Audiophile Rookie - where to start?

Discussion in 'Digital Audio' started by 3JL, Nov 8, 2016.

  1. 3JL macrumors member

    Mar 29, 2016
    Dear all,
    I am an audiophile rookie with very limited practical experience. I was wondering whether it would make sense to buy an external DAC considering the following:

    - I use Spotify Premium with qualities set at 'extreme'
    - I have ordered the new 15" MBP
    - I have an M-Audio Studiophile AV-40 speaker set

    Would it make sense to buy an external DAC? Or doesn't that add anything to the MBP DAC in this setup? Or in other words: what at this point is really the limiting factor? (Sound quality, DAC or speaker set)

  2. BrianBaughn macrumors 603


    Feb 13, 2011
    Baltimore, Maryland
    The most limiting factor is the quality of Spotify. I don't know the AV-40s but my guess is they'll sound pretty good for Spotify.

    Your question comes down to whether a (probably USB) external sound device will improve playback over the built-in 1/8" jack. I'm sure it depends on the device but I'm thinking most reputable ones would provide a small improvement.
  3. 3JL thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 29, 2016
    Ok, Thanks! Indeed I was talking about a USB DAC versus built-in jack.

    So my best bet is to first upgrade to e.g. Tidal and then consider e.g. a USB DAC?

  4. BrianBaughn macrumors 603


    Feb 13, 2011
    Baltimore, Maryland
    I'm sure there are WAY better forums out there to get such advice.

    One question though: How are you going to be listening? The AV-40s are "nearfield" monitors and are meant to be sitting right in front of you on the desk, basically. If that's how the bulk of your listening will be then you're OK in that respect.
  5. 3JL thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 29, 2016
    That indeed is the case! Thanks.
  6. HDFan macrumors 6502a

    Jun 30, 2007
    I guess the first question is what your definition of "audiophile" is. There is a good article about HD-Audio here:

    I'll base my comments on using the definition from the article: "HD-Audio as a recording that has been captured during an original session using equipment capable of matching or exceeding the capabilities of human hearing." I also assume that the goal that you are trying to reach is to at home is to get an exact duplicate of this original sound, or as close to it as you can given your acoustic environment.

    There are a lot of pieces that need to come together to make this happen. Your DAC is only one them.

    First you have the original recording. Here it is garbage in, garbage out. If a video is shot on VHS tape and then delivered via H265 4K you may get an exact copy of the original. But the original is VHS not 4K so even though it may be mastered to 4K you are still seeing only VHS on your 4K television. So the same is true for audio. So let's assume that the original recording is made on a "state-of-the-art HD digital audio workstation (capable of 96 kHz/24-bit PCM". How is the miking done? Positioning is critical in determining what you hear. Is the audio mastered? That can be detrimental to the sound. If any step in the process of producing the final master is done at a lower resolution, throwing away bits, those bits are thrown away forever even if the delivery method is 96 kHz/24 bit.

    Then we get down to the delivery media. Obviously anything that is compressed is thrown out. There are heated discussions about whether not including any sounds above the limited of human hearing (20 Hz to 20 kHz, CD quality) are useful. My hearing doesn't reach to 20 kHz (there are internet tests you can use to determine where your hearing tops out) so in theory just a CD quality recording should be fine for me. A crash symbol can produce sounds up to 45 kHz. But I really hear the difference in high quality sound, in the percussion. I don't know if it's because of the recording or if somehow I'm actually picking up some of those higher frequencies.

    I did an informal listening tests with with someone who can hear into the 15-18 kHz range. I played one HD-Audio recording with CD quality, versus the same recording at 96 kHz/24 bit recordings on a home system that can reproduce such sounds. The 96 kHz/24 bit recording was chosen as the best.

    There are limited places that you can actually get HD-Audio recordings. For streaming in the U.S. I the only service I know that gets even closed to it is Tidal, which runs 44.1 kHz/16 bit. But on Tidal even if the track placing shows as "High Quality" only by listening can you tell what you are getting. Obviously a Paul Robeson recording from 80 years ago isn't hifi even if so marked. But you really don't know what the quality is of contemporary music really is.

    For anything better you have to go to either physical media (SACD, Blu-Ray I think) or download FLAC, Apple Lossless, DSD or other HD-Audio files from some of the HD services - and charge you extortionist rates for them.

    Assume now that you have an original source that is HD-Audio. I am assuming from your answer to the question about near-field monitors that you are using a Mac of some kind to play the source material. In the chain we now have the Mac, the cables from the MAC to your speakers, and the speakers themselves. For convenience I assume that you are using powered speakers. [My speakers are a Paradigm MilleniaOne CT 2.1 system (includes a subwoofer)]. How is the mac connected to the speakers? There are discussions about the dropping of the optical output on the new MacPro and how that affects audio quality, and ways to preserve it. I'll skip that discussion here. Given that even an iPhone DAC can produced a relatively decent signal, it is your speakers that really are going to be the most important.

    So in all of the components discussed above your DAC is likely the least important, since even the iPhone DAC is relatively decent. This is particularly true if your original sources are compressed or of lower quality. My DAC (Oppo HA-1) handles up to DSD 256 and 384 kHz. But playing a DSD on your mac is a bitch. You have to have specialized software since iTunes won't handle it, and at least one program I have used is really awkward. And if you can't hear the difference, is it worth the expense? If you have a audio dealer that has good demo equipment (such as Goldenear or Definitive speakers, Meridian amps), find a great recording (I can recommend some) and listen to it at home. Then listen to it there. Is the difference in quality significant enough that you want to to reproduce that kind of sound? How much do you want to spend on your system? If you want that kind of sound then first get great speakers. If the dealer has those same speakers, see if you can get him to play it through various receivers or standalone DAC's to see if it is worth the money and the hastle.
  7. chirpie, Nov 14, 2016
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2016

    chirpie macrumors 6502a


    Jul 23, 2010
    My personal opinion, if you aren't using headphones, attack the room acoustics first. A room effects the sound every bit as much as the speakers. A $1,000 setup will sound better in a properly set up room than a $5,000 setup will sound in a poorly set up room. The downside? The topic of room acoustics is incredibly complicated and requires it's own set of tools to measure properly.

    But here's a good start.

    My personal priority? Room > Speakers > Quality of recording/master > Format it is in and device used to play it back > Amplifier > Cables. 95% of getting it right is in the first three steps.
  8. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    The place to spend money is to fix/replace whatever is the current "weak link" in your system. Almost certainly the DAC is not the limiting component.

    You are listening to compressed streaming audio using some very small "computer speakers". By a long shot it is not the DAC that is the issue here

    The most limiting thing now is there speakers. You don't have to spend a fortune. Go with passive speakers and a decent used amplifier.

    ALWAYS the best bang for you buck is to improve the listening room and improve the position of the speakers. This can be free and can give huge improvements. But you can't really expect a lot from a 4 inch self powered speaker.

    The next problem is that you are listening to compressed audio. Get some real CDs or just as good some uncompressed rips of CDs look for FLAC or apple lossless. But you may not hear the difference over those speakers. Used CDs sell for as little as 50 cents each. This is cheaper then anything else you could buy and well give the most improvements

    A cheap way to upgrade is to go with good headphones. You can own the SAME headphones the recording engineers and musicians used to make the CD for about $100. Yes you can spend $500 on headphones but you never see professionals do that. A plan old MacBook and a pair of AGK K240 headphones is near world class sound. With those headphones and real CDs then the next step would be a better audio interface.

    Don't call it a "DAC". That is what they sell to people consumers with to much money. Buy a studio quality USB audio interface. Price should be right around $150.

    Those K240 headphones have a big flow, they leak sound on both directions, others will hear what you are hearing and you can hear other sound. Isolation will cost more but if you can use speakers then the k240 will work as speakers have even worse isolation Look for them at they have the best deal on price, warranty and shipping
    --- Post Merged, Nov 14, 2016 ---

    The above is right, But another way to think about what was written above is to think is the "distance" between the source (the CD or file) and your ear. There are many links, the electronics inside the CD player, the DAC the amplifier the speaker and walls and air in the room and your ears.

    What we are saying is that the links in the chain CLOSER to your ear mater more than those closer to the files or CD.

    Funny thing is this kind of works for making audio recording too. The sound source matters the most (the musician) then comes microphone placement and the room and then what kind of microphone and so on.
  9. bopajuice Suspended


    Mar 22, 2016
    Dark side of the moon
    First off. CD quality is 1,411 kbps. Spotify extreme is 320 kbps. If you are serious about audiophile quality, downloading from places like HD tracks is the only way to get CD quality or better. A DAC can make a difference even playing ripped CD's in Apple Lossless, FLAC or WAV, but you will still be limited by the speakers you use. I am not familiar with the M-Audio Studiophile AV-40's, but a quick search seems to indicate they are around entry level for hifi. To get into the Audiophile or Hifi level it would cost substantially more.

    I have found it is your ears that make the ultimate decision, but I have also found (generally speaking) the more you spend, the more you get back. You can find great sound for $100 to $5,000. On the other hand I have auditioned $100,000 systems in a controlled and treated environment (I could never afford such a system). But I have to say the sound was truly amazing. Your wallet is the only limit when it comes to sound.

    I have also found the more you move up the equipment food chain the more you can tell the difference between good and great sound.

    I have tried the Meridian USB DAC (, and found it to generally improve the sound quality from just about any source. To me it added clarity and separation to many recordings. It is reasonably priced. I was using it to play Apple lossless files through a MacBook Pro into an Integra Preamp and McIntosh Amplifier, played through Dali speakers and later through Monitor Audio speakers. I could hear the difference.

    Good luck on your journey.
  10. jumpingjackflash, Nov 22, 2016
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2016

    jumpingjackflash macrumors regular

    Nov 13, 2016
    Since you are listening at short distance, which is allready an ideal situation, my suggestion is:

    -Get a good pair of active speakers and sell those M-Audio's. I highly recommend Genelec active speakers. Those smaller speakers are made for nearfield listening.

    -improve room acoustics with few acoustic panels on the first reflecting points. They are not that expensive.

    You dont need better DAC. Your MPB's DAC is more than good enough for your current needs. The best possible upgrade is room acoustics and good active speakers.
  11. eklkrl macrumors newbie


    Apr 19, 2010
    I've just found out the hard way that the new Macbook Pro (with touch bar), unlike previous Macbooks Pro, does NOT SUPPORT 96 kHz sampling rate via the line out/headphone out. Strangely it does support 96 kHz for the built-in speakers. But as soon as you plug in something to the direct out, Audio MIDI Setup only allows 44.1 and 48 kHz sampling rates as options. I'm astounded.

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