Category Archives: Audio

Now serving ..

For the past 2.5 years I’ve been happily living with a Bluesound Node 2 streamer as my main source for music enjoyment. The jump to Bluesound’s platform came about for a couple of reasons:

  1. simple curiosity about purpose-built hardware streamers
  2. the endlessly frustrating macOS updates hampering or outright breaking critical music player software

So jump I did. Never thought I’d look back.

Since purchasing the Node 2 in April 2016 my audio system has slowly transformed into an entirely different beast. With a new amp, DAC, loudspeakers, subwoofer, and cables in place I decided it was time to revisit my former music server, the veritable Mac mini, to find out if it can out-perform the Node 2. Here’s what I put together:

  • Mac mini (2012, 2.6GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, High Sierra)
  • Bel Canto mLink USB-S/PDIF converter
  • MHDT Lab Pagoda DAC
  • Decware SE84UFO amp
  • Omega Super 3i Monitors
  • Omega DeepHemp 8 Subwoofer

The music library (uncompressed flac) is located on an Oyen Digital MiniPro Thunderbolt SSD attached directly to the Mac mini. Music player software includes Amarra Luxe, Audirvana Plus, and HQPlayer. The Amarra sound quality is simply intoxicating and remains my favorite player despite it’s quirks.

USBdamned!

The Pagoda is equipped with an asynchronous USB connection which sounds quite good but with several USB-S/PDIF converters (Schiit Eitr, Bel Canto mLink, SOtM dX-USB HD) at my disposal I felt compelled to try them out.

I purchased Bel Canto’s mLink about 5 years ago and, while it’s getting a bit long in the tooth, it works wonders with a USB signal and was my choice going forward. To my ears the mLink sounds better in the mix compared to a direct Mac/Pagoda USB connection. Bel Canto claims jitter levels of 222 femtoseconds (0.222 picoseconds) and provides galvanic isolation from the computer.

The mLink feeds it’s cleaned-up signal to the Pagoda via BNC. The Pagoda is of the NOS variety (PCM1704) with a tube output stage. Both are capable of bit depth and sample rates up to and including 24/192.

Who knew?

Half expecting the time I put into re-configuring my gear to be an utter waste, I could hardly believe my ears. From the moment I hit play .. full, rich, engaging sound the likes of which I’ve not heard in my home. Ever.

I never thought I’d be saying this but the Mac mini has once again found a place on my audio rack. I don’t look forward those frustrating Apple updates which are sure to come but I’ve learned from previous experience and will apply updates judiciously. The Bluesound Node 2 will also remain on my rack. It’s a terrific device with good sound (especially when used with an outboard DAC) and the convenience is phenomenal. I expect to use it for more casual listening.

mac mini

Omega DeepHemp 8 Subwoofer

After living with my Omega Super 3i Monitors for nearly 2 years they continue to impress, even startle me at times with their effortless realism. However, as with many bookshelf speakers the Super 3i’s are a bit bass shy (55-20kHz) and could use the support of a subwoofer. An Omega sub was an obvious choice.

To match the speed of the 4.5″ drivers in the Super 3i designer-in-chief Louis Chochos chose a down-firing sealed design using his proprietary 8″ driver. In an email exchange with Mr. Chochos he mentioned tuning the sub more for music than home theater. Thankfully. The results speak for themselves, no dreaded boom boom to be found. Instead we are treated to articulate, tuneful, and musical bass. Spec’d down to 28Hz the sub doesn’t quite reach the lowest of lows but certainly comes close enough for my taste.

This little subwoofer indeed provides the foundation I was hoping for and, as an added bonus, imaging improved. I can only imagine what a pair of these would sound like in my room. Hmmm …

DeepHemp 8 specifications

Driver: proprietary 8″ HempCone
Cabinet: sealed
Power: 150w 8ohms, 250w 4ohms
Input Sensitivity: 88dB at 8 ohms
Impedance: 8 ohms
Frequency Response: 28-160Hz
Inputs: line level and speaker level
Dimensions: 14″H x 11″W x 11.5″D (excluding spikes)
Weight: 40 lb. in shipping box
Input power: 120v and 240v

The image at the top of the page is a stock photo. For my subwoofer Mr. Chochos matched the EKO Ash Tweed veneer of my Monitors.

EarStudio – firmware update 1.3.2

After skipping 1.3.0, which brought the LDAC codec (among other tweaks) to the ES100, I decided to apply the latest update via my Mac mini. Fortunately, Radsone has improved the instructions for entering DFU mode and it worked perfectly.

Once finished with the update, the LDAC codec was automatically selected and I must say, it sounds fantastic paired with my Pixel 2. For those unfamiliar, LDAC supports 24/96 over Bluetooth. Bravo!

MHDT Lab Pagoda

MHDT Laboratory Audio Devices has been producing their line of affordable NOS (non-oversampling) DACs since 2002. The Pagoda was introduced in 2014 and is a bit of a departure for MHDT Lab with its use of dual PCM1704 R-2R DAC chips. These chips are legendary (bordering on cult status) for their superb sound quality. It’s most unfortunate the PCM1704 family of chips are no longer being manufactured.

Some specs

  • 4 digital inputs (BNC, USB, RCA, Toslink)
  • 24/192 max on all inputs
  • no digital filter
  • no op-amps
  • no feedback
  • tube buffered output (GE5670 3 mica)
  • output level is 3.0v

With the current breakneck pace of DAC development the Pagoda might seem a bit long in the tooth for those who seek extremely high-res PCM and DSD rates. Obviously, this DAC is not for them. This DAC is for folks (like me) who find the NOS approach to sound more natural and engaging. Good design and implementation is key, of course, as it is with any audio component and my ears tell me the wizards at MHDT Lab know exactly what they’re doing.

With the vast majority of my music files being CD rips, getting 16/44.1 right is of utmost importance to me. Additionaly, I’ve explored the high resolution landscape in earnest over the course of several years and have acquired some nice downloads ranging from 24/44.1 to 24/384 and a smattering of DSD titles as well. I’ve found anything beyond 24/192 (or maybe even 24/96) is lost on me, as is oversampling to extremely high rates. I don’t care about DSD and care even less about MQA. Horses for courses.

While there’s been quite a bit written/shared regarding various DACs in the MHDT Lab line, the Pagoda has seen little online chatter. IMO it deserves better. The Pagoda paints a wonderfully analog sonic picture with gobs of detail, great dynamics, and no digital harshness. The sound isn’t mushy, soft, rolled-off, or “tubey” in any way. There is a certain rightness to the sound that is just remarkable regardless of bit depth/sample rate.

If you’re in the market for an affordable R-2R DAC you might want to give the Pagoda a listen.

MHDT Lab

Nice comprehensive reviews can be found at Head-Fi and TNT-Audio.

 

Schiit Audio Eitr

I’ll say it up front .. Schiit Audio’s $179 USB-SPDIF converter is the best bang-for-the-buck audio component I’ve come across. In fact, I would say the same if it were 3 times the price. If you’re in need of a device such as this, don’t hesitate to order one. They offer a 15 day return policy (15% re-stocking fee) if you don’t like it. Find it here: Schiit Eitr.

From their FAQ:

Eitr does three things:

  1. It offers electromagnetic and electrostatic isolation from the USB source via a unique transformer-coupling method. This, we’ve found, is superior to optocouplers, which are inherently high-jitter devices.
  2. It eliminates any connection between the USB power and ground and system power—Eitr’s low-noise and reclocking sections are completely self-powered.
  3. It provides much higher quality, independent crystal-based clocks for the USB input and SPDIF output, operating at both 44.1 and 48kHz multiples.

 

 

eitr_back_1920

 

EarStudio – another follow up

On May 8th Radsone delivered their 6th firmware update adding DFU support for macOS users (among other features). A welcome update indeed. Previous firmware updates were available only through a Windows PC.

The update instructions were not difficult, just a bit confusing. The update is run in Terminal and when I got stuck I emailed Radsone support for help. They got back to me with the solution a few hours later.

Thank you Radsone!

You can find the download at EarStudio by Radsone

 

Speaking of synergy

While many of my audiophile brethren have continued using their CD players during the past decade, I have not. The convenience of streaming and computer-based audio is just too compelling for me to bother with physical media other than the occasional CD rip, thus my CDs and CD player went into storage long ago. Never looked back. Well, the time has come to revisit my almost-forgotten CD player and spin some CDs. How retro.

Why after all this time? I have a musician acquaintance who is interested in hearing my system. He’s somewhat fascinated with the path I’ve taken, which is in stark contrast to his own. Being firmly in the CD camp, my friend eschews streaming services and has virtually no interest in having a computer in his system. He’d like to bring some of his favorite CDs along for our listening session so I unpacked my 15 yr. old Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 and dug out some of my CDs.

The Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 (pronounced “New Tube”) is a modified Marantz CD player from The Netherlands. The refinements include a tube output stage which presumably has the most significant impact on the sound. Less digital. More goodness. In keeping with the KISS principle I connected the CDP directly to my amp. 

Being a jazz fan I first grabbed a smattering of familiar old favorites .. Chet, Miles, Stan Getz, and Bill Evans. I think my jaw actually dropped. I’m FLOORED with the sound quality. Next up .. Steely Dan, Mark Knopfler, and The Doors. I can’t recall my CDs ever sounding THIS good. Please don’t misunderstand, I always enjoyed the great sound from this CD player, but this is quite a surprise. So, what’s the deal? What’s changed since this CDP was last in the mix? Well, everything .. amp, speakers, cables .. everything.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” – Aristotle 

Achieving system synergy is often an accidental affair, but not always. Thankfully, many audiophiles on this same path to audio nirvana happily share their experiences. A perfect example is the countless reports of the near “magical” synergy between Decware amps and Omega loudspeakers and from recent personal experience, I concur. Apparently, the Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000 is a great match as well. Synergy by accident? Yes indeed, a most happy accident.

 

A couple of old reviews can still be found on Enjoy The Music and Stereophile if you care to read more about the Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000.