Digital technology is transforming every part of modern life including Hi-Fi audio. Direct digital music file playback has "arrived." Of course, there's a caveat -- companies and listeners must attend to critical details in audio recording, mastering, industrial designs for components, and integration.
The simplicity, ease, convenience, durability, and low cost of digital file distribution and playback, combined with highest fidelity, makes it the all-time best-choice technology over any previous music distribution medium. Yes, including vinyl LPs, the 1954 Nash Rambler of music media.
Make that especially including vinyl. The development of digital playback is a huge boon to music lovers despite how much some music distribution industry players may struggle with it or bury their heads in the sand and maneuver behind the scenes to re-create a bygone past dependent on a pet, almost self-destructing, medium that nobody can copy without capital investment in equipment Vinyl LPs were certainly great for the folks who sold them. But vinyl is decidedly not making a comeback, no matter what the music moguls wish for.
Here's why -- I read, only yesterday, that the baby-boomer generation has now been surpassed in numbers by the millennial generation. Ponder what that means for music. The folks taking over are addicted to smartphones and want to do everything from dating, to stock trading, to shopping, to music listening with their phones. You can't spin plastic on a phone but you can store, stream, and play high-resolution digital media from them with the right software and audio system. Earbuds don't resolve it well but phones stream wirelessly to home systems and who knows what the future will bring?
The vinyl LP is a monument to sustained obsolescence. This former standard in physical recording had a nice run, almost a century and a half after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. In technology-life that's a millennium. Maybe some wag will work out a way to laser-scan LPs and reproduce them on 3D printers. Then maybe music distributors will warm up to DRM (Digital Rights Management) as an adequate IP rights protection. The future is here and it's digital. Apple is rigging phones for bandwidth to play even 24/192 resolution and beyond. Rumors abound they are eying the high end. The guys with the most cash will win.
Let me be perfectly clear about the stance being taken. It's NOT that there is anything "wrong" with listening to vinyl, or CDs, or with sticking with plastic discs staunchly as your personal medium of choice. Or with driving a restored Rambler. If you like them, spin them.
Please don't take these comments personally. Some historic oldie music may not be available any more as digital media. The stance taken here says listeners need to give digital playback a try because it's not only ready for prime time, it's a far better choice in all respects and inevitably the future of high fidelity music. Try it without prejudice and I predict you'll like it. Plastic is past and bits are the future of music listening. What listeners do in response to this fact is a strategic choice.
I offer systems able to play all the different kinds of media that a listener is likely to encounter these days including all analog and digital sources. So you're covered even with vinyl LPs and CDs, until the digital revolution reaches your neighborhood -- when you configure your system appropriately. And many Boomer Generation audio lovers (like me) are already responding.
Virtually everything is now recorded and mastered in the digital domain except for a few outlier productions. Why not just keep carrying that technology deeper, into audio playback systems, and enjoy better music? What used to be accomplished either mechanically (with turntables or tape) or optically (with CDs) is now done far better in silicon with none of the old complications. Though we still need analog amplification and speakers, mechanical devices that formerly served as the "front end" of Hi-Fi systems have gone the way of the steam engine. Live with it.
Nothing about the musical experience gets better by transferring the digital images of music into a physical format mechanically, reading it back via mechanical means, while transforming it back into electronic data to be amplified and played. Skipping all that run-around (can you say ADC and DAC?) has made the audio hobby much more about listening to music and much less about fiddling with media and the transducer gizmos that reconstitute physically recorded music. Computer audio puts more focus where it belongs, on musical pleasure, in a world where the "media" never wear out, get damaged or broken, or take up much storage space -- and it costs almost zero to distribute and is easy to protect with DRM encoding.
OK, my media rant is over. Let's move on.
The iHi-Fi sound is music to your ears from digital sources. "Music So Real" results from attention to details in well-implemented digital tech. This Sound is very much like listening to original performances when recording and mastering are good enough. This music is pure and sweet, articulate, warm, smooth, with accurate timbres -- if that was how the original sounded. Metal sounds like Metal as well. Each instrument and voice sounds like itself. The soundstage stretches full width across the front wall with startling depth and wide instrument separation. Fast bass and treble are fully extended. Music stands out in high relief against a deep black, silent background. There's enough volume available to drive even a larger room. "Digital artifacts" are easy to avoid and have been handled.
None of the just criticisms of early "digital music" apply. Current technologies make superb musical fidelity possible without digital artifacts – no “etched, grainy, noisy, overly analytic, harsh, fatiguing or hard-edged” qualities need to be tolerated. Nothing that is not present in the original recording is audible. The Sound is equal to the best of previous technologies and, in some regards, such as freedom from noise, convenience, media durability, and lower cost for highest quality music, it's far superior.
Other iHi-Fi Blog posts suggest multiple ways any audio enthusiast can top off their musical pleasure and enjoyment. This article carries those ideas forward into practical system setup. It will help you embody the concepts physically in systems that many more music lovers can afford. Much high-value hardware is offered here on iHi-Fi.com.
Nothing about the sound is magical or exotic, or dependent on some new gadget or proprietary technology. It flows from careful and thoughtful attention when the audio playback system is configured and assembled using excellent quality, off-the-shelf, current components. That means nearly anyone can achieve it. All iHi-Fi audio system designs are entirely in the public domain, openly available to all at no cost, and although demonstrated in Audioengine gear principally, the systems can be configured in many product lines.
Next, I'll cover some example systems that produce The Sound, followed by a discussion that explains the advantages behind bringing these components together. Lower cost for higher performance is the general approach.
Digital Section -- Music Sources
Music Server = Apple “New” iPad Third Generation (30 pin connector,) iOS 9.3.1
DAC = TEAC DS-H01 iPod Dock with (24-bit Burr Brown PCM1796 Upsampling DAC chip)
Music Server = Apple MacBook Pro, OSX 10.9.5, 2.4 GHz Intel Core i7
DACs = Audioengine 16-bit W3, 24-bit D2 Wireless, D1 Desktop with headphone amp, or D3 Portable with headphone amp.
Analog Section -- Amplification and Speakers
Both Systems A & B
Tube Buffer = iFi Micro Tube Buffer (available online)
Powered Speakers = Audioengine A5+
Powered Subwoofer = Audioengine S8
Acoustic Room Treatment -- All Systems
Acoustic System Basic Installation
Installation Steps 1 & 2 (Basic and Silver Resonators)
Phase Corrector Set. "Sugar Cube" array optional
Anti-vibration Treatment -- All Systems
Specific pucks, made of engineered damping materials, are matched with each component as required.
Music Server -- Go back a few steps in iPad evolution for a great server. A reconditioned iPad 3 with the Retina Screen makes your player control panel and any album art look stunning. Reconditioned iPads are less expensive online. Keeping it simple, an iPad 3 makes a great little digital music server that delivers a USB music stream directly from the music files. When you play music through the iPad 3's headphone jack, the digital version appears at the USB pins in the 30-pin I/O connector. Digital resolutions to any bit depth and any frequency up to 24-bit/96 KHz can be played through the fully compatible TEAC DS-H01 Dock. There's optical connection for higher bit rates.
Just bypass the inferior internal iPad DAC by re-routing the USB music with a full-core 30-pin cable (30 pins wired straight through) between the iPad and the Dock. That way you don’t have to be concerned about which pins do what. The cable is electrically identical to plugging the iPad into the dock but the iPad is more physically stable and better to work with on a stand in landscape mode.
By the way, if you're a fan of album cover art, the big, colorful display on the iPad Retina screen may help you get past plastic withdrawal. Dress up the little server with a bamboo case and a bamboo stand found on Amazon.com. Then select the bamboo cabinet Audioengine A5+ Speakers and you have beauty with beast inside. All streaming services provide attractive and capable, free mobile player apps to work with their gigantic music collections.
The DAC -- More importantly, the TEAC Dock is well designed. It achieves the charging interface to the iPad perfectly. This is a key feature. Otherwise, the iPad battery would be drained in a couple hours. Then your music server would be off line until recharged because only one cable can plug into the 30-pin receptacle at a time.
I spent hours searching for a quality iPad dock that would serve well. My reward was to find this great solution on sale for a fraction of the retail price. The TEAC Dock enables the iPad 3 to play continuously and it has other useful features for desktop use. It includes a remote and some interconnects. Other docks are also available online. However, you may have to start the search all over because this dock is out of production. You can use the Apple iPad Camera Adapter but the tablet device will not charge through it.
A better course may be to select a non-Apple tablet that supports open streaming of music via USB. Then you'll be able to set up a more current version of my tablet-based music server that doesn't require such contortions to access public domain music -- in spite of Apple's continual best efforts to privatize music to add even more cash to their bursting coffers.
Networking -- To play music files you have collected, the iPad works seamlessly with Apple Home Sharing (AHS) to access and play digital music files from a MacBook Pro laptop’s massive hard drive, or any other Mac on your home Wi-Fi network. AHS will also support network file sharing from the Mac Mini file server I am considering with considerable hesitation given current developments in the music distribution industry. Apple is trying to buy out all the streaming competition but fortunately some very game-savvy players are afield and only the venal have been purchased so far.
Tube Buffering -- About the the iFi Micro Tube Buffer -- it may seem unusual to include a vacuum tube buffer in a system like this. A tube buffer is a key stage for eliminating digital artifacts. When a digital-sourced, analog music signal passes through even a single vacuum tube before amplification, something about tube technology cleans up the digital music stream beautifully. Not sure what that is but I'm thankful and leverage it.
When I first heard criticisms of digital-sourced music, my home system included a Logitech Transporter on the front end and was tube-amplified. So I did not hear a difference that was unique to digital. This tube audio design secret is something that manufacturers like Decco use. Even super-pricey AMR uses a tube stage in their current stratospheric systems.
Also, different make and model vacuum tubes impart different tonal qualities to the music. By swapping tubes you can affect the sound, making it slightly warmer or cooler, brighter or mellower. The iFi Tube Buffer has a soldered-in tube but it performs very well as a tube buffer with extra, useful sound-enhancing features. The clean-up effect is introduced and no buffer is needed if you include a tubed preamp instead of a dedicated Buffer.
Powered Speakers -- Audioengine A5+ Powered Speakers are top performing, nearly lab-grade studio monitors. The A5+ has received high praise from many knowledgeable and respected reviewers, including Stereophile Magazine's Michael Lavorgna on AdioStream.com, and Steve Guttenberg on CNET and a troop of others.
I chose the Bamboo model for the handsome look and slight performance edge. The monolithic stereo amp inside one speaker works out very well. The whole speaker/amp design is fully optimized so it makes more sweet music per Watt. The performance is comparable to professional studio monitors costing multiples more. The A5+ Speakers come with everything needed to set them up. They deliver plenty of power, making 50 Watts RMS sound like 100 to me. And if you want to spend more and possibly hear even better music, the HD6 from Audioengine is now in the wild.
Room Treatment -- I have written extensively about Acoustic System room conditioning on iHi-Fi.com. After my experiments, I’d say simply don’t try to set up a system without acoustic treatment. The listening room (including all its contents) is part of your system. Unless you are listening in an acoustically treated space, your chances of hearing precisely what the composer and musicians intended are slim to none. Nor can you hear the full performance of your audio system. You might keep chasing better sound by buying more or better components when the room is the component limiting your listening.
My room treatment includes Acoustic System Basic Installation (Steps 1 and 2) with the Phase Corrector. The difference between music heard in the same space, with and without treatment, is stunning. Acoustic conditioning killed a 1-second dry echo and made it possible to listen all day. Treatment makes the music sound far more real. It provides adjustments to tailor the music to the room and to your tastes. It can even act as a graphic equalizer and block unwanted ambient noise, when configured for that.
Anti-vibration Treatment -- This enhancement, comprising small disc-shaped objects made of specially formulated, engineered materials, is so inexpensive and so powerful that it's a no-brainer. This is the first and most important step and assumed for getting all the performance your components are designed to deliver. The difference is audible and instantaneous. Insert dampers, hear better music. It really is that simple. Specific types are provided for each component. They have been specifically selected for that particular duty.
Results -- I’m quite satisfied with resulting musical performance. I can listen for long periods without fatigue, to streaming music, saved streaming files, or collected music files from hard disk. The system is about as digital as one can be these days. Yet it produces Music So Real for under $2000 and outperforms my previous tube amplified $12,000 system. I can’t recognize anything in the music that makes it sound “digital.” This is my standard lab system now. I listen to it daily as I write and design.
Another Server and DAC -- The same is true with other versions of this configuration that use different servers for the digital front end. Keeping the analog section intact, you can swap out the iPad for the MacBook Pro and replace the TEAC Dock / DAC with an Audioengine DAC. You will then get The Sound at even higher levels of detail and realism. I use the W3 Wireless DAC for video soundtracks and 16-bit sound files. The D2 24-bit Wireless DAC comes into play when I listen to 24-bit files from disk. The iHi-Fi.com Audioengine Store offers a variety of DACs that should meet your needs.
Legacy Media -- If you listen to vinyl LPs and have a turntable, or prefer CD’s and a player, you can connect them in parallel to the digital section of the system. The A5+ Speakers have dual active analog inputs so whatever goes into them comes out. That means you can connect your server to one of them and a CD player or turntable to the other. Then you don’t have to re-plug anything. What you will hear is whatever you are playing -- digital streams, Vinyl LPs, or CDs.
If you have a USB digital turntable, you can use that as a digital source. Plug it into a USB DAC and then into the analog section.
Streaming Sources -- Any networked music server enables streaming audio from websites like Spotify.com. You can also stream 16-bit/44.1 KHz CD quality files from Qobuz.com in France, or download some even denser, 24-bit files. Now TIDAL also comes into play with its high quality 16-bit streaming and rumors abound that they are going higher with bit depth to 24-bit quality. I vouch for the TIDAL sound at 16-bit, CD quality. I prefer it to Spotify but still need Spotify for the better selection and excellent new music suggestion capability. So currently I have both.
Get streaming audio if you want to expand your musical horizons by finding lots of new music you like. Spotify and TIDAL both support mobile devices with excellent apps. They provide massive libraries of music in all genres and suggestions on music you might like. Spotify enables saving files locally that you can play offline. So you even have music when not connected to the web. You can access more music than you could listen to in an entire lifetime. Spotify, TIDAL and Qobuz helped double my list of favorites in a few weeks and it still grows steadily.
Sourcing Gear -- The core systems (excluding the music servers, the iPad dock, and the iFi Tube Buffer) mentioned in this post is available from the iHi-Fi.com Catalog.
I'm available to walk you through installation or answer any questions. I believe everyone should be able to enjoy Music So Real so I’ll gladly help you achieve it for as little as under $300 for a basic starter system that you can grow. Also, my book on audio system setup could make a significant difference in your musical enjoyment. The iHi-Fi Audio Setup Guide is available in both e-book and print formats on Amazon and through booksellers all over the Planet.
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Enjoy Your Digital Music,