Welcome to my mid-summer column. As I write this in mid-May I'm being inundated with new product to evaluate, which is sort of unusual for this time of year. Normally the rush is put on in the Fall so that the review can be published before Christmas and the January Consumer Electronics Show. I guess that the end of the recession is pushing manufacturers to get their products out as soon as possible to capture any loose cash in your pockets.
Home Theater Computer-Server
Well, this time my present HTPC's power supply self destructed and took out my motherboard and two hard drives, containing the operating system and my 1.5 terabytes of music gathered over 20 years. Thank God I had just copied the music to another hard drive in storage at my local bank or I may have committed suicide along with the computer.
You may ask why I would want to build a home theater computer into a high end audio system, and why not just get one of the pre-built units from Sooloos, Meridian, etc. If you've read my previous articles on HTPC's you'd know that if properly constructed and using the proper programs, an HTPC can replace both music software and source components, and, except for SACD, can improve on the sound produced compared to components costing many times their price. Plus, you can do it for several times less than what any of the pre-builts will cost you.
By playing the digital files from the hard drive or even better from RAM, jitter can be reduced to extremely low levels, and with an excellent sound card, A/D and D/A conversion can be made equivalent to some of the best converters. Plus one can store one's entire music and video collection replacing yards of shelf space on a single hard drive. Recording of both audio and video is a snap with excellent results, and one can even convert one's analog to very high bit rate digital. As an added bonus, you won't even have to buy discs any more as you can use the computer to download regular and high bit rate (up to 24-bit at 176.2 kHz.) recordings from the various web stores to your hard drives for playback at much lower cost than purchasing the discs.
If one uses an external D/A converter or pre-pro, one has the choice of S/PDIF, USB, FireWire or HDMI output of the digital signal, each of which has their advantages and disadvantages. More Later! Luckily Newegg was having a sale on computer parts, so with some trepidation, and many hours of internet learning, I came up with what I considered to be my ideal music-video server. First up on the decision list was what processor to get.
1: Intel Core i5-650 Clarkdale 3.2 GHz. LGA 1156
2: ASUS P7P55D-E Pro LGA 1156 Intel P55 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX Intel Motherboard.
Next came the case. The...
3: Lian Li PC-C34F ATX Media Center case was chosen as it was a horizontal unit built from aluminum and had both a large area for two disc and four hot swappable hard drives. Two qty.
4: LG GGC-H20L disc drives were chosen for their ability to playback HDDVD and Blu-ray and record Blu-ray discs, two quantity.
5: Western Digital Caviar Black 2 TB 7200 hard drives were chosen for a raid 1 operating system drive array. Two other
6:Western Digital Caviar Green 2 TB 5000 hard drives were chosen for music and video storage.
7: Antec 750 watt power supply
8: 16 GB of RAM, and an
9:AZIO Bluetooth Wireless keyboard filled out the roster. Of course, the new...
10: Windows 7 64 bit operating system was chosen for its ability to transmit audio without it having to go through the K mixer. Total cost came somewhere north of $900, above average for a computer, but chump change for high end audio.
Finally, I added my...
11:XONAR HDAV 1.3 audio card and...
12: NVidia video cards with HDMI output for multi-channel high definition video and audio transmission.
Construction took about 12 hours of time, but at the end the damn thing wouldn't boot. After several hours of trouble-shooting without success, I finally relented and brought it to my local computer whiz who, after 15 minutes found that I had forgotten to attach the extra power cable to the video card. Oh well, nobody's perfect. Once the hardware and operating system was in order, the following software was added:
2: Exact Audio Copy to produce exact copies of CD's to the computer hard drive. FREE
3: Foobar 2000 for digit correct playback. FREE
4: J River Media Center 16 for digital playback with processing. $49.95
5: WaveLab Elements 7 for A/D conversion and recording. $99.95
So for less than $300 for software and $900 for hardware, one can have a super-dooper top of the line HTPC that will be able to record, store and play back every piece of music or video you'll ever be able to collect except SACD playback, which Sony still won't allow through computers. (Wonder why SACD has never taken off!)
So how did it turn out? Except for two minor problems, great! Using my HDAV 1.3 audio card with 7.1 channel HDMI output, or two-channel through the computer's S/PDIF or USB output to my pre-pro, the sound is very good to superb, depending on the recording. I could also use the 8 channel analog output of the card but that would require another 8 interconnects and I've found in the past that doing it external to the computer seems to sound somewhat better.
The two problems revolved around HD-DVD playback, the high definition disc system that was defeated by Blu-ray. I have one disc of the Berlin Philharmonic under doing the Mahler Second Symphony that blows my socks off every time I listen to it that has not been brought out on Blu-ray that I can no longer play as all computer software has abandoned HD-DVD. While there are a couple of ancient programs available, they don't do the playback justice.
M2Tech Young 384/32 D/A Converter
I've written in the past about several super high end Esoteric products from TEAC America AA Chapter 92, AA Chapter 98 and AA Chapter 99, and a couple of months ago reviewed the HiFace USB to S/PDIF unit, modified by Mapleshade at AA Chapter 137. As you can tell from above, am into HTPC for the high end. I guess that's probably the reason that Steve Rochlin and TEAC asked me to review TEAC America's latest distribution product, the Young 384/24 D/A Converter.
M2Tech of Navacchio di Cascina, Italy, developer of the HiFace dongle mentioned above, which asynchronously converts USB to RCA or BNC S/PDIF with significant jitter reduction, have incorporated this circuit into a D/A converter that will decode signals on its USB input from 16 to 32 bits, and 44.1 to 384 KHz. In addition, the unit has RCA, BNC, and TosLink optical S/PDIF, and XLR AES/EBU inputs for 16 to 24 bit 192 kHz signals. Output is by stereo RCA's. Claimed frequency response is up to 10 Khz to 90 kHz (+/- 0.1 kHz) with 384 kHz on the USB input only. If you want to do up to 384 kHz on the other inputs you'd have to step up to their Vaughn processor.
The unit comes with a wall wart and USB cable plus instructions to download the instruction book and drivers, which are loaded onto the computer. The drivers allow the unit to sidestep Window's notorious Kernal mixer by using either WASAPI or Kernal streaming for bit perfect reproduction, something that only the M2Tech drivers accomplish.
Of course, the first question that came to my mind was why the American based part of Esoteric/Teac, a Japanese company that's one of the biggest electronics manufacturers, with excellent high end equipment, would decide to distribute relatively inexpensive products from a small Italian company with little name recognition in the US. Mark Gurvey, the Esoteric/Teac rep, stated the "M2Tech is a perfect fit for us due to price points, sound quality, build, and technology", because currently, Esoteric's least expensive DAC is $4800. The M2Tech HiFace USB to S/PDIF converter is only $200 and the Young D/A converter evaluated here is $1799. Thus a perfect match if the products live up to Esoteric/Teac's expectations.
The Young unit will take any output from your computer except HDMI, asynchronously correct the jitter, and then do direct D/A conversion without upconversion. As the unit does not have volume control, the analog signal is output on RCA's to your pre-pro or, using the computer's volume control, direct to your amplifiers. With a proper program, such as Foobar with the unit's software, one can bypass most of the computer's circuitry using kernal streaming or WASAPI, thus negating one of Window's notorious problems of having all audio digital signals converted to 48 kHz. If its originally 24 bit 384 kHz, it will remain such through your computer's USB 2.0 output to the Young unit. Maybe this will incentivize more web companies such as HDtracks to sell high bit rate recordings.
The analog output was connected to my pre-pro's direct out inputs so there was no playing around with the signal. The sound panel on the computer was set to allow the software to control the bit rate, and both Foobar and Media Center 16 playback software was used. It was connected to my computer both through a USB and the RCA S/PDIF outputs.
Unhappily, I made an audio beginner's mistake. While the unit worked perfectly, picking up the proper bit rate from the computer and doing proper D/A conversion, it sounded like digital from 30 years ago. It was somewhat harsh with a less than adequate sound stage. I thought that it was probably due to normal break-in so left the unit and computer running for a week continuously. No change occurred in the sound. Happily, Romy Bessnow, a fellow audiophile and blogger extraordinaire came over for a listen, and on leaving thought he had spotted the problem. As my equipment rack was full, I had placed the Young on top of one of my Pure Power PP 2000 AC units. He mentioned that the PP 2000 gives off inordinate amounts of RFI, which were probably driving the Young's circuits crazy. Therefore, the unit was moved to the furthest shelf from the PP2000.
What a difference!! Now the unit sounded far better than what my pre-pro could do, and reminded me of the best D/A conversion I've had in my system, the TEAC Esoteric P-05, D-05 transport and converter, two of only five units I've reviewed over the years that I regretted having to send back to the distributor for lack of funds to purchase. I wish I had them here now to compare them to the Young to see how close they sound. I understand now why Esoteric/TEAC decided to distribute the unit as it indeed fits perfectly into their line for price verses value.
I, and probably just about everybody else in the world, don't have any 384 kHz recordings yet the soundstage on my few 176 kHz downloads and A/D recordings from my vinyl collection was superb. They extended from way behind the speakers to almost to my listening chair, wider than my room's walls on one of the recordings, and actually producing some height information. The vinyl recordings playback was the closest my system has come to reproducing the original analog sound since the Esoteric units left here.
Compared to my Oppo BD-95 unit, reviewed last month, my Integra 9.8 pre-pro, home theater computer, and Toshiba HD-DVD player, this unit skunks them all. While using the home theater computer as the transport, through its USB output using the HiFace USB to S/PDIF converter to my Integra pre-pro sounds very good, this unit beats this and the above mentioned units hands down. I could also hear no significant difference between the USB and S/PDIF input over the test period confirming the remarkable jitter reduction ability of the unit.
I can find only two minor faults with it. Number 1, while it is future-proof for two channel reproduction with its ability to decode up to 32-bit/384kHz recordings, multi-channel recordings are the future of music and two channels will fade out like mono did. It does not have an HDMI input, which will probably become the standard for all audio-video transmission in the future. I know that the HDMI output has poor jitter numbers, but the asynchronous abilities of this unit might be the perfect fit to overcome this problem. Replacing the antiquated optical Toslink input with an HDMI would be a simple way to accomplish this. And number 2, it does not have a remote control so one has to go to your rack to change the input. I know, we're becoming fatter and fatter with our lack of exercise, but a simple remote with one button for changing the input would have been great.
Other than that, for its $1799 list price it is a steal! I just wonder what their Vaughn unit can do better at its higher price point.