Monday, August 29, 2011

Fey Illumination Shop Lauch!

Hello loyal readers and wandering from the drifting internet currents alike. I just wanted to officially announce the long-awaited launch of my secret project, Fey IlluminationThese organic-form chandeliers are the perfect way to add a magical flair to your home living space. From sleek modernist lofts to the most Baroque interiors Fey Illumination's organic chandeliers will provide a stunning and whimsical central focus in your interior. Evolved from numerous installation projects from his art career the shop will also occasionally feature select pieces of art from his body of work. Custom orders welcome!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Arts Endowment Fundraiser Show This Friday!

For those of you in the L.A. area, free up your Friday for an hour or two and drop by the Sancho Gallery  (1549 W. Sunset, Los Angeles, CA) for a benefit show to help raise funds for the James Philip Ribiat-Finley Arts Endowment. I have one of my more iconic Arcana pieces (be sneaky and take a look here) that some lucky person will be taking home with them! More info at:

Monday, August 22, 2011

CSA Recipe: Korean-Style Fried Carrots and Rice Noodles

This is a take on the classic Chinese XO rice noodle and shrimp dish. 
Serves 4

Sweet Soy-Ginger Sauce:
2" Ginger, cut in to quarter-sized pieces
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp cracked peppercorns
1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup rice wine

1) Heat the ginger, garlic, peppercorns and water. Simmer lightly for 10 minutes. Take great care to avoid boiling off the water (you want to extract the flavor). Add a little water if you need to keep about 1/2 cup in the pan.

2) Add the rice wine, soy sauce, and brown sugar. Cook for another 3 minutes. Let cool. This will make more than you need for the recipe, but is a great marinade for meats or tofu!

1/2 package thin rice noodles ("rice vermicelli")
1 bunch young carrots, peeled and split, cut in to 2" pieces
1 leek, halved, washed and chopped
2 tbs canola oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup Ginger-Soy Sauce, divided
1 tsp korean red chile flakes

1) Cook noodles by package directions (boil for about 5 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water). 

2) Heat canola oil over medium heat. Quickly fry the carrots, garlic, red chile and leeks for about 3-4 minutes until just tender. 

3) Add the cooked rice noodles and fry, stirring/tossing for 1 minute.

4) Add the sauce and cook for 2 more minutes while still tossing everything.

5) Serve with a portion of each of the toppings and large bottles of beer or soju.

For toppings:
2 green onions, sliced
1/2 Japanese or English cucumber, cut in to matchsticks
4 radishes cut in to small strips
4 hardboiled eggs, sliced (or you can use fried eggs too!)

Fey illumination In Progress Shots

For those of you who follow this blog, you know I've been working on launching a series of sculptural lights called Fey Illumination — These twisting, organic chandeliers-of-sorts evolved out of a series of installations I did about wilderness and virtual landscapes. I built the prototype for my loft with no intention of doing another. But the response to it has been so tremendous I've decided to make a bunch more and sell them! Here are a bunch of shots of me working in the studio, suffering a myriad of scrapes and bruises, covering myself and the cat in dust. The final paint coats go on them this weekend, so be on the lookout for the official launch (probably via Etsy) soon.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

CSA Recipe: August Squash Stew with Fennel Seeds

This light and flavorful soup won't take long to make but as long as your squash is good it would still be worthy to serve for a dinner party. Maybe make some homemade bread to serve alongside? /sagenod You might be tempted to add garlic to this, but it will overwhelm the subtle flavors. 

1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 ear of sweet corn, kernels cut from the cob
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 can cannelloni beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 c macaroni or farfalle
3 crook-necked squash, cut in to 1" pieces
2 c. chicken broth or veggie broth
2 c. water
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp salt (to taste)
1/4 tsp dried thyme
fresh pepper

1) Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large pan. Add fennel seeds and onion and cook until translucent and lightly browned, 5-6 minutes. 

2) Add the corn kernels, squash chunks, thyme, vinegar and paprika. Cook for 2-3 minutes.

3) Add the chicken broth and water and bring to a simmer.

4) Add pasta and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the beans, kill the heat.

5) Taste for salt and pepper. Serve warm with crusty bread and a simple salad. Also with plenty of light red or full white wine. This might go really well with a chardonnay (not that you heard me say that!)

Friday, August 19, 2011

CSA Recipe: Two Kinds of Ricotta Fritters with Chile-Honey

Other than corn or green beans, these fritters can be made with just about any summer produce. Try whatever looks good in the farmer's market.

Serves 4 with an appetizer or salad

For Honey:
1/2 tsp olive oil
1 dried New Mexican red chile, crushed finely in a mortar and pestle
1/2 c honey

1) Heat olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add crushed chile bits, cooking for a minute or two, until lightly darkened.

2) Reduce heat to very low and add the honey. Stir to combine. Turn the heat off and let sit until you are ready to use it. 

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup ricotta
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp baking powder
1 ear corn, kernels cut from the cob
1/2 lb green beans, trimmed and cut in to 2" lengths
olive oil

1) Heat 1/2 tsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium high and quickly saute the green beans with a pinch of salt for 2 minutes. Set aside.

2) Do the same thing with the corn.

3) Make the batter by mixing the eggs and ricotta then adding the flour, 1/2 tsp salt and baking powder. Mix well.

4) Split the batter in to two bowls (or you can make mixed fitters), adding the corn to one and the green beans to the other.

5) Heat 1 tbs olive oil over medium heat and make the fritters like you would pancakes, scooping up about 1/3 c of the veggie-batter per fritter. Cook until the edges look set, then flip. Serve each person one corn and one bean fritter topped with a sprinkling of the toppings.

For the toppings:
chile honey
green onion tops (the green part) thinly sliced 
toasted pine nuts or papitas 

I'd serve this with a sparkling wine or a good light Belgian beer like Orval, or the French perennial favorite Saison Dupoint. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

CSA Recipe: Peach, Ricotta and Microgreen Salad

Simple is the best way to use those peak summer ingredients. This salad is very easy to make but will be a huge hit at any dinner party or brunch!

Serves 2

1 bunch washed, mixed micro greens (arugula, radish, mustard etc.)
1 white peach, pitted and cut in to thin slices
1/2 c ricotta
freshly grated nutmeg
1 good pinch sea salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
high quality balsamic
2 tsp lightly toasted pepitas 
1/2 tsp lemon juice

1) Toss the micro greens in the olive oil, salt and lemon juice.

2) Plate greens, arrange sliced peaches over the top and put half the ricotta on top of that. Sprinkle with pepitas.

3) Grate some nutmeg on top of each mound of cheese. Grind some pepper on each salad. Pour a tiny amount (1/4 tsp or less) balsamic on the salad.

4) Serve immediately with a glass of Riesling Sekt or Prosecco! 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Audio Guide Part 5 - Options for Flat Round Things

My delay in getting the guide up was partially due
to photographing at the Little Tokyo Nisei week.
Not pictured: me being partially deaf from seeing
Eyehategod, All Pigs Must Die and Pentagram.

So now you have an amp, speakers and a DAC. Whoohoo! You're probably rocking out, air-guitaring to your Slayer collection on iTunes as we speak. 

If you missed the previous installments check out part 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Now let's look at other options you might need for playing those outmoded discs such as a CDs or the ever-intimidating but hip vinyl. 

1) CDs

Let's get the easiest one out of the way first!

This one is easy because there is basically one good option on the market, if your collection and listening habits are mostly CDs: the Marantz 5004. Sure it's $350.00 but I've owned one and you can seriously tell the difference between the music coming from it and a regular CD player from outside with your windows closed sitting on the roof drinking all night on the winter solstice. Not that I've ever been there… just trust me. It's a technical comparison. 

But basically, your output device you are going to be using to drive about $1000.00 in equipment - don't send it a $50.00 Wal-Mart signal 

The one trick here is that CDs, while awesome to support artists and all, can be much more easily ripped to lossless files and managed in iTunes these days than ever. Even piraters are being kindly and using 320/kbs encoding (not as good as CDs but still pretty good). As internet speeds increase we're sure to see a rise in using what might be termed HD digital audio for sale directly from the artist. Some basic math: even if you own 1000 CDs, you can rip them in lossless file and still have 300 GIG left on the decently cheap terabit firewire 800 external had drives these days. 

But I can say if you do still want to spin those CDs, the Marantz 5004 is awesome, and certainly less work than ripping 1000s of CDs!  (I heard that the Cambridge Audio Azur 350C CD player is really good too, at around $450 if you're more serious about CDs.) 

2) So you love vinyl… but are confused about good turntables.

Most people don't even know how to put a record on a record player but there has been a real resurgence of interest in vinyl in the past few years. There are probably numerous philosophical reasons for it (including, but not limited to a rebellion against the digital, nostalgia, hipster-ism, or in my case, the desire to support the bands I love as well as the larger art pallet of the 12") but the case is clear — Vinyl is back.

So I'm going to start with saying that even though I collect records, DJed, and was the last generation to grow up around vinyl, the more I research the more that I find that vinyl lovers and turntable fanatics to be the most esoteric of all the audio cultists.  

Once upon a time (in the 1990's), you could get decent cheap vintage turntables galore. You will see this as a recommendation on almost every audio forum online. The myth goes that you could spend $50.00 on eBay and get a pretty decent classic turntable. Everyone was moving to CDs and vinyl seemed dead. Fast forward 15 years and the only record stores that are booming are vinyl speciality places. Increased demand has quadrupled (or more) used prices on turntables. 

Also, those turntables from the "classic" 60's and 70's manufacturers are increasingly dying or worn-down to the point of needing serious overhauls. I mean, most of them will have been subjected to 30 or 40 years worth of use before you, novice audio nerd, have touched them! If you have the skills to rebuild a classic turntable, you can still get a great deal, but it's very unlikely you (nor I) have those skills and are reading this guide guide for noobs.

Which leads to our conundrum. I'd love to recommend buying any random used turntable, but I can't. Nor can I recommend buying a cheap new table. Even more than speakers, CD player or  having a great functioning turntable matters. Why? Because a, cheap and/or improperly functioning (and improperly set up) table can wreck your precious records fairly quickly!

So, that all said and done, if you are obsessive enough to track down, buy and lug around records, just suck it up and buy a decent table. Depending on your threshold for self-inflicted pain, I'll provide two options. 

The first choice you should consider, if you are quite the masochist/purist, is the much beloved Rega RP-1. Yeah, it has no automatic speed change nor automatic tone arm control. Yeah it's $450.00. But everything I know says that with this player will last you many decades and sound better than anything anywhere near it's price. If I had to buy a new turntable, I'd buy this. 

However let me reiterate that it is full manual. Meaning you have to set the arm on the start of the side and pick it up at the end or it will spin around forever. And more, if you want to change from 33rpm to 45 rpm, you have to take the platter off and manually change where the belt is seated. This wouldn't be a huge issue if you collection is mostly older records in 33, but a few presses are recorded in 45 too (like that damn "Monoliths and Dimensions" album which has alternating sides at both 33 and 45………….) But the sound quality and upgradability is fantastic. 

[A quick note about "upgradability" - this is basically the ease with which any given item or system will take an upgrade. A highly upgradable turntable would be one that you can easily find, buy and install new and better parts. In the case of the Rega, everything from the needle to the wires to the whole tone arm has plenty of available upgrades if you want. Which translates to not having to buy a whole new turntable if you have the itch for better quality. (Something with terrible upgradability would be one of those Wal-Mart all-in-one systems with the amp, DVD player and everything ell in one box with proprietary connectors. If you want to upgrade, you just have to throw them out and start over.)]

So let's say that replacing the belt every time you need to switch RPM strikes you as a bit too much effort. The other turntable option is to get a Denon DP-300F which we'll add a couple of upgrades. It's probably the best mass-market turntable around $329.00. But has some problems. But we can correct for most of them.

Back to our more-automated Denon, most reviews note that it is a light turntable that has problems with isolation with "loud" (i.e. metal/rock/hip-hop/electronic/my) music. Isolation, being that it has added noise caused by the jostling caused by the speakers. So now add another $24 for Vibrapods which extra "feet" that cushion it. The cartridge it comes with sucks. The Needle Doctor recommends an Ortofon 2M Red at around $100. And new total cost? $450. About the same cost as the Rega. It won't sound quite as good, but it will be more convenient as it is fully automatic! 

The third option is buying a professionally refurbished used turntable. This is probably the ideal cost-benifit ration though only folks in larger cities will have this opton. You might have a very cool vintage audio speciality-repair shop around that sells nice turntables they have refurbished. In Los Angeles we have a place called The Audio Specialist which at any given moment will have fifteen or twenty used high-end turntables that they have rebuilt for sale at good prices (around $250-450 for very nice gear). Like record shops, some of these places can be quirky, but don't let them scare you. I ended up buying a very excellent Technics SL-1700 mk2 for my table.  

So after you get your turntable, if you recall when I was discussing amps I mentioned how most of the built-in phono preamps suck (and the rest didn't even have phono preamps)? Well, if you love vinyl, a phono pre amp is the best $70 you can spend. 

What is a phono pre-amp? The sound coming from the turntable needs to be amplified significantly as it is very weak compared to a CD player or such, and a special EQ curve needs to be applied to expand it to full frequency. Basically, it's the device that takes the tiny signal from the needle and cartridge and turns it in to a regular signal that comes from something like a CD player. 

What a separate phono-pre-amp does is do both of these things as it's only job. The phono pre-amp that regularly gets rave reviews is the TCC TC-760LC. Get it, love it, and be happy.

(Another more pricey option at $120 is the NAD PP-2 which was for ages the standard phono-pre. The reference point for most folks is the Cambridge 640P, even more pricey at $180).

Also necessary is to get some sort of record cleaning / anti-static setup. It wouldn't hurt to get a force gauge and an anti-skating guide. You can also upgrade the needle on your cartridge. Getting a good Elliptical needle will improve the sound quite a bit regardless of cartridge — Getting a Linear Tracking (or the pricier "nude" Linear Tracking) needle will be even better. Why? Because the close the needle shape is to the one that cut it the closer the sound will be to what was intended! 

Vinyl is still a wilderness for me, technically speaking, but you'll just have to get one of the two turntables and jump in there with me and flail around - You can always lurk at Audio Karma and learn tons.

Next up - headphones!

Monday, August 8, 2011

CSA Recipe: Lemongrass Roasted Chicken Breast with Basil Fried Rice

The last of the CSA recipes I came up with this week. Thanks to everyone at Silverlake Farms and their partners for the great inspiring produce! 

Lemongrass Roasted Chicken Breast with Basil Fried Rice
Serves 4

Loosely inspired by the cool folks at Starry Kitchen

For the chicken:
4 chicken breast 
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised
1 bunch heirloom yellow carrots, halved (CSA buddies - these were AMAZING this week!)
4 scallions, cut in to 2" chunks
1 tsp siracha
1 lime, cut in to slices
2 yukon gold potatoes, cut in to 1" chunks
1 tbs canola oil
salt and pepper to taste

For the fried rice:

1 tbs canola oil
1/4 c sliced basil
2 heirloom red scallions (or shallots) finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups day-old rice
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp soy sauce

1) Preheat the oven to 375.

2) In a large, oven-proof skillet, heal canola oil over medium-high heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Add and cook for 3 minutes on each side to brown. 

3) Kill the heat, and add all the veggies and Siracha. Stir well.

4) Tuck the stalks of lemon grass in to the dish and place the slices of lime over the top. Put in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes.

5) While the chicken is baking, make the fried rice! Heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook for 4-5 minutes, until transparent and lightly golden. 

6) Add the rice, crumbling it by hand. Stir in and cook for 2 minutes.

7) Scrape the rice to edges, leaving the skillet bare in the middle. Add the eggs and cook, stirring, until runny scrambled eggs. Then combine the egg and rice.

8) Add the soy and basil and mix. Turn off the heat.

Put a portion of fried rice, a chicken breast and some of the veggies on each plate (discard the lemongrass and lime slices). Serve with an off-dry white wine like a Riesling or a Gruner Veltliner. Though a Sauv Blanc or Viogner would go okay too.   

Sunday, August 7, 2011

CSA Recipe: Stuffed Patty-Pan Squash, Korean Style

I was stuck at home working all day, Callie was coming home from a late shift and I was feeling the itch to make something creative that she would really like. This is a fantastic recipe, and easier than it looks. Note that you're increasingly seeing cheddar cheese used in korean rice dishes — the combination of the rich, spicy chile paste and the cheese is decadent! 

Stuffed Patty-Pan Squash, Korean Style
Serves 4

1 lb patty-pan squash, though you could do this with regular zucchini 
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch heirloom red scallions, sliced
1 tbs canola oil (optional)
4 slices thick bacon (or 2 slices of pork belly)
2 c rice (leftover is fine)
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1 tsp soy sauce
1/4 c Kimchee, Chopped
1/4 c grated sharp cheddar cheese
1-3 tbs Korean red chile paste ("gochujang" - to taste - I would use 3)

1) Heat the oven to 400. Cut squash in half and scoop out most of the inside flesh leaving a small bowl. 

2) In a large skillet, fry the bacon until crisp. Drain, chop and set aside.

3) Either use the bacon drippings or clean skillet and use canola oil, and heat at medium. Add the garlic, cook and stir for 45 seconds. Add the scallions and kimchi. Cook for 2-3 minutes. 

4) Break up the rice with your hands and add it to the pan, stirring to combine it with the scallions and garlic (kind of like fried rice). Cook for 1 minute. Turn off heat.

5) Mix the soy and red chile paste (mostly done to thin the paste so you can mix it in easier). Add to the skillet along with the sesame seeds and chopped, fried bacon. Mix well.

6) Add in the cheddar cheese. Let cool for 3-4 minutes.

7) Place the hollowed squash halves on a baking sheet. Scoop the rice mixture into the squash halves, mounding like a snow cone. 

8) Bake for 20 minutes. Serve with some ban chon (korean appetizer dishes) and a nice german lager or Belgian wit beer. Or man-up and drink sochu! ;) 

*Variant Note: Like the whole Korean taco fad, this dish would very quickly change costumes to become a Mexican dish. Just swap adobo sauce, which is what chipoltes in a can come in, for the chile paste and swap queso for the cheddar cheese. Leave out the kimchi. Use 1/2 tsp salt instead of the soy sauce. Voila!  

Saturday, August 6, 2011

CSA Recipe: Broccolini and Chile Pasta with Goat Cheese

I wrote this up for Callie to make for a couple of her friends coming over as a simple supper to have with wine.  I couldn't get a photo of the food, but as you can tell by the pan, it was a hit! Also, if you can't tell, we had goat cheese around the house, and got more from the CSA!

Broccolini and Chile Pasta with Goat Cheese
Serves three

3 small cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch broccoli thingers, ends trimmed and cut in to 2" chunks
1/2 new mexico mild red chile pepper, seeds removed and smashed/chopped very finely
1 heirloom scallion, red part only, sliced thinly
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbs olive oil
2 tsp red wine vinegar
goat cheese (about half a small tub - divided in to three portions)
pasta for three

1) Bring well salted pasta water to boil. Add pasta so it will be al dente as the skillet stuff finishes (probably as soon as the skillet is heated.)

2) Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds until just aromatic. Add chile pepper and cook for 30 seconds more. Add scallions and cook for 60 seconds. 

3) Turn up heat slightly. Add broccoli bits. Cook for 3-4 minutes until just browned on the edges and tender on the stems.

4) Add red wine vinegar. Cook for 30 seconds or so more.

5) Add 1/2 cup pasta water to the skillet and turn heat off. 

6) Drain pasta and add to skillet.

7) Plate, adding mound of goat cheese on top.

Friday, August 5, 2011

CSA Recipe: Watermelon, Arugula and Goat Cheese Salad

Don't mind if I abuse the amazing Watermelon we got from the CSA this week! It was yellow and so sweet and delicious. 

Watermelon, Arugula and Goat Cheese Salad
Serves 4 as an Appetizer

2 cups watermelon cut in to 1" cubes
2 oz goat cheese, crumbled
1/8 toasted pine nuts
1 tbs red onion, minced
1 small bunch arugula, stemmed and washed
1 small bunch micro-greens, washed
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 tsp rice vinegar
1 tbs olive oil
salt and pepper

1) Toss watermelon chunks with 1/4 tsp salt. Place in a strainer or colander to drain for 10 minutes (the salad will get very watery if you don't drain the watermelon). 

2) Make the dressing by whisking together the lemon juice, onion, rice vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. Then very slowly drip in the olive oil while whisking.

3) Toss the greens and watermelon chunks with the dressing.

4) Sprinkle with pine nuts and crumbled goat cheese serve with a glass of Prosecco or Cremant! 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

CSA Recipe: Orecchiette with Nubby Carrots and Chorizo

I had some really amazing leftover chorizo and goat cheese from the Silverlake Cheese Store after going to see Stevie Wonder at the Hollywood Bowl with Callie & my parents, who were visiting from Chicago, so I turned it in to a summer night pasta dish!

Orecchiette with Nubby Carrots and Chorizo
Serves 4

1 bunch "nubby" (aka "ball") carrots (or baby carrots) halved
1 clove garlic, minced
pasta for 4 (about 1/3 of a box)
2 oz spanish chorizo (the hard kind) chopped 
1 can cannelloni or butter beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/8 cup soft goat cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbs olive oil divided

1) Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil for the pasta (about 1-2 tbs salt).

2) In a small skillet, crisp the chorizo by heating 1 tbs of olive oil over medium heat and cooking until crisp about 4-5 minutes. Drain on a paper towel.

3) Get the pasta boiling. In another skillet over medium heat 1 tbs olive oil. Add the carrots and garlic and cook until just starting to brown, about 7 minutes. Add the beans.

4) Add 1/2 cup pasta water to the carrots and continue to cook until carrots are nicely soft, about 3-4 more minutes.

5) Drain the pasta and combine along with the cilantro to the carrots and beans in the skillet. Add salt and pepper to taste.

6) Plate by putting a couple scoops of the pasta-carrot mixture on the plate and sprinkling with the crisped chorizo and a chunk of goat cheese. 

Serve this with crunchy crusted bread and a hefty white or a fruity red wine (or a rose!) 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Audio Guide Part 4 - Options!

(Audio Guide Parts 1, 2, and 3.)

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!