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Surround DACs on a budget

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Ron Wagstaff

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Trouble with this winter lockdown is that it gives me too much time to read reviews and watch youtube. It gets me thinking how could I improve my setup. Umm...

I read how DACs have improved dramatically over the last 5-years, somelike the £130 Topping E30 gets rave reviews.

I play a lot of surround music through my 2007 Sony STR-DA5300ES AV and think should I be bypassing the DAC in the Sony? Currently I'm playing my music through a Toshiba i7 laptop via an HDMI lead. My speakers are Acoustic Energy Aegis in a 6.1 setup.

What are my options? Could I connect 4 stereo DACs to my laptop? How? Would the miniDSP U-DAC8 (if I could get hold of one) be a significant update?

I must say the exaSound E38 is way beyond my budget.

Thanks for any advice.
 
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jimfisheye

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On the budget end there's this:

8 outputs gives you up to 7.1
The outputs can be connected unbalanced if you need to connect to any unbalanced consumer gear.
Inputs and mic preamps you don't need but for the price... so what.

On the other end:

Apogee has a reputation for their converters. If you have to ask about the price...

That Tascam has a mixer built in (like most modern audio interfaces). If you had a hybrid media system with older analog gear that you still use, you could use the Tascam to monitor those inputs directly (no round trip AD/DA through the computer).

I see the Apogee Rosetta 800 is going for around $600 used on Ebay. Put a firewire card in it (of find one with one already installed). 8 channels of Apogee DA outputs. I've had one of these for a long time now.

Shopping like a musician like this will get much more bang for the buck over consumer AVRs. No 'copy protection gone wild' crap to put up with with HDMI either!
 

Ron Wagstaff

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I am most definitely not a musician and your world is totally alien to me. Sorry but you will have to tell me exactly how an audio interface can help me? Can the USB connection be used for input ? I did say my music source is the laptop. Is the output analogue or digital ?
 

jimfisheye

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I am most definitely not a musician and your world is totally alien to me. Sorry but you will have to tell me exactly how an audio interface can help me? Can the USB connection be used for input ? I did say my music source is the laptop. Is the output analogue or digital ?
A consumer AVR is a box with an audio interface, monitor preamp, and amps all in one.

Simply, an audio interface connects to the computer with USB, firewire, thunderbolt, or HDMI. There are also pci card versions (sound cards). Audio goes in and out of the computer over the USB connection. (People sometimes call USB connecting interfaces "sound cards" like people call the display the "computer" and the tower the "hard drive" but I digress.)

Think of it like plugging the back side of an AVR or mixing board into your computer. Point your software to it and now you get to connect to and from all those audio ports.

The dedicated audio interface is going to be more straight forward than an AVR in some ways. No weird limited set of allowed connections. No copy protection gone wild with the HDMI shenanigans. Send audio to one of the outputs. Receive audio from one of the inputs. Do what you please.

There's maybe some hand holding from the AVR that makes using it seem simple but there's also a lot of PITA stuff. Pecking at a front panel display control through limited features trying to dial in speaker management or even to find the 1:1 settings that don't put some stupid "club eq" or reverb on your output.

The modular thing can really start to make sense when one bit of an expensive combo product (like an AVR) breaks. You don't have to replace the whole thing.

Choose your adventure. :)
 

Jim the Oldbie

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Hi Ron,

...I read how DACs have improved dramatically over the last 5-years, somelike the £130 Topping E30 gets rave reviews...

...I play a lot of surround music through my 2007 Sony STR-DA6300ES AV and think should I be bypassing the DAC in the Sony?

...What are my options? Could I connect 4 stereo DACs to my laptop? How? Would the miniDSP U-DAC8 (if I could get hold of one) be a significant update?

I must say the exaSound E38 is way beyond my budget.
I couldn't find a match for Sony STR-DA6300ES, so I'm not sure of the capabilities of your current receiver, but it's probably a safe bet that its DAC performs at least as well as the one in the U-DAC8, which is really nothing special in terms of specs. I have a pair of them, built into a pair of nanoAVR-HDAs (see avatar). These replaced a pair of Yamaha AVRs in a 12-channel, full active 5.1 setup. I'm sure they don't sound any better than the Yamaha DACs, but in my particular case they solved some logistical problems I was having with the dual-AVR setup.

With that said, you do lose a lot of functionality by ditching the AVR, like decoding of all the myriad multichannel schemes out there, and other important stuff like master volume control(!) etc. A change like this requires a lot of rethinking about where & how else all these features can be accomplished in the signal path. For me, the decoding isn't a problem since all my music & music are pre-decoded and ripped to a server, and I'm playing it all as straight PCM, using a PC. If I were using disc-based players in real time, or any of the streaming services etc, my setup wouldn't work very well if at all. As for the master volume problem, actually I'm still working out the bugs on that, heh.

To summarize: Depending on your listening habits, changing up your system in this manner might be way more trouble that it would be worth for the theoretical upgrade in sound quality. Does your receiver have preamp outputs? If so, it might be more of a real step to consider upgrading to better power amplification than what's provided in the Sony. For me, that made a much more audible (even measurable) difference in SQ.

Good luck,
Jim
 

windhoek

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Somewhere in your mind as a memory...
I once tried running a 4.0 setup direct from my OPPO-105D to two power amps and it sounded terrible. I previously used an AVR and everything sounded great, but I wondered whether a more direct audio path would be better. It wasn't: it was, like I say, terrible. The AVR brought the cohesion needed for all four speakers to work in harmony. To a short story short, I abandoned my plan within a matter of hours and put the AVR back in place and it's been there ever since. As Jimfish says, it's a do-it-all box when it comes to surround sound.

I should add, I've got a power amp (Naim NAP100) between my AVR and my front speakers to make sure the front speakers are delivering all they can as my AVR isn't so great when it comes to music at the front; the demands of the rear channels is a lot easier on the AVR so no power amp required there.
 

ubertrout

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The AVR you have is kind of a tank (assuming you mean the 5300ES or 6400ES), and already handles DSD and pretty much any resolution you might throw at it. Beyond getting mono amplifiers for two or four channels, I don't see a need to upgrade. You might want to get a cheap player like the Sony BDP-S6700 which can feed it DSD and PCM files or SACDs over HDMI.
 

jimfisheye

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I was focused in the DAC (since that's what was asked) which led to words on a separate audio interface vs the interface built into the AVR.

You definitely want to take inventory as it were and plan a little bit. Don't buy something that ends up making you redo everything else (if it wasn't intentional). Don't buy multiple expensive items like DACs where you can only use one of them.

Being critical about the DAC can be good. Make sure the big pieces are in place first. Proper analog and digital connections (in both quality and format) can make a lot more difference in sound.
 

Ron Wagstaff

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Yeah that's a typo - it is indeed the 5300ES (I've now edited my initial post). The amp has analogue inputs and preamp outputs should I choose to make use of them. All the music I play has been converted to PCM and runs off my server.

I didn't really want to ditch the AVR because I do play the odd movie through it. I guess I was seeing that as my power amp when playing music through seperate DACs.
 

ubertrout

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Yeah that's a typo - it is indeed the 5300ES (I've now edited my initial post). The amp has analogue inputs and preamp outputs should I choose to make use of them. All the music I play has been converted to PCM and runs off my server.

I didn't really want to ditch the AVR because I do play the odd movie through it. I guess I was seeing that as my power amp when playing music through seperate DACs.
The DACs in your AVR are likely as good or better than what you'd get in anything other than a pretty high-end DAC. Assuming you have your laptop set to properly output the audio bypassing the system mixer, I don't think you'll see a benefit without paying serious money.
 
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