|Posted by Amine Slimani on November 10, 2009 at 8:04 AM|
Part 1: USB to SPDIF converters shoot-out: EMU 0404 USB vs. Musiland Monitor 01 USD vs. Teralink-x vs. M2Tech hiFace (Initially published on head-fi on 10/11/09)
Over the time I accumulated a few usb to spdif converters commonly discussed on head-fi, so I decided to write a comparative review of those units. Granted it is a bit tricky to describe the sound of a component that exclusively does its work on the digital level, however the differences do exist and I tried my best to describe how they compare to each other.
Test Protocol :
Before writing my review, I did many A/B tests going back and forth between different units. And besides those A/B tests, I also did extended listening with all those units to get more familiar with their sound as sometimes
To make sure I was not adding any unforeseen parameters, for each A/B test I would use the same usb port, the same usb cable and the same digital cable (used in the same direction).
I did try various digital cables but did most my listening with the sobek digital cable as I was very familiar with its sound. For those who might think that digital cables do not matter, you can find Here a link of an old stereophile article that measures the jitter of various digital cables which show that even the direction of the cable can affect the sound. During my test I tried to beconsistent comparing units with the same digital cable (used at the same direction), and then compared again the units with a different digital cable.
I also tried different usb cables but I ended preferring the Wireworld Ultraviolet usb cable. I did most of my testing with that usb cable except with the m2tech who doesn't need a usb cable.
System Used :
Main Chain :
Foobar 0.8.3 (KS and Otachan ASIO) --> Wireworld USB Ultraviolet --> USB TO SPDIF converter --> Hi-Fi Cables & Cie Sobek or 18 ft. Belden 1694 BNC Cable --> Audio-GD DAC-19MK3 --> Hi-Fi Cables & Cie Khnoum RCA interconnect --> Audio-GD C2C (w/ upgraded pot) --> Moon Audio Blue Dragon V3 cable --> Sennheiser HD-650
Usb to spdif converters :
EMU 0404 USB
Musiland Monitor 01 USD
Power related accessories :
Hi-Fi Cables & Cie PowertransPlus Power Cords
Supra Mains Block
Essential Audio Tools Parallel Filter
Vibration Control :
E&T Spider Rack, Vibrapods, Vibracones, Sandboxes, Brass cones, Acrylic and Fiber carbon sheets,
Herbie's Audio Lab Tenderfoot, SuperSonic Component Stabilizer
Other gear :
Sources : Creative Audio 2ZS Notebook, EMU 0404 usb, Zero DAC, Audio-GD DAC-100
Headphone Amps : Little Dot MKIII, Audio-GD ST-3
Pictures of the system:
Ease of use & Drivers :
EMU 0404 USB :
The EMU 0404 usb is a very versatile unit. It can be used as a DAC, headphone amp, and also a USB to Spdif converter. However, it requires custom drivers and the digital output works only with ASIO.
It has optical and rca spdif output but it lacks a BNC output which might be a drawback for some.
The EMU can do 24/192 thanks to its custom drivers.
Musiland Monitor 01 USD :
The Musiland is a wonderful little unit. It needs custom drivers that work up to 24/192. It works with DS, KS and ASIO so that it can be used with any player.
It has BNC, Spdif and optical out. I am currently using it with the 188.8.131.52 driver and it works flawlessly.
The Teralink is the easiest to use. It doesn't need custom drivers and works with Direct Sound and ASIO (through ASIO4ALL).
It has I2S, BNC, Spdif and optical out. This one is a "plug and play" unit that performs flawlessly but is limited to 16/44 and 16/48.
It is possible to install custom drivers (thread here) but there are no sonic benefits in doing it (those drivers introduce many additional processing to the sound which I found to cause a degradation to the sound in my opinion).
M2Tech hiFace :
The M2Tech hiFace is a very minimalistic unit : it has only one output (I ordered mine with a BNC output) and it plugs directly into a usb receptacle without the need of a usb cable. For now, it has only drivers that work with Kernel Stream and it works with Foobar, Media Monkey and WinAmp.
DS and ASIO drivers are expected later down the road.
The unit does 24/192.
First, all the usb to spdif converters listed in this review outperformed the usb inputs of the DACs I have on hand. So as long as they are used with a decent spdif cable (such as the affordable 18ft. Belden 1694 digital Cable), there should be sound improvement in many dacs (at least with the ones I tested).
Second, I have noticed big differences between usb cables (Edit -- For those skeptics on why there are differences between usb cables, please read the 23/03/10 follow-up). So I settled for the review on the best one I own (the Wireworld Ultraviolet USB) and used it for all the converters and the DACs except for the m2Tech Hiface. Therefore, it is important to note that the m2tech converter has a slight comparative advantage since it doesn't need the use of a usb cable.
Also, for those who might be interested, I wrote a full length review of the DAC-19mk3 (here) that I used for this review. It should give a good idea of a baseline of the sound in my system. I was using the Musiland back then with the Mode A digital filter for the DAC-19 mk3 and the ST-3 head-amp. Since then I upgraded to DF-1704 digital filter (mode B) and the C2C head-amp which made my system more revealing and transparent.
EMU 0404 USB :
I had the 0404 usb for a long time, so I was very familiar with its sound from its analog outputs. When used as usb DAC, the EMU 0404 USB is "bright" sounding, lacks deep bass and the overall sound can be described as "edgy". The sad thing is that those attributes also reveal themselves in the digital output which sound edgy and congested in the top and light in the bass in comparison with the other converters I have.
However, compared to the usb inputs of the Audio-gd DAC-19mk3 or the DAC-100, it is a noticeable step up in resolution and bass tightness.
Also, it is very sensitive to the latency settings : setting that latency from 2ms to 4ms can definitely improve the sound of the higher latencies. However, the EMU 0404 becomes more sensitive to anything else running in the computer and it shows trough crackles and pops. This is especially true forFLAC files as even 24/96 wav files can play at the lowest latencies without a glitch.
Note on USB cables :
I first discovered the effect of usb cables while using the EMU 0404 usb with the Audio-GD DAC-100.
I was doing a comparison between the spdif input of the dac-100 and its usb input, and for a few trials I preferred the spdif input using the EMU 0404 as a transport. When I did the same experiment a little bit later, I found that I preferred the sound of theusb input of the DAC-100 over that of EMU 0404 as a transport. The only thing that changed between experiments is that I used a Belkin cable with the DAC-100. I repeated the experiment many times and could detect the differences : the culprit was the stock usb cable that comes with the EMU 0404 that it is the worst sounding of all (it is also poorly constructed with thin conductors and ferrite shielding).
That led me to buying different usb cables from Monster, Real cable, Belkin Gold, and finally Wireworld Ultraviolet. All of them have different sounds but the Wireworld is clearly superior sounding and it also allowed me to reach the lowest latency settings with the EMU 0404usb without suffering from crackling and pops.
Musiland Monitor 01 USD :
The Musiland Monitor 01 USD is a definite step up in sound quality compared to the EMU 0404 USB (and incedently compared with the usb input of the dac-19mk3).
The highs are cleaner and the bass tighter. The soundstage is a little bigger and there is better separation of the instruments.
I tried different latency settings with the asio control panel of the musiland but it didn't seem to affect much its sound performance. The good thing about the Musiland is it always operates without glitches whatever the load is on the cpu.
Finally, while it is not harsh sounding like the EMU 0404 usb, it lacks some of the sparkle and life that the better converters (teralink, hiface) seem to inject to music. It is not bad by itself but the music seems to be constrained and tight once it is compared with better units.
Note on usb cables :
While the async protocol should make the kind of usb cable that is used irrelevant, the Musiland is however still affected by the choice of the usb cable. It is probably because it draws its power from the computer but is also possible that is still affected by incoming jitter from
Teralink-X : (Edit- The Teralink X has been upgraded to the X2 which accepts 24/96 and has better overall SQ)
When I bought the Teralink-X, I was not expecting much from it. At that time, I already had the Musiland unit and I was just curious to see how it performs because it uses high grade capacitors and a low jitter clock.
Straight out of the box it performed very well. After a few days of burn-in, the sound improved dramatically and it outperformed the Musiland unit easily.
The bass got deeper and more powerful, and the highs became more extended and sweeter at the same time. It is like lighting up a picture and discovering hidden details. But best off all, that increase in overall resolution did not increased the "edginess" of the sound. In fact, the sound became smoother.
The soundstage became bigger, almost limitless. In fact, on most recording I don't feel that I am listening to headphones, the only thing that keeps reminding that I am listening through headphones is the pressure of thesennheiser hd-650 on my head.
The imaging is precise, and hollographic in many recordings thanks to the precise separation of instruments and voices. Every instrument/singer has its own place on the soundstage.
Overall, I find the sound sometimes too good to be true. I got accustomed that only a few "audiophile" recordings sounded great in my system, however with theTeralink -X all recordings sound enjoyable in my system. I can still hear big differences between quality of recordings, the encoding used (mp3,flac, wav), but the Teralink-x, especially when paired with the Belden BNC cable, lets you focus on the positive sides of the recordings which is some might call "musicality".
Note on digital cables :
The Teralink-X works best in my system with the Belden BNC cable.
When paired with the Belden cable it gives a wide soundstage and a very smooth sound, "tubey like".
When paired with the Hifi Cables Sobek BNC cable, I get an increase in resolution, but a smaller soundstage and an increase in brightness "edginess".
Note on burn-in :
The Teralink-X needs a few days to sound its best. It doesn't sound bad at first but after a dew days of continuous play-back, the sound opened up and the bass got deeper. TheTeralink -X uses many capacitors inside that might explain the big change in sound that I did not notice to that extent (or at all) with the other converters
M2Tech Hiface :
The m2tech hiface is my newest usb to spdif converter, I have only owned it for a few days, but I have listened to it for enough hours now to get a sense of how it sounds. This minuscule unit is simply outstanding.
First, the music just makes more sense. The notes flow more easily and it requires less efforts from the listener to understand what the performers were trying to convey. There is also a general increase in resolution that makes the music more real, probably because of its better retrieval of low level information on the recordings which makes reverbs and ambiance hall more audible in Live recordings and Classical music.
Second, the soundstaging is wonderful. It has a better pinpoint and 3D imaging than the other units, and there is a even better separation of instruments and voices. In fact, whether it is because of better imaging or because of better dynamics, the result is that instruments and voices seem to have more acoustic power (while playing at the same volume levels as I did with the other converters), the presence factor of performers and instruments is much higher.
Also, while the soundstage with the Teralink-X is big, there is not as much differentiation between recordings. With the hiface, the soundstage changes a lot (in width, depth and height) between different recordings.
Finally, the frequency extremes seem to have been extended with a more shimmering and extended highs and more articulate and tuneful bass. Compared to theTeralink -X, there is also a shift in the tonal balance to a more neutral and faithful balance. There is a better differentiation between the quality of the recordings and it doesn't impose a sound signature on the recordings : Warm recordings come out as such and over-processed recordings are highlighted as such but are still enjoyable to listen to.
Note on digital cables :
Differences between digital cables are more easily spotted : the Belden is muffled, there is also haze and distance to its sound which gave me the impression of a big and wide soundstage.
The Sobek has a better resolution, is razor sharp, highs are more extended, and the overall perceived volume is louder probably because there is more information coming through to the dac.
Once I bought the 18 ft. Belden cable, I didn't like the sobek as much as I used to before when I used it with the other converters because it was more honest and showed the shortcomings of those units.
With the hiface I can enjoy the high resolution sound provided with the Sobek.
Note on media players :
Since I have had the hiface only for a few days, I did most of my testing with foobar 0.8.3 and foobar 0.9.6.4 with KS.
I preferred the sound using the old foobar 0.8.3 but the current version of the driver has a bug with 0.8.3, the time slider of track doesn't move when playing.
I tested briefly MediaMonkey and I made the Hiface work with ASIO4ALL. Then I tried ASIO4ALL in foobar with the hiface and it worked but the sound quality was not as good as with KS.
Final note on the Hiface :
Each time I was doing A/B comparisons with one of the other units, I would end up listening to the M2tech and forget about my review. Unplugging it to put another converter was a tough experience each time because I had to be pulled out of the music.
Beyond the criteria I described above (soundstage, resolution, ...), the M2TECH hiface was the most satisfying unit from a sonic point of view as it was the closest to real representation and offered the most believable representation of music.
Preliminary Conclusion :
Getting a clean spdif signal from a usb port of a computer seems at first like a simple task but appears to be a rather complicated endeavour in practice. There are many usb to spdif converters today in the market and it is hard to predict how they perform. Their performance is tied both by the quality of the drivers and the quality of the components (clocks,spdif transmitters, ...)
Out of the 4 converters I tested in my system, the m2tech hiface is the one that did the best job. I have indeed been very impressed by the performance this extremely small unit and it doesn't even require a usb cable. The designer of the hiface paid great attention not only to the proprietary drivers (like EMU and Musiland) but also to the quality of components and clocks that are used.
Granted it is the less flexible unit to use as it is limited for now to KS (Kernel Streaming) with limited media players but its superior sound quality makes you forget about its limitations.
The Teralink is the second best performing unit that is leaning a little bit on the "warm" side. However, it was only when I listened to theHiface converter that I became of that coloration.
If your library contains only CD files and mp3s, the Teralink-X is very good as it combines both a "high resolution" sound with a slight warmth that makes it more forgiving toward less than perfect recordings.
However, when you add the cost of a high quality usb cable, the overall cost exceeds that of the m2tech hiface. So it is hard to recommend it because it is limited to 16/48 and doesn't sound as good as the m2tech. Any "audiophile" who is willing to buy such a converter would likely either purchase theMusiland for its convenience or the m2tech for its performance.
The Musiland Monitor 01 USD is a very nice little unit that can do 24/192 and allows for high flexibility (ASIO, KS, DS). Sound wise, it is not a match (in my system) for the Hiface or the Teralink but I am pretty sure that if it used on other DACs that have better reclocking, the performance gap with the two converters might not be as noticeable.
The EMU 0404 usb comes last (old drivers, components of average quality, and requires a high quality usb cable). However, it is the only unit that has analog inputs and outputs. In my opinion, it should not be bought to serve only as a USB to Spdif converter. There are many units out there that are cheaper and that perform better.
Follow-up - 16/03/10
I have been using the Hiface for months now and I am still amazed about how good it sounds. Since I wrote my usb to spdif shoot out, it seems that the Hiface has gained popularity.
Below are the link to 2 reviews by EnjoytheMusic.com and 6 moons.
More on the USB to SPDIF converters ...
Comparison between usb to spdif converters:
So far, I have compared the Hiface to 4 other usb to spdif converters. I have testes each of those converters with different drivers and usb cables (Wireworld Ultraviolet, Monster, Belkin Gold, Real Cable...). And so far, the Hiface seems the most neutral in comparison.
Here is a quick recap of how they sound:
- Emu 0404 USB: thin and edgy sounding, small soundstage, limited extension at the frequency extremes
- Musiland 01 USD: relatively neutral balance, better extension at the frequency extremes than the EMU 0404
- Teralink-X: relatively warm sounding, better extension at the frequency extremes than the Musiland
- Purepiper usb to spdif converter: relatively warm sounding, limited extension at the frequency extremes.
- Hiface: The most transparent of the group
Using the Hiface with different digital cables:
I tried the Hiface with many digital cables. Here are some quick impressions using the dac19mk3 as a DAC.
- Hiface + Canare cable: The sound is constricted, edgy, the soundstage is small
- Hiface + Belden cable: The sound is warm, the soundstage bigger than life (but not very precise), the transients are slowed and muffled in comparison with higher end cables
- Hiface + Sobek (modded): The sound is slightly on the warm side of neutral. The soundstage is not as big as with the Belden but is more defined and varies from one recording to another. There is a big increase in details.
- Hiface + Stereovox XV2: The sound is slight on the thin side of neutral, a little bit bright/metallic timbre. However, it is more detailed and spacious than the Sobek.
- Hiface + Oyaide DB-510: The sound is neutral and transparent. It the most detailed but also the most natural combination.
Using the Hiface and Oyaide with different DACs:
Since I have settled for the Hiface + Oyaide as my reference front end, I have used it to test different DACs and here is how they sound
- Hiface + Oyaide + Purepiper DAC A-1: It has a relatively neutral tonal balance with a slight emphasis on the upper midrange. It is a little bit dry sounding. With the wrong associated equipment it can sound harsh.
- Hiface + Oyaide + FUN version A (with the AD1852 dac chip): The sound is darker than the Purepiper. It is smoother; it has a lot less apparent details (different voicing) but has more low level details. It is also richer sounding.
- Hiface + Oyaide + FUN version A (with the WM8740 dac chip): The sound is warmer than with the AD1852 but there is a definite loss of details and a little bit of mid bass bloat.
- Hiface + Oyaide + FUN version B (with AD1852): It has a more limited bandwidth than version A and has dirtier highs. The sound is constricted and edgy in comparison with version A.
- Hiface + Oyaide + DAC19mk3 (with the DF1704 digital filter): The soundstage is huge and well defined, with holographic imaging. The transients are faster. There is a great sense of transparency. The bass is deep and accurate. The highs are cleaner than any other combination above.
- Hiface + Oyaide + DAC19mk3 (with the PMD100 digital filter): While the PMD100 is not as fast as the DF1704 filter, it has a purer tone with greater tonal density. It is “analog heaven” not because it adds pleasing distortion but because it has purer highs.
Overall, I am not saying that the Hiface + Oyaide should be used in any system as component matching is important to get a musically satisfying result.
But both the Hiface as well as the Oyaide digital cable are very transparent components. It is possible to achieve a similar tonal balance with other combination, but by using lesser components, you loose at the same time low level details, frequency extension, soundstage and imaging clues, and timbre subtleties that cannot be recovered elsewhere in the chain.
So while I understand that a specific system can sound thin and edgy with Hiface, I believe it is not because of the Hiface but because of other components in the chain (digital cable, DAC) that are more likely to be the culprit.
Side Note: I suspect that in highly resolving systems when using DACs based on sigma delta chips (and opamps), it is likely that the Hiface will sound thin and dry simply because it will reveal the true sonic character of the DAC; other more jittery devices such as the Teralink seem to inject some kind of pleasing dither that makes the listening more tolerable and enjoyable (but less precise).
Here is again a few links to why sigma delta dacs are flawed and were only pursued to lower the cost of manufacturing in comparison with the R2R/multibit DAC chips.
Mother of Tone - Conversion Techniques
How DACs Work
J River Media Center vs. Foobar v1.0
A few days ago, J River Media gave away 5 free licences for people to try against their preferred media player (mainly Foobar).
After a few days of use, I found that there were subtle but noticeable differences.
To my ears, listening through J River (in comparison to Foobar v1.0) is like turning up the sharpness controll of a TV set. With J River all the apparent details are over emphasized but at the expense of the very fine and more subtle details. For example, the image outlines are sharper with J River, but the fine little ambient cues are less audible and you feel like everything has been recorded in a dead quiet studio.
So like for TVs, a little bit of added sharpness (with J River) could be either a good thing or too much and fatiguing on the long term.
Of course, one could also suggest that Foobar is dull and that J River is neutral, but that wouldn't explain how Foobar has more low level resolution.
Overall, it is a nice thing to have yet another mean to "tweak" the sound through the media players. And given that J River contains a lot more than a mere music player, I think it is a remarkable achievement when we compare it to Window Media Player/Media Center.
Note: All my comments about Foobar, concern the v1.0. For an unknown reason, I have always found the 0.9.x versions grainy sounding and kept using v0.8.3 until the release of the v1.0.
More on the Teralink-X drivers
I did some comments and measurements that are buried in this long thread, so I decided to include them in this follow-up.
Quick note/update: Since my comparison, Teralink has released the X2 version which uses a 24/96 Tenor usb chip. For future buyers, I think the extra cost of the X2 is worth it.
[QUOTE=slim.a;6226500]I have tried 3 drivers with the Teralink-x: the stock driver that automatically installs, then the CM-108 Driver v.184.108.40.2069, and finally the Ploytec usb asio.
The CM-108 Driver v.220.127.116.119:
I tried after a few weeks of using the Teralink and I found the sound horrible. I tried to disable all the dsp effects but there was always a loss in resolution and sound quality. I did some research and found out it had only 14 bits of resolution vs. 16 bits of the stock windows drivers. I uninstalled it and went back to using the stock windows drivers.
The stock windows drivers that installs automatically:
This is a good driver. I did most of my listening with this one. However, the sound is the on warm side of neutral compared to all the other converters. After trying many digital cables to get a better perception of its sound, I noticed that there is a "dulling" of the sound and a smoothing/slowing of the transients. It has a pleasing effect but it is not accurate. The soundstage is very big but not very well defined.
Anyway, I am sure that people who like the "tube" sound will prefer it to most other settings or even converters for that matter. As for me, once I detected the added warmth, I could not continue to appreciate it.
The Ploytec usb asio driver :
This one improves the sound to a more neutral balance. There is less "dulling" of the sound. The soundstage size remained the same but the imaging improved.
This driver is closer in tonal balance to the sound of the Musiland and the Hiface which leads me to believe it is closer to the "truth".
Overall, I think that not all people are looking for "cleaner" sounding sources. In my experience, lowering the jitter (improving the quality of the transport) result in the following results : Bigger soundstage, less mid-bass warmth/bloat, more defined and deeper bass. Usually, you get less mid bass and more deep bass (if your equipment let you hear that) which might not be what people expect or want to hear.[/QUOTE]
[QUOTE=slim.a;6228834]I read about the cmedia drivers here : Homebrew CMI 8738 drivers - Hydrogenaudio Forums
By the way, when I chose to uninstall the CMedia drivers the first time I tried them it was based only on my subjective listening. You can read my comment about them here : [URL="http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f7/review-audio-gd-dac-19mk3-435669/index10.html#post6042974"]http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f7/review-audio-gd-dac-19mk3-435669/index10.html#post6042974[/URL]
Also, since I was in a curious mood today, I did some RMAA measurements this morning for both the generic/stock driver of the Teralink and the CM-108 Driver v.18.104.22.1689.
I put the results in a Zip file if anyone is intersted in them.
First, how did I test it ? I used to the EMU 0404 usb to record the output of my audio-gd dac-100 using the Teralink as a transport.
Since I have tested the EMU with a SNR of 113 db (the SNR drops to 96 db when tested in 16bits which is to be expected) and since the audio-gd dac-100 has a SNR over 100db, if anything is done wrong in the digital domain it would show in the analog stage. If data is lost somewhere in the path it cannot be retrieved.
For what is it worth, my findings are as follow :
The generic windows drivers do not seem to mess with the data.
The CM-108 Driver v.22.214.171.1249 seem to have trouble outputting correctly 16/44 without messing with the data. The SNR is worse by a 4 (and up to 6db) compared to the best results I had with the generic windows drivers.
To my surprise, the 24/96 test with the CM-108 Driver v.126.96.36.1999 drivers improved the results in SNR over 16/44. However the drivers are limited to 48khz. There is a cut-off at 48 khz.
After trying 24/48 and 24/44 I concluded that the benefits comes from going to 24 bits rather than from "upsampling" to 96.
I read in the Valab thread people linking the 24/96 upsampling with the CM-108 drivers. Since I don't own a NOS DAC, I cannot comment on that. All I know is that there is a real loss in transparency using the CM-108 drivers in my system. I understand however that some people might like the "sonic signature" of the CM-108 drivers, but it is not the most accurate driver in my opinion.