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More about the DACMagic 100 …

My original post about the Cambridge Audio DACMagic 100 comes close to the top if you search for “DACMagic 100″ review (thanks, Google!), so I guess I should add to those first impressions. Frankly though I haven’t been doing a lot of critical listening, nor yet copied over my newly recorded 96KHz files for testing, since I’ve been distracted by a new sports car and other more mundane matters.

I can reiterate, though, that to me the DACMagic 100 output seems to include more deep bass — great for organ fans — than I’m used to. It’s not a drastic difference but it’s enough to make me occasionally adjust subwoofer settings when I change sources. Maybe it’s a deliberate design choice, or maybe it’s just all in my head?

We’ll know when some magazine prints numbers. Apparently there haven’t been any reviews yet, though you’ll find a few comments on Head-fi.org.

What’s the best way to make 24-bit, 96KHz recordings?

I’ve been blogging recently about the Cambridge Audio DACMagic 100, an add-on DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) designed to work at up to 192KHz with digital sources including even notebook computers that lack dedicated digital audio outputs. This gadget lets you play high-res audio files that you have purchased and downloaded on to your PC — but what if you’d rather create your own such media?

Assuming for example that digital sampling at 24-bit/96KHz confers a sonic benefit over 16-bit/44KHz, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use it when making recordings of live music, or when dubbing LPs? (Even those who doubt 96KHz or 192Hz files sound better concede that these higher sampling rates are preferable when a track is going to be changed in level or otherwise manipulated after it has been recorded.)

Behringer UCA222

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any suitable USB audio interfaces that record at 96KHz or 192KHz. To be clear, I should define “suitable”: There are many USB recording interfaces on the market, but the vast majority have 1/4-inch jacks for connecting instruments and XLR connectors for balanced microphone runs, and many target multitrack recording instead of high-quality two channel. (Meanwhile, the Behringer UCA222 I already own — it’s pictured above — is two-channel-oriented but only samples to 16-bit/48KHz.)

I’d really like to see some company come out with a two-channel USB recording interface that works at up to 192KHz (or at least up to 96KHz), and has standard phono jacks for its dual analog inputs — yes, XLR and 1/4-inch are “better,” but they’re not worth the hassle or cost for home recording purposes. I’d also like to see such a device incorporate analog level controls and metering, or at least an LED that flashes when input level is too high.

Maybe there is such a gadget already, and I’ve missed it. Anyone?

Meanwhile, what I’m using to create more 24-bit/96KHz test files is the line input on my Tascam DR-07MKII portable recorder (left). This handy little gadget of course has level controls, a peak limiter, and metering, and it’s getting the job done. (Though I’ve gotta say, even if some will be skeptical, that my LPs still sound better to me played live rather than replayed from a 24/96 dub.)

Portable digital recorders are inexpensive and easy to find, thanks to the vast musician market. Still, I think some company ought to make a high-quality, audiophile-oriented USB interface for computers that offers both 24/192 playback and 24/192 recording!

Cambridge DACMagic 100 reviewed

Perhaps “review” is an overly grand way of describing my impressions of the DACMagic 100 after just about a day’s use, but no tests of the device had appeared at the time of writing, so I hope my comments will be useful to some.

As I described in a previous post, an unusual aspect of this DAC is that it can accept digital inputs with a 24-bit depth and sampling rate of up to 192KHz via its USB 2.0 port. Most other such products accept such “fast” inputs only using their coaxial or TOSlink connectors. (The DACMagic 100 has one USB port, two coax inputs, and one TOSlink optical input, with front-panel switching from one to the other.)

It was this 192KHz-over-USB ability that led to my purchase decision, because I figured that if I were going to get a better DAC than the one I was already using with my computer (the existing DAC happens to have been the cheap-and-cheerful Behringer¬† UCA222), I might as well be able to experiment with downloaded 96KHz and 192KHz files. And, the Dell Mini 9 I normally keep by my hi-fi doesn’t have an optical digital output, though my MacBook does.

So what about that 192KHz playback? Well, it works: No software modifications are necessary on a Macintosh, but on a Windows system you need to install a upgraded audio driver. (Cambridge Audio supplies one of its own, which I tried successfully on a Windows mini-notebook, but it’s possible ASIO4All and others are also compatible; the necessity for a driver is explained in Cambridge’s Audiophile’s Guide to Bit-Perfect Audio.)

I downloaded 192KHz test files for free from www.2l.no (thanks!), bypassing the high cost of purchasing commercial ones. All played without incident, with (on Ole Bull’s Concerto Fantastico, for example) lots of bass energy and a dynamic range that occasionally caught me off guard!

Somewhat hidden in the DACMagic 100′s documentation is the fact that when you first turn the device on, you must perform a one-time switch out of the default USB 1.1 mode by depressing the power and mode switches simultaneously. If you don’t do this, you’re not going to get 192KHz.

Of course, you also have to set your computer’s audio control panel for 192KHz as well. Once this is done, a 192KHz stream will be sent to the DAC even when low bit-rate files are being played; for example, my DACMagic 100 has been happily chuntering away for hours now playing Spotify tracks. No warning is given when the music that’s being played wasn’t actually high-res.

I mention the above because it’s a minor inconvenience with USB audio. Theoretically, if you’re going to play a 44KHz or 96KHz file through the DACMagic 100, you want it to be sent out to the DAC at its native sampling rate — that means it will be upsampled by the DAC, which can do a better job, not the PC.

The problem of a computer’s USB digital output not always having the same sampling rate as the source file being played is a software issue, not a problem with the DACMagic 100 hardware. (If you have a Mac, you can purchase $5 software called BitPerfect, which is claimed to address the issue, for iTunes users at least.)

Is high-res better?

So how does 192KHz audio sound? Nice — but is it “better” than typical 44KHz digital sound?

To even begin to answer that question, I’d have to have access to identical recordings in both 44KHz and 192KHz format, preferably also in Super Audio CD. And alas, 192KHz downloads are prohibitively expensive.

For example, Linn Records wants $14.50 for just the 23-minute first movement of Julia Fischer playing the Brahms Violin Concerto; that’s part of a recording you can get complete on an SACD for between $15 and $20, with another major work besides. I already own the SACD, which also has a CD layer and hence would have made good comparison material, so I wasn’t going to lay out that kind of money to repurchase a recording I already own.

For economy’s sake, then, I had to lower my sights. I settled for a $3.98 download of the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, recorded by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic, and offered by HDTracks at 24-bit, 88KHz. This recording dates from the mid-seventies and was never very smooth-sounding, but it’s an incomparable performance, and one I know well — I own it on cassette, CD, remastered CD, and SACD, and I guess I should try the LP some day!

I didn’t bother to dig out the cassette (!), but listened to all the other versions, both one after the other and at the same time. (The DAC output, CD output, and SACD output were synchronized and level-matched as closely as I could achieve, so that I could switch from one to the other whenever I wanted.)

Unfortunately, the 24-bit, 88KHz version as first rendered by the DACMagic 100 was a little disappointing. It didn’t sound “bad,” but it didn’t quite have the imaging and finesse I associate with high fidelity. The comparison came down firmly in favor of my SACD player (admittedly, a unit with a four-digit pricetag).

While Cambridge Audio claims to have solved the deficiencies of USB audio with products like the DACMagic 100, I decided to disconnect the USB connector from my MacBook. I then reconnected the DAC using an optical cable run from the laptop’s TOSlink output.

The result? OK, it’s just one man’s opinion, but via TOSlink (or coax) the DACMagic 100 seemed to stay in control of the sound in a way that it can’t quite manage via USB. Sound was now well up to par with the SACD — though Cambridge’s DAC provided more bass, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse — and I just wanted to keep listening to music rather than fiddling.

It’s clear, then, that the DACMagic 100 can provide good sound. On the other hand, A/B-ing the DAC’s 24-bit, 88KHz output against the standard CD version of the Beethoven didn’t show up much, if any, difference.

Maybe if I had started with a better-engineered comparison recording, I’d have been able to hear clearer differences between 16-bit, 44.1KHz audio and “high res.” Or, maybe not.

One thing that does seem clear to me, though, is that 16/44 played via TOSlink is still better than 24/88 played via USB. That may or may not be what other reviewers will find, and it probably isn’t what Cambridge Audio wants to hear, but there you have it.

Conclusions

Here’s one of my conclusions: If you purchase a DAC with a USB input, you’ll find it convenient for tasks such as streaming Internet radio from a cheap netbook (and for that, a maximum 48KHz sampling rate, like my cheap Behringer, would be more than sufficient). But if you want true high fidelity from a laptop (or other hard disk-based music server), make sure it has an optical digital output.

Being able to use TOSlink as your connection method, and not worrying about USB, will give you a wider range of DACs to choose from. (Most cost at least as much as the DACMagic 100, however, so I’m not going to complain about getting USB “for free.”)

As for the issue of CD-quality sound and higher-res digital formats, and whether one can actually hear the difference, my Beethoven test certainly didn’t allow drawing any conclusions. I remain convinced that Super Audio CD (and DVD Audio) bring one importantly closer to the sound of a studio master, but I can’t prove it to you — you’ll have to try it for yourself.

And the fact is, if you have any interest at all in high-res audio, Super Audio CD is more cost-effective than any form of computer-based setup. Though SACD is regularly written off as a failure by those who would like to see silver discs disappear, players such as the well-regarded Oppo BDP-83 cost $500 or less, and you can purchase second-hand SACD players on eBay for as little as $40. Plenty of discs are available online too, and they cost a lot less to buy than other ways of accumulating high-res tracks.

Testing the DACMagic 100 — 192KHz over USB

The DACMagic 100 arrived today, and it’s working in my system, as shown below. Getting it working with Windows and Mac computers at its maximum sampling rate was simple enough, and I have it connected to a CD transport too (of course, the only output you get from that is 16-bit/44.1). I’ll jot down some impressions of the device tomorrow.

Dacmagic
DACMagic 100 in its new home

 

The other high-resolution product of the month

This week, many people are eagerly awaiting delivery of their new iPads, with high-resolution screens packing 2048 by 1536 pixels. (Since iOS still doesn’t allow windowing of multiple apps, you apparently just get a finer-grained display, not more work area, so I’ll just stick with my iPad deux.)

I, on the other hand, am awaiting delivery of a different gadget that also went on sale this month — the Cambridge Audio DACMagic 100 (pictured below). It offers high resolution too, but in this case we’re talking audio, not video.

DacMagic 100 (front)
DacMagic 100 (front)

The DACMagic 100 is a compact box that turns digital audio, with 24-bit depth and sampling rates up to 192KHz, into high-quality analog sound. Like the many other DACs (digital-to-analogue converters) with which it competes, the 100′s circuitry is intended to accomplish this job better than the electronics already built into most CD players, DVD players, streaming media players, laptop computers, etc.

What caught my eye about this particular unit is that it works at 192KHz over not just its optical and coaxial inputs, but also via USB. (Most DACs are limited to 44, 48, or 96KHz over USB; in fact, I’m not aware of another DAC that yet matches the 100′s capabilities in this regard.)

USB is generally ranked lower by audiophiles as a connection type, relative to optical or coax. Having it was important to me, however, because the Dell Mini 9 (“hackintoshed” to run OS X from its 16GB flash drive) I keep connected to my music system doesn’t have an optical output.

As for 192KHz, I figured I might as well have that option as long as I’m buying a DAC. (It’s somewhat hard to find tracks recorded at such a high sampling rate, but you can get them from Linn and HDTracks, among others.)

Now if you are among those who don’t care about the difference between a compressed MP3 and standard CD-quality (16-bit, 44KHz) sound, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. And indeed it has been argued — most eloquently by Christopher “Monty” Montgomery, the creator of the Ogg Free Software container format and Vorbis audio codec — that 16/44.1 and 24/192 can’t be distinguished in double-blind listening tests.

Me? I’m a dyed-in-the-wool audiophile who thinks that a good vinyl LP can sound more real than digital, even from the next room. I’ve also avidly collected Super Audio CDs and DVD Audio disks, and I do believe they’re audibly better than their CD counterparts.

I’m a critical listener and a former recording engineer, but that doesn’t make me “right.” My ears have never been double-blind tested, they’re worsening with age, and, most of all, I recognize that the placebo effect is exceedingly powerful.

While my own audio system is hardly wired up with zip cord and giveaway phono cables, I’m constantly amazed at the amounts of money that some people are prepared to spend on fancy interconnects and other unproven ways to enhance what they hear — when a little single-malt whisky would be vastly more cost-effective.

In the real world, anyway, my DACMagic 100 will be used most to play back MP3 files ripped to 128Kbits/sec., Spotify streams, radio stations streamed over the Internet, and the like. So, I am really more interested to see if the box can whip up a tasty meal from these modest ingredients.

DacMagic 100 (back)
DacMagic 100 (back)

First impressions tomorrow, if FedEx delivers and I can pull myself away from listening and back to the keyboard …

As tech journos hold their breath waiting for Apple’s latest shiny toy, it’s time to say …

That most so-called tech “journalism” is mere product pushing, fanboyism, free PR for the vendors (who — you know what — have almost all had their best interests at heart, not making the world better, from the very first day they started trashing the environment in the Santa Clara Valley before moving on to the rest of the world).

That vendors and their PR flacks beat the drums and create the rhythm that tech journalists happily march to.

Where are the articles exposing the working conditions that the latest shiny gadgets are made in? The articles exposing the environmental cost of discarded equipment, “obsolete” before its time because it was never designed to be upgraded? The articles quantifying the energy consumption implications of moving to cloud computing? The articles taking a real look at the effect of technology on society (rather than just touting the latest social network)?

Oh, they’re out there; they’re just few and far between.

It isn’t that there aren’t writers who’d like to do more such stories, and editors who’d like to edit them. But unfortunately, we have publishers to deal with.

And so, live blogs keep the world well-informed about precisely which band’s music is being played before the curtain goes up at an Apple launch event …

 

the most awesome way to test Windows 8 — but have you gotten it to work?

I’ve been struggling all day to install Windows 8 on my laptop, and never succeeded. (And I don’t even care for the OS — the Metro-style apps so far are ugly and simplistic, in my opinion.)

But let me explain further. I already have Windows 8 Consumer Preview up and running in a couple of virtual machines, and installing Windows 8 over my laptop’s existing Windows 7 installation wouldn’t have been any problem, either.

However, because of vendor-installed recovery partitions and the like, my hard drive already had too many partitions, and Windows 8 refused to install to a new one so that I could boot into either Win 8 or Win 7 at will. (I’ve read that four partitions is the limit, but I wasn’t willing to delete one to see if it made any difference.)

So, I started looking into the idea of installing Windows 8 into a VHD (Virtual Hard Disk), which I seemed to recall ought to be possible. As most readers probably know, a VHD is a single very large file that can be stored on an existing partition and yet, with the right drivers, can emulate a separate disk drive.

VHDs are most commonly used with virtualization software such as VMWare or Virtual Box, but Windows can also boot from a VHD directly, operating just the same way as if it were starting up from an actual partition. The process of making this happen has been documented in various spots on the Internet, most notably in a how-to by Scott Hanselman.

A VHD-hosted version of Windows can run almost as fast as a native one, since only the hard drive is virtualized. (Hanselman estimates the disk performance hit as being only about five percent.)

I was attracted to using a VHD not just in order to get around my too-many-partitions problem, but for two other reasons. First, when testing is concluded, it’s a cinch to restore a machine to its original state simply by erasing the .VHD file and reverting to the standard Windows 7 boot manager.

Second, and much more intriguing, it might be possible to employ the same VHD-based Windows 8 installation to boot the operating system either natively, or within a virtual machine. I haven’t actually heard of anyone doing this, but the way it would work is this:

  • for the fastest Windows 8 performance, you’d boot your system from the VHD
  • in order to run Windows 7 and Windows 8 both at once, you’d boot your system into Windows 7, then use virtualization software to open the Windows 8 VHD

That would be an awesome way to test Windows 8. Why? Because native boot would be available when you needed high performance, whereas virtualization would allow you to tinker with Windows 8 any time you liked but also pop out to Windows 7 to get real work done.

Further, instead of having two separate Windows 8 installations — one native and one virtual — that you had to keep up to date, they’d always be in sync, since both use the same VHD. The only potential problem I can see is that virtualization software usually comes with customized graphics and mouse drivers that boost the performance of a virtual machine. You’d have to forego these, since they wouldn’t work when you booted the VHD natively.

In all my struggles today, I got as far as convincing Windows 8 to install itself into a VHD file, but I couldn’t get it to boot sucessfully. As the image below shows (sigh), I couldn’t get past the VHD BOOT INITIALIZATION FAILED error message no matter what I did.

failure to boot
Oops ....

Since Scott Hanselman and others have gotten further, I believe the problem may be an issue with my laptop’s BIOS (the machine is a Core i7-powered HP ProBook 4530s). Until I try all this on another system (not tomorrow, thank you!) I won’t know for sure.

Has anyone else made it work? If so, please try opening the VHD with your virtualization software too, and let me know what gives!

Not on the MWC sidelines by choice, but I’m a smartphone skeptic

The Mobile World Congress (http://www.mobileworldcongress.com/index.html) in Barcelona was always one of the busiest work weeks of the year — perhaps the busiest — for me, as my fellow writers and I struggled to cope with the overwhelming stream of new smartphones (and latterly, tablets). It seems strange to me to be sitting on the sidelines this time out.

However, I must confess I have trouble getting excited about new phones, despite the fact that some of them now have quad cores and screens with a resolution of up to 1280 x 720 pixels. (Yes, that means they can have as much power as a one- or two-year old PC, and display resolution better than most netbooks.)

I suppose my ennui is partly due to the fact that I’ve always found phones to be an annoyance. That goes way back to the years when I was a pudgy nerdy fat kid sitting at home, answering all the phone calls for my popular sister (naturally I was usually admonished to say “she’s not here” even when she was), or to the occasions when, before my voice had changed, the person on the other end would say “how are you, Mrs. Angel?”

I took my journalistic career in the direction of testing and reading spec sheets, then reaching my own conclusions, partly to get away from having to make phone calls and ask other people what they think.

Today, of course, voice mail allows the naturally shy to avoid telephonic communications, and we’re told that most people use smartphones more for texting, e-mail, and web browsing (or at least running connected apps) than they do for voice. And it’s not lost on me that smartphones basically are PCs, and becoming more so.

The Asus Padphone (http://techcrunch.com/2012/02/28/tcmwc-hands-on-with-the-surprisingly-solid-asus-padfone/) for instance, comes with accessories that can transform it into a tablet, and, via a keyboard dock, into a notebook computer. That convergence will be a boon for anyone who has to travel often.

My reservations remain, though, and have nothing to do with not actually wanting to talk on the phone.

First, I’m concerned that the smartphone revolution is being driven by companies who want to own you and your data. Where and when I buy a new device shouldn’t be tied to a specific carrier nor to a service contract. Whether my data should be synchronized to the cloud, and to what cloud, ought to be up to me. And if I want to move my phone number/wireless connectivity from one device to another, I should be able to do that via a SIM, as most U.S. customers cannot.

Second — well, it’s really a way of re-stating the above — for a smartphone to be able to replace my PC, it needs to have an operating system that is just as sophisticated. I’d like to be able to choose a phone and then be able to select what OS it runs, just as I can with a PC; but if that isn’t technically possible, then I’d like the phone to come with a “desktop-caliber” OS in the first place. (See my related post on Ubuntu for Mobile.)

A posting on LWN.net about the end (?) of LinuxDevices

(this post is a duplicate of what I posted to LWN.net today)

Having just caught up with this thread, I thought I’d chime in. I’m the former LinuxDevices.com “Editor-in-Chief” — sounds grand, doesn’t it? In fact, at the end we were down to just myself and one freelance writer, both of us trying to update three different websites.

Since QuinStreet acquired Ziff Davis Enterprise at the beginning of February and immediately laid me off — along with many others — LinuxDevices.com, WindowsForDevices.com, and DesktopLinux.com have been in, shall we say, suspended animation. Many people have written me to ask about the future of the site archives, at the very least, and some have also kindly volunteered their services in somehow continuing LD.

In fact, it has become a challenge to respond to all the well-wishers individually. Perhaps this post can partially suffice: All I can really say is that I’ve heard nothing from anyone at QuinStreet about the sites’ future, nor do I even know anyone there to ask. If I hear any news, I’ll post it on my blog and Twitter feed.

Regarding continuing LD’s efforts on my own under another name, all I can say is that I’ve had many ideas over the years for projects — websites, books, board games, and a host of other things — and I continue to have ‘em. But, I’m a mere writer and editor who has little interest in handling money (even making it isn’t of much interest, as my present and former wives would sadly agree), selling ads, or meeting a payroll. And, I need paying work too; if I’m going to write for free, I’d probably do so regarding one of my hobbies (for instance, antique toy cars, music, or audio).

That likely means the LD tradition will have to be carried on by others, and other sites — at least for now. I’m interested in compiling a list of recommendable sites as a service to former readers, and invite your submissions (which can be sent via comments here or to edit at angel.org).

Meanwhile, I’d like to defend LD against the LWN commenter who characterized the site as “a press-release thing.” It’s true that LD was product-news driven, but we certainly did not reprint press releases (unlike many other sites), did extensive work to create original tables or otherwise listing product features, and always maintained an independent and skeptical approach — as I think a fair analysis of any of our stories would prove.

As a former reviews editor, product tester, member of the InfoWorld review board way back when, etc. etc., I’m the first to agree that a *single* story on LD per day that incorporated actual product testing or at least more detailed analysis would have served readers better than four or five stories listing new products — even if we did our best to deconstruct them. Unfortunately, management didn’t see it that way, and we were under pressure to produce quantity, not quality.

Plus, there was absolutely no budget to commission outside articles, nor even enough time, at the end, to edit white papers that were offered to us gratis.

It should be noted that Rick Lehrbaum, who founded LinuxDevices.com, sold the site to Ziff Davis Enterprise in 2004. He stayed on through the end of 2007, but after his departure, management lost interest and slashed the staff. Not long before the end, I really had no idea what the company expected from me and I didn’t even have a manager whom I could ask.

None of the above is intended to bash former colleagues at ZDE, who were all as over-stretched as I was. The company had simply taken on more than it could digest, and I was working in one of the forgotten outposts of the empire.

As an aside, I’m interested to have read other LWN comments from back in ’04 suggesting that the sale of LD to ZDE meant the site would inevitably be selling out to Microsoft. It’s true that LD’s sister site WindowsForDevices.com was subsidized by Microsoft advertising, which enabled us to — independently but relatively slavishly — cover Windows Embedded operating systems and related topics.

But, Microsoft never interfered editorially in the coverage on either site. And ironically, because most articles we wrote regarding hardware were “cloned” to both Linuxdevices.com and WindowsForDevices.com, Redmond was actually facilitating expanded Linux coverage.

Happy 20th birthday, PC/104

If LinuxDevices.com and WindowsForDevices.com had not been silenced this month, I would definitely have written an article highlighting the 20th anniversary of the PC/104 SBC (single board computer) format — for two different reasons.

The main reason is that the 3.7 x 3.5-inch PC/104 format — plus its PC/104-Plus, PCI-104, PC/104-Express, and PCIe/104 updates — has been enormously important. It brought standardized, low-cost PC architecture to embedded applications, but did so in a way that made devices both rugged and versatile.


Released last September, the Embedded Solutions (ADL) ADLQM67PC is a PC/104 board with an up-to-date “Sandy Bridge” Core CPU

A second, more personal reason is that PC/104 was first devised in 1987 by Rick Lehrbaum (right), who was then CTO of Ampro. Rick parlayed the fortune he thusly gained — only joking! — into the creation of LinuxDevices.com. (He then sold LD in 2000, later bought it back, and sold it again to another publisher in 2004!)


Rick also started WindowsForDevices.com, DeviceForge.com, DesktopLinux.com, and Linux-Watch.com, and was kind enough to hire me — initially as a writer for just WFD — in 2007. (Rick moved on in 2008; to get caught up with him, visit his interesting blog, DeviceGuru.com.)

Anyhow, there’s plenty of information out there about PC/104 should you choose to pursue it; especially, of course, on LinuxDevices.com and its sister sites. But hurry: The current owners already made the DeviceForge.com archives inaccessible last year, more via bungling than by design I think, and there’s no telling how long the other historical content will remain live.

Meantime, I have no data on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a substantial majority of PC/104 devices deployed over the past 20 years are still in use today.