A few USB to SPDIF converters in the house
Or at least there will be soon...
I tried doing some research but reviews of a couple of the models I am looking at are very scarce, so I decided to just buy them all and try them out. There's nothing super expensive in the mix since my audio budget has been running on fumes since the May system overhaul, but here's what I'be got coming in.
Musical Fidelity V-Link II ($130)
Musical Fidelity V-Link 192 ($199)
Peachtree T1 ($99)
Peachtree X1 ($199)
Stello US ($499)
I'm expecting the Stello to be the best of the lot given it's reputation and the much higher price, but wanted one of those in the mix to help me set some type of range for performance. I'll be supplying more details in the write-up, hope to have everything burned in to do the comparison this weekend.
Maybe I should start with "Is it even a good idea to use a converter"
Ok, I got some more time with these over the weekend and have formulated a more coherent opinion about them. Before I dive into the review, I wanted to offer a couple more thoughts. What I really prefer is to remove the USB to SPDIF conversion from the picture altogether, but this review is intended for those instances where it's not possible.
So, I'll say up front that the best overall setup for playing digital files is my Oppo 105 reading FLAC or ALAC files directly off an attached hard drive. There are no computers or network streaming anywhere in the equation, just a drive hooked up to the Oppo and an iPad to control the playback interface on the Oppo so the TV doesn't need to be on. I think this is the simplest approach (nothing really to go wrong in this setup) and, by a slight margin, the best sounding setup. It's not quite as convenient though because I have to keep the drive on the Oppo in sync with my library, which means occasionally hooking it up to the computer to do so. This is my favorite approach because it's the simplest and sounds the best.
This leads me to my second favorite setup, which is using JRiver in conjunction with the Oppo 105. So I set up the 105 as a zone in JRiver and the music gets streamed wirelessly from the computer running JRiver (the iMac in the office) to the Oppo 105. I control everything with the JRemote app on the iPad, which is IMO the best media control app that's ever been written for a mobile device. This setup is more convenient since there's no manual synching of drives, but is a bit more complex because it introduces another failure point into the equation. JRiver is still in beta on Mac and I have had a couple issues, though nothing too bad. The most appealing thing about this approach is that I get to use JRemote, which is a much better looking program on the iPad than the one Oppo supplies for use in the option above. I think this approach gives up a tad in sound quality to using an attached drive, but it's not significant and for anything other than critical listening really not relevant at all.
So I have to get to my third favorite approach before I even get to streaming from a computer directly over USB and thus to the topic of this thread. For this I use one of my computers running Amarra (which is the best sounding audio engine on the Mac and better than JRiver IMO) then out to a DAC or converter using USB. This is what I use permanently in my office with the iMac, and for this test ran in the living room using my 13" rMBP.
The first test I did was in the living room. I ran the USB out of the computer both directly into the Oppo and through the Stello U3 in to the Oppo, and compared that with my preferred setup of running files directly off an attached hard drive. To my ears, with both USB converters, there is a definite difference in sound between using one of the converters and running direct from a hard drive. I'm not going to say the difference is huge, but it's definitely there and I could hear it blind-folded when the wife flipped back and forth between inputs on the Oppo. The playback from the physical drive and bypassing the USB conversion altogether sounds better to my ears, smoother and more musical. And keep in mind that's with the Stello U3 as well, which is already a very good converter. Again, the difference is not huge and wouldn't matter in anything but the most critical listening situations, but it's there.
So, as I've created this thread and write below about my impressions of the USB converters, I guess the first thing I'll say is ignore everything here and just try not to use a converter at all.
Review of the converters to follow