Amarra, Decibel, and Pure Music

As metaphors go, the silver bullet is somewhat ambiguous, given that it's used to represent both the reliably destructive and the reliably beneficial. (Who would have guessed that an idea from a Lon Cheney Jr. film would prove too subtle and complex for people in the 21st century?) Nevertheless, at Montreal's Salon Son et Image on April 2, those of us who comprised Stereophile's reliably responsive "Ask the Editors" panel—John Atkinson, Robert Deutsch, and I—volleyed it with the sort of sprightly, vernal abandon that is the sole province of men with gray hair. To wit: We agreed that no materials, technologies, or design decisions can either guarantee or prevent good sound. Not vinyl. Not star grounding. Not class-A circuits. Neither tubes nor transistors. Neither belt nor idler nor electrostats nor multiway nor single-driver nor copper nor silver nor silk nor beryllium. Not even harmonic distortion. Each of those ideas may mean something to someone, in the short term, in the narrow view, but that's all. There are no silver bullets.

Except in the very literal world of digital audio, which is crawling with silver bullets. First, consider that word-clock jitter is always musically destructive: There is no such thing as an acceptably musical digital source with high levels of jitter. Second is the fact that it's always easier to listen to a cached, solid-state digital file than one that's undergoing the messy process of being pulled from a CD like a rat from its hole. Third is . . . well, I'll get to the third one in a minute.

Digital terrier
If I owned such a number of CDs that my servants and I couldn't rip them all ourselves, I'd consider buying another CD player to replace my 12-year-old Sony SCD-777ES, which itself replaced a perfectly nice Naim CD3—a move of questionable wisdom, now that I think about it. But today, thanks to breakage, loss, and generosity, my CD collection is contracting, even as my vinyl and shellac collections expand. (The universe is expanding too, but not fast enough.)

Computer audio is not only the right choice for me: It's a happy choice. The genre is still fun—especially if you avoid upturning the rocks beneath which the Internet's computer-audio "experts," who belch condemnation at every approach that isn't their own, lie in wait. And it's still affordable: The audio perfectionist who already has a free copy of Apple's iTunes on his or her computer is able to get up and running for just a few hundred dollars, with USB-to-S/PDIF converters and USB digital-to-analog converters from HRT, Musical Fidelity, Stello, and a growing list of others. Computer audio is the road to freedom from obsolescence, extortionate prices, and those glorified kitchen-table manufacturers who thanked their best customers—the people who bought the first multi-thousand-dollar CD players of the late 1980s and early 1990s—by neglecting to stock enough spare parts to keep their overpriced goods running for more than five years. Throw in freedom from ugly, splintered, useless CD jewel cases and the matter is settled.

By the same token, there exist more expensive options that promise more than just CD-quality (footnote 1) sound. Consider the successful QB-9 USB D-to-A converter, which Ayre Acoustics introduced two years ago for the moderate sum of $2500. Ayre kindly loaned me a sample—and then, toward the end of last year, called it back for what I assumed would be improvements. Charles Hansen, Ayre's CEO, was quick to set me straight: "The new version doesn't sound any better. It just has an extra feature: It can go to 192kHz instead of just 96kHz." Fair enough. But because it might sound better when it does that, I asked to reborrow the same QB-9. (Hansen saw no reason to alter the model name: "We knew when we started it would have to change eventually.")

Ayre endeavors to make all their product upgrades retrofittable, and so it goes with the 192kHz version of the QB-9: The retail price was bumped to $2750, and people who invested in the early QB-9 can have theirs upgraded at the factory for the price difference alone: $250. Charles Hansen says he would've done it for less if he could have. "The part that would go to 192 was only a little more expensive, but then we had to add another board and change the power supply, too." The new chip—an XMOS XS-1 from Bristol, UK—is simply a microprocessor, and thus requires a separate receiver chip.

There remains a lack of controls on the Ayre's front panel, but the DIP switches on the back have taken on a new shine: One of them controls whether the QB-9 is connected at Class-1 USB or Class-2 USB data-transfer speed, the latter required for sampling frequencies higher than 96kHz. The choice is also determined by the owner's computer operating system: Although Class-2 USB capabilities have existed on Macs for a number of years, it wasn't until OS 10.6.4 that sample rates beyond 96kHz were supported. Windows users may require an extra driver, but Charles Hansen says that the prep work isn't daunting: "For Class-2 you do need to have your computer pretty current, but we spell it all out on our website."

Footnote 1: I sneer Sam Tellig's ironic sneer.

Vigna ILaria's picture

I use BitPerfect (Mac platform only), $4:99 on the App store.  It uses iTunes to do all the grunt work, and steps in only to handle playback.  It does it without muss or fuss.  It smoothly handles HiRes formats.  But that would all be for naught if it didn't sound good.  In fact, it is the best sounding player I have ever heard.  Some, especially Audirvana Plus, come close.  In fact there are times when I'm darned if I can tell any difference between the two.  But Audirvana Plus is more clumsy to use and costs more.  Everything, of course, IMHO.

Some observations to throw out there.  (i) OS/X always sounds better than Windows, even on the same Mac hardware configured to dual-boot.  (ii) Integer Mode sounds better than Floating Point mode (to my knowlege, only OS/X offers Integer mode).  (iii) If you run OS/X, don't, don't DON'T *upgrade* to Lion.  Stick with Snow Leopard.  64-bit is better.  Lion has abandoned support for Integer Mode.  Audiophile Apples are getting frustrated.

I have communicated with guys who think the ultimate (i.e. best sounding) computer audio platform is the Mac Mini.  Apparently, different brands of *MEMORY* sound different.  As do different hard disks - well, I can see how that might be.  You can even buy an audiophile-approved power supply for a Mac Mini, which costs more than a Mac Mini...

Finally, my head was screwed with seriously when I auditioned a Nordost Blue Haven USB cable.  I bought the darned thing.  Paid nearly 300 bucks for it.

Computer Audio is going to be a tweaker's paradise.  And your mileage may differ...

JimH's picture

Ayre also lists JRiver Media Center (our software).

JIMV's picture

"Consider the successful QB-9 USB D-to-A converter, which Ayre Acoustics introduced two years ago for the moderate sum of $2500"

One should not indulge in wacky weed while writing. $2.5K is only 'moderate' when one makes new Mercedes every year sort of money.


Michael Lavorgna's picture

...if you look at the list of 24/192 capable DACs for example, you'll see that the average price is over $4,500 which makes $2,500 a relatively moderate sum - within that context. Which is how I read what Art wrote since in general terms a "moderate sum" is a subjective value.

Or to look at it another way, you could very well say that $150 for an ounce of "wacky weed" is a moderate amount to pay seeing as the average price is upwards of $400/ounce (source: Of course this price disparity does not take quality into account and for someone who does not indulge in 'wacky weed', $150/ounce for something that literally goes up in smoke probably seems like an extravagance.

nunh's picture

I absolutely love Art Dudley's and Sam Tellig's writing, humor and knowledge (unrelated and relating to audio). Now I can add Michael Lavorgna to that list as well. I laugh (copied from Sam and mocked by Art) my evil laugh (with no help from wacky weed - it's been years)!