Unicorns & "Networked DACs"

Canned Unicorn Meat from Think Geek

A more general plea to ML and those readers on the front lines: For people like me, after describing the sonic character of a component, it is vitally important to explain in layman's terms how one might integrate this into a networked system. (For example, I have only recently realized that most USB DACs can't be plugged into Ethernet at all, and so are not networked DACs.) Please make clear how difficult or simple it is to do so, as that will be a MAJOR purchase criterion. Thanks for the dialogue--it is helpful. [my emphasis]

This has come up a number of times so its worth a quick post—(you may want to prevent your children from reading this next part):

There's no such thing as Unicorns or networked DACs.
There, I said it. Let me explain. In order for an audio device to have networking capabilities and play music from a network-attached device like a NAS, it needs to have an Ethernet or Wi-Fi input. And if it has one or both of those and it connects to your local area network, it is by necessity more than a DAC—it is a computer more or less. Audio devices with networking capabilities include Network Players and Streamers, Servers, and regular old computers. While all of these devices can include D/A converters, they are all more than DACs.

On the other side of the coin, a DAC cannot be directly attached to a network. Rather it connects to a Network Player/Streamer, a Server, or a regular old computer via USB, Firewire, S/PDIF, AES/EBU or I2S. And the main reason why a DAC cannot have an Ethernet input, at least today, and why this a very good question even though I'm having a bit of fun with it, is there's no standard for Audio over Ethernet. Network Players and Streamers rely on UPnP/DLNA, while Servers and regular old computers can use UPnP/DLNA or standard networking protocols to access network-attached music.

The closest we come to a networked DAC today are wireless DACs like the Audioengine D2 or PlayGo USB. But again, these are not "Networked DACs" in that they do not connect to your network, they make their own. So you cannot connect them directly to your network, you're back to needing a Player/Streamer, Server or regular old computer to access network-based music.

So the next time you see a DAC with an Ethernet connection you'll know a) you're dreaming, and b) that input is as useful as a horn on a horse.

John Grandberg's picture

That there exists a beast named "PS Audio PerfectWave" that, when updated with an optional  " Bridge" , turns into just the sort of mythical creature you had been describing. Sightings of this creature in the wild have been frequent.

I do think it is more accurate to call something like that a different name than just DAC. Not sure the best term, but DAC doesn't quite cut it. 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Here's what PS Audio says about their "PerfectWave DAC":

"The PerfectWave Media DAC II is a high resolution Digital Music Player (Media Server)..."

So, while it has a DAC in it, it's obvioulsy more than a DAC.

wilhinds's picture

 I have one of those unicorns from PS Audio. It's way more than a networked Dac and it sounds amazing!

audiofilodigital01's picture

Interesting. No matter how you connect the device to the network, the fact that they are connected to the home network doesn’t imply they can communicate each other.
They need to talk the same protocol to do so.

We should realize that Hi-End has not invented anything related to networks. Nothing. Digital technology was born to transmit data & information related to some specific areas, and music was not in the first line at all. Consequently it is logical that a (sound) DAC (convert a digital signal with MUSICAL data into an analog signal) is not the main reason for a network. Nowadays, if we talk about networks, then we can see that the type of data is wider: pictures/images, sounds, etc. But if you want to put your DAC inside an already existing home 'network', you only need a UPnP (Windows Media Player is compatible once activated this function... since Vista) SERVER (the one which supplies the data), a CLIENT (the device that receives the data) & a CONTROLLER (The device that acts as a 'remote control', like an Android, iPod or even another computer inside that network).

The problem comes when still someone confuses "Server" with "Client": a server can act as a client (not always), but most of pure 'clients' cannot act a a 'Server' but just receive the data.

For example: for less than 100$ (LG DP1W) you can get many compatible (and even certified!) UPnP/DLNA devices (http://www.amazon.com/gp/browse.html?ie=UTF8&marketplaceID=ATVPDKIKX0DER&me=A3R5FW73XIPGWQ )which can receive the data. You can even connect a Hard-Drive or a USB stick with music files to one of its USB inputs... BUT it will never be available as a SERVER. Anyway, as most of those CLIENTs have a digital output you only need to connect a DAC to them to send your music to them. Oh, yes, some of them have Ethernet connection (because you are allowed to transmit 1080p which is not very comfortable to be transmitted through WiFi :-).

I forgot one thing: there is no HiEnd Ethernet, nor HI-End WiFi (by the moment, soon we will see it: HiEnd has to survive someway). Things were well done from the beginning (asynchronous mode) in order to manage really problematic and complex information, not simple packs of music.

For further info: http://www.thewelltemperedcomputer.com/HW/Network.htm



Best regards,


Vincent Kars's picture

What is a DAC?

It is a chip doing the DA conversion.

It expects I2S (or eiaj).

It is a one trick horse, this is all it can do.

A DAC (the box) might have different interfaces like SPDIF, Toslink, AES/EBU.

This are interfaces, they convert these protocols to I2S.

And you need a human interface, a control to select the various inputs.

Today there are more interfaces than these traditional ones.

USB: here you need already a small processor in the box, a USB receiver.

It has a driver able to understand USB and the protocols UAC1 or often today UAC2 (Usb Audio Class). It converts the data to I2S

All this are push interfaces, a source pushes the audio to the “DAC”.


Network: here you need an even bigger processor as know you need a complete TCP/IP stack.

Often they use Linux, Squeezebox Touch is a nice example.

If you want to select music you need a human interface too.

This is called a streamer but it is simply a small computer with a sound card.

You might decide to add a hard disk and a optical drive for the ripping.

Now you have a Music Server. A PC with a sound card, a HD and an optical drive.

brightonjel's picture

Agree that a dedicated NAS can be a good way to go.  I'm using the Synology 411slim with four, 1TB laptop drives installed, which yields around 2.5 GB of RAID storage (i.e. it's fully protected against any single drive failure).  I also have a 2 TB USB unit plugged into it and the NAS automatically backs up to that drive once every week. All files are FLAC and comprise both CD-level and 24/96 content.

Accessing over Ethernet (because things driop out when streaming anything more detailed than 16/44.1) I have a PC running JRiver 17 (plus ASIO driver) and a Cambridge NP30.  Those two, in turn, feed into a Wadia 861 acting as a DAC (optical and coax respectively) and frmo there straight into a Krell/Monitor Audio amp/speaker set up.

Only real glitch I've encountered is that, with the latest updates installed all round, there's a confusion between the NP30 and the transcoding setting on the NAS (which are required because otherwise my PS3 elsewhere in the house can't stream the FLAC files.)  In short, if I set transcoding to be available from the NAS for clients that don't support FLAC, the NP30 sees everything as 16/44.1 PCM.  To get round this issue (and I haven't been able to figure out which end is at fault) I leave transcoding set to OFF on the NAS unless I need to use the PS3 for music streaming to a different room.

Sound-wise, the NP30 beats the PC, but not by a huge margin.  It must be said though that the PC is not dedicated, has a fairly bog-standard, built-in sound card installed, and the optical cable between it and the Wadia is both long and cheap.

Happy to also answer questions if anyone has them, but suffice to say that I've been impressed with what computer audio can do, especially with 24/96 bit material.  The higher res/bit rate make a real difference, more so than I was expecting (given that the Wadia is itself no slouch with CDs).

kavon yarrum's picture

The Firestone ILTW USB DAC accepts an RJ45 jack for IS2 input. 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

But this is an interesting product. I suppose the next question is - what (who?) outputs I2S over Ethernet?

kavon yarrum's picture

It was explained to me that the Ethernet jack is for direct connection, not for networking.

Larry Ho's picture

Yes. Most of the "DAC" focus on D-A conversion, the job for "getting" music samples usually goes to another piece, either computer/music server/ streaming server and so on. 

But putting DLNA or other network media sharing protocol directly to DAC is an interesting idea... which actually make the device become a "network player".  Following on this idea, with a nice touch screen control --> Then we got:  Super DAC enhanced iPad? Maybe... ;-)


Michael Lavorgna's picture

I like it!

Vincent Kars's picture

Antoher unicorn for Mike

Airplay & DLNA over WiFi or Ethernet to a DAC


Michael Lavorgna's picture

But yes, similar to the Sonos "Connect" these headless network players are as close as we’ll come to spotting a unicorn today.

One important thing people need to understand about this breed of "networked DAC" is it will come with the limitations of a Network Player/Streamer including limited file format support (no ALAC/AIFF over Ethernet for the AP1 for example). Which is very un-DAC-like behavior ;-)

Tom D's picture

"If you build it they will come"  So what we need is a standard for audio over ethernet.  Who's job is it to come up with that.  I have been thinking about switching jobs anyway.  I had planned on becoming the guy that speculates on the price of oil so I could speculate it should be $30 a barrel again but maybe I should be the guy who sets a standard for audio over ethernet.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...who designed the unicorn.


firedog55's picture

Ethernet transmits the data perfectly, by definition (packet protocols). The problem is that  it is transmitting DATA, not audio.

To get audio you come up against the problem of conversion from data to audio, and the resulting hardware and software choices, which influence the sound quality, and they may or may not introduce jitter and/or be altered by interferece such as RF.

Just like in everything else hi-end audio, I can't see a standard coming about. Too many possible disagreements over what HW and and what software sound best. Different designers with different tastes and different engineering backgrounds, just like with traditional analogue audio equipment. Just look at the decades long arguments of vinyl vs digital, tube vs. solid state, Class A vs Class AB, C, D, and T.

Not to mention that different folks have very different ideas about what makes a good UI....

deckeda's picture

Said another way, there's no standard for audio over Ethernet because that standard couldn't just be about Ethernet. Said another other way, there's no standard for audio over Ethernet because it's "not needed."

Even if what I want is exactly that: an external DAC with an Ethernet port that acts "dumb" --- just as if it were connected a traditional way.

I want my unicorn and I want it now. (I'm paraphrasing Veruca Salt.)

Vincent Kars's picture
Michael Lavorgna's picture

I saw Chris' review. The only thing I didn't see was a a large, pointed, spiraling horn ;-)