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Monday, 13 May 2013

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What do you think about the AudioEngine D1 DAC for hooking the A5+ speakers to a computer? Is it as necessary there as on the iOS devices? More necessary?

And what about a subwoofer? How's the bass on the A5+ for people that like to listen to modern pop, rock, and electronic music?

Thank you very much.

FWIW, in my opinion the best ipod/ipad/iphone dock around is the Pure i-20. And I've tried a number of others. Allow me to list it's many virtues:

1. It will charge your ipod/ipad/iphone while you use it (not true of all ipod/ipad/iphone compatible docks). [OK, I'm getting tired of typing that. Much as I hate the term, I'll just use "iDevice".]

2. It comes with a remote control.

3. It has a built-in DAC that is surprisingly good.

4. It has component, composite and S-video outputs to extract video signals from your iDevice.

5. It is relatively cheap (only $99 - half the price of the NuForce iDo).

6. Coupled with one of these cables, you can (a) use it with your ipad without having the whole thing threatening to tip over, and (b) use it with your ipod or iphone conveniently in your hand, without having to try and tap the screen in some awkward position while in the dock itself. The cables are overpriced, but VERY well made (a surprising number of my ipod/ipad cables have broken quite quickly, due to poor strain relief around the cable exit from the dock connector) and ultimately worth the money.

But the best feature of all? If you ever decide to step up to a high-end external DAC (which may or may not sound better), the Pure i-20 won't suddenly become obsolete, and in fact gives you MUCH more flexibility when selecting a DAC. This is because you won't be limited to iDevice-compatible DACs. How is that possible? Simple:

7. The Pure i-20 can extract the DIGITAL signal from your iDevice and pass it to an external DAC via optical (TOSLink) or coaxial outputs.

To my mind, this is a HUGE advantage over most other docks. Most docks (including all of the Apple docks, as far as I can tell) only function as the equivalent of an analogue line-out, which is of much lower quality than coverting the digital signal externally. And most iDevice-compatible DACs don't include a digital output (the iDo has a coaxial output, though not an optical output).

Anyway, just my 2 cents.

Best,
Adam

You're right, you can get pretty good sound w/o spending much. What you've described will sound much better than any wireless ipod dock/speaker. And the powered speakers mean fewer components than a regular hi-fi set-up.

If you want really cheap, try this: Lepai 2020+ amp ($25), Dayton B652 speakers ($40) and Pyle ipod dock w/remote ($20). I bought this for my wife's office and it sounds pretty darn good.

I went a similar route recently when my old Yamaha receiver died. After looking at all the options, I went with the Audioengine A5+ speakers in bamboo with the Audioengine D1 DAC. Connected the DAC to my Mac with a good USB cable and away I went. Add a subscription to MOG and you are set. No muss, no fuss.

Mike,

Thanks for that I'm moving house soon and considering getting some new audio gear doesn't have to be all time best ever but I do appreciate a good sound.

Alan

Oh no! - another shameless i-ad.
There are portable audio players, phones and tablets made by companies without fruity names you know.

[I'm not aware of any. --iMike]

So, this is actually a $1,200. stereo system... It just so happens that you're likely to already own the most expensive part.

Great recommendations. And a headphones recommendation?

[Sorry, headphones exacerbate my tinnitus, which otherwise I don't suffer from much, knock on wood. Haven't used them for years and years. My last pair were bought-new Stax SR-44's. --Mike]

Dear Mike,

Adding my three cents worth…

When I bought my A5+ speakers, you recommended the Audioengine D1 USB DAC (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ntt=audioengine+d1&N=0&InitialSearch=yes&sts=ma&Top+Nav-Search=), saying I would find it a much more satisfactory listening experience than using the DAC built into my iMac.

You are absolutely right about that. The new speakers were already making my vinyl transcripts sound better than I'd ever heard them sound before, but a good DAC took it to an entirely new level. Highly recommended.

For people who are wondering why this matters, large expository lump follows:

The problem with the DAC's built into most computers is that they don't have precise enough timing. It's not a problem with frequency response or dynamic range or noise, it's that your sample conversion has to occur EXACTLY on the mark or it introduces a little bit of time-jitter into the waveform. That shows up as both spurious frequency components -- the minor problem-- and phase distortion, the major problem. Internal DAC's are not usually designed to time things that precisely. People will spend thousands of dollars on an A-D or D-A converter to get that timing nailed down, and it's not a stupid-rich expenditure.

Our auditory systems are extremely sensitive to phase. It's one of the main ways we obtain directional information about where a sound is coming from. It's also a major component of cocktail party factor: what's lets us pick out music or a single spoken voice in a noisy background. The brain's audio processing correlates phase across harmonics to figure out what's signal and what's noise.

(Not so by the way, that's why as you get older you are likely to find it harder to understand what people are saying in a noisy environment or to pick out speech in a TV or movie sound track when there's lots of background noise or music, even if your hearing tests out normally. This phase correlation ability deteriorates with age even when the frequency response and sensitivity are holding up pretty well.

But I digress.

Frequently.)

Anyway, I have by no means a golden ear. I've got rather better frequency response then you'd expect for someone my age, but I've lost a lot of cocktail party factor. I definitely can't hear the difference between a 48 kHz and 96 kHz sampling, although some of my friends can. I'm probably a better than average listener, but maybe only in the same sense that all the children of Lake Woebegon are above average.

Given that, I did a lot of A-B comparisons between the internal DAC and the D1. Where the differences were most striking for me were at the extremes, in the very lows and the transients. As a test I put on Pat Metheny's “As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls” (vinyl version). About a minute into the live recording, a thunder shower moves through the performance area; you can hear the hiss of rain in the background and then there's a soft and very low distant peal of thunder. With the internal DAC, the thunder sounds like "woobalawoobala"-- it's just a blobby low-frequency sound. Through the D1 it sounds like “rumblerumble;" it clearly has structure.

Really deep bass notes from musical instruments sound a little buzzy through the internal DAC, they have kind of a "braaaaaw" sound. Through the D1 they have a much rounder "booooooooom" sound, no buzz saw quality.

Transients, like triangle strikes or snare drum attacks, are interesting. Superficially they sounded crisper with the internal DAC; they were sharper. But when I really listened to what I was listening to (if you get my drift) I realize what I was hearing was spurious. Audio-wise, it was like the way a photograph made on a coarse grained film can look sharper than one made on a fine-grained film, because there's detail all the way down to the grain level and then there's the sudden transition from grain to no grain. But it's jagged and it follows the grain pattern, becaue it's an illusion of sharpness created by the medium, it's not by the message. With the fine-grained film, you see the rolloff in the lens, so the fine detail may not have that sharp edged quality, but it's realer and smoother detail.

Well, that's what the transient sounded like. Listening closely to the ones that came out of the D1 they weren't always as sharp as the internal DAC but they really sounded the way triangle and drum attacks sound.

So, yeah, get yourself a good DAC. Believe me you won't regret it. In fact, if you don't have one already, I'd say get it BEFORE you get new speakers.


pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 
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For more bottom end you might like the Blue Sky Exo-2. I've been happy enough with their MediaDesk for a few years.

My wife and I have wanted to upgrade from plugging our phone into the clock radio to something better. Any sense of what you'd plug a non-apple device into?

Skip the dac, and spend it instead on better speakers, powered sub or good headphones. The dac is not the weak link in that setup. Ipod dacs generally are quite good, Wolfson usually, at least in some of them.

Lossless format is a must, that goes without saying. Otherwise, don't bother upgrading anything until all the recordings are in lossless.

Great information, but do you or your readers have a suggestions for Android style devices? Also any suggestions for the car audio, plugging it into the headphone jack does not cut it. The quality is so bad I rarely use it but the CD's still sound great on it.

As a music lover and someone who does NOT think "audiophile" is a bad word, I get what you're saying and can't quibble with the sentiment nor overall recipe as cited.

There will always be these two things anyone considers before laying out the cash:

1) Can you perceive a difference?
2) Do you care about that difference?

Many who don't think they can reach #1 actually can, if #2 is first achieved, somehow. ;)

I'd slice this problem a slightly different way: a used Conrad-Johnson CA200 control amp, a pair of Dynaudio Focus 160s, a Schiit Bifrost DAC and a Mac Mini servin' up the tunes.

I totally agree with your suggestion. In my home, I striped the "small" audio system down even more. My "big" HiFi stereo setup (with home made tower speakers equipped with Fostek F83e drivers) is in the living room, and my Radio is in the kitchen. Sometimes I wanted other music than provided by radio in the kitchen. So finally, I got myself a mp3 player again (my last one broke a year ago), ripped all my CDs again to flac (lossless compression) and there it is - smallest good sounding unit in the world: A Tivoli Model One, a good 3.5mm plug cable and my Cowon iAudio 9 equipped with flac files. Okay, the system can only play in mono, but that is good enough for my kitchen. And it sounds great (due to the EQ on the Cowon).

Best regards,
Markus

I had read about the AudioEngine speakers before, I will keep your recommendation in mind in case that I should decide to upgrade my non-living-room solution.

What I really wanted to write is that using an iPad as my main music player works well for me. Right now I am listening to Ilo Lympia by Camille on Spotify. If you have an iTunes running somewhere in your home, you can play music stored there via WiFi on your iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch. The closed nature of the Apple music environment can be criticized, but it is what I use anyway and it works well for me. As mentioned, being able to use Spotify is a big bonus to me. Of course Spotify (or using iTunes Match for convenience) is only an option if you do not mind compressed audio files.

The route that I have chosen is to stream via AirPlay to an AV Receiver with three nice and two small but ok speakers attached to it. Right now I am actually streaming not from the iPad but from my MacBook. For those who are not aware that it is possible to use AirPlay on OS X with something else then iTunes: Open the Audio MIDI Setup application. It is also possible to attach the iPad to an AV Receiver via HDMI. There might be 44.1/48k resampling involved then though, in case that that bothers you.

What about the large part of your audience that positively hates anything i? What would their alternative to the NuForce be?

Thanks Mike, I love a good “90% of the goodness for 10% of the cost” story.

Thirty or so years ago, I photographed the interior of a house that happened to belong to a retired recording engineer. His last employer was Carnegie Hall and the house had a room filled with audio equipment. It looked to me like he could have continued his carrier at home. Towers of components, pre, during and after amplifiers, chest-high monitors, the whole she-bang.

So, where’s the “10% of the cost” part? He gave a demonstration of his system; as expected, it was very impressive. With a sly look, he said he was going to toggle between speaker pairs. The other speakers were home made, low buck wonders that made the listener (me, anyway) strain to hear the differences. What were they? A few dozen two inch portable radio speakers hot glued onto a pair of 18 inch diameter styrofoam balls, resembling two giant insect eyes. The Bug Eyes were being fed the big system but so were the monsters that cost more than my first three cars put together. Wired up together and each hanging by strings from the ceiling, their only names were left and right and he was very pleased with them.

Very clever Mike, trying to side-step the MP3 issue, but who has WAV or Lossless files on their device? They take up a lot of room on an average 12GB flash drive. So you are, in practice, condemning these poor innocents to a MP3 existence! My recommendation, add to your little set up a good but bottom of the range NEW turntable (Project make some good ones). Then you can play your old records (or your parents'), rummage through second hand stores or get some nice new stuff from bands that now make their music short enough to fit on a single LP. Not only will you look so cool, but you will have a full upgrade path- so that one day you can buy a pair of speaker cables that cost more than your bicycle.

For those who do not belong to the Church of Steve, NuForce makes a great USB DAC which is also a good headphone amp.

Wow Mike - maybe your most useful post ever. As a forty-something music lover with more recordings than I know what to do with, my problem for the past half-dozen years or so has been deciding how I want to consume music in the 21st Century. I still have the vintage stuff but continuing to buy Cd's or LPs seems like so much throwing good money after bad. Young folks don't seem to care about how music sounds and older folks like me tend to be a tad bit, well, obsessive. Your solution sounds (no pun intended)like a nice middle ground. I will hit Amazon tonight and see how it goes. Thanks.

Mike,

Since you alluded to the NuForce being a decent headphone amp do you have a "budget" headphone recommendation? My wife wouldn't be keen on having two honking speakers to try to fit on the computer desk, the little NuForce DAC/amp and a pair of headphones would much easier to sneak into the apartment.

Adam

[Hi Adam, I really don't. I had to stop listening to headphones many years ago because they make my ears start ringing after only a few hours or days using them. So I just don't keep up with what's out there...or experience it myself.

Fortunately for you one of the most active hi-fi websites is dedicated to headphones...Head-fi.org. It's a robust community with extensive content. It might take you a little while to get oriented and find the information, but I'm sure you'll find a wealth of advice if you look for it.

Not to try to convince you of anything, but the AudioEngine A5+'s are only 11 inches high, and they make a very good desktop speaker, the A2, that's only 6 inches high. --Mike]

I recently treated myself to a Denon Ceol to replace an ageing CD reciever for our small sitting room, and the sound is quite frankly stunning. And it gets better and better the more speaker you throw at it. Plus it does all the modern ipod docking-music-streaming-digital-inputting that you could desire, all for £349 - or about the same as your suggested NuForce/AudioEngine combo (in UK money at least). A serious bargain.

So I'm going to ask for an objective answer to a subjective question: How bright are these speakers? I ask from a history of gravitating toward British made speakers with tube amplifiers and run screaming from a room if I see electrostatic speakers in it. Thoughts?

I love the Audio Engine speakers. I have the babys upstairs and the big ones on my TV.

I kind of like the W. Eugene Smith approach to music. Just arrange to have Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Steve Reich play live in your workspace.

Dear Tommy Williams,

Apparently I anticipated your question [g].

A few things I neglected to mention. The computer I'm running the D1 with is a late 2008 27" iMac (and that's the internal DAC I was comparing it to).

The D1 accepts both optical and USB inputs and has both headphone and RCA cable outputs. I'm using the USB input and the RCA output to feed it to the A5+ speakers.

For those who seem to have a fetish about certain brands (either for or against), so far as I know the D1 doesn't care what kind of source you hook it up to, so long as said source can output either optical or USB.

pax / Ctein

My setup? A Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD sound card a pair of Beyerdynamic DT990s. Bliss.

The card's a bit flaky, but the DAC and headphone stage is excellent. The thing is, a lot of the DACs and headphone amps out there are built by smaller companies, who just don't have the economies of scale, so for what you get in a card for $200 will cost more than a lesser-feature standalone DAC.

The headphones are Beyerdynamic. They are German. They are built like a goddamn Panzer tank, sound fantastic, and are cheaper than equivalent-sounding speakers.

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