Is your Earth flat? For inhabitants of the BitsAreBits world, digital audio is not only a cinch to set up, it’s as cheap as chips. Grab any old entry-level laptop computer and connect it to a downstream DAC with any USB cable (as long as it conforms to the standard) and you’re up and running for under US$300.
Fussing over make and model of laptop (or full size PC) is but a matter of ergonomics and cosmetics. Whatever the BitsAreBits-er chooses, it’ll sound the same as any fancy music server from the likes of Aurender (reviewed here) or Antipodes Audio (reviewed here and here). To our digital skeptic such high end fare is for suckers with too much money and not enough common sense. Ditto the Curious and Light Harmonic LightSpeed USB cables – fool’s errands both.
With Photoshop and MS Word running in parallel to iTunes there’s zero need to fuss over the promises of lower CPU overheads and the associated superior sound quality made by the likes of Audirvana+, Amarra, JRiver, Fidelizer and Pure Music. Bits are bits and as long as they get from PC/Mac to DAC in tact. “Bits aren’t dropped when copying a file from my computer to the attached hard-drive over USB so why should it be any different in sending bits from that same computer with the same USB cable to the DAC?” reasons the skeptic.
Alternatively, a Sonos Connect’s S/PDIF output can be tapped for US$349. The connection method of choice is irrelevant as long as it works sans dropouts. It’s all ones and zeroes anyway so both coaxial and optical wire will sound the same. Any old entry level cable will do – no need to spend big here at all. And no need to worry about having the Sonos Connect modded (see here) or opting for a more left-field choice in the AURALiC Aries Mini (covered here).
Apple fans might stretch to a Mac Mini, the cheapest point of entry into the world of OS X. Again the music playback device doubles as office workhorse; a proper two-fer. Hook in a USB cable – any standards compliant one will do – to carry ones and zeroes from Mac to DAC.
What about jitter? Claimed “Jitter Free” by the manufacturer, our BitsAreBits-er’s DAC will sort it all out. No need for one of those USB-S/PDIF converters like the Audiophilleo (see here) or the Resonessence Labs Concero (here) that were so popular a coupla years back.
In 2015, the focus of digital audio optimisation shifted. We saw a slight shift away from the audio-stream-nursing of the aforementioned USB-S/PDIF converters and S/PDIF re-clockers like the Empirical Audio SynchroMesh (see here) and the Wyred4Sound Remedy (go here) and toward a new (old) approach; cleaning up the USB signal itself. No S/PDIF diversion required.
Of course, to our BitsAreBits-er, the passive filtering of the AudioQuest JitterBug (covered here) is utter poppycock. So too is the USB datastream regeneration of the Schiit Wyrd (covered here) and the season’s hottest ticket, the UpTone Audio Regen (covered here).
AudioQuest, UpTone and Schiit’s collective argument goes something like this: the electrical noise spilling from the source PC/Mac travels along the USB cable and into the DAC where it disturbs the sensitive oscillators, knocking clocking out of whack and bringing forth the jitter. The JitterBug filters out much of this noise whilst the Wyrd and Regen go a one-two better by reconstructing the USB signal, ensuring data flows to the DAC in a steady stream (and not bursts), and by supplying a cleaner (less noisy) 5V feed to the DAC’s USB receiver chip.
According to its manufacturer, the Regen also tackles the issue of impedance matching. The way UpTone’s Alex Crespi tells it, a DAC’s USB receiver chip has more than one operational mode. Additional layers of pre-processing kick into life when the incoming USB data stream becomes harder to read. And the harder the DAC’s USB receiver has to work, the more electrical noise it generates, again disrupting the accuracy of downstream digital audio clocks.
When pushed on these technical matters the digital flat earther demands ‘proof’ from the manufacturer. In sharpening their focus he lobs in an accusation of snake oil for good measure. The implication being that buyers of such USB hardware are not only foolish, they are lying to themselves AND others. Journalists hearing similar results get caught in the crossfire, often falling victim to the same old conspiracy theories; that integrity and professional pride play second fiddle to the fast buck of advertising dollars and the implication therefore being that reviewers are in on the scam. Quite the leap…
The BitsAreBits-er knows in him/herself that deluxe USB wire, low-noise servers, audiophile streamers and USB regenerators cannot possibly make a jot of difference because digital audio transmission is simply a matter of ones and zeroes (and nothing more). Manufacturers of goods that promise SQ enhancements via the digital domain are only out to exploit people, to rob them of their money. “They would say X makes a difference – it’s in their financial interest to do so,” falls the skeptic’s reasoning.
But could it be that this train of thought is also financially motivated? Vehemently adhering to – and espousing – the subjective truth that it’s all ones and zeroes is a matter of money also. Suggesting that a $300 laptop sounds the same as $3000 server or that a $500 USB cable has nothing over a $10 variant not only makes the digital audio world simpler to grasp but cheaper too. Who wouldn’t want to potentially save thousands of dollars when all that’s required is a firming up of one’s borders, open mind be damned?
Simply follow-up any demo-er attempting to show otherwise with accusations of being drunk on self-delusion and it’s cased closed and good night. Time for a lie down and some sobering up?
By the time we come to we’ll be in dire need of the plop plop fizz fizz of an Alka-Seltzer. IOW, time for Recovery and for the BitsAreBits crew, case made, to exit stage left.
As easy as USB. Wyred4Sound’s USB reclocker, the Recovery (US$249), sits between source device and DAC. Hook up is as easy as anything else that joins the part over USB. One LED confirms signal lock, the other USB Audio Class (off for 1.0, on for 2.0).
The Recovery seeks to improve the sound of a USB connection in two ways: 1) buffering the incoming USB stream before Femto-clocking the corresponding data output; 2) cauterising the host PC’s 5V supply before slipstreaming its own, lower noise power.
This pegs the Recovery as an active device; it draws power from the mains via a ‘low noise’ 9V/1.3A switch mode power supply that’s similar in size to the Recovery itself, which in turn is larger than the diminutive Regen but not quite the Schiit Wyrd beefcake.
The corresponding (intended) result is two-fer too: 1) less-stressed USB reception – the PHY need not fall back on pre-processing in ensuring an error-free read and 2) lower incidence of electrical noise infection from the source computer.
On hook-up practicality, the Schiit is the only one of the three devices that can’t be hung unsupported from the back of the DAC via umbilical USB cord. The Recovery, larger than its UpTone rival, is less likely to induce an “Is that it?” moment when popping the package lid and it too remains too heavy to be connected unsupported to the DAC’s USB port via solid adaptor (as per the Regen).
For those unable to prop up the Recovery behind the DAC, an umbilical is the only way. Wyred4Sound slip a 6 incher into the box but users might prefer to BYO. For me, nothing beats the inner-spaciousness of the short-stop from Queensland’s Curious Cables (see here).
If the Recovery’s promises of cleaner USB power and improved USB ‘signal integrity’ sound operationally similar to Schiit’s Wyrd and UpTone’s Regen, separating each of the three Californians on look-see alone falls to circuit design and parts selection.
Pulling from the Wyred4Sound website’s Q&A: “What is the key difference between the Recovery and other audio USB ‘filtering’ devices? The design and thinking behind the Recovery is based on previous successes, and was built from the ground up to be superior in addressing timing and power inadequacies. A large part of how we accomplish this comes from using a more accurate clock and better internal power supplies than the rest.”
Hitting up chief designer and CEO EJ Sarmento for more via email: “We use very quiet regulators to supply much cleaner power to your connected device in addition to the hi-performance reclocking of the USB signal. Similar to how the Remedy works, the Recovery will eliminate issues inherent in the USB signal before feeding its perfected output to the DAC of your choice. We are using nothing but the best power regulators and Femto grade clocks to ensure “sonic heaven”. Because it is USB 2.0 compliant, there are no drivers to install and will be plug and play with any dac which was previously connected direct.”
What you’ll hear from applying the Recovery to your digital audio front end will largely depend on the quality of DAC. And source.
I noted the single most palpable uptick in music’s avidity and enthusiasm with Recovery interceding between MacMini and Schiit Bifrost multibit. Removing the Recovery after a long listening session brought dialled down micro-dynamic inflection on Built To Spill’s Untethered Moon and The Notwist’s Neon Golden sounded. In the Recovery’s absence, music came on a little flatter: micro-dynamics tamed, textures smoothed, timbres a little greyed out. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Amplifier and loudspeakers in use here were as follows: Vinnie Rossi LIO supplements on occasion by Red Dragon S500 monoblocks and, connected via AudioQuest Rocket 88, the rather marvellous Spatial M4 open-baffles.
Swapping the Schiit out for the PS Audio DSJ seemed to give the Wyred4Sound brick less room to manoeuvre in opening up the soundstage but bass on The Orb’s “Towers of Dub” (from U.F. Orb) presented as more prominent and propulsive. Engineering-minded readers can debate the effectiveness of Ted Smith’s FPGA in shielding the DSJ to upstream changes more so than a DAC with a more traditional USB receiver chip. In this Schiit’s case we note a C-Media CM6631A.
Changing up sources from Mac Mini to MacBook Air did nothing to contradict these initial findings but bringing the AURALiC Aries into the picture did. With Aries talking to Bifrost, the difference between Recovery and none became indistinguishable. That same inconclusive blurring presented with the PS Audio DSJ fed by the AURALiC streamer. Entirely consistent with the UpTone Regen’s behaviour.
The implication here soon steps out of the shadows: introducing the Wyred4Sound Recovery to a consumer-grade computer brings a more noticeable improvement than to a server or streamer designed with audiophile sensitivities (i.e. lower noise) in mind. Of more significant note, the Recovery brings the MacBook Air up to a level that with Audirvana+ running makes it too tough to drive a wedge between it and the AURALiC Aries.
Separating the performance of the Recovery and the Regen proved a near impossible task. Perhaps the LIO/S500/M4 combo wasn’t up to the task? Moving listening to behind headphones – HiFiMAN HE-1000 driven by the LIO’s single-ended output – didn’t clarify things any. At least, not enough to conclude definitively.
Perhaps it would be instructive to see the Recovery as, at the very least, the equal of the UpTone’s smaller, hard-connected hanger-on-erer. It’s a conclusion that would later be challenged by the Wyred4Sound device. Entirely feasible that those bringing their own umbilical USB cables to the party will see the Recovery’s performance head north. That’s certainly true of the Curious’ Regen Link.
Sauce for goose is sauce for the gander. With that same yellow wire playing lasso between re-clocker and DAC, the Regen and Recovery were too close to separate on audible performance.
A last minute thought bubble gave rise to one scenario in which the Recovery does outperform the UpTone: when propping the Recovery up behind the Schiit DAC to allow for direct-dongle connection, umbilical-be-gone. Here the sound of Beck’s Sea Change displayed more obvious transient crispness and cleaner bass definition.
How any given user will respond to such tiny dance moves will largely be system and taste dependent. In my listening tests, the Recovery took the Regen by a nose but I had to work for it.
Elsewhere, price is where prospective buyers might fall on the Regen/Recovery divide. The Wyred4Sound unit’s US$199 introductory special is soon to be no more. That means a US$249 sticker – a full US$75 more than the Regen. Or perhaps it’s a matter of aesthetics and substance. The Recovery looks and feels more substantial than its rival.
Transcending this A/B is something more fundamental: that improved USB ‘signal integrity’ and 5V power supply can dial down the electrical storm caused by some host computers and therefore make lighter work for the connected DAC’s USB receiver chip. That’s something worth making a noise about.
For those who long since abandoned the bits-are-bits mentality, digital audio isn’t the simpleton that it might appear on the surface. It’s a complicated and highly nuanced affair where everything in the chain matters. Being wise to products like the Recovery don’t necessarily put one further out of pocket. It becomes a matter of allocating financial resources more carefully instead. Preferential to a $600 computer going USB direct to DAC would be a $300 computer paired with a Wyred4Sound Recovery as USB translator.
And if you’re feeding your DAC from a non-audiophile-centric device like a Mac Mini or a Microsoft Surface Pro, the Wyred4Sound Recovery seems to matter more than one’s chosen USB cable or playback software – a most effective antidote to digititus and therefore a 100% essential piece of the puzzle. For yours truly, when listening for pleasure, the Recovery must be part of the digital audio chain of command. Now that’s interesting.
Further information: Wyred4Sound
UPDATE 17th March 2016. Manufacturer’s reply:
“We’d like to sincerely thank John for his time and insightful review of the Recovery. In one passage he observed, “introducing the Wyred4Sound Recovery to a consumer-grade computer brings a more noticeable improvement than to a server or streamer designed with audiophile sensitivities (i.e. lower noise) in mind”. We thought it worth noting to DAR readers that we’ve received a large amount of positive feedback from customers whose equipment spanned from modest to highly engineered/very expensive. Many of these customers, interestingly enough, also had our competitor’s device and reported noteworthy improvements after replacing it with the Recovery. We’re certainly not disagreeing with John on any given point, we just thought its worth mentioning our direct customer experience.” – EJ Sarmento, CEO Wyred4Sound