I suppose I could just go with LPs...
September 8, 2011 4:13 PM   Subscribe

In the process of ripping CDs to a media server (Mac Mini mid-2010), I did an A/B test comparing the sound quality of the Mac setup with my CD player. It did not go well. Currently the line-out headphone jack is just connected to the stereo, but I'm pretty sure that the DAC should be done externally for the improvement in sound. But various reviews seem to indicate that the Mac has high jitter issues with it's optical out. What's the best way to turn my zeroes and ones back into music?

All of the CD rips are into lossless formats, and I've turned off iTunes's Sound Enhancer and volume adjustments.

From what I understand, my 3 options for DACs are: TOSLINK, USB, and Firewire. From what I also understand, async Firewire is the only way to overcome the jitter issue. But those rigs seem to run in the thousands of dollars.

For comparison purposes, the CD player has a decent DAC (an early 2000s Sony ES SACD rig). I'd like to at least match the playback of that, while spending hopefully no more than $300. The rest of the system is solid mid-fi.

What is the best way to work this out?
posted by hwyengr to Technology (11 answers total)
Oh, and the pre-amp doesn't have optical in, so I'd need a standalone TOSLINK DAC for that route.
posted by hwyengr at 4:20 PM on September 8, 2011

- There are optical-to-coaxial SPDIF converters out there
- If there is indeed jitter in the optical out, you can get a cheap and good USB adapter

Personally, I don't think the jitter will be an issue. I've heard GREAT sounding USB DACs.

Could you get one, try it, and return it to the store if it sounds bad?
posted by krilli at 4:33 PM on September 8, 2011

I don't think this is exactly what you're looking for, but I used an m-audio firewire 410 for years at gigs and never ran into any problems -- no jitter, no latency, no quality problems.. It costs about $120. It's got 10 separate output channels and 4 inputs.
posted by empath at 4:59 PM on September 8, 2011

You can also, btw, buy a stereo that has support for airplay, so it's transmitting everything digitally, and the stereo that handles the digital to audio conversion.
posted by empath at 5:08 PM on September 8, 2011

A squeezebox might also be a good option - you could stream music to it over your network.
posted by kickingtheground at 5:30 PM on September 8, 2011

I'm willing to bet you'd be happy with any decent USB DAC. I think worries about jitter with USB DACs are completely overblown or start getting into audiophile woo territory.
posted by zsazsa at 5:41 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Similar to empath I use the M-Audio FireWire Audiophile. I don't have a standalone CD player to compare it to, but it sounds significantly better than the built-in audio out on the MacBook Pro. And I notice the difference with MP3 and AAC; I assume the difference could be more pronounced with a lossless source.
posted by reeddavid at 6:06 PM on September 8, 2011

I've used a couple of M-Audio outboard DACs, and they've all sounded good to me. Most of the ones I have experience with are out of production, but they were all FireWire. I've never tried the USB ones.

It looks like they have one that is only $250, which seems similar to one that I used a few years ago. If it uses the same drivers as the ones I used, it should come up as a CoreAudio device so you can use it for iTunes output. (Some ProTools interfaces don't offer this, or didn't in the past, FYI.)

That said, what didn't you feel was acceptable about the built-in DAC? I've heard that the Mini can have a lot of problems with noise, which might make it worth trying some basic (and inexpensive) analog noise-reduction strategies, like separating your signal and power cables, keeping the audio cables away from everything else (only cross at 90-deg angles, etc.), maybe putting a ferrite bead on the DC side of the power cord, and practice good gain management as you're running the signal into your stereo.

The most technically correct, narrowly-tailored solution to the jitter problem would be to get an outboard word clock that will buffer and retransmit an incoming S/PDIF signal and effectively fix the jitter (at the cost of latency, but for playback you don't care). This one is by far the cheapest I have ever seen on the market, but I know nothing about how well it works. I've always viewed word clocks with a certain amount of suspicion; some of them have a bit too much gullible-audophile marketingspeak associated with them, and not having done a blind A/B test I'm skeptical.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:19 PM on September 8, 2011

(In my experience, any good quality DAC I've tried has been a noticeable improvement in sound clarity over any built-in Apple computer audio interface. Apple's machines give you very acceptable sound, they're low-noise and clean, but the sound is nothing more than that ...)
posted by krilli at 2:29 AM on September 9, 2011

That said, what didn't you feel was acceptable about the built-in DAC?

Everything sounds muddled. I wasn't even planning on doing the comparison, but one of my favorite songs happened to be playing and it just sounded off. The comparison with the CD player just reinforced how much worse it sounded. I even tried bumping up the iTunes EQ to make sure the CDP wasn't just louder, but that wasn't it.
posted by hwyengr at 10:18 AM on September 9, 2011

FWIW that's my experience when comparing a mac's output to a good DAC. There's nothing really *wrong* with the sound, it's just sub-par overall when you have a frame of reference. Right?
posted by krilli at 2:48 PM on September 9, 2011

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