Item Audio
Audioengine, Wyred 4 Sound, Burson Audio, KingRex, Adam Audio, Antelope Audio, HiVi, Swans, Locus Cables, Audiophile Computer

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Don't all computers sound the same? Bits are bits, right?

A. No, and no. Otherwise CD transports would all sound the same. Jitter, power, shielding and vibration all impact largely on (in the case of the computer, mainly ruin) the performance of the DAC.

Q. But what's the point of buying a fancy audio computer when 'making' one is a simple as plugging a few components into a case? I'd rather roll my own, but I'm not sure about the best specification . . .

A. Our roots are very much in the ethos of DIY / open source / freedom of information. We therefore publish annually updated 'recipes' for best practice audio computers you can put together yourself. The website produced by the publishers of cPlay and Audio Asylum are also mines of useful information for those really interested in audio computers.

Q. If there really much difference, sonically, between computer transports?

A. They used to say that a digital source was 70% DAC and 30% CD transport. The transport is perhaps more important today – if only because the computer knows so many more ways to mess up the DAC and the mains connection it shares with your audio system. So here's a ready reckoning computer transport evalutor: ranking sonic performance on a scale of one to ten for 16/44.1 bitstream delivery:

1 – iMac
1.5 – Mac Mini
2 – MacBook / Windows Laptop
2.5 – Any netbook
4 – Base-spec 2011Version Stealth Mini
6 – Meridian 500 CD transport
6.5 – Base-spec 2011Version Item Audio DAT1
9 – Esoteric P-01

The addition of a high end digital cable will add 1-2 marks on this scale. In some cases, the addition of a digital-digital converter (ie USB > SPDIF) can improve the computer transport's base score by up to 2 marks. In other words, you can make an off-the-shelf machine as good as a base-level bespoke computer by bolt-on upgrades. The same upgrades added to an already optimised computer can bring them to the level of a benchmark CD transport. It should not be underestimated how bad computers sound relative to good disc-spinning transports. However, on this scale, the ability to play 24-bit files is an instant 4 point bonus . . . if you can find a recording you like!

Q. Will a computer + DAC sound better than a CD transport?

A. Depends. DAC technology has come a long way in a short time: it's a great time to buy one. However, disc-spinning transport technology arguably peaked around 2000. Sonically, computers just don't compare: they are not designed for audio: they are inherently noisy in electrical terms, they use absymal power supplies, jitter is considered irrelevant, the operating system is overly complex, etc. They have many ways to screw up the performance of a DAC On the other hand, they are perfect data handling devices, and seamlessly deal with multiple sample rates. They're indisputably the future of audio. A sure route to disappointment is to build a system around an expensive DAC and a duff transport. You wouldn't have done it in the 90s; you shouldn't do it now.

Q: How much should I spend on a DAC/amplifier/computer/whatever?

A: At the time of writing, we would tend to argue there is little point spending much on the base PC for audio use. In fact, one of the best computers we've heard, short of a full Amarra Studio system, is a Dell Mini netbook running Ubuntu and Songbird – total cost: £175. Simple is good. The concept of diminishing returns and system budgeting are further explored elsewhere. The knack is to strip away non-essential software and hardware and being careful about component isolation and power supply. It is essential to focus budget spend on the part of the signal path that connects the computer to the DAC: the choice of cabling and digital-digital converter makes a crucial difference, and is esential to budget for. Naturally, we do recommend that you pay great attention to the choice of digital-analog converter, and spend as much on it as your budget will permit, particularly if your priorities are dynamics and timing: many low-cost DACs are surprisingly detailed and well balanced, but only the best provide the PRAT and presence of a half-decent turntable.

Q: I bought this DAC/amplifier/whatever from you. There's nothing wrong with it per se: it just doesn't suit my system/room/personal listening preferences. What's your returns policy?

A: The only way to be sure whether an audio component is right for you is to try it in your own listening room. With certain products we therefore offer a free, no-obligation 14-day home trial (see the relevant product page for details). The best way to judge any component is in your own room and system. However, it's not possible for us to operate as a lending library, and shipping sensitive and expensive hi-fi equipment is a non-trivial matter. So for items not available on a home trail basis, unless the product is faulty (ie, not operational or failing to meet the manufacturer's specification) a 15% restocking fee will be applied if a refund is granted within 28 days of receipt. Alternatively, the full value (minus outward shipping) can be credited towards an exchange. Beyond this period, no exchange or refund will be considered, so please research carefully: we're always available to discuss a potential purchase or offer comparative listening notes on 01782 621225. Distance selling regulations within the EU provide an automatic cooling off period of seven working days for any purchases made remotely. However, this is conditional on returning the item in the same condition in which it was sent - unused. If the product shows evidence of use, Distance Selling Regulations permit the seller to deduct a fair use fee to cover devaluation of the equipment.

Q: Can't I buy this stuff cheaper abroad?

A: When comparing prices in the US, we urge prudent shoppers to make an accurate accounting of the real world cost – which is always considerably more than the tempting number flashed up by the currency converter. First, however you pay, someone will sting you on the exchange rate – banks, credit card companies, PayPal . . . all have their greedy little ways to fleece punters. Reckon on losing at least 2-5% to the moneychangers. Then, there's shipping: properly insured delivery of a 2kg item (like a KingRex T20U) from the States will cost a US company roughly £15-20. Of course, they'll mark that up a bit to cover various, general, unspecific, logistic facilitations. En-route, it's almost certain to be intercepted by those ever-vigilant defenders of the realm, Customs & Excise. Prepare to be stung again: first, for the enigmatic 'Value-Added' Tax (17.5%), then Import Duty (arbitrarily imposed according to wind velocity, but typically 5%), crowned by a final face slap in the form of 'Handling Charges': typically £8-15. So even when the Sterling rides like Britannia herself atop the crest of a fiscal wave mighty on a roiling swill of minion coin – yea, two Dollars to the Pound – do the math.

At the time of writing, a British Pound buys less than 1.5 US Dollars. Which means that a T20U from a typical US distributor is going to cost you $299 (£199) + £1.50 (currency conversion) + £25 (shipping) + £34.83 (VAT) + £10 (Import duty) + £9 (handling charge) = £279.33. In the same exchange rate climate, we offer the T20U for £245 including next day delivery. Because many far-Eastern currencies are linked to the US Dollar, similar costings will apply. When the Sterling rises, we are careful to drop our prices accordingly, and only increase them when Sterling is really peaky against the dollar.

Q: Isn't there a voltage issue with imported electronic goods?

A:. Usually, no. All the imported amplifiers, PSUs and DACs we sell are supplied for UK voltage. However, some amplification components (such as the Jungson integrateds) are at the outside edge of their operational envelope at 220V ±10% and minor (typical) power supply fluctuations around the 240V mark can shorten their lifespan and cause overheating. We therefore recommend current smoothing or mains conditioning devices with high output amplifiers. Fortunately, the low overhead of Tripath amplifiers means that they're perfectly at home in the UK or EU. Please note that our products are UK specification and sold with UK-specific three pin mains plugs. If you need a different mains plug, please specify at the time of order and we'll supply one at an additional cost.

Q: What about modifications and tweaking?

See the menu: we have a growing range of SE-badged products which are bespoke modifications carried out or commissioned by Item Audio.

Q: What's so good about 24-bit audio?

A. The way it sounds. Bad things about it include quadrupled file sizes (those babies are wider AND taller) and the fact that you can't find more than three 24-bit recordings you'd ever want to own. The one Very Bad Thing about 24-bit is that Sony has locked up vast tranches of worthwhile music behind 'unbreakable' DRM barriers in the SACD format they invested so heavily in, but which (like broad gauge railway, Betamax, Laserdisc, Concorde et al (well, maybe not Concorde)) never took off. Which means they're not exactly rushing to deliver the '24-bit download from studio masters' service that the burgeoning worldwide community of computer audiophiles is finally, really ready for. Linn, HD-Tracks, 2L, Chesky, and a handful of other enlightened folks way out on the fringes of the business, lead the way but don't expect change to happen quickly: 24-bit audio will only happen meaningfully when a critical mass of music buyers throw away their CD players, and if the ever-thorny issue of rights management can be resolved. Meantime, we can dream of a computer SA-CD drive with ripping software, and imagine a wider range of 2-channel music available on rippable DVD-Audio, and try to cultivate a stronger (actually exclusive) taste for Jazz and perfectly recorded, lifeless Classical recordings in order to register our support for 24/96 downloads.

Q: What's better: coaxial, USB or optical connection to a DAC?

A: nother good question. Unfortunately, there's no clear-cut generic answer. There are many variables: first, some DACs implement particular inputs better than others – one may favour USB, another S/PDIF. Second, cables matter – coaxial cables in particular vary widely. USB is easily the best value in interconnects (99p a metre) and well suited to longer (3-5m) cable runs. The only cables to avoid are some (but not all) cheap Toslinks which customarily sound 'dry' and 'digitally brittle'. However, even with an audiophile cable, optical sommonly sounds the poor relation to coaxial and USB because of difficulties inherent in conversion processes at the receiver. SuperPro's DACs are notable exceptions to this rule. Third, the computer is an issue: Mac Mini and MacBook owners are effectively denied coaxial connection without resorting to potentially lossy converters, so optical and USB are preferred. Yet even comparing similar Apple platforms, the Mac laptop's USB implementation is audibly superior to the Mac Mini's USB output! On a desktop machine (regardless of OS), the choice of coax-bearing soundcard (located in the worst possible place for an audio component) will greatly impact on the sound quality. Finally, excellent results are now possible using USB digital converters (outputting SPDIF over coaxial or optical as well as AES/EBU and I2S), some of which allow a degree of isolation between the transport and DAC and even buffering, in the case of high-end options like those from Empirical Audio and Sonicweld. USB > AES/EBU (balanced XLR-style connectors) is particularly recommended for the Benchmark and Wyred 4 sound DAC1s.

Q: Is upsampling a good thing?

A: nd where's the dark energy? Who knows. Well executed 16 to 24 bit upsampling definitely makes a difference to the spatial reproduction and apparent resolution of a recording. But whether the sound is 'better', more natural and, in the long listen, more desirable, is somewhat subjective – and the answer varies from track to track and DAC to DAC. Some report distinct gains upsampling 16-bit files in software before playback; others invest in 'on the fly' hardware upsampling. There is controversy over whether 96hz sample rates are a Bad Thing (favouring 88.2Hz or other integer multiples of 44.1). Some media players upsample; others aim (with varying success) for bit-perfect transmission. Our best present understanding is that we don't. So approach the question with open ears, and pray the major studios invest in the notion of 24-bit studio master downloads before you lose your hearing altogether.

Q: The Compact Disc isn't really dead, is it?

A. Not quite. Not yet, anyway, But in 2011 it's dominant grip as a music medium is weakened beyond repair. In hindsight it's easy to see that the historical significance of its arrival lay not in the disc, but in the data. The seeds of its inevitable demise were there in the noughts and ones from day 00000001: as a playback medium it's now largely supplanted by mobile phones, iPods and computers (as convergence proceeds inexorably, it will be soon be strange to think of those as separate devices); as a delivery medium, the internet is faster and wider; and as a storage medium, memory sticks, hard drives, DVD-ROMs and BluRay are cheaper and more efficient. So maybe the CD isn't dead yet, but i has just been moved to the comfortable ward.

Q: Isn't it stupid to spend so much on a power supply?

All components (particularly amplifiers and digital-analogue converters) benefit hugely from a well sorted power supply. If you don't understand enough tech-stuff to know why this is so, simply trust your ears: it's all audible, and it's usually not a subtle difference.

Q: These little amps are cheap and small enough to buy a fistful: is there any point multi-amping my speakers?

A. Indeed there is. A pair of Tripath 2024 amps dedicated one per channel has cured many of our customers of the upgrade itch for a long time.

Q: Why are you so down on the soundcard?

A: Because by far the best route to high fidelity audio is to convert bits remotely from the source. The only soundcard worth listening to, in our opinion, is our highly modified Prodigy HD2 SE . . .

Q (sort of): Psshaw! My 'audiophile' soundcard uses the same chips as your overpriced external DACs . . .

A. Sometimes that's true. The latest high end cards feature swappable op-amps, proper capacitors, implausibly high SNR ratios and dedicated EMF/RFI shielding. But even when the best components are used, the delicate digital-to-analog conversion process still takes place in a maelstrom of vibration and interference. More crucially, those expensive components are intimately sharing a cheap power supply with at least one mercurially demanding CPU, and multiple chipsets. To make matters worse, PCI connection makes galvanic isolation from the motherboard impossible. Putting a soundcard in a PC is like doubling a fridge and an amplifier in the same mains outlet . . . no, wait: it's exactly like plugging an amplifier in the same socket as a fridge – then putting the amp in the fridge and running it whilst making salad.

Plus, the conversion chip is only one piece of a much bigger puzzle: implementation (jitter control, regulation, output stage, etc) makes all the diference. Your computer is great at shunting bits: let it process data. The knack is to emit those zeros and ones with minimal distraction via USB or SPDIF to an offboard DAC (with a dedicated power supply) where the bistream can be reclocked and converted to voltage in comfort.

Q. What's the best kind of amplifier? Is it Tripath?

A: Many paths to the ideal of 'a straight wire with gain' have been followed: all are compromised to some extent, offering trade-offs about which individuals make their own value judgments. Most (but not all) subjectively 'good-sounding' amplifiers measure well, but differing technologies result in characteristically different presentation: many Tripath amplifiers, for instance, share audible 'family resemblances'. It may (or may not) be helpful to think of amplifiers as grape varieties: each capable of producing great wine in the right hands . . .
  • Class A/B = Cabernet Sauvignon: ubiquitous, pungent and powerful; a bit on the stern side. Capable of Chateau Margaux-like finesse and complexity done well; enamel-strippingly abrasive when badly made.
  • Class A = Merlot: warm, sweet and rounded. With careful regulation, it can rise to St. Emilion Grand Cru heights of balance and power; cheaply done: flabby, cloying and and lacking definition.
  • Valves = Pinot Noir: Volatile and easily ruined, yet capable of producing the most giddyingly evocative experiences of all – providing you can afford the equivalent of fine Burgundy. Anything less is frequently deeply flawed, though not without charm.
  • Tripath/'Class D' = White Grape Varietals. Although the primary characteristics of Tripath amplifiers are sweetlness and sparkle, not all are lightweights: high power versions have all the depth, weight and smoothness of a Rosemount Roxburgh Chardonnay.
However, the accuracy of this analogy diminishes in inverse proportion to excellence. Whereas Great Wines are judged by the degree to which they express their own, distinctive character; the greater the amplifier, the less it imposes its 'flavour' and the more freely and transparently it expresses the music.