Options Segueing to Not Options!
So now that you have the rudimentary stereo components I wanted to step in to the ever-increasingly complex world of input options.
Sure you can just continue to plug in your iPod via a cheap RCA cable, but you'll hardly be getting the full potential out of your amazing amp and speakers!
What you need to do now is sit down and think about how you primarily listen to music and any other form of listening you need to accommodate.
For instance, I primarily listen to music on my computer; Additionally, I listen to lots of vinyl; I have all of my CDs ripped so I don't ever need to play them (I don't even own a CD player).
I'll spare you for the moment, but there will be a point where I will force you peruse my rants (in the appendices) for why plugging a $50.00 record player in to a $1500.00 system might be a poor idea.
Can I toss out into the celestial heavens that I'm going to guess almost every one of you have digital files of some sort as your primary or co-primary source of music? Especially since this guide is aimed at folks who don't have lots or any audio experience, this is very likely to be the case.
Later I'm going to go on a rant/useful-conversation about making good digital files, but for now what you need to know is that DAC stands for Digital Audio Converter. So with that said, we're going to set aside the Options Path and delve in the…
Abyss of DACs
Honestly, you already have tons of DACs around in various forms on the stuff you already own, but you might not know it. A DAC is simply a circuit that takes all those ones and zeros of data (like from an mp3 or your iPhone) and makes them in to an audio signal that we can actually use. Your iPod has one, every CD player, phone, computer and game system. And actually, by all rights the iPod DAC is not too bad. You can pick up an Mini to Stereo RCA cable and run it in to your amp. It's passable, but that sushi restaurant in the mini-mall that only gives you food poisoning a couple times a year is "passable" as well.
The best way to avoid the Passable Blues is to get an outboard USB DAC. You might wonder why you need to buy another pricey component even though you have a headphone jack on your computer? Computer manufacturers, especially on laptops, are trying to cram tons of circuits and electronic components in a very small space. They are also making, what is probably a correct assumption, that most people these days have a pair of middling $50.00 computer speakers. Those onboard DACs sound terrible compared to one that is designed for music fans.
Not us! We now have seriously amazing amps and speakers. So let's bypass all of that garbage, cramped circuitry, and use a custom USB2 DAC. It's super easy, not very expensive and a massive upgrade. This is a device plugs in to your computer and can be selected as the output device just like a pair of USB headphones but has a set of RCA outputs. It's basically an external sound card that is designed precisely for quality home audio applications. They will eliminate computer noise, and provide a much more dynamic and musical signal compared to the purely functional built in outputs.
But the details on DACs get even more tricky yet. Partially because it is an area that hasn't been totally embraced by the hard-core audio testers and partially because being the most technological and "new" part of the equation, the terrain keeps shifting! I've gone and nosed around and provided a number of options for differing budgets and intents.
First off, there are basically two kinds of DACs that we need to worry about. A DAC to take our audio to a home speaker system, and a DAC with a built-in headphone amp to drive a pair of nice headphones. Some do both. Which one(s) you get will depend on how you want to deal with your headphones setup.
There are two basic contenders at the sub-$200 level. The HRT Music Streamer II and the Audinst HUD-MX1. The HRT Music Streamer II is a "pure" component, in that it only converts digital audio to go to a home stereo (the "+" at the end of the name when you do a search for it is confusing and detonates the higher-end version which we won't be using). The Audinst (which the Korean company sells on eBay in America) also has a very passable built in headphone amp. In terms of sound the HRT is more nuanced and more open. While the Audinst is still great, it is considered to be little more confined and colored (audio-speak for "not neutral" - which isn't always a bad thing - some reviewers have called the Audnist "musical").
I've got the HRT and it sounds so much better than just plugging in an iPod via a RCA cable. WORLDS BETTER. I was honestly shocked at home massive the difference was.
Headphones fans: Read the upcoming section on a headphones specific setup because this distinction gets tossed aside!
Three IMPORTANT DAC notes.
1) You can not under any circumstance use wireless USB to transmit to a DAC. Sorry, they just don't have the technology figured out to make the two work together yet.
2) Related to #1. You really don't want to run RCA cables any further than you absolutely have to. Six feet is considered maximum for acceptable audio loss (three feet is ideal). So you have to put your DAC quite close to the amp. What you do if you need headphones near your computer, but your computer is far from your amp (and what I'm going to be doing) is grabbing the HRT for my home stereo and also getting the Audinist to run headphones for my computer. You can simply select your USB output device between the two in the preferences of your computer.
3) The maximum run length of a USB cable is 15 feet. What if your computer is further than that from your stereo + DAC? You use one of these powered extender cables, that's what! You can link up to 5 together! Do the manufactures say that the quality is lower? Sure, but you know, it seems to work fine and I haven't gotten a straight answer about why you shouldn't. Shrug.
Now you have a DAC! Up next, turntables, CD players and the like!