Help with Surround DAC

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Kostas

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Goodday everyone!

I have been a huge fan of surround music since the moment I first experienced it! Luckily I discovered it just when I was about to order my first Hi-Fi/Home Theater system and didn't cheap out on my surrounds. Unlike my old cheap surround system which consisted of basic passive speakers, I ordered 5 custom active speakers and a sub-woofer. My original plan was to get the Denon 3700H for the Home Theater experience and use the pre-outs to connect my speakers (so yes... 1000€ for a dolby atmos decoder...) and then get a custom stereo tube pre-amp for Hi-Fi music.

As you can imagine my surround experience introduced a big problem to me and that is the requirement of a Hi-Fi surround DAC/Pre-amp... I thought that maybe the Denon's DAC would be enough but I have been told that receivers (at least the ones below a certain budget) might be excellent for movies but when it comes to music they just cannot compete with dedicated surround DACs. They recommended me to buy a professional audio interface instead of the stereo pre-amp for both stereo and surround music. Since there are many surround veterans here I would really like to hear your opinions on this matter.

First of all, are receivers (specifically the one I am planning to get for movies) that inferior to dedicated DAC's such as professional audio interfaces, or are they similar in terms of audio quality with the use case being the only difference between the two at the same price (Receivers - Inputs and features for watching movies, Audio interfaces - Inputs and features for recording music).

If audio interfaces are the only way for the best Hi-Fi surround experience could you recommend me a good interface between up to 1000€.

Thank you in advance
 

LuvMyQuad

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Welcome to the forum.

I would not put so much importance on what "THEY" say.

1. Both passive and active speaker systems can sound good. Its all in the execution. You will likely need amplification for the Atmos channels, or else use the amps in an Atmos capable receiver for that.

2. The Denon actually measures pretty good. Here is an honest, objective review.

3. Stand alone multichannel DACs are somewhat expensive and uncommon. I haven't yet seen a standalone DAC that can do Atmos. This is one of the better price/performance entries from Okto research. but still no Atmos, and no room EQ functionality.

4. A Pre/Pro might suit you better. There are several, again none of which are inexpensive. Try Trinnov, Emotiva, Monoprice, NAD, JBL, Datasat, and more.

5. Why the Tube preamp? If you are going to go with a high end processor, why do you need ANY additional preamp. Is it what "THEY" are saying you need?
 
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Kostas

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Welcome to the forum.

I would not put so much importance on what "THEY" say.

1. Both passive and active speaker systems can sound good. Its all in the execution. You will likely need amplification for the Atmos channels, or else use the amps in an Atmos capable receiver for that.

2. The Denon actually measures pretty good. Here is an honest, objective review.

3. Stand alone multichannel DACs are somewhat expensive and uncommon. I haven't yet seen a standalone DAC that can do Atmos. This is one of the better price/performance entries from Okto research. but still no Atmos, and no room EQ functionality.

4. A Pre/Pro might suit you better. There are several, again none of which are inexpensive. Try Trinnov, Emotiva, Monoprice, NAD, JBL, Datasat, and more.

5. Why the Tube preamp? If you are going to go with a high end processor, why do you need ANY additional preamp. Is it what 'THEY" are saying you need?
Thank you for the detailed reply!

Do good measurements translate directly to good sound quality? I have been told that even though some receivers might measure good, they might sound dry and lifeless compared to Hi-fi equipment.

Unfortunately you are correct, there are no DAC that can do Atmos... It would have solved my problem instantly... The Okto DAC looks great though but unfortunately it's out of stock.

From your recommendations, I could only find the NAD processor in my country and it's way out of my budget. This is why I decided to go with the Denon 3700h, because thanks to the pre-amp mode I can use it as an inexpensive processor for movies. Surround music wasn't in my plans when I started researching equipment so this is one of the reasons I was considering the stereo tube pre-amp. I was able to listen to this pre-amp and it sounded phenomenal so I don't want to buy a piece of equipment that will allow me to listen to surround music but in lower quality overall. It will be like a step forward and two steps back when it comes to the overall experience.

Just to be clear, I will be buying the receiver since it's the only way to decode Atmos but in my mind it's a movie oriented piece of equipment so I am looking for a second piece of equipment to listen to music, either a DAC or an audio interface.

Would you recommend using a professional audio interface to listen to both stereo and surround music or are audio interfaces used specifically for studio work since from what I have seen they support resolutions up to 32bits and 192Khz but no DSD?

In general, how do audiophiles listen to surround music? It seems that apart from the DAC you recommended the majority of choices has to do with Home theater AVRs/Processors.
 

LuvMyQuad

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Do good measurements translate directly to good sound quality? I have been told that even though some receivers might measure good, they might sound dry and lifeless compared to Hi-fi equipment.
The subjective/objective argument has been going on for decades and I don't want to take a deep dive into that here. Suffice to say its typically the manufactures and owners of poor measuring equipment that most often proclaim that measurements do not matter. Stop paying so much attention to the things people say without offering any shred of evidence. Try to do some comparisons for yourself and come to your own conclusion. There is a lot of snake oil in the world, and especially so in the high end audio marketplace.

Unfortunately you are correct, there are no DAC that can do Atmos... It would have solved my problem instantly... The Okto DAC looks great though but unfortunately it's out of stock.
I'll bet its back in stock in a few weeks as this pandemic winds down.

From your recommendations, I could only find the NAD processor in my country and it's way out of my budget. This is why I decided to go with the Denon 3700h, because thanks to the pre-amp mode I can use it as an inexpensive processor for movies. Surround music wasn't in my plans when I started researching equipment so this is one of the reasons I was considering the stereo tube pre-amp. I was able to listen to this pre-amp and it sounded phenomenal so I don't want to buy a piece of equipment that will allow me to listen to surround music but in lower quality overall. It will be like a step forward and two steps back when it comes to the overall experience.
In my opinion, there should be no difference in sound quality expectations whether music or movies. I'm not a tube fan. It was a "thing" back in the LP days as it seemed to offer a complementary euphoric coloration to analog playback. But for the most part, they are distortion machines.

Just to be clear, I will be buying the receiver since it's the only way to decode Atmos but in my mind it's a movie oriented piece of equipment so I am looking for a second piece of equipment to listen to music, either a DAC or an audio interface.

Would you recommend using a professional audio interface to listen to both stereo and surround music or are audio interfaces used specifically for studio work since from what I have seen they support resolutions up to 32bits and 192Khz but no DSD?

In general, how do audiophiles listen to surround music? It seems that apart from the DAC you recommended the majority of choices has to do with Home theater AVRs/Processors.
Once again, I think you are creating a needless differentiation of Movie vs Music sound. They are not different. There is stereo music, surround music, and Atmos music. There should be no distinction in the sound quality of any of them. I'm pretty sure that most who listen to surround music are using something similar to the components I have listed. With Atmos, there currently is no other way to decode it. Some do use pro gear for non-Atmos surround. But there really is no need for a 2nd surround system.
 

Kostas

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The subjective/objective argument has been going on for decades and I don't want to take a deep dive into that here. Suffice to say its typically the manufactures and owners of poor measuring equipment that most often proclaim that measurements do not matter. Stop paying so much attention to the things people say without offering any shred of evidence. Try to do some comparisons for yourself and come to your own conclusion. There is a lot of snake oil in the world, and especially so in the high end audio marketplace.
Unfortunately, in my Country there are very few Hi-fi stores with limited equipment, this is why I have to rely so much on comments from different sources and make a choice based on that and If I am lucky one of the stores might have the equipment of my choice so I can listen to it.

In my opinion, there should be no difference in sound quality expectations whether music or movies. I'm not a tube fan. It was a "thing" back in the LP days as it seemed to offer a complementary euphoric coloration to analog playback. But for the most part, they are distortion machines.
I hear you and that is exactly the mindset I had when I went to listen to it. I wanted it to sound either equally as good as a solid state pre-amp or worse so I do not have to spend the extra cash for the tube "privilege". The damned thing had to sound so good though, just to make things harder than they have to be...

Once again, I think you are creating a needless differentiation of Movie vs Music sound. They are not different. There is stereo music, surround music, and Atmos music. There should be no distinction in the sound quality of any of them. I'm pretty sure that most who listen to surround music are using something similar to the components I have listed. With Atmos, there currently is no other way to decode it. Some do use pro gear for non-Atmos surround. But there really is no need for a 2nd surround system.
This is true, I do differentiate movie and music sound and I have linked receivers with movies but not because I have any experience with receivers but mostly because I have only seen them been used for movies. Since the receiver is a must have for me for the Atmos decoding then it would be a better idea to buy it first and see whether it's up for the task. I just wanted to make sure there isn't a specific piece of equipment for hi-fi surround music that would cover my every need. Every one of the people I spoke with use stereo systems so they can't really provide me with the info I need.

Even the hifi stores here have very limited to no knowledge when it comes to surround music. I called every single one I could find and they all recommended a receiver for surround but they had no idea whether an audio interface would work for surround music nor they could recommend any DACs.

In a couple of sentences you provided me with recommendations for every case and more info than they ever did! Thank you for your help!
 

LuvMyQuad

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The damned thing had to sound so good though, just to make things harder than they have to be...
I would say if there was that much difference, there is something wrong. Its pretty easy to do something like manipulate volume levels to make one component sound better than another. At most the difference should be subtle. Ill bet the tube gear was also the most expensive gear.

My advise is, get the receiver first. Get used to its sound and operation. Then tell the tube seller you want to audition the tube gear in your own home. See what the response is. If he allows it, set levels as closely as you can and try to A-B the equipment as best you can using the same source material. You may hear a difference, you may not. If you do hear a difference, you need to decide if what you hear is more faithful to the source.
 

jimfisheye

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The thing that makes the most difference: The listening room.
Start here. $300 worth of gear in a reasonably tame room will run circles around $100,000 of gear in a cave. This matters by magnitudes over anything else.

Any pro level DACs found in any pro level audio interface will be excellent.
This has changed from 20 years ago! It really did used to be a thing that you paid $1000 per channel of DAC or ADC or it sucked. This has pointedly changed in the last decade especially. Avoid the ratty cheap stuff (Amazon or Best Buy sold crap, M-Audio, generic fly by night names - see Amazon).
Even the lowly entry level stuff like Presonus and Focusrite is solid professional gear.

This can be slick:
Computer with thunderbolt port -> TB to HDMI cable -> AVR
Click play on your favorite media player app.

What to watch out for:
Netbook computers with only restricted HDMI outputs that might silence audio.
AVRs that have restricted HDMI inputs that might silence audio.
This crap exists. Buyer beware and all that.

This always works:
Any computer from the last 25 years with a USB port ->
Some USB audio interface with the number of outputs you need ->
Amps and speakers of your choice.
Click play on your favorite media player app.


I don't mean to paint all AVR products as suspect. There was kind of a format war period of this but that's died down. Pay attention though!

If the modern computer age method seems scary to anyone, consider some of this. These products (audio interfaces) are aimed at recording musicians with very little money. Some of them offer serious bang for the buck for fully professional grade signal paths. The consumer electronics with stores like Amazon and Worst Purchase gaslighting people like they are nowadays can lead to some really expansive hot garbage. There still 'copy protection gone wild' crap infesting HDMI products to watch out for.

Someone else might read computer methods the riot act. Think of that friend with the infested Windows computer. The separate components and AVR style setup are familiar. I think you'll be paying more money going this route. Computer -> interface -> sound system is the most bang for the buck. It's modular. New formats are usually just a software update away. (Unless that new format is Atmos and the maker keeps refusing to release said software! Then you have to buy hardware to get access to that hidden software and end up purchasing your expensive system bits all over again.)

Choose your adventure! :D
 

gene_stl

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Okto has a waiting list. They are built to order with a few months wait, so it seems. The people that have them seem to like them.
 

Kostas

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I would say if there was that much difference, there is something wrong. Its pretty easy to do something like manipulate volume levels to make one component sound better than another. At most the difference should be subtle. Ill bet the tube gear was also the most expensive gear.
Yes it costs about 400€ more because of the extra cooling, the tube shielding and the cost of the tubes. The DAC and most other electronics were identical to the solid state one. Compared to the tubed pre-amp the solid state sounded blurry while the sound of the other one was crystal clear, I don't know whether that can be achieved just by manipulating the volume levels.

My advise is, get the receiver first. Get used to its sound and operation. Then tell the tube seller you want to audition the tube gear in your own home. See what the response is. If he allows it, set levels as closely as you can and try to A-B the equipment as best you can using the same source material. You may hear a difference, you may not. If you do hear a difference, you need to decide if what you hear is more faithful to the source.
Yes, this sounds like a good plan! As long as I have the receiver, arranging an audition to compare the two shouldn't be a problem since I have a friendly relationship with the seller.

The thing that makes the most difference: The listening room.
Start here. $300 worth of gear in a reasonably tame room will run circles around $100,000 of gear in a cave. This matters by magnitudes over anything else.
Thank you for your reply!

Agreed! The listening room has a combination of stone and wood and it already sounds good with my cheap system. After I install the new one I will do some measurements and do some extra acoustic treatment if necessary.

Any pro level DACs found in any pro level audio interface will be excellent.
This has changed from 20 years ago! It really did used to be a thing that you paid $1000 per channel of DAC or ADC or it sucked. This has pointedly changed in the last decade especially. Avoid the ratty cheap stuff (Amazon or Best Buy sold crap, M-Audio, generic fly by night names - see Amazon).
Even the lowly entry level stuff like Presonus and Focusrite is solid professional gear.
This is good to hear! I was looking only at the more expensive audio interfaces (such as RME or Apogee) thinking that this was the only way to get one with a decent DAC. The prices of focusrite and presonus are less than half which means I could easily afford a future upgrade in case I am not satisfied with the receiver.

Someone else might read computer methods the riot act. Think of that friend with the infested Windows computer. The separate components and AVR style setup are familiar. I think you'll be paying more money going this route. Computer -> interface -> sound system is the most bang for the buck. It's modular. New formats are usually just a software update away. (Unless that new format is Atmos and the maker keeps refusing to release said software! Then you have to buy hardware to get access to that hidden software and end up purchasing your expensive system bits all over again.)
I am planning to use a good computer for my home theater. As good as placing a SACD in the player to listen to music feels, my experience with CDs tells me that it will become tiresome after a while. In the end nothing beats the convenience of ripping your CDs, organizing your music library and have quick access to any CD you want!

My plan is Computer > Receiver > Sound System. If I require an upgrade for listening to music Computer>Receiver/Audio Interface or Dac > Sound System and I will have to switch from one device to the other depending on what I want to do. I do hope the receiver is enough though, since I am not fan of having multiple devices...

Like you said, keeping the format locked to receivers/processor just forces my hand. I would much rather buy a good 8 channel audio interface or DAC to drive my system, since it will be active, and buy the Atmos license separately (You can actually buy the Atmos license on the windows store for headphones but they do not allow you to use it with an interface... Just, Why!?!?).

Okto has a waiting list. They are built to order with a few months wait, so it seems. The people that have them seem to like them.
I will keep an eye on their website. The reviews are excellent so I am seriously considering it for the future.
 

jimfisheye

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Just a little more rambling.

Matching volume levels to within 0.5db when trying to A/B compare different sources of audio or different pieces of gear is hyper critical. Humans pick the louder one as better sounding unless there's also damage to it that's beyond gross. Even trained ones. So there's that. Don't let someone bamboozle you with their volume control! Not an equipment seller or a suspect remaster. Volume match and then A/B.

Ever get your hands on a mixing board? (Virtual on screen is still OK.)
Just moving the fader a little on one of the audio sources can make a big impact. The actual mix quality and then mastering handling go so far beyond any subtle whatever it is once you hit pro level gear. Setup and system calibration are another 99% thing.

We kind of live in the golden age of audio now. There are a lot of options and they are affordable. We have 24 bit discrete surround sound delivery now. Don't get lured in by descriptions of magic and talk like some of this is elusive when it's all right here. Boutique is good. Don't get me wrong! I have an Apogee Rosetta 800 192k for my main 5.1 and 2.0 outputs. I have an AD-16 for 16 ADC channels. I've also used MOTU products for a while. The Apogee analog stages are better but not night and day. If I made a kind of shitty mix, that would be the elephant in the room whatever converters I recorded with or you were listening to.

Understand that the AVR and some products like that are kind of combo products. Think of the individual modules inside. An HDMI AVR is a HDMI audio interface, set of DA converters, analog preamp (volume and signal routing), and analog power amps all in one box.
Where I'm going with that is - take inventory and don't accidentally buy expensive things twice or buy things you can't connect like you expected.
 

Kostas

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Matching volume levels to within 0.5db when trying to A/B compare different sources of audio or different pieces of gear is hyper critical. Humans pick the louder one as better sounding unless there's also damage to it that's beyond gross. Even trained ones. So there's that. Don't let someone bamboozle you with their volume control! Not an equipment seller or a suspect remaster. Volume match and then A/B.
This is interesting! I learned about this when I was reading about the loudness control feature but I was not aware that the headroom was so small! I always thought that a couple of db wouldn't make a huge difference. I will keep that in mind the next time I arrange an audition!

Understand that the AVR and some products like that are kind of combo products. Think of the individual modules inside. An HDMI AVR is a HDMI audio interface, set of DA converters, analog preamp (volume and signal routing), and analog power amps all in one box.
Where I'm going with that is - take inventory and don't accidentally buy expensive things twice or buy things you can't connect like you expected.
This is exactly what worries me. I don't know how Jam-packing so many modules and features into a single 1000€ product will affect the sound. In the audiophile world the motto is "less is more" since every single piece of extra electronics can affect the sound. I am willing to bet that even in a mid range AVR such as the denon 3700h they had to cheap out when they were choosing the parts in order to introduce all these features in a reasonable price.

I do hope I am wrong though and if its sound is satisfactory I will leave it at that. I am not hunting for perfection or massive investments for 1% improvement. Like you said, I do not want to buy expensive things twice nor can I afford to do so...

BTW have you ever had the chance to audition commercial AVRs and compare them to audio interfaces? If you did I would really like to hear your opinion!
 
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