Sunday, January 17, 2010

Golden Ears

First off, I have to report that I have no Costco report for you. Yup, I didn't do my usual Saturday morning Costco run! I came down with a cold on Friday, waking up with a sore throat. I must have caught it from shaking hands with one of our sales reps at work. We had meetings with them all week and it seems I am now victim of one of the pitfalls of shaking hands with people. I am going to have to be more reclusive from now on.

There was an interesting post on the audio forum that I frequently read (like every day all day) from someone who said they purchased this DAC and was extremely impressed by how much it improved the quality of sound from his CD player.

What is a DAC, you might ask. DAC stands for "digital-to-analog converter." Basically what it does is convert the digital signals that are generated by a CD into analog signals that can be amplified by your audio system so you can hear them through your speakers. Apparently some devices convert these signals better than others, or so said this fellow who wrote the post on the forum.

He claimed that when using the unit he bought on E-Bay, the sound was noticeably clearer and more lifelike, etc., etc.

After trading some messages with him to get more information, I decided to purchase one as well. The seller is in Hong Kong so it took a while for the package to arrive, but it showed up late in the week. Here's a picture of it:

Today I soldered some connections together and connected it between my CD player and the preamplifier, turned it on and.. no sound. The blue light on the circuit board was lit so I knew it was getting power, but there was no sound. First thing I thought of was what a hassle it would be having to return this thing somewhere in Hong Kong. But after examining the board, I noticed that there was a little jumper pin that needed to be set differently. After doing that, it worked!

Now, even though I wrote too much above, there is more to it than that (stuff having to do with switching op amps, etc., which I won't write about and bore you even more). Let's cut to the chase. Was there that dramatic difference that the guy on the audio forum raved about?


I spent a good part of the afternoon doing comparison testing, switching back and forth between the old and new, playing the same CD tracks over and over again to see if I could hear a difference. The new DAC from Hong Kong had a louder volume so I had to adjust the volume controls when comparing; otherwise, the louder one would have had the psychological advantage of sounding better simply because it was louder (hint: if you ever compare speakers or hi-fi equipment at a store, make sure everything is playing at the same volume because otherwise, the louder one almost always wins).

After listening to very specific parts of the songs, I had to conclude that there was really no difference. I don't know if that is because I am too old and my hearing is not all that good, or because I have a cold, or because there really was no difference. Having a cold doesn't seem to have affected my hearing, though, so it is either reason 1 (too old) or reason 3 (there is no difference to hear).

I can definitely hear differences between speakers, though. And I thought I would hear differences today between devices - I was expecting to! But each time I thought I heard a difference, I went and played the section back and after comparing again, nope, no difference.

So.. did I waste my money? Haven't decided yet. It was relatively inexpensive so let's just say this is a learning process. At least I proved I could solder something. The smell generated by the soldering process brought back memories of making slot cars, long, long time ago. At least I didn't burn myself.

I am going to do more listening tests tomorrow. Julie thought I was nuts.

"Why do you keep playing the same songs over and over again?"

"I'm doing comparison tests."

"Oh, so you can justify spending all that money on your electronic gizmos."

Haha.. yeah, sort of. Tomorrow I'm going to try some different CD's and see what happens.. you know, sort of like Einstein's definition of insanity.

Here's a couple of my test songs (not these particular versions, which come from a DVD; I used the CD versions):

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