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Filterlab
04-02-2008, 21:24
Well, after being dazzled, amazed and kerbaffled by just how good Robson Acoustics' demo system was at the Northern '08 show, I decided to ditch my CD player in favour of a computer based audio source. The day after I attended the show I decided to 'test' the audio skills of my Mac. After deleting all my tracks from iTunes (which I'd compressed to 320Kbps to transfer to my iPod) I imported my favourite albums (well, 50 or so of them) in AIFF format to see how they'd sound through my system.

First physical thing I did was to take the audio from the standard analogue output (a standard 3.5mm stereo affair) and run it into my passive pre-amp to see how it sounded. Mmmm, poor. So next step was to avoid the pre-amp altogether as frankly there's more than enough volume control on a Mac. In fact using iTunes there is the main computer audio out volume control, then there is the iTunes master volume control and then there is a secondary pre-amp control control which resides by default at 0dB and then offers a stepless gain or cut by +/-12dB.

So hardly worth using the passive at all - in fact it simply got in the way. So, direct to the power amp from the Mac's standard output? Pretty impressive actually! In fact a darn sight better than a Musical Fidelity CD player and an Intact Audio Autoformer based passive. Now that surprised me in a way, especially given the reputation of both companies for turning out some good kit. What got me narked thought was the fact that a 1k CD player which can only play CDs and do nothing else and a good 500 notes worth of passive which can only reduce volume and do nothing else could be outclassed by an 850 computer (which frankly can do far far more, and play music and control volume as an aside) and some rubbish little 3.5mm to phonos lead from Maplin.

I was almost satisfied just to leave it there to be honest, until that was I started listening carefully (rather than just dancing around the lounge). The initial excitement of the new and sparkly sound wore off to reveal pretty well the same noise as the MF / passive combo albeit with less depth of soundstage. Now the DAC I had in mind was the one I'd heard at the show; the Benchmark DAC-1 USB. A mighty impressive piece of kit! However after doing some extensive research I discovered that a more superior DAC in the same mould was being bought by audiophiles based in the US, a DAC made by one of the most respected studio equipment companies in the world.

The Apogee Mini DAC.

http://www.apogeedigital.com/images/minidac_3qtr_sm.jpg

Now this DAC is basically a 24 bit studio mastering DAC that is musical as well as ruthlessly revealing. Inputs wise it has the normal variety; S/PDIF, Toslink, AES and an optional USB or Firewire. It automatically upsamples according to the input sample rate (from 44.1Khz or 88.2 Khz to 176.4Khz and 48Khz or 96Khz to 192Khz) and it has two separate clocks, one which corrects input jitter and then the second which reclocks once the data has passed from the input. I don't pretend to understand how it works, but it works - very well. It's a bit of an odd looker, certainly I've never owned any component with pink graphics on the (small) faceplate, but it looks quite cute and very busy despite being a relatively simple unit.

Anyway, I went up to London on Sunday with the intention of purchasing one of these DACs as long as I could find one. I'd read one review in particular written by a Dutch audiophile who'd spent hundreds of hours comparing the Apogee Mini DAC and the Benchmark DAC-1 side by side using all manners of hi-fi components and come to the conclusion that whilst both are revealing components, the Apogee was the more musical and consequently ideal for audiophiles. This had really given me the impetus to buy one. Now I don't usually buy from reviews, but this guy had spent so much time with these DACs and was so passionate that I'd have been foolish to ignore the review.

So, Sunday lunchtime and I'm wandering up Tottenham Court Road. As the Apogee is a studio item I went to all my regular haunts - the music shops, all full to the brim of awesome professional studio gear, most of it far too expensive for the likes of me (that and I'm not really interested in writing and recording music anymore) but nonetheless impressive. I chatted to me old mucker in Rose Morris and he said that the Apogee Mini DAC is in demand, order only and rare as rocking horse poo. Mmm, cheers dude! However, I decided to pop over to Turnkey and just ask. "Apogee Mini DAC?" I asked. Young befuddled looked at me through his wisened specs and uttered "Mmmm, order only - rare, awesome but rare. Ooh, hang on - we've got one in stock believe it or not!".

So, out came the rather uneventful looking white box. Studio gear tends to be in uneventful boxes. I asked him if it was the USB model, he didn't know but said he wasn't aware of a USB version (which there is). "This has got Firewire though" he said. Cool I thought, faster and more stable than USB. "Ring it up!" I said.

So after grabbing a few extra bits and bobs (XLR to RCA adaptors and a long Firewire cable) I jumped on the tube and headed home.

_______________________________________________


So, setting up? Well the guy in the shop failed to inform me that the drivers were only suitable for Tiger (OS X 10.4) and not Leopard (OS X 10.5). I wish he'd told me, it fecked my computer! I had to restart via the install disk and repair permissions to sort out the muddle. Only then did I read that the drivers are not yet available for Leopard.

However, not one to be beaten by the limitations of technology I look through my bag of wonderous cables and found a really nice Toslink cable!

Here it is in its temporary location, it will go in the rack once I have the necessary drivers, but at the mo the Toslink cable is not long enough to reach round the back of the system:

http://s560.photobucket.com/albums/ss49/aos_images/random_stuff/Apogee3-4.jpg

http://s560.photobucket.com/albums/ss49/aos_images/random_stuff/Apogeefloor.jpg

http://s560.photobucket.com/albums/ss49/aos_images/random_stuff/Apogeerear.jpg

And of course, the music source :D :

http://s560.photobucket.com/albums/ss49/aos_images/random_stuff/Apogeesource.jpg

Yeah I know I look like a tart with my two screens, but if the truth be known I bought the second display when we started this site. Marco is such a slave driver that one screen couldn't keep up with the amount of design work he gave me to do! LOL :D

_______________________________________________


So how does it sound?

Well, superlatives at the ready and all of them good. Neutral, revealing, detailed, musical, smooth, (exceptionally) open, balanced and smile inducing.

I can't really describe anymore than that as it has no real character, it's just music with nothing extra. The background is eerily dark and black, there's no hint whatsoever that there's any kind of machine behind the sound which of course there isn't, there's no moving parts. The sound is crisp and clean but there's no harshness or brightness whatsoever, I'm hearing so much more detail as well, it seems nothing is masked whatsoever and what really went on the recording is what's coming through.

In essence this destroys any CD player I've heard in the past as it doesn't sound like a CD player, it's almost turntable-esque in a way, but not like a turntable. :confused:

I'm sure my final upgrade (the power amp) will reveal far more than I can currently hear, but it'll have to wait as I haven't got a spare 2k right at the mo. Still, this is the best I've ever heard my system and it's combined with the downright flexibility of a computer.

Move to lossless audio complete.

:)

Filterlab
04-02-2008, 21:27
Oh, I must add that when the DAC is not detecting a signal, it does the funkiest led strobing light show! Cool! :D

pure sound
04-02-2008, 22:46
How much was it Rob?

I'd be quite interested in one of their ADC's.

Vinyl Grinder
04-02-2008, 22:57
I think there about 500.00 quid Guy....Only thing is the poor quality power supply, i'm guessing they're wall warts!

Filterlab
04-02-2008, 22:57
Price varies heavily, RRP is 999, I managed to hook my Firewire version for 700. GAK (http://www.guitarampkeyboard.com/) do the USB version for 675 and the non USB for 563 or something like that. :)

Filterlab
04-02-2008, 22:59
...I'm guessing they're wall warts!

Actually, it's not a wall wart. It's an in line with an IEC connection although it could do with being a bit beefier. However the power supply has particular attention paid to it according to Apogee. :)

Vinyl Grinder
04-02-2008, 23:06
Sure there only $1000.00 in the USA..

New power source will improve matters..

http://www.russandrews.com/find.asp?lookup=1&region=UK&currency=GBP&customer_id=PAA0479028308124UEDFLCEEVGQWHMNS

Filterlab
04-02-2008, 23:12
Sure there only $1000.00 in the USA..

They are, but the price over here is higher. By the time one adds the tax it's worth just getting one over here.




New power source will improve matters..

http://www.russandrews.com/find.asp?lookup=1&region=UK&currency=GBP&customer_id=PAA0479028308124UEDFLCEEVGQWHMNS

Cool, I'll have a look at that. :)

Vinyl Grinder
05-02-2008, 01:00
That link's not taking you where i intended ..Russ does power supplies to replace your common garden wall wart supplies.They were originally intended to replace the Naim 'SNAPS' & 'HI-CAP' Supplies (Vast improvement)..Now he's supplying the simular with lower voltage for squeezebox etc...

Steve Toy
05-02-2008, 02:12
Rob,

You're scaring me a bit because it all seems very complicated to set up. I'm used to spending money on a disc spinner that I can take home, plug in and enjoy the benefits of, perhaps waiting a little for warm-up and burn-in.

I guess the outlay on the hardware, software, DACS as rare as rocking horse shit is probably much cheaper than the kind of CD player needed to see off my Linn, so I would like to give it a whirl, especially as it may involve a computer upgrade too.

Today I've learnt that my Spectral preamp is crying out for a better source of some description. Into a particular valve amp that Marco has on loan, it is truly awesome with that and his heavily modded vintage Sony CD combo that actually cost him a tidy fortune, all told, although I do believe it was money well spent for a disc spinner.

Vinyl Grinder
05-02-2008, 02:45
Steve
Being into apple is kinda like being into Naim or Linn, you are trapped withi the company idiology.It just so happens that Apple have good play back facilities.That aside..

You don't have to use your PC /laptop soundcard etc.Everything's best done outboard, outboard hardrive to keep your music on (Safe)..Outboard dac not the one in the PC/Laptop...It all becomes apparent that your only using your machine to run the filing & playback facilities with no real need to upgrade unless your machines a dinosaurus...I for one have been mighty impress with FLAC playback..I'm determined to give this a try, the Apogee DAC is most definatly a good un but god it looks so much like a studio play thing...

Filterlab
05-02-2008, 08:56
Being into apple is kinda like being into Naim or Linn, you are trapped withi the company idiology.It just so happens that Apple have good play back facilities.That aside..

A lot of folk who don't use Apple on a daily basis often follow this misconception. An Apple computer is compatible with everything, more in fact than an MS based computer, and Apple's are a lot easier to use and more stable and reliable. It's not akin to Naim/Linn or anything like that, it's just a better alternative to MS.

Steve;

Ok, I had problems in that the drivers weren't available (yet), so all I did was run the optical cable between the DAC and the computer - done. The same way in which you'd run a cable from a CD player to a DAC - nothing more. :)

Marco
05-02-2008, 09:16
Great photos and write-up, Rob.

This is something I want to get into in the very near future, so it's interesting reading the various different methods of obtaining music from a computer. I like the idea of your set-up, and indeed what Ashley was describing before (he's gone strangely quiet now...)

I would like to be able to play music DVDs and movies too, so I think I'd go for a media player (something like a Helios) to facilitate that, and also use it for streaming music through my laptop. What I'm looking at now is to incorporate a cinema system into my hi-fi set-up, with a screen and a projector. I think it would be quite something in my room :)

Steve,

With the sound we were getting yesterday with that valve amp, can you imagine being able to watch the band playing in front of you at the same time? :eek:

All I'll need is a popcorn machine and fridge to stock cold beers! :p

Marco.

P.S Have you recovered from the shockwaves being sent through your gut after playing that Tiesto track? :D

Vinyl Grinder
05-02-2008, 23:10
With the sound we were getting yesterday with that valve amp


Spill the beanz then Marco..Kept me in suspence for a day now;)

Marco
06-02-2008, 00:27
Andr'e, I'll be writing a review of it soon enough. Sorry mate I can't name it yet. I have my reasons ;)

Marco.

sastusbulbas
06-02-2008, 02:54
.

Phil Bishop
25-05-2008, 22:36
Rob,

This is a great post - you do an excellent job of explaining things! You mention in your post "no moving parts". So does this mean the music files are not on a spinning hard disc? Very intrigued with this whole area.

Phil

Filterlab
26-05-2008, 13:07
Rob,

This is a great post - you do an excellent job of explaining things! You mention in your post "no moving parts". So does this mean the music files are not on a spinning hard disc? Very intrigued with this whole area.

Phil

Yes, but the music doesn't stream from the hard drive as such. It's actually buffered into the RAM before reaching the output stage albeit only slightly. Essentially there's no moving parts but without being stored on a solid state drive it will never be completely without moving parts somewhere down the line. Realistically the movement of a hard drive is almost negligible but I suppose it could be factored - and presumably some drives are better then others.

Ali Tait
26-05-2008, 13:44
Solid-state hard-drives are getting cheaper,so a good replay system with no moving parts is easily achievable now.Seems to me a good way of removing one variable in the replay chain.

Filterlab
27-05-2008, 10:31
Solid-state hard-drives are getting cheaper,so a good replay system with no moving parts is easily achievable now.Seems to me a good way of removing one variable in the replay chain.

Once the capacity gets high enough (and cheap enough) on the solid state drives, I'll use one for all the playback and simply back-up to the platter based hard drives I currently use.

Ali Tait
27-05-2008, 12:33
Yes,I was having similar thoughts.Anyone noticed different sound from different hard-drives?

Filterlab
27-05-2008, 13:24
No to be honest. I could detect no discernible difference between my built in Apple hard drive and my Seagate 320gb external. Biggest change was the import / output sample rates. I think a solid state will be different though.

Phil Bishop
19-06-2008, 08:07
Rob,

As you know I am taking an increasing interest in all this. One thing that I am still not sure about. What digital output options does a Mac have? I am assuming you have as standard USB, firewire and toslink (optical). Is there a coaxial digital output? What output do you use?

Thanks

Phil