How to Set Up a Digital Audio System
how to set up a digital audio system
A FAQ for the audiophile new to streaming
Confused about setting up a digital source on your system? It’s not your fault.
There’s no standardized way to refer to digital products, so a digital front end could be called a streamer, DAC, streaming DAC, streaming preamp, streaming amplifier, preamp, music player, music server, ripping server, digital music player, digital transport, and more. Each product could have a number of overlapping functions--there are DACs with phono stages, amps with DACs, music servers with streamers, CD rippers with DACs…However, the basics are the same for all these products. Here are some frequently asked questions from customers about setting up digital systems.
What’s a DAC? I know it’s a digital-to-analog converter, but I’m not sure what it is.
A digital-to-analog converter. We’re not being smart-asses, but that’s really all it is--a circuit or component that takes a digital stream (from Tidal or Spotify or Qobuz, a hard disk, a thumb drive, YouTube, a CD transport, Netflix) and turns it into an analog signal. Your phone has a DAC, so does your iPad, your TV, your laptop. And of course, your old CD player had a DAC. Hi-fi DACs are simply standalone versions of these circuits.
Can I connect a DAC to a preamp or integrated amp?
Yes, you can. "But my preamp is 40 years old!" you exclaim. It doesn't matter. A DAC takes a digital stream and turns it into a line-level stereo analog signal, just like the output from your CD player, tuner, phono stage, (or cassette deck!). So if you can connect a CD player or tuner to your preamp or integrated amp, you can connect a DAC to it. As far as your system is concerned, a DAC is just another analog device.
But will I get the full effect of MQA or high-res by connecting a new DAC to an old preamp?
This is a little like asking, “I’ve never played a 180g One-Step MoFi LP on my turntable system--will my amp recognize it?” The output of a DAC is analog. By the time it gets to your preamp, the MQA or high-res signal has been processed into a regular old sine-wave electrical signal and there’s no digital component that needs processing. So, yes--you’ll get the full effect of whatever your DAC can handle, even with an old preamp.
Can I connect a DAC to my power amp?
Yes, but you should do this only if the DAC has a volume control. Just looking at a DAC won’t tell you if it has an active attenuator, you need to look into the specs or menus. Lumin DACs, for example, have no physical controls, but offer volume control on the iPad app. The Mytek Brooklyn has a knob, but as the knob used for different functions, it may or may not control volume at any given point. The PS Audio DirectStream DAC offers a volume control on the unit’s touchscreen. Remember, even if there is a volume control, DACs can be set up to bypass it! Always double check you have an attenuator in the signal path before connecting a DAC to a power amp, otherwise, you’re going to blast a 100 on a volume scale of 0 to 100 into your speakers and ears.
If a DAC does have a volume control, then a DAC plus power amp is an elegant, easily upgradeable musical solution, as long as you don't have any other sources to connect. (Except if you get a Mytek Brooklyn DAC, which also functions as a preamp and offers two line-level inputs, one of which can be turned into a phono input on the menu.)
What’s a streamer or a streaming DAC?
Let’s look at a CD-player. It is actually two devices in one box (in fact, some high-end CD players were two boxes). A CD transport is the digital “streaming” side, which connects to a DAC on the analog side.
Now let’s look at a streaming DAC or a streamer plus DAC. It’s the same thing!
A streamer can be a laptop, sending its audio output to the USB port. Or it can be a smartphone streaming over Bluetooth. Or it could be a standalone streamer such as an Auralic Aries G2 or Lumin U1. Or a streaming card such as the PS Audio Bridge II or Mytek Roon Ready Card. Or the streaming circuit of a “streaming DAC” such as the Auralic Vega, Lumin D2, Mytek Brooklyn Bridge, or Naim ND5 XS 2. It is essentially an optimized computer that knows how to connect to a network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, can be controlled by a tablet or smartphone app, and can send a digital stream to a DAC, whether that DAC is in the same box, or on a different shelf and connected via a digital cable.
How do I connect a streamer or streaming DAC to recognize Tidal or Qobuz or my NAS drive?
You plug it into your home network router either via Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable. Remember, Wi-Fi is a wireless version of your Ethernet cable--it’s not the same as your cell-phone data network! This seems to cause a lot of confusion. If your phone is on Wi-Fi it’s connected to your router. And it “sees” the internet only because your router sees the internet. Similarly, a streamer or streaming DAC must connect to your router to see the internet (specifically the Spotify, Tidal, or Qobuz servers). Your NAS, if you have one, should also be connected to the router so that the streamer can see the NAS as well. Here’s a typical audio-streaming network setup.
See how the wireless (and wired) router is the heart of the system? Since everything on the network is connected to the router, either via Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi, all the devices see each other. Think of the router as the local USPS office of your home network--it knows every device’s street address, and all data on the network has the recipient’s address, so the router can, well, route, all the data packets to the right places.
Does the iPad need to play music directly to the streaming DAC?
Not at all. Does your CD remote control need to stream the CD signal through itself? Similarly, since your streamer-DAC is directly connected to Tidal or Qobuz via the router, the iPad is merely a remote control. The music does not pass through your iPad. But, but, but, you want to stream music directly from a smartphone so that guests or other family members can easily play their music? Sure! Get a streamer-DAC that offers AirPlay or Bluetooth. Then, a smartphone can send music directly to it, wirelessly . Or use the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adaptor to connect an iPhone or iPad to the USB input of your DAC using a cable. Understand, however, that this is a convenience, not a high-fidelity solution.
I don’t want streaming audio. Can I connect my NAS straight to the streaming DAC using Ethernet cable?
You could, but we doubt it would work. Network devices need a switch or a router between them; they are not meant to connect directly to each other over Ethernet (you would need to manually set an IP address for each). Besides, if you could connect your streaming DAC directly to your NAS, they would see only each other and not your home network (because they are not connected to the router). The iPad wouldn't see either the NAS or the DAC, and so its app couldn't work as a remote control any more.
Back up. What the hell is a NAS?
Network Attached Storage. You know how your laptop is a computer with a hard disk? Think of a NAS as a hard disk with a computer. Shown above is a QNAP NAS with two hard-disk bays. You can buy different sized drives for this device, and decide how many terabytes of storage you want. It connects to your router via Ethernet cable. The little computer on board can run programs that allow the NAS to be used in different ways such as data back-up, security camera footage storage, or as a video or music server. When running as a music server, the NAS sends music to your streamer at the streamer’s request. Because the NAS is on the network, it is accessed via a browser such as Firefox or Chrome.
why do I need to run MinimServer or some other DLNA / UPnP server program on the NAS?
Your streaming DAC is connected to the router. Your NAS is also connected to the router. They “see” each other. So why on earth do you need one more program such as MinimServer to play music?
Well, a streaming DAC can receive and send data on the network, but it doesn’t know how to dig into a Synology or QNAP or Buffalo NAS and navigate the file structure, looking through various folders for music. Some streamers can find shared folders on the network, but as with everything hi-fi, the high-end stuff goes for the leanest, fastest, simplest solutions. The streamer should do as little processing as possible, and focus on sending the DAC a clean music stream. Building in complex file functions is not the high-fidelity way. Besides, would you want a streamer that slows or crashes or hangs as often as your computer does?
MinimServer or some other UPnP / DLNA server program knows and understands the inner workings of your NAS, and also knows how to tell the network that there’s music available. You install MinimServer on the NAS, and then point it to the music folder. MinimServer will scan the folder, read the file tags such as artist, album name, track name, genre, and then broadcast availability on your network. All UPnP devices look for this "music available here!" message. Once your streamer-DAC and iPad control app know there's music available, they can send out requests for certain tracks, and sit back and wait while MinimServer does all the work on the NAS, finding the file and sending the data to the streamer. Thus the streaming signal path is almost like a train with locomotives at each end.
Though DLNA and UPnP are different, for our purposes they are interchangeable. If you must know, DLNA is a networking protocol for media sharing that uses UPnP, which is a device standard that allows devices on the same network to discover each other.
WHAT IS ROON AND WHY DO I NEED IT?
Most streamers have their own control apps, so you don’t need Roon until you use it for a couple of days and get hooked! Roon offers a powerful, intuitive interface with a range of functions and thoughtful little buttons and panels of information you never knew you needed until they were offered to you. After a few days of Roon, you will find yourself refusing to return to your streamer manufacturer’s app. We’ll soon have a detailed guide on setting up Roon, so we’ll take just one more Roon question here.
How do I run Roon?
Here's a diagram of the same home audio network from earlier, but now with Roon enabled.
The only hardware difference is the addition of a Roon Nucleus or some other computer that’s running Roon Core on the network. The Roon core does all the heavy lifting--it discovers and indexes all the available music on the network, it interfaces with streaming services, and sends music to the audio endpoints and zones on network. It can also perform digital signal processing and upsampling. This means that the Roon Remote on your iPad can be so much lighter and faster--otherwise a tablet app with such a detailed interface and so many powerful features would run like a sedated buffalo.
How do I move my CD collection to a hard disk?
Before we talk about this, how many CDs do you have, and do you think you won’t find those albums on Tidal or Qobuz? Sometimes, customers want to buy a CD ripper, and we find they have just 100 CDs. (Once, a customer had “twenty or thirty CDs”). Unless you have a precious, carefully curated collection, just get the streaming service first, then see if you want to bother converting your CDs.
If you do want to go ahead, you can’t just copy a CD onto a hard disk. It needs to be “ripped” because a CD stores music data in a different format, known as Red Book, from the WAV or FLAC files that your computer or music server recognize. You need a program called a CD ripper to convert your audio CDs into 16-bit, 44.1 kHz WAV or FLAC or AIFF files. To rip CDs using the optical drive on your laptop or desktop, you can use programs such as Exact Audio Copy or dBpoweramp. These days, storage is cheap, so we advise ripping to uncompressed WAV files.
The easiest way to rip a large collection is to use a dedicated CD ripper such as the Naim Uniti Core, above. Just insert a CD, and the Uniti Core will automatically rip it, find the track names and cover art on the internet, and store the ripped files on an internal hard disk (not included, to give you a choice of size and type).
I already have a collection of music files, including high-res on my laptop. What’s the best way to store and play them?
Suggesting that there’s a "best" way could start a war. Let’s give you some options. You can put the files onto a USB thumb drive or a USB external hard disk, and connect that to the back of a streamer or streaming DAC (most products allow this).
It's best to store a large collection (1 TB or more) on a NAS drive. QNAP and Synology are two brands that come up often in manufacturer recommendations, with more shout-outs for QNAP. Roon, for example, recommends QNAP. For a truly high-end solution, the Lumin L1 music server, below, is a good choice.
Another option is to use a solid-state drive on a Roon Nucleus so that the Roon Core computer also works as a server. We have a customer who has tried different methods, including USB drives and (non-audio) NASs, and this was the best-sounding for his system.
DAC chips. What do I need to know?
The short answer is the one that comes up again and again on the forums: implementation, implementation, implementation. What this means is that while chips might have a “sound” because of the way they convert the digital signal to analog (and there are many ways to do this, and many choices and compromises to be made), the power supply, output stage, and many other circuit and design choices have a more pronounced influence on the sound.
A supposedly clean and neutral SABRE chip can be paired with a warm tube output stage, and the DAC as a whole won’t sound anything like the same chip paired with a cool, clinical solid-state output stage. While a DAC’s design can give you clues about how it might sound, don’t buy a SABRE DAC assuming that will sound a certain way compared with a Wolfson DAC. You need to hear both, or have a trusted reviewer who has similar taste.
What about ladder or R2R DACs?
As with the previous question, there are too many variables to make a definitive statement about the sound of ladder DACs versus sigma-delta DACs. Don’t buy technology, buy sound.
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