When does one arrive at "High Resolution?"
So, if you’re thinking about getting into audiophile quality headphones, or already are, you probably already have a nice library of music files. For a long time I have had a large collection of high-res files in different formats, ranging from 320 kbps MP3’s, FLAC, ALAC, WAV, SACD rips and a few DSD albums. After exploring the same album in different album types, I’ve found that higher quality files do equal a better sound. Much like anything in audio, there is an aspect of “diminishing returns.” Recently, I’ve solved my need to find the “ultimate” tube headphone amp to drive planars by acquiring the Decware Taboo Mk III (there will be a blog post on Decware and Violectric coming up as well), so I have put my “gear” energy more into finding the right DAC lately. My search is on-going, but I have discovered what I really enjoy in terms of the sound I want from a DAC when paired with the Decware Taboo and the Violectric 281.
I know it may seem weird, that a headphone manufacturer is still “searching” for the right DAC to make his headphones sound the way he wants them to. But the truth is, while I would consider myself adequate at designing, creating, assembling and tuning headphones - I am always searching for a way to make the headphones I own (mainly ZMF’s) sound the best they can. It’s the enjoyment of getting new gear that makes the music you love sound “right.” And when it does, it’s a beautiful thing.
Before I delve into talking about DAC’s and their specs and the type of sound I’ve gotten from them, it may be worth reading THIS billboard.com article. It encompasses, in a general sense, the “does anything better than CD quality really make a difference?” While I’m not here to make an argument for or against that one way or the other, it is fascinating what scientific (and theoretical) evidence has been collected regarding the topic. You can find some links to articles on that subject in the billboard.com link as well.
For me – this all started years ago after building a “parts” PC at home in my living room. I hooked up the motherboard’s built in sound to my Audio-GD DSM studio monitors. Then a couple months later I bought an $80 Asus soundcard. WOW! That sounds a lot better, more refined, dynamic, punchy and exciting. Happy with that I used the same sound card for a long time. I thought, “this thing does 24/192, so it can play my highest res files, it up-converts, has numerous outputs, dang, this is as good as it gets!” I wish I was right.
Fast forward a number of years, and I got a suggestion from a trusted friend who is an email penpal regarding all things audio and headphone related. Knowing my tastes, he suggested an R2R DAC. What is R2R? See this Wikipedia PAGE.
Also – what is widely used now are Delta-Sigma DAC chips, see here HERE for an explanation on Delta-Sigma technology.
Again, I’m not here to argue that one is better than the other, just to impart my experience.
What is the R2R sound? If I had to describe it in a word, I’d say “natural.” My first R2R DAC was, and is (I still have it) a small DAC built by a Frenchman who sells them under the name “Starting-Point Systems” on eBay. They go for about $220 USD, which is pretty cheap for an R2R DAC as AFAIK.
My initial concerns when ordering this unit were:
- - It only does 24/96! What about my 192 files!? It can’t sound as good if it doesn’t do 24/192.
- - It doesn’t have USB in – WTF!
- - It looks like it was made in 1987.
- - This thing won’t be taken serious by anyone if I take it to a meet/show. It’s not a “big box.”
Well, here’s what happened.
When comparing to my Audio-GD 10.33 and NFB-28, I found that the Starting Point R2R Dac did this:
- Imaged more precisely. Spatial awareness was increased.
- The sound was smoother, more resolving, with more extension in the frequency response.
- Better musicality via impact and timbre. Although the DAC peaked out at 24/96, I could hear more intricate details.
- Wider and deeper sound-stage.
A couple specific negatives of the Starting Point DAC are that it doesn’t have a high volume output via the RCA outs. My Decware Taboo needs to be turned up all the way just to get moderate volume. Also, despite the incredible quality when compared to my Audio GD Delta-Sigma DACs, the sound of the Starting Point DAC wasn’t quite as “ballsy” and robust. This is probably a symptom of the low output and no pre-amp of which the Audio-GD units double as.
Since the Starting Point DAC I have gone all R2R and now own a Theta Progeny, Pro Basic III, EAD DSP Series III and the Audio GD Reference 10.32.
There is truth to the R2R sound, and it seems audiophiles are noticing. Schiit specifically has been developing the “Yggy” or Yggdrasil, which is billed as the ultimate “bit perfect” R2R DAC. It has caused quite a stir. Just check out this thread over at “Computer Audiophile:”
This whole phenomenon reminds me greatly of what happened after 4K video cameras came out. Filmmakers who were into “specs” needed the most pixels possible. The more pixels the better! RED camera made a lot of money at the beginning of the ultra high-res video camera craze. But then after a plethora of camera’s coming out in recent years that tried to impress with their sexy abilities, it also brought a newly found appreciation from filmmakers for old school, “ you can hold it in your hand,” film. So if we’re imparting a metaphor to this, film would = analogue and the R2R type sound, and high res video would = the digital delta-sigma type sound.
But, just like there are times and purposes to use film, and there are times that digital is better suited to a project, there are also times that delta sigma chips need to be used based on many factors.
So what’s the point in all this? There are a few:
1. Newer isn’t always better. Things that have withstood the test of time have done so for a reason, whether it be audio gear, sports cars, or 90’s sitcoms like Seinfeld, Friends, etc…
2. Pay attention to the DAC! Earlier in my audio journey, I thought it was all about the headphones, then the amp, but in our world of digititis – the DAC may be king. It’s what is turning those zero’s and one’s to sound, so don’t over-look it!
3. There’s not always the need to put too much faith into specs. It’s easy to get into the habit of “number checking,” but there is truth in in your experience. How much satisfaction does the product give you while using it? This is something I always try to remember when tuning headphones, and is a rule to live by. Enjoy.
For even further investigation, check out this article explaining the science of hearing and how it equates to what we know about humans being able to hear the difference between 16/48 and 24/192 audio.