Sunday, 22 September 2013

Changes... It Begins!

As I had mentioned a few months ago in one of the responses to a post, I had plans to "upgrade" my home sometime in 2014...

As fate would have it, a house opened up for sale recently fitting the family's needs and I decided to grab the opportunity. This is going to be a very busy autumn for me and the family with a move to the new place in November! Between now and then, I've still got 2 business trips among other duties.

The upshot to the move? I'll finally have a good sized home theater space for the transition to a dedicated sound room for both stereo and multichannel listening :-). With that in mind, I've sold off the Simaudio Moon i3.3 integrated amp I had been using for the last few years...  It's time to move on to separates and the first box in this new system is this baby:

Yup, the Emotiva XSP-1 pre-amp - I got it on sale recently at 10% off (~$820USD before taxes). In the next few months, I hope to get a couple of monoblock amps for the fronts (may consider the Emotiva XPA-1 Gen 2 coming out soon). In time I'll buy a processor for the fancy "new" surround formats like DTS-HD Master Audio. For now, I figure I can live with the 10-year old Denon AVR-3802 for decode duties with the ubiquitous Dolby Digital and standard DTS - obviously multichannel isn't a major priority for now.

Just a few comments about the XSP-1. It's a nice full sized component weighing a reasonable 28lbs. The rear panel layout is good and connectors are of good quality - gold plated and robust enough to feel that they're not going to fall apart any time soon. It has a phono preamp with impedance settings which I suspect I will never use (not interested in vinyl for now at least). Line level outputs to the amplifiers available as RCA and XLR's (fully balanced topology of course is a main selling point for this preamp compared to less expensive options). I'm looking at integrating something like the Paradigm Signature SUB 1 into the system so I believe I will be using the crossover setting real soon and keeping it at the 50Hz low end. It'll easily handle a single or dual powered subwoofers. There's also a "Home Theater Input" section to easily integrate this unit in bypass mode for surround functionality.

I see that a full set of measurements have already been published by Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity. For curiosity, I might try out a few RightMark tests to see what the difference is between this unit and the pre-amp output from the Denon AVR-3802 at various output levels...  Could be educational.
A look at the guts... A lot of opamps in there. Under the stylized 'E' metal shielding is the power supply and resistor network volume control.
In terms of subjective sound quality, so far I'm just running this in a compromised system. With the Simaudio gone, I'm connecting the XLR from the TEAC UD-501 to the XSP-1 and routing the RCA output to the Denon's "external in" and using the receiver's amplifiers to drive the Paradigm Signature S8's... All I can say is that it does sound better than TEAC RCA to the CD input of the Denon. I wonder if the Denon is doing any internal ADC/DAC step even in the "Direct" setting which is supposed to defeat any DSP happening. For example, listening to Yello's 2009 album Touch Yello, the spatial ambiance and sense of "surround" was more prominent with the XSP-1 than directly into the Denon. Those Q-Sound albums like Madonna's Immaculate Collection, Def Leppard's Yeah!, and Sting's The Soul Cages also sounded fuller. Again, I'll see about obtaining some measurements and compare the quality of the Denon output with this new stereo preamp.

Nice metal remote. No problem getting programming for the Logitech Harmony I normally use.
If there is one criticism I have about this unit, it would be the headphone amp and output. As you can see from the first picture, the headphone jack is the small 3.5mm variety. It's fine for most of my headphones but for the higher end units like my Sennheiser HD800, I'd prefer the full 6.5mm (1/4") plug rather than having to use a converter.

The preamp will mute the line level output when it detects headphones in place so that's appropriate. The other issue is that the headphone output is relatively weak. The most power-hungry headphones I have is the AKG Q701. At full volume, it's loud enough for most rock/pop recordings. However, classical recordings with higher dynamic range and produced at softer average levels would need a more powerful headphone amp.

As always... Enjoy the music :-).

BTW: Can anyone recommend some good audio equipment stands? I'm planning to hang the flatscreen TV on the wall so don't need a TV stand. Something like the stackable Lovan Sovereigns look like a good idea since I will have enough room to put two low stacks side-by-side in front of the TV on the hardwood floor. If you know of other models/brands, I'm "all ears"!

Friday, 13 September 2013

MEASUREMENTS: PCM to DSD Upsampling Effects (JRiver MC19 Beta).

We're continuing to see a push into the DSD domain with renewed talk of music release as digital downloads requiring the purchase of a DSD DAC to natively play (eg. recent Acoustic Sounds DSD releases). For now, I have already voiced some concerns about DSD including practical issues like the gross limitations of the file format itself. I demonstrated the noise characteristics for both DSD64 and DSD128 in my TEAC measurements. Furthermore, I have shown that there already exists many SACD's appearing essentially to be upsampled PCM from standard sampling rates of 44/48 kHz (remember, it's almost a given that any music we listen to created in the last 20 years has at some point been through a PCM stage except specified pure analogue recordings or those specifically recorded in DSD with minimal processing).

Some writers have voiced that even the process of upsampling PCM to DSD will imbue the music with some of DSD's beneficial properties, is this true? If so, what happens?

Well, thanks to ongoing advancement in the computer audio world, we can now easily have a way to listen to our PCM music as a converted DSD stream... Enter JRiver Media Center 19 and it's ability to stream PCM --> DSD64/128 in realtime to a compatible DAC. [Note that this should also be possible using ASIOProxy from foobar - not tried personally.] This will allow an easy way for everyone to listen for themselves what happens to the sound either as the original PCM or transcoded to DSD with the assurance that we're comparing "apples-to-apples" with the same mastering.

First, as has been my custom, let's start with some objective measurements to see what the DSD encoding does to test signals.

I. Objective Measurements

General Setup:
AMD A10-5800K HTPC Win8 x64 running JRiver 19.0.37 (ASIOProxy workaround for DSD128) -> shielded USB -> TEAC UD-501 -> shielded 6' RCA -> E-MU 0404USB -> shielded USB -> Win8 laptop

TEAC DAC settings:
     - PCM: "SHARP" BB PCM1795 filter, no upsampling (default)
     - DSD: FIR3 analogue filter (closest volume match to PCM output)

JRiver Media Center 19.0.37 setting:
     - ASIO buffer set to "minimum hardware size" since someone suggested it sounded better :-) - no stuttering encountered playing music.

First, let's have a look at the 1kHz SQUARE WAVE off the digital oscilloscope (24/44 source):


DSD64 realtime conversion:

DSD128 realtime conversion:

As you can see, volume is about the same with the DSD FIR3 filter on the TEAC vs. PCM SHARP; both output ~2.85V peak with the square wave. What is also very obvious is how clean the PCM is vs. DSD. Notice the extra high frequency noise for both the DSD64 and DSD128 traces, with the DSD128 clearly less noisy. No surprise, right? If you've looked at the objective results from DSD here and elsewhere, this is pretty "normal" for DSD.

IMPULSE RESPONSE (16/44 PCM impulse):
PCM SHARP filter:

DSD64 realtime upsampling:

DSD128 realtime upsampling:

Noise is again very evident in this "zoomed in" impulse response measured at 24/192 especially from the DSD64 process. Although impulse response graphs can be excellent with MHz sampling rate (this is often a "talking point" in the DSD/Sony ad literature over the years), when resampling PCM to DSD, we're still hampered by the PCM signal's original sampling rate (eg. 44kHz). Evidently JRiver uses a typical linear phase reconstruction filter; hence the symmetrical pre- and post-ringing.


DSD64 realtime upsampling:
DSD128 realtime upsampling:
No meaningful differences between PCM and the DSD realtime conversion. This also means no evidence of worsened jitter with all that extra processing converting PCM to DSD in the computer at least based on the spectral output of this test (typically, this computer's AMD CPU utilization went from <5% with PCM to ~15% for DSD upsampling). DSD64 is obviously of enough resolution to accurately demonstrate the jitter modulation signal in the LSB for the 16-bit test.


Calculations done in the AUDIBLE SPECTRUM (20-20kHz).
Frequency Response
These graphs of upsampled 24/192 test tones echo the results in the TEAC DSD Measurements back in May. I used KORG Audiogate to convert PCM to DSD back in May and it looks like the mathematical process in both JRiver and Audiogate are of similar precision. Within the audible spectrum, the PCM and DSD measurements are all very similar. A good indication of high precision in the conversion process. What is again evident is the noise once we get above 20kHz especially with DSD64.

II. Subjective Experience

As per the premise of this blog being "more objective", I'm not going to write pages on that which is experienced for oneself. However, I'll put down a few thoughts for consideration...

Listening gear:
     - Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 off TEAC DAC
     - Speaker system: TEAC UD-501 --> Simaudio Moon i3.3 --> Paradigm Signature S8 v3 (standard OFC cables)

The DSD conversion process through this TEAC DAC does change the electrical output as seen by the objective measurements above. This alone means that it's real compared to the identical measurements found with different bitperfect software and digital cables previously reported.

There does seem to be a change in the perceived detail of the sound subjectively through the gear I listed... Note that I'm taking the liberty here to not subject myself to a blind test so I fully admit that I could be wrong on this :-). Furthermore the fact that since it's not an instantaneous 'flip', echoic memory is prone to be unreliable. With these caveats, my current feeling is that both DSD64 and DSD128 conversion adds a potentially euphonic characteristic to the sound. No, IMO, it's not a dramatic difference when listening volume is controlled. [For those using the TEAC DAC, remember that the default FIR2 filter for DSD is louder than PCM by ~2.5dB - this could of course be misconstrued as sounding "better" for DSD.]

What do I hear? As I mentioned in my previous post on getting DSD128 upsampling working on the TEAC, I think the sound is less "etched". There's a pleasant subtle added smoothness to the transients. I think many may describe this as being less fatiguing, maybe less of the "digital glare". I couldn't specifically put a preference on DSD64 vs. DSD128 but knowing the ultrasonic effects, it wouldn't take much to convince me that DSD128 is better since the ultrasonic noise is further away from the audible spectrum. However, if you believe that the noise itself creates euphonia, it's also conceivable that DSD128 would sound closer to PCM than DSD64. Maybe.

I listened to a few standard 16/44 albums in DSD128 like a first pressing Michael Jackson Thriller, the well recorded Al Di Meola Winter Nights, and Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing. They all sounded great. Like I said, marginally smoother than PCM. I think poorly recorded harsh albums may benefit even more - for example Alan Silvestri's The Avengers score is mastered in "modern" overcompressed fashion with DR9 average dynamic range (not good for an instrumental soundtrack IMO). DSD128 upsampling seemed to make it more listenable for longer duration.

Vinyl rips (24/96) of Tracy Chapman's Fast Car and Whitney Houston's One Moment In Time sounded very nice as well... "Extra" analogue from digital from vinyl :-). Again, the inability to instantaneously switch between PCM-to-DSD makes it hard to A-B compare reliably.

Unfortunately I did not take a screenshot of the phase measurements, but it looked good. Listening to phase-effect tracks such as those encoded in Q-Sound like Def Leppard's Rock On (David Essex remake off Yeah!), and Roger Waters' Too Much Rope (off Amused To Death) nicely created the impression of spatial surround and depth. Whether that sense of depth is any better with the DSD upsampling is of course debatable.

III. Conclusion

1. PCM to DSD upconversion is a DSP process. The signal output is measurably different.

2. Noise shaping pushes the DSD quantization noise into the ultrasonic frequencies as expected. In DSD64 it rises above the noise floor almost right at 20kHz, and in DSD128 it starts around 40kHz. (I vote for pushing it up to 40kHz as less likely to cause distortion through the amp & speakers.)

3. Pre- and post-ringing is similar to standard PCM with upsampling using MC19's algorithm so this would not explain any audible differences.

4. The algorithm used in JRiver MC19 does a good job with maintaining classic measurement parameters like frequency response, dynamic range, and distortion from 20-20kHz  - basically this means the math is as expected and fits the DSD output profile. Results are similar to the KORG AudioGate software converting PCM-to-DSD.

I can't help but wonder if what's happening here is like tube amps and analogue playback (eg. vinyl). Objectively the DSD conversion adds distortion but the anomalies are not perceived as objectionable and in some material, the added noise and imprecision actually makes it sound less "sterile", "clinical", more "real" (conversely being in an anechoic chamber is disturbingly unreal due to the profound silence). It would make sense to me that some people could prefer DSD64 over DSD128 upconversion since DSD64 will give you more of that distortion. Even though the noise is ultrasonic in nature as measured off the DAC, nonlinearities in the playback system like your headphones and speakers (perhaps certain amps as well) could create audible intermodulation. Maybe for certain music, this could be especially beneficial.

Out of curiosity... For anyone out there with the EMM Labs DAC2X which upsamples to DSD128, it'd be great to have a look at what the measurements are from that unit! With all the positive press about how this DAC sounds (ahem... $15.5K), I have yet to see any measurements... I wonder what a 16/44 impulse response looks like for example to see if it bears similarity to what JRiver is doing. How about the ultrasonic noise with DSD64 & analogue filter strength? Does the EMM upsampling process for PCM result in similar frequency response pattern?

In any case, give this PCM-to-DSD process a try at some point when you can. If nothing else, at least to say you've experienced it... See if you can perceive a difference and/or judge if it's beneficial for yourself.

Tonight's music: Valery Gergiev & LSO's Mahler Symphony No. 9 (2011). Nice recent classical recording available in SACD format as well.

You might notice that I turned on AdSense on the blog.

As I have said in the past, my intention for this blog has never been about making money. I have no formal relationship with any company so have no sales incentive and am not interested in making this some kind "publication" other than what it has been - a blog about my own journey in audiophilia with a bent towards finding answers using empirical/objective means. That remains my main interest.

Nonetheless, it's trivial to "flip" the AdSense switch. I would have no idea what Google tries to market to you, and trust that the layout won't be distracting (I've switched off some questionable types of ads like for dating sites or of a sexual nature). If it gets me a few bucks for my digital downloads for what I do as a hobby anyway, I'll be happy with that!

Best regards...

Saturday, 7 September 2013

HOWTO: Getting JRiver MC19 PCM to 2xDSD (DSD128) upsampling working on TEAC UD-501...

A quick post here for those trying to get beta JRiver MC19's 2xDSD (DSD128) upsampling working on the TEAC UD-501. [Currently I'm using beta MC19.0.37.]

See the thread here where the discussion was started - thanks for putting attention on this InflatableMouse. Apparent there are some buffer issues with the TEAC driver and native ASIO, and at this point MC19 isn't supporting a 2xDSD upsampling with DoP option. Here's a workaround:

1. Download and install ASIOProxyInstall-0.6.5 from the SourceForge link here.
2. Go into MC19 and set audio device as "foo_dsd_asio [ASIO]", Bitstreaming as "Yes (DSD over PCM (DOP))". Should look like this:
3. Now lets set up ASIOProxy itself. Go into that "Device settings..." tab. Look at the "Tools" section and click "Open Driver Control Panel...". You'll see this pop up:
Make the settings as above especially with Fs as DSD128.

4. Finally, go into "DSD & output format..." in MC19 and set output format to "2xDSD in native format":

There you go.

Should now be listening to all PCM music upsampled to DSD128 on the TEAC. Native DSD files will be bitstreamed in their respective DSD64 or DSD128 forms direct to the DAC without MC19 processing like volume control.

Using an AMD A10-5800K processor, I'm seeing CPU use peaking at ~20% and usually 10-15%  even with upsampling 24/192 music. Not bad!

Hopefully TEAC and JRiver can come up with a solution for native ASIO streaming or support of DSD128 upsampling in DoP in the future...

BTW: I just got back from holidays a little jet lagged so haven't played with this much yet. However, on my system, upsampling to DSD64/128 certainly sounds different than PCM and I can certainly see the appeal - there seems to be more weight to the bass and the sound isn't as "etched".  There is a bit of level difference between DSD & PCM playback so I will need to listen more back and forth to see which setting I prefer.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

A Visit to The Adelphi, Singapore...

As promised, I managed to visit The Adelphi in Singapore to have a listen. It's quite close to the City Hall MRT (their 'subway' system), down the street from St. Andrew's Cathedral.

One day, I hope to get to check out an audio show like maybe the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Until then, it can be very difficult to listen to good high-end gear in North America. But this is thankfully not the case in other places like Singapore.

Over the years, I have come by to visit some of these stores whenever I've been in town (at least 3 times now, maybe more). Previously I have come with my dad, brother; this time with my 8 year old son to audition some of the gear. On a weekday, it's not busy and at most we ran into maybe another customer or two at any one time. Each time, the shop keepers have always been courteous and for the most part, they're happy with foreigners snooping around taking photos...  Good audio discussions with very knowledgeable folks as well - no pushy sales lines here and they're happy to let the music run while off doing something else. I suspect this is a better ambiance than what I hear about some of the audio shows :-). [I wish all the proprietors in Vancouver could be like this.]

Due to limited time, I only got a chance to check out a handful of the audition rooms. For the most part, they're set up very well and include room treatments like absorption panels and bass traps. As on previous trips, I brought my own CD to have a listen to some "standards"...

McIntosh / Focal Room (ONG-AV Specialists):
Focal 1028be paired with McIntosh MC601 monoblocks (600W). Nice sound. The beryllium tweeters sound fine. Good treble extension on pop tracks like Michael Jackson's "Black Or White" without harshness.

Love the analogue power meter on these things. Note the Richard Gray power conditioner in the back (upper photo). I can't remember which McIntosh CD player was being used.

Audio Note / Avantgarde Room (Audio Note Singapore):
On the other side of the equation there's also this room - very high sensitivity 104dB/W Avantgarde Uno Fino horns with low power Audio Note Quest Silver Signature 9W Class A mono amps.

Preamp was the Kondo KSL-M7, fed by an Abbingdon CD-777.

Sounds pretty good but I thought it was leaner than the McIntosh system above. Also, didn't push the volume too high... As usual, hard to evaluate systems in unfamiliar and different room setups.

Constellation Audio / Eggleston Room (Audio Note Singapore):

We've got the 250Wpc stereo Centaur amp up front. Virgo preamp mid-right of the rack, and an Audio Note CDT Five transport hooked up to an Abbingdon Digital Processor-777 DAC. Speakers are the Eggleston Fontaine Signature.

Sounds good to me. Similar to the McIntosh setup above I would say...

mbl Room (Coherence Audio):
One of my favorites over the years has been to check out the mbl showroom. I've heard the larger system here a number of times consisting of the Radialstrahler 101 E Mk II with accompanying dual 9011 as monoblocks (440W, 8 ohms), 1621A CD transport, 1611F DAC, and 6010D preamp. Without question, this is amazing sound. These speakers are all passive with sensitivity of 81dB/2.83V/m so a powerful amp is a must!

In the back in that picture above, you see the huge bass module for the 101 X-treme speakers:
Unfortunate these guys weren't hooked up.

I see on this visit they have the mbl "Corona" line of electronics hooked up with the 116F Radialstrahler speakers:
The 2 monoblocks in the lower shelf are 500W (into 4 ohms) C15 Class D amps, accompanied by the C31 CD player, and C11 preamp. Again, sounds great although I think they could use some more bass traps in that room; I noticed some irregularity in the bass line on Rebecca Pidgeon's "Spanish Harlem" for example.

Other interesting gear:
Triode TRV-88SER integrated amp. 45Wpc I believe into 8 ohms. Didn't get to hear this but very nice eye candy.

 Kondo Ongaku-Pre KSL-M77 for you boutique analogue Japanese gear lovers...

Now a couple of "omnidirectional" speakers from Duevel - the Planets and Enterprise.

Interesting looking designs. Not sure how this would sound and would love to see some measurements!

Even though I didn't get the time to peruse through the collection of goodies, there are some music shops as well carrying good collections of LP and audiophile remasterings like MFSL and Audio Fidelity...

I also had a good listen to some B&W 802 Diamonds with the Olive 6HD server thanks to the folks at Eighteen 77 but didn't get a chance to take some photos. Playing with the Olive unit, I remain impressed by the Squeezebox in terms of speed and flexibility. IMO, the Squeezebox server system remains the best I have used.

There's also a very nice headphone place which I had visited on previous trips. Nice. A good afternoon of window shopping for the boys while the girls go off to find shoes, clothes, etc. :-)

Hope this whets your appetite to visit The Adelphi for those thinking of going to Singapore.

Well, vacation time over - back to school for the kids and back to work for me :-).

Friday, 30 August 2013

Greetings from Asia...

Thought I'd put up a quick post since it's the end of August...

Been traveling around a few countries over the last few weeks with the family. I've kept my eyes open to see if I can spot some good audio gear but so far no luck. Beijing for example has huge malls of IT gear - computers, cameras, DIY pieces, electric toys, surveillance equipment, and massive floors of flat screen TV's. Barely anything hi-fi to be found. Maybe I just didn't hit the right stores!

One thing that's quite clear these days, with the year-on-year inflation running close to 3% over the last few years, with inflation up to 8%/year back around 2006-2007, Beijing (large cities in China in general) sure isn't cheap these days for most things from a foreigner's perspective. The cost of housing/condos these days would be horribly prohibitive for middle-class young folks to set up a decent sound room.

Note that I did run into a few speakers that looked like clones of the B&W Nautilus 801 of questionable workmanship...  Otherwise, what I saw looked like quite low-end receivers and the ubiquitous soundbars meant for small home theatres.

I've been to Singapore a number of times, about every 2-3 years for personal travel and work-related duties. It's amazing the development over the last few years...  I guess opening up for gambling does tend to draw in liquidity :-). This despite decades of bans against gambling out of a strong moral stance. Behold, the Marina Bay Sands and the "supertrees" out at the Gardens By The Bay right across from it:

For tonight, I sign off from a spotty WiFi connection here in Ao Nang, the tourist village close to Krabi, Thailand. Some of the islands around here got hit pretty hard by the tsunami back in 2004.

I'll be back in Singapore next week and hope to hit The Adelphi for some hi-fi auditioning... Wishing all a good Labour Day long weekend ahead (in N. America at least) :-).

Sunday, 11 August 2013

MEASUREMENTS: WD TV Live - A look at (and listen to) the digital "low end".

I'm sure we've all seen these ubiquitous devices at the local BestBuy, Costco, Walmart, etc.

Even as an "audiophile", you might be tempted to purchase one for streaming audio/video to the den, basement, bedroom, etc... As you can see, on the back, from right to left, there's the little phono plug which functions as composite video/stereo audio (comes with a supplied cable), then a second USB port (one up front), HDMI, 10/100 ethernet, TosLink, and power plug to the wallwart.

It's mass market, inexpensive (this particular no-frills model usually goes for <$100), and there are a number of equivalent digital streamers out there with a similar feature set (Patriot, Roku, D-Link, Pivos, etc.). Although it's primarily meant to be a digital HDMI transport, I wanted to see what this could offer for the audio lover... In my mind, "mass market" and "inexpensive" are not bad characteristics. IMO consumers should be thrilled to find a technically good/excellent product at this price point and ease of availability if they can! Furthermore, I think it's worth looking at the "low end" to understand just what is gained with better quality gear more to the "high end".

The P/N at the bottom of the unit was WDBHG70000NBK-01. This was bought back in 2011 by my brother-in-law so current models may have hardware differences. I tried to open the unit up to have a look inside but there are no screws and I really did not want to potentially damage the aesthetics (it's not mine after all!). I see Legit Reviews opened an even earlier unit back in 2009 and found a Sigma SMP8655 SoC inside but didn't comment on what DAC was being used. I imagine this model would be based on something similar. Legit Reviews has another article on this model but no discussion on the chipset.

Let's see objectively then what this little device can do...

I. Stereo analogue output:

Let us first start with looking at what's coming out of that composite/stereo RCA cable from the built-in DAC. The supplied phono-to-RCA cable is cheap and thin but functional, about 3 feet long.

Test signals & music (FLAC) on high speed ADATA USB3 stick --> WD TV (front USB) --> supplied audio/video RCA cable --> E-MU 0404USB --> shielded USB --> Win8 test laptop

WD TV firmware (latest): 1.16.13

I'm using a high speed 32GB USB3 stick. Although it's a USB2 port, I did not run into any troubles. All audio was encoded in FLAC lossless compression. This setup should provide the best audio quality from the unit (ie. no streaming issues or risk of lossy transcoding). There's no digital volume control to affect the sound quality as far as I can tell. I mainly want to see just how objectively accurate this device can decode audio through its own DAC and as an optical TosLink transport later.

Here's the 0dBFS 1kHz square wave through the oscilloscope:
Good channel balance and credible square wave. Peak voltage at ~1.23V. Notice the plateau isn't flat suggesting imperfections in the voltage regulation.

Impulse response:

Somewhat unexpected, looks like an intermediate phase upsampling digital filter was used which decreases the pre-ringing for a more extended post-ring. Absolute polarity maintained.

Here is a summary of the "big board" - I've included data from the Squeezebox Touch and with the Transporter representing the kind of result one usually associates with "high end" products:

Basically we see that this device is capable of 16-bit resolution with marginal improvement going to 24-bit data. Interestingly, it seems to be handling 88kHz okay - good frequency extension beyond 30kHz:

But, 96kHz and above (I also tested 192kHz) looks like it's being downsampled to 48kHz (verified when I did the digital tests below):

Odd, I wonder why they didn't support 96kHz since it's not that much higher than 88kHz and arguably more useful.

A few comparison charts at 24/48 then:
Frequency Response:

Noise level:


Clearly the WD TV Live cannot compete with either Squeezebox products technically. Frequency response is down to -3dB by 20Hz which can result in audibly weak bass. Also, there's some kind of high frequency noise at around 16kHz.

As I have demonstrated in the past, jitter (as can be measured with the Dunn J-Test) is usually NOT an issue unless there's an S/PDIF interface in the way.  This is true with the WD TV Live:

16-bit Dunn J-Test:

24-bit Dunn J-Test:
No anomalous sidebands with the J-Test at all. No surprise... However, that nasty 16 kHz noise can be seen in the graphs above!

1kHz -90.3dB Waveforms:
So, what does the 1kHz -90dB undithered 16-bit waveform look like?
Hmmm. As you can see the left (green) channel is very noisy compared to the right (blue). In fact, you can generally make out the 3 voltage levels in the blue tracing suggesting good representation of a 16-bit bit-perfect signal. I determined that the 16kHz noise was primarily in that right channel...  Ugly, but arguably still better than the TDA1543 NOS DAC I showed in the previous post. Remember that this is zoomed in looking at a -90dBFS signal.

Here's the same waveform in 24-bits:
Again, noisy left (green) channel with a smoother sine wave with the right (blue) tracing.

Okay... Obviously the analogue output leaves much to be desired straight out of the WD TV Live.

II. As S/PDIF TosLink Digital Transport:

Test signals & music (FLAC) on high speed ADATA USB3 stick --> WD TV (front USB) --> 9' generic plastic TosLink --> ASUS Essence One DAC --> 3' shielded RCA --> E-MU 0404USB --> shielded USB --> Win8 test laptop

I tested the WD TV Live with audio set as "Stereo" as well as "Digital TosLink Pass Through" in the Setup menu and noticed no difference for regular PCM audio.

The results are clearly improved over the analogue output above. Basically, these numbers are in line with the usual result out of the Essence One using unbalanced RCA cables. (Note that some of my other tests are with XLR balanced cables which usually improves dynamic range by about 3dB.)

You might be curious why there's no 24/88 result...  Interestingly, even though 24/88 could be played with the analogue output, it doesn't output a digital signal at that sample rate! I can see the Essence One going into 24/88 mode but there's only silence! I don't believe this is an issue with the DAC since with the Squeezebox Touch (EDO kernel), I am able to play up to 24/192 using the TosLink interface (most device pairs are limited to 24/96 with TosLink).

Again, 24/96 is downsampled to 24/48:

Let's now compare the 24/48 result with some of  the other transport devices I used in my previous post comparing various digital transports connected to the ASUS DAC via TosLink:

Frequency response:

Notice the slight variability between the devices up in the high frequency range.  Again, my suspicion is that this is due to slight timing differences in the S/PDIF signal. Zoomed in, you see that the WD TV Live is actually right at the middle of the pack: 

Noise Level:


Stereo Crosstalk:

As you can see, other than that slight frequency response difference, the other tests show no significant difference between the digital transports with the ASUS Essence One DAC. Unless you have better than 0.1dB hearing acuity up at 18kHz, that slight frequency response variance between the devices should not be significant.

16-bit Dunn J-Test:

24-bit Dunn J-Test:

Well, there's the S/PDIF jitter for you. Jitter modulation pattern is obvious which means we're looking at a bit-perfect signal from the WD TV. 24-bit tracing is clearly more jittery than at 16-bits. The WD TV Live's digital output is more jittery than the previous devices tested (you can find those graphs in this post).

1kHz -90dB Waveforms:
16-bit undithered:

24-bit undithered:

Much better looking zoomed-in waveforms - as expected from the Essence One DAC. Only a bit-perfect source would be able to produce that 16-bit undithered waveform morphology above.

III. Summary:

So, this is what a $100 streamer can do in terms of audio these days. On the whole, not too bad actually! Some level of inaccuracy is expected in the objective analysis; not surprising given the compromises at this price point for something that's targeted more for digital video playback/streaming.

In terms of analogue audio quality directly off the unit:
1. It's a 16-bit internal DAC that's demonstrably noisy down at the LSB level. Although it has aspirations for 24-bits, there's really no significant benefit.

2. It's curiously able to manage 88kHz but anything above gets downsampled. IMO might as well stay with 44 & 48kHz.

3. The frequency response is hampered by bass roll-off of a greater magnitude than I'd be comfortable with. This IMO is the most audible effect and results in audibly "weak" bass.

4. There are suggestions of power supply issues with the square wave stability, and electrical noise up at 16kHz especially affecting the right channel in this sample I'm testing.

5. If a person were to complain about the sound quality of the analogue output, please don't point your finger at the dreaded jitter...  The issues above are much more significant.

As a digital transport using TosLink to the ASUS Essence One DAC:
1. RightMark results off the ASUS DAC are completely in keeping with the other bit-perfect transport devices previously tested (like the Touch, Transporter, Receiver, SB3, laptop-to-CM6631A, etc...)

2. This device is strangely incapable of sending an 88kHz signal to my ASUS Essence One even though it can decode 24/88 with the analogue out. Again, 24/96 and above gets downsampled to 24/48. More reason to just stay with 44 and 48kHz sampling rates.

3. S/PDIF TosLink jitter is demonstrably elevated compared to the other devices. This is the most technically anomalous finding (apart from the limited/idiosyncratic sampling rate support).

Subjectively, I had a listen to the analogue output of the WD TV Live with my Sennheiser HD800 headphones over a couple of nights. Despite the measurable limitations, it actually doesn't sound bad. With softer tracks like Queen's Love Of My Life (DCC Remaster) and Tracy Chapman's Fast Car, it sounds reasonably detailed except for a bit of harshness in the upper frequencies ("brittle" sounding high-hats and cymbals for example on a few of the tracks). With louder/bass-heavy tracks like AC/DC's Thunderstruck or Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up, it doesn't "rock" as hard but most of the bass is still there; just not as accentuated as I'm normally used to. On loud, compressed tracks like Tyler Bates' To Victory ('300' soundtrack), things seem congested but not unenjoyable.

Once I switched to the digital TosLink output, it sounded like the ASUS Essence One. Nice and clear, good bass definition, quiet background. Even though higher amount of jitter is demonstrated with the J-Test compared to the other devices tested, I remain unconvinced that it's audible in regular music. I agree that with a S/PDIF interface, bits are not just bits but include timing inaccuracies (jitter), however I remain unimpressed that jitter of the magnitude I'm measuring with the WD TV Live negatively affects audio quality in a meaningful fashion.

So far, I'm still of the opinion that bit-perfect digital transports sound essentially the same when connected to a decent external DAC (consistent with the results here recently and here where I tested different laptops awhile back).

Remember that for these tests, I'm just using audio stored on a USB thumb drive. I did not set up the WD TV Live to stream off the ethernet/WiFi so cannot comment on how that would sound.

Music selection tonight: Time for a little "latin jazz"? Poncho Sanchez's "Freedom Sound" (1997) and "Cambios" (1991) are great for a warm summer night :-). Well recorded, dynamic albums with sweet music...


Guys, even though I just got back from a trip, I'm heading off to another soon :-). Busy summer with the family. Have a great August! I hope to check out some audiophile shops in Singapore this time around like The Adelphi.