How I Put the Magic back in a 25+ year old Music System < $50 – DACs a Mystery Product?

July 27, 2013

in General Interest, Smart Home

FiiO D3 DAC

I was recently talking to my daughter about music and creating a decent audio system – starting with a used amp and speakers from Craigslist. This is a how to take your listening in a more magical (traditional) audiophile direction.

Many of us stream music. However, few of us today stream it to a decent audio system. We (and particularly our children) listen on PCs/Macs, on a phone or in some iPod tunes dock. With a decent headset that music may sound better, although to make it really great (sound stage) you must stream it to a stereo. Doing that isn’t intuitive or easy for most users. In fact I saw a survey some time back (video focused?) that only 3% of Apple users used Airplay. Less than 15% were even knowledgeable. I suspect for music it is a little higher.

Increasingly “bluetooth” streaming in the car means we are all re-thinking how we use music in our homes.  I think there is a big win when anyone can come to your home and put the music on and more with their own phone.

Playing music wirelessly that sounds great will cost you money. This post is really about the impact or value of a DAC or digital audio converter.  I’ll assume you have a “stereo” lying around. A nice old audiophile amp, some good British speakers (BBC style) and you have the “analog” basis for playing fantastic music. Lets also assume for this post you have an iPhone. You want to stream the music from the iPhone (or iTunes) to the  stereo wirelessly. This is an AirPlay solution rather than bluetooth. There are definitely bluetooth solutions out there – although they will probably cost more money to execute and don’t play as well with multiple people in the house.

Options:

1. Apple TV. Usually you want your AppleTV placed by your TV so it may not be quite as convenient if your stereo is somewhere else. The upside of the AppleTV is it doesn’t require you to have an Apple Router to join your network. The downside is the only “audio out” (other than the HDMI to TV – thus playing music via TV – horrible sound) is “optical audio out” and thus requires a toslink cable. This is a little fiber optic cable that probably won’t fit into the back of your amplifier. So you will need to purchase a DAC. More about DACs below.

2. Apple Airport Express: These are brilliant for creating a simple network. They also work well to extend an Apple Network (only Apple!). The nice, and at one time, unique feature of the Airport was it had an audio plug which is both “analog” and “digital”. So you can use a mini analog plug and feed the airport straight to your amplifier. This works pretty well. In fact if you are like me you may not even know that the AE supports an optical connection with a MiniTosLink. That was a recent discovery for me. What this means is the Apple Express has a basic onboard DAC. It already can convert music to an analog format. It doesn’t mean the built in converter does the best things for your music.

How to upgrade the music from an Airport Express or connect up your AppleTV to a traditional analog amplifier. 

A. You need a DAC. I suggest trying out the FiiO D3 (D03K) Digital to Analog Audio Converter. This is going to cost you less than $50 with cables. I can recommend more expensive ones too. I have a Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic 100. You may be surprised to learn they can cost many $1000′s. I suspect they have diminishing returns and unless you are prepared to test many different audio components – Amps, Speakers etc with them it will be hard. Some comments on “sound” below. The Fiio is just a little box. It’s not pretty or for display. Hook it up, plug it in and hide it away.

B You need Cables. You need a clean optical feed from the Airport or AppleTv to the FiiO D3. See this one or this one for the AE. Then a standard set of stereo cables to connect to your amplifier. Assemble and play.

Sound Tests:

  • The FiiO simply cleaned up the sound on my system. Improved definition vs the Airport Express in Analog mode. It may depend on music type, and quality of the digital recording etc for you to get the same result.
  • A different test. Streaming Music from an Apple TV via Airplay to an AppleExpress with an Analog cable out sounded dull and muffled vs the AppleTV to Dac (FiiO) to Amp. Yes a $25 Dac is better than what’s built in to the Airport Express.

The differences. If you stream music from the AppleTV via the TosLink to the AMP you will have to use the Amplifier to control the volume. While, if you stream music (e.g from your phone to the Apple TV or AE) you can control the volume via your phone and so it acts as a proper remote rather than just a music selector. Using the volume control on your phone may well impact on the “packets” and the sound – but it sure is convenient.

All in all, I discovered DACs and have been paying attention to them as a way to get back into enjoying music like I once did. Digital music sounded crappy to me for too long. It was usually what it was played on. I’m stunned that a little $30 item can bring some of the magic back to a 30 year old music system. Remember when we actually sat and listened!!! Winding up that old stereo never sounded so good!

Note: I’m fascinated by the smart/connected home. I’m interested in those solutions that you and I can do. That reuse the best of what came before. So I like Philips Hue bulbs which I may use for many years and take with me. I think Apple’s Remote app needs to be radically upgraded. I’m looking for other smart products I can enjoy in the home. Examples of one’s that really suck. Pool Timers and Equipment. Irrigation Timers. Garage door openers. Other locks, alarms etc. Actually almost everything that is currently “electronic”. Dimmers, timers etc. 

 

  • Seedar

    Is it not an issue that the FiiO D03K only supports PCM streams and not Dolby or DTS ?

  • http://henshall.com/ Stuart Henshall

    In this case what would the issue be? The result is better than using the DAC in an Airport Express. And running the Apple TV to an amp requires some device like it. The Dolby setting on the Apple TV is not mandatory from memory and I’m pretty sure I have it set to “Auto”.

  • Seedar

    I’m no expert here – I am planning to use the D03K with an Airport Express. From what I have read it seems it will work with some audio and not others depending on the source format ?

  • Seedar

    Or can you set the AX to always output PCM ?

  • http://www.henshall.com Stuart

    I’m not sure that there are any settings on the Airport Express. There are two choices. Output the Airport Express straight to an Amp using a standard audio cable. Or use the Digital (what’s called”) that outputs to a toslink connector and then to the FiOS and FiOS to amp. IMHO the FiOS is slightly better re sound than the AX as the digital converter. Yet depending on your Amp etc will depend on what the quality of the actual output is. As for content…. Almost all my music is in the cloud with Apple. I uploaded it all. Then also downloaded it again — improved the quality on “matched files” in many cases. I don’t have any problems streaming it back via the Apple TV to FiOS and then to AMP in one room. I’d note that a phone on Airplay to an AppleTV isn’t as good re sound as using the AppleTV to play the same music.

    Am I possibly right in thinking that your AMP actually has a digital input that uses PCM (isn’t that an older standard). The FiOS would bypass that connection with the FiOS being plugged into an Analog input.

  • Steve

    Say the speakers you are using are powered and contain a DAC already–then would connecting them to the Airport Express with a Toslink cable still bypass the AE’s DAC? That’s what I want to be able to do.

  • http://www.henshall.com Stuart

    Yes, that bypasses the DAC in the Airport Express. It is how I use it.

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