What is the best way to stream Hi-Res audio?
If you read and watch posts on the internet and Youtube you will find that there are as many opinions as there are posts and that is a bit confusing to say the least.
However… technically speaking there is only one way that is the best way and that is simply to connect a fast streaming device with network and a lot of processing capabilities to a fine DAC via USB. This because the USB connection is asynchronous so there will be no clock jitter or other distorting factors because both devices buffer data independently before it is processed internally and devices will have no underrun in data transfer over USB, at least when they are fast enough. So how do you implement this in your setup.
Select the best DAC for your budget.
First of all you need a good quality DAC and spend as much as you possibly can on this device because this is the part that has the most impact on the sound quality you will have in the end. Also the best driver software is available for the more expensive ones and you do need this because Windows and Mac OS do NOT have drivers to support all the features in the good Hi-Res DAC’s. So no cheap Chinese products with poor driver support!
Look for a DAC with a good internal linear power supply so no switch mode or flimsy power adapter. A good DAC has two separate power supplies inside, preferably with two separate toroidal transformers, one for the digital and one for the analog circuit. These are usually the more expensive ones but spend the money on it you will not regret it. Also look for a DAC that can stream PCM and DSD independently so a DAC that can do both without internal DSP data processing. AKM chips like AK4493EQ, AK4495EQ and AK4497EQ are a good example they have two separate circuits inside the chip to accomplish this however there are also multichip solutions that can do this. You can find technical information on AKM chips here. You do NOT need a DAC with streaming capabilities your streaming device will do this for you so don’t bother investing in that, rather invest in a DAC that can do PCM and DSD up-conversion, converting to a higher bitstream gives you better dynamic range. And finally make sure that there is a Windows ASIO driver available for the DAC that you wish to purchase. Expect to spend at least €1000.00 to €2000.00 on a fine DAC. My suggestion would be Teac UD-505 or if you are on a budget try to find a second hand Teac UD-503 or NT-503.
The correct streaming device.
Selecting the streaming device is more easy, the only thing you need is SPEED so no Rasbery Pi or anything similair but a good Mac or PC should be your choice and Mac OS or Windows and not Linux because usually there are no native drivers available for the DAC’s and you need them, Linux is a fine OS but not in this case. Keep in mind that this streaming device also has to decode e.g. MQA, there are DAC’s that can do this also, and at the same time give you a good response on all the features in the streaming APP and do network connections without problems. A laptop or computer with at least an intel I5 processor, plenty of memory (at least 8GB) and a fast MVME SSD storage will do fine. Using an Intel NUC and connecting this to your large LCD TV is also possible and this gives you a better experience using the streaming APP and certainly when you connect a wireless multimedia keyboard to control it. For networking you need UTP or 5GHz WiFi, no need for fancy ‘audio grade’ network switches this is snake oil, absolute rubbish, datastreams are buffered anyway so don’t bother, rather spend your money on a good interlink between the DAC and your amplifier.
Setup for streaming.
To stream Hi-Res audio do NOT use Bluetooth, Airplay or DNLA as the bitstream in those protocols is to low to get the best out of your setup. Also select an APP that connects to your DAC using ASIO, Spotify and Tidal do not let you select the driver so you don’t know how it connects, usually this is the default Windows driver and this is not ASIO. Qobuz does this correctly however you have to make sure it is selected properly. I have not been able to discover how Roon connects to the DAC. ASIO bypasses the normal audio path from a user application through layers of intermediary Windows operating system software so that an application connects directly to the DAC via USB hardware. Each layer that is bypassed means a reduction in latency (the delay between an application sending audio information and it being reproduced by the DAC). In this way, ASIO offers a relatively simple way of accessing audio outputs independently.
Something about music streaming services.
We have compared the most populair music streaming services and came to the conclusion that there are huge differences in sound quality but you probably better try and convince yourself. The most easy way to do this is with a correct setup, as described above, and a CD that you are familiar with converted to FLAC. Playback the FLAC file and after that the same album from a music steaming service. Just listen carefully and you will immediately notice the differences. Listen to soundstage (ambience) and the way the lower frequencies are reproduced, if the bitrate is lower than the original FLAC file it will sound a bit ‘muddy’. We found that even Tidal in Hi-Res files did not come close to the original FLAC file reproduction, only Qobuz did this correct and we could not hear any differences.
What digital audio format do you use for your audio archive.
If you are going to rip audio CD’s preferably do this to FLAC, this saves you space on the storage device and because it is a lossless format it sounds exactly the same as the original CD (PCM) and WAV format that takes more space to store. Do you already have a large WMA database you can convert it to FLAC there are several free tools available to download.