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September 8, 2012 1:15 PM   Subscribe

Budget home audio: amplified speakers ← amplifier ← DAC ← ????

I'm assembling a moderately priced home audio setup and can't figure out what my digital source should be.

I'm looking for a small, affordable device that can output digital to the USB input on my DAC. I avoid single-purpose devices and want to avoid gadget clutter. My ideal device would be something like a portable MP3 player. However, it's proven difficult to find a portable device that allows users to bypass its built-in DAC and just output the damn digital signal.

I'm very behind the curve on portable consumer devices, but, from what I can tell, my options include the following:
  1. some kind of ultralight laptop — this seems like overkill.
  2. a Squeezebox device, probably the Touch — again, costs as much as a current-generation video game console.
  3. a portable player with USB output — does one exist?
  4. some sort of cheap tablet that plays both MP3 and lossless formats and has USB output — I'm completely unfamiliar with my options here.
I welcome your suggestions.
posted by Nomyte to Technology (6 answers total)
Does your DAC have more "normal" coax or fibre digital inputs? Leaving aside the matter of playing lossy formats through a portable device, you'll probably have an easier time finding a playback device with a more common digital interface.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:23 PM on September 8, 2012

If you can find a tablet with USB audio output, that would be my suggestion. You won't even need to store your media on the tablet if you can stream it from another machine. You could also use it to stream online content like Pandora.
posted by rocket88 at 1:23 PM on September 8, 2012

iPods will output audio via the dock connector digitally.

Where is your music currently stored?

I got some Sonos pieces about 6 months ago and absolutely love them. Very easy to use and they sound great. I have a Play 5 (with speakers) and several in amplified units hooked up to my existing stereos.

Likely though, you won't be able to hear the difference of having a completely digital audio chain on even a mid-range setup.

What's your budget?

Also, Logitech just killed the Squeezebox line, so you can probably find them cheaper now on clearance.
posted by reddot at 3:42 PM on September 8, 2012

Response by poster: The music right now is stored on my laptop. I listen to it using headphones and a small USB headphone amp.

The amp/DAC and my floor-standing speakers are below $1K, but quite decent otherwise. RCA and USB are sadly the only inputs, and I do want to stick to digital.

Would be great if someone explained what the range of tablet options might be. I'm completely at sea on the topic of tablet operating systems, what's coming out when, and so on.

I don't have a budget in mind, but I really didn't expect this to be an expensive component. I mean, right now I can just plug in my laptop and listen to great music without spending an extra dime. The idea that I need to spend several hundred dollars just in order to unplug my laptop is fairly mind-boggling.

This is why I'm looking for a multipurpose device: I don't want to spend a hefty sum just to fill a hole in my audio setup. It'd be a lot better if that device was also a portable music player, or a productivity tool, or anything but a highly specialized gap-filler.
posted by Nomyte at 4:42 PM on September 8, 2012

Shoving PCM audio down a USB socket doesn't need much processing power. You could probably visit your local tip and pick up an obsolete laptop that would do it in a canter.
posted by flabdablet at 6:42 AM on September 9, 2012

Hmmm... I think that you might be focusing on a tablet for this task might be a mistake. I'm pretty sure that hat you want doesn't exist. I missed that you wanted a USB input to your DAC previously. If that's your main requirement, get an old laptop.

See someone with a similar quest, here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/593807/looking-for-tablet-with-digital-out? And this is just someone looking for a tablet with a digital out; not even a USB audio out.

Have you tried comparing the USB inputs to your RCA ones from a good quality source? My guess is that you wold not be likely to be able to tell the difference.

And I think the USB port on the Squeezebox Touch is an input only for a flash drive or other external drive.

What inputs are on your receiver? Perhaps it's time to get rid of the DAC?
There are plenty of iPhone / iPod docks that will output digital, but none via USB.

Frankly, a Sonos Connect for $350 would likely be your best bet if you have digital inputs in your receiver. Alternatively, the DACs are supposedly very good in the Sonos, so you likely would not be missing anything by using that instead of your DAC. If you were considering a Squeezebox Touch, the price isn't too different, and you'd be buying into an active, supported product line.

In terms of replacing your laptop, it's an expensive, complicated machine and doing USB out is just a tiny feature. That's why I asked about your budget. Even a tablet would run you at least $250 for a 7". Also, if you do decide to investigate the tablet route, make sure you try before you buy.
posted by reddot at 6:00 AM on September 12, 2012

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