Saturday 29 October 2022

Blog Post #502: Musings on a decade of audiophilia, maturation, objectivism and the road ahead.

Well guys and gals, this marks post 502 since the start of the blog back in 2012, although articles really only started flowing by 2013. As we are approaching the latter months of 2022, it's amazing to think that a decade has flown by!

Over the years we have touched upon a huge number of audiophile topics. Much of the ideas and experiments over the years have and will continue to serve as the foundation for me in the days ahead as a music lover and "hi-fi" audiophile. Before embarking on this blog, I remember the frustration of feeling entrenched in audiophile obsessions over the fears and uncertainties around things like whether I needed expensive cabling, whether the ethernet switch was deteriorating my audio stream, concerns about the "noise" from my computer, and if for some reason jitter was further destroying my sound. I remember recognizing that none of those anxieties were ever fully addressed or clarified by product manufacturers or the mainstream magazines of the day, and there were little resources out there on YouTube or other websites. Descriptions were vague, and as I recall, nobody ever could clearly express to me what jitter sounded like for example, despite prominent claims. Other than suggesting that handing over money was the solution by buying and "listening for yourself", hobbyists could seem to do nothing else - powerless in the face of dramatic claims.

I remember thinking at one point: "How problematic are these issues, really?!". Given the decades of audio hardware evolution, and in the context of all that we know in the 21st Century about the engineering that has gone into these human-designed and assembled electronic devices, is it reasonable that hobbyist audiophiles seemed to blindly stagger in the dark, typically discussing these things with little facts, or figures, easily drawn into opinions and assumptions that can swing to extremes or seem so idiosyncratic depending on the subjective whims of the reviewer who supposedly "hears" things?

Even where there are measurements (like in the pages of Stereophile), it also seemed odd to me that the objective results appear to be subservient to unsubstantiated subjective comments. If the subjective reviewer heard some "harshness" and the DAC showed higher jitter anomalies, it's not hard to use that as the "attribution theory". But if the DAC is expensive from a prominent name, more likely than not the subjective listener likes it, and the impact of sometimes exceedingly poor measurements appear softened and the device still gets an overall recommendation (look at the measurements for this).

For this post, I hope the reader will indulge me with an opportunity to meander into thoughts that have been bouncing in and out of my mind over the years, and consider expectations over the next decade.

Saturday 22 October 2022

Using low-power Beelink Mini S as Linux Roon streamer - HQPlayer (PCM 8x, DSD256), and HDMI multichannel. (A superior DIY M-Scaler?)

No worries! Putting a little low-power computer like this on top of the DAC did not affect noise level from the Sabaj DAC RCA/XLR outputs. Don't do this with more powerful computers obviously...

As expressed previously, my philosophy around computer audio is that given the speed of progress in computing technology, it really makes no sense to be building expensive and very fast computers as audio playback/processing devices. For me, if I have a general computer in an audio room, I would want to keep electrical noise low (ie. low power) while also targeting an ideally fanless solution. Inevitably, in less than 10 years, a powerful computer today would be very much obsolete. Monster machines would more than likely end up at the bottom of your closet with little value or interest left even if one wanted to sell. In fact, unless I'm doing a lot of 3D graphics, gaming, or editing videos, IMO progressively smaller, quieter, lower-power (let's aim for 10W or less with excellent performance!), and less expensive machines are where progress is heading for consumer-level general computing.

This is in part why on this blog, I've expressed much more interested in streamer systems like the Raspberry Pi devices or recently silent or very quiet MiniPCs (like the power-limited Beelink Mini S last week). As time goes on, one can judge objectively if technological progress and software updates like new DSP algorithms represent improvements in sound quality. If there are truly gains to be had, the machine can then be repurposed/replaced without feeling that one has wasted hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

At the end of the article last week, I spoke about how I reduced the fan speed and lowered the Mini S power limit to basically "silent" performance. Today, let's consider further what we can do with a machine like that in the audiophile sound room.

Saturday 15 October 2022

REVIEW: Beelink Mini S (Celeron N5095A 4C/4T CPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, 256GB SSD) Mini-PC. (And E1DA Cosmos ADC follow-up: RIAA EQ & 768kHz.)

In the image above, we see the Beelink Mini S computer. I was sent this product from one of the distributors (thanks to MinixPC - see here for the current price) for an honest opinion in the context of the fact that over the last while, I had already explored the small MeLE Quieter2Q and Quieter3Q as well as the more powerful AMD-based Beelink SER4 Ryzen 7 machines. 

Now, unlike the MeLE Quieter machines, this one is not fanless, but it is indeed quiet and I suspect the fan noise will be no problem in the vast majority of settings. On balance however, what you get is a machine that is less expensive (you should be able to find one for around US$180 or better) and the active cooling will keep it cooler especially if you do end up placing it in more cramped environments. As usual, make sure there is still air flow of course!

Let's have a closer look at the item and performance...

Saturday 8 October 2022

MEASUREMENTS: "CheapDAC'22" - Cheapest DAC in 2022? US$3.57 S/PDIF DAC from AliExpress. (Does objective analysis correlate with sound quality? Of course! And Lavorgna's DUT comment - "HiFi" is not art.)

"CheapDAC'22" - box, pamphlet, optical cable, USB 5V power cable.

While we've recently been examining high performance, high-fidelity DACs with amazing measurements, once awhile, I think it is good to have a peek at what "low-end" performance looks and sounds like. All the more important I think because audiophile magazines and "high end" online sites often seem to be reviewing increasingly more expensive "bling" these days, typically with just subjective comments. Needless to say, many expensive products do not appear to actually improve fidelity even if externally they might look great.

BigGuy in July pointed out to me one of the cheapest DAC packages ever seen on AliExpress - US$3.57; no tax, free shipping, arrived from China in about 5 weeks! For simplicity and lack of a better name, let's just call this generic device the "CheapDAC'22" (for 2022).

[With inflation lately, I see the price has increased since July as of this writing.]

The DAC is capable of both S/PDIF (Coaxial + TosLink) and Bluetooth input even (appears to be basically SBC codec, nothing fancy). The advertising even mentions 24/192 input.

Well, at this price, how could I resist not giving it a listen/test dear music lovers and audiophiles!? :-)

Saturday 1 October 2022

Aquantia/Marvell AQC107 10GbE Network Cards (eg. ASUS XG-C1001C): Driver and Firmware updates and improving stability. (And more audiophile ethernet snake oil warnings.) [Update: Reduce latency for Roon audio playback.]

While this blog is primarily about audiophile stuff, over the years I have discussed modern audiophile systems including thoughts on networks. Like it or not, computer audio/video is ubiquitous and probably has become the primary source of access for many of us these days (rather than deal with physical media). Furthermore, a fast, responsive, reliable home network is almost essential as a foundational "utility" for entertainment and work. As discussed back in 2018, I've been running 10 gigabit/s home ethernet (standard copper RJ45 Cat-5e/6) with an update to the ASUS router and QNAP switch infrastructure in 2021.

In 2022, when it comes to very high-speed computer network cards, the Aquantia/Marvell AQtion AQC107 chipset devices remain attractive due to reasonable price, PCIe 3.0 x4 compatibility, and ability to run at 2.5/5 gigabit intermediate speeds (also dropping down to 1Gbps and 100Mbps as needed of course). Over the years, I've seen comments online with frustrations around the popular cards like my ASUS XG-C1001C shown above. The issues are typically described as episodic disconnects usually for about 5 seconds (discussed herehere) and then coming back online. As you can imagine, this will lead to a time-out of network transmissions.

Depending on the application, this might or might not lead to problems. For audio and videophiles, this is a problem when we're streaming video to something like an AppleTV or playing music off Roon in real-time. Other apps may be more tolerant and can just wait a little longer and retry.