Super Cheap Digital Transport Comparo

Discussion in 'Computer Audiophile: Software, Configs, Tools' started by gaspasser, Oct 22, 2016.

  1. gaspasser

    gaspasser Flatulence Maestro

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    Introduction: This article is a review and comparison of the following inexpensive digital transports:

    1) Raspberry Pi 2 with HifiBerry Digi+ transformer version (~$100 from Amazon)

    2) NanoPi Neo ($12)

    3) Google Chromecast Audio ($30)

    This comparison of three inexpensive digital transports was created after I purchased a Moby and Vali 2 and moved my audio equipment to the basement out of the office where my tower computer resides. I explored the many options for purchasing and creating endpoints which to send audio over Ethernet down to the basement. I considered purchasing an off-the-shelf setup such as the Sonore Sonicorbiter SE and the MicroRendu. At $300 and $640, respectively, I decided that there are much cheaper alternatives, if I am willing to put my mediocre computer skills to use. The real questions are which of the inexpensive endpoints is right for my musical preferences and would my exploration offer a benefit to the SBAF community. This comparo went through several different variations with my changing my system from Vali 2 to Jotunheim and the late addition of the IFi Audio SPDIF iPurifier which drastically changed my initial impressions of the Chromecast Audio.

    Please note the idea of using NanoPi Neo and the Google Chromecast Audio as cheap endpoints was learned directly from postings by Chris Connaker at Computer Audiophile. The idea of improving the Chromecast Audio with the IFi Audio SPDIF iPurifier was learned from a post by John Darko at Digital Audio Review.

    Materials and Methods: The audio chain for this review is some combination of the following:

    Roon V1.2

    Volumio V2.2

    Moode 2.7

    J River Media Center (JRMC) V22

    Schiit Modi Multibit (Moby)

    iFi Audio SPDIF iPurifier

    Schiit Jotunheim

    Sennheiser HD650 (stock and then dynamat modded)

    Cables: Schiit Pyst USB, Blue Jeans Audio Coaxial Digital cable, Monoprice SPDIF cable, generic ethernet cables, generic micro usb cable, Venus Audio HD650 XLR cable.

    Raspberry Pi 2 with HifiBerry Digi+ transformer version (Coaxial digital and SPDIF)

    Friendly ARM NanoPi Neo (USB)

    Google Chromecast Audio (SPDIF)

    Loading Roon and Volumio/Moode: In order to save space, I will leave out the specifics on how to load the software onto the Raspberry Pi and NanoPi Neo. I plan on creating a walkthrough if the SBAF community requests it, but I feel most people here have a higher level of computer skills than me and a detailed explanation would not be needed. If people have specific questions, please feel free to PM me.

    Results & Impressions: In my specific setup, which is focused on getting good detail, dynamics, and soundstage realism for a small amount of money, I can easily say that the best sound was obtained from either using: Raspberry Pi 2 with Digi+ transformer version Coax out to iFi OR Chromecast Audio (streaming Tidal) out to iFi àMoby à JotunheimàXLR out HD650.

    I always love listening to live jazz recordings to give a sense of musicians in an actual space. I will focus on the Medeski, Martin and Wood album Tonic to put all of the results into context. As an audiophile that was previously (15 years ago) interested in 2-channel audio I used to read about hearing the “space around instruments” but never owned a system capable of resolving this phenomenon. I got into headphones because it seemed putting together a system capable of a high level of extraction of music (whether digital or analog) is easily achievable even on a modest budget. With the above system, I could easily hear the “space” around instruments and also finally heard the layering of sounds in a space. I could hear the plankton or micro details in all of the systems, however, the Raspberry Pi Digi+/iFi or Chromecast/iFi were the only ones capable of resolving the space around instruments and depth/layering of the soundstage.

    The Roon-based Digi+ (even with iFi) and NanoPi Neo had a strange loudness in the sound that initially was appealing. But once volume was decreased I realized I was hearing a collapse of the soundstage and loss of the instruments in space. There was little perceived soundstage with the drums, bass and organ closed in around my head. It was hard to listen to. On acoustic folk recordings, especially Bob Dylan in mono, the Roon-based systems can sound very good, but I think that is because it is only one voice and one guitar.

    The JRMC/Chromecast Audio (without iFi) system had the same crap soundstage and had even less plankton than the Roon-based systems.

    Roon, RAAT and NanoPi Neo: From my listening and from a purely sound perspective, it is hard for me to understand the allure of Roon. I can easily understand the value of Roon’s user interface and data. Roon markets itself as having biographies, artist information, album reviews, tour dates and tons of metadata to connect all of the dots in even the hugest of music collections. However, all of the data is pulled from Allmusic/Rovi. You could look up all the same info for free on your computer or iPad while listening to music. After all of the hype, I had high hopes for the RAAT protocol and sound quality but I am disappointed. I sought help on the Roon forums and from Roon technical support, but no one could offer any constructive suggestions. I think the hardest part is trying to understand why the mainstream audiophile media loves it so much. It is hard to not be cynical. During the course of the listening for this review, I researched and read threads about Roon’s sound quality and how I could improve it. I really tried hard to like Roon because their UI and ease of use are way ahead of any other program. It was recommended that I try HQPlayer with Roon. I Downloaded HQPlayer and then realized it basically works as a separate endpoint itself which in order to utilize on a Raspberry Pi, one must pay for a license which in my mind is yet another expense for Roon.

    If one is already invested in Roon and you like how it sounds with your particular system, I think the best bang-for-the-buck has to be the Nanopi Neo at $12. If you desire a cheap Roon endpoint, it is ridiculously good for the money and given that RAAT has a distinct sound to me, I honestly wonder how much better something like a MicroRendu can really be. One caveat is I did not test this Nanopi Neo with a USB demuckifier which could improve the sound.

    Ranting on a soapbox: I find the rave reviews over both of the MicroRendu and Sonicorbiter SE in the mainstream audiophile press (Computer Audiophile, Audiostream, Digital Audio Review) as evidence of another disturbing trend. One that assumes audiophiles are either too stupid or lazy to program inexpensive devices that can do the same job or better as high-priced off-the-shelf versions. At least, Computer Audiophile seems to struggle with this by posting about the NanoPi Neo as a Roon endpoint. I will even go as far to wager that for Roon-use-only it is the same as a Sonicorbiter SE since it uses RAAT. The Sonicorbiter SE is just an off-the-shelf CuBox-I, just add Roonbridge software and it is the same when used with Roon. I know the CuBox-i can do SPDIF too, but when used with RAAT, the difference in USB and Coax sound was too small for me to hear. I can’t imagine SPDIF sounding that much better than Coax, but then again I have very limited experience with all of this.

    Conclusion: For a small amount of money and a small amount of time, any person reading this has the ability to create a great sounding endpoint. Again, if you are having technical trouble please PM me and I will be happy to help.

    My recommendation for the best sound from your own tracks is to try a Raspberry Pi2 with Hifiberry Digi+ (transformer version) with an iFi SPDIF purifier. I preferred Volumio and JRMC v22 (with JRemote iOS App). There are plenty of other great sounding programs like Moode or Rune that are just as easy to install on the Raspberry Pi.

    For streaming Tidal, I think the cheapest and best bang for the buck has to be Chromecast Audio + iFi SPDIF iPurifier. For a total of $180 one has a Wifi-based streamer that you use the Tidal app to control. The sound is excellent and for the past week or so this is all I needed to listen to music and finally be happy!
     
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  2. Vastx

    Vastx Facebook Friend

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    I really appreciated very much your comparison.

    One thing I say maybe too often when talking about the raspberry and the digi+ is that it is essential to take care of power. What did you powered the raspberry with?
     
  3. gaspasser

    gaspasser Flatulence Maestro

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    From your posts @Vastx and @Scott Kramer I understand and appreciate the power supply for these devices plays a key role in getting good sound. That is the next area for me to look into, but I am waiting for the SPD2 to come out. I don't own a soldering station and have zero experience with soldering. I think/hope the iFi SPDIF device sidesteps the power supply issue to fix the signal prior to being passed into the DAC. Either way the sound is great for my budget system.

    Edit: I am using Chromecast wall wart ps
     
  4. pedalhead

    pedalhead Friend

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    Totally agree on the crazed hype around the mRendu. An RPi solution is a fraction of the price for essentially the same functionality. Archmago recently measured an RPi/DAC+Pro solution and it came out smelling of roses. The hype is strong with this one though...I've asked on a couple of mR threads around the place whether it really offers a performance increase over an RPi solution and of course you get the usual hypesters defending their $600+ RPi equivalent as being "designed specifically for the purpose". Sonore will also upsell you a $1400 power supply because, you know, it's an audio component.
     
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  5. Poleepkwa

    Poleepkwa Friend

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    I have to say that thanks too Vastx I also gave the linear PSU thing a go. Keeping that in mind I suggest learning to solder an adapter to the Digi+ and get a better PSU. It is worth the little effort it takes.
     
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  6. Vastx

    Vastx Facebook Friend

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    Yep, contrary to the speed2 the digi+ is as good as the power supply you use. That's why I asked the OP.
    @Gaspasser: Find a friend and have it making a lpsu :)

    About the uRendu, I haven't listened to it, I can't comment the sound but I can't help thinking that it is a little overpriced looking at the guts. When I read that the price is so high cause they had an engineer reading all the 3000 pages of the chip manual to improve it, it just makes me smile. But again I am no engineer.
    What I can understand is that the uRendu is the son of the widespread USB Nervosa and the less common Endpoint Nervosa. Put an audiophile tag on it and you have a system on module that runs on modified free software without a psu for 640 usd.
     
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  7. pedalhead

    pedalhead Friend

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    Indeed. I have a RPi3 here with a Digi+ board (SPDIF output) which works & sounds a treat as a Roon Endpoint. I use the cheapest iFi iPower psu with it. An £80 solution that took me all of about 30 minutes to set up & I can't tell its sound apart from direct USB into my DACs. I'm going to need some serious persuasion to plonk down an additional £500 plus £££ for an exotic psu. Tbh, with that kind of money I'd be getting rid of USB altogether (microRendu is stuck with it) and go for a Rednet or similar solution.
     
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  8. crazychile

    crazychile Eastern Iowa's Spiciest Pepper

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    I mentioned this in another thread a long time ago, but for giggles I hooked up an ultracheapo Sony Blu-ray player (<$50) via coax to my Yggdrasil and it actually sounded pretty good. If you have one of those lying around it might be interesting to compare that (playing a CD) to the other stuff you tested.
     
  9. Poleepkwa

    Poleepkwa Friend

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    Does an upgraded PSU also affect the toslink or just the coax on the digi+?
     
  10. pedalhead

    pedalhead Friend

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    The PSU powers the RPi itself & the Digi+ takes a feed from the main board. People have reported an improvement when feeding these HATs their own 3.3v supply, but I've not tried that.
     
  11. Vastx

    Vastx Facebook Friend

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    In my tests the rpi\speed2 is no match for el cheapo cdplayers, not even the mid-tiers. The big league cdplayers beat it hands down though.
     
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  12. Madaboutaudio

    Madaboutaudio Friend

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    @crazychile

    I have an old SACD capable PS3 lying around. It will be interesting weekend experiment to see how it sounds hooked up to Yggdrasil via quality glass toslink.
     
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  13. crazychile

    crazychile Eastern Iowa's Spiciest Pepper

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    I was just shocked that the "your source sucks" light didn't come on the Yggdrasil when I connected the cheap blu-ray. Good luck with your experiment!
     
  14. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    I also have an SACD-capable PS3 and am very curious how that sounds.
     
  15. Torq

    Torq MOT: Headphone.com

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    I don't think it's down to assumptions about stupidity or laziness, and more about the "value of time" and the general nature of people that want things "simple and reliable", and possibly aesthetically coherent, as their time becomes less available for tinkering and their life-priorities change.

    The intersection of those factors shifts continually through life.

    Twenty years ago I'd have gone out of my way to build the stuff myself on principle. I am, among other things, a reasonably capable engineer, and there's not much I can't design or put together myself. And there's a certain amount of satisfaction in doing so. But to assemble a one-off box that has the measured performance of a microRendu? No, that I can't do for anything close to $700. Not unless I value my time at less than minimum wage. And I doubt anyone, that's gainfully employed at least, else can either.

    You might get subjectively comparable audio performance, but I can't see beating it's measurements for less unless you build/sell to scale.

    I will agree that the rave reviews of the Sonicorbiter SE are problematic. It's a very averagely performing device. Simple, effective, and convenience, but it has no audio-specific clocks, so unless you use it's USB output feeding a USB Audio 2.0 DAC, then it's compromised horribly before you start (never mind the poor quality of it's optical interface).

    A Digi+ on an RPi isn't much better, for similar reasons. May as well use the USB output from the RPi directly and the USB input on an Async-capable DAC.

    A Digi+ Pro via S/PDIF, well, now things get a bit better. But you're still looking at ~$100 in hardware, plus a decent PSU, plus the time to case it (if you don't want a random stack of boards and wires in your listening space). The cost/time benefit just doesn't add up for most people. Especially not those for whom the differential between doing it themselves and having someone do it for them amounts to less than they spend on their morning latte for a week.

    ...

    As an aside, I got the chance to add a microRendu to my AOIP/NAI/streamer evaluation. And, along side that, we got a new LeCroy LabMaster 10 Zi-A 100 in to the lab this week (I didn't sign the P/O, but I want to say, as configured, it's right around the $1M mark). If I can get time on it, I'll put all the NAIs I've got around on that and see how they compare in terms of jitter, noise, waveform (since "digital" signals via USB are just a modulated/switched analog voltage with constrained slew rates). This will also be interesting in terms of comparing the rendered output from various software sources/players/end-points.

    I suspect the results of that will be quite revealing.

    Now ... time to write-up my Spring DAC notes for @Hands.
     
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  16. m.i.c.k.e.y

    m.i.c.k.e.y Facebook Friend

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    I have great success on the Android platform + UAPP (if it works w/ your device, some have problems, on my devices no).

    It started around 4 years ago when I want a cheap DAP alternative using my smartphone as Transport.

    [​IMG]

    Experimented on its various usage and combination.

    [​IMG]

    And after when the technology matured, its giving run for the money on SQ w/ my JRiver setup.

    So I decided to experiment more. And had this Android TV Box that have support for built in HDD. 4K video was icing on the cake, but very well pleased on the outcome. This box is a bit expensive. But if you have a NAS, other Android boxes are cheaper (starts around around $50-60).

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    Give it a try by attaching your DAC/Amp to your existing Android phone thru an OTG cable. Download HibyMusic(free) from Playstore or the UAPP (supports online streaming) trial from here: http://www.extreamsd.com/index.php/uapp-trial.
     
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  17. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Did you ever test this with the Yggdrasil? How did it sound?
     

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