Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why Computer Audio

Why computer audio? It can only be so good, right?

Increasingly, people are using their computers as a music server. For good reason, the interfaces are very easy to use, hard drive with large space is very inexpensive and who wants to hunt down a CD that may or may not be in its place. Our end goal was to make an integrated amplifier specifically to make computers and other digital music devices sound as good as or better than any CD player on the market.
Years ago, it became obvious that computers and iPods were here to stay. It was also painfully obvious that the upper end Consumer Electronics industry was largely ignoring this trend. The best thing the industry had come up with were analog docking stations or powered plastic speakers for the computer that were louder and sounded better than stock speakers, but a long way from true to life sound. For the most part, “sound quality” wasn’t part of the equation. Music was more like acoustic wall paper. So as people were listening to more and more music as a whole, less and less people felt the need to pair it with better audio.
This was particularly sad for me and my partners as we had all grown up in high-end audio industry for the past 30 years or more and really loved the gear and the business. We all loved the simple pleasure of listening to music the way or even better than the way it was intended.
While we appreciated the portability of the iPod, we didn’t own one between us… So we bought in and started playing with them to see where or if we could fit into this market. One thing for sure, we didn’t want to make another docking station to add to the multitudes already flooding the market. The iPods “output” is purely analog, and with a tiny power supply, it was only going to sound “so-good”.
The first thing you probably noted was the music on your iPod must be on your computer first. You can burn and catalog all of your music with cover art for free, have a great, easy to use interface and still send email or work on a spread sheet. And, you never have to look for that missing CD again.
Unlike the iPod, a computer could output a digital music signal via USB and sound great. This is with no modification to the computer. There are a few companies that have been and are still producing production and kit USB D/A converters, however, you have to use them in conjunction with and integrated amp which starts using up lots of room and dollars. For the most part, they were designed for the audio enthusiast who didn’t mind having separate D/A converters with an analog integrated amplifier. Most people won’t go through the trouble or have the space or inclination to get that deep.
Like most, I sat in front of my computer for hours on end and never listened to music until we made the Decco. It totally changed the way I felt about email, spread sheet and word processing. I was actually having fun at work and discovering my music all over again. This was in addition to the thousands of free radio on the net. Many people use products like Sonos, Apple TV or Logitech Squeezebox. They’re all great computer music transfer systems with their own intuitive user interfaces, but all had the same problem as a computer… They just sounded mediocre.
With this data in hand, we set out to make the world’s first new millennium integrated amplifier. It would have to be old school meets new. First to handle computers, it needed a USB DAC. To handle Sonos or a Squeezebox, it would need a coax input and for Apple TV, we needed a toslink input. These are the digital inputs we put into the Decco. There are also a couple of analog inputs for those who would want to use a tuner, turntable or other analog devices and a pre out for use with a subwoofer or external amp.
We all know the problems digital audio has faced since 1981… Digital music is often harsh, lifeless and two-dimensional. At the same time we’ve felt the best sounding CD players, D/A converters and integrated amps all had tube preamp sections, or at least the ones Jim and I prefer.
In a well designed circuit, a tube breathes life into digital music and helps restores a three dimensional stage and a relaxed, smooth sound. Simply put, more musical. We decided that we wanted a tube preamp section to do just that and designed it into the Decco and Nova. With the tube, the Decco and Nova take the chill off of digital music and make it sound warm, sweet and full.
Although I know exactly what I want in a product and Jim is a very good industrial designer, neither of us are engineers and well aware of our limitations in this area. Scott Nixon was an old friend of Jim’s and he graciously agreed to design our first DAC.
We really lucked out as Scott had not only successfully marketed a DAC that was selling well on the internet to enthusiasts. He also had a tube preamp design and amp design similar to that of the 47 Laboratories using a large transformer and National Semiconductor output stage he had been working on for years...
( ABOVE: The original Decco is still in use w/ the new Peachtree Audio DS4.5 speakers anda Wadia i170 transport)

We heard them and flipped out…High 5’s were flying all around…
We had Scott put the original Decco together in a project box and started carrying it around to dealers while using our computers for a source. This is the original Decco and resides in my bedroom w/ a Wadia i170 Wadia digital docking station and our DS4.5 speakers. Dealers were blown away by the performance we could get out of all formats from 128kbps to full wav and even internet radio like Pandora. We ended up with about 125 of the best specialty dealers in the country.

Although we don’t advocate hard compressed files, 128kbps files actually sounded really good through the Decco. So good, that that many can’t tell the difference between the low and high res files. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a difference. It’s just the line in the sand is less defined and for the first time and people are hearing what compressed digital files can sound like when treated right. The reason this even matters is that many programs like iTunes have the default recording set to 128kbps, or what they call “Good”. So many have burned and or downloaded thousands of songs in this lower resolution format without even knowing it. So if you do have lots of songs burned in 128kbps, it’s okay because it turns out that if you transfer the low res music in a digital format directly to a DAC, then run it through a good tube section and high current amplifier, this music can sound fine. This also frees you to guiltlessly download from iTunes when you just want a piece of music NOW… although there are much better sites with higher resolution downloads like Music Giants or Linn if you can find the song. I also encourage you to burn the discs you already own… You bought it because you like it and chances are, you won’t find a download that’s near the resolution of your original CD.
Stating the obvious, hard drive space is cheap these days so start burning in some sort of a lossless format when you can. If you have a small iPod, you can convert the large files to mp3 to transfer to the iPod while having a higher res original on your computer that you can listen to locally.
So we started playing with the different music management and burn programs. Jim loves EAC and Foobar and while I’ve used and appreciate them, I gravitated toward iTunes because I wanted to use what “most” people used to get common exposure. I ended up really liking the features and format…after all 117,000,000 can’t all be wrong.
IMHO, if you set up iTunes right, it sounds awesome. It’s easy to use and looks great too. But no matter what music management system you use, we’ll make it sound as good as it can sound.
Having said this, I’ll qualify the statement. If a recording is poorly engineered and sounds bad from the start, nothing you do will make it sound exceptional. A lot of Motown, old rock and many blues tunes fit this bill. I love the music, but rarely expect quality of sound… This makes me like the Temptations none the less.
So, after almost two years of R&D, designing, refining, getting dealer feedback and getting them hooked on the idea of getting a portion of the “download generation” or GEN D as we call them, we launched the original Decco at Cedia 2007. Even with a few kinks, the Decco was very successful. When a problem arose, we simply traded out the unit tracked down the problem. In less than a year, we’ve have over 2,000 units in the field and the demand continues to grow and have made several mods on the current Decco.
Some reports say there are up to 200,000,000 people who use iTunes…So even if a tiny percentage want to make their system sound good, we have a huge base to pull from. And as I write this at the end of 2008, there’s still nothing on the market like the Decco. Go figure…
All we lack is the ability to shout loud enough, so if you know anyone who likes computer audio, please tell them about our company.
This is my computer audio based system at home. It has a Decco, Era D5 speakers, Era sub8 and an Apple TV. The whole system is around $2500 w/ monitor and cables.
I’ve had high-end systems all my life and this one is very musical and for the money, the most enjoyable.
Well, this was my first blog entry. Hope it was helpful and gave you some insight as to why we believe computer audio is here to stay in a big way.
As always, we’re available to answer questions you may have.
Best wishes,
David Solomon