Audiophiles: How Did You Go Digital?

Naim NDX 2 music server/DAC and SuperNait 3 in the system I just put together.

I’m constantly building up new systems and then tearing them apart or swapping out key components or cabling in the signal path.

This got me thinking about the speed at which I do these system curations these days – sometimes less than a week apart depending on my review queue and schedule.

I compared this to the years it took me to learn to put together my first ‘real’ system. It was (and still is…) constant trial-and-error, experimentation, and absorbing the inherent costs that go along with this. Acquiring experience at how different parts of the chain can change a system’s tenor (among many other factors) when certain components are tweaked or replaced – never mind cable changes – is crucial to getting the most from this hobby.

Shindo Mr.T power conditioner currently in system rotation.

But it takes time and serious listening. Listening for what you like or love, but even more importantly, listening for what you don’t like. Knowing what you don’t like eliminates a lot of time and headaches on your part because that narrows your focus and helps to get you where you want to be faster (hopefully).

I grew up with music playing every day on my parent’s record player/receiver/loudspeakers and that shared experience of family around a stereo has stayed with me. When I was starting out in this hobby as an adult with the goal of making the best sound system possible within my budget, it was in service of sharing the music with family and friends, and no surprise that it was focused on analog music. I was totally focused on building up a system to give me the most bang-for-my-buck from the Technics SL1200 ‘table I had saved up for.

A Linn LP12 is back in the mix on the analog side.

Over the months and years, I went form a Technics deck to a steady climb up the Rega ladder, then over to Linn, with several five-figure, high-end decks coming through here-and-there as review loaners from Avid, Transrotor, Vertere, etc. (from which I learned an enormous amount about turntable/tonearm designs and upper-echelon analog playback). I didn’t get into CDs as much – I found it was a time of waning CD interest in the hobby as a whole. I had an Audio Note CD 2.1x on loan for several months so I kept buying the silver discs because they’re so cheap, but the digital bug – at least with CD – didn’t bite me with any of the strength that vinyl had. Then one day I was offered a totaldac integral (DAC/music server/headphone amp) for review and the way I perceived and interacted with the landscape of music changed irrevocably.

This was mid-2016 and streaming music hadn’t exploded into what we now take for granted as ubiquitous. Roon was a fledging company that had been around about a year and was just gaining traction with serious music lovers. I had coincidently run into and befriended one of the company’s founding members – Rob Darling – a few months earlier at T.H.E. Show in California so I was hip to what was happening on the software side. I was further intrigued that the totaldac design was an early Roon adopter and could run the software natively. It seemed the stars had aligned for me to access this new, cutting-edge way to experience music playback all at once.

Setting-up the totaldac required me to purchase some hardware though. I hit Craigslist and sourced an 11-inch MacBook Air to run as my Roon Core and an iPad Mini2 as my Roon Remote. TIDAL was the defacto ‘audiophile’ online music streaming service, so I arranged a press subscription and I had the whole thing up and running in about 20 minutes.

Within an hour I was utterly hooked.

I started to consume both new and familiar music at an exponential rate – the only limitation was how many hours in a day I could commit to listening and streaming music. With Roon’s intuitive interface and artist linkages embedded with every song or album, I found myself traveling down preternatural music rabbit holes to the chagrin of my family whom, suddenly, I rarely interacted with.

The Roon Labs Nucleus+ currently replaces my MacBook Air as a Roon Core.

Not only did the totaldac sonically trade blow-for-blow with my Linn LP12 at the time, I found myself firing up Roon – not the turntable – more often than I cared to admit. The sound through the totaldac was so analog, Roon with TIDAL offered literally millions of tracks in Redbook quality (along with access to the all ripped CDs and couple dozen high-res downloads I’d bought and kept on a USB drive), and the seemingly endless paths through music’s history via genres, artists, labels, etc. was addictive. There was no going back and it was just a matter of time until streaming became the dominant method of listening to music in my home. My pace of record buying dwindled to an LP or two a month – tops – from almost two dozen at its zenith before the digital usurper appeared on my doorstep. I spent less time in record shops and more time at home with a cold beer or whisky while I data-mined TIDAL’s catalog into Roon playlists and sat besotted with happiness listening to what felt like endless music.

Fast-forward a few years and I find myself helming this website. These days I can’t imagine being an audiophile without streaming dematerialized music off far distant cloud-based servers. The level of personal investment in my digital front end rivals my analog one and I feel this balance only makes sense as I tend to split my time more evenly between analog and digital these days, having had a born-again vinyl moment late last year when I realized how much I missed hitting record stores and the all the social and intellectual perks that go with crate digging.

So, that’s my story of how I came to settle onto this audiophile digital-music frontier. I’d like to hear your stories of how you came to include digital audio into your music programme. What precipitated taking the plunge? Did you come to it of your volition or did a friend help you make the initial plunge? What’s it been like since you first started? What changes to your set-up have you made? Please post your experiences here. I look forward to sharing them.

COMMENTS
Cout's picture

My vinyl rig consists of VPI Scout 2.0 / Ortofon 2m Bronze / Graham Slee Reflex M. I had a Schiit Gungnir MB which didn't measure up. Now I have a Topping D50s which is much better. Hardly listen to the vinyl at all. I also run Roon ROCK. I'm very happy. So for me it was finding the right DAC, and it turned out that money was no object.

SpinMark3313's picture

Rafe - great idea. I'm surprised no one has chimed in yet...
My digital journey began in the Pleistocene Age when CD's were just too new and shiny to resist. I sprung for a demo NAD player - their first - OME'd by Toshiba. Combined with a NAD amp and a used pair of Dahlquist DQ 10's, it was all... horrible.
Icy, harsh, bright, earsplitting.
But LP's began to disappear from shops as the 80's progressed and with little ones on the way, CD's were just too convenient. From the NAD I graduated to a CAL Icon. $800 shekels. Ouch. Though my wife agreed it was an improvement in the highs versus the NAD. From there I think a tried a Marantz player with their HDAM approach. That thing is still spinning discs at my sister-in-law's house!
From there I got into SACD with one of cranky Roy Hall's Chinese sourced players - the Maverick. It was decent though there was a wonky firmware issue and Roy was about as helpful as a barnacle on a boat. Eventually that machine ground so a halt to I went the Marantz SACD 8004 player route which is in my system to this day as a CD transport (and SACD player)! A series of DAC's for my fairly large CD collection has led me to a sweet MHDT Orchid NOS DAC. This beauty has me reaching for CD's waaayyyyy more than ever. I don't care how it measures or doesn't, it sounds like music and I can get into 44.1 like never before. An Eastern-Electric MiniMax preceded that and it still is really good in my living room system.
I just don't have the inclination to rip all my CD's to a server and ditch the collection. Looking through the shelves to find what fits the mood is a lovely exercise and it's great grabbing a fistful to take to an audio buddy's house, etc. I also want something here in the house: no failed server, power outage (generator on hand), or internet outage to mess things up! And no Russian or Chinese electromagnetic pulse over California to shut down my HiFi! (Hey, it could happen. It does in 007 movies).
Though I am still primarily an analog guy, the MHDT is a game changer. And easier for my wife when I'm old, decrepit, and senile. "Another CD hon!" She'll likely just need to hit play again. "Wow, that's a great one!"
Yes, I get the benefits of streaming, but with my ADD I would just jump around too much. I really appreciate buying a physical piece of recorded art, living with it, soaking it in, and learning the nuances. If it's ultimately a turd there's this wonderfully thriving second hand market.
So streamers, God bless you and stream on! Just not interested here, other than livestream events perhaps.
Be well, grab a loved one, a pour of whiskey and spin a Blue Note! CD is OK...

Chuckles304's picture

Never had analog to begin with. Started with digital, still primarily (95%) use it. Analog came after say one or two digital system revamps, and only because on a remodel job (I'm a carpenter) I found around 20 records and was suddenly able to rationalize the ensuing equipment purchases....

stevew's picture

In 2017, downsized to a condo and had no room to house my 800 CD collection. Also felt it was time to quit dealing with the whole physical media handling of jewel cases. In addition, I liked the advantage of being able to queue multiple CD's for playback. Purchased an Auralic Aries Mini and added a 1TB internal SSD drive. Conversion tools used (PC-based) were a purchased copy of dbPowerAmp with their PerfectTunes add-on. The add-on includes a post rip tag editor (ID Tags) which is very simple to use. I also use a piece of freeware called FreeFileSync to make a backup copy of my ripped collection to a USB drive attached to my router. Used an older PC-based laptop with a built-in DVD drive and a USB-attached DVD drive so I could rip two CDs at once. Collection was ripped to 16/44.1 FLAC files. 800 disk collection was ripped over the span of six months in my spare time. As Auralic is iOS player only, I use my iPhone and iPad to use their Lightning DS software. In my opinion, it is all I need and has seen many improvements since 2017. I have downloaded the Roon trial everytime there is a major release, but have never felt the cost and hardware requirements (for example, Intel NUC based core) were personally worth it to me. I do subscribe to TIDAL, and Auralic supports it. I did not get rid of my physical CD collection. I store them in thin vinyl media sleeves and donated all the plastic jewel cases to the local library system (as I live in a large metro area). When I find an album I really like via TIDAL, I purchase a FLAC download from Qobuz or Bandcamp to support the artist. I also purchase used CDs at local music stores and rip them. I generally listen to my personal collection, which is rock, pop, blues and jazz. But I do like listening to new releases on TIDAL. I gave all my old vinyl collection to a very close friend. I have not owned a turntable since my last one broke in 2000. I do sit and listen to music as a dedicated hobby. I enjoy not having to deal with physical media anymore and no longer see the appeal of putting albums on or dealing with jewel cases. My system consists of a Rotel integrated amp, Paradigm speakers and the Auralic streamer.

rugyboogie's picture

When I listening to my vinyl rig it still sounds better than my digital set up. My Studer is better yet but how many Tape Project tapes do I have? Less than 50. My AR CD-7.5 has been my benchmark for CD's for a long time.
Compared it to different servers and Dac by dragging my CD player to different stores. Have many CD's and the ease of buying & playing has always been enjoyable. Visited a friend in the Seattle area three years ago and was bowled over by how easy and good his server and dac sounded. Having access to Tidal & Qubuz was such a game changer when listening to music.
So for about 3 years of reading Audiostream mainly Michael Lavorgna and Twitter Machines, Stereophile, Head Fi, Computerphile and several other online forums. I was reading and reading and finally made a decision.
SGM 2015, Totaldac Six plus their reclocker along with Vincent's Live power modules. NAS with just over 11,000 of my CD's and SACD's stored locally, use fibre optical from office to my music room. Purchased life time membership of ROON. Paying for Tidal, no Qubuz in Canada.
It is now almost 7 months of digital music listening. Am really enjoying the way I can explore my own library and incorporate the Tidal library. Searching for music, what a game changer. When reading reviews and seeing which music a reviewer used is so interesting as I can usually find it on Tidal. Then having Roon play DJ is so convenient. Hearing new artist get added to my playlist. When late night listening session occur I no longer wake up to the stylus hitting end of the run out on my LPs.
Listen 90% digital and the balance Lps . Little little Tape.
This self isolation isn't that bad with music on hand.
Stay safe everyone, and keep enjoying the music.

JeffRogers's picture

rugyboogie,

11,000 CD collection (locally stored on NAS)... yikes. Did you rip those yourself or hire a small team ? Just curious.

rugyboogie's picture

@ Jeff Rodgers
Had a company do all of the SACDs for me.
Then went to work for many evenings and ugly weekends. Did it while watching movies, football, news etc. Holidays were great as I could commit 12 to 14 hrs to get them ripped, took four months.

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