DJ Sneaky Takes Computer Audio to Audiophiles

iHiFi offers a solution to digital music that sounds shattered.

iHiFi offers a solution to digital music that sounds shattered.

On the opposite pole from musical philistines, listeners call themselves audiophiles.  They care deeply how music sounds.  They make considerable system investments, build valuable media collections, and identify with a listener elite to expresses their enthusiasm. This group stands to gain the most from computer audio yet ironically, many cling to physical media and deny the value of newer technology.

At iHi-Fi, we have sworn off the “a-word” (audiophile) because it has accumulated negative connotations like snobbery, disregard for cost, hyper-fussiness, and even fascination with worthless audio pseudo-tech. Our neutral language for all people who love audio is simply “audio lovers.”  We think everyone stands to benefit from digital audio technology, even hard-core “vinyl snobs.”

Perhaps you’ve amassed a sizable vinyl LP or CD library (or both) and you spin plastic analog media on players with costs that could trigger a serious health event if spoken carelessly.  It happens iHi-Fi has computer audio ear candy for your tastes as well.  Would you be willing to open your mind enough to hear our best gear beat the pants off your system’s analog front end at a fraction of the cost?  Well then . . .

You’ve probably heard of “computer audio” but you may have also heard that digital music sounds wretched. (Yes, it can if not tube-amplified.)  Remember, guys saying this are pushing over-designed, overbuilt, and overpriced exotic mechanical players that were obsoleted by commodity digital gear -- DACs that many respected listeners say exceed physical media.  As technology moves inexorably forward, some try desperately to cling to the past.  Especially if pulling the wool over our eyes is profitable.

Media-pushers may also deal in overpriced “rare antique vinyl recordings” that folks trashed 3 to 5 decades ago.  Or maybe “collectable CDs.”  What the heck, if you enjoy burning money on fragile physical media, why not?  Some people have model trains, baseball cards, or collections of guns they never shoot. Just don’t mistake the media for the music.  Physical media may be attractive sentimentally but it’s inferior except as a means of price control.

Bravo Audio Ocean headphone Amp and Tube Buffer, $129 regularly on iHi-Fi.com.

Bravo Audio Ocean headphone Amp and Tube Buffer, $129 regularly on iHi-Fi.com.

Even so, hanging tough with physical media is not a grave error because you can run digital audio sources in parallel with analog and take comfort in having both the best and the latest.  And access to the most recordings.

At iHi-Fi, we easily make digital music sound much like being present at the recording session by including a vacuum tube buffer in the signal path.  We picked this up from several great sounding, highly respected brands like AMR, Valvet, Decco, and more.  Try a blind listening test and hear for yourself with little risk.  We’ll sell you the gear and you’ll have a month to audition at your place.  If it doesn’t measure up and also expand your musical horizons, we’ll give your money back.

Beyond superior price/performance, you’ll gain other advantages with computer audio–

  • Digital sourcing provides easy access to dozens of millions of recordings. Would you like to gain massive digital music libraries at decent-to-superb fidelity for negligible cost?
  • You don’t have to buy recordings to have access to them.  Rent them from giant collections through streaming websites for paltry sums.
  • You may want to own certain special digital music files.  You can store them on a computer disk or in mobile players and play them back at will.
  • Software enables conveniently indexed, searchable library organization that puts all your recordings at your fingertips.
  • Digital recordings don’t wear out a bit each time you play them.
  • When properly backed up recordings are preserved forever.
  • No cleaning or maintenance is required.
  • Capture valuable LP recordings digitally, preserve them forever, and share them easily.
  • Enhance recordings by removing surface noise as LP’s are digitized.
  • As you “rip” recordings from CDs, bypass the standard lossy filtering and up-sample to capture a lot of musical data that gets ignored in standard CD playback.  This conversion can audibly increase the fidelity of CD-stored music.
  • Album art is easily available for many records and can be stored along with the music in some digital formats such as AIFF.  Make some screen collages.
  • Massive portability rules. Carry big chunks of your library around and listen anywhere, not just at home, in glorious extreme fidelity.  Or stream from The Cloud over the Internet when away from your main system.
  • Floor and wall space is regained when storage needs diminish.

In other words, by adding digital playback to your existing audio system, you gain significantly in multiple ways.  You lose nothing except prejudices. You can keep collecting and playing the old plastic discs on the same system.  Why not revel in the new freedom, better cost/performance, portability, and expanded musical horizons of digital music?  I’ve not heard of a single vinyl-lover or CD collector adding digital sources and then reverting.  Start small and prove to yourself you can live with it.  I predict you’ll never let it go.

 “New audiophiles” and recovering musical philistines who resort to vinyl LPs for decent fidelity can walk a more righteous digital path.  They can stop supporting an archaic, greed-driven music distribution business that relied on plastic media to artificially elevate prices.  Overpriced files exist in the digital world too but nobody is compelled to buy them.  My vision sees streaming Hi-Fi audio taking over.  But that’s a different blog post.

You analog system will need a new-fangled piece of gear called a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that serves as the converter for digital files.  A computer, network music server, or mobile player (or the like) will play digital music data through the DAC.  The DAC is an electronic box into which you pour music data from any digital source (maybe computer) through a wire, optical cable, or wireless link.  On the output, you get a pristine, analog music signal like what comes out of a CD player or phono preamp.  Into the system preamp or amplifier that goes and you know the rest.

Audioengine 24-bit D2 Wireless DAC, $499 on iHi-Fi.com.

Audioengine 24-bit D2 Wireless DAC, $499 on iHi-Fi.com.

Consider a DAC that was omitted in that last “philistine” post for cost reasons – the Audioengine 24-bit D2 Wireless DAC.  And no, it’s not Bluetooth.  It’s wireless that really works.  A lesser-known radio cousin of tried-and-true 802.11x Wi-Fi but without management overhead.  One D2 Sender transmits music to as many as 3 receivers over a private, peer network.  One-way data.  No router.  No other traffic.  No contention.  Doesn’t use a shared Wi-Fi network at all.  Works independently, anywhere.

What you lose is as exciting as what you gain – you hear no pops, clicks, buzz, hiss, crackles, gaps, dropouts, or disconnections.  Just pure music, as if wired, but without wires from source to amplification.  I personally run my D2 daily, and have seen no issues.  My D2 transmits with complete reliability through 3 walls made of steel re-bar reinforced concrete.

The high performance 24-bit D2 DAC offers a superb feature set for the cost in a modest but handsome package.  It excels with a Burr Brown 24-bit/96KHz PCM1792 DAC chip.  Input to the Sender is via USB or PCM optical (toslink.)   Connect the Receiver via PCM optical (toslink) or RCA analog.  

The combination of RF wireless, optical, and a separate remote power supply provide extreme isolation from digital hash and ground loops.  You get a “black” audio background.  If you already have a favorite DAC, this unit can serve as a wireless link to amplification.

Audioengine 24-bit D2 DAC Receiver Kit Add-on, $325 on Hi-Fi.com.

Audioengine 24-bit D2 DAC Receiver Kit Add-on, $325 on Hi-Fi.com.

Consider how gear such as this might update your analog audio-lover system. The computer audio upgrade is like adding a new player.  Connect your DAC between your computer’s USB or optical port (or other source) and an AUX or Tape input of your preamp.  If your amplification is vacuum tubes, all the better.  If all solid state, consider the little tube buffer iHi-Fi offers – the Bravo Audio Ocean headphone amp.  It sweetens, warms, and smooths the sound to remove digital-sounding qualities.

What this all amounts to is that you can add not only a great sounding DAC but even a MacBook or a Mac Mini computer to drive it and a terabyte disk drive as your music file storage – all totaled for less than many old-school audio lovers pay for one used high-end turntable or CD player.  Even throw in a year of monthly subscriptions to MOG.com and Qobuz.com and you’re still way ahead cost-wise.

And there’s more.  If you have ever wanted to hear your music at more than one location in your home or business, the D2 DAC supports multiple audio zones.  So it’s a perfect platform for audio-lover music at up to 6 stations within a 100-foot radius (with 2 Senders driving up to 3 Receivers each.)  Extra receivers are available separately to expand the system.  The two-Sender setup is easy on a MAC.  On a PC, not so much -- you’re limited to 3 zones at a time.  Hint – for not only this but a host of other reasons as well, I recommend a Mac for computer audio setups.

Audioengine A5+N Bamboo Powered Speakers ($469 on iHi-Fi.com) and D1 24-Bit DAC.

Audioengine A5+N Bamboo Powered Speakers ($469 on iHi-Fi.com) and D1 24-Bit DAC.

I should also mention powered speakers now because a DAC alone does not a system make.  Each audio zone needs a pair of speakers and a D2 Receiver, which is available separately.  You could incorporate any speaker/amp combo you like.

My personal favorite monitors with any DAC are the A5+N Powered Speakers in Bamboo cabinets.  The bamboo is not only attractive, being stiffer it also imparts a slight performance edge.  The A5+ musical fidelity easily stands up to studio monitors costing 10 times more.  If you want to connect an amp you already have, the Audioengine P4 Passive Speakers have about the same voice in a slightly smaller package.  Or you might like an Audioengine N22 Stereo Amplifier to drive the P4N.

If a leap into digital seems overwhelming and you prefer to just stick your toe in these waters and get a feel, why not audition iHi-Fi’s Audioengine A2+ Powered Speakers with built-in 16-bit DAC?  The Stereophile Magazine guys found these computer speakers astounding.  We dubbed them “The Best Computer Speakers Ever Made.”  

A2+ with built-in 16-bit DAC ($249 0n iHi-Fi.com).  Just add a computer to audition digital audio.  We think you'll never let it go.

A2+ with built-in 16-bit DAC ($249 0n iHi-Fi.com).  Just add a computer to audition digital audio.  We think you'll never let it go.

These wee monitors provide a low-commitment taste of computer audio as you work on your computer.  Plug-and-play with an easy computer setting or two.  They will also drive up to a medium size room but with lesser performance than the A5+, which are also great computer speakers if you have the space.

Sleep well tonight.  Dream of access to dozens of millions of recordings, most sounding at least acceptable on that deep black background.  Opera while you shower.  Dizzy Gillespie as you barbecue on the veranda.  Sultry jazz singers seducing your imagination as you sip old Scotch whiskey in the dark and hear them as if right in front of you in your den.  

Whatever makes your audiophile heart beat faster.  We’re here to make your dreams a reality and take your reality beyond what you ever imagined possible.

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The iHi-Fi.com website is the online high-end audio store you can shop from anywhere in the US without leaving home, receive expert advice, and audition whatever you buy with return and refund privileges.  This site is the audio industry go-to price/performance consultant that optimizes value through computer audio.  All the computer audio systems at iHi-Fi.com deliver exceptional to stunning performance at value prices simply because nothing else is acceptable.