Inexpensive Studio Interface Trounces Audiophile DAC

Abstract

In a recent reconfiguration of the downstairs mini PC-based system for surround sound playback using a multi-channel Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 Gen 2 studio interface, it immediately hit me that when just two of its many channels were used for basic stereo playback, it sounded bettter than the audiophile-targeted Wyred4Sound DAC-2 that previously served the front main speakers, so the upgrade was replicated in another stereo-only system upstairs.  The extra channels could be used later should a decision be made to implement DSP active crossovers (unlikely given the superior analogue active crossover in place, but a possibility).

Background

A group A/B assessment of the stereo-only playback on that system downstairs had it agreed unanimously that the DAC-2 completely lost the plot by comparison – especially in the upper frequencies.  I strongly suspect that they included a low-pass filter to roll off the treble thus artificially presenting a “solid” bass!  Yes – it was a mere subjective assessment boosted by group concensus, but I went with my own judgement and it didn’t cost anything in the end.  For reason unknown outside of Audiofooldville where I apparently once lived, another one of those DAC-2 junkpiles lived upstairs, so it didn’t take too long to offload that one either!  Yes I “threw it on the tip“. 😆

  • I probably should mention that both of those W4S DAC-2s had annoyed me for a very long time.  They seemed to me to be very incompetent products.  The list of perceived incompetencies is vast, but just for example:  No muting relays = enormous thuds after powering down unless a strict powering down regime was followed.  For manufacturers to claim that such devices are designed to be left in a standby mode is a cop-out.  No retention of the last variable mode volume level after powering down then up again.  No retention of the last set brightness level of the front panel display.  A self-lauding owner’s manual that reads like a bad fairytale.  No user-upgradability of the firmware.  The unit would have to be sent back to the USA – and for what?  The list goes on.  I would not touch one of their products again.

Another 18i20 Gen 2 now replaces not only the upstairs DAC-2, but also another one of those revered audiophile items – namely the super-hyped and IMO extremely mediocre “Berkeley Alpha USB” converter that fed it via about a 6m length of Belden 1800F AES/EBU cable from downstairs.  The relatively inexpensive Focusrite interface (with no audiophile pretentions whatsoever) utterly flushes that combination down the sewer and at about ONE SEVENTH of the retail price!  Before offloading the Berkeley (yes – it was also thrown on the tip), and as an experiment, I temporarily hooked it up to the 18i20 via a short 75Ω coax instead of the direct USB connection and it utterly crushed the living crap out of the music!  Seriously – and admittedly with the benefit of hindsight and bad experience – IMO such products are just rubbish hyped up at a certain web site called “computerised audiofool” or some such 😉 .  Anyway, with the leftover cash, the new HP i7 mini PC was purchased and connected to the home ethernet.  And it’s just connected to the 18i20 with a simple $3.95 USB 2.0 certified cable from HP!

The 18i20 gives you 10 channels of analogue output for surround sound or use in software-based active crossovers if you like.

The Result

Finally my DIY actively crossed speakers which always sounded compromised by reasons I could not pinpoint, suddenly fulfilled all my design expectations and sounded the way I had intended and hoped with the analogue active crossover still in place.  Yep –  there’s no further desire to implement PC-based active crossover to exploit more of the DAC channels.  It’s truly a revelation.  All of the problems in sound quality (shrill violins and screachy female vocals like fingernails down the blackboard or a drill in you ear) were obliterared.  I put it all down to very crappy “audiophile” products that simply fail to meet the hype.  Seriously – it sounds to me like a whole lot of intermodulation distortion has now gone.  And their manual says “we took the “dirt road” and it paid off big time” – yep – they actually said that.  Anyway I no longer listen to dirt and that can only be a good thing.

Aside

Studio interfaces such these are desiged for semi-pros to make recordings.  They have microphone preamps with 48V phantom power supplies and features way beyond what is needed for the mere playback of music, however they do have playback capabilities intended for use with DAW software.  The thing is though, that as far as they are concerned, the playback software is a DAW.  And as far as the software is concerned, the interface is just another audio playback device.  The audio input device (i.e. recording part of it) can be disabled in Windows 10.

Conclusion

I can now listen to music with absolute pleasure and simply rip more CDs to enjoy instead of forever tweaking in vain.  So throw all your poorly engineered audiophile brand name items on the tip and use proper equipment for a level of musical involvement that you always wanted!  And with the left-over cash you can get a decent PC!

Update August 2017

The multi-channel feature of the DAC has come in handy.  Up until now, I had been using four channels of the 18i20 interface merely as a convenient way of splitting the stereo USB signal (for the main speakers’ active crossover) to the coffee table subs’ “stereo” analogue controller at the seat.  That is, stereo channels 1 and 2 only were passed by JRiver via USB to the 18i20.  The Focusrite software interface was then used to set the 18i20 to pass the same input channels 1 and 2 not only through analogue outputs 1 and 2, but also as 3 and 4 unchanged to the subs.  But using JRiver Media centre, one can trick things a bit.  Moreover, it can be told that you have a “quadraphonic” (4-channel) set-up so that the USB passes four discrete audio channels instead of two to the 18i20 via USB.  After replicating channels 1 and 2 into channels 3 and 4 in JRiver, digital delay can be added to channels 3 and 4.  My subs are about 2.5m closer to the listening position than the front mains (which share the subwoofer bandwidth), so about 7ms was added to channels 3 and 4.  So what?  The subs are only operating from around 90 Hz down and the wavelengths are “room-sized”.  Well yes indeed, but this ensures that the peaks of the first pressure waves coincide at the seat for improved “punch” and a natural increase in dB.  As a consequence, the bass signal level to all drivers responsible for reproducing it can be reduced for even lower distortion.  Try that with an “audiophile DAC”! 🙂

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