Streaming Sessions

    Stream of Consciousness: Better Sound From My Computer Audio, Part One

    Issue 147

    As something of a musical magpie, I have always been of the mind that it’s just such a special thing to physically own the commodity that you buy. Call me old-fashioned – in this age of streaming audio, the concept of ownership seems to be less significant for many people than it once was. But, I like the concept of keeping what you paid for until you decide to sell it. As circumstances allow, I think this ownership model is quite comforting when looking at buying any particular asset, unless of course it is just too expensive to obtain in the first place. There is something very satisfying about owning what you enjoy.

    It’s true that the law of diminishing returns can also be a factor (in audio equipment or anything else), and the point at which the curve of diminishing returns kicks in for you is likely influenced by your income, what equipment you already own, the space you might have for new gear, and perhaps most importantly, the value you personally place on that incremental step of improvement(s) gained from the shelling out of greenbacks. This is nothing new…so, what is this preamble actually about?

    In this series, I’m going to talk about how I was able to squeeze more quality out of my existing computer music setup in my system – without spending any money.

    Although I like to own my music, I appreciate value for money, and music subscription services certainly offer that. Circumstances have also changed. Before the pandemic kicked in and killed off my local second-hand record store, it used to be a great source of pleasure to go in and browse the racks, pay for the album, and then leave the store able to play the record at my leisure and enjoy the liner notes and artwork. I have fond memories of buying my first records and cassette tapes. I remember where I was and how much I paid for them. It’s a common shared experience.

    15 years ago, where I lived there were at least three High Street vinyl stores that sold used records, not to mention the retailers selling new vinyl. Not anymore.

    It’s likely that like me, you too have collections of vinyl albums and CDs and maybe tape cassettes and other formats, and although you don’t dig them out very often, you’ll never part with them. They represent part of your personal musical developmental DNA and growth.

    As a result, I have a modest music library on NAS (network attached storage) hard drives, so that I can play this treasured collection of tunes, as and when the moment takes me. Most of it consists of CDs ripped to FLAC or WAV files, as I have painstakingly sloughed away all my not-so surreptitiously sibilant MP3 recordings. In a concerted effort to get the most out of my music, I thought I would pursue the goal of making my music more accessible than ever before, while also realizing the greater potential of what my existing audio system has to offer. I also thought I would aim for that target without spending one red cent, in an exercise of dispelling GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).

    Do I need a bigger power amp? Possibly. Do I need a new DAC? I’d like one. Can I upgrade my capacitors in my speakers? Yes, but they already sound good, even excellent. Should I take out a Roon subscription? I could, but that would mean another subscription, and my project goal was to spend a budget of zero. (Call it lockdown logic!)

    My solution would be a combination of, one, smarter hardware routing and setting up of my Oppo UDP-203 Blu-ray player with an external Arcam irDAC, and two, obtaining some excellent software.

     

    Oppo UDP-203 universal disc player. It's no longer available, yet still has its fans.

    Oppo UDP-203 universal disc player. It’s no longer available, yet still has its fans.

     

    Although it’s a convenient way to connect your streaming audio source to your system, one of the limitations of streaming music from your NAS or computer to your preamp or receiver is that you are limited to the sound quality of the preamp or receiver’s internal DAC. (Also, sometimes a receiver or preamp has a limited number of digital and especially optical digital inputs it will accommodate – perhaps only one for the audio output of a TV, for example.)

    But if you already have a nice DAC, say, one that you’re using with a disc transport, then you can use that one instead of your preamp or receiver’s built-in DAC. It may improve your sound significantly.

    Instead of connecting my NAS to my Yamaha AV receiver via the RJ-45 LAN Ethernet connection, I connected the NAS to the RJ-45 LAN Ethernet port on the Oppo, and then ran the coaxial digital output from the Oppo to my Arcam DAC, the line output of which then went to a line input on my A/V receiver.

    Arcam irDAC.

    Arcam irDAC.

     

    One simple beauty of this kind of setup is that as DACs improve over time (in fact, my Arcam is no longer made), it’s possible to swap them out for newer units with better sound quality or functionality. (I have been considering the Denafrips Ares II DAC, but the Arcam sounds so good I haven’t done anything yet.)

    One of the most significant improvements in sound quality potential was because I could take advantage of the Oppo UDP-203’s 192 kHz digital audio processing rather than being limited by its HDMI audio output into my receiver (as I was glad to learn from my telephone conversation with Oppo customer service in Germany; I’m based in the UK). Via Oppo’s mobile app, it’s also possible to select either 48 kHz, 96 kHz or 192 kHz LPCM audio output, so you can listen for any possible differences. (Although the mobile app is less than super-slick in use and would benefit from a software update, this feature would be nice to have been included on the remote control.)

    Arcam irDAC, rear panel.

    Arcam irDAC, rear panel.

    Another unforeseen benefit is that the Oppo’s HDMI display is far more informative about each track’s details and is generally slicker to navigate compared to the Yamaha’s on-screen navigation.

    Although Oppo gear is no longer being made, it is greatly loved and has somewhat of a loyal fan base. And of course, the same principle I used to connect it applies to any device that has a digital out, (rather settling for a receiver or preamp’s built-in DAC).

    Sensible component routing is sometimes it’s screamingly obvious, as was my case – bypass my receiver’s internal DAC with a better one, which I already had on hand and wasn’t using to its full potential! The point is, look at your existing system’s components and think about whether they could be better utilized, especially in the case of enjoying computer or streaming audio.

    In our next article we will look at using better software to help us iron out the creases in our computer audio systems, and further improve accessibility to our much-loved tunes.

    Header image: Oppo UDP-203, rear panel.

    7 comments on “Stream of Consciousness: Better Sound From My Computer Audio, Part One”

    1. I wonder if, in the forthcoming series, you could answer the question of whether it is possible to download music from one of the premier streaming services and put it on an NAS hard drive. Like yourself, I want to own the physical media I play. I would like to put some of it on a thumb drive so I can play it in my car, which being of recent vintage, does not have a CD player.

      Once it is on the hard drive, is it possible to transfer it to a thumb drive? Sorry if these questions sound really naïve. I find the article very timely and of interest to those of us who do not subscribe to a streaming service.

      1. Very good questions, I too was hoping for the basic course in using computer audio with definitions, hook-up instructions, block diagrams, and practical tips. I do understand the difficulty in writing an article to a wide audience of beginners to technical audiophiles. Pls go slowly and explain fully however.

      2. Good morning forteatwo!
        Yes you can!
        And it’s real easy to do too!
        But it all depends on the audio file tyeps your car stereo can play.
        Believe it or not, this information is coming from a blind man.
        I’m talking about myself here.
        Now, back to your car stereo system.
        Just about all of them can play anything from MP3 to WMA WAVE and FLAC.
        Some expensive car stereo systemss, can play ACC and AC3 APE and right up to DSD.
        I don’t know about the stock systems that are built in to automobiles by the factories, but I do know a little something about the after market in dash systems.
        All you have to do, is have both the hard drive and the flash drive plugged in to your computer, via USB.
        I don’t know how to do this on a Mack system yet, so I will give you the instructions on how to do this in Windows.
        Once you have both of the drives plugged in to your USB ports on your computer, it’s as cemple as child’s play.
        On the first drive, select the files you want to transfer to the second drive.
        Or, you can just select a folder or folders.
        Most people do this, by clicking with the mouse.
        Because of the fact that I can’t see, I will tell you how to do this on your keyboard.
        Do a control plus A, to select all.
        Then do a control plus C to copy them all to your clipboard.
        Now go to the second drive, and do a control plus V to paste them on to the second drive.
        Now after you’ve done that, that drive should be ready to play on your car stereo system, once the drive is plugged in to the USB port on your car stereo system.
        Hope this helps.
        John.

    2. Thank you for your comments. It is humbling for a sighted person to be taking a course in digital audio from a visually impaired person. Kudos to you for overcoming that.

      Despite being a “premium” audio system, compatible inputs for my car are limited to mp3, wma, aac, m4a and aif. Other than mp3, I am unfamiliar with the other abbreviations. WAV and FLAC are not supported and this is the case for most cars. But the car audio is a secondary concern. Once I get music downloaded to my PC, I can figure out how to transfer the files to a thumb drive, I think.

      Like daddyo said in his post, I recognize the challenge of addressing this topic to a wide audience. My primary interest is getting Hi-Rez music files on my computer hard drive. My understanding is you cannot download music files that you do not own or have not purchased. So my first question is whether or not that is true.

      If you subscribe to one of the higher end music streaming streaming services, can you download the music you stream to your hard drive or are they all copyright protected.

    3. Good afternoon forteatwo!
      It all depends on the streaming service.
      I do know that Spotify as long as you have a paid subscription to it, you can download all the music you want.
      But however, I’m not formilyor with the audio file type they use.
      I also understand that, if you have a paid subscription to Qobuz, you can download a whole intire CD album from there.
      Again, I don’t know anythingg about the audio file types they use there either.
      Most audio files that you have to pay for, have this thing called D L N A.
      But if you have the right tools to do it with, you can remove that from any audio file that you happen to own.
      I rip my own CD’s.
      Some times, I do that to them, right after I get them in my hands.
      And that D L N A thing isn’t included in the files that I ripped from CD’s that I already own.
      But I guess that thing is some kind of copy right digital protection scheme.
      I’ve never encountered it, and so, I never had to download a tool to get that out of any audio file that I’ve either downloaded, or ripped from CD’s.
      And as for Hi rez audio files, the cloeses as you can get to that with MP3 files, is 398KHZ.
      Again, hope this helps.
      John.

      1. Just a quick add…With Qobuz in addition to downloading to their app you can buy media with no digital rights attached. You actually own it and can copy or download it as many times as you like.

        OHT

        1. Good afternoon OldHardware Tech!
          Perhaps you can tell me something here.
          I got a new pare of speakers for my computer.
          Just in case you want to know what the brand and mottle is, they are the Klipsch R-41PM.
          I got these in order to keep me from working over time, in my bed room on my Avantone Pro/JBL system.
          I have those in my bed room, hooked up to a vintage Fisher 800 stereo receiver.
          You know how much heat all those tubes make.
          And so, in order to keep my wife from worrying about me getting over heated, the R-41PM speakers, are just what the doctor ordered.
          But now to my question.
          I have the speakers hooked up to my computer, via the USB cable that came with them.
          I put on a DSD file, just to see if the built in DAC will allow me to hear the file playing.
          It does!
          But what I don’t know about, is what’s happening while that DSD file is playing.
          Am I getting DSD in its true native form?
          Or, am I getting a conversion to PCM while I’m setting here and listening to it?
          Thanks in advance!

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