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Douglas Schroeder’s One Year Exploration of Digital Front End Systems

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Note to the reader: In this article I am not claiming to have found a method in which affordable equipment performs at a SOTA level, but rather, a method of system building that has elevated my digital front end and offers flexibility to optimize any system I build and elevate the performance of speakers I use.

An update on the digital front end exploration. I am surprised that I have not found all-in-one streamer/servers to offer the best sound in the many iterations of systems I have built. Rather, the two relatively affordable renderers, the Bricasti M5 Network Player and the PS Audio AirLens streamer (the review of the PS Audio AirLens and DirectStream DAC Mk2 was just submitted), my home computer, along with an assortment of DACs, music management software ROON and Audirvana, and music services Qobuz and Tidal, have typically combined for best results.

Thus far, the streaming quality is on a par with file playback, so I am going to continue use of my home computer on the network for file playback while focusing on streaming audio. The typical best scenario has been both ROON and Audirvana residing on the home computer, which is upstairs, and operation of them in the listening room downstairs via a Samsung Tablet with their respective apps. This is a much more affordable route, as both units, the Bricasti M5 Network Player and the PS Audio AirLens streamer are $2.5K or less!

I am building a wide variety of engaging systems with several DACS, both reviewed and owned. The Bricasti M1 DAC review was just published, and the one on PS Audio DirectStream DAC Mk2 is soon to come.

Again, this is a surprising development, as I presumed that for optimal sound quality I had to upscale significantly with a server. That’s not my finding at this point. I have found an impressive boost in digital sound quality and done so with a couple components that are considered affordable. Note that the DACs are high end, high quality, but even the older DACs on hand, the EE Minimax Tube DAC Supreme and the Exogal Comet, for example, are giving much better sound quality than equipment I used for the past five years. The older DACs are not better than the Bricasti M1 DAC or the PS Audio DirectStream DAC Mk2. The pedigree of the DAC is critical to the favorable outcome of this method of system building.

Why am I buying two devices that perform essentially the same function, renderer/streamer devices? Because they each have unique characteristics and build  and different outputs, which means idiosyncratic sound and more means to flex systems and find a killer combo with any speakers. Between the two of them I have the major streaming outputs, SPDIF, USB, AES, and I2S. These units also react differently to an assortment of power cords, which plays into the system’s final sound. I’m winning big time with this methodology of system building. This in no way negates the critical importance of the DAC. A premium DAC will make this method of system building fly. More discoveries are happening, but I’ll not discuss them until reviews are submitted/published.

Also, the Landscape PureAudioProject Trio15 10″ Coaxial system is SO good! It’s a favorite with the Perlisten D212s Subwoofers (reviewed). The Iconoclast Cables (I have written two reviews of Iconoclast Cables) are superb across a wide variety of systems.

Some industry members and owners of certain types of components may disagree with my findings/methodology. So be it. These are my discoveries at this point from building dozens of discrete systems. The effort to compare components and build systems has been most beneficial. For now, I am going to use the M5 and AirLens and partner them with a bunch of DACs and use my home computer to play files through the system. Frankly, in the system building I have done, expensive servers have not made file playback superior to streaming, at least not enough for me to shell out substantial money.  The variety of two renderers and multiple DACs is engaging, easy to work with to optimize any speaker, and with sound quality much improved from the start of this exploration about a year ago.

If anyone has the itch to upgrade and the curiosity to build a few systems, it may be worthwhile to play with a couple network players/streamers for variety, management software (ROON and Audirvana), and music sources (Tidal and Qobuz), all of which I am using and all of which are efficacious in optimizing digital playback. I would not be shocked if some individuals state they have achieved better outcomes through other methods. The variety of systems and performance outcomes for digital audio today are very wide and much of the performance of any given system is due to a fortuitous combination of gear.

Is my methodology legitimate? You may wish to build a few systems to find out what works best for you!

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