Saturday 25 May 2024

"High-End" DAC Blind Listening Results - PART II: Results & Analyses

I imagine that the banner graphic above must be so bizarre for some audiophiles! How is it even possible that the audio output from something cheap like the Apple USB-C headphone dongle could be mistaken for the way more expensive Linn digital streamer devices that cost orders of magnitude more?!

Well, of course we can! And if we are to honestly appreciate the difference in sound output between the very cheap and very expensive (we can buy a lot of stuff for US$20,000!), IMO, as audiophiles, we must open our minds to such comparisons. The hi-fi audiophile pursuit is not a cult; everything is up for empirical examination regardless of company, price tag, or which heroic personality is attached to said product.

Last week in Part I, I unveiled the identity and discussed those DAC/streamer devices. Let's proceed today with looking at the data from the recent 2024 "High-End" DAC Blind Listening Survey which collected listener impressions for 6 weeks; plenty of time I trust for those motivated to download, listen, and offer their subjective opinions.

As usual, let's go through the data broadly and then let's see if the results can provide some answers for specific questions around audibility, preferences, and listener subgroups. I'll group these questions and evaluations into a number of Sections.

Grab your favorite beverage, have a seat, this is a pretty long one... ðŸ™‚

Saturday 18 May 2024

"High-End" DAC Blind Listening Results - PART I: Devices Unveiled!

The time has come friends. Over the last 6 weeks, I've been collecting the data from the 2024 "High-End" DAC Blind Listening Survey. The procedure I think is already well described in that test invite post so I won't spend time here recapping that. Thanks for everyone who participated in the blind listening!

As with many blind listening tests, unless it's literally obvious, I know it's not easy to flip back and forth and it's very common after a few A/B/C switches to second-guess oneself! I certainly appreciate the time that participants spent downloading the >500MB file, getting it onto your listening devices, and the listening itself.

For this post, let's talk about the test, some rationale, and let me unveil the 3 DACs that were used.

Saturday 11 May 2024

NYC Explorations: Audio46, Stereo Exchange, and dwindling audiophile stores.

New York - after the rain.

Hey everyone, it's nice to be back home on the West Coast after the trip to NYC. May is a great time to visit so long as one catches some nice weather! At least it's not too hot yet. I'm sure if it were not for the COVID pandemic, I would have visited much sooner; the last time was back at the end of 2015.

Let's see, as we await the final results to come in for the "High-End DAC Blind Listening Survey" (closes on May 15, 2024), this week let's show a few pictures from New York, and see if I had any luck finding some good audio to listen to 🙂.

Saturday 4 May 2024

MUSINGS: On Hardware Audiophilia and Wine Tasting.

Across the years of audiophile discussions, we sometimes will see parallels drawn between the world of the oenophile (wine connoisseur) and hardware audiophile. While both pursuits involve a strong subjective component since the ultimate intent is enjoyment, there are also clearly differences when we take the time to compare them. I actually don't think many of the heated debates among audiophiles have meaningful analogues within the wine-tasting world.

Recently, in this thread on Steve Hoffman Forum about "snake oil", J-Flo made a nice comment on this; let's have a look at his post and I'll add my observations and thoughts with some opportunity to expand upon the ideas.

Saturday 20 April 2024

As We Hear It: Audiophile cable truths, claims, and reviewer age. Multichannel "madness"?

Hey everyone, this week let's have a look at a recent E-mail I received and think about the "classic" audiophile topic of contention over the decades - cables!

It has been awhile since I've talked about cables (I've published a number of cable measurements over the years, links collected here). It's not much fun talking about cables these days because after awhile I think most of us have tried enough cables and honestly just realized the truth that it really doesn't matter what the salespeople claim. There are better things to do like just sitting back and enjoying the music than obsessing over what essentially are minutiae with less potential effects* than hi-res audio recordings (which itself is usually questionable).

[* Unless of course the cable intentionally acts as a filter like some of the MIT cables - as per their patent.]

Here's an E-mail I received from reader JW Haus in March in response to a magazine article in Stereophile:

Saturday 13 April 2024

Detailed THD(+N) vs. Output Level Measurements of ESS ES9039Q2M. Balanced output quality from Hidizs AP80 PRO-X DAP. And Tekton's self-inflicted PR disaster.

Hey everyone, I wanted to post a follow-up of sorts to a couple of previous articles. First, the article "Hi-Res THD(+N) vs. Output Level Measurements (ESS "HyperStream" vs. AKM vs. TI/Burr-Brown). And a bonus R-2R!" was published back in the summer of 2022 showing an interesting sinusoidal pattern in the harmonic distortions with ESS DACs.

Since then, with the release of their newest ES9039 DACs which employ their latest "HyperStream IV" modulator, I thought it'd be cool to have another look...

Another follow-up is a look at the 2.5mm balanced output from the Hidizs AP80 PRO-X Music Player which was measured last year. At that time I didn't do the balanced output measurements so let's capture a few metrics and compare this with the single-ended 3.5mm output.

We can then end off with some audiophile social commentary from this week's drama.

Saturday 6 April 2024

2024 "High-End" DAC Blind Listening Survey!

*Surprise!* It's time for another listening survey.

I like doing these once awhile because it's an opportunity for audiophiles to actually listen for differences between devices, resolutions, or even things like filter settings for themselves as opposed to hanging on to the testimonies of others whether in text or expressed in videos. We can argue all day long about whether THD+N of -120dB is better than -85dB, or if a US$20,000 DAC sounds better than a US$500 one; what matters ultimately is in the listening.

[I agree with Taylor Christensen in his excellent article on "subjectivisms" that what we need more of these days is audibility data to address the category of "scientific subjectivism"; not just opinions or measurements.]

This time, I'll be using recordings of the AMPT Test Track from 3 different DACs for you to listen to. These were created based on my standard procedure of recording and processing described in the link. The only difference is that I'll be using the 24-bit version of the AMPT for this survey to maximize higher resolution dynamic range potential from the DACs.

As a blind survey, I will not tell you which DACs these are to minimize bias. What I can say for now is that these are not devices from Chinese brands although anything can be "Made in China" these days (ie. these are not Topping, SMSL, Sabaj, Shanling, Matrix, Gustard, etc.). Some of these devices can be considered "aspirational" DACs or streamers in that the MSRP of the device could be out of reach to many, even priced "ridiculously" high.

Perhaps this fact might encourage you to listen for yourself: the difference between the least expensive and most expensive device is >100 times!

Saturday 30 March 2024

Expensive Audio & Medical Quackery: Mark Levinson promoting Daniel Hertz "C Wave Technology". And the Maria amps. [Including company response.]

While perusing news updates the other day over Spring Break on my Google news feed, there was a suggestion to check out this YouTube video of an interview with Mark Levinson; apparently Levinson had something to say about "Let's Fix PCM Audio".

Clearly, this should be a fascinatingly insightful video, right? After all, we have one of the most well-known names in the high-end audio industry, and who doesn't want PCM "fixed" if indeed there is something to be done to improve the experience from decades worth of music!

Boy, was I disappointed by this "iconic" name in the audiophile world... Anyhow, grab a drink, have a seat. Let's talk about the many interconnections between technology, health, consumer psychology, and truth-in-advertising with this name and company.

Saturday 23 March 2024

EARLY LOOK (Part II): E1DA #9039S USB Balanced DAC dongle/headphone amp - DSD and performance under load. A few more words on the "need" for higher DAC fidelity!

Last week, I published Part I of the review/measurements on the upcoming E1DA #9039S USB dongle DAC/headphone amplifier. Already, we've seen that this ESS ES9039Q2M-based balanced DAC produces very clean, high-resolution sound.

As we continue, let's delve deeper into the performance of this little device. We'll have a look at some features like DSD performance and more importantly, let's examine the balanced amplifier output when subjected to headphone-like loads to see how well it performs.

Saturday 16 March 2024

EARLY LOOK (Part I): E1DA #9039S USB Balanced DAC/headphone amp - Super Hi-Res, Tiny Package! Also, let's tweak...

Hey everyone, it's time to have another look at a product from the engineering workshop of Ivan Khlyupin (IVX) at E1DA - the E1DA #9039S:

Notice balanced 2.5mm TRRS phono output.

As you can see, it's a prototype/preproduction (depending on whether the circuit could still change) unit with pen markings on the box for the number "9" to make sure the correct product was sent my way. 🙂

This is the latest iteration of E1DA's line of USB2.0 dongle DACs which includes the E1DA #9038D6K I had a look/listen to in late 2022. As you likely surmised, this update is based on the next generation of ESS Sabre DACs - the low-power, 2-channel, ES9039Q2M, using their sigma-delta Hyperstream IV modulator. The chip specifications list 130dB of dynamic range, -126dB THD and -120dB THD+N. We'll see in a little bit what Ivan has been able to "cook up" in his lab including some performance results. Back in 2022 with the #9038D6K DAC, he had already achieved -120dB THD+N (120dB SINAD) with single-ended output. How much better does it get!?*

As I sometimes do, due to time limitations, I'll split this write-up into 2 portions to present different roles/functions of the device. For today's Part I, let's just focus on the usual look-and-feel as well as using this device as a straight, unloaded balanced DAC. This will give us an idea of the performance capabilities of the ES9039Q2M in the hands of an experienced engineer. Next time we'll examine this device as a headphone amp.

The current anticipated price for this USB DAC/amp is presumably going to be less than US$150; I believe the exact number is still being crunched.

[* Asking how much better in terms of THD+N is of course a different question from "How much resolution does a person need for excellent high-fidelity reproduction?"!]

Saturday 2 March 2024

Home Audio Fidelity's (HAF) X-talk Shaper DSP. And is crosstalk correction/cancellation (XTC) just an "effect"?

See video and plug-in info at Home Audio Fidelity site.

Let's spend some time talking about X-talk Shaper in this post, a new DSP plug-in that will allow speaker system listeners enjoy crosstalk cancellation.

For those who have not read much about this, perhaps review the post from last year written with STC on crosstalk cancellation (XTC) and Ambiophonics. There's also the reposted article written by Ralph Glasgal that discusses some of the rationale for Ambiophonics you might find interesting and I hope provides good background for the 'hows' and 'whys' of this technique.

Saturday 24 February 2024

REVIEW: AGPTEK A30X Music Player - inexpensive 32GB utility DAP/MP3 Player. And a few words on EQ and some sample curves.

Open box: music player, quite comprehensive manual, USB-C to A cable, inexpensive earbuds, strap, and lanyard (can be a little tough to snake this through the hole on the bottom right, use a needle or paperclip to push/pull it through the slot!). 

I love my music, which is why I became an "audiophile". I definitely do not believe that audiophiles need to buy expensive or exotic stuff. These days, reasonable sounding products can be very inexpensive and in the service of just having music available on a bus, subway ride, maybe even in a car on a road trip, all we need I believe are "utility"-grade devices to serve that purpose! Lossless is likely unnecessary and hi-res audio would be a waste of storage space on devices like these (let's be honest, hi-res files often are just a waste of space already regardless of device quality!).

With a need for an inexpensive Digital Audio Player (DAP) a few months back, I came across the AGPTEK A30X Music Player as seen in the open box above. With a cost of only about US$30 (bought retail), this little guy features 32GB of microSD storage (expandable to 128GB), has a 2.4" touchscreen, both 3.5mm headphone out plus Bluetooth 5 wireless capability. Furthermore, this supposedly can play video, has an FM radio, can record audio, has a pedometer function, and apparently e-Book reader capability; admittedly I haven't tried all this stuff out nor would see myself using this other than the radio function. This is a self-contained device and does not have WiFi capability.

It supports a range of audio codecs including MP3, WMA, FLAC, APE, and WAV. Up to 24/48 from my testing (like Apple products as far as I'm aware).

Here at the Musings, I think it's just as important running measurements to see how well the "low-end" performs as much as "hi-res" devices! The lowest tier device tested over the years remains the sub $5 CheapDAC'22 ðŸ˜Ŋ. As usual on this blog, unless specified, this write-up is in no way sponsored by the manufacturer.

Saturday 17 February 2024

HUNSN [CWWK] RJ36 Fanless MiniPC: Intel i3-N305. Power-limiting, setup, Roon outputs - multichannel, crosstalk cancellation DSP, direct USB.

Okay, let's continue with our exploration of the fanless HUNSN/CWWK i3-N305 computer discussed last week. This time, we'll focus on what I did here to get it running as my music end-point (for Roon), in particular creating multiple output options for multichannel, stereo crosstalk cancellation (XTC) DSP, and also for those times when I want the highest 2-channel resolution playback to the USB DAC.

Most of the time this computer will be running "headless" although it is connected to my TV and I will on occasion watch movies using Kodi. And since the machine is quite powerful (>100GFLOPS on Linpack stock), I turned down the power utilization for my purposes which in turn will keep the fanless solution cooler.

Let's get going!

Saturday 10 February 2024

REVIEW: HUNSN [CWWK] RJ36 Fanless MiniPC - Intel i3-N305 (12th Gen "Alder Lake-N", 8C/8T, 32EU iGPU). And comparison with the Raspberry Pi 5.

Another year, another upgrade to the sound room MiniPC! 😁 Honestly, for audio streaming purposes, I could easily just use the very low power MeLE Quieter2Q as a Roon endpoint with multichannel capability discussed in 2022. As usual, "Bits Are Bits" so this upgrade is not about sound quality, just fanlessness, and higher processing speed on tap.

Recently, I saw this interesting article for an Intel i3-N305 MiniPC and thought it might be fun to try a fanless low-power but reasonably fast machine. The i3-N305 CPU consists of 8 Intel 10nm 12th Generation Efficient-cores (E-cores) with a 32 Execution Units (EU) iGPU; significantly faster than the last miniPC I reviewed which was the Beelink EQ12 with Intel N100 CPU - 4-core, 24EU.

So to give this a try, I bought the HUNSN RJ36 off Amazon, standard retail "barebones" unit since I figure I could buy the DDR5 RAM and M.2 SSD drive myself. Current price about US$375 before RAM and SSD.

The OEM company who makes these computers is CWWK. Similar computers can be found with the Topton brand name. There's no logo or name on the box itself which to me is fine - brand names are not important to me for many tech products so long as performance, build quality and reliability (which can only be determined over time) are adequate.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Computer Parts: Marvell AQC113C 10GbE network card (QFly NIC-10G), PCIe x4 riser, and 7-port USB3 PCIe x1 Card.

Over the years, I've written about transitioning to faster ethernet here at home with standard copper 10GBASE-T (10GbE) cabling, beginning back in 2018. This works fine even with Cat-5e in the walls of my home (although some renovations use Cat-6). More recently, my home network was upgraded to 2.5GbE for any device that can benefit, with standard 1 gigabit/s fallback.

Last month, I needed another 10GbE network interface card (NIC) and noticed that we're now seeing inexpensive Marvell mGig AQC113C NICs available, upgrades from the AQC107 cards I have been using. So I grabbed a QFly NIC-10G (~US$75) to try out. There are other similar products like the NICGIGA (very unfortunate name).

The card offers 10G/5G/2.5/1GbE speeds and below (100/10Mbps) for compatibility. The new chip operates at only 4W running 10G speed (I believe the AQC107 is estimated at ~6W) making it even cooler-running for heavy loads.

Saturday 27 January 2024

Cautionary Tale: Audiophile's dream's end... Make sure to find balance, audiophiles.

 I remember a couple of years ago, I saw this YouTube documentary on Ken Fritz:

That is certainly an impressive demonstration of dedication and passion poured into the sound room and audio system! Few would have such tenacity, disposable financial resources, or apparent family support. Admittedly, I wondered while watching that video just how well those massive DIY speakers integrated into the room and what measurements would have told us about frequency response and time-domain performance. There's a low resolution frequency response graph here. Yeah, I'm sure the system could play loud with 35,000W* of amplification.

And 2 years later, sadly, the final chapter of the life story was published a few weeks back:

I guess we'll never know exactly how that system sounded like now that everything has been taken apart. What looks like 27 years of labor and $1M original price was dismantled and sold off for $157k total in a comparatively short time. Clearly, neither the family nor the new home buyers had need for the extravagant system in the large room. The dead might at best influence, but cannot declare the will of the living.

Here's a detailed description and list of components. Obviously, audio/music items are generally not investment vehicles unless it's attached to someone very special (like maybe say Hendrix's guitar amp). These things we talk about are for the consumption of music primarily. The non-investable nature of these products is especially true of DIY items given that the quality of such items are unknown even if the bits and pieces like speaker drivers could be from a reputable brand. Over time as components degrade, it could be difficult performing repairs on non-standard builds.

Saturday 20 January 2024

On Stereophile's "Dolby Atmos: A Bleak Shadow?" - really? ðŸĪ”

I saw Stereophile's "Dolby Atmos: a Bleak Shadow?" article the other day. Honestly, I found it a bit irritating. The ideas seemed poorly contextualized with little background or meaning for what I imagine would be the average audiophile reader. It basically consisted of hearsay-level cherry-picked concerns as if these are significant (including that title).

Let's be clear about this. It's not like any of us must or even should love Atmos or multichannel. We can easily get through a lifetime of music enjoyment with 2-channels. Even though I like and even prefer multichannel/Atmos for many of my albums, it's just an option for those like myself who want to explore the surround-sound music experience as a superset of modern audio reproduction technology. Some artists and audio engineers these days are also exploring the extensive flexibility and ways to best create the mix. So if a traditional audiophile magazine believes that staying at 2-channels is all that's needed, well that's fine. But one doesn't have to write articles that seem to be trying to induce some kind of emotional response, stirring intrigue or concern even in just that title. (These days, sound bites and headline titles might be all that many pay attention to.)

So what do you mean by "bleak shadow", Mr. Lindberg (as reported by Jim Austin)? Are we talking just about numbers like bitrate going down when a lossy stream is delivered to the consumer, or are we implying that sound quality changed significantly in a negative, "bleak", way? If it's only bitrate reduction, that's totally fine, isn't it? Since the consumer isn't keeping the data, there's no point wasting network bandwidth! Streaming services like Netflix or Disney+ all stream lossy video and audio. Many customers, I'm sure including discerning ones, will not complain if they understand the nature of the technology and the quality limits depending on how it's consumed.

Saturday 13 January 2024

MUSINGS: On YouTube listening tests and the sound of "high-end" vinyl vs. streamed digital playback.

The Internet is wonderful, isn't it?!

In the span of a few decades, we can all make our presence known to the far corners of the world and express (almost) anything we want whether it's sharing what we had for lunch, whether we're "available", our political/moral/ethical affiliations, or even esoteric blog topics. ðŸĪŠ

Even better, we can project sounds and videos on YouTube and the like, opening up the opportunity to reach others though a modern "boob tube" where instead of the TV station programmer telling us what to watch next, good-ol' YouTube algorithms choose what we might desire from tracked search preferences. Amazing, if not also creepy...

Of course, if we have an entrepreneurial spirit, one could receive great rewards. Monetization potential can be impressive as witnessed by some of the elaborate content on YouTube channels! That's great so long as we're seeing knowledgeable, verifiable content presented in fair ways that can help teach and promote understanding. Not so great when information is perpetuating falsehoods, potentially destructive conspiracies and propaganda.

For this post, let's talk about something we've seen presented over the years on a number of audio channels. There is at least an implied idea out there, thanks to YouTube, we can now "hear" the sound quality of an audiophile system. Furthermore, that we can make comparisons of the sound quality. Is this true?

Saturday 6 January 2024

MUSINGS: Fidelity, Immersion, and Realism (FIR) - Levels of Audiophile Attainment

As we start 2024, let's think about a "big picture" topic. Like with most things in life, I find it useful to think about the overarching philosophy - the "forest" if you will - alongside the details - the "trees" - which is when we get down to measurements and tests of specific products. Hopefully by doing this we can develop a more comprehensive understanding of whatever it might be we're engaged in.

As discussed years ago, I don't think the audiophile hobby is a monolithic entity based on only one core pursuit. In reality, it's a multitude of hobbyist pursuits ranging from the "music lover", to the "hardware audiophile", to subgroups like the "gear hoarder", "LP collector", even "high end (luxury) enthusiast", each of us at varying levels of emotional intensity; even resulting in more "fetishistic" extremes! ðŸ™„

We're not a particularly large group of hobbyists. Sure, there are billions of music lovers out there, but when it comes to guys (mostly) wanting to talk about audiophile hardware, geeky high-fidelity (transparency) reproduction, and things that appear extravagant to the general public, there really are not many of us. It's also hard to know if this hobby is growing, stagnant or diminishing in numbers.

As I look around at magazine reviews and YouTube videos, that idea of stagnation has entered my mind many times over the last few years. Not just wondering about the numbers of audiophiles and whether the hobby is growing, but rather, in what directions are we as hobbyists going forward, if even at all!

Approaching the mid-2020's, are we still in search of "High Fidelity" after all these decades and the multitudes of products? Maybe, maybe not... Let's talk about some ideas which I believe are the goals that audiophiles can aspire to which I've acronymized as FIR - Fidelity, Immersion, and Realism.