Quarter Notes #6 (Volume 2, Issue 2)

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

Dear Get Better Sound readers,

Welcome to the sixth issue of Quarter Notes!

Quarter Notes is a quarterly newsletter for Get Better Sound readers, expanding on the Get Better Sound manual, as well as introducing new and timely subjects.  From time-to-time, we may have a guest writer on a special topic. But not this issue…

In fact, for this issue, I’ve actually had to pare down the number of topics that I wanted to share with you.  I just have too many for a reasonable-length newsletter.  And the first topic in this issue seemed to be too important to delay. So most will get moved to the next issue, which I’ll get done sooner than the usual three months or so.

Don’t forget, you are invited to e-mail me with your questions and comments.  If appropriate, and with your approval, I may include your note – or a reply to it – in an upcoming newsletter.

Best e-mail address

Since you’re reading this, the e-mail address that I used to notify you must have worked.  However, the only e-mail address I have is the one associated with your initial Get Better Sound order.  

If you have an e-mail address that you’d prefer to use to receive Quarter Notes notifications, send it to js@getbettersound.com. Be sure to list the month of purchase (if possible), and definitely include the address I used originally along with the one that you want to use to replace it.

A reader teaches me a lesson

I was in Fort Worth, TX recently, to voice a reader’s system.  As some of you know, I travel with a collection of CDs that I use for this task, many of which I’ve used to set-up demos at various shows.

The reader, whom I’ll call Joseph, had already prepared me for the fact that he didn’t have an actual CD player, or transport/DAC combo.  He uses an Apple computer as a music server and he has an Ayre QB-9 USB DAC (Digital-to Analog-Converter).

While I had no direct experience with his CD playback system, I decided it was OK to use, since that was what he would be using anyway. Joseph typically uses his MacBook to control the playback, which comes from the ubiquitous Apple iTunes program.  

I use Macs, and among several CD players that I own, I have an Ayre C-5xe-MP CDP.  Even so, I have to admit that I didn’t have particularly high expectations for his CD playback capability.  

The first inkling that something was different When I got there on Friday evening, one of the first things we had to do was import my most important reference and test CDs into his computer.  We would use them for initial system evaluations that evening.  Then, after I left a few hours later, Joseph imported the rest of them.  That way, everything would be ready when I started voicing in earnest on Saturday morning.

That evening, while performing some preliminary evaluations with the music from the CDs that had been imported, the one thing that consistently struck me was how ridiculously easy it was to use the Mac/QB-9 system, especially when compared to getting up and down to replace various CDs.

I also noticed that, while I had no reference for what his system could sound like at that point, I didn’t seem to have any problem with the ability of each CD’s qualities being reproduced with apparently little degradation.

On Saturday we worked hard, but this time, with all of my CDs at my disposal.  By the time I left, Joseph’s system was greatly improved.  He was visibly excited, a reaction I love to see.  In fact, his account of what happened is on Audiogon: http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/frr.pl?rspkr&1274459087&openflup&14&4#14

But that’s not what this is about.

It’s about the impact that that Joseph’s digital playback would ultimately have on me – and my preconceived notions.  And perhaps more importantly, its potential impact on you.

Since you’re reading this while using your computer, most likely you could get around well enough to use a computer with a DAC.

By now you might be asking, why would I want to do that?  It’s the same question that I had asked myself many times before my visit to Fort Worth.

I should mention that upon my return, I bought my own Ayre QB-9 USB DAC.  My original reasons (which I’ll explain) for buying it ended up NOT being why I’m telling you this story.  Incidentally, this story is NOT about a product or brand, but a concept.

I’ve been using the QB-9 with my MacBook for about 6 weeks.  I’ll comment on its performance in various places in this article.

Here are a few reasons why I believe that you need to be thinking about Computer-sourced Digital Audio now:

Ease of use Access to your music is astonishingly easier.  For example, you have no more CDs to drag out.  

You can rate/rank every song in iTunes.  I do this in much the same way I mention in GBS, except now I don’t have to put a self-adhesive label tag on the back of the CD (which will most likely dry up and fall off eventually).  

Honestly speaking, I don’t like every cut on every CD.  With this system, I can delete the songs that I don’t want, leaving only those that I do.  Later, if I change my mind about a cut, it’s no big deal to import that cut again.

You can – with a mouse click or two – set-up play lists of favorites.  You can separate them by musical genre.

You can still use remote control if you wish.  Your remote can be simple with a couple of transport buttons, or it can actually be an iPhone, or even a laptop.

About importing - people say that they can’t take the time to import their music to their computer.  Heck, I used to say that myself!  

But I found out that it is simplicity itself, and can be done just about anytime, along with whatever else you might be doing at the time.  If that was all I was doing, I might get restless.  But I can be on the Internet, doing a spread-sheet, eating lunch, etc. and it’s no big deal.

For me, the biggest issue is still sound quality.   I have the Zanden 2000/5000, the Ayre C-5xe-MP, and the Arcam FMJ-23.  The first two are among the very best CD playback systems in the world.  And the Arcam is one of those over-achievers, but not in the class of the first two.

As I mentioned, after an extended trial, I bought the Ayre QB-9 USB DAC to use on voicing trips.  After all, I was already traveling with my MacBook for e-mails and GBS order tracking.  Plus, I was lugging around two travel cases of twenty CDs each.  

The QB-9 was 1/3 the size of the two CD cases!  If it sounded good enough, I could travel lighter (and stop leaving my CDs here and there around the country).  A really simple decision.  Win, win.

Unexpected developments As I was burning in the Ayre/MacBook USB combo, occasionally I’d come into the listening room, sit in the sweet spot and switch over (again, super easy) to some music that I wanted to hear.  Not half bad, I thought.  As time went on, it wasn’t one-quarter bad, and eventually, not bad at all.  Remember, I have two of the highest reviewed CD playback systems on the planet.  Not only that, the previous system I had here was the full dCS stack, including the Verdi clock.  So I have pretty high expectations for CD playback.

At some point, I finally realized that I needed to evaluate this relatively simple playback system at a much higher level.  In some ways – ways that are important to me – it outperformed the best CDP units I’d heard!  

First, I decided that I needed to compare its performance to CD playback as fairly as I could.