Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CLV: Has Digital Become Too Complicated?

When I first started writing The Vinyl Anachronist in 1998, it was all about the war between digital and analog--specifically, the war between LP's and CD's. So many people back then forfeited their LP collections for the mighty compact disc, mostly for convenience. With CD's, you just placed the disc in the tray and pushed play, which was very different from the rituals of cleaning records, aligning cartridges, balancing tonearms and more. I later discovered that many so-called audiophiles turned their backs on the turntable because they didn't know how to properly set-up a turntable--it made them nervous. I get it.

But digital playback certainly didn't remain simple and convenient. I evaluate and write about the latest in digital technologies for a living, and sometimes I feel like one of those clumsy audiophiles who couldn't figure out how to set up VTA or azimuth or tracking force. In fact, if you gave me a choice of setting up a delicate $15,000 cartridge and learning how to use all the features in a digital music server, I'd grab my protractor and dig into the former without hesitation. My impersonation of a digital audio guy remains, "I'm not sure why this isn't working."

Here's the main issue with digital, and it's the same problem we've experienced with analog over the past few decades. Back when I was a kid, you could buy a "record player" and you were all set to listen to music within minutes after unpacking the box. You didn't have to worry about separate tonearms and cartridges and phono preamplifiers. The compact disc player, in a sense, was the same thing--you buy one box and it does everything you need with a simple push of a button or two. Those days are pretty much over.

First of all, it's obvious that the compact disc is in its last days. A few people, including me, hold onto their CD collections for one reason or another, but there will be a time when music servers and network streamers will vanquish any sort of physical media--except for LP's, strangely enough. If this sounds a little like the "CD's completely vanquished the LP" war-chant from thirty years ago, however, there are important differences. First of all, these new digital technologies are becoming complicated because digital sound has never been better. The gap between the sound quality of analog and digital keeps getting smaller.

Second, the CD vs. LP brouhaha was ultimately about replacing one type of physical media for another. In the new digital world, physical media is gone. It no longer takes up space in your home. It's all in the cloud. And for a reasonable fee, you can gain access to millions of albums, millions of individual tracks, all through your mobile device. Once you have access to a modern digital playback system, it's hard to go back to CD's or LP's.

There's only one problem--the learning curve on the latest digital technologies is steep. Every time I evaluate a new music server or digital-to-analog converter (DAC), I have to sit down and read the owner's manual thoroughly before I plug the device into my AC outlet. I have something called the Five Minute Rule, where I give a product extra credit if I can have music playing through it five minutes after making all of the connections. To make things even worse, those owner's manuals can be deliberately vague--I often see important steps omitted because there's this underlying snarky attitude that we all know our ways around a computer by now, and we should be able to figure it out on our own. Yeah, I missed that memo.

A couple of years ago, I was a slave to the Five Minute Rule. Then, after a while, every single digital product passed the test. I assumed this was a combination of two things--a) I was getting better and more knowledgeable, and b) the equipment was just getting easier to install. The true answer has something to do with those DACs--I started off testing those, and they're pretty simple devices. A music server, however, requires time to learn. A music server is basically a computer, and it can do a lot of things for you. But you have to spend significant time in setting it up to your specific preferences. If you do that, a music server will become the best friend you ever had. But if you're a reviewer like me, it's difficult to dig into a music server when the review period is typically only a few weeks.

Merason DAC1 Mk II

But let's start off with the DAC. If you've owned a CD player, then you've already owned a DAC. This is the device that converts digital data--the ol' zeros and ones--into electrical signals that can be translated into music by your amplifiers and speakers. A DAC design usually revolves around a simple chip, but there's more to it than just that--power supplies, filters and other circuitry can improve the sound. Think of the DAC as the phono cartridge of digital--it gathers the energy, and it transforms it into music. Like a cartridge, a DAC can really influence the sound and provide you with a specific flavor for your audio system.

If you want to play around with newer digital technologies, you need a DAC. In many cases, a DAC is included within another components--a CD player, of course, but integrated amplifiers, music servers, network streamers and other gear may include a DAC--they're small and easy to place in a much larger chassis. But the best DACs tend to be stand-alone units, with multiple power supplies.

Next, you need to decide which digital device is right for you. If you want to keep listening to your CD collection, then you can stick with a CD player, or even a separate DAC and CD transport. The CD transport is merely the part of the CD player that includes the laser assembly, the CD tray and all the transport functions such as play, stop, pause or next track. If your current CD player has a digital output, you can connect it to a top-quality DAC for even better performance. But if you've discovered the joy of music streaming, you'll need to determine if a network streamer is right for you.

When I caught the new digital fever, it was due to those music streaming services such as Tidal and then Qobuz. You can simply subscribe to one of those services--usually less than $20 per month--and use your computer to listen to millions of tracks. If you want it to sound more like your home hi-fi, you'll need to connect your computer to a DAC, which then plugs into your main amplifier. I did that for a long time, and I was happy.

Innuos Pulsar Network Streamer

There was only one problem--I still had the feeling that my lowly laptop wasn't an optimal solution for streaming. Laptops are noisy, and they aren't built for sound quality. That's when network streamers started appearing on the market. A streamer focuses solely on delivering the original data from the streaming service to your ears. All of the usual audiophile advantages--lower noise, less distortion, proper grounding--make a network streamer a superior choice for good sound. You'll still need a DAC to convert the data, however--if the DAC is like a phono cartridge, the network streamer is like a turntable. It's the solid and stable platform that makes everything else work. If this sounds complicated, know that there are plenty of combined DAC/streamers out there. The less boxes, the better--right?

I'm rather fond of network music streamers. I believe they are the key to getting great digital sound.

Finally, there are music servers, often the bane of my existence. A music server is a device for file storage. If you're sick of all those CDs taking up room in your house, a music server is the solution. You can burn all your CDs, as well as all the digital files you've downloaded, and store them on the server. The music server can organize all of your files into libraries, which can be accessed on a mobile device through an app. Once you've transferred all your music to a music server, you can curl up in an armchair for days and never get up to change a record or a CD. It's the ultimate in convenience.

Antipodes Oladra Music Server

The only issue I have with music servers is that initially it's a lot of work setting one up and learning all the functions. Once the work is completed, you'll wonder how you listened to music any other way. But you'll spend a lot of time getting to that point. With music servers, it all comes down to this--would you like to get rid of your entire music collection? Do you need extra room in your house? I still haven't reached the point where I'm eager to rid myself of the piles of physical media in my home, but it will happen one day. It makes sense. I'm just not looking forward to all that burning and ripping and downloading while checking the manual for a tip that isn't there. I have an easy solution for that. Since music servers tend to be fairly expensive, I'd make my high-end audio dealer set it up and show me how to use it. I know I'm a pro, and I'm supposed to know how to this, but man, is it tedious. It's usually the point where I say, "I'd rather just listen to records."

The current digital audio technologies can be confusing. I'm not even mentioning the other products that improve the sound quality, other boxes and gadgets that can be plugged into the system at various points. There are ethernet switches, which are an additional platform for making connections and reducing noise. Then there are all the different types of digital connections such as USB, digital coax, S/PDIF and optical cabling. It's a rabbit hole of epic proportions.

But it's the future. There will be a point where these technologies will be simplified so that everyone can figure it out. There are plenty of all-in-one boxes on the market that are easy to use. This isn't 1983, where I'm listening to my first CD and thinking, "There's no surface noise, which is awesome, but I'm not sure if I'm having more fun." I'm having more fun with a DAC and a network streamer in my system. Almost as much fun as spinning LPs, in fact.

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