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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 has been moved to my workplace system and provides a much nicer streaming solution than the previous (Apple TV2).

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

 

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.

 

 

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