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Audiophiles, audio files, and A/B testing

Pumbaa

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I’m about to receive a Schiit Modi 3+, marketed as “All The DAC You Need—For $99”. It has decent reviews and I’m confident it will be good enough a DAC for me, I’m only slightly picky and nowhere near being an audiophile with golden ears. Still, whether or not I can hear any difference between my new DAC and my Mac M1ni’s internal one is an interesting question. I’m curious.

My computer setup allows me to easily hook up two different analog sources to my speakers, making it trivial to do some blind A/B testing. Basically - given my setup (not gonna buy new speakers or stuff anytime soon, stuck with their limits), which DAC sounds best? Simple enough question.

I know what I typically use the computer for and can use appropriate sound samples for that, no problem. But what would you use?

Is there a standard set of audio files out there? Are there particular songs known to provide DACs with challenges? Any suggestions? Or have you perhaps done something similar and have fun results or experiences to share? I’m all ears!
 

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I’m about to receive a Schiit Modi 3+, marketed as “All The DAC You Need—For $99”. It has decent reviews and I’m confident it will be good enough a DAC for me, I’m only slightly picky and nowhere near being an audiophile with golden ears. Still, whether or not I can hear any difference between my new DAC and my Mac M1ni’s internal one is an interesting question. I’m curious.

My computer setup allows me to easily hook up two different analog sources to my speakers, making it trivial to do some blind A/B testing. Basically - given my setup (not gonna buy new speakers or stuff anytime soon, stuck with their limits), which DAC sounds best? Simple enough question.

I know what I typically use the computer for and can use appropriate sound samples for that, no problem. But what would you use?

Is there a standard set of audio files out there? Are there particular songs known to provide DACs with challenges? Any suggestions? Or have you perhaps done something similar and have fun results or experiences to share? I’m all ears!
IMHO these days the DAC is the least important part of a system. Modi 3+ seems to have an AKM AK4490EQ DAC which is decent with a 120 dB signal-to-noise ratio (and 112 dB dynamic range?). So it's sorta 18-19 bit in DNR (higher than any relevant source).

For DACs like this it's actually the clock source that determines the level of noise you get (i.e. how even the spacing between audio sample reproduction), USB IN is probably superior to optical in these regards. Oftentimes, running it off a battery pack can reduce noise picked up through AC IN. However, I bet you couldn't hear the difference between any of these tweaks.

If you wanna test it with lossless audio, you can try Apple Music's Lossless playback. The 3 things that give away lossless as the accuracy of bass (no smearing), the dynamics of bass (punchiness) and the clarity of sibilant highs (it's just less irritating). Bear in mind that none of these are necessarily more musical or fun to listen. For example I have a cheap-o tube amp I like to use these days that fixes sibilant highs, adds some butter to bass (pleasant harmonics) but at the expense of dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio.

That said, if you want to test your system, these are good standards:
One flight up from Dexter Gordon (stereo separation and spatial reproduction)
Lateralus from Tool (this is like my gold standard for how metal should sound)
When I leave from Biosphere (ultimate bass test)
 

B S Magnet

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If you wanna test it with lossless audio, you can try Apple Music's Lossless playback. The 3 things that give away lossless as the accuracy of bass (no smearing), the dynamics of bass (punchiness) and the clarity of sibilant highs (it's just less irritating). Bear in mind that none of these are necessarily more musical or fun to listen. For example I have a cheap-o tube amp I like to use these days that fixes sibilant highs, adds some butter to bass (pleasant harmonics) but at the expense of dynamic range and signal-to-noise ratio.

For testing, it’s good to have a high-quality source of a particular work you’re very familiar with already to use as your reference. These days, having a 24-bit (or higher) and 96kHz (or higher) version of that source, if not a high-quality pressing of it on vinyl, are two of the reference media formats I’ll use for testing.

And what @P_X said about bass dynamics and clarity of sibilant highs is correct. In addition, on a high quality source, you may also be able to hear other, more mid-range acoustics buried deep back in the mix which otherwise get lost entirely with lossy compression algorithms, broadcast (dynamic range) compression, and the like.
 

P_X

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For testing, it’s good to have a high-quality source of a particular work you’re very familiar with already to use as your reference. These days, having a 24-bit (or higher) and 96kHz (or higher) version of that source, if not a high-quality pressing of it on vinyl, are two of the reference media formats I’ll use for testing.

And what @P_X said about bass dynamics and clarity of sibilant highs is correct. In addition, on a high quality source, you may also be able to hear other, more mid-range acoustics buried deep back in the mix which otherwise get lost entirely with lossy compression algorithms, broadcast (dynamic range) compression, and the like.
This reminds me of Making of Cyborg by Kenji Kawai from the OST of Ghost In The Shell (the 1995 anime not the live action one with ScarJo...). It's been my default test for sound systems for the past 15 years. It really covers all. The percussion goes deep with superb dynamics, yet the mix is spacious, there's some shaker going that will immediately reveal compression artifacts and you should be able to make out at least 5 vocalists with a few feet of separation from each other (the better the system the more distinct voices you'll hear).
 
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Thanks @P_X and @B S Magnet, just the kind of posts I was hoping for.

I’m going down the USB DAC route primarily to make it easy to switch my desk I/O setup between different computers. Don’t really expect to hear any difference but it will be fun to actually test it. And having fun is half the battle!
 

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I own a Modi 3+ as well as several other DACs. I would have to echo the above in that the DAC is probably the least important factor in a quality audio set up, to a point. You will need a decent amp and headphones (or speakers) to really hear what a quality DAC and higher resolution audio have to offer (and you will need a good quality recording/mastering for any of the rest to matter. A bad mastering is a bad mastering, regardless of whatever equipment you have. "Garbage in, garbage out", as they say).

My audiophilia revolves mostly around classical music, where recording quality varies enormously, dynamics range from almost silent to bombastic finales, and better equipment brings out the subtlest details. I use Qobuz to play hi-res classical recordings (though I'm also testing out Apple Music with lossless, which has much of the same catalog). I use closed-back headphones (which allow for more isolation and allow you to hear more detail) and an iFi Zen DAC/amp or a Schiit Magni 3/Modi 3 setup. I've also been playing around with other audio apps like Audirvana or MusicBee (on Windows).

Audiophilia is quite the rabbit hole to go down (I don't even want to think about how much money I've spent on it over the years), so good luck!
 
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Audiophilia is quite the rabbit hole to go down (I don't even want to think about how much money I've spent on it over the years), so good luck!
Thanks!

So far I’ve been perfectly happy with just skirting the edges of that rabbit hole. Looking down makes me dizzy. 😂

I keep telling myself that I’m just curious and fully content with simply learning more and playing around with the hardware I already settled for.
 

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I’m experiencing the other side of this right now. Thankfully I don’t have to do the sound engineering - just make the noise.
 

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I own a Modi 3+ as well as several other DACs. I would have to echo the above in that the DAC is probably the least important factor in a quality audio set up, to a point. You will need a decent amp and headphones (or speakers) to really hear what a quality DAC and higher resolution audio have to offer (and you will need a good quality recording/mastering for any of the rest to matter. A bad mastering is a bad mastering, regardless of whatever equipment you have. "Garbage in, garbage out", as they say).

My audiophilia revolves mostly around classical music, where recording quality varies enormously, dynamics range from almost silent to bombastic finales, and better equipment brings out the subtlest details. I use Qobuz to play hi-res classical recordings (though I'm also testing out Apple Music with lossless, which has much of the same catalog). I use closed-back headphones (which allow for more isolation and allow you to hear more detail) and an iFi Zen DAC/amp or a Schiit Magni 3/Modi 3 setup. I've also been playing around with other audio apps like Audirvana or MusicBee (on Windows).

Audiophilia is quite the rabbit hole to go down (I don't even want to think about how much money I've spent on it over the years), so good luck!
For about a decade I'd been messing around with dev/evaluation kits of high-end DACs and ADCs looking for digital perfection. (I still have a PCM4222 ADC board laying around at home if somebody's interested...It's DNR is 124 dB.) I got a DSI Tetr4 analog polysynth about 7 years ago and made some elecetro track with a harsh synth lead provided by the Tetr4. I've always had a difficult time getting leads cut through the mix, but not with this. It was phenomenal and I tried to recreate that sound for months. Then I realized that even though my digital path was pretty high-end, the trick was the $30 tube amp that I recorded through (mostly by accident). That was the moment I stopped caring about fidelity of reproduction and gave in for fun listening.

-------

It's interesting that you prefer closed headphones. I've been rocking those (Sennheiser 212, Momentum 1, Momentum 2, AKG K550, Beyerdynamic DT770Pro 80 Ohm) out of necessity of isolation from the environment. Now that I have my office and my kids aren't napping continuously I can't wait to get back to a Sennheiser HD600 with a decent amp. The best headphone sound I've ever gotten was the HD600 with an Apogee Duet (gen 1) cranked up. DT770Pro is phenomenal, but it starts compressing the highs at levels where the bass starts getting really fun.
 
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^My preference for closed-back is mostly due to environment as well (it's not quiet most of the time). Open-back have a the advantage of the wider, more speaker-like soundstage, but I find that with vinyl I hear much more detail with closed-back (which can sometimes drive me nuts because I more easily hear every little imperfection). 😖
 

P_X

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^My preference for closed-back is mostly due to environment as well (it's not quiet most of the time). Open-back have a the advantage of the wider, more speaker-like soundstage, but I find that with vinyl I hear much more detail with closed-back (which can sometimes drive me nuts because I more easily hear every little imperfection). 😖
Right before the pandemic I started collecting vinyls and bought a bunch of old (not so neatly maintained) classical music / opera records and bought a bunch of nice funk vinyls from the 60s. I honestly didn't really get caught up with the quality people rave about with vinyl (though my pathway is sorta low-end). However, it's phenomenal to counter my itch to change tracks and I do enjoy listening to opera while cooking or at lunch.
 

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Right before the pandemic I started collecting vinyls and bought a bunch of old (not so neatly maintained) classical music / opera records and bought a bunch of nice funk vinyls from the 60s. I honestly didn't really get caught up with the quality people rave about with vinyl (though my pathway is sorta low-end). However, it's phenomenal to counter my itch to change tracks and I do enjoy listening to opera while cooking or at lunch.

I don’t have the best equipment, or even new equipment (a lot of hand-me-downs and used stuff dating back to the 1970s). This will probably always be the case for me, because I’ll never be flush with cash.

What matters for me is the content I listen to rather than the gear itself, because I will never be able to afford the “audiophile-grade” gear whose components go for four, five, and even six figures. What I do have is outstanding for earlier decades, and that’s good enough.

What I do know, such as when I’m live-DJing, is how to deliver high quality sound, even with more limited equipment, and sticking to tried and true methods I learnt in sound engineering instruction ages ago to assure high audio fidelity happens (like, for instance, recording with RMS input levels of .707, or 70.7 per cent out of 100%, to give ample head room, especially when recording to a digital format).

Of course, I’m extremely picky about which mastering of, say, Aja by Steely Dan I will listen to (there are two, and y’all’ll have to ask me about those). I have some curious reference audio sources (like a Japanese-pressed, Quiex-style vinyl 12-inch for “Doctor! Doctor! (extended version)” and “Hold Me Now (extended version)” by Thompson Twins, or a West German 12-inch EP for Talk Talk which features their 1986 album track, “I Don’t Believe in You”, or having the semi-recent audiophile vinyl remastering of the album from which that track was sourced, called The Colour of Spring).

In short, I’m less of a snob about gear and more about the content of music itself. 😤
 

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I have the Modi 3+ and Topping E30. Those go through a Schiit Saga+ > Schiit Loki Mini+, Hafler amp > Boston Acoustics VR-M90. No noticable difference between the E30 and Modi 3+ as far as sound. I like the display on the E30, and use it for high res lossless, and also use it in another setup from time to time where I put the E30 into "preamp" mode.
 

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I have the Modi 3+ and Topping E30. Those go through a Schiit Saga+ > Schiit Loki Mini+, Hafler amp > Boston Acoustics VR-M90. No noticable difference between the E30 and Modi 3+ as far as sound. I like the display on the E30, and use it for high res lossless, and also use it in another setup from time to time where I put the E30 into "preamp" mode.
Yup, this is what I'm talking about: the E30 has a better DAC chip (AK4493) vs. the 3+'s AK490EQ), but IMHO the differences usually aren't audible unless you use a headphone.

BTW, for headphones, the most convenient system is an apogee Groove. You can connect it to an iPhone, iPad, laptop so you aren't anchored to a single listening spot.
 
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BTW, for headphones, the most convenient system is an apogee Groove. You can connect it to an iPhone, iPad, laptop so you aren't anchored to a single listening spot.
Interesting. Haven’t been looking into headphones for a while. I remember figuring out that I was aiming for open-back headphones but got stuck on what particular combo of headphones and amp to get. The talk everywhere was how the device so and so colored the sound so and so, and I was like “But I want it to sound like they envisioned when they mastered it, that doesn‘t help me“… 😂

Sure, the end recommendations were all to grab high quality music you’re familiar with and go listen to the setup. I knew I read up on it to get a better understanding of what I wanted to get and to limit the number of options to try but it still annoyed me to no end that there was so little absolute truth and so much subjective feelings. Years later, I’m still stuck on the “grab high quality music I’m familiar with” and haven’t visited my (sort of) local seemingly knowledgeable hi-fi store to get more help, try stuff out and hopefully purchase something. Any decade now…

That said, I’m obviously in no rush. I’m happy with my desk setup, good enough for computer work, video editing and stuff, as well as for casual background music I’m not really listening to. I’m also happy with the TV setup, good enough for movies, TV-series and games. For sure saving plenty of money by being happy with those setups.

What I‘m possibly not entirely happy with is the dedicated music listening setup. Or rather lack thereof. Having music in the background while I’m doing something else is one thing, really listening to music for the sake of listening to music something completely different, even for me. I could totally see myself throwing money at a pair of headphones and a headphone amp in the future.
 

P_X

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Interesting. Haven’t been looking into headphones for a while. I remember figuring out that I was aiming for open-back headphones but got stuck on what particular combo of headphones and amp to get. The talk everywhere was how the device so and so colored the sound so and so, and I was like “But I want it to sound like they envisioned when they mastered it, that doesn‘t help me“… 😂

Sure, the end recommendations were all to grab high quality music you’re familiar with and go listen to the setup. I knew I read up on it to get a better understanding of what I wanted to get and to limit the number of options to try but it still annoyed me to no end that there was so little absolute truth and so much subjective feelings. Years later, I’m still stuck on the “grab high quality music I’m familiar with” and haven’t visited my (sort of) local seemingly knowledgeable hi-fi store to get more help, try stuff out and hopefully purchase something. Any decade now…

That said, I’m obviously in no rush. I’m happy with my desk setup, good enough for computer work, video editing and stuff, as well as for casual background music I’m not really listening to. I’m also happy with the TV setup, good enough for movies, TV-series and games. For sure saving plenty of money by being happy with those setups.

What I‘m possibly not entirely happy with is the dedicated music listening setup. Or rather lack thereof. Having music in the background while I’m doing something else is one thing, really listening to music for the sake of listening to music something completely different, even for me. I could totally see myself throwing money at a pair of headphones and a headphone amp in the future.
My approach is to use a system with the fewest components, so subcomponents are optimized to work together.
This is why I like active speakers because they integrate the amplifier so I don't have to obsess on optimizing the amp.
I use a higher-end soundcard (UAudio Apollo Twin) that has an optical in, so it can upsample sources from 44.1KHz to 192Khz and it has a volume knob to control the vol on the speakers. It also has a better quality headphone amp.
 

P_X

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Interesting. Haven’t been looking into headphones for a while. I remember figuring out that I was aiming for open-back headphones but got stuck on what particular combo of headphones and amp to get. The talk everywhere was how the device so and so colored the sound so and so, and I was like “But I want it to sound like they envisioned when they mastered it, that doesn‘t help me“… 😂

Sure, the end recommendations were all to grab high quality music you’re familiar with and go listen to the setup. I knew I read up on it to get a better understanding of what I wanted to get and to limit the number of options to try but it still annoyed me to no end that there was so little absolute truth and so much subjective feelings. Years later, I’m still stuck on the “grab high quality music I’m familiar with” and haven’t visited my (sort of) local seemingly knowledgeable hi-fi store to get more help, try stuff out and hopefully purchase something. Any decade now…

That said, I’m obviously in no rush. I’m happy with my desk setup, good enough for computer work, video editing and stuff, as well as for casual background music I’m not really listening to. I’m also happy with the TV setup, good enough for movies, TV-series and games. For sure saving plenty of money by being happy with those setups.

What I‘m possibly not entirely happy with is the dedicated music listening setup. Or rather lack thereof. Having music in the background while I’m doing something else is one thing, really listening to music for the sake of listening to music something completely different, even for me. I could totally see myself throwing money at a pair of headphones and a headphone amp in the future.
I'll add that for headphones Sennheiser's HD600 has been so successful, it has become the standard for the past 15 years. I've owned one and you can't go wrong with it...The only issue is that it's open ended, so it's like using a small speaker...not compatible with people around you, and this is why I sold mine.

That said a LifeProTip on the budget. Sennheiser sells (at least used to sell) ALL replacement components to its higher end headphones, so you can even buy one used and replace any component needed. That's how I operated as a student. Bought one, washed the cushions, replaced the cable...You could even upgrade it to a HD650 which is essentially the same but has more stringent response curve standards.
 

ouimetnick

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Yup, this is what I'm talking about: the E30 has a better DAC chip (AK4493) vs. the 3+'s AK490EQ), but IMHO the differences usually aren't audible unless you use a headphone.

BTW, for headphones, the most convenient system is an apogee Groove. You can connect it to an iPhone, iPad, laptop so you aren't anchored to a single listening spot.

The actual DAC chip isn't a big deal, it's the implementation of said DAC chip that matters. I'm not super knowledgeable/nerdy on the tech details, but I've seen (read about) more expensive DACs with audio grade capacitors, and expensive high end DAC chips measure worse that lower cost units, and supposedly sounding "worse" Check out ASR (Audio Science Review) I cannot hear any difference between them except that the Cirrus Logic SPDIF receiver in the E30 isn't as good as the AKM receiver inside the Modi 3+. The early production Topping E30 used an AKM receiver, but after the factory fire last year, parts dried up. :(

Even with headphones, if you did hear a difference, is it really due to the DAC or is it due to the surrounding circuitry?
 

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The actual DAC chip isn't a big deal, it's the implementation of said DAC chip that matters. I'm not super knowledgeable/nerdy on the tech details, but I've seen (read about) more expensive DACs with audio grade capacitors, and expensive high end DAC chips measure worse that lower cost units, and supposedly sounding "worse" Check out ASR (Audio Science Review) I cannot hear any difference between them except that the Cirrus Logic SPDIF receiver in the E30 isn't as good as the AKM receiver inside the Modi 3+. The early production Topping E30 used an AKM receiver, but after the factory fire last year, parts dried up. :(

Even with headphones, if you did hear a difference, is it really due to the DAC or is it due to the surrounding circuitry?
It's mainly the constellation of a low-noise power supply, good DAC, quality clock source, and eventually opamps getting signal out of the DAC.

Groove's nice because it has no power source and battery operated portables are not noisy.
 

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Yeah, an outboard DAC probably isn't needed, or is probably the last thing after good headphones/speakers and an amp to drive them, but Schiit stuff is such stellar bang-for-the-buck, it's hard to not to cover that part of the system.

I use a Modi 3 via USB (the implementation in the Modi 3 is outstanding) to an iPad via a USB-C hub, it supplies power concurrently with having 2 USB-A ports and an HDMI port. I read the USB-C_to_3.5mm audio adapters were pretty mediocre, so figured, why not. That outputs through a switch to a Vali 2 tube amp, with a riser and a EC88 tube. I can divert my Mac through the same amp, though currently bypassing the DAC (I used to use TOS before that was removed from the 3.5mm audio port on Macs ...) The switch also has an input from a TEAC P650 CD player, again bypassing the DAC, however, in this case, the CD player has a pretty spectacular one onboard.

I've got a few sets of headphones, mostly I swap between either my Sennheiser HD6XX (Drop.com flavored HD650) for open cans, and if I want some isolation, I use Beyerdynamic Custom Studio 80, though I've been using a lot less headphones lately, mostly I use a set of Edifier near field, powered, desktop speakers (they're behind the amp as well, since it's the preamp stage that's tubed, it gets a little tubified :D).
 
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