BEST PC-BASED AUDIO PLAYBACK SOLUTIONS


Here's the outcome of my efforts, trying to achieve the best audio replay using a computer as a music source.
Disclaimer

Please note that this article is a little outdated. I haven't used personal computer based audio in a long time because I have been getting such excellent results with streaming audio and dedicated music servers. I still run comparisons every now and then but haven't experimented enough with Windows 7.


Introduction

I've been using various computers for music replay since the nineties. Over the years, a lot of computer equipment has traveled through my listening room such as soundcards, USB/Firewire interfaces and even sophisticated integrated solutions, some of which were very expensive. But until recently, none of the integrated, user friendly solutions have managed to outperform my PC solution soundwise. This is why I started my quest at perfecting this PC-based separate component system.

There is also an article for the Best Streaming Solutions and an article for Best Integrated streaming solutions

This article details the part of the music chain from Computer up to the DA conversion. What happens after that is very much to your taste and budget. In my case it is a system based on Jeff Rowland reference components and Magnepan magnetostatic speaker.

Here's the Current setup in detail and to put this all into perspective, see This Reviewer's Preferences.


Best Computer-based Audio System Solutions


1. Best Solution:


This system excells in transparency, air, fluidity and lack of digital signature and produces free-floating soundstage images and has first rate focus. It even beats my reference Levinson no.390S cd player in these areas. This is a system for people who like their music presented in a gentle, sophisticated manner.


2. Best Solution, making use of an spdif DAC:

  • Regular Tower PC (not a laptop) running Windows XP and Winamp 2 or 5 with kernel streaming
  • Lapp or other warm-sounding power cable for the computer
  • M2Tech HiFace EVO USB-SP/DIF interface
  • Wireworld Gold Starlight III, or if you want spend less, Belden RG59 Coax for digital audio output (or if you like it cleanest, with no overhang: ST Glass fiber optic digital cable)
  • Mark Levinson no.360S DAC (or another second hand high end dac, many oldies but goodies are available at reasonable prices these days)

This system falls behind the system above when looking at its best areas but exceeds it in the bass and slam department. The HiFace EVO helps to produce the best bass I have been able to get from a computer based system, with the exception of using the digital output from a EMU1212M soundcard which has even better bass, but falls behind in all other areas.


3. Best Cost-saving Solution:



3. Best Low-Cost Solution:

  • Regular Tower PC
  • Harmonic Technology Pro ACII or, even cheaper, a Lapp powercable for the computer
  • Any USB cable (but preferably a good one like the Transparent Premium Digital USB)
  • Arcam rDAC (if you like it smoother) or Musical Fidelity V-DAC (if you like it cleaner)


4. Best Macbook Solution, using an already present DAC:

  • Macbook (Pro) (battery- or wall outlet-powered doesn't matter; power source strangely doesn't have any influence at all)
  • iTunes in native form (if you like it smoother) or iTunes enhanced with Pure Music (if you like it more accurate)
  • KingRex UD384 USB/SPDIF Interface
  • KingRex U-power Battery Power Supply
  • Elijah Audio Quad Braid USB cable
  • Wireworld Gold Starlight III+ digital cable for digital audio output to the DAC
  • Mark Levinson no.360S DAC (or another second hand high end dac, many oldies but goodies are available at reasonable prices these days)


My experience shows that old reference DA converters still sound much better than affordable modern DACs. But the differences don't lie in the field of detail retrieval, slam or dynamics. More often it is the soundstage depth and width, the extra airyness, silkyness and smoothness, in short: the "analog" feel, that reference DACs can achieve without sacrificing fine detailing. The good thing is that second hand Reference DACs can be found for as little as a third of their list price on the second hand market. Regarding Mac's fourth place I'll be frank: some people might disagree with me on this, but I feel that the Powerbook (and probably all notebooks just the same), sounds thinner, flatter and less dimensional. The Macbook also lacks slam, bass and colour, compared to even a simple tower PC running Windows XP. Just why this is, I don't know. But for me it is simply a dealbreaker. Nonetheless, it is very much possible to retrieve more detail and accuracy using a Macbook than using a PC but I strive to get the best 'musical' performance. The Macbook will be excellent for people who like to hear an analytical sound and want the best accuracy, but for me, it just doesn't move the soul.


More detailed explanation:

Like I said before, I strive for the most musical performance. For me that means smoothness and lack of aggression in music replay. I also value an "analog" feel over super-dynamic attack. Nevertheless, I wouldn't like a system that puts me to sleep either. With this in mind, the best app for PC right now is Winamp. Whether you prefer Winamp 5 or 2.91 is really a matter of taste. Winamp 2.91 is still my reference for neutrality while Winamp 5 is best for that extra bit of refinement and smoothness, even though some people might find that Winamp 5 is actually less neutral than its older brother. This of course is up to you to decide.

You probably noticed the low rating of the Apple Macintosh. Indeed, I have had more luck getting good sound from a Windows machine than from a Mac. But this is a bit unfair because my experience with Mac thus far has been with Macbooks only. I haven't tested their full size computers yet. It's not that I don't want to or don't trust them; it's more that even second hand they still cost 1000 euro! This has always stopped me from experimenting more with Mac.

But here's my experience thus far with Macbooks: iTunes for Mac is a solid program. It provides good sound quality, provided you use a good interface to get the audio out of the computer. Toslink is below par and should be avoided. Other programs can sound punchier, tighter and more focused while add-ons such as Amarra and Pure Music do much the same. But I feel that, at least in combination with a Macbook, and in my setup, the sound is already so much thinner and flatter than with a full size PC or a reference quality CD player that I feel that I really need iTunes' fullness of colour and gentle smoothness to make up for this to some extent. As such I feel that iTunes by itself (au naturel) provides the best sound balance in my situation. However, I also clearly hear that without Pure Music, iTunes sounds a bit empty, it just doesn't sound as lively and enthusiastic, and timing is just a little off. Depending on your music taste and setup, iTunes with enhancements may well be the preferred solution. Please do note that this may be different on a full size Mac Pro in which case I think that I would favour iTunes with the Pure Music add-on. This I will hopefully test as well some time.

For both PC and Mac, the Ayre QB-9 USB DAC was found to be the best interface/DAC. So, if we put iTunes in native form on the Mac up to Winamp 5 on the PC, both using the Ayre QB-9, the differences lie as follows: The Mac will sound more transparent and lighter and, perhaps, even more subtly detailed. The PC however, will portray a much larger (wider, deeper and more enveloping) and a more true to life soundstage in which the instruments have more space and are more widely laid out. Also, the PC will have bigger bass and more colour as well as sounding much more like a reference cd player than the Macbook would.

The Ayre QB-9 is the first USB interface/DAC to challenge my Reference CD player in the areas of transparency, focus, articulation,  soundstaging and, surprisingly, lack of electronic signature. It manages this without sounding dry or sterile. There are still facets of the Levinson's performance that the PC combo could not match such as bass fullness, drive and colour. Nevertheless, for the first time I can say with conviction that computeraudio, done right, can replace a reference cd player.

Mac or PC, or should I say Laptop versus full size computer?

I have no prejudice for either Mac or PC. In fact, I feel that both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. I also do not think that the difference in sound that I heard was completely attributable to the Mac system per se, but more to the fact that it is a notebook. The funny thing is that some friends that I've spoken to about this matter, feel that the laptop sounds better, not worse than a full size PC. I think, and this really is just me trying to find a rationale behind this, that many people prefer a forward and slightly aggressive sound over a more gentle, more natural sound. I've noticed this many times here at home when I have guests over or at audio shows, the tendency for people to favour the louder, more forward and more impressive component, even though it is much less refined and natural. Taste comes into play here too, for sure. But I can't help feeling that many people listen too superficially. By that I mean that initially they may have favoured the louder, more aggressive sounding component but that they may grow tired with it over time. They just don't realise this themselves yet. Again, this was just me brainstorming and I have absolutely no proof for it. It is just a feeling I have. Anyway, at least we can agree that differences do exist. The large powersupply may be responsible for the most part and the bigger components inside and the more spacious layout internally but I cannot be sure until I compare the full size PC to a full size Mac as well as a PC laptop versus my Macbook. Maybe I'll get to that in another test. For I'm sure that I will again find differences in sound, but which will be better? I don't dare say. All I do know is that thus far, the three PC systems I have had over the years sounded much the same. The Macbook really deviates from this norm.

When using a USB DAC, one advantage Windows has over Mac OSX is that the samplerate is automatically chosen according to the music played. It changes real time and you can mix all resolutions and samplerates in a playlist. On the Mac, you have to go to Audio Midi Setup and choose your preferred samplerate manually. Every time you play a song in a different samplerate, but also every time you switched off the Mac because it reverts to 44k.

The Ayre QB-9 DAC was used extensively in comparisons between Mac versus PC, there's a review here

Also reviewed on this site is the PS Audio PWD which was my reference for my best streaming audio solution
until the Linn Klimax DS came along.
Christiaan Punter

Of course this is just too much for a computer based audio system. But it nicely illustrates my point: to get high end audio replay from a simple personal computer.

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