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Why You Shouldn’t Cheat on Your Digital Source

Generally speaking, most music lovers agree the higher the quality the turntable and cartridge, the better the sound. Even back in the day, most music lovers would agree the higher the quality the cassette deck the better the sound. As CDs matured, music lovers agreed the higher the quality the CD player the better the sound. 

However, today there seems to be a strange divergent from this philosophy of source matters as it relates to digital. If the quality of the CD player source unit made a difference to one’s audio system, it stands to reason a modern network audio player/DAC/streamer will too. First, one must understand that after the quality of the audio recording itself, the source component is arguably the most important aspect of an audio system. What happens is the source directly impacts how the rest of the system will sound. All too often consumers feel they can short the source and save money to put into the rest of the system. Sure, speakers greatly matter! However, the speakers and all the electronics upstream will only be as good as the source. Or, put another way, your system will only sound as good as your source. If you have a certain level of speaker, amplifier, preamplifier, or integrated amplifier, and think you did yourself a service by using a “bargain” or “affordable” streamer/DAC because “bits are bits,” you’re actually doing yourself and the rest of your system a great disservice. The old “bits are bits” mantra doesn’t take into account the timing of those bits (jitter), the accuracy converting those bits to analog, and the analog stage that gives a component its voicing. As listeners today, we don’t have as much vested interest in the commodity like method of how conveniently digital content is delivered and consumed. However, that doesn’t mean we should also treat the digital playback device as a commodity. We no longer need to get into our cars, drive to the record store, sort through bins of CDs, decide what to spend our money on, drive home, sit in front of our audio system and enjoy our well thought out purchase. When we did this (or still do this for vinyl) we took much more care in choosing our source unit with the understanding that the source unit greatly impacted the sound of our audio system. Today, we have somehow inflated the convenience of digital music’s delivery method with using a cheap commodity digital source to access and playback that content. Nowadays, with CD and even better than CD quality high resolution audio available to conveniently stream (or download) from a variety of streaming services, the digital source/playback device is actually even more important today than it was back in the day when we actually took greater interest in the digital source. 

Most agree when you cut corners it’s not without a cost. Saving money can sometimes have a greater cost down the line. Digital playback is not immune to this. Using “bargain,” “affordable,” “giant killer,” “mass produced,” etc., digital streaming/DAC products will NOT let your audio system thrive and you’ll be getting a smaller return on your investment that is your audio system. Like we’ve discussed prior, DACs (which is what a streaming audio player is) when properly designed are comprised of three elements. The power supply and power stage, the digital stage, and the analog stage. Many of these “bargain” products don’t have a proper power supply stage, nor a full-blown audio stage. Many use cheap switching power supplies, cheap digital clocking and don’t have proper analog stages only to use an inexpensive buffer circuit coming right off the DAC chip. The result is often a product that while may play many popular formats, play high resolutions, and license certain technologies, will have a thinner more anemic sound and have large amounts of digital distortion (jitter). All of these shortcomings will be amplified and exploited by your downstream electronics and speakers. 

Something also to consider if using a cheap digital streaming only device connected to an outboard DAC is that the coaxial, toslink or AES output will only be capable of 96kHz, or 192kHz at best in some situations. That means no native DSD, no PCM higher than 192kHz, or no full MQA. These typically will NOT be outputted digitally. Digital streaming only devices that have USB output will have some compatibility issues when used with USB DACs, making for a potential roll of the dice working scenario.   Once again, there are no shortcuts. To get the best possible sound of which you and the rest your system deserves, don’t look for a cheat solution. Buy a product that is designed as one, does all and more for a long-lasting digital future, and includes the DAC to ensure compatibility and playback of the highest resolutions and technologies. Additionally, with streaming services being the most widely used method of music delivery and storage being a commodity, we don’t recommend a product that has onboard storage. Hard drives WILL fail, introduce noise and turns the component into a computer that can play audio vs. an audio component that can access and stream data from a computer or storage device. If you want to play your own music files, it’s best to connect an external USB hard drive directly to the component (if the component is capable of that…all Cary Audio products are) or can access your stored music over a network computer or NAS device. Look for a company that supports its products with their own control app (as well as other control options) and not entirely reliant on the use of 3rd party control apps. Look for a product that allows you to control how the music data is handled, i.e. upsampled. Some products upsample or convert ALL data to a specific rate or format and won’t play a file natively. Look for a product that is not only BOTH Wi-Fi and Ethernet, giving you connectivity options, but is also both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz Wi-Fi. Most importantly, since a DAC or network streaming audio player is ultimately an analog device, look for a company that is renowned for designing world class analog audio circuits.

There is a reason our DMS product range weighs 24 lbs., and 1/3rdof its full-sized chassis dedicated each to power supply/stage, digital stage, and analog stage. The DMS-550 and DMS-600 have no equal at, near, or even approaching double their price, never mind comparing them to a “bargain” unit. If you really want a bargain beyond compare, look for one our CPO DMS-500s, if available (only in the US and Canada). No, it won’t be quite like our DMS-550 or DMS-600, but at the price it’s the best bargain in all of high-end audio for a digital network audio streamer/player.

Do yourself and your audio system a favor by having one of our DMS products as your source component. It’s time to realize the full potential of digital music files and the rest of your audio system!

If you are located in the United States and Canada, you can purchase the DMS-550 and DMS-600 direct from our factory on CaryDirect.

If you are located outside the United States and Canada, please contact your local Dealer/Distributor to purchase.


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