A rekindled audio obsession

Hello all, I’m a newbie to the forum thanks to a recently rekindled interest (“obsession”) with finding the perfect sound. I got started on this never-ending journey back in 1984 in a small one-man stereo shop in Binghamton, NY called JSG Audio. I spent what seemed like a fortune on a college budget, and left there with an NAD 3020A integrated amp and a pair of “Profile” speakers – his own design. I was thrilled with this new (to me) concept of stereo imaging, and the clarity I heard in that system. Now 37 years later that amp is still the centerpiece of my system, while my speaker selection has been “influenced” by my wife, who is of the opinion that the aesthetics of the speaker housing is a prime consideration in speaker selection. So the Profile speakers were replaced by a set of Jamo Concert 8’s soon after we got married.

About 10 years ago I made the decision to commit to digital audio – and spent 2+ years ripping all my CD’s to the computer in FLAC. Today my sole audio source is a standard windows desktop with an ASUS Essence STX II sound card. The sound card was a $200 gamble at the time, but when I plugged it in I was quite pleased with the results – beautiful clarity and sound stage, and listening to Norah Jones you swear you can almost feel her breathing on your face as she sings in front of you.

About a year ago I got my neighbor buddy hooked on high end audio. He was showing off his system to me one evening, the main selling point of which was a lot of watts and a lot of decibels. I invited him over to introduce the concept of stereo imaging, and he was um… impressed. So much so that he went on a HiFi stereo bender over the next year (unbeknownst to me), and long story short – I checked out his new system a couple weeks ago and holy %&$#! It sounds amazing. (Schiit, Emotiva, JBL components). I must have sound like that.

So it turns out there’s a whole world of high-end digital audio out there that I’ve been relatively oblivious to, so I’ve got some learning to do. And a lot of questions. Questions like:
  • Tubes or solid state? I understand that to the engineer, solid state provides a more accurate reproduction of the original source than tubes. But from the little listening I’ve done thus far it also appears to also provide better clarity and stereo imaging. I also appreciate that it comes at the cost of some of the “warmth” that tubes provide. Is it possible to have both, or are those features mutually exclusive?
  • Balanced lines – totally new concept to me. Do I need this?
  • Bi-wired speakers – ditto.
  • I’ve been advised, and it totally makes sense to me – that the ONLY way to judge whether Brand X or Brand Y of any given component is better, is to do an A/B comparison: Being able to switch back & forth instantaneously between the 2. My local audio shop isn’t equipped to do this. Are they the exception or the rule?
  • High efficiency speakers, or high power amp?
  • What do I need to know to match components – output/input impedance, efficiency/power, etc…?
  • How much difference does a good DAC make? I paid $200 for my ASUS Essence sound card (DAC) – how much would I need to spend to improve on that? (It’s 13 yr old technology).
  • How much difference does a good pre-amp make? Do I need to upgrade BOTH my preamp and my DAC?
I will post these questions in an appropriate forum on this website, but for introductory purposes I thought the collective list would be useful to gauge where I’m at, and maybe whether I’m completely off-course in my research efforts…

Thanks, and looking forward to learning and listening!
 
Welcome to the Haven. That is quite the list, and so much of it will be personal preference. Like tubes or solid state?
You've come to the right place though. You'll get some real insight here from people with a lot of experience with equipment All without the "this is the best" and anybody else with a different opinion is an idiot attitude; which is common on other forums.
 
welcome and have fun on your journey. i'm going to suggest that that there are no wrong answers to your questions -great sound is available thru multiple avenues.

one way to sample a bunch of flavors in a short time is to attend an audio show - when those open back up.
 

Audionut

Next Round Is On Me
Welcome to the Haven.
Audio to me is like ice cream; each component is a flavor (including tube or SS), ultimately you will decide which pairing better suits your palate.
 

Thermionics

Post Whore In Training
@MikeyFresh should be able to point you in the right direction WRT digital streaming / sources. How do you feel about Raspberry Pi computers? :)

Also, welcome to HFH!
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
That is quite the list, and so much of it will be personal preference. Like tubes or solid state?
You've come to the right place though. You'll get some real insight here from people with a lot of experience with equipment All without the "this is the best" and anybody else with a different opinion is an idiot attitude; which is common on other forums.
I echo this and add that with many of those questions, there isn't one single "correct" answer or approach, with all others being incorrect or flawed.

Much of it comes down to personal preference, and synergy (or lack thereof) between components and room acoustic. With regard to matters of money or spend, no one can answer that except the person whose wallet is involved, and since everyone's wallet is different, that just comes down to stated budget and perceived value for money spent.

How much difference does a good DAC make? I paid $200 for my ASUS Essence sound card (DAC) – how much would I need to spend to improve on that? (It’s 13 yr old technology).
@MikeyFresh should be able to point you in the right direction WRT digital streaming / sources. How do you feel about Raspberry Pi computers?
This would seem to be low hanging fruit given how good digital has become at inexpensive price points.

I for one agree with @Thermionics that use of a small low powered single board computer (such as a Raspberry Pi) as an endpoint or streamer will beat the pants off of almost any Windows computer/sound card combination, excepting expensive purpose built for audio options.

You can still use the Windows machine as a local server however, and that also allows you to get its noisy ass out of the listening area entirely. The RPi and other streamers like it are tiny, and require no fan, which really frees up space in the listening area while simultaneously using very little electricity and generating zero fan noise. You can even shut down the Windows local server entirely if subscribing to Qobuz, or TIDAL, or possibly the forthcoming Spotify HiFi.

Food for thought there, many of us have tried Windows, Mac, and/or Linux computers as a source and come away less than enthused. They can be the server/library, but much better sound is just about guaranteed when using an endpoint/streamer (think: player) such as a Raspberry Pi.

Hello all, I’m a newbie to the forum thanks to a recently rekindled interest (“obsession”) with finding the perfect sound.
Welcome to HFH, nuthin's perfect but chasing it is fun all the same.
 
I'll try to help:

1. I have found tubes to have the ability to 'wash over' pitfalls in a system. In other words, they can be more lenient if things aren't all in order in a system. Solid state is not more accurate but it is generally more controlled. The key to any good component is a low noise floor so that the imaging may lose the muddiness and begin expressing full-bodied sources instead of cardboard cutout images that blend together.
2. Forget XLR. There is much that could be said here but the main point is, for you, its much ado about nothing.
3. You don't need to biwire, but if you have dual binding posts, you might consider biwiring or at least using a quality cable to jump between the posts instead of using the brass strips that usually come on a speaker.
4. Fast A/B is actually a poor way to judge gear. You will pick up on tonal differences quick, but there are so many more factors to the sound that take time to acclimate to. The better way to judge gear is to use the new piece in your system for a while until you feel comfortable with what it brings to the table. After that, switch back to the old piece.
5. Neither way is wrong as long as you match the proper speaker with the proper amp.
6. Matching components is the tough part of starting this hobby. Synergy matters and having a good dealer or a well-experienced friend assist can take you a long ways. I became a dealer because I accumulated a ton of experience and found myself selling gear for other dealers by my own recommendations. It just made sense.
7. The source is where it all begins and getting a quality piece is fairly critical. Using a computer goes against #1 above because they are damn near the noisiest environment you can create for an audio component. A dedicated streamer like the Cambridge CXN or Volumio Primo, or even a DIY solution like a Pi will improve your sound dramatically.
8. The preamp is where the soul of the music really comes in. In your case, you have an integrated so the preamp is built in. I would recommend, if upgrading there, to stick with an integrated amplifier.
 
Many thanks all - great feedback already, and didn't expect to get detailed response to this post...

To @AudioThesis :

#4. On the A/B switching - fascinating perspective... I was just getting ready to post a BMW (bitch-moan-whine) about dealers not providing A/B comparisons, but what you said makes perfect sense, so I won't. Personal analogy from something completely different - years ago I took up bicycling, went out and spent a truck load of money on all the gear - including the requisite strapped pedals (LONG time ago!) and the shoes. Rode with those for months, not really appreciating whether or how the pedal/shoe combination was helping my riding efficiency. Then one day the shoes weren't available, and had to go ride wearing an ordinary pair of sneakers - i.e. very soft sole. Holy cow - day and night difference. Felt like I had 12" of sponges between my foot an the pedal. So... I get it. Acclimate to the new gear, then go back to the original to compare.

#7: On the computer being the noisy environment - do you mean noise in the source stream, or ambient noise in the room (i.e. computer fan)?

#8: This almost sounds contradictory... If a good preamp brings the "soul of the music" to the table, why go for an integrated amp, rather than splurge on a good preamp (and amp)? Maybe I should clarify my original question - trying to understand, when it comes to bringing a digital audio source to life in your living room, what are the relative contributions of the DAC vs. the preamp, and is it worth splurging on both?

Thanks again all!
 
4. When you get more experience, quicker changes can be implemented but when you are starting out, the stereophonic gains can be hard for many to grasp.
7. Think of it like a water plant. If the water plant is putting out dirty water, it’s going to be much harder to clean it downstream since the plants entire job is to give you clean water. The noisy environment of a computer causes your signal to be full of noise (dirty) and it’s impossible to clean up fully later on.
8. My analogy in 7 applies to any source. You want a pure, clean signal to send down the pipes. The preamp is like a water conditioner in the home. It adds life and soul to the music. An integrated amp has a pre built in and honestly integrated amps have come extremely far in the past few decades. 98% of my amp sales are integrated. Some try to use a dac as a volume control and I have never heard this provide anywhere near the experience of even putting in a cheap preamp.

Like every hobby this can get expensive quick and try not to get yourself too deep too quickly. If you have a solid Craigslist you can play on the used market and if cautious you can even make money off the hobby. I started that way and went through all kinds of gear. At a certain point, new made more sense for me but by that time I had an idea of what I wanted.

Also, don’t consider dealers your enemy. The good ones will listen to your concerns and answer your questions. If you feel like your voice isn’t being heard, they probably aren’t the right dealer for you. If their systems don’t impress, they definitely aren’t the right one for you.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
#7: On the computer being the noisy environment - do you mean noise in the source stream, or ambient noise in the room (i.e. computer fan)?
7. Think of it like a water plant. If the water plant is putting out dirty water, it’s going to be much harder to clean it downstream since the plants entire job is to give you clean water. The noisy environment of a computer causes your signal to be full of noise (dirty) and it’s impossible to clean up fully later on.
In my reply to this question I definitely meant both electrically noisy, and also physically noisy in the case of computers that run fans.

The motherboard of most any standard computer is filled with switching regulators, and the power supply itself is also noisy and not at all designed with audio in mind.

Additionally, there are just too many other non-audio processes going on constantly, taxing the CPU and creating a noisy electrical environment not conducive to good audio. I don't care one iota what the measurements crowd may say to this, all you need to do is listen to a low powered audio-purposed streamer and it is in my opinion a night and day difference with something like a power pig Windows tower, or even a Mac laptop. I thought that a MacBook air might be be a good computer for audio purposes being it is battery powered, but I was sorely let down by the mediocre sound quality. Ditto an older HP EliteBook that I refurbished with an SSD and RAM upgrade, along with Linux Mint replacing Windows. Just not too impressive at all for audio.

Now the above generally applies to situations in which someone is trying to use a daily driver computer for audio, double duty like that is suboptimal. You can however take a normal computer and once relieved of it's daily driver duties, it can be optimized and made much better for audio just by killing a zillion processes that aren't needed and are detrimental for audio. But even then you do hit the wall at some point, and to me its generally not worth the work involved when something cheap like a Raspberry Pi is so good when coupled with a capable DAC, and things get even better when stepping into the realm of the Sonore microRendu, the aforementioned Volumio Primo, or at slightly higher spend, the Innuos Zen Mini Mk.3 just as a few examples.

But the spend part is really a personal thing, you have to listen to these units and make up your own mind considering your own budget/piggy bank in the process of that sonic evaluation. That can be tough without a good dealer to help with demos or loaning of equipment for in-home trial.

BTW - you do have a nice sound card for sure, but providing it clean power from a standard Windows computer isn't exactly easy or cheap.
 
Wow - lots of good advice herein. I'm kinda more going to go with your "I must have sound like that" statement. Also, let me say this from the get go - I have been leery of dealers as it seemed they don't take the time to know what you like. However, AudioThesis is making more sense than probably what I can say. So...why am I even typing a response? Can you narrow down what you like about your friends systems output? The bass? The midrange? The stereo imaging? The non ringing high frequencies? The stage depth? How far away are the speakers from the listening position and is the position front and center or offset? Is the room different than what yours is? Is he/she running subs or dual subs? It has always slapped me in the face as to other people's preferences over mine. Rock or Jazz or Fusion or Country or Symphonic or Rap or ???? Do you live in an apartment and have noise considerations? I believe these factors and more bring forth a possible path for you to pursue. The next biggee is whether specs mean more to you than how it sounds but we probably shouldn't go there yet. I am still trying to configure SS to sound like my tube amps and a low priced DAC. Go figure.

I would recommend taking the computer out of the equation. I've been doing that for almost 9 years now with a NAS. Put all your files on it and pull off of it through your network. Wireless or wired. Hopefully you can do that. I do use a Cambridge CXN music server and it is the apps that you can use on your phone or tablet to decide ease of use.

Guess I'm just trying to pump you for more info to help those better equipped than me to recommend components.
 
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