Yesterday I told you how I significantly improved the fidelity of my iTunes library with the addition of a digital-to-analog converter. Today, I'm going to fill you in on how I enhanced the sound of my extensive CD collection.
First a word about digital-to-analog converters. This is a device that turns the data compressed in CDs and computer files into music. All CD players have such a converter built in. But because there’s only so much room in a player, a built-in converter tends to be tiny and not very good.
An external converter,
by contrast, is
much larger and sophisticated, thereby able to convert more of the information embedded in a
CD or digital file. That's why the music sounds so much richer when you hook up an external converter to your stereo system. Many people believe that their system's speakers and CD player are essential to their stereo's fidelity. And they are. But without an external converter, much of your digital music, especially in the midrange, will remain unheard. [pictured: CD data enlarged 5,000 times]
For an analogy, relying solely on your speakers for great sound is like having a fabulous camera and photo paper but a printer with only two color cartridges. No matter how colorful the images you photograph, your prints will always be severely handicapped by the printer's limited color palette. By contrast, an external digital-to-analog converter is like having a printer with 50 different color cartridges.
While the addition of an external converter boosted the fidelity of my iTunes library, I faced a unique problem with my CDs. To operate, a converter must be hooked up between your music source (a laptop computer or CD player) and your power source (a receiver or amp). The power source I chose for my office system was an Arcam Solo Mini, which beautifully combines a receiver and CD player in one compact unit. I saved space and money with the Solo Mini compared to buying a separate receiver and CD player of equal quality. But because everything is shmushed together in this unit, I can't place my external converter between the music source and power source. (If you have a separate CD player and power source, you'll be fine.)
Convinced I’d have to sell my new Arcam and buy separate units in order to get the DAC1 USB converter into my system, I called back Rory Rall at Benchmark Media Systems.
“You don’t have to replace a thing,” Rory said. “Do you have $40?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said bracing for ruinous instructions on how to take apart my Arcam and switch wires.
“Are you in front of a computer?” Rory asked.
“Yes,” I said, thinking to myself, "Here we go..."
Rory simply sent me a URL at Walmart.com. Here, for $29, was a compact silver Magnavox DVD player with dimensions that were nearly identical to the DAC1 USB. He also gave me the URL for a composite video cable with RCA jacks on each end sold by Circuit City for $4.
“Just hook the Magnavox DVD player to the DAC1 with the video cable and play your CDs on it," he said. "The music will come through your speakers and should sound as good as your iTunes does now." So I ordered the gear. A few days later, the Magnavox DVD player and cable arrived. I’m happy to report that my CDs now sound just as fantastic as my iTunes.
But there's one more issue to deal with: An external digital-to-analog converter can only play the hand it's dealt. Meaning, the sound you hear is only going to be as good as the quality of the recording you ripped or downloaded. So when it comes to your iTunes library, how you burn and what you download is important.
To improve the quality of the music you rip from CDs to your computer, there are a series of steps you can take, depending on the type of computer you own. Go here to learn what to do.
In addition, a growing number of sites offer high resolution downloads, which is a fancy way of saying that they pack more information into the files shot into your computer. But at this time, not many of these sites offer jazz:
To recap, instead of paying a fortune for a fancy amp and
high-end CD player, you could buy an inexpensive receiver and compact DVD player and devote the bulk of your budget to an external digital-to-analog converter and wind up with detailed, high-fidelity sound.
Yesterday I heard from a music industry friend who just bought an Oppo DV-980H DVD player [pictured] to listen to CDs in his office. He says he is highly impressed with the $169 player here. "A lot of audiophiles I know are using DVD players as transports to feed better digital-to-analog converters like Benchmark's DAC1 and the Bel Canto DAC," he says. My friend adds that the Oppo also plays SACD and DVD-A formats plus has an "audio-only" mode that bypasses its video processing altogether for better sound. What's more, he says, the Oppo has a USB input on front of the player.
Another tip: To free up my computer’s USB port, I decided to connect my DAC1 USB with a Vortex Toslink to Mini Toslink Cable that I ran from the DAC to my computer’s headphone port. This optical cable is available here for about $5.
Benchmark's DAC1 USB is meant to plug and play, meaning you just take it out of the box, hook it up and you’re good to go. But depending on your computer, you may need to make some setting changes. On a Mac, for example, you may need to open your Audio MIDI Setup [pictured: the icon]. You will find this in your Applications folder, in the Utilities folder. Different settings are needed if you use a USB cable to connect the DAC1 to your computer v. digital optical cable.
Now if only someone would just invent software that simulates the "hunt" and "hold" sensations long associated with music shopping and appreciation, I'd be all set.