A little over two years ago, I made my upgrade of an entire headphone system. In hindsight, this one project was really two projects as time has gone on to prove. In any event, I think it is time to share what I've learned, and what I would do if I had it to do over. And, yes. It really has taken me months to finish this post. To recap, the audio upgrade projects of 2012 were years in the making; and largely grew out of my dissatisfaction with PC audio systems.
In 2008, after over 20 years of poor audio quality in the study, I took action. I could live with crappy computer speakers for PC gaming, but I wanted a better experience when listening to music. I added a pair of powered monitors (M-Audio BX5a) to my Mac's external (Firewire) music interface (an Apogee Duet), and there was no going back to what came before. At about the same time, I added some better headphones to the living room (a pair of Sennheiser HD 650 headphones). These modest upgrades got me thinking about the sound systems in the study and the living room. It was time to start planning with an eye towards upgrading everything.
I began by re-ripping my CD collection to FLAC (my music archive), and transcoding an Apple-lossless (ALAC) version of the FLAC files for use in iTunes. I used dBpoweramp (with the PerfectTUNES option aiding the ripping process) for both tasks. This process took about four years as I systematically re-ripped my CDs, one handful at a time. While I was working through the CD collection, I began researching my options for a better headphone and for a digital playback system with lower background noise than I was getting from my PCs or my Macs.
By the fall of 2012, the new systems were set. My primary listening station was an easy chair in the living room. My sources in the living room were an OPPO BDP-95 for playing Blu-ray, DVD-Audio and SACD optical discs, notebook computers (for convenience and the organizational prowess of iTunes) and an Auraliti PK 100. The notebook computers and the PK-100 fed a Schiit Gungnir DAC. The Gungnir and the OPPO fed a Schiit Mjolnir pre-amp/headphone amp. The Mjolnir powers Audeze LCD-2 headphones for the most part.
In the study, my sources were various computers feeding a Schiit Bifrost DAC. The Bifrost fed a Schiit Lyr pre-amp/headphone amp. The Lyr drove a pair of Prodipe Ribbon 8 monitors and whatever single-ended headphones I wanted to use - typically the Sennheiser HD 650. So. That was then. How have these components performed over the last two years?
Auraliti PK 100 - - That link is to my original review of the PK 100 on the old blog. I've also posted some new screenshots of the latest third-party iOS apps that control MPD devices like the PK-100. My opinion is that the PK 100 is still an excellent low noise file player that is hassle free. However, there is no denying that today's asking price ($949) is probably too high for many (two years ago, the PK 100 was $799). Add in a few hundred gigs of external USB storage, and you are probably going to be out well over $1000. If you have the funds and are not into DIY, do not discount the PK 100; low noise and hassle free are attributes worth paying for. However, now that I've built a couple of PCs that run Audiophile Linux, I will probably go that way in the future.
OPPO BDP-95 - - That link is to an old review of mine on gdgt (now on Engadget). If you are looking for a truly universal media player, the newer BDP-105 might be exactly what you want. It takes the features of the BDP-95, and adds the ability to act as an external USB DAC for other file players. OPPO has a free iOS app that controls any BDP-100 series player, and that should address the poor media file playback controls that hamper the utility of the BDP-95. If you have enough DVD-Audio, SACD and/or Blu-rays, then the OPPO BDP-105 (like the BDP-95 before it) might be useful. However, I've not tried the BDP-105 myself; and thus can not recommend it at this time.
Macs - - The biggest audio limitations of Macs are the physical interfaces and one's tendency to use the Mac for other purposes (which can interfere with smooth music playback). You can choose from optical S/PDIF (TOSLINK) or USB for digital audio outputs. TOSLINK has always been reliable in my experience, but Apple's implementation can't handle sample rates in excess of 96 kHz. USB is noisier and less reliable than TOSLINK, but it can handle 192 kHz sample rates (note that some non-Apple TOSLINK interfaces have no issue with samples rates going all the way to 192 kHz). I still use Pure Music on top of iTunes. Pure Music allows me to use a crossfeed plugin (redline monitor) that makes headphones sound more like speakers. Given the cost of Macs and their interface limitations, it is hard to recommend a Mac as a dedicated audio source.
PC - - If you like the idea of the PK 100 and are a DIYer with computer tech skills, build your own system that runs Audiophile Linux. Shop for a motherboard with S/PDIF out pins, and buy a S/PDIF RCA out with an integrated external slot bracket that supports your motherboard's S/PDIF pins. The external slot bracket will replace one blank dust cover (there is one dust cover per PCI-e card slot on the motherboard). Something like this one that works with most Gigabyte, Asus and MSI motherboards; this so you have an alternative to TOSLINK and/or USB. Be sure to get a low noise power supply for your DIY PC; and at least consider going with a fan-less build. A DIY Audiophile Linux fan-less build should be doable for a little more than half the cost of the PK 100 (depending on component selection). This is the route I am taking from now on when I want a dedicated audio file player.
HTPC - - A DIY home theater PC (HTPC) that runs JRiver MediaCenter 20 on top of Windows is viable. I've tested one such build, and it looks like a winner to me. However, I've not verified how it works as a Blu-ray or SACD player (as I lack the Blu-ray drive to test this). If you decide to go this route, don't install unnecessary software on it. Follow the same hardware guidelines as the DIY linux machine. This is probably the route I will go in the future for the living room.
Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs)
Schiit Bifrost - - I own two of these DACs. I'll be upgrading one of them soon. I've found the ability to switch between sources very useful. For me the un-upgraded version of the Bifrost beats any of the DACs that have been integrated into an internal PC sound card or motherboard that I've owned. In terms of low noise, it is bested by the balanced outputs of the OPPO BDP-95; but I still slightly prefer the sound of Bifrost over the BDP-95. The Schiit Gungnir is better in every way (expect for cost!). I'm curious how I'll feel about an upgraded Bifrost (aka Uber Bifrost); but, where cost and versatility is a consideration, Bifrost is my bang-for-the-buck winner.
OPPO BDP-95 - - Nothing to add. I will repeat that my unit may have faulty single-ended outputs as I can not believe how different they are from the balanced outputs. Still, the BDP-95 offers enough to make one curious how the BDP-105 might fair versus an upgraded Bifrost.
Schiit Gungnir - - My unit seems noise free. I know it can not be; but that is how it sounds to me. The Gungnir seems to offer a sharper stereo image than the BDP-95; but the BDP-95 provides a wider and deeper soundstage. The depth of the BDP-95's soundstage seems genuine (as in realistic), but the width seems contrived - artificial.
Overall, for use with a balanced pre-amp, the Gungnir is my preferred option. With single-ended pre-amps (and AVRs lacking a balanced input) the Bifrost is an even clearer winner over my somewhat suspect BDP-95 (when using RCA outs). The Bifrost offers the best value among this group of DACs. Is the "uber" upgrade to the Bifrost worth the cost? I'll have to get back to you on that.
Pre-Amps and Headphone Amps
Schiit Asgard2 - - I really like this headphone amp/pre-amp. If you stick with Schiit's gear, this is the natural partner to the Bifrost. That said, if you prefer analog amps, then this amp is obviously not for you. I'm glad I bought the Asgard2 for use at work.
Schiit Lyr - - The original Lyr adds noticeable noise to any of my audio chains, and that is just not what I want. However, when paired with Audeze LCD-2 or Sennheiser HD-650 headphones, I do prefer the Lyr to the Asgard2 as I think the bass kicks a little harder and the softer focus (to use a camera analogy) is more forgiving of the many less than awesome recordings in my music collection. However, given that I've gone on to purchase better headphone amps/pre-amps/amps, I do wish I had skipped the Lyr.
Schiit Mjolnir - - If you have gear that accepts a balanced analog output, then the Mjolnir may surprise you as it did me. It adds no noticeable noise to your audio chain; even with cable runs of 30 to 50 feet. This is what one should theoretically expect, but experiencing it was a revelation. That said, I'm guessing that most of you do not have any equipment with a balanced input. When compared to the Asgard2 and Lyr, I think the Mjolnir is the better partner for the LCD-2 headphone.
Monitors (near field)
M-Audio Studiophile BX5a (powered) - - Old news. Not the best treble, and bass shy (to be expected). Light years better than any computer speaker I ever owned. Probably not a good buy given the online reviews that I've seen.
Prodipe Ribbon 8 (powered) - - While bass extension isn't bad, it can be a little loose. The crossover between the cone driver and the ribbon tweeter is a little uneven. In my opinion, female vocals are its strength, brass and organ not so much. Other than ebay, I doubt one can find these anymore. If buying them used, don't pay more than $150 per speaker if you have to cover the shipping; they are big and heavy.
NHT SuperPower 2.1 (powered) - - Bought these for work, and they are not bad. They are over-priced for what you get in my opinion. Sweeter treble than the BX5a and tighter bass than the Ribbon 8 (obviously less bass extension), and not crazy expensive (about $200 per speaker). However, if you have a decent amp and the desk space, the AbsoluteZero is a better reviewed NHT speaker.
Audeze LCD-2 - - the old review . . . . not a whole lot to add here. I would buy these again. Keep in mind, I like the bass emphasis of these headphones; that may not be your cup of tea . . . so shop with care. I like the sound signature enough that I am considering adding the LCD-3 instead of branching out to another top tier headphone like the Sennheiser HD 800. Also in the mix is the soon to be released Hifiman HE1000 (another planar magnetic headphone - like the Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3).
Sennheiser HD 650 - - I would not buy these again. Unless you really want bass emphasis, save the money and get the HD 600 instead. However, for just a bit more money, I would be tempted to try one of Hifiman's less expensive planar magnetic headphones.
So. What would I do differently? Not a whole lot. I've gotten at least two years out of everything that I purchased; and, while there will be more upgrades to come, I don't think I did too badly. However, I was never completely happy with the speakers on my desk in the study. I should have done better with the study's speakers.
Schiit's flagship amp, Ragnarok, is already on my desk; and its DAC counterpart, Yggdrasil, is almost a given when it eventually ships. The Ragnarok purchase provides three benefits:
- A relatively affordable taste of top end gear. It confirmed that, if headphones were enough, Mjolnir is good enough for the LCD-2 headphone; or, at least, this is the case to my ears. Yes. Ragnarok does sound better than Mjolnir with the LCD-2, but not hugely so. However, Ragnarok should also pair well with Sennheiser's HD 800 headphone - something that could not be said of the Mjolnir. The HD 800 matters for two reasons: it is widely regarded as the most revealing production headphone and it is also one of the most comfortable of headphones. Comfort may matter more when I retire - as all day use would not be out of the question. In any event, a headphone amp that works well with a wider variety of headphones is worthwhile.
- Ragnarok can power conventional speakers. No more messing around looking for a powered monitor that satisfies.
- Ragnarok's front input controls and greater number of inputs have allowed me to junk an old AVR that performed poorly and was taking up an inordinate amount of space in the study.
I finally found desktop speakers that I am happy with, the KEF LS-50. They are about half the size of the Prodipe Ribbon 8 monitors that they replace. Their only flaw is a lack of bass extension; but that flaw can really only be met by one or more sub-woofers. For now, Gungnir and the PK 100 live in the study. Gungnir is the primary DAC for the Ragnarok. In my opinion the study now outclasses the living room when it comes to enjoying stereo music. Even the easy chair is headed to the study . . .
What of the living room? I'm re-arranging the furniture to make it a better fit for console and computer gaming. Some Steam games have "Big Picture" support (meaning they have been modified to work with a game controller and TV screen), and the Steam Box (coming someday soon) will certainly bring PC gaming to the living room in a big way. The Mjolnir is still hanging out with the OPPO BDP-95, an AppleTV, Xbox 360, AP Linux PC and the AVR in the living room; but Mjolnir is mostly taking a rest until I can get a longer headphone cord for the LCD-2.
Hopefully I'll do better with new postings here and elsewhere in 2015. No promises.