Bits & Bytes - Dig­i­tal Mu­sic De­mysti ed Part II

An In­tro­duc­tion to Dig­i­tal Mu­sic Play­back

NOVO - - BITS & BYTES - Ge­orge de Sa

Back in the April/May 2012 edition of the CANADA HiFi mag­a­zine, within the ar­ti­cle “Bits & Bytes – Dig­i­tal Mu­sic De­mysti ed: An In­tro­duc­tion to Dig­i­tal Mu­sic Play­back”, we ex­plored the ba­sics of dig­i­tal mu­sic play­back. This con­sisted of a con­ver­sa­tion about dig­i­tal mu­sic for­mats, sam­ple rates and var­i­ous source op­tions. Hope­fully, you found that in­for­ma­tion en­light­en­ing and per­haps, since read­ing it, you’ve started ex­plor­ing the realms of dig­i­tal mu­sic fur­ther - if so, ku­dos to you! On that note, I de­cided to take the plunge my­self by as­sem­bling a mid-priced dig­i­tal mu­sic play­back sys­tem. In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll share with you my ex­pe­ri­ence which should pro­vide some good in­sight to those look­ing to set up their own dig­i­tal mu­sic play­back sys­tem.

Though I’ve spent many years lis­ten­ing to both op­ti­cal disc (CD and DVD) and vinyl sources, much of the lat­est in dig­i­tal mu­sic play­back is rel­a­tively new to me. I don’t own a lap­top or an iPad and there­fore, was in­ter­ested in a de­vice that could lever­age the dig­i­tal mu­sic les I al­ready have on my Win­dows Vista based PC - a con­glom­er­a­tion of CD rips and down­loads or­ga­nized within iTunes. I knew that the new de­vice would need to be com­pat­i­ble with the var­i­ous for­mats in my mu­sic li­brary. With a lit­tle re­search and a few in­quires, the de­vice that caught my at­ten­tion was the Log­itech Squeeze­box Touch. Why? A few rea­sons - the Squeeze­box Touch is mod­estly priced at $329.99, com­pat­i­ble with all com­mon le for­mats, Wi-Fi and Eth­er­net en­abled, hi-rez le friendly (it will read les up to 24-bit/192 kHz and pass les up to 24bit/96 kHz) and has an in­te­grated colour touch screen. Though the Squeeze­box Touch has an in­ter­nal dig­i­tal-to-ana­log con­verter (DAC), I thought it would make things just a bit more in­ter­est­ing to try out a stand-alone DAC, along with the Squeeze­box Touch, just to see if any per­for­mance gains could be had. Gio­vanni Mil­i­tano had writ­ten a pos­i­tive re­view of the Mu­si­cal Fi­delity V-DAC II in the De­cem­ber/Jan­uary 2011/2012 edition of the CANADA HiFi mag­a­zine, so I thought mov­ing to the next model up in the Mu­si­cal Fi­delity fam­ily - the M1DAC, priced at $749, should t the bill.

as this is­sue was go­ing to print, un­con rmed ru­mours sur­faced on­line that Log­itech ceased the pro­duc­tion of the Squeeze­box line of prod­ucts. How­ever Ge­orge’s ex­pe­ri­ence be­low of­fers the same value to any­one think­ing about set­ting up a dig­i­tal mu­sic play­back sys­tem in their home, since a num­ber of sim­i­lar de­vices ex­ist. One sim­i­lar de­vice called the Con­nect comes from a com­pany called Sonos.

The Squeeze­box Touch is a com­pact de­vice sport­ing a 4.3 inch in­te­grated colour touch screen. It is a dig­i­tal mu­sic player/re­ceiver that can ac­cess any net­work-con­nected com­puter or net­workat­tached stor­age (NAS) de­vice through a wired Eth­er­net or Wi-Fi con­nec­tion. A soft­ware in­stal­la­tion is re­quired on the com­puter for this to work and the com­puter must be run­ning dur­ing mu­sic play­back. The Squeeze­box Touch’s in­te­grated USB in­put and SD card slot, also al­low it to ac­cess dig­i­tal mu­sic les from a con­nected USB thumb/hard-drive or SD card. A dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of the Squeeze­box Touch is its abil­ity to read and play just about any for­mat of dig­i­tal mu­sic le, in­clud­ing MP3, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, WMA, Ogg Vor­bis, AAC and ALAC - with sam­ple rates of up to 24-bit/192 kHz. Us­ing its in­ter­nal DAC, the Squeeze­box Touch can out­put ana­log au­dio by way of its RCA stereo jacks or al­ter­na­tively, a dig­i­tal sig­nal of up to 24-bit/96 kHz us­ing its coax­ial (S/PDIF) or op­ti­cal (Toslink) jacks. In­ter­est­ingly enough, I found that it out­puts si­mul­ta­ne­ously through all its out­puts, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to feed mul­ti­ple re­ceiv­ing de­vices (pream­pli ers, re­ceivers, stand-alone DACs) at the same time. The Squeeze­box Touch also sports an in­ter­nal head­phone am­pli er, ac­ces­si­ble via a stan­dard 3.5mm jack on its back. The Squeeze­box Touch came pack­aged in a shoe­box sized box con­tain­ing the Squeeze­box Touch it­self, IR re­mote con­trol, 2 x AAA bat­ter­ies, wall-wart power sup­ply, RCA stereo ca­ble, screen clean­ing cloth and a quick-start man­ual. I was very im­pressed by the build qual­ity of the Squeeze­box Touch given its price. It felt solid in hand, hav­ing con­sid­er­able weight given its mod­est size and it had an ap­pear­ance that I would de­scribe as pur­pose­ful with a “touch” of play­ful­ness – par­don the pun.

The Mu­si­cal Fi­delity M1DAC (A) is a stand-alone up-sam­pling DAC. This is the lat­est ver­sion which in­cludes an asyn­chro­nous USB DAC sec­tion, hence the (A) des­ig­na­tion in the model name. It fea­tures four dig­i­tal in­puts: bal­anced XLR, USB, op­ti­cal and coax­ial. These dig­i­tal in­puts ac­cept in­com­ing sig­nals at up to 24bit/192 kHz, with the USB in­put lim­ited to 24-bit/96 kHz. The op­ti­cal in­put has po­ten­tial of up to 24-bit/192 kHz; how­ever, is rec­om­mended only up to 96 kHz due to in­trin­sic jit­ter with the op­ti­cal for­mat, ac­cord­ing to John Quick of Tempo High Fi­delity, the North Amer­i­can dis­trib­u­tor. Out­put of the Squeeze­box Touch is of­fered via bal­anced XLR and RCA con­nec­tions. The M1DAC uses a pro­pri­etary in­board power sup­ply that em­ploys choke ltra­tion to reg­u­late and con­di­tion the in­com­ing power in or­der to in­crease over­all per­for­mance. At the core lies a pair of Texas In­stru­ments Burr-Brown DSD1796 DAC chips in dual-dif­fer­en­tial mode, tied to a Texas In­stru­ments SRC4392 sam­pler­ate con­verter chip that up-sam­ples all dig­i­tal sources to 24-bit/192 kHz. In ad­di­tion, all in­com­ing sig­nals are re-clocked to en­sure low-jit­ter, which is claimed to be less than 12 pi­cosec­onds peak to peak. Speci cations in­di­cate an im­pres­sive to­tal har­monic dis­tor­tion of less than 0.0025 per­cent with a sig­nal-to-noise ra­tio greater than 119db A-weighted. The M1DAC is rel­a­tively com­pact in size, with a width of just 8.6 inches – about half the width of a tra­di­tional au­dio com­po­nent but at 3.4 kg (7.5 lbs), it’s no light­weight. A chrome in­set moniker plate, sim­ple lines and gen­tle con­tours pro­vided a sense of re ne­ment, while the many in­set LEDs in­di­cat­ing power, in­com­ing sam­ple rate, ac­tive in­put and up­sam­pling, added both util­ity and air. Build qual­ity as well as t and nish is high and the op­tional sil­ver nish (black is stan­dard) of the re­view sam­ple was very at­trac­tive. Over­all, the M1DAC por­trayed a se­ri­ous yet so­phis­ti­cated de­meanour.

So rst up for eval­u­a­tion was the Squeeze­box Touch de­vice. Af­ter un­pack­ing, I fol­lowed the four step quick start guide that led me to the Squeeze­box Touch’s on-screen setup. Af­ter com­plet­ing the setup, I down­loaded and in­stalled the free Squeeze­box soft­ware on my PC, from the web­site cited in the guide. This process was rel­a­tively straight for­ward and in no time the Squeeze­box Touch was ac­cess­ing all the mu­sic les on my PC. Us­ing the Log­itech Me­dia Server Con­trol Panel, by way of the con­ve­nient short­cut placed on my desk­top, I was able to re­strict the ac­cess to the fold­ers where my mu­sic les re­side. Over­all, I found the menus to be in­tu­itive and easy to use, even for a com­puter il­lit­er­ate, like me. Next, I hooked up the Squeeze­box Touch to my Brys­ton BP6 pream­pli er via its ana­log RCA out­put. There I had it - mu­sic stream­ing from my PC to my au­dio sys­tem. Thank­fully, Go­erner Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the North Amer­i­can dis­trib­u­tor for Au­dio Physic, had kindly left me with the Si­tara 25 loud­speak­ers (re­viewed in the June/July 2012 is­sue) for an ex­tended pe­riod, as their res­o­lu­tion proved to be an in­valu­able tool.

I started with a lit­tle In­ter­net ra­dio. What im­pressed me is that the Squeeze­box Touch pro­vided a se­lec­tion of lo­cal ra­dio sta­tions as a menu op­tion, so I could tune into some of my favourites with a cou­ple strokes. In­ter­net ra­dio sounded quite pleas­ant for ca­sual back­ground lis­ten­ing, though no­tice­ably lim­ited in res­o­lu­tion, dy­nam­ics and sound­stage size, as expected, given the MP3-like, low-bit rate, rang­ing from 48 kbps to 128 kbps. Qual­ity did vary sta­tion to sta­tion, some­times in­de­pen­dent of the bit rate, so users

should be pre­pared to ex­plore. I moved on, to a cou­ple of al­bums that I ripped to my PC from CD in Ap­ple’s Loss­less for­mat (ALAC) - Her­bie Han­cok’s, River: the joni let­ters al­bum and Paul Si­mon’s, So Beau­ti­ful or So What. This al­lowed me to put my Rega Apollo CD player up against the Squeeze­box Touch di­rectly. I was sur­prised to dis­cover how small the dif­fer­ence in sound qual­ity was. With the Squeeze­box Touch play­ing the ti­tle track River, from Her­bie’s al­bum, Corinne Bai­ley Ray’s girl­ish del­i­cate in­to­na­tions came through with clar­ity and smooth­ness. The gen­tle pluck of gui­tar strings was por­trayed ac­cu­rately and the light cym­bals had crisp­ness and del­i­cacy. Flow­ing pi­ano keys had ac­cu­rate tone and re­vealed a good por­tion of res­o­nance. There was also warmth to the sound. Go­ing back and forth, be­tween the Apollo CDP and the Squeeze­box Touch, demon­strated how com­pet­i­tive the sound of the Squeeze­box Touch was in di­rect com­par­i­son with a $1000+ CD player. The Apollo ex­pressed more im­pact on pi­ano keys and had more pres­ence in the midrange, how­ever the Squeeze­box Touch pro­vided a slightly more re­laxed pre­sen­ta­tion, car­ry­ing with it an ad­di­tional sense of ease and a shade larger sound­stage. One could eas­ily pre­fer one pre­sen­ta­tion over the other. Given the rea­son­able cost of the Squeeze­box Touch, I felt its per­for­mance was ad­mirable.

Next, I hooked up the Squeeze­box Touch to the M1DAC with coax­ial and op­ti­cal ca­bles. Then I con­nected the M1DAC to my preamp via RCA in­ter­con­nect ca­bles. I could now com­pare the sound of the Squeeze­box Touch’s in­ter­nal DAC with the M1DAC with a sim­ple switch of the source se­lec­tor on my preamp. I knew the Squeeze­box Touch could meet my stream­ing needs with ease, but how would its in­ter­nal DAC stand-up against the Mu­si­cal Fi­delity M1DAC? To make this com­par­i­son, even more in­ter­est­ing, I pur­chased and down­loaded high res­o­lu­tion ver­sions (24-bit/96 kHz) of the afore­men­tioned Her­bie Han­cock and Paul Si­mon al­bums, from the HD­tracks web­site. Play­ing the ti­tle track River from Her­bie’s al­bum, I found the high-rez ver­sion to be su­pe­rior, re­gard­less of which DAC it was played through. It was not a night-and­day dif­fer­ence but the hi-rez le pro­vided a more spa­cious pre­sen­ta­tion, more air be­tween in­stru­ments with Corinne’s voice sound­ing more life­like and open. Pi­ano keys were less hard sound­ing, pos­sess­ing ad­di­tional del­i­cacy, while bring­ing along more de ni­tion. In sim­ple terms, ev­ery­thing sounded more life­like. Com­par­ing some other tracks (hi-rez vs. CD rip in ALAC) from both the Her­bie Han­cock and Paul Si­mon al­bums, I came to the con­clu­sion that the de­gree of dif­fer­ence was more pro­nounced on the River al­bum vs. So Beau­ti­ful or So What. This sug­gested that the qual­ity of CD masters in com­par­i­son to hi-rez masters can vary and in turn, re­sult in smaller or greater dif­fer­ences in sound qual­ity. Hence, it may not al­ways be con­sis­tent how much im­prove­ment can be ob­tained by mov­ing to a speci c hi-rez ver­sion ver­sus a CD rip. I also ripped a copy of the River ti­tle track to a USB thumb drive in low res­o­lu­tion MP3 at 160kbps. Con­ve­niently, the Squeeze­box Touch al­lowed me to plug the USB drive di­rectly into it and play mu­sic from it via its touch screen. This al­lowed me to com­pare an MP3 (160kbps) ver­sion to the CD rip (16-bit/44.1 kHz) as well as the hi-rez (24-bit/96 kHz). From the rst few notes it was clear that the low-res MP3 le sounded at in com­par­i­son with both the CD rip and hi-rez ver­sions. The MP3 had less de ni­tion, a re­duced sound­stage and less verve to the de­gree that I con­sid­ered it to be, at best, suit­able for back­ground mu­sic. I com­pared the coax­ial and op­ti­cal con­nec­tions be­tween the Squeeze­box Touch and the M1DAC, be­fore I set­tled on the coax­ial, due to its slightly smoother and more or­ganic pre­sen­ta­tion, though the lean­ness that the op­ti­cal con­nec­tion de­liv­ered had mer­its of its own.

It was nally time to see how the Squeeze­box Touch would com­pare when used to­gether with the M1DAC. Queu­ing up the Han­cock and Si­mon al­bums, I fo­cused on a few tracks. With the afore­men­tioned River track, the M1DAC pro­duced a slightly larger sound­stage, pri­mar­ily in the ar­eas of depth with some height. Also, Corinne’s voice came across a lit­tle more pris­tine. There was more air and open­ness that the M1DAC de­liv­ered, while the Squeeze­box sounded a touch con­strained in com­par­i­son. The Squeeze­box Touch also gave up some del­i­cacy in its han­dling of mu­sic, in com­par­i­son to the M1DAC. Mov­ing to Tea Leaf Proph- ecy, from the same al­bum, I found the M1DAC pre­served more sus­tain on pi­ano notes, while also de­liv­er­ing the gen­tle pat­ting of brushes on drums with a tad more res­o­lu­tion. Go­ing over to the Paul Si­mon al­bum and lis­ten­ing to Daz­zling Blue, as well as the ti­tle track, So Beau­ti­ful or So What, my im­pres­sions were re­in­forced. The M1DAC ex­ceeded the Squeeze­box Touch in the ar­eas of sound­stage size, res­o­lu­tion, sus­tain and low bass-note de - ni­tion. Mov­ing to an­other al­bum in the ALAC for­mat, from the CD, The Es­sen­tial Sonny Rollins: The RCA Years, I went to God Bless the Child, as I nd the track to be a sur­real record­ing. Here, the M1DAC once again stepped ahead of the Squeeze­box Touch in sound­stag­ing. The elec­tric gui­tar had a won­der­ful bloom which the M1DAC ex­pressed to a greater de­gree than the Squeeze­box Touch and the low­est digs of the up­right bass were also more de ned with the M1DAC. I came to the con­clu­sion that the M1DAC was clearly the higher per­former, pro­vid­ing a more con­vinc­ing and life­like ren­di­tion of dig­i­tal mu­sic, the likes of which I had not heard be­fore in my sys­tem; how­ever, the Squeeze­box Touch was a solid per­former in its own right. I would say that both the M1DAC and the Squeeze­box Touch are well worth their prices; how­ever, the Squeeze­box Touch would have the edge from an over­all value per­spec­tive. In the end, I could have eas­ily lived with the Squeeze­box Touch it­self. But upon ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what the M1DAC could do, it would be dif cult to live with­out it.

Hope­fully, this lit­tle jaunt has been as in­ter­est­ing and in­for­ma­tive to you, as it was to me. I think it un­der­scores the fact that there are sonic gains to be at­tained in the dig­i­tal realms, given the lat­est in prod­ucts and tech­nolo­gies. It’s clear that there are still a num­ber of things to con­sider but if you do a lit­tle home­work, you could nd your­self on the path to an au­ral reve­la­tion.

Ed­i­tor’s note: Since the Squeeze­box Touch may no longer be avail­able, we en­cour­age you to take a look at the Sonos Con­nect de­vice and the com­pany’s other re­lated prod­ucts. The Con­nect of­fers vir­tu­ally the same func­tion­al­ity, al­though it does not have its own touch screen. In­stead mu­sic play­back can be con­trolled via com­pat­i­ble smart­phones and tablets.

Many Sonos au­dio com­po­nents can be con­trolled via smart­phone and tablet apps.

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