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Should I buy a DAC if I only use Spotify?

  • Spotify. It has the catalogue depth, the UI elegance and, thanks to Spotify Connect, hi-fi system integration ready to roll. Giving die-hard audiophiles pause is Spotify’s choice of streaming codec: Ogg Vorbis is lossy — its psychoacoustic compression algorithm strips away the musical information that we are less likely to hear in order to squeeze the file size down to 320kbps or lower. Where does this leave the newcomer looking to dip her toe into the hi-fi world?

    The die-hards will insist that an immediate change to the newcomer’s streaming service is required: to the CD quality (and above) of Amazon HD, Tidal, Qobuz or Deezer. Not so fast! Such ‘source first’ idealism often pays no mind to the newcomer’s pre-existing hardware. What point upping one’s source quality if the hardware required to realise any audible improvement isn’t yet in place?

    More importantly, those of us who feel our experience is worth sharing with others must meet the newcomer where she lives – in Spotify land – and not where we might prefer her to live. To think otherwise is to flirt with the arrogance that keeps the audiophile world entrenched in a ghetto.

    For the newcomer stepping up from a Bluetooth speaker or soundbar, a new pair of loudspeakers will bring the most dramatic change to her music-listening world, closely followed by the amplifier used to power them. A degree of disappointment will be dodged if the chosen loudspeakers closely fit the acoustic make-up of the room, but this isn’t the time to discuss treatments beyond rugs and heavier curtains.

    But what of the DAC? I’m often asked if a step up from a laptop or smartphone’s headphone socket is worth the cash if the source is Spotify? The reasoning is sound – that better D/A conversion will expose the shortcomings of lossy streaming – but it’s being popped way too early in the journey.

    The Logitech Squeezebox Duet.

    In late 2008, I was a hi-fi world newcomer with an integrated amplifier (a Redgum RGi35) and standmount loudspeakers (Krix KDX-M). My final move was to switch up the network streamer (that contained a DAC) from the Squeezebox 3 to the Squeezebox Duet. Smartphones weren’t yet a thing and I was Jonesing for the Duet’s rechargeable remote control with its colour screen and circular control dial.

    Alas, this streamer switcheroo made my music streaming sound worse: with the Duet in play, I heard a more subdued performance. Vitality and exuberance had taken a hit. It took me a good few weeks to finger the culprit. Logitech hadn’t carried over the Squeezebox 3’s DAC circuit into the Duet. It was different. And to my ears, it wasn’t as resolving or as transparent.

    This was my first exposure to a DAC change-up making more of an impact on what I heard than a better source codec. I’d re-ripped my CDs to FLAC some months prior – one step forward – but swapping out the SB3 for the Duet felt like two steps backwards.

    It’s no different in 2020. I’d sooner listen to Spotify (Connect) via a Raspberry Pi 4 hooked into an entry-level USB DAC (and price-commensurate amplifier and loudspeakers) than hear an average smartphone’s headphone output pushing Tidal or Qobuz’s CD-quality streams directly into the same amplifier and loudspeakers.

    This thinking moves our newcomer’s Spotify conundrum from “Should I buy a DAC?” to “Which DAC should I buy?”. The video below takes a look at the Topping D10s DAC (€99) with the Schiit Modi 3 (US$99) playing counterpoint. Note how the Topping has a neat trick up its sleeve:

    Further information: Topping

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

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