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What The DAC?
Streaming. The new stereo.
Let’s talk about music. Because really, Portland doesn’t matter today. I have other kinds of issues to deal with. Let’s work through them.
I’m paying too much for music.
I want local copies of all of my digital music.
I want backup physical copies of my most important CDs.
I’m confused about all of the new music technology.
I want more music, cheap.
Some of these are puzzles, some of these are mysteries. At least one of these is a rabbit hole. Let’s start at the last point. That’s a puzzle. The answer is to get a free streaming service, but which one? Since I need high fidelity, it can’t be broadcast radio. Since I have some sophisticated taste and I can’t stand commercials, maybe I should just forget it.
Looking at the first problem, which is also a puzzle, I recognize that I am paying Qobuz, Amazon Music and Apple Music. Why am I doing this? I am doing it because I wanted unlimited streaming and there are some things I could get on Amazon that I couldn’t get on Apple and vice-versa. So I ended up buying both several years ago. Since I ripped all of my CDs and they are most likely both places, maybe it’s time to get rid of one. I’m almost certain that should be Amazon. I’m not getting a deal because I’m on Prime, and I don’t intend on plugging Alexa into my hifi. So done. That was easier than I thought. I’m not giving up Qobuz, for reasons I will explain later. Getting rid of Amazon helps with problem #5, if between the remaining two I can get more music than Amazon might provide.
OK let’s consider problem #2. It’s a hedge. You see I used to think I was real smart when I uploaded all of my ripped MP3s to Amazon S3. Then I got the bill. But this was legacy pain I still recall from the bad old days when my hard drives would regularly fail me. After running around with my hair on fire, I got Backblaze which solved my cloud storage problem for $100 per year unlimited storage. Hmmm. Now that I think about it, problem #3 is part of the hedge as well. Perhaps I can even make a big deal about putting my CDs into a big showy bookcase. I could pick out something like 300 of my absolute favorites and let the rest remain in the cloud or on local spinning media. That could work. Four puzzles solved, sorta. See, I’m going to have to coordinate storing my CDs with the Spousal Unit. That makes it a mystery. I cannot know if her permission is a permanent puzzle piece.
Now to the rabbit hole. Audio tech.
I have three hedges when it comes to dealing with the ineffable mysteries of high fidelity audio reproduction. They are the following three gentlemen:
The intriguing bits about audio tech are firmly in the realm of digital transports and this is what has changed dramatically this century. You see there’s a myth out there that bits are simply bits; it’s all ones and zeros, so hardware circuitry makes no difference. That myth is busted, and there are consequences for people who love listening to recorded music. Now if you like the boom boom clack, you’re not going to care much other than that the boom really does boom. You and I both have cringed at the stoplight next to that car. Speaking of which, it really would be a great way to get revenge on your enemy. All you need is the booming system and the correct address and date for his daughter’s wedding. All that aside, there are clearly those of us that are willing to plonk a few more for better, not just louder, sound. So there is good news for us, and bargains as well. Assuming you know only the basics, I have overthunk for you.
Streaming Services & Streamers
You know what a streaming service is. It is a provider of streaming music or video. It’s kind of like digital broadcasting that you can’t record, but you don’t need to record because you can stream it on demand. Netflix and all video services aside, the more popular music streaming services are Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer, SiriusXM, Last.fm, Idagio, Tidal, Qobuz, Pandora, Bandcamp, Google Play & Mixcloud. Also, lots of people listen to music recorded on YouTube. Some of these offer high resolution streaming - better than just MP3 quality. These guys are on the upstroke, broadcast radio stations are on the downstroke.
Streamers are those machines that we use to tune into the above streaming services and get the signal. For the overwhelming majority of us, that’s our computer or our smartphone. For some of us, these streamers are clever little devices like Amazon’s Echo Dot, or a Sonos box.
All streaming services are sending digital signals to your streamer which at some point has to convert those bits into analog waveforms that move speakers. These speakers transduce the air so that our physical eardrums can send signals to our brains which we sense appropriately. Not so much is known about the kind of electrical signals between the ear and the brain, and so there isn’t much you can get at Best Buy to improve that signal path, but outside of the ear, there’s a lot of tech going on.
Until such time as those brainwaves are understood and we can bypass the ear canal for our auditory experiences, we’re going to be hearing sound through the air. Since we’ve evolved to do this with a fine grained understanding of the nuance of sound, there’s quite a lot of depth to this rabbit hole. Plenty of work for engineers to do until the end of time. One of the great improvements in audio engineering has come from a key piece of equipment on the digital transport chain, the DAC. The digital to audio converter.
Way back in history when the world was normal, Christmas 2019, I had never heard of a DAC. You say it ‘dack’ not ‘dee ay see’. But somewhere deep in my mind I must have known it existed. Even back in the 90s, I knew that a Sony CD player sounded better than a generic one because of superior electronics. Now, a DAC can be purchased and often should be purchased as a separate component in a stack of hifi. What’s startling to me is that I never really thought about how measly the DAC in an iPhone would be. Or even in my AirPods, that are receiving a digital bluetooth signal from my phone there has to be a teensy weensy DAC in each of them. It didn’t take much for me to hear the difference when I got a Shiit Modi into my signal path. Like the millions, I thought bits was bits, and I figured a digital jukebox like Plex or XBMC (now Kodi) would sound just as good no matter what hardware it ran on.
Now I know that whenever I have digital streams that have to come out through speakers, I need to have a good DAC on that path. Of course it turns out that they run anywhere between 29 and 10,000 dollars. This thing called the Chord Hugo looks like a cross between an infant’s chew toy and something out of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
In my stacks, I have the Schiit Modi 3. The difference is unsubtle and remarkable. About the best hundred bucks I have ever spent. There are a lot of reasonably priced DACs out there. Check them out.
Digital jukeboxes, now I’ve opened up another can of worms inside the audiophile rabbit hole. I’ll get back to you on that.