, whereas carpman has elaborated with an older post that was relevant to said speculation Ė all of which, Iíll emphasise for the sake of not appearing vindictive to people as concerned as you seem to be Ė may turn out to be unrelated to FiddleMingerís position. None of this counts as insulting in my view.

And where exactly is the anger that you feel needs to be treated with therapy? There seems to be this meme, between sensibly sceptical communities and some onlookers, whereby reasoned questions or disagreement are somehow interpreted as angry crusades against the inviolable, sovereign institution of personal opinion. Where said opinion can be evaluated objectively or philosophically, I disagree.

Nowhere does that mean anyone is insulting anyone else. Especially in a setting where opinions were actively solicited, surely?

This post has been edited by db1989: Apr 7 2013, 17:06
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greynol
post Apr 7 2013, 17:38
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I honestly don't think the OP is an audiophile who believes happiness and sound quality are directly proportional to the amount of money spent on music gear. I do think he is a bit misinformed about digital audio.

DB1989 is right, we don't need to spend any time hashing-out old (or not-so-old conversations). In fact all I think that needs to be done is to point out things that are wrong. If people are interested in what is right, they can conduct their own research on their own time.

I think the desire for a physical volume control is reasonable, and if the Focusrite is the best bang for a DAC with a volume control, then great. If not and you aren't planning on using the ADC, I don't see the point.

This post has been edited by greynol: Apr 7 2013, 18:29


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