"What a refreshingly honest blog about listening to music through hi-fi. So happy to see views based upon the enjoyment of music rather than so-called sound 'quality'." - Peter Comeau, Director of Acoustic Design at Mission / Wharfedale

Friday 25 February 2011

Squeezebox Touch - Evolution Begins

No changes to the rest of the system (although there is a bit relating to cables...) so this is the first stages of experimentation with streaming audio and how it relates to the Logitech Squeezebox Touch in my system.  For the first part of this story, see the posting First Streaming Times below.
So we are at a Touch on its own into the rest of the system using a pair of Linn Black analogue interconnects.  And it sounds very detailed but flat, lacking space between the instruments, there's little width to the sound and its all lacking somewhat in terms of drive / pace / enthusiasm.  Its fine for background listening, but not so good for listening to music properly.  The CD player is still in a different league.  These comparisons are done between the same CD and the ripped version in FLAC, not against high res files which would be an unfair comparison.
Some research revealled that quite a few folks have been running external DACs on their Squeezebox Duets and Touches with some success, and there are various references to different (e.g. Fidelity Audio, Teddy PS) external power supplies making a difference.
There's then a whole separate story about a chance opportunity to go to a Naim dealer when Naim themselves were there demoing loads of kit.  I might write that one up sometime.  But the key relevant point here is that Naim have come out with a streaming device that sounds distinctly unimpressive to me when using its internal DAC, but plug it into the Naim stand alone DAC and it sounds astonishingly good.  Add the external power supply to the external DAC and you have something quite remarkable, but also rather expensive (approx £6.5k at this point).  So this, coupled with the internet chattosphere spurred me on to further experimenting.
I took the plunge and bought a Cambridge Audio DACMagic (for those with an eye for absolute detail, its a black one) along with the CA basic optical digital interconnect.  This is a major step forward and unleashes all sorts of extra information, deeper bass and the soundstage leaps out from between the speakers and pretty much doubles in width.  Hmm, very interesting.  If I then move the interconnect from the CD player (its an AudioQuest Topaz) there are further improvements in control and bass extension.  I purchased a What HiFi recommended Chord Chameleon Silver Plus interconnect (£125) which is an improvement on the Linn, but isn't as good as the Topaz (£180 for 0.5m over 10 years ago, but thrown in when I bought the CD player).
Now if I use the DACMagic and CD player as a transport then the CD player inbuilt DAC still wins out, and that's using an optical digital interconnect (not tried with a coax interconnect yet), so the DACMagic doesn't appear to be as good as the DAC inside the CD player.  Or is it?
The reason for this doubt is because of the next step I took.  I picked up an old coax digital lead that's actually designed for Meridian components to talk to each other, but only for control purposes, so its not exactly designed with sound quality in mind.  However, the improvement of this over the optical digital lead was astonishing.  Optical appears to be rubbish - that could be the Touch output, the DACMagic input, or the cable, or some kind of combination of all or some of these. The biggest difference here is difficult to describe, but if you imagine the "space" around, between and behind instruments is blackness, then the blackness was much blacker - I guess it means there's some kind of digital error correction or hash (jitter?) disappearing from the signal? The music is now going along with some proper drive and pace.  Foot is tapping at last. So if a rubbish cable is better than an optical one, what's a decent cable like?

So in comes a fairly basic but recommended digital coax cable - a QED Performance which is only £30.  Another step forward over the basic coax, but more subtle this time - mainly in the treble area, it's lost some of the remaining grittiness and splash.  Must get around to trying the DACMagic with the CD player transport and the coax interconnect soon, just haven't had the time.
So we're now at Touch - QED coax - DACMagic - Chord Chameleon. 

Comparison with CD player is now getting about 85% of the way there.  CD player still giving a bit more in terms of punch / pace etc, but from a pure detail point of view, there's nothing in it.  CD player still using the Topaz interconnect though, which is somewhat better than the Chord Chameleon.
So off to ebay to find a secondhand Topaz (you can't buy them new anymore).  No luck there, but did find 2 pairs of Audioquest Emerald interconnects which were top of their range at around £230 for 0.5m.  Got them for £40 and £42 so one for the CD and one for the DACMagic.  So here we have yet another improvement to both Touch / DAC and the CD player.  Again its subtle but its definitely there.  How can I describe this one?  Well its a kind of smoothness and flow to the music - whilst the instruments are very seperate and obviously so, the actual music seems to flow along much better and its not a bunch of accurately rendered notes, its a better illusion of a piece of music (I almost used the word accurate there, but we know its not about accuracy, because so few of us actually know what the original performance sounded like and we need to remember that much of the processing done during production is deliberately trying to make the recording NOT sound like the original performance).  This description probably isn't making much sense, that's why I'm not Jimmy Michael Hughes!
So we have Touch - QED Coax - DACMagic - Audioquest Emerald and that's now somewhere between 90 and 95% of the way to the CD player's quality. 

But here are the 2 killer points.  It now stands me at £500 and if I was starting from scratch I'd a choice between that and the £1700 CD player, I know which I'd choose!  But as soon as you add in the ability to play 24 / 96 files then its a hands-down win for the streaming tech - its a good 10% better than the CD player and leads to those evenings that are "just one more track" until its suddenly 1am!

So you have to wonder just how much DAC the Touch can support...
And what about power supplies, and do they matter, once you're no longer using the internal DAC?
If you're interested in more on the Squeezebox Touch, take a look at this article as there are mods you can do to your Touch without spending any cash:

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