Welcome! I've lost track with the abundance of material that's been coming in. Like most things in life, some month's I'm scrounging for things to write about and in others I've got several manufacturers banging on the doors asking for their equipment to be reviewed yesterday. Anyway, on to the reviews!
Audiophilleo2 24/192 USB
1. The motherboard's own analog output. The problem there is that most motherboard outputs use stereo mini phono plugs which are not conducive to the best interconnects, and the digital signal has to go through the kernel mixer, a process where all bit rates are re-sampled to 48 kHz. before decoding, thus degrading the signal.
2. The motherboard's optical or electrical S/PDIF output. While the optical has the advantage of electrically isolating the computer from the music system thus eliminating some of the noise inherent in computers, it tends to have higher jitter rates than the already high jitter rate of the electrical SPDIF output. One can overcome the 48 kHz. kernel mixer problem of the analog output by using either ASIO or WASAPI drivers for your playback program, but the jitter problem is still there.
3. The analog or digital outputs of a good to great soundcard. The advantage here is less jitter, and near studio quality recovery of the signal. The problem is the added complexity both of the hard and software which has to be set up for each different type of digital file. Then there's the expense, which can vary for $200 for a decent semi-pro unit to over $1000 for one of the professional grade soundcards.
4. The HDMI output of the motherboard or soundcard. The advantage is that signals up to 9.1 channels of 24-bit/192kHz audio can be transmitted with high definition video along one connection. The disadvantage is that there may be higher jitter and interference between the various channels.
5. The FireWire output of either the motherboard or an add-on card. This is actually the professional standard developed by Apple for digital audio signals and has excellent bandwidth and jitter characteristics. Unhappily, few if any high end audio DACS, preamps, or pre-pros have FireWire inputs.
6. The USB output of either the motherboard, add-on cards or off the front of the computer. While this is the most ubiquitous type of output on any computer, and with the new 3.0 standard can transmit huge amounts of information, it does have the problem of relatively high jitter rates and noise from the computer chips. Then there's the fact that few DACS, preamps, etc. have USB inputs.
So what's a fellow to do? Until now, I've used an ASUS HDAV 1.3 Deluxe card, with SPDIF, HDMI and 8 RCA analog outputs. While a great way to get all the various types of digital data to my pre-pro, it does take up two spaces on the motherboard, requires that it receive the video from a separate card, and with two channel audio, doesn't quite have the ultimate in reproduction. On the other hand, until now it was the only way to get 24-bit/96kHz 7.1-channel audio out of a computer. Since the introduction of Windows 7, which has the ability to transmit HDCP secure sound through any HDMI output, there are some chips and motherboards which have direct HDMI audio and video output but at this point only two channels, and several new graphics cards can also transmit now both the video and uncompressed audio from their HDMI output. I'll discuss this further in next month's column.
Now, several companies have come out with units that convert a USB input to an SPDIF output with the ability to isolate the grounding of the computer with the audio system, and reduce jitter by asynchronous transfer of the digital signal, with most receiving their electrical power from the computer through the USB input. One, the Mapleshade Reclocker, based on the M2Tech HiFace Interface, was discussed two months ago at this link.
The Audiophilleo2 kit (and their more expensive Audiophilleo 1) consists of the USB to SPDIF converter, a well-built USB cable, and BNC to RCA converter. Unlike other units which require both USB and digital cables, or the M2Tech HIFace which plugs into the computer and requires a high grade S/PDIF cable, this unit plugs directly into the RCA or BNC input on your DAC. This allows for the lowest jitter increase after leaving the converter. The only disadvantage is that the box then blocks one of the RCA and all of the optical SPDIF inputs on my pre-pro. This will probably not be a problem with DACS with larger cases. On the other hand, the unit has special drivers for Windows Vista and 7 ( not required for XP, Linux or MACS) which allow 24-bit/176kHz and 192kHz transfer of data at a jitter level of less than 2.5 picoseconds RMS, 10-100 kHz., which is unheard of with even most high end transports and DACS.
Sound-wise, this unit does improve on the Mapleshade modified M2Tech, the only other similar product here at present, giving an improved soundstage, probably due to its lower jitter and ability to transmit 24 bit 176 or 192 kHz. signals rather than the M2Tech's 16 bit limit. Whether this is due to its not needing a separate SPDIF cable or improved electronics is unknowable, but insignificant. Compared to my computer's SPDIF output, the sound is far superior, giving a much cleaner soundstage. For two channel music, it also beats out my HDMI transmission, which is supposed to have fairly high jitter which may or may not be overcome by your pre-pro. Thus, except for using the analog outputs of my ASUS soundcard, it gives the best sound I've had from my media center computer. At $495 it is about twice as expensive as the M2Tech, but, with a great playback program such as FOOBAR, it results in sound that compares to some of the best transport-DAC combinations out there.
And now a few words from Philip Gruebele of Audiophileo:
Oppo BDP 95 Universal Player
This was supposed to be a World Premiere article, but the death of Alan Wright put this article back a month, so Leonard Norwitz's review at this link beat me out. As it is about as complete a discussion as possible on the unit, I'll only add a few comments. The BDP 95 like the high end BDP 83SE predecessor, uses SABRE 32 (bit) processors, with the 95 using two of the newest Sabre 32 Reference ES 9018 chips, the highest rated among the ESS DAC chips, one for the 5.1 analog output and one for the stereo RCA and true differential balanced XLR outputs, using four DACS for each of the left and right channels. The unit will play any disc out there except for the long lost HD-DVD standard, including SACD which can be either decoded in the machine or output as either DSD or PCM, 2 or 5.1 channels to your pre-pro.
The unit is heavier than most universal players out there, probably secondary to its large torroidal power supply transformer. The front is solid shiny black with only four small buttons visible from a distance, and the front LCD screen can be turned off for room darkness. In addition, through the remote, one can also turn off all video output which slightly improves the audio output. Unlike the previous OPPO units, one can hear no fan noise from even a few inches away.
In addition to having a better power supply and DACS than the 83SE, the unit also has the ability to play back 3D blue Ray discs through its level 1.4 HDMI output. Another new feature is the ability to play back standard and high (when available) definition movies from Netflix and Blockbuster through its Ethernet input. Finally, one can hook up a hard drive through the USB or external SATA input to play back all of your digital music and movie files.
It has two 1.4 level HDMI outputs so that one can use one for transmission to your video monitor and one for audio to your preamp-processor, and the wired or wireless Ethernet connections can also stream content to other parts of the home. Included in the box is a cloth bag for the unit, an HDMI 1.4 quality cable, standard AC cable, and a wireless B,G,N compatible adapter for wireless Ethernet transmission. The back lit remote control is the same as with their previous units and is one of the best I've used. Their instruction booklet, unlike others, is well thought out and uses exemplary English. The unit also has 2Gb of internal storage for BD Live and system files, and can read data off of an external drive either through a USB or eSATA input. It can be used with 110-240 volt, 50 to 60 Hz. just by flipping a voltage switch on the back of the player.
On the video side, the unit uses Marvell QDEO video processing that gives quality that could only be obtained a few years ago using multi-thousand dollar video processors. While I had no way of evaluating it for 3D films, the 2D picture on my Electrohome 9500LC projector is the best I've seen from any digital source including off the air high definition TV.
Now for the important part! Whether using its 5.1 or 2.0 RCA or balanced outputs, or its HDMI output, either as PCM or DSD, the unit outplays even my ModWright modded BDP 83SE. For its $999 list price, the unit is an even bigger steal than it BDP 83SE predecessor, which Absolute Sound's Harry Pearson has even lauded, and regretted its demise. I don't know whether it's the new DACS, the power supply, or the output stages or all together, the two stereo outputs match units costing several thousand dollars in quality. And I'm not talking about the Lexicon universal player that used the electronics and transport from the BDP 83 and charged $5000 for the cabinet, but the best universal players I've heard out there. Its analog 7.1 output is cleaner than the HDMI input to my Integra 9.8 pre-pro, but I'm sure that is more a problem with the now somewhat outdated pre pro than the OPPO. I'm hoping to get a more up to date pre-pro in the near future and will report on the change in the HDMI sound.
In addition one has the ability to play back movies from Netflix and Blockbuster, and possibly in the future other services on the web, use the unit as a media player to stream music and video from home media servers via either hard wire or wireless, and even be able to play back PAL discs from Europe if you have any. The only thing missing is the ability to play back HD-DVD discs, several of which I wish I could watch once more.
Anyway, for its $999 asking price, while slightly higher than its 83SE sibling, it is still a steal and highly recommended.