Monday, September 14, 2015

Audio Too

If Ken Rockwell can do Audio on his Blog, so can I. Seemingly, interest in the high end of photography often goes hand-in-glove with the higher end of audio. The recent extreme popularity of any good camera's ability to make high-definition video brings these two worlds together.

Alesis iO2 Top Panel
I thought it was about time to reveal my other side. There was a time in my distant past when I was a "boutique audio retailer", back in the early 90's. Boutique audio is not "high end" but in most cases it comes close. I was selling brands like Mission, Quad, Meridian and Onkyo from my house - not quite in the esoteric high end range, where the changing of a single resistor in the circuitry would "make a noticeable audible improvement", but brands such as this, now available under the "Vintage Electronics" section of Ebay, were far far better than gear from Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer.

Come ahead 20 years, and we find that audio gear, just like camera gear, has changed completely. Although CD's still have a place in the audio chain, and vinyl records are making a huge comeback, and, no surprise at all, vacuum tube amplification, made in China, has become very popular and affordable, the main source of music is now the on-line download of music files. The most popular file format is the .mp3, but one can also subscribe to superior download formats like .wav and FLAC, if you're willing to spend more money.

But as it is with my camera gear, so it is with my audio - I want to spend less money on everything, because, well, I still like the hobbies, but I'm living on a pension.

So let's begin. In or new age of digital downloads, the main source of audio has become the personal computer. The beauty of this is, it can be any computer - the most lowly Chromebook laptop will download audio files just as well as the most expensive gaming computer - there's absolutely no difference, and this is still true if you're downloading mp3, wav or FLAC - the computer used makes absolutely no difference, whereas 20 years ago, the CD or Record Player used certainly made a huge difference in sound quality - in fact, the "source" playback device was considered the mot important link in the chain.

However, there is no computer available off the shelf - except maybe a Mac, that is optimized for boutique or high end audio playback of the files you download. A Mac is better than most, especially the Mac Pro, or the older Power Mac, but even with these, or any other personal computer, you can make two basic modifications to better optimize for audio. First, you'll need a better DAC (Digital-Analogue Converter), and second, you'll need a low latency operating system. Your computer already has a DAC and an OS, but neither are up to the job, except maybe a Mac, but we're on a pension here remember?

At Home on Top of my HP P6720 Case
So, starting with the DAC, here are a few pictures of what I'm using, and it only cost me $5.00 - yes that's right - 5 bucks at a yard sale got me an Alesis iO/2 Digital Audio Interface, which connects, and is powered by the USB connection of any modern computer. The DAC is a specialized piece of computer hardware that is built into this little gadget. The iO/2 itself is a bit of a cross between a USB-DAC and a professional studio mixer, for use by a studio technician who is working on-the-road with a Laptop. It has two switchable microphone / instrument inputs, coaxial s/pdif input and output, and MIDI in-out. But I'm not using any of this - all I need are it's USB input, the DAC within, and it's completely separate headphone and main-out pre-amps. That's right - the headphone circuit is completely separate from the main stereo line output, each with their own volume control. How cool is that?

Rear Connections
The rear panel connections are (left-to right) midi-out, midi-in, stereo right out, stereo left out, s/pdif out, s/pdif in, and finally the USB connection. This is an older piece of gear, so the s/pdif part is coaxial only (no optical). These are for connecting certain CD players, Dolby surround, digital signal processor, etc. directly into, or through the unit, thus bypassing the DAC built into the iO/2, and using the one built into the source device. Not for me, but the option is there.

Now, what do I mean by a low latency operating system? "Low latency" means having a system which is fast enough to decode audio data without any glitches, making the analogue sound output as smooth as possible. Audio latency is the delay between that time that sound is created and when it is heard, and normally, a computer's Operating System is a bottleneck that has to be dealt with. If you insist on using Windows, here is an article that talks about tweaks that you can do to make Windows more audio-friendly. My preference is to use a low-latency version of Linux - the most well known and easiest to deal with is the Ubuntu Studio Edition. This OS will look after all of your computing needs, including the best possible playback of audio, (and recording if you're into that).

I don't have the golden ears I had 20 years ago, but trust me - this issue of audio latency is important, and I can hear the difference between my un-optimized Windows 7 and Ubuntu Studio - my computer will dual-boot between the two systems, and so the hardware chain is identical. I can't comment about how well the Windows tweaks work, as I have no use for them.

Realistic Custom Pro Headphones (Koss, USA Made)
Now, at the very least, the Alesis iO/2 is a superb headphone amplifier, especially with it's own built-in, and completely separate headphone circuit noted above. What's more, it is much more compatible with older 1/4" jack headphones, not the new higher impedance models designed for portable audio. This means you should either dig out your father's oldie's, or shop for your phones in the Vintage Electronics section. I got mine at a flea market complete with the original box, with no signs of use or unpacking, for $40.00. They're the old Radio Shack (Realistic) brand, but are actually made in the USA by Koss, and they sound absolutely amazing.


Centrios Powered Monitors
Next, the amplifier and speakers - and this is all you need to complete your system, because everything is now playing from your computer, remember? You don't even need an AM/FM receiver, because all FM is available on-line - even your local stations. Think of your computer, along with the above two audio upgrades, as your receiver.

A great solution is to try and find a set of "powered studio monitors", sometimes also known as "active speakers".. In a sense, these are nothing more than high quality computer speakers, but with a more powerful built-in amplifier, and the lack of a headphone jack. Overall build quality of Monitors compared with computer speakers will be far superior. My monitors are branded "Centrios", which is an old brand used by "The Source", which in Canada took the place of Radio Shack. So these aren't the best, but at the time, back in 2006, these were discounted in "The Source" local store by 70%, so I got them for around $45.00. Ken Rockwell has a review for something quite similar.

Another solution is to go back to the god old Vintage Electronics section and shop for some of the tremendously great amplifiers and speakers of yesteryear. This is the upgrade approach I would take, probably using pure single-ended Class A tube power and vintage single driver speakers. This would work very well for me, as my room is very small and I normally sit about 1 Metre away from the speakers.

Finally, if you're so inclined, you can go with a full Dolby Surround system which begins with installing a good high-end sound card in your computer from Sound Blaster, Creative, or Asus, with all the appropriate home theatre hardware downstream. I would not take this approach for two reasons - 1) high cost and 2) Dolby Surround has nothing to do with the way we normally hear music - normal stereo is far more real sounding (and there are many audiophiles who would argue that monaural ("mono") is even more like the real thing).

I would love to write a lot more about this - what would be my most significan upgrade - to subscribe to higher quality downloads, or go with an amplifier / speaker upgrade?

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