Device that makes mp3s sound deeper, richer, etc.
December 30, 2010 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I found and immediately lost a link the other day that talked about a device that made mp3s sound richer, deeper, perhaps like vinyl (or at least not as compressed as they truly are). It was a rather simple device and the article talked about one brand as low as $150. I don't expect anyone to find the exact page especially as I am not being too descriptive. It was on an audiophile site and was recommended...not one of those 'buy this cheapie/crap product that screws up your music' sort of thing. If anyone knows what I am talking about or has something else that they know that works for improving mp3 sound through stereo, I'm interested. Pardon me for the nebulous post. It is the best my brain can recall. Thanks for your techie/audiophile input.
posted by snap_dragon to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This thing, on Slate?
posted by julthumbscrew at 9:56 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you looked in your browser history?
posted by AugustWest at 9:58 AM on December 30, 2010

Was it the Creative X-Mod?
posted by The Lamplighter at 10:00 AM on December 30, 2010

Best answer: (Pardon: by "this thing", I meant the little standalone USB-DAC boxes...)
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:00 AM on December 30, 2010

My Yamaha AV-Receiver has a mode that uses their Compressed Music Enchancer technology to do this. They may sell or licence it in a separate device?
posted by JonB at 10:27 AM on December 30, 2010

Response by poster: julthumbscrew: This is it, exactly...and the article. Home Run!
posted by snap_dragon at 10:36 AM on December 30, 2010

That is just a DAC. It doesn't make anything sound better (ie by post processing/enhancement) it just does better analog conversion that most consumer gear.

It isn't some magic device - buying a better sound card will make your MP3s (or any digital audio) sound better. Or if you have a AV receiver, using a digital connection from your computer will improve sound quality.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:42 AM on December 30, 2010

I wanted to buy a USB-DAC until I got to this:

Even in very sturdy (and expensive) CD players, the beam is unavoidably exposed to a certain amount of "jitter," caused in part by mechanical vibrations, which makes the laser-tracking less than perfectly accurate. All players have "error-correction circuitry," which is designed to compensate for this jitter, but this circuitry isn't entirely accurate either.

By contrast, with downloads (96/24 or otherwise), the music simply streams from the hard drive; there are no moving parts. All other things being equal (a crucial premise), streamed music should sound more seamless and natural than music tracked on a spinning disc.

Can you really trust an article that asserts something this silly as fact?
posted by jsturgill at 10:48 AM on December 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Also, if you're gear is relatively inexpensive, ie. onboard sound, cheap computer speakers, you are better off spending the $150 on a better pair of speakers or an upgraded sound card. I would say that investing in a DAC is probably one of the last things you should spend your money on in trying to improve sound quality.

Here is a good thread on DACs in the 2-channel audio section of AVSforum.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:55 AM on December 30, 2010

@jsturgill: This is true. CD Transport jitter is a real factor.
posted by wongcorgi at 11:00 AM on December 30, 2010

This is true. CD Transport jitter is a real factor.

Is it also true that hard drives have no moving parts?
posted by OmieWise at 11:08 AM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I wanted to buy a USB-DAC until I got to this:

As someone who recently did a little research in this space, there are a few reasons to want a USB DAC:

A good DAC will have headphone amplification, which can be important for a good listening experience on above-entry-level headphones.

A DAC exists outside of the case, away from the rest of the computer, which can be very noisy electronically. It's fairly common for on-board audio to have hum, crackling, or whining that becomes very obvious at higher noise levels or when components like video cards are operating at full power. It's also possible for feedback (or something similar) to occur between mic and output jacks on some sound cards, so having a separate device focused on audio out can also eliminate that possibility.

DACs also usually have optical inputs or outputs, which when driven by USB can be a great way to add optical capabilities to, say, a laptop you might not be able to get an addon card for.

And finally, there's the sound quality discussion that many disagree on. It's digital sound at the source, after all, but since you have an analog conversion happening inside the box component quality comes into question, and frequently the parts inside a DAC are chosen specifically with audio quality in mind--which might or might not be the case on a cheap sound card, or onboard audio. Having a portable USB DAC would mean you can take that same level of sound quality to any machine you can plug it in to.

Personally, after reading a ton of reviews and a fair amount of snobbery, I found that the best price/performance ratio for my situation would be a Nuforce uDAC-2. Small, USB powered, stellar reviews, and well-regarded on audio forums. I ended up not needing it at all, so I can't speak as an owner, but it's the one I would have gone with.
posted by Phyltre at 11:15 AM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

It was on an audiophile site

Most "audiophile" sites that feature product reviews and similar contain sheer bullshit backed up with mistaken or fabricated assertions about physics and a lot of hand-waving and vague claims. MP3 is lossy compression; the data that was in the original file has been thrown away and cannot be re-constructed with any reasonable degree of certainty. Any product that claims some sort of restorative quality is probably messing with gain or using a fixed EQ (boosting treble, probably) to convince you that everything sounds "better" instead of merely different. Make your own aesthetic choices about how you want your music to sound, but be aware of the immense amount of lies that drive most of the audiophile industry.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:18 AM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

My (decent, not great) receiver has a better DAC than many (but not all) of the ones in these kind of devices.

If you have a receiver that's good enough to offer digital inputs, you may be better off spending your money on a sound card with a digital-out.
posted by box at 12:45 PM on December 30, 2010

Of course an outboard DAC will also improve the quality of output audio if your input file is a loss-less uncompressed WAV or FLAC. So all that stuff about mp3s is irrelevant.
posted by atrazine at 1:40 PM on December 30, 2010

Inspector.Gadget has it. There is no device that can improve sound beyond its original quality. Garbage in always equals garbage out. No compressed or digital file will ever sound like vinyl. The weakest leak in the chain will always be the limiting factor, until the law of diminishing returns finally kicks in.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:57 PM on December 30, 2010

Any device that takes a digital file like an MP3 and makes it audible already has a DAC (digital to analog converter) in it. Your laptop has a DAC, your iPod has a DAC, and your DVD player has a DAC.

The issue is that the built-in DAC of most consumer/multi-purpose devices like a laptop is a compromise. With a stand-alone external DAC, you get a device with fewer compromises, which means the music will sound better (depending on a host of factors such as the quality of the source file, the quality of the speakers, etc.).

There are certainly bargains in audio, although there is a strong correlation between price and performance. The NuForce devices (one of which Phylter linked to above) are pretty good for the price. The FiiO E7 is another well regarded DAC in that price range.

Of course, you can also spend many thousands of dollars on a DAC. I have a circa-$1000 DAC, and—yes—it does make a clearly audible difference. I'm well aware, though, that most people could justify not spending that kind of cash.
posted by paulg at 3:04 PM on December 30, 2010

This is true. CD Transport jitter is a real factor.

Is it also true that hard drives have no moving parts?

I never said that. Hard drive movement is not a factor in reading data off of the platters.
posted by wongcorgi at 3:11 PM on December 30, 2010

But you can definitely hear the occasional (alleged) one or zero out of place in a CD's stereo 44.1kHz, quantized 16-bit, dithered audio? That is, it's a 'real factor'? Something that makes you say 'crikey, I was there when this was recorded, and I don't remember hearing that'?

Pull the other one. It plays Samantha Fox's Touch Me on a third generation cassette dub that's been left on the dash all summer.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:13 PM on December 30, 2010

If you're seriously considering getting a standalone DAC, the quality of your MP3s is probably already the weak link in your listening experience. If you still have the original CDs, consider re-ripping them in FLAC. If what you're looking for is the warm sound of vinyl, tube amp DSP plugins, almost certainly available for your media player of choice, anecdotally add much of the warmth back to digital recordings. (I can't personally vouch for them, as I prefer the rich warble of 48k MP3s.)
posted by marakesh at 7:56 PM on December 30, 2010

There is no device that can improve sound beyond its original quality.

That depends on how you're judging "quality". There's far more to audio production than just accurate reproduction.
posted by Lazlo at 8:00 PM on December 30, 2010

« Older How to organize XHTML/CSS before even starting to...   |   What exactly do you do to "work on a relationship" Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.