Computer audio- how to get the best sound*

Discussion in 'Audio Hardware' started by jespera, Apr 22, 2018.

  1. jespera

    jespera Member Thread Starter

    My musical diet is almost exclusively vinyl. Occasionally, I'll put on a cd.

    Good vinyl can get me up to 50% of what I get out of real live acoustic music. Digital gives me less than 5%.

    Ive stayed away from computer audio and streaming because a) I couldnt be bothered
    and b) I tried "cd quality" streaming a few years back (wimp) -- and I thought it sucked.

    Anyways, tidal's offer of "cd" and "master" quality for almost nothing is very tempting so I tried again.
    But I was frankly shocked how poor the sound is straight from the app (on a mac book) via usb into my dac (a chord hugo). It sounds "digitally remixed" in the worst way. With a nasty digital hard shine on everything. I installed the Audirvana Plus software and it helped a lot. But there is still a significant quality gap between the cd and the computer playback. This also goes for cds that I rip and store in apple lossless, flac or waw. These sound very similar to what I get out of tidal.

    Some of my hifi nutter friends have similar experiences with different hardware.

    So what is the trick to get music from the computer to sound as good as the cd?

    What do the pros do? There is a lot of music recording and processing going on in computers these days.
    What computers, operating systems, software is used for best quality?

    Is there any point in hi-res downloads or streaming if music from the computer cant even match cd ... ?

    And also: do anyone know what the problem is? Mains noise from the computer affecting the dac?

  2. wolfram

    wolfram Slave to the rhythm

    Berlin, Germany
    You need a DAC that sounds as good as the one in your CD player and you have to make sure that your computer gives out the signal bit-perfect.
    beppe, rodentdog and nosliw like this.
  3. Thouston

    Thouston Forum Resident

    Mattoon, IL
    I use JRiver on a Windows 10 laptop- USB to a Yggdrasil DAC.
    reapers, rodentdog and mike catucci like this.
  4. cdash99

    cdash99 Forum Resident

    Over time, streaming and computer audio have become two different animals IMO. with a good streaming piece of equipment, such as Bluesound or Auralic, you can stream Tidal and others for $500-550 while taking your computer out of the playback chain.
    HankM and rodentdog like this.
  5. Diver110

    Diver110 Well-Known Member

    If your ears are used to vinyl, you will have a hard time with digital. You will always be comparing them. Vinyl has deficiencies too, but your ears are used to them. The Hugo is an excellent dac, so I doubt that is your problem. I am happy with the Mytek Brooklyn, FWIW.
  6. Stone Turntable

    Stone Turntable Dedicated Listener

    New Mexico USA
    You just need to hack your digital playback to add a brief needledrop/crackle sound effect at the start of every track to fool your brain into thinking you're playing vinyl and distract your mind from its profound bias against even good digital sound.
    motownboy, snowman872, Jim13 and 9 others like this.
  7. anorak2

    anorak2 Forum Resident

    Berlin, Germany
    The player software doesn't change the audio quality, unless it secretly fiddles with EQ or something.

    Those are bit-itendical file formats. They should sound the same as the CD if you play them through the same DAC, which according to your description you do.
    olson likes this.
  8. Bingo Bongo

    Bingo Bongo No music, no Life

    I just enjoy the music and forget what format it's on........
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2018
  9. Rolltide

    Rolltide Forum Resident

    Vallejo, CA
    It sounds like you might be one of The Beautiful People. This means anything that gets referred to as "streaming" will be distasteful to your Beautiful Ears and you need to stick with CDs.
  10. Encore

    Encore Forum Resident

    Hi Jesper,

    I have – at great expense and effort – arrived at a very nice-sounding digital setup. EVERYTHING matters IME. First, of course, one must have a good DAC. Audio Note DACs are capable of something special, I think. They have a sound and a drive that resembles what you get from vinyl, but other ladder-type DACs may have that as well.

    Second, bits are not just bits, as you have experienced with Audirvana. Your setup with a standard Macbook simply won’t cut it. You can find lots of info about this on My source of bits is a PC with separate LPSUs for the digital board (which outputs the bits to the DAC through AES/EBU) and for the motherboard. I have recently moved from Jriver to Roon (and Tidal), so now a have a Roon Core on a separate (nonspecial) computer. My audio computer now only serves as a Roon endpoint.

    All this gives me what to me is the best digital sound I have ever heard, also from Tidal, and most of the time I enjoy it immensely. Still, will all this effort and expense, I think that a decent vinyl spinner can compete at a fraction of the price. Granted, this may be particularly true with some of the older classical recordings, and as our host at this site has explained, it may be futile to try to get the digital versions of them to sound as good as the vinyl versions, simply because the digital transfer hasn’t been mastered as well as the original vinyl versions.

    You’re from Cph, I see. You’re welcome to come over at my place and have a listen.
  11. timind

    timind Don't blame me

    Westfield, IN USA
    Your OP reads as if your mind is set. Don't waste your time and money chasing an unattainable goal.
    snowman872 and Rolltide like this.
  12. Shawn

    Shawn Forum Resident

    While I don't subscribe to Tidal any more, when I did the lossless audio was fine. What speakers / headphones are you using?
  13. NickC4555

    NickC4555 Well-Known Member

    Leicester, UK
    I've built my streaming system in stages, and it's pretty much got to the stage where it's as musically enjoyable as my LP12. I can switch between the same track streamed from Tidal via Roon and the vinyl version and be just as engaged by the digital version, even after making a direct comparison with the vinyl.

    The system comprises Intel NUC (running Roon Core) LAN connected, SOtM sMS-200ultra (Roon endpoint) LAN connected, SOtM tX-USBultra, SOtM sPS-500, Audiolab M-DAC Plus. AudioQuest and SOtM interconnects. The NUC and sMS-200ultra are on their own network switch. The M-DAC Plus feeds an ancient Naim pre/power combination (recently re-capped) into a pair of Dali Rubicon 6s.
    Shawn and Rolltide like this.
  14. toddfan

    toddfan Forum Resident

    Overland Park, KS
    Not meant to hijack...but, along the same lines as the OP question:

    I have a Yamaha A-S801 which has its own built-in DAC...assuming that is at least a "decent" DAC (and, I do not want to change it) ... The Yamaha has a USB input..or, an Optical Input....or, a Digital Coaxial input. My Computer has USB Outputs, Optical Outputs, and Stereo Mini-Plug outlets.

    So....which inputs/output combinations should one use to get "the best possible" sound from that existing setup? Right now I run from the USB of the Computer to the USB input on the S-801...and, I use Roon as my player. Does that give me the "best" quality, or would the Optical/Coaxial outputs give better quality...will ALL of the various inputs give the same bitrate resolution for HQ audio?
  15. Bachtoven

    Bachtoven Forum Resident

    Davis, CA
    Have you tried downloading some hi-res files to a portable HD and plugging it straight into your DAC? I do that with my Oppo 205, which I can control via a phone app, and it sounds great. Some audiophiles swear that a full computer worsens the sound. Since my laptop has developed sound sound issues when using JRiver MC22 (the music is reduced to fuzz!), I've had to go the portable HD route, and I'd say it definitely sounds better (before the current problems!)--more presence and detail.
  16. jespera

    jespera Member Thread Starter

    Encore: yes, I think the fundamental problem is that bits are indeed not just bits. And probably
    more important than the dac and maybe even the bit rate. All the debate on
    seem to show it. But the level of tech speak is hardcore, sticking in all directions, and frankly not easy
    for a 50 year old to follow. I would love to hear your top spec audionote digital system and learn a bit
    more detail about how you set up your computers.

    The importance of the quality of the bits is further confirmed by NickC4555's system which has seen
    a lot of investments in digital boxes and cables, but uses a relatively modest dac.

    Bachtoven's observations seem to suggest that the best digital front end is a very simple one. Not very
    different from dacs that play directly from a usb stick or a memory card -- or a cd player.

    Shawn: Most of my listening was done with my trusted 50 year old tannoy york 15" golds but I also used
    headphones: b&o h6 and grado rs2e.

    Here's a question: if the bit quality is super important, why dont the dac manufacturers
    build in filters, buffers, re-clockers, transformers, decouplers, whatever-is-needed -- in the dacs?

    Shiver likes this.
  17. c-eling

    c-eling Forum Resident

    I found getting my music from my PC to my system via a SBTouch into a Emotiva DAC was the easy part. Tracking down mastering's I enjoy- the hard part :laugh:
  18. Mister Pig

    Mister Pig Reigning Barnyard Animal of the Year

    Olympia, WA
    I had similar experiences as you do, and I never did find a way to get Tidal to sound as good as my ripped CD's, although the Master files came pretty close.

    I use a Mac Mini for the server, and chose Pure Music as my playback program. CD's are ripped in an uncompressed format, as is yours. Even so, I found at this starting point that CD playback was not the equal of my dedicated transport.

    The turning point to where it actually got better was when I added a PS Audio LANRover, and a Singxer SU1 USB/SPDIF converter. To be fair, my DAC is a multi bit design that does not use an on board converter stage, so I have to have the Singxer. However it is far better than the other units I have experimented with, and worth the money spent.

    With the LANRover and Singxer in place I found incremental gains using a Wireworld Silver Starlight USB cable, and I then added the Pure Music program and gained another step towards better sound.

    It is my experience that the system noise coming off the USB feed is too high for quality digital playback. I have removed it and tried to see if it was just wishful thinking, but the sound becomes hard with a loss of low level detail. This has been my solution, and I am quite content with how it sounds.
    olson likes this.
  19. Shiver

    Shiver Forum Resident

    I feel the OP's woes, and can't even get lossless CD rips to sound as good as CDs when played through the same DAC, both via a computer and USB/COAX interface, and also when burned back on to a blank CD! I've heard different CD transports sound different too, which also doesn't help! Nor do I subscribe to the 'its all ones and zeros so just use a laptop' argument, especially when you see the level of mods and stages that folks into this stuff do to their computers to make them work, which seems somewhat painful. Moreover, personally, I don't like the idea of having to fire up a laptop each time I want to listen to something; or even using a NAS, streamer, etc (rip it here, store it there, connecting via this app etc).... just want to keep it simple...

    So, whether it helps the OP or not, the conclusion I've come to is at some point I'll try something like a Bluesound Vault 2 - see what the SQ is up to. It's a single box, silent, that rips CDs, stores, can download files, streams, and can either use its own DAC or feed straight in yours (which is a great DAC). In my simple mind on these things it seems about what I'd wish for. But in no rush, so will watch and wait what happens to prices and competition.

    Absolute caveat: full respect and God speed to anyone who's been able and happy to get the sound they want from a computer. It's not appeared to be for me so far, but could quite easily be going about it wrong.
    Wounded Land likes this.
  20. Vincent Kars

    Vincent Kars Active Member

    They do
    Buffer: all DACs either fed by USB or Ethernet/WiFI use a packaged based protocol. Hence there must be a buffer otherwise it won’t work.
    Transformer decoupling: it is part of the Ethernet standard. Some also use it for SPDIF
    Re-clocking: a lot of DACs use asynchronous sample rate conversion to reduce input jitter.
    Galavnic isolation: the Ayre QB9 (2010) already had a galvanic isolated USB input

    In practice of course it depends on the specific product what kind of “isolation” is applied.

    If you look at measurements you will notice that a lot of DACs are very very quiet there where it counts: the analog out.
    A noise level of -130 dBFS is almost normal in well designed DACs.
    Some examples: Master Index for Audio Hardware Reviews
    Wouldn’t be surprised if your power amp makes much more noise.
    Johnny Vinyl and anorak2 like this.
  21. Blank Frank

    Blank Frank King of Carrot Flowers

    The OP is using a Hugo, which will take care of the former, and Audirvana, which is supposed to take care of the latter.
  22. jespera

    jespera Member Thread Starter

    Agree. If no-one is able to market a single box product that can rip a cd and play it back without quality loss
    -- then digital audio isn't quite a mature technology.

    But of course: Respect to those who have iterated themselves to something that can do it.

    Shiver likes this.
  23. enfield

    enfield Forum Resident

    Essex UK
    Its not normally lossless digital that causes 'digital hard shine'.That hard shine is already there on the source master/recording due to poor mastering/poor use of digital technology in the studio .Digital playback in the home will just play that recording back faithfully.A well mastered recording has no 'hard shine' or 'digital sterility' when played back digitally .So that sort of sound when it occurs has to be due to the master sounding hard and sterile in the first place..Vinyl makes those poorer recordings sound better through various factors such as inner grove distortion,a tendency for HF roll-off around the +5db range, and bit of lower-mid bloom.Add the lovely comforting movement of the record gently spinning and a bit of nostalgic crackle and people feel it offers a more natural sound.It does not,but it can be easier to listen to over extended periods as the harsh edges of the original recording will be tamed, with the more pleasant frequencies emphasized.Digital is more faithful and neutral and would be my choice for the 20% of recordings that are well engineered and mastered.But i can understand people preferring vinyl for the rest of the recordings out there.Although i find that a CD based system that veers towards a analog sound signature,combined with an amp with good tone controls gives me the best of both worlds.The consistency and low cost that CD offers,with a nice analog sound signature to tame and warm less than perfect recordings.
  24. Vince800

    Vince800 Senior Member

    I have connected my computer to the amp with a TOSLINK cable. I do not use the integrated sound card due to the potential noise this can add to the sound. I have a Soundblaster Recon3d PCI-E, no longer in production but a good card.
  25. TimM

    TimM Forum Resident

    Dayton Ohio
    I would agree with most of what you say. I probably own 100 albums that I just have never found a suitable digital replacement for, but at this point I am sure 90% of my listening is in the digital domain. Maybe I just got used to it or my aging ears rounded off the harshness for me, but i have made peace with digital sound.

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