Slight of hand

Last week’s Apple event was notable for more than just some new gadgets. While some are making much of Microsoft’s presentation and clear influence on the iPad Pro, I thought Apple’s omissions were more remarkable. Where is HomeKit? How does my Mac work with the new AppleTV? Apple still has a bit of the “Jobs reality distortion field” going on . . . as these and other questions kind of got a pass in most of the reports that I have seen. Slight of hand indeed!

We are supposedly in a post-PC era, but that pronouncement has always seemed over-hyped to me.  Of probably greater import is the false choice the expression engenders - - that we must choose between a PC or a mobile device future. Why? Isn’t it more likely that “all of the above” is the correct answer? Mobile devices already exist that allow one to run “desktop” operating systems like Windows and Linux. Apple is showing the alternate path, that devices running a mobile OS can scale up; devices like the iPad Pro.

The Surface Pro 3 has been a success for Microsoft. Sure. It hasn’t taken the world by storm, but it has sold well. It has forced Microsoft’s PC hardware OEMs to think a little more out of the box. In my opinion, the Surface Pro 3 is a success because it does scratch an itch that people couldn’t reach before. It provides real Windows applications on a device that is very portable; and it is a device that really can be all the PC that many users need.

Apple is coming at the problem from the opposite direction. The iPad Pro is a mobile device with some of the functionality of a PC. It really could be all the PC that many users need, and it may deliver something that creatives have been lamenting since Microsoft nerfed the stylus in the Surface Pro 3 . . . a really good all-in-one device that is useful for sketching and drawing (and similar tasks that benefit from a responsive stylus). It is probably too soon to say how close Apple has come to hitting the mark. I doubt many pros will be ditching their Wacom Cintiq displays for an iPad Pro, but one never knows where this will end up. I even think that Microsoft (or one of their OEMs) will see the missed opportunity, and come back with a high performance stylus solution in a future Windows tablet.

In the past (maybe I’ll hunt down a link), I asked for what Apple appears to have delivered in the form of the iPad Pro - an iOS device that can create content and perform common business productivity tasks that have required PCs in the past. Thus, I’m probably going to be poorer when the iPad Pro ships. As I’m still using the 2012 iPad, I guess I am more or less due for an upgrade anyway.

If we are sometimes asked to choose too narrowly when it comes to general purpose computing devices, this is not my sentiment when it comes to living room computing. While I like the many choices we have when it comes to delivering content to our TVs, I do wish I didn’t feel the need to use as many devices as I do. Also, it seems to me that the living room is probably the ideal hub for a home automation system. Unlike the kitchen, the living room is quiet enough for voice control to be feasible, and the TV provides what should be a useful console for controlling the sort of devices that HomeKit is supposed to control. Hence my disappointment that the new AppleTV does not (yet?) have anything to do with Apple’s HomeKit.

Also MIA from Apple’s event was any information regarding streaming content to/from the new AppleTV and our Macs. Streaming via AirPlay is handy with mobile devices, but it has never really cut it for me with my Mac. And what is with the AppleTV’s wired ethernet? It is still mired at 10/100 Mbps speeds! I guess it is just as well that the AppleTV is not ready for 4K TVs as the ethernet built into the new AppleTV probably isn't robust enough to handle a 4K data stream very well anyway.

When it comes to gaming, Apple is still surprisingly clueless. Yes. iOS games are a success. However, doesn’t that success seem more of a happy coincidence that fosters iPhone sales? It does to me! In terms of gaming, the AppleTV that we saw last week might give Nintendo some worries; but Microsoft and Sony must have been relieved that Apple still doesn’t take gaming seriously.

Microsoft allows you to stream your games from your PC to your Xbox One (and vice versa). Valve (Steam) will be offering a PC-to-TV solution (Steam Link) this fall. A surprisingly large library of Steam games are multi-platform (Windows, OS X and Linux), and I am heavily invested in these PC games. Furthermore, many of these Steam games have been released with game controller support - all part of Steam’s Big Picture initiative. NVIDIA (Shield - Android TV) offers much the same using the Android ecosystem.

Does AppleTV support streaming games from your Mac to your AppleTV? Nope. Apple doesn’t have an app for that . . . or much of a clue. Period. At least Sony is giving Apple company when it comes to failing to provide gamers with the same sort of flexibility cord cutters have been after with Internet media streaming. End of rant . . . for now . . .

It should come as no surprise that I am not planning on getting the new AppleTV. If my old AppleTV dies, I will probably not bother replacing it. I am committed to trying Steam Link, and there are many ways to watch Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, etc. - ways that don’t require an Apple device at all! Worst case, I can always connect an old Mac to the TV when I want to watch stuff I purchase via iTunes; and that costs me nothing but a little floor space!

New iPhone? Yeah. 6S Plus ordered. The camera upgrades always gets me.  

And this is probably a good time to stop as I acknowledge the TL;DNR texts from some of you. As to the lack of new posts . . . yeah . . . working on that, but don’t hold your breath.

2012 Audio Upgrade Projects: the two year report card

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.

Do Overs

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.

Next Steps

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Ragnarok can power conventional speakers. No more messing around looking for a powered monitor that satisfies.
  3. 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.

The Quixotic Quest for Hi-Fi

Quixotic: " . . . foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals;" [from the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition]

"Don Quijote and Sancho Panza" by Gustave Doré - originally uploaded on nds.wikipedia by Bruker:G.Meiners at 14:22, 28. July 2005. Filename was Don Quijote and Sancho Panza.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

"Don Quijote and Sancho Panza" by Gustave Doré - originally uploaded on nds.wikipedia by Bruker:G.Meiners at 14:22, 28. July 2005. Filename was Don Quijote and Sancho Panza.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s and 1960s, hi-fi was short for high-fidelity, and represented an attempt to bring truer to life recorded audio to the consumer. It included innovations like reel-to-reel audio tape, the LP vinyl record, two channel home stereo equipment and eventually stereo FM radio. There was nothing quixotic about these innovations, as even the casual listener could hear the difference these new innovations brought to recorded music.

The allure of hi-fi eventually fell out of fashion as convenience began to trump audio quality, and the trend rippled in an out of control fashion beginning in the 1990s when PCs were first able to rip audio CDs. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .


There was nothing hi-fi about the Sony Walkman or about a car stereo. In both cases, drowning out the outside world was a virtue. In the opinion of some, this fight against noise has contributed to the popularity of thunderous bass in our automobiles, and a recording industry that believes that louder recordings are better (aka the Loudness War). There is far more to that story, and its origins pre-date the advent of digital music.

In any event, to achieve greater loudness, dynamic range compression (DRC) is used to reduce the difference between the volume of the softest and loudest passages in a recording; this uniformity allows the music to be presented at a higher overall volume level. This is a very simplistic explanation, but is necessary to provide some context for topics yet to come. In short, dynamic range compression has everything to do with the loudness of a recording; but not a great deal to do with size (or bit rate) of the digital audio file.

According to some old school audiophiles, digital audio is anathema to hi-fi; digital audio ruined all that was good about true hi-fi. In my opinion, this is very much like the film versus digital video debate in the movie theater industry. However, in the case of audio, analog is showing some signs of life. Vinyl LPs are rising from the grave in part because one can often hear the difference between the LP and the digital version of the same album. In my opinion, much of this has to do with loudness. If you peruse the Dynamic Range Database of albums, it quickly becomes apparent that the best version of an album is all too often only available on vinyl. However, it is also fair to observe that nostalgia is in play with the LP's resurgence in popularity.

There is a second argument to be made for vinyl; it can sound truer to life than a CD. This may be due to an LP's freedom from data loss in the recording process (assuming recording and post-production is entirely analog); and it may be due to something that is happening during playback of digital recordings on consumer equipment. The vinyl advantage may even be due our ability to perceive frequencies above those supported by the CD format.

Whatever the merits of the LP, it remains an expensive and inconvenient option for most consumers - even those with an audiophile bent. To get around the inconvenience, some audiophiles invest in the equipment and software to create their own high resolution "rips" of their LPs (technically this is an encoding process - which is the opposite of ripping - but you get the idea).

In any event, higher resolution formats, like DVD-Audio or SACD should close the gap (less data loss in the sampling process and higher frequencies are captured); and, with a good recording, they do in my opinion. However, for purposes of convenience alone, I don't see DVD-Audio or SACD as particularly significant . . . unless you want your music in surround sound (and be cautious with older material as there are few older albums with the necessary source material to make a honest and convincing surround mix).

High resolution digital downloads are a way to get higher quality without the inconvenience of optical media; they are available for purchase from places like HDtracks and a few other online stores. Common sample rates seen as digital downloads include 44.1 kHz (re-purposed CD recordings), 48 kHz (common with decades old digital recording gear), 88.2 kHz (common from the era when all digital recording and post-production hit its stride), 96 kHz (often re-purposed DVD-Audio and/or DVD video material), 176.4 kHz (relatively rare in the US - probably associated with HDCD production) and 192 kHz (typically re-purposed DVD-Audio and Blu-ray). These downloads are packaged in a variety of formats such as FLAC or Apple-lossless (ALAC) files; the files are stored in the digital music library application of your choice (e.g. iTunes); and, on playback, are unpackaged to their native PCM format, streamed to a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), and output to two analog standard line level channels. Again, I am getting ahead of myself.

There are some obvious problems with purchasing high resolution digital downloads. There are still relatively few albums available in a high resolution format relative to the total number of albums released each year. As if scarcity were not enough of a challenge, too often the high resolution releases are compromised by source material that is just too old and/or are otherwise sabotaged by questionable production decisions. The current practice is to charge you more as sample rates increase; but, of course, one rarely knows what the original recorded sample rate actually was, and one almost certainly has no idea what went on during post-production! There are even accusations that some high resolution downloads are just simple upsampled versions of a CD master; this sort of upsampling is something that any PC or Mac can do with free (or inexpensive) and readily available software. Yikes! What a rip-off!!

Right. As long as you keep an eye on where these high resolution recordings come from, you can have all the convenience of digital music with none of the LP fuss; and lose nothing in terms of sound quality, right? Sadly, there is no guarantee that this is so. Consumers are mostly flying blind in terms of recording quality for the reasons given in the preceding paragraph, and there is still another hurdle to overcome! Higher sample rate recordings are surprisingly taxing on the typical computer's sound system.

In my experience, the higher the sample rate, the greater the risk of gross playback errors. By gross playback errors I refer to things like the sound dropping out or stuttering or the introduction of unnatural artifacts (particularly at higher frequencies); and these problems reflect more than just a PC having difficulty smoothly pulling data off of a hard drive. To add insult to injury, I am not satisfied that most computers provide a low noise source (not an uncommon observation); and their digital-to-analog converter (DAC) rarely performs as well as the DAC in your audio video receiver. So. What to do?

To start with, there may be nothing to do if you don't hear anything wrong with your current setup. Also, if you stream audio over the Internet, I'm not sure there is much to improve on unless your PC's audio has really noticeable background noise. These observations are not a slam on Internet streaming music services. There is much made about how compressed their audio is (compressed as in file size or bit rate - not in terms of loudness!), but it may not be as bad as some would lead you to believe. Some streaming music services use high bit rate MP3/ACC, and that is pretty close to CD quality. Which is not so very bad at all. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between file size/bit rate and audio quality; don't be fooled by graphs that try to suggest otherwise (I'm looking at you, Pono!).

So. Do I think that lossy file compression doesn't matter? No. Not at all. Even though the production of high bit rate MP3 and ACC files results in data loss via the file encoding process, the techniques used are pretty good about throwing away the bits your are least likely to miss. Is lossless file encoding better? Sure. But for mobile devices (and streaming) file size does matter, and I can see trading off some audio quality for the ability to carry a larger collection of music on a mobile device or for the convenience of Internet streaming music.

Right. Back to the PC's audio woes. Problems with some gross playback errors are preventable with the right PC build and/or the right playback software. One approach is to use playback software that caches your music files in RAM. This can eliminate the sound dropping out or stuttering when playing music back from a hard disk. For Windows users you might try JRiver's MediaCenter v20.x or the free foobar 2000. On Mac you can try layering something on top of iTunes; I use Pure Music. There are other reasons to supplement or replace iTunes, but that is a story for another time.

Even with the right software, you may still have problems if your system lacks sufficient RAM to support all the applications and services you use. One approach is to only run what you must when playing music to see if this reduces or eliminates the problem(s), but this may not be a permanent fix. Also, your system's background services are mostly invisible to you - unless you know your way around a system monitor.

Another approach is to take an older PC, and create a dedicated music player out of it with something like Audiophile Linux. This custom version of linux offers something that can not be duplicated using either Windows or OS X, a downloadable operating system that is free and completely tailored for music playback with nothing to distract the PC from this one task. While it can be a little fussy to setup, it should not be too difficult for someone with basic computer tech skills. For the most part, it is a matter of following online instructions to the letter, and editing a couple of configuration files. However, the documentation assumes you are using an external USB DAC. How do you know if you need or want an external DAC - USB or otherwise?

To determine if your PC or Mac has an audio problem or if your system might benefit from an upgrade in the form of an external DAC, I suggest hooking your PC or Mac to your audio video receiver via the PC's analog outputs, and giving it a listen (or hook your PC up to the best stereo system you have access to).  If you hear more noise than you are accustomed to hearing from your stereo, congratulations! You hear what I hear! If not, don't sweat it, you just spared yourself from a lot of needless expense and/or work.

After checking out the analog outputs on your Mac or PC, the next step is to try your PC's digital interface(s). This may not be as simple as it sounds if your PC lacks S/PDIF out:  either digital coax (typically an orange RCA jack) or TOSLINK (optical). If you don't have an obvious S/PDIF out, check your system's documentation, and see if your system's headphone jack has an integrated Mini-TOSLINK interface built into it (as most Macs do!). Assuming your PC or Mac has a Mini-TOSLINK interface, you will either need an adapter or an inexpensive TOSLINK cable with Mini-TOSLINK on one end and regular on the other end.

If S/PDIF solves your PC/Mac sound problem when it is connected to your AVR, then you have some evidence that an external DAC may be the answer to your problems; it is the audio upgrade you never knew that you wanted. By the way, if you hear a hum coming out of your stereo when it is connected to your PC or Mac, you probably have a ground loop. Try switching to TOSLINK (if available); and, if that isn't an option, google "eliminate ground loop" for your next troubleshooting steps.

What do you do if you don't have any form of S/PDIF in your PC? There is always USB, but USB is a more risk prone audio interface. USB is rarely an input option on older AVRs, so you might need an external USB DAC to explore this option. I'm not familiar enough with low cost USB DACs to provide much specific advice for your first USB DAC. Do your research on this one before buying. All I can suggest is trying an inexpensive USB DAC from a company with a liberal return policy and good tech support - something like the Schiit Modi (and read the FAQ for the Modi as the FAQ addresses some things I am skipping over).

You would be right to question what all the fuss is about with DACs. The chips used to convert the digital data stream to an analog stereo signal are a commodity part - even in the most expensive DACs. It's all ones and zeroes, right? Wrong . . . and you didn't read that Modi FAQ did you?

The differentiators between competing DACs are the means the engineer uses to ensure that the digital data stream is in sync as the chip works its magic and the way the DAC brings the analog output up to a standard line level signal. Thus, the former issue is about minimizing timing errors or doing something reasonably transparent (something that won't annoy the listener) when an error does occur; and the latter is about amplification.

Amplification is a topic that seems simple, but is far more complex than most consumers realize; and what you don't know can hurt your pocket book if you make a bad decision. I have little good to say about the tendency for PC audio solutions to tightly couple DACs with proprietary digital speaker systems (angry looks in the direction of Creative's many generations of SoundBlaster integrated systems) or with integrated DAC/amps. Yes. Some personal pain here. The analog stage of a DAC most certainly matters; and, in my opinion, it is one of the biggest arguments in favor a dedicated external DAC.

All this discussion just to get to the point where you have a clean line level analog stereo signal for your power amplifier to work its magic so your speakers or headphones have a sufficiently clean and powerful signal to work their magic  . . . feel like you are tilting at windmills yet?


"Don Quixote 6" by Gustave Doré - Illustration 6 for Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote“ by Gustave Doré, 1863.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

"Don Quixote 6" by Gustave Doré - Illustration 6 for Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote“ by Gustave Doré, 1863.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 . . . interesting!

A couple weeks ago, Microsoft made a proposition: you don’t need to choose between a tablet computer and an ultrabook computer - you can get both with a Microsoft Surface Pro 3! Microsoft’s sales pitch for the Surface Pro 3 should have traction with at least some computer users. The Surface Pro 3 is an interesting alternative to a Windows ultrabook, and it just might be an alternative to a traditional tablet computer. However, in my opinion, Microsoft’s presentation did not remove my doubts regarding devices that try to be all things to all people.

Tablets are different from notebooks. They have different use cases, and they are certainly used in very different modes. Should (or must) the use cases and modes of use be different? No. But I don’t think the Surface Pro 3 does enough to be a “no regrets” alternative to the iPad (especially the mini) or to a MacBook Air.

My favorite features of the Surface Pro 3 are the refinements that Microsoft has made to the software that supports the stylus. However, there is a potential step backwards with the stylus; Microsoft dropped a Wacom solution in favor of another stylus and digitizing surface. This decision results in fewer fine gradations of pressure that the stylus can detect (down from 1024 to 256 levels of pressure), and this may be a real negative for those already expert with a stylus - especially artists. However, the system is still light years ahead of anything on offer from Apple; and the stylus and the integrated software support for the stylus is more than enough reason to make the Surface Pro 3 worth a look for many users - myself included.

My biggest problem with Microsoft’s sales pitch for the Surface Pro 3 is the emphasis on productivity. This may speak, at least in part, to why Microsoft is so fixated on comparing the Surface Pro 3 to the MacBook Air. However, it begs so many questions. For example, if I want or need to be productive, what would my optimal tool be? If mobility were not an issue, my tool of choice would be the biggest and baddest desktop I can get my hands on; and I would want that computer driving two 24” monitors!  Anything less than that is already a compromise. Thus, in terms of productivity, a MacBook Air is already several steps removed from my ideal productivity machine. Where does that leave the Surface Pro 3? Yep. Somewhere short of the MacBook Air.

Right. I’m a computer nerd. Some of you have heard me say, “they can never make a computer that is too fast” or “they can never give me too much screen”. However, I am not as unique as one might think. For example, there is still a noticeable performance gap between the business desktops and business notebook computers that the typical user is going to be issued; and, at least where I work, given the choice, a worker - even many mobile workers - will choose a desktop as their primary machine if given a say in the matter. After getting the desktop system, field staff will then ask for a notebook as well; but they tend to start with the desktop. Suggesting to me that the desktop is still surprisingly meaningful to many business users. The point being, workers don’t want to compromise. And the Surface Pro 3 is expressly about compromise; minimizing compromise to be sure, but compromise nonetheless.

Why am I so skeptical that a 12” tablet is a good enough tablet and a good enough ultrabook that it can replace both? Because even Apple, the reigning champion for limiting consumer options, offers two sizes of tablet and three different sizes of notebook screen (and a total of five different notebook offerings when size and weight are taken into account). Size and weight matter a lot with mobile devices, and one size most definitely does not fit all!

Microsoft’s presentation raises another fairly obvious question. Microsoft is making the MacBook Air the target of the Surface Pro 3; why not the iPad? If they really believed the Surface Pro 3 is a no compromise device, wouldn’t they have to attack both of Apple’s products? Why focus on just the MacBook Air?

The cynical answer to that question is that they have no answer to the iPad. They tried, and failed to get any meaningful traction with any of the earlier Surface and Surface Pro models. Thus, why call attention to a battle that they are not winning? Hmmm. Possibly . . . but I think I can offer something better.

The less cynical reason for why Microsoft is avoiding comparisons to iPad is, from their perspective, a temporary one. The lack of quality Modern UI applications for the Surface and the Surface Pro is a real problem. In fact, Microsoft recently bowed to market pressure, and released a tablet optimized version of Office for the iPad. There is no such version of Office for the Surface or Surface Pro. It is probably this point that makes comparisons to iPad premature for the Surface Pro 3. When the Windows tablet versions of Office ship, I’d bet that is when Microsoft will start drawing comparisons to iPad.

In my opinion, the ideal candidate for the Surface Pro 3 is someone that primarily cruises the web, streams movies or music, processes email, and runs the occasional work-related application. Someone that wants to simplify and economize on a single device; and someone that is OK with the trade-offs associated with a one-size-fits-all device.

Even if you don’t exactly fit my suggested profile, I think the Surface Pro 3 is worth looking at if enough of the following apply to you:

  • You must have a tablet that can run Windows 7/8 compatible applications.
  • You are not invested in OS X, iOS or Android applications.
  • You are looking to supplement your notebook or desktop system with a tablet running “real” Windows.
  • You are looking to standardize on just one mobile device in the tablet/notebook category, and you don’t care so much about size.
  • You don’t mind using a dock to use your favorite keyboard and mouse.
  • You are not a computer gamer (or the Surface Pro 3 would not be your only computer).
  • You have no interest in OS X or Linux applications.

There may be one more reason why Microsoft de-emphasized the comparison of the Surface Pro 3 with the iPad. The market for premium tablets (say those costing more than $500) is limited. Apple’s sales of tablets have been flat this year (perhaps due to a stagnating product line); and, even when one looks at less expensive Android tablets, they don’t seem to be selling as well as phones.

Perhaps the right mix of computers for most consumers is a really good phone and a notebook computer? If there is any truth to this, then Microsoft has miscalculated with the Surface Pro 3. Worst still, Microsoft may have made a terrible bet with Windows 8; and we can expect more 8.1 style backtracking with future versions of Windows - and more concessions to traditional forms of computing. This would certainly make sense to Microsoft’s enterprise customers, but maybe not so much so for consumers.

My point? Business computing and consumer computing are not the same. The larger the business, the greater the gap between these two types of computing; and, at least from where I’m sitting, the rift is growing.

I love that Microsoft is not giving up with the Surface Pro, but I wish they would make models that are more enterprise friendly. The Surface Pro 3 should do well with forward thinking small and medium size businesses, but I’m fairly certain its consumer appeal is going to be limited. The emphasis on productivity will likely turn off many consumers.

If you are interested in the Surface Pro 3, I encourage you to take the time to watch the video of the announcement.