Saturday, November 2, 2019

Digital audio without tears

In earlier posts I described systems I was using for listening to lossless (FLAC) digital audio. A lot has changed in my various audio setups that would take too long to explain, but I wanted to update you on a really nice lowish-cost transport for DACs and integrated audio devices with S/PDIF or AES digital inputs that I strongly recommend. The ingredients (most used in a previous setup):

  1. Pi 3 SBC
  2. PiTouch 7" touchscreen
  3. SmartiPi stand
  4. Pi2AES audio shield
  5. Power supply for Pi2AES
  6. Pi 2 Design supplies (5) with a straight barrel adapter that is too long for the stand (3), but this elbow adapter fits (thanks to Michael Kelly @ Pi 2 Design).
  7. Whatever miniUSB 5V power supply you have around to power the PiTouch (I'm using an otherwise idle Chromecast power supply)
  8. moOde Audio Linux-based digital music software
I set this up on my home network, which allowed me to configure moOde through a Web browser on my laptop, but I run it at work disconnected from the network, with all the music on an SSD. If your system is always networked, I'd skip (2), (3), and (6) and buy the nice Pi2AES case from Pi 2 Design instead. The same hardware can be used with other Linux-based audio distributions. I used to favor piCorePlayer, and I still prefer its lean, fast UI, but it has become unusable for non-networked systems, unfortunately.

For those of you who have USB DACs or integrated amps, I've heard good things about the Allo USBridge Signature, which can also be bought as a complete box with a Pi and pre-installed software.

I've used quite a few more expensive transports in different configurations, with different DACs and downstream audio chains. Pi2AES is definitely competitive with many times more expensive transports, if you are willing to do the hardware and software legwork, and I suspect Allo USBridge Signature will be too.

Pictures of the Pi2AES-based transport feeding a nice Soekris dac1541 sign-magnitude R-2R DAC from Denmark followed by the now discontinued HP-1 headphone amp from Neurochrome in Canada.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Digital audio findings

It's a long story that I won't give in detail, but 6 years ago I started to explore digital lossless music, initially CD rips but increasingly digital downloads. My music interests are mainly contemporary jazz, modern classical, early music, Baroque, West Africa, Mediterranean, Middle East. I went through a lot of gear and setups since. I learned a lot, too much to summarize, but here are a few findings:

  • First question is why lossless rather than MP3 or AAC? Simply, it can sound better for some material (plucked strings especially) with the right downstream gear.
  • How do you get music into that form? If you have CDs, you re-rip them. I use XLD on my Mac. If you want to stream, you can use lossless Tidal or Qobuz (which is what I use). Finally, there are several lossless download vendors: ProStudioMasters, HDtracks, 7digital, eClassical, Presto Classical, and best of all because more money goes to the artists, Bandcamp for independent artists and labels. Most of my recent music is from Bandcamp.
  • How do you play it? You need a means to move bits from local storage or streaming sources to whatever turns bits into analog waveforms in your system. Many options there, from simple Apple or Sonos setups to integrated receivers from companies like NAD, Naim, or Hegel (owned gear from all of them), to dedicated digital transports connected to separate DACs, preamps, and amps.
  • You can use your phone or laptop as a transport, but it is also possible to use a variety of single-purpose devices for that. Here's what I assembled to use at work. Again, one can go crazy on digital transports, to stratospheric prices that make no sense to me. I do own a relatively pricey Metrum Ambre transport for my fancy headphone system(s) at home, but one can do well in the just-digital-audio transport front for much less, such as the Allo USBridge I have for my speaker system.
  • For quite a while, I was having a very good time with a single-purpose CuBox running Volumio, reading tracks from a home NAS (Synology) playing to a Schiit Bifrost Multibit DAC and a Schiit Jotunheim headphone amp for my home headphone and then work systems until I gave it to my daughter. People I trust claim that you can spend a lot less, either from Schiit or from vendors like AudioQuest for a very reasonable sound quality. The AudioQuest devices are nicely portable and work easily off your laptop or phone.
  • Schiit Audio has by far the best quality/price ratio that I know of for DACs and headphone amps. I've never tried their preamps, and speaker amps, but I suspect they win there too. They are also responsive, don't take themselves too seriously, and respond well to nice customer inquiries.
  • If you share living space with someone, or if you have close neighbors, headphone listening has got really good with the right headphones. I have only listened closely to a small number of different headphones, mostly rather expensive (>$1K), so I have no recommendations for anything below $500. At work, I use MrSpeakers Æon Closed, which work well for the sources and relatively laidback music I like for work.
  • It is hard for me to recommend speaker systems because I've heard way too few different ones in the last decade. I can say that for a small(ish) room, a pair of KEF LS50s with a sufficiently brawny amp (the LS50s are rather inefficient) give outstanding clarity and dynamics (LS50s are now mostly sold in a wireless, built-in amp version that I've not heard so I can't comment on). In my current larger living room, my earlier LS50s were replaced by KEF Reference 1s on stands, with a really brawny Hegel integrated amp, but those choices involved a bunch of other factors as well as a lot of listening at a couple of SF dealers. The Hegel integrated can take bits directly into its built-in DAC, which is fine but a bit too polite for my taste. Instead, I use a Schiit Yggdrasil DAC with some experimental hardware (don't ask) that allows it to get outstanding quality from a cheap Allo USBridge transport.
  • How do I get bits to my home systems? I've landed on Roon, which does the best job among alternatives to manage my eclectic local and streamed music collection and send the bits reliably to the two systems I listen on at home (speakers in the living room, headphones in the study). I run the Roon server on a fanless Intel NUC with Ubuntu Server 18.04, mounting its music from a Synology NAS.
  • You don't really want to go there: 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Dennis Bray's "Wetware"

Just finished reading Wetware, which I had owned for a while and started reading a couple times while traveling but misplaced both times, so I had to go back to the beginning. I don't agree with everything Bray says, and in the 8 years since he published the book, a lot happened both in computing and in biology. But I recommend Wetware to anyone who is puzzled about the similarities and differences between living things and computers. Three quotes that connected:
Neural networks can cope with large amounts of information, supplied as written text, facial features, industrial processes, and so on. They can recognize restricted sets of patterns better than we can. But what they do is the tapping of a tin drum compared with the symphony orchestra of natural environments.
Such coupling of environmental parameters through internal circuits allows a cell to predict future events. These circuits contain, implicitly, the probability of certain life-changing events.
If the detailed chemistry of the cell is simply the outcome of a historical ragbag of ad hoc interactions, then it will be no more predictable than the weather. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

August-September music

Artist Title
Alisa Weilerstein Transfigured Night: Haydn and Schoenberg
Andrew Staples/Pauline Cheviller/Esa-Pekka Salonen Stravinsky: Perséphone
Blaze/Sakurada/Sampson/ Wörner J.S. Bach – Secular Cantatas, Vol.10 (BWV 30a, 204)
Cécile McLorin Salvant The Window
Chris Lightcap Superette
Christian Tetzlaff/Hannu Lintu Bartók: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 2
David Binney Out of Airplanes
Edo de Waart Adams: Harmonium
Ensemble Dialoghi Mozart, Beethoven: Quintets for Piano and Winds
Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner Temporary Kings
Gilad Hekselman Ask for Chaos
Grdina/Houle/Loewen Live at the China Cloud
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith/Yo Miles! Yo Miles: Sky Garden
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith/Yo Miles! Yo Miles: Upriver
Jamie Saft Quartet Blue Dream
Jordi Savall/La Capella Reial de Catalunya/Tembembe Ensamble Continuo Bailar Cantando: Fiesta Mestiza en el Peru
Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer Decade
Louis Thiry Messiaen: Organ Music
Marcin Wasilewski Trio Live
Mary Halvorson quartet Paimon: Book of Angels 32
Mary Halvorson/Bill Frisell The Maid with the Flaxen Hair—A Tribute to Johnny Smith
Matt Lavelle/Reggie Sylvester Retrograde
Medeski Martin Wood/Alarm Will Sound Omnisphere
Mikkel Ploug/Mark Turner Faroe
Miles Okazaki Work (Complete, Volumes 1-6)
Phronesis We Are All
Quatuor Debussy/Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven/Vincent Peirani/Franck Tortillier Claude Debussy: le jazz - Preludes for a Quartet
Robert Kaddouch/Gary Peacock 53rd Street
Robert Kaddouch/Gary Peacock High Line
Rosa Brunello/Los Fermentos Volverse: Live in Trieste
Stile Antico Song of Songs
Tom Barford Bloomer
Tord Gustavsen Trio The Other Side
Víkingur Ólafsson Johann Sebastian Bach

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Latest month in music

Artist Album
Alisa Weilerstein Solo
Anthony Braxton Willisau (Quartet) 1991, Studio
Bill Frisell Rambler
Charles Lloyd Lift Every Voice
Daniel Barenboim / Michael Barenboim / Yulia Deyneka / Kian Soltani Mozart: Piano Quartets
David Murray Octet Home
Don Pullen Capricorn Rising: Featuring Sam Rivers
Enrico Pieranunzi/Thomas Fonnesbaek Blue Waltz
Fred Hersch Heartsongs
JD Allen Love Stone
Julian Argüelles' Tetra Tonadas
Martyn Brabbins/BBC National Orchestra of Wales John Pickard: Sixteen Sunrises; Symphony No. 5; Concertante Variations
Old and New Dreams Old and New Dreams [1977]
Paul Bley Memoirs
Seattle Symphony / Roomful of Teeth / Ludovic Morlot Berio: Sinfonia; Boulez: Notations I-IV; Ravel: La Valse
Steve Coleman Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)
Sylvie Courvoisier/Mary Halvorson Crop Circles
Telemann; Richard Boothby Solo Fantasias
Thomas Demenga J.S. Bach: Suiten für Violoncello
Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell duo Angel Dusk
Various Artists Journey – music for Indian violin & tuba
Wes Montgomery In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording
William Tatge General Cargo

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Jazz wonders

  • Heard Christian McBride's New Jawn Quartet at Stanford last night. I knew it would be good, but it was way above good, it was revelatory. All new music, no pretension, no concession to easy listening, superbly tight. I had heard them at SFJAZZ in 2016, they were good but they did not make this intense impression. Yesterday, Waits was like a fast current in a deep channel, many overlaid rhythms, no derivative splash. Waits and McBride set an intense pace, which Evans and Strickland rode creatively without ever going lax or derivative. Still recovering, like a scary steep ski descent. They'll be recording, album expected Sept-Oct. But best, they are touring widely. Go hear them!

  • Great detailed review of Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams's Vanished Gardens.
  • Wonderful, long historical interview with Bill Frisell. Includes a link to a bootleg video of Paul Motian Trio (Motian, Frisell, Joe Lovano) at Jazz em Agosto, Lisboa 1986. Frisell and Lovano look so young!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Photos of my work office small music player

Music SSD in the foreground, player in the in the middle, DAC (green/black) and amp (blue) in the background. SSD is connected to one of the Pi 2 USB ports. Digital audio goes out through an BNC connector from the 502DAC bolted to the back of the Pi touchscreen and plugged into the Pi hat connector. BNC coax cable connects to the DAC. Left picture shows the main piCorePlayer menu; right picture shows the Now Playing screen, in this case for the first track of Marc Ribot's excellent Silent Movies.