Tag Archives: audiophile

MusicStreamer by Stratospherix

If you’ve read my blog post about my beloved Tranquility DAC you’ll know I’ve been impressed with the sound quality of this arrangement streaming Deezer HiFi:

iDevice ➟ Apple Lightning to USB 3.0 Adapter ➟ UpTone Audio USB REGEN ➟ dB Audio Labs Tranquility DAC ➟ Decware ZSB ➟ APPJ PA0901A ➟ Omega Super 3i’s

Well, I would also like to hear my own library of flac files with this arrangement. While I’m aware of several iOS apps which enable flac files to be loaded and played on iOS devices, neither my iPhone 6 nor my iPad Air has enough storage to load my entire library, nor am I looking for a mobile solution. Of course, some apps also provide a cloud function using Dropbox, etc. but I’m only interested in local streaming from my simple NAS.

Recently the Stratospherix MusicStreamer app came to my attention. This app will stream your entire library (flac, wav, aiff, aac, mp3) from a computer or NAS. Set up was super easy, library scanning only took a couple of minutes, and the sound quality is everything I hoped for. With a host of other nice features built in the MusicStreamer at $3.99 is an audiophile bargain. Highly recommended.

Notes

  1. The Tranquility DAC is only capable of 16/44.1 and 16/48 sample rates. The MusicStreamer is able to down sample high resolution files on the fly to play at the appropriate rate for my DAC, and does so flawlessly.
  2. While I know the app plays high-res there is no sample rate indicator while music is playing. One review on the App Store mentions the app no longer down samples if your DAC supports high res. I’ve emailed the developer for some clarity.
Stratospherix Support responded to my inquiry:
“MusicStreamer now uses the built in iOS FLAC decode software. As far as we know, this should perform better than the library code we used to use (we had reports of users with external DACs not seeing the full sample rate before, whereas the iOS decoder should not have this problem). Note that if you have AudioBus mode turned on in MusicStreamer, this will always use the older library code, so make sure you have this turned off to use the newer iOS decoder.”

Coming soon

Hand-built in Peoria, IL the Decware Super Zen Triode SE84UFO is a 2 wpc single-ended triode amplifier designed by Steve Deckert. The SE84UFO represents the 7th revision of the original amp design which Decware has been producing for about 16 years now. The SE84UFO is reported to be a great match with the Omega speakers currently in my system. Ordered just before Christmas, I’m hoping to have it by the end of February. More to come ..

Tranquility

Until purchasing a Bluesound Node 2 in April 2016 I used a well-appointed Mac mini (late 2012, quad-core i7, 256 SSD, 16GB RAM) for my 2-channel audio system and I was pretty happy with the sound quality using various apps. (I have licenses for Amarra, Audirvana Plus, Fidelia, HQPlayer, and Pure Music). As such, I got tired of the endless updates from Apple which inevitably broke something and caused undue stress. Listening to music is not supposed to be stressful. After much research I decided to take a chance on the Node 2 music streamer, which proved to be everything I had hoped for, and promptly yanked the Mac mini from my system. I never missed it.

The Node 2 can be used not only with its on-board Burr-Brown DAC but also with a stand-alone DAC using coax or optical S/PDIF out. I’ve used the Chord Qute EX and the Schiit Bifrost Multibit tethered to the Node 2 via both S/PDIF methods and neither of these fine DACs added anything significant to what I was hearing from the Node 2’s DAC. That’s saying a lot. It also simplified my system tremendously, which I like (KISS):

  • Bluesound Node 2
  • APPJ PA0901A integrated amp
  • Omega Super 3i Monitors

The Node 2 is an affordable, capable device which offers great sound, convenience, and great support. Not bad for $499. How does it compete with pricier devices? Don’t know. Don’t care.

On to what this post is really about .. my dB Audio Labs Tranquility USB DAC, which I purchased in 2011. I love this DAC. It’s a wonderful mashup of old and new. The addicting analog sound is in part due to it’s TDA1543 multibit chip. The sound quality is quite balanced from top to bottom and has a midrange to die for .. think liquid and organic. The Tranquility DAC is limited to standard Redbook and 16/48kHz sample rates and sports only 1 input by design (USB of course). An unfortunate circumstance as the Node 2 does not have USB out. The Tranquility was put into storage.

Recently, I placed an order for a Decware Zen SE84UFO amp and remembered reading about the pairing of the Zen with the Tranquility. Curiosity killed the cat as they say and I brought the Tranquility out for a spin. The Decware amp won’t be in my hands for a while but I am using another SET amp right now .. the APPJ PA0901A. Time for a listen.

For this test I used Deezer HiFi** with my Mac mini, an Acer Chromebook R11, and my old iPhone 6. Much to my surprise the iPhone 6 won. By a lot when used with an Uptone USB REGEN. I tried the REGEN in front of the DAC because, well, I have one in storage and it works wonders with some gear. With the iPhone 6 the difference was remarkable. In fact, my audio system has never sounded better! Honestly, I didn’t expect this outcome. Never did I think this would beat out the Mac mini running Amarra or the Bluesound Node 2.

While many in the audiophile community seek high resolution nirvana (I’ve gone down that road as well), I’m content with good old CD quality. What strikes me is just how good well-executed Redbook can sound. I’m happy I held on to the Tranquility DAC. I can hardly wait for the Decware amp to arrive.

Here is the iPhone chain:

  • Apple iPhone 6 (using Deezer HiFi)
  • Apple Lightning to USB 3.0 Adapter
  • Uptone USB REGEN
  • dB Audio Labs Tranquility USB DAC
  • Decware ZSB*
  • APPJ PA0901A
  • Omega Super 3i Monitors

I’m still going to use my Node 2 for casual listening:

  • Bluesound Node 2
  • Decware ZSB*
  • APPJ PA0901A
  • Omega Super 3i Monitors

*I added the Decware Zen Switch Box because the APPJ PA0901A has only 1 input. It’s transparent to my ears.

** An addendum

Of interest to this little test of mine, I was involved in a Deezer/Bluesound discussion on the Computer Audiophile Forum where the question of 16/44.1 flac streaming via the iPhone 6 was brought up. I assumed the Deezer app, coupled with Deezer’s HiFi tier, was able to utilize the same higher-quality flac stream as their desktop app and the Bluesound Node 2. Apparently this is not the case.

My quick research suggests the “High Quality (HQ)” setting in both the iPhone and Android apps are 320 mp3. So, how in God’s name did my testing result in a clear preference for the iPhone 6 chain? Funny, I had some extensive listening last night prior to this new information and honestly, my preference stands.

As I mentioned on the CA thread, no doubt my audiophile club card will be revoked!

 

Audiophiles – a rant and a wish

Audiophiles take a lot of abuse. Why the hate? Perhaps it’s the snobbery often associated with us that puts people off. I don’t really know for sure. What I do know .. we love music and persue the fidelity of it to the extreme (at least by some standards). Like most hobbyists we enjoy focusing on the minutiae. Such is the world of the hobbyist whether you’re into collecting coins, building model airplanes, or whatever floats your ship-in-a-bottle. Nature of the beast.

Sure, there are some audio snobs among us who spend $10,000 on a cable and tell us lowly enthusiasts our systems aren’t “good enough” to hear into the recording. Yeah, okay. Fortunately, said snobs are few and far between. I find most audiophiles are first and foremost music lovers and are a rather helpful lot .. we love to chat about all this stuff.

On a number of audio forums as of late audiophiles are spewing vitriol at one another with increasing frequency. This is disheartening to me. Where’s the friendly banter? Isn’t it enough that non-hobbyists take pot-shots at us and think we’re crazy? Healthy debate is one thing but the nastiness has gotten out of hand.

I’m not an engineer. I have no training in audio production. Nor am I an authority on anything audio. I’m just a music lover; thus, a subjectivist. As long as I’m not declaring absolutes (i.e., the best amp/DAC/cable, etc.) what’s the harm in sharing my highly subjective opinion? No, I won’t be setting up double-blind tests with golden-eared 18 year old virgins but I will be listening with attentive ears. My ears. My system. My room.

The beauty of audio forums lies in the sharing of experiences and information with other enthusiasts from around the world. This sharing helps to guide us through the myriad of choices available, especially in this noisy internet age we live in. Such diversity only adds to the collective knowledge of the community, of which, I’m happy to be a part of.

So, my (audiophile) wish going into 2018 is for less nastiness and more camaraderie.

Cheers!

 

EarStudio by Radsone

In early July 2017 I stumbled across an interesting product on Kickstarter and decided to back it. The Radsone EarStudio Bluetooth Receiver is quite the little gadget and proved very timely for me. Anticipating my next mobile phone would likely come sans headphone jack I began looking for alternatives to Bluetooth headphones and the dreaded “dongle”. Frankly, I have enough headphones already and didn’t want to invest in another pair. The 2 headphones I most often use are the Audio Technica ATH-R70x and the Bowers & Wilkins P5.

The EarStudio packs quite a bit of techno-wizardry into a tiny and very light-weight box to which you connect your corded headphones. Rather than re-hash said wizardry the Radsone’s Kickstarter page, along with these 2 reviews, sum up the device quite nicely:

Major HiFi – October 2017

TechHive – July 2017

Jack sh*t

Soon after backing the project I settled on the Google Pixel 2 which, of course, has no headphone jack but sports aptX HD capability and, as it turns out, aptX HD is right in the EarStudio’s wheelhouse (so to speak). After a longer wait than anticipated Radsone shipped the device to us backers and I must say, it was worth the wait .. the sound quality is the best I’ve heard from Bluetooth.

The EarStudio doesn’t appear to be available on the open market quite yet but no doubt you’ll be hearing more about this great little device in the near future.

 

Vacuum tubes

While I’ve had some experience with vacuum tubes in the past, it’s been extremely limited to say the least. I have a tubed CD player (Ah! Njoe Tjoeb 4000) which utilizes two 6922 tubes in the output stage and a tube/solid state hybrid integrated amp (Response Audio RAM 301) which utilizes two 12AU7 tubes for the preamp stage. As for an all tubed design, I was a complete novice when I purchased the APPJ PA0901A  integrated SET amp a year ago. This minimalist integrated has only one pair of RCA inputs and a passive volume control to attenuate the output of its tube circuit (6N4/12AX7 feeding a single 6P14/EL84 per channel).

Rolling along

It wasn’t until recently I decided it was time to try some different tubes. Why now? First and foremost, I liked the sound with the stock Chinese tubes and wanted to be completely familiar with the sound quality before swapping them out. In fact, I liked the sound enough that I didn’t bother changing the tubes before the summer heat arrived .. I like to use a cooler running amp during summer.

Over the years I’ve read countless reports of huge changes rolling tubes and, while I know there must be some truth to it, I’ve often wondered if there isn’t just a bit of hyperbole involved. Audiophiles are often prone to such exaggeration when changing anything in their systems citing massive gains in sound quality, veils being lifted, larger goosebumps, etc., etc. Color me skeptical.

So, Christmas present to self:

  • Genalex Gold Lion 12AX7
  • Mullard EL84 (matched pair)

These 3 tubes cost me just under half of what the amp sold for a year ago and was about as much as I wanted to spend. The result .. massive gain in sound quality, 7 veils were lifted, 6mm goosebumps emerged, and ..

Seriously, the APPJ PA0901A sounds like a different amp. Tone, timber, clarity, extension, soundstage, vocals .. everything changed for the better. Of course I had hoped for a result such as this but honestly, I’m somewhat flabbergasted. This isn’t a subtle change, I actually uttered “wow” during my first listening with the new tubes. To say I’m pleased is an understatement.

While APPJ has since discontinued the PA0901A in favor of it’s newer 1501A model, Tube Depot sells it’s own (re-branded?) version found here: TubeCube | 7 Stereo Vacuum Tube Amplifier. Highly recommended. And roll some tubes!

mullard el84

Hot damn!

Well, it’s about that time of year when I simplify my system. Why? Think cool as in cool-running.  Think summer. I love the heat and I want my windows wide open. I want to smell the rain and fresh-cut grass. Yeah, I’m one of those people and honestly, I really dislike air conditioning. The only place in my home I use air conditioning is in my bedroom during those times when a fan doesn’t do the trick. Of course my friends think I’m nuts and refuse to visit me during these months (God bless their delicate constitutions). I don’t care. I’ll have plenty of time to visit with them in their lovely climate-controlled homes .. of course I’ll need a sweatshirt.

Ch-ch-changes

The most significant changes are with the amp and the DAC. First and foremost, my Fleawatt integrated will take the place of the toasty little APPJ PA0901A. This wonderful sounding class d integrated amp runs as cool or cooler than any component I’ve ever come across. Second, instead of swapping the Bifrost Multibit with another external DAC, I’ll be utilizing the Node 2’s on-board DAC. Perfect for summer! Cool.

Fanning the flames

Yes, I run a fan in my listening space when the temperature soars. I suppose this isn’t practical for critical listening sessions but is just fine for everyday enjoyment. Funny, I don’t often find myself in the mood for these critical type listening sessions anyway. No doubt my audiophile cred will suffer and my club card will revoked because of this. Bad audiophile.