Tuesday, 4 January 2022

As We Hear It 2022: Hypex nCore NC252MP DIY, The Joys of Modern Digital Audio, Upsampled Streaming, and Audible Amplifier Differences.

Happy 2022 everyone and greetings from Honolulu. As Bing Crosby once sang, "Here we know that Christmas (and New Years) will be green and bright" in Hawaii. A welcome first escape from Canada since the Pandemic began for myself and the family. Always good to escape winter in Canada for a little bit even if it's from relatively mild Vancouver although this year looks like we also avoided the snowy cold snap!

As a first post for 2022, let's look in the (virtual) mailbag a select a few items from readers for an "As We Hear It" post that have come in over the last number of months.

I. Hypex nCore NC252MP DIY Build (Mark K.)

I'm glad to see that over the last couple years a number of you have enjoyed putting together the high performance and inexpensive nCore NC252MP amplifier. Still IMO one of the best deals going assuming you can find the OEM amplifier module of course!
To Arch,

Seemed too easy to pass up “An Inexpensive Hi-Fi Class-D Stereo Amp for the 2020's: Hypex nCore NC252MP (DIY Assembly)

Quite a few years ago my Philips FA-960 lost a channel and in pure laziness I dumped it and replaced it with a similar (I thought) Marantz. Turns out the next model UP (Marantz PM-80) would have been the same amp but I have been living with my disappointing decision for a decade. I saw your blog and thought now is my chance to correct that mistake! 😊 Having been looking at nCore for a while this was silly simple and does indeed put my ears back to happy mode.

PS. The Irony of the photo below is with the very old (Stax) and very new (nCore) but all the components share the same feature they deliver sound WAY above their price point… The SMSL DAC (Sanskrit Pro) was a PITA on Linux but it works well in the office with ASIC drivers bypassing Windows sound drivers… And it can render excellent sound and play DSD direct. The last piece (not in the photo) are my homemade bookshelf speakers CSS FR-125 full range that now sound fantastic also ~40$ per driver.

So my sincere thanks for the post…

Mark K.

Great stuff Mark! Lovely example of how in the 21st Century we can do all kinds of mix-and-match to achieve excellent results. A lot of times, we can apply a little bit of DIY to achieve results that I believe would cost many times the price if bought from upscale brands. 

On the one hand we have folks who are proud of their very expensive systems which is cool. On the other side, there are those who achieve amazing results without the expense and often IMO with just as good fidelity. Both can be great fun. (Personally, I do like saving money for vacations and other hobbies/purposes!)


II. The Joys of Modern Digital (Andy D.)


I enjoy reading your blog. I am really happy with a few products I have purchased over the past year, and thought you might be interested in mentioning them or trying them yourself. They could be of interest to younger readers, or those concerned with appearances or convenience.

These purchases include a TCL Roku TV along with Klipsch “The Fives” powered speakers. The active speaker plugs into the eARC port of the TV and a proprietary balanced cable connects the active and passive speakers.

Tidal has a Roku App which is synced with my Tidal Hi-Fi account. All of the songs and music videos from the iPhone app are on the Roku app. Because iPhone also has a Roku remote app, I basically have a Hi-Fi system along with access to every song I can think of in CD quality (MQA not available through Roku) [Ed. And now you can save $ with the $10/month plan]. Also I can view HD music videos with accompanying lossless audio. Since the speakers are CEC compatible and synced with the TV, I can control everything with my cell phone (or my wife’s cell phone). I have no remotes. I do not think this level of convenience/performance was available until the past year or two.

The speakers have a built in DAC/Amp which decides up to 24/192. They perform extremely well with my PS5 games and Blu-Ray movies. They are as convenient as a sound bar but with much better fidelity. I clipped a coupon from Crutchfield and got the speakers for $600, and the 55" 4K TV was $650. In my opinion the value far exceeded the cost for both of these. On a side note, I paid $800 for the PS5 and that was also worth it.

Andy D.
Another great example of audiophiles making the most of modern technology! Streaming video/audio, remote control will smartphone apps, interconnectivity through HDMI, powered speakers with built-in DACs. Nice that in the 21st Century we also have the opportunity to choose among options ranging from very convenient and inexpensive to something inconvenient and expensive like turntables and vinyl records ;-).

Good score on the Playstation 5, Andy! Even after a year, they're still rare and quickly snatched up. Looks like things will not improve until post-Pandemic and normalization of supply chain issues.


III. Bit-Perfect, Upsampling And Streaming (Alireza S.)

The next message comes from Alireza S. from Iran. We had a running discussion over the months last year about streaming audio and particularly Apple Music. The idea was how do we achieve the "best" sound from streaming and I'll just quote from one of the most recent E-mail he sent me:
I didn't understand that why you don't care about bit-perfectability when you don't own music!
Do you think is there any reasonable reason to purchase music instead of streaming?

And what you mean by absolute best sound quality in first line? Because you say in last line that it will sound more than good enough. Do you think you can hear any difference in first system compared to apple music? With the same source material?

With regard
Alireza S.
This discussion was around streaming Apple Music with a Mac M1 machine and using software upsampling to 24/192 in "Audio MIDI Setup" so one could "set it once and forget it". By doing this, whether the stream is 44.1kHz or 96kHz or 192kHz, the computer can then upsample whatever the data is to 192kHz. Years ago, I tested Mac OS's upsampling algorithm and found it to be just fine (no reason to believe there would be any worse performance these days with newer OS versions). Compared to the Mac, Windows 10 DirectSound did not fare as well unless they've improved the algorithm over the last few years (in Linux we have more options).

The repercussion of doing this of course is that the data sent to the DAC is no longer strictly "bit perfect" but upsampled. Personally, I have no issues with software upsampling to 24/192 when done well and it still sounds great. In fact, I believe these days the processing is totally transparent.

In my mind, while I think 99% of the time streaming is more than adequate, there is something to be said about owning my favourite albums rather than "renting". For example, perhaps due to contractual issues, an album might disappear off one's streaming service unpredictably. Also, if I have my own files, I can choose exactly which mastering I want (for example, say a MFSL release, or first press '80s album that I personally applied de-emphasis to) that the streaming site might not have. Furthermore, owning my own ripped CD, SACD, Blu-Ray, or download file on the music server will give me better control of the playback mechanism for example using Roon and implementing my own DSP filters.

Ownership has its privileges when it comes to the digital data... ;-)

IV. On Audible Differences Between Amplifiers (stoic51)

Hi, Arch,

Great article comparing the Class D Hypex nCore NC252MP and the Class A Pass/First Watt SIT-2. I think it’s one of your best ever, simply because you measure two different amplifiers as they actually sound with the same electronics and speakers in the same room. What a radical idea! And thanks for linking to the J. Gordon Holt article from 1966.

I happen to have a single-ended Class A tube amp (Aric-Audio, with a quad of KT88s, ~45W/channel into 8Ω) and a Class D amp (Crown XLS1502, 300W/channel into 8Ω, with non-defeatable 48kHz DSP, i.e., even if you don’t use the DSP, the signal still goes through the ADC-DAC) on hand. So I thought I would do a little compare and contrast exercise.

Preamps are either an Aric 12BH7A-based tube unit with tube rectification and regulation, or a JBL M-Patch 2 passive attenuator. Interconnects are 3’-6’ Canare from Cable Solutions, and speaker cables are Canare 4S11 star-quad. DAC is a Chord Qutest fed by HQPlayer from a Mac Mini. Speakers are the Harbeth P3ESRs acquired several years ago (so not the XD version).

In general, the tube amp (ultralinear mode) presents a slightly sweeter, yet detailed and dynamic, more three-dimensional soundstage than the Crown. With the latter, you lose some of the (attractive) tonal saturation, color, and dimensionality, but you gain control in the low end and a more highly articulated texture.

A couple of case studies:

The peerless Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s voice, in “Gute Nacht” (with Gerald Moore, CD, monaural, originally recorded in 1955, EMI CMS 763559 2) from Schubert’s Die Winterreise, is magic through the tubes. Through the Crown, the voice is good, but sounds as if it were recorded in a different, less amenable space. After listening to the tube presentation, and then switching to the Crown, some might say that the Crown sounds a bit washed out. I guess that’s a matter of taste. Dynamic contrasts seem to be preserved equally.

The Al Kooper-Mike Bloomfield-Stephen Stills Super Session CD (Columbia Legacy CK 63406, originally recorded in 1968), to my ears is one of the best-recorded sessions of the era, sounds color-saturated and dynamic with really striking layering and dimensionality through the tubes, while the Crown is a bit more defined with a more 2D presentation. But if I don’t listen to the tube amp for a while, and play, for example, “Season of the Witch” through the Crown, the sound does not disappoint.

Interestingly, I recently played the mono Fischer-Dieskau for an opera singer acquaintance who doesn’t listen to music much in the home, and this person was actually transfixed by the experience of hearing Fischer-Dieskau virtually appear centered in the space between the two speakers. Afterwards, I was asked, “How do you do that? Where are the other speakers? The sound was not coming from the two front speakers, but from a point directly between them. It’s as if he were standing right there. And it really sounded like his voice.” I explained that’s one of the magical things that good two-channel reproduction can do, and that “stereo” doesn’t mean “two channels”, it really means “solid” or “three-dimensional”. And this was through the JBL passive and the Crown with the Harbeths.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that the Crown is the greatest achievement in stereo amplification, or that the JBL passive is the best-ever preamp (or attenuator). I surely don’t know. They seem to me to be good and transparent devices, and they have the advantage of being inexpensive and light in weight. (The 12BH7A tube preamp works well with the Crown, too, adding just a bit of tube color and dimensionality.) The more-expensive Class A tube amp offers a more tactile, saturated, and dimensional perspective that I enjoy a lot. I say, “Take your pick.” I’ve had fun with each. Whatever the electronics, the P3ESRs are really fine little speakers with surprising reach and range.

To my mind, there’s a broad and inclusive middle “good music” ground populated by electronics and speakers of all types, architectures, and sizes. We need to measure, and we need to listen. Your article strikes that good balance, with measurements that reflect the actual experience of listening in a typical room.

Thanks again. I hope you will consider doing more articles along the same lines.

All best regards,
Morgantown, WV
Greetings stoic51!

Thanks for that wonderful discussion and specific examples of what you're using and the sound you've accomplished. I think your letter is a great example of how rational audiophiles talk as we negotiate through the world of hi-fi audio and achieve experiences, recognizing the interplay between objective fidelity and subjective perception!

Absolutely, I certainly do not believe all amplifiers sound alike. I've heard over the years subjective folks insist that certain experiences cannot be measured, statements like there being "no measurement for sound stage". Obviously, dimensionality as perceived by a complex organic subjective being is not going to be precisely quantifiable. However, the ability of something like an amplifier can definitely be quantified in multiple domains to ensure that distortions are minimal.

Fantastic feedback from your opera singer acquaintance even with the Crown amp introducing the 48kHz samplerate ADC-DAC in the chain! Indeed "stereophonic", while many often equate as 2-channel, is really about the technique of achieving multidimensional audio with sound sources appearing to emanate from around the listener. With proper recording techniques, playback fidelity, and positioning, 2-channels can do a remarkable job.

Congrats on the great collection of gear and the tried-and-true Harbeth bookshelf design! Love how well you express your ideas.


Parting shots from Paradise:

Waikiki Beach.

Honolulu fireworks by the beach welcoming 2022.

Laniakea Beach

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle arising from the surf.

A "conclave" of red-crested Cardinals. ;-)

Surfers @ Banzai Pipeline.

Sunset. Oahu North Shore.

As we enter the new year, I hope you've been blessed this Holiday Season, staying safe, and of course... Enjoying the music.


  1. If there were only tourist venues allowed on the Hawaiian islands it would be great. The planet has never been safe, God won't allow it.


  2. Spammers arrived on your shores. are the robots?

    1. Yeah. Hit with quite a bit of spam lately. Need to be vigilant to kill those messages every few days. They tend to sniff out traffic. Sadly so much of the Internet has become like this.

  3. Wow. Some great feedback on this post. As always, I have enjoyed reading your blog posts this past year. A voice of sanity amongst the hyperbole of the industry and publications. Enjoy your vacation.

    1. Thanks Joe.

      Got back safely to Canada. International travel is doable but clearly a hassle. The stress of possibly testing + and not being allowed back home was an unshakable possibility while in Hawaii.

      Omicron community transmission is basically "endemic" now. I'm not sure why the Canadian government even cares about a positive PCR at this point when an antigen test would have sufficed like going down to the US.

  4. Hi Archi

    I hope you enjoyed your holiday with family. Sounds great, and looks great too. Thanks.


    1. Thanks Juergen!

      It was certainly nice to get away for a little bit ;-).

      Wishing you and yours a wonderful 2022!

  5. "Obviously, dimensionality as perceived by a complex organic subjective being is not going to be precisely quantifiable. However, the ability of something like an amplifier can definitely be quantified in multiple domains to ensure that distortions are minimal."

    Class D amplifiers show minimum distortions when measured, but they still sound flat, there is no sense of depth in the sound they produce. I don't know how to explain it technically, there should be some sort of an explanation, but this is how the things are in reality. Class D amplifiers are probably good for voicing speakers in the gym or for some other applications, but not for audiophile critical listening, not for solitary concentrated enjoyment of music.

    1. Hi fgk,
      Hmmm, don't know about Class D not reproducing depth. It sounds fine with my system and good recordings certainly can convey that sense of "distance" going back into the sound stage!

    2. Such differences would likely disappear if a blind, level-matched comparison was performed.

  6. Thank you for your blog, I enjoy it very much. Forget the class D thingy; I really liked your photo of the red crested cardinals. Presumably you snuck up on them when they weren't looking.
    Seriously though, are you a birder? And do you lug much gear with you for photos?

    1. Hi Unknown,
      I'd love to be a birder but currently don't have one of the megazoom lenses like a 500mm.

      Back in the day I would lug my Nikon SLR setup like a few prime lenses and the 70-200/2.8 zoom. These days with so much improvement in the tech, I'm mostly shooting with my Sony mirrorless and just a simple travel 18-200 zoom. That's what I used in the pictures above.

      Yeah, I was able to sneak up on those cardinals one afternoon and zoom into the 200mm end ;-).

  7. Why are you upsampling everything to 192/24?

    1. Hi Steven,
      Typically I'm not because I use a Pi streamer ;-).

      The question was about using a Mac computer, streaming from Apple Music. I don't think MacOS does automatic samplerate switching to the DAC, so if I'm streaming variable 44.1/48/96/192 content, I might as well change Audio MIDI Setup to 192kHz and let the computer do the upsampling when needed.

  8. Nice that you took a break and got a bit of traveling in. I've attended a trade show in Waikiki for a few years running up until Covid times. It's special to get away to someplace warm in winter. Makes winter seem a bit shorter.

    Nice reflection on the NC252 project. I lost a bit of confidence in a DAC/amp project I was tinkering with and decided to swap that out in favor of an NC252 and SMSL M300 MKII. Just got it up and running last night. Sounds great. I like your concept of, "good enough". In this case though, that might be too humble. The performance envelope of the 252 is outstanding.

    I don't think that I would have had the confidence to give this a go without your writings. Thanks for sharing your experience. Also, cheers to Dylan over at Buckeye Audio for offering this amp at a terrific price point.

    1. Hi Doug,
      Lovely hearing from you man...

      Glad you got things running ;-). And grabbed one of the amps without too much expense!

      Agree, the performance/price for the little NC252 is excellent and continues to be my main amplifier these days! As a high performance, no-nonsense stereo unit with 150W 8Ω / 250W 4Ω power, I think this will be easily "good enough" for most hi-fi home users.

      All the best for 2022...