Dedicated to design and performance of databases and audio systems.

iTunes, AirTunes, and DACs with Bob

Back a while ago, Karen's dad, Bob, contacted us about helping him set up a wireless capability with his home stereo. Bob had always been interested in our configuration. How we could play music off of our computers and beam it to the living room system, the one in the addition, or both. We had walked him through the process. Macs with iTunes sending signals to AirTunes-enabled Airport Expresses which in turn delivered the audio source to the stereo. Furthermore, we could use our iPhones as remote controls. Want to hear something else? A few swipes and a new song started playing.

So, now it's Fall and Bob is game. The only problem was Bob is a PC guy with an Android phone. Karen and I set off one weekend day to start the journey. First up was bringing over a spare Airport Express. We needed to configure it to Bob's wireless network. After a few attempts (or, was it hours? ;-) it connected. Next, iTunes needed to be set-up to broadcast to the network. A relatively easy task--the real work was trying to get his music collection off the external USB drive into iTunes' library. Not easy. They were in WAV format and the metadata (i.e. album artwork, name, song titles) would not convert. But, Karen was able to quickly get his phone set up with the Android app equivalent to Apple's Remote in order to control the iTunes library.

The Airport Express was plugged in to the stereo with an analog mini-jack-to-RCA cable and it was time to test it. A couple of glitches, but we got it working. The Android app worked as well! Now, how to solve the conversion of WAV files to iTunes?

I took Bob's external drive back home and connected it to my iMac. Fired up the XLD music file conversion app and I was able to convert some albums, one at a time, to the Apple friendly AIFF format. And, with metadata--all that album art and titles! The problem was it is a very manual process. But before I got too deep into it I was going to head over to Bob's and make sure his PC would import the AIFF files seamlessly. Also, as a surprise, I brought over my Musical Fidelity V-DAC II digital-to-audio converter. Note: the V-DAC II has since been replaced by the V90 model. The Apple Airport Express allows you to connect an optical digital cable to it in place of the analog mini-jack; however, you need an external DAC to handle the conversion to an analog sound stream. The benefit is that the external DAC will (should) have a better quality sound than the DAC built into the Airport Express. The latter is not awful, mind you, but an external is typically superior.

I arrived at Bob's another evening and we got the external drive connected. The XLD-converted songs imported to iTunes without an issue. Now, the complexity was the way Windows organized the music library. One library was aliased to another. You needed a map to figure out where the files really were. But, I digress.

Bob was happy I brought over the external DAC. We plugged into the Airport Express. Out with the analog mini-jack. We synced-up a CD in the DVD player and the same track in iTunes. A/B testing on the fly. Aux 1. Aux 2. Back to Aux 1. Over to 2. 1 again. 2. Wait, was that 1? Or, are we still on 2? Back and forth. It was an audio Wimbledon. Serve, return, volley. Back and forth we went. Which was better?

Bob clearly preferred the Musical Fidelity DAC to the Airport Express' internal DAC/analog output. But would it outperform the Panasonic Blu-Ray DVD player? My vote was yes! But it was my DAC so maybe I was a little bias. Nah. I'm golden ear, right? White-golden ear? 14-karat golden ear? Pyrite ear? Regardless, I stand by my vote. These assessments take time though. Bob needed to settle in with the DAC and really get a feel for it. I set off for the night.

With back issues of Stereophile and other audio periodicals in his library, Bob read the reviews. He ordered two new Airport Expresses and decided to audition two DACs. The first was the Audioengine D1--a DAC and headphone amp in one. It will handle digital sources up to 24-bit / 96KHz. The Airport Expresses will output a 16-bit / 44.1KHz Redbook CD signal. The D1 accepts USB and optical digital connections and the Airport has the optical output.

Next up, Bob got the Schiit Bifrost DAC with the Uber Analog upgrade option. Yup, that's a right a Schiit--pronounced: like the homophone of poop. An interesting silver box. Larger than the smaller black Audioengine and the silver Musical Fidelity V-DAC II. I asked Bob why he didn't order the new Musical Fidelity V90 as one of his choices. Simple. The reviews said it was marginally better than the V-DAC II and we had one of those on hand. Fair enough.

This week Karen told me that Bob invited us over to A/B his DACs. Karen is Bob's Golden Ear. She hears everything. Everything. And, she can articulate it. When she points it out, I can hear what she is referring to, but I would never know how to describe it in the first place. Friday night it was. 7:00. Book it. For me the anticipation was like that of a kid at Christmas. Is it here yet?

Karen told me to bring a CD of familiar music to assess with. She brought an Elton John. I brought the Stones' Let It Bleed. I figured Bob's iTunes library could use a little diversity. Whoa-ho-ho, I laugh my evil laugh. LOL

Friday came and we arrived. Bob greeted us. We each ripped our CDs and off to the living room we went. It was all set up. All three Airport Expresses. All three DACs. The stereo remote: Aux 1, Aux 2, and Aux 3. The Android phone. Bob's Quad pre-amp and amp were fired up. The Harbeth speakers were ready. Karen was ushered to the sweet-spot chair and handed the remotes.

But, Bob which input was which DAC? "Whoa-ho-ho!", laughed Bob. "I'm not telling!" Whaaaat? Oh okay. A blind taste test! Sweet. My mind was going to go crazy now. Bob grinned that grin only he can, and off we set along the A/B and /C trail.

First up, Karen played her Elton John. Aux 1, Scene 1. The lights dim. The curtain draws. Cue the orchestra, or, em, the Android remote. Gadzooks! What is going on? Congestion. A sense of over-driven sound. I didn't know which DAC this one was. We hadn't even heard what was behind doors #2 nor #3. If is was my Musical Fidelity I was going to be ill. If it was the Schiit it have been, ahem, apropos.

After the first verse KP hit Aux 2. Wow! What a difference. An O-M-G of a diff if there ever was one. The sound was detailed. Articulate. The sound stage was high, and deep, and wide. The mids and highs were so clear and smooth. The bass reserved. Sub-250Hz could have used a couple db+.

Another verse gone and Karen was onto Aux 3. Narrower sound stage. Detailed. Clear highs and mids. A stronger bass than #2. When there were few voices and instruments the clarity was very good. More than a few and some congestion settled in. Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound need not apply.

On we went to the Rolling Stones. I asked Mrs. Golden Ear to please select track 8--Monkey Man. That piano and bass to start. Kick in the guitar. Then the drums. Oh ya! I'm a flea-bit peanut monkey, All my friends are [audio] junkies... la-la, la-la-la. :-) Again, I digress.

Back to Aux 1. No real improvement from Elton to the Stones. I'm trying to hold back the tears. On to Aux 2. Such a vast improvement again. So open you can hear the limitations of the recording. Aux 3. Not too far off from Aux 2. Aux 2 still takes it, but only beats Aux 3 by a half-length. Aux 3 seems to fair better with rock. How did Aux 1 finish relative to? Sorry, Flea-biscuit, but you're one step closer to the glue factory.

Next up, Cleo Laine and Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer. Aux 1? Well. Boxed in. A ten-by-ten room. Less congested than rock, but no air. Aux 2? Another O-M-G! The ceiling was forty feet up. The stage was wide and the theater was well-formed. Instruments were all positioned at their places. The best sense of space and openness I would hear all night. Aux 3 put Cleo in a narrower sound stage. The ceiling was lower and the instruments all linear behind her. Less space. Some decent depth, but not in the same league with Aux 2 here.

We played other tunes and some test discs. An upright bass located three feet in front of the microphone..., etc. All in all, KP and me had the same overall opinion. Aux 2 was the clear winner. For its openness and space and clarity. Mids and highs were detailed and beautiful. The bass was a little toned down. Aux 3 was next. It was not as open and airy as 2, but did have a stronger bass and played well for rock music. Aux 1 was a distant 3rd. And, Aux 3 was much closer to Aux 2 than Aux 1 was to Aux 3.

Karen and I gave Bob our opinion. Now we had to know. Like the bank robber in the beginning of Dirty Harry. At first, he didn't want to find out if Harry fired six shots or only five. But then he said, "Hey man, I gotsta know."

Well Bob, we gotta know. Which DAC is which? Do I need to find a new DAC? Is the Musical Fidelity still king? Is my system gonna have the Schiits too? Is the little Audioengine the one that could?

Drum roll, please. Behind Aux #1 was the Audioengine. Okay, phew. My pride is still intact. It was the lowest cost one of the bunch at $169. And, to be fair, the Musical Fidelity had the Rock Grotto external power supply juicing it. I think I paid about $225 for it on top of $299 for the DAC.

In second place was Aux #3. It was the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II. Mine. Okay. It was a respectable finish.

And, the winner, and I Schiit you not--Aux 2's Schiit. Not even close. The Schiit fits. It was the clear winner.

Bob is thinking of keeping the Audioengine as a back-up. My advice is send back the Audioengine. Play a healthy portion of Red Hot Chili Peppers for Schiits and, a whole lotta, grins. Just saying.