A high-end streamer is a game-changer, even for analog-only audiophiles
If you still think digital sounds "digital", you haven't heard a state-of-the-art streaming source through a DAC you love.
Most people understand that a $5,000 turntable would sound drastically better than a $500 one. After all, the reasons are grounded in basic physics. Better turntables add mass where it's needed (the platter) and remove it where it's not (the tonearm). They damp resonance by using space-age materials and design, and reduce friction with expensive bearings.
In short, better turntables reduce the huge amounts of noise and distortion present in cheaper tables. So why should a digital product be any different? It's not, because...
Cheap Digital is NOISY!
We think of digital as somehow immune to any issues, and that we can safely plug a PC into our high-end setup, and it'll sound just fine. Ever listened to your computer working while you're on headphones? They are audibly noisy!
There is high-frequency switching noise leakage from the power supplies that can travel through your digital source and couple with analog circuits further down, masking top-end detail and air. There is clock phase noise that couples with the digital circuit and causes jitter when the music packet data is turned into a music stream. There is induced RFI and EMI along those long, multistrand Ethernet cables, and "self-pollution" from those high-speed, high-frequency circuits in routers, switches, Ethernet receivers, and USB inputs and outputs.
The question isn't "How could digital products affect the sound?" but "How could they NOT affect the sound?"
Good Streamers Fix Noise
Just as a good turntable uses various technologies to drop noise and reduce distortion, a streamer does too. Starting with power supplies. Noisy switching supplies are replaced by linear power supplies with toroidal transformers and large smoothing capacitors. High-end streamers can have two or more power supplies, separating, for example, the front-end interface circuitry from the critical back-end streaming and clocking circuitry. They use ultra-precise, albeit expensive clocks, which have less noise and also way less jitter, and this is audible as increased "musicality" or "flow". Finally, there's a proper chassis to shield everything and reduce any noise from microphonics.
The Case for High-End Streaming, Even For Analog Nerds
As the recent news from MoFi about their high-end vinyl has shown us, being caught up in the inherent superiority of one medium over another is to completely ignore the context of the musical chain from singer through microphone in the studio all the way to your speakers in your listening room at home.
How do you reliably compare two media and say one is "better" than the other? After all, a 24-96 FLAC nearly directly from the original master tapes is probably more "analog" than an early 2000s vinyl that's pressed off a bad digital master.
Even if you are fiercely analog, having a good digital front end opens up your musical world. You can properly listen to new music and decide if you want to own the vinyl. You can explore new bands and obscure genres like never before, finding gems you'd never normally have heard.
A lot of analog fiends tout the joy of listening to entire albums in one sitting. And yet it's so much fun, especially when you have company, to jump from band to band, track to track, picking out old favorites without leaving your chair. You can have internet radio playing as you cook or work; sure you're not listening "critically", but it's still a lot more engaging to listen to it playing over a proper system than having it squawking off your phone.
The Conductor app offers an immersive interface and the best possible sound with Aurender streamers.
Don't Forget Software
You make your regular computer better by adding a faster, more powerful processor, more RAM, more features. But you make an audio computer better by removing or shutting down as much as you possibly can. In fact, early high-end PC streamers used two separate computers, a more powerful one for the front-end interface and library management, and a second utterly stripped-down one dedicated just to serving a digital music signal to the DAC.
Roon does the same thing, by running a pared-down operating system called ROCK on their Nucleus (available to anyone who wants to install it on an Intel NUC). Aurender offers its Conductor app as the best-sounding solution, not because apps have a sound per se (though different ways of handling digital processing can change the final signal), but because a native app with minimal code running in dedicated hardware, creates an extremely low-noise, low-latency environment.
In addition, as HiFi Rose shows us, streamer software written by hi-fi nerds can be great fun. The high-res touchscreen on the front can become anything you want, from an FM tuner to a graphical tool to help select inputs and connect cables (you need to try it to see how great this is).
Don't like screens? Some of us don't, and make it a point to turn them off. Lumin gives you just such an option with their already minimal screen. Kind of mid-way? AURALiC gives you a bigger screen for when you might need it, such as diving into DSP settings (though you can do this on the app as well) and for decent album art displays when you have people over.
Best of All? Software Updates
Talk to an early Tesla owner and they'll tell you that seven years later, their car is even better than when they first got it, through the magic of software updates.
Lumin users, for example, woke up one morning to find a whole new lossless volume control on their products, prompting many of them to get rid of their preamps and connect the DAC outputs straight into the power amp.
The regular updates from your streamer manufacturer aren't always as dramatic, but they fix bugs, add features, and improve sound. What other audio components just keep getting better and more useful over the years?
Advantages of a Separate Streamer and Separate DAC
One box or separates? That's the big question in audio, and as always, the answer is, it depends. But all things being equal, separates usually make more sense.
While there are certain sonic advantages to keeping the streamer close to the DAC in one unit, there are also advantages to separating them. Two boxes mean two completely different power supplies for digital and analog circuits, and also physical isolation with each in a separate chassis. At similar price levels, the separates will offer better, well, separation, and a lower noise floor.
Once you get used to a certain interface (provided by the streamer), you can switch out DACs without changing the way you interact with your system. Figure out, for example, whether you prefer ladder DACs with no oversampling, or sigma-delta DACs with extreme oversampling.
This works the other way too. If you have a DAC you love, you can change to a different interface without losing your DAC's sonic signature.
Having separate products also helps with system longevity in terms of support, but it's worth noting that people who own older digital equipment find that the fear of obsolescence is greatly overblown. Because these products intentionally use such low processing power, they don't need to have the latest, greatest processors, and even the newest apps operate the older products. One of the Upscale crew has a Naim UnitiQute from 2010 that works perfectly with the current Naim control app. Not bad for a 12-year-old product!
What We're Listening To
By Jake Spencer, Junior Sales Associate
Nurture, Porter Robinson
'Look at the Sky' intertwines synth pop and a beautiful piano melody as it sings of his triumph in overcoming depression, proclaiming, "I'll be alive next year."
Porter's voice is organic and authentic but begins to distort, with his pitch shifting to add further depth and emotion to his words. Some songs are ambient and atmospheric, while others ring out as euphoric pop. He's a master of catchy melodies that seem to celebrate overcoming one's own personal demons. It is unlike any other album I have ever heard. On Qobuz it is available in CD quality with enough detail to truly absorb the intricate sounds he has created.