I was actually planning to just take a little break this week but given that it's almost September, I'll be away for Labour Day and school's starting for the kids with likely some virtual elements, I thought I'd just pen a not-too-long post not so much about audio but rather the highly computer-dependent world we're living in (with a bit about audiophile stuff to end).
First, I think it's quite obvious to many of us these days just how important technology has become for the modern person living in the developed world. With my kids now both in high school, they each need a laptop. My son (the older one) has for years required a fast enough machine to get some of his group projects done; many involving audio/video production - I guess that's how it's done these days!
In the last few months, the need for the IT infrastructure has accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic now making it more important than ever that the kids do tele-education, while myself and my wife are logging on to work from home and essentially every meeting now done through Zoom or Skype or Microsoft Teams.
I don't know about you, but I'm exhaustively "Zoomed out" at this point with no end in sight.
With all this going on, and being the "computer mechanic" here at home, I've been dealing with tech issues here and there. The other day, after a couple years of lugging the laptop to work every day, plus as my travel companion to Europe and Asia, my Huawei Matebook X Pro's (discussed when I bought it back in June 2018) M.2 PCIe NVMe drive decided to corrupt the boot record. Thankfully no data was lost, and this served as a warning to replace the stock LiteOn CA3 M.2 drive with a quality Samsung 970 Evo (500GB still all I need for work, ~US$90).
While researching which M.2 NVMe drive to get, I was really quite struck by just how similar they all are these days. I mean, speedwise, there's little practical difference for office duties when it comes to which brand to choose since whether Samsung, or WD, or Intel, or Crucial, or Kingston, they're all just fast. The main points are making sure that you choose a compatible model (physical size, and make sure to differentiate between NVMe vs. AHCI variants of M.2), the capacity you want, a reputable brand that's reliable, and of course a good price.
Samsung has been a good bet in the world of SSD storage and the 970 EVO line has been around for awhile now with good speed and reliability. While the standard EVO is fine for me and likely will outlast the life of this laptop, there's the 970 EVO Plus that's a little faster, and the 970 PRO if you want better warranty and lifespan. Shop around for a good price.
Here's a peek inside the Huawei laptop which I think is still the best "ultrabook" type laptop I have ever used (including Apple models):
With thin machines these days, it's a bit of a pain getting all the little screws off. You can see the screws laid out above oriented in a pattern relative to the holes of the heatsink I took off. These are tiny and very easy to lose! Notice the Samsung 970 EVO in the NVMe slot to the left. You can see the CPU to the right of the motherboard close to the round fan above the RAM chips. And this laptop has a discreet nVidia GPU on the left with a couple memory chips. I've taken off the heat conduction paste and will be applying some fresh paste when I put the heat sink back on for the CPU and GPU.
And here's with the heatsink back on using those little screws; notice one of the copper "pipes" cooling the NVMe as well:
The stock LiteOn NVMe stick is out and lying to the left. Not the easiest drive replacement by far, but not too difficult and reflective of what needs to be done with the thin form factor!
Although I don't trust the LineOn NVMe drive in my primary work laptop given what happened, I was able to get chkdsk to repair the Windows 10 boot partition and salvage all my data. This is fortunate in that often with SSDs, catastrophic hardware failures result in completely inaccessible drives rather than a more "gentle" loss of data as we might see with aging hard drives. Always remember backups of course. For data recovery, I got a M.2-to-USB3 enclosure for the drive.
"Wanfocyu" is a terrible sounding brand but it works ;-). The aluminum casing is strong and heatsink solution seems quite good. The memory controller on the NVMe definitely gets quite warm so I wonder if the recent failure might just be because of inadequate cooling in the laptop on a hot summer day. While I might not trust the drive for important backups, the NVMe in a USB3.1 (10Gbps) enclosure makes for a fast USB drive! I'm clocking >300MB/second write speed from my computer's internal SSD even with a bunch of smaller files (potentially even faster since I'm only using a USB3.0 5Gbps hub).
That's my work laptop, as for change to my home technology, I recently replaced the WiFi router. Basically, now that everybody has a laptop here at home, a cell phone, multiple devices doing Netflix/YouTube/Amazon Prime/teleconference streaming, I was starting to get complaints that connection strength was spotty with instabilities upstairs in the far corner of the house 2 floors up from where the router lives during "heavy" load in the evenings.
There are a ton of WiFi routers out there these days. Make sure to check out this amazingly well-done FAQ - "Understanding Wi-Fi 4/5/6/6E". Bravo on the research and putting all that information together! It includes key information like keeping your 2.4GHz network at channels 1/6/11, 20MHz bandwidth and such... Plus cuts through a lot of the jargon and ad-speak.
As in audio, there's a bunch of hype out there in terms of wireless network claims - this is what happens with technological maturity in general I think as companies need to create ways to differentiate product cycles. Just because a router has a big number like "AC5300" as opposed to "AC2400" doesn't necessarily mean the actual throughput at home is going to be proportionally different. True performance gains are being made in multiple ways but actual throughput has been at best slowly incremental for years. Speeds will vary widely depending on distance plus both your router and clients (laptop, phone, tablet, etc.). Anyhow, check out the FAQ and keep in mind your needs - for example if you're living in an apartment, having access to all 5GHz DFS channels become more important, consider whether you might benefit from MIMO, dual vs. tri-band if there are lots of devices at home, do any devices support WiFi 6 yet, etc.
To improve my WiFi at home, I found this refurbished dual-band "AC3150" D-Link Ultra DIR-885L A2 hardware revision on sale for just over US$110 (it's the little brother to the rather extreme tri-band Ultra DIR-895L AC5300 model). Not by any means a new/current model but the price was right and seemed to fit my needs.
Cosmetics are rather pretty in red and would look nice on a table if you wanted to show off your tech - not sure who would. ;-) I've found "refurbished"/"renewed" products to be fine over the years and have saved money. For the most part, they look brand new and probably were just barely used open-box returns for whatever reason.
Realistically, in the furthest reaches of the house, 5GHz is going to be a stretch unless I use a range extender upstairs. I've never had any 5GHz router be stable at that distance. I've found the 2.4GHz strength quite good and speed very reasonable throughout the house at "Medium" transmission power with this device however. Honestly speaking, since the kids' bedrooms are at those outer reaches, I don't actually need wireless speed to be highest up there! :-)
I don't think it actually makes a difference, but this router does have one of the highest 2.4GHz theoretical speed ratings at 1000Mbps. The unit's "Smart Connect" function creates a single SSID and automatically selects whether a device uses the 2.4GHz or 5GHz band and is working well with no complaints from the family. While not based on one of the newest "AX" router technologies, modern features like beamforming, 4x4 MIMO are found here. Coupled with the fast dual-core 1.4GHz CPU inside, routing and WAN transfer speeds are very good, easily handling my 300Mbps download speed through the ISP. As expected, no issues connecting this with my Netgear GS110MX switch which I use for 10GbE speed between the main Workstation-Server machines. The router gets warm to the touch but not hot. Uptime >15 days of heavy usage so far without seeing any reboots.
Another feature I look for in my routers is the ability to use the open DD-WRT firmware with advanced features if needed. For now the latest stock firmware is working out just fine. Over the years I've used static IP for some of the main devices like the Server computer within the 192.168.1.XXX range. While the D-Link defaults to 192.168.0.1 for the router, it's easy to change that to 192.168.1.1 and I didn't have to adjust configuration for any of the other devices.
Here's the bottom of the unit for those wondering about mounting to a wall which I do in my ethernet/cable panel; the mounting holes are about 7.5" apart. Over the years, I have not seen any kind of standard for this. This also gives you an idea of the size of the machine which isn't as imposing as the Netgear Nighthawk R7000 it just replaced.
(I recently also used the TP-Link AX3000/AX50 for a bit which worked well but without DD-WRT firmware support due to the MIPS-based Intel GRX350 SoC and the uncertainties of WiFi 6 / 802.11ax which is still a draft standard, I decided to return the unit.)
If you are wondering, changing the WiFi router has never changed the sound quality of my wireless music streamer devices. I have not found WiFi to worsen noise levels even with inexpensive devices. Just make sure the connection is fast enough if you're streaming 24-bits or high samplerate material with stable, high signal strength. You know... Bits Are Bits.
While this post has been mainly about computer and network upgrades heading into September, for the digital audiophile, I think we can see correlations with the computer audio hobby. After all, unless one were to hang on to physical media like CDs and SACDs, eventually one would need to deal with computer hardware, network setup, and replacement of things like hard drives.
IMO, choosing a high quality DAC these days is becoming more like picking a good computer component. DACs these days are being sold in a competitive environment where the core "utilitarian" function (ie. conversion of digital data to analogue signal with good quality) is actually routinely performed well by a multitude of products vying for consumer dollars. As an example, an expensive dCS DAC brings with it luxurious appearance and brand recognition among enthusiasts, but in terms of sound quality it isn't going to sound that much different from a much less expensive chi-fi Topping or SMSL utilizing good ESS or AKM conversion chips. Apart from appearance and brand name, features like which digital inputs you want (USB, S/PDIF, AES/EBU, I²S maybe), headphone jack(s), balanced analog outputs, network streaming, and perks like Bluetooth connectivity are what differentiates products these days.
I know, audiophile traditionalists might take issue with the above claim since many believe sonic differences are significant and want to maintain the perspective that valuable, higher quality sound correlates to price. As Warren Buffet once recalled "Price is what you pay; value is what you get". Price and value are separate things yet connected by varying degrees depending on the context. A manufacturer can ask for whatever price they feel the market will bear for the profits they need (the "high end" believes their products demand a high price), but as a consumer, it's value I most desire.
This brings up some important points when we look at reviews of expensive products. Have a listen to John Darko from 21:10 onward in this review:
I think it must be frustrating being a subjective reviewer these days for stuff like expensive DACs and trying to make a case for an item he personally probably can't afford at retail price. It appears that many reviewers of "high end" products can't afford the stuff either. I certainly see his point that if one had "50 grand speakers, 20 grand amplifiers", sure, the Tambaqui could be a nice addition to the system at "10 grand" with its distinctive looks and I'm sure high fidelity output. However, he obviously is correlating price with whether something is "high end enough". Is that how "high end" is defined - using the "grand" as a unit of measurement? Is it truly justified to throw in a "10 grand" DAC based on the idea of cost proportionality for the system? As you can imagine, based on my writings over the years, this is not what I personally feel the audiophile pursuit is about at all!
Three main points I want to make here:
1. Remember, some components don't need to cost much to sound great! This was the point of this post last year. From the perspective of measured quantitative and subjective qualitative differences in fidelity, going from $1,000 to $10,000 speakers likely with get you better full-range frequency response, better power handling, improved cabinet and drivers. The potential audible improvements would be beyond the difference between a $1,000 to $10,000 DAC "upgrade"! As I alluded to last week, this is correlated to the complexity of speakers compared to the relative ease in measuring electronic components like a DAC these days. DAC technology is simply mature enough to get the job done with excellent fidelity at an affordable price. As such, I think these days a good <US$500 DAC (maybe something like a SMSL M500 with balanced outputs, remote, based on the ES9038Pro DAC) would be just great with "50 grand speakers, 20 grand amplifiers".
2. If you agree with me that item 1 above is true, then the "utilitarian" value proposition for an expensive DAC is very poor. This is the same argument as audiophile cables where IMO the main reason people want to buy fancy looking fat wires is due to "non-utilitarian" luxury factors, not what they actually do for the sound at all (which is essentially nothing beyond otherwise decent generic cables). By definition, if we desire DACs that are high fidelity and "transparent" to the source data, then the audible differences between objectively well-measuring devices would be minimal since they will be reproducing the digital signal almost identically if not essentially "perfectly" these days. This simple fact is true regardless of whether the person drives a Kia or wealthy enough to cruise in a chauffeur-driven Bentley!
3. Rich people do care about value. The only difference is that a person who pulls in $500,000/year will of course be more free to purchase an expensive sound system compared to one who takes in $50,000/year and running a tight budget. The real-life wealthy folks I know don't live like those portrayed in the trashy media throwing money around as if nothing. As technological products, it doesn't take a genius to recognize that for US$10,000, you can buy a very nice large-screen TV with enough left over for a great laptop and maybe even an excellent smartphone. In comparison, what special function will a $10,000 DAC add to one's quality of life or allow one to experience something not achievable otherwise? And for how long would one feel that this is money well spent?
Sure, there will be a market for luxury products like "high end" audio. Demand as always will ebb and flow with all kinds of societal and economic factors. Technological progress will also affect certain products such as DACs disproportionately by improving quality at lower cost. These are simply realities - companies need to adapt as they see fit with their products in a competitive world. The audiophile media needs to make sure they stay "true" to what's going on beyond acting as the advertising arm of the Industry if they are to serve hi-fi hobbyists beyond fishing for luxury-seekers.
As we head into September, stay safe dear audiophiles and I hope you're all enjoying the music!
"And while Le DAC is at least an order of magnitude away from the pinnacle of Kalista performance, it’s heading in the same musical direction."
I don't think anyone would argue that the NVMe drive in the USB3 enclosure discussed above transferring data at >300MB/s is "at least an order of magnitude" faster than a USB2 external hard drive transferring at 30MB/s. However, doesn't saying that the £37,000 Kalista DAC subjectively (I see no objective assessment here) being "an order of magnitude" better than the £5,798 Le DAC essentially suggest that the Le DAC must sound like a piece of lo-fi trash if this "order of magnitude" difference is literally audible?! How can Métronome Audio be happy with this kind of insinuation?
Let's cut to the chase... I get it. This comment was purposely put in there to justify the idea that since the Kalista is over 6x the price of the Le DAC, saying there's an "order of magnitude" difference implies that the Kalista is worth the asking price. What a deal!!! 10x the performance for just 6x the price! So says one of the audiophile review "high priests"?
Imagine that guys and gals, an asking price of "37 grand UK pound sterling" for a DAC that is based on off-the-shelf dual AKM AK4395/AK4490/AK4493 chips (depending on which generation of Kalista/Dreamplay)! As an option, you could add the "35 grand pounds" disk transport based on the Philips CDM12 Pro mechanism (discontinued since 2013 but you can still get new old stock for <US$1000). I hope some "in the know" multi-millionaire/billionaire audiophile can explain to me how these devices represent value or is even considered "cool" (as opposed to a foolish waste of money for a product with no reasonable expectation for any returns on investment).