Welcome to my
mid-summer review. After the spring-early summer rush to get out reviews on the
many products that were here, I've actually had a month to just sit back and
enjoy my system. Thank God that we had put in a central air conditioning several
years ago for my wife's allergy problems, as running 8 tube and 5 solid state
amps would make listening in the summer unbearable after a short period of time.
(You understand the air conditioning had nothing to do with my media room Mr.
Anyway, this has allowed me to do some further experimentation on the two pieces of equipment that were recently kept and paid for out of pocket, the M2Tech Young USB D/A converter reviewed last month, and the Mapleshade modified M2Tech hi-Face USB to S/PDIF converter. Both do an excellent job of jitter reduction, with the hiFace being ideal for someone who already has a high end D/A converter, and the Young working as a very good D/A converter for anyone with a unit more than a couple of years old. Plus, the Young also has TosLink, S/PDIF and AES/EBU inputs and will do D/A conversion up to 32-bit/384kHz on its USB input.
So what I've been doing for the past couple of weeks is to listen to the several methods of getting music information out of a computer both analog by doing internal D/A conversion with a sound card, verses the various digital outputs; S/PDIF, TosLink, USB, FireWire, and HDMI, and have come to several conclusions.
1. While HDMI is the only way of getting high bit rate multi-channel audio out, at least with 2 channel audio, it's sound quality is equivalent to TosLink or USB output. It's too bad that some high end companies have spent huge amounts of time improving on USB, as HDMI is the future of digital output.
2. TosLink and standard USB 2.0 are about equivalent sound-wise probably due to their inherent jitter numbers and are unworthy of high end status.
3. FireWire appears to be dead except as a method for some pro units.
4. S/PDIF or AES-EBU when done correctly seems to be the way to go without any other processing between the computer and D/A converter. But using the motherboard's output is not great as noise from the CPU and motherboard components rides along with the signal. On the other hand using these outputs from a very good to great soundcard, such as the 2 channel @JULI or the multi-channel Xonar HDAV 1.3 with S/PDIF, HDMI and 8 channel analog output, work very well.
5. On the other hand, asynchronous USB output using one of the many USB DACS or USB to S/PDIF converters at present is the best sounding way of retrieving digital data from a computer or server.
6. If one has a very good preamp, or does not require the ability to play back vinyl or analog tapes, a good to superb sound card with analog output, possibly directly feeding to the amplifiers, is the way to go as the computer can do volume control and digital signal processing.
7. Not all playback software sounds the same, will work with all types of music files, or have the same ability to correctly play back your files. The ideal program would be able to play all audio file types, do bit perfect transmission through either ASIO, Wasapi or kernel streaming, bypassing a pc's usage of the K mixer, store all playback data in RAM for low jitter rather than reading directly from the hard drive, be able to read and process up to 32 or 64 bit, 384kHz files in real time, and either transmit this data with ultra low jitter bit perfectly, or do superb D/A conversion and produce an analog signal to high end standards. If it were inexpensive, so much the better! Unhappily, there is no program out there that I know of that meets all of these ( although there may be a development on this next month.)
The best sounding program I've heard to date is MediaCenter 16 from J. River. Two channel straight out is very good, it will do WASAPI, Kernel Streaming and ASIO, up to 32 bits, 192 kHz. output, and will do just about any digital signal processing you can think of including equalization, bass boost, multi-channel from 2 channel, etc. Plus it will do DVD and Blu-ray playback, and some web radio. For $50 it is well worth the price.
As the Young unit has broken in, there has been a further smoothing of the slight digititis it had before break-in, and a further opening of the soundstage. Highs are somewhat cleaner. All in all, for the price, I'm more convinced that it is a good deal for anyone using a computer as a music server with a D/A converter more than a couple of years old.
Nanotec NanoClean Z Fluid
The kit consists of two spray bottles, the N-1 Cleaning Fluid, and the N-2 Coating Fluid, plus about 50 cleaning cloths in a small cardboard box. According to the label, the cleaning fluid is "Recommendable for CD/DVD/BD/LD Cleaning to make the Optical Transparency Better & to Eliminate the Optical Disparsion to the surface of the Optical Discs, resulting the Sound & the Picture Quality Better." The N-2 fluid is "Recommendable for CD/DVD/BD/LD Coating to make the Optical Transparency Better & to Eliminate the Electro-Static Charge & Optical Disparsion on the Surface of the Optical Discs, resulting the Sound & the Picture Quality Better."
After having spent seven years in Austria trying to speak and write medical German like a native, and having no ability to read, write or speak Japanese, I can certainly understand translation difficulties. But come on! If you're selling a product in any other language, at least spend a few bucks for a proper translation. Otherwise, there's negativity with the buyer before the sale.
The two clear solutions are easily applied from the spray bottles and the cleaning cloths leave no residue. The N-1 cleaning solution leaves a bright clearness to the disc and the N-2 Optical Coating Fluid actually causes the disc to reflect light differently. Both solutions take a total of about 2 to 3 minute to apply and wipe off per disc.
Of course the proof is in the pudding, or the listening and error correction necessary, in this case. I have several doubles of Blu-ray and SACD discs on hand, to do comparisons with, which haven't been treated with any other product. One of each was sprayed and the other left alone. I also have two CD's that I have kept that were my son's and tend to skip due to superficial scratches on the playing surface. The test I do on these is to transcribe them to my computer files using a free program called Exact Audio Copy. This program keeps going over the disc for as long as it takes to read it as perfectly as possible, and writes down the number of bits it cannot read. Thus one can tell by the amount of time it takes and the number of errors whether there is an improvement or not with the various disc tweaks.
So what's the verdict? Using the EAC program, both the time to transcribe the discs to computer files and the number of disc errors were significantly decreased. Also on playback of the files there were several areas where the disc had dropouts before the treatment which were playable afterward. There were still some unplayable areas on the disc that were probably the places where EAC could not recover the information, so the solutions won't completely repair every disc, but it certainly works to make them more playable. That's one plus!
Sound-wise, with the SACDs that I tried, there was a small but definite improvement in ambiance retrieval. With Blu-ray's the video was slightly crisper and cleaner, both definite improvements.
How does this treatment compare to the several others I've had here? I won't mention names, as I haven't used them in a couple of years and they may have changed their properties, but unlike two that tended to be oily, difficult to clean off and have a tendency to go bad after about a year, these solutions are water based and stable so should last for a while if not used up by cleaning all of your discs at once. The one other solution I have at present which is also water based, did not appear to work as well on the Exact Audio Copy test. Thus two plusses! Is it worth the cost and effort? Again a plus for the Nanotec as it comes in a spray bottle that allows for quick and precise spraying and easy wipe off with the excellent cloths that come with it. Third plus!