Improve your PC audio quality without breaking the bank (part 2)

161117-macro-flowers-4744In part 1 of this review, I discussed the various merits and challenges of USB, optical SPDIF and RCA SPDIF for audio transmission. By the end of the review, I’d decided that a Raspberry Pi working as a networked Roon endpoint was a highly effective alternative to expensive SPDIF bridges to convert USB audio to SPDIF or BNC. However, I wondered if my Raspberry Pi setup was still held back by the RCA SPDIF connection so I upgraded to the newly released Hifiberry Digi+ Pro module to have better signal handling and, more importantly, a BNC connection. You won’t believe what happened next…

Just kidding, I’m not into click bait, but the results were excellent!

Introducing the Digi+ Pro from Hifiberry

digi-pro-3655Hifiberry make a number of specialist audio modules for Raspberry Pis including DAC modules, amp modules and the Digi+ digital output modules. They’ve recently added pro grade versions of some modules as beta products. The pro models provide higher grade components and connectors as well as more customisation options (in the case of the Digi+ Pro at least).

The Digi+ Pro provides the following improvements:

  • gold plated RCA SPDIF connector
  • separate clocks for 44.1kHz and 48kHz based signals
  • PCB space for BNC and I2S connections

digi-pro-3659To capitalise on the BNC connection, I had to source* and solder my own connector, but that proved fairly straight forward. Slightly more challenging was cutting a clean and tidy hole in the acrylic case for the RPi / Digi+ combo, but it was still very manageable and minor irregularities in the hole are hidden by the BNC socket itself.

*Hifiberry will be applying BNC connectors in future, but users will still need to do their own soldering.

Even if you’re not into soldering and modifying your own gear, I can confirm that the Pro version of the Digi+ does provide better sound than the regular Digi+ when using optical or RCA SPDIF connections, but that’s secondary to the purpose of this review – I was on a quest for all-out audio performance on the tightest budget I could impose. The question was “How little can I spend and still achieve outstanding sound?”

Is BNC Really Better?

In part 1, I explained the issues of impedance when using RCA SPDIF. Based on my experience and research, finding an RCA SPDIF circuit (i.e. source through DAC) that maintains 75 ohms at each component (including sockets, plugs and cables) is as good as impossible (it may actually be 100% impossible). BNC provides a standard where the impedance can be maintained throughout the circuit.

Just to recap, the importance of impedance matching is this:

Every time the signal hits a new impedance there is a minor reflection created. This reflection messes up the purity of the signals following it and results in noise or jitter in the signal. Therefore, by maintaining constant impedance the signal should be cleaner and the resulting music should be smoother and more detailed…

digi-pro-3658After soldering the BNC connector to the Digi+ Pro I was able to connect the Raspberry Pi to the Gumby (DAC) via both RCA SPDIF and BNC simultaneously which meant I could switch rapidly for A/B comparisons. The results were obvious.

The BNC signal was clearly superior. Thanks to the reduced jitter, the sound from the BNC connection was smoother, but more importantly it had a greater sense of space and depth combined with stronger and tighter bass reproduction. I believe everything I heard was just the result of less noise, but the difference wasn’t as subtle as that might sound. Switching to BNC had the effect of stretching the back of the soundstage away from me. The closest sounds stayed close, but the overall depth of the soundstage increased. Likewise, the remaining hint of haze and distortion was removed from the overall signal making it buttery smooth while revealing every detail. Finally, the complete lack of distortion (often perceived as higher frequency sounds) allowed more of the bass to shine through. The bass didn’t become louder at all, it just gained a greater sense of presence in the overall sound.

Conclusion & recommendations

If you’ve reached this point somewhat confused, I competently understand. Let me pull it all together…

  1. A good SPDIF signal is often superior to a good USB signal, but you can’t rely on this 100% due to variations in DAC circuitry and variations caused by source design and cable selection
  2. If you have the money to spend on a bridge device to convert USB to SPDIF (or ideally BNC) it’s probably a simpler solution
  3. If you’re happy to tinker a bit and use streaming software like Roon or setup a Raspberry Pi music player, you can achieve outstanding digital audio quality on a very low budget

Here’s the breakdown of approximate costs:

  • Raspberry Pi – $45
  • Digi+ Pro – $45
  • Case (optional) – $10 and up
  • Power supply – $12
  • BNC socket – $8

digi-pro-3654As you can see, at around $150 (USD) all up, this is a much cheaper solution than a top quality SPDIF bridge and it provides BNC which is not necessarily true for a lot of the bridges out there. Not only that, but the RPi can be reconfigured at any time to act as a standalone media player or network end point for streaming music – it’s extremely versatile and compact. There are also options to add linear power supplies for the Digi+ Pro board and all kinds of other tweaks I haven’t even begun to consider.

I can certainly recommend this setup if you’re looking for an affordable, incremental upgrade to your existing USB setup.

Lachlan Fennen Written by:

Facilitator, training design consultant, blogger / writer and amateur photographer

6 Comments

  1. Darkz0r
    February 3, 2017
    Reply

    How come you say this is a cheaper way, when the Roon’s membership is $119 / year or $499 for lifetime???

    • February 18, 2017
      Reply

      Hi Darkz0r, sorry about the slow response! Good question regarding Roon – I should have mentioned that cost in the review, but forgot to do so because Roon is worth every cent of it’s price regardless of whether you want the streaming functionality required for the Raspberry Pi solution I discussed. I would highly recommend Roon to any music lovers even if they only use a single computer and don’t need streaming. I also expect that there are other software options (JRiver, etc.) that can provide different, but equally workable streaming options with a Raspberry Pi using DLNA streaming protocols.

  2. PETER JASZ
    October 30, 2017
    Reply

    Another excellent article, Lachlan. There has been more (professional) insight in the few reviews/article I’ve read from you than the shite from commercial farces such as Stereophile and TAS -with the exception of Robert Harley’s efforts.

    Have you/or anyone actually tried to read through a Stereophile “review” ?
    It is painfully marred in poor writing, reviewing skill and indeed even ‘story-telling’ credentials -another miserable reality of such poor writing/editing. (I would never dream of actually forking over money for any of these shit-ball rags).

    So, Lachlan, congratulations on some fine interpretation/writing skills. The insight you offer up is precisely what many audiophiles (and would be) require.

    I look forward to more of your thoughtful and insightful work …

    peter jasz

    • October 30, 2017
      Reply

      Thank you, Peter. I do tend to read articles from all sorts of sources and like you have found varying levels of reliability and readability so I’m glad that you’re enjoying my efforts. I’ve been a bit off air due to illness, but hope to be adding more reviews very soon.

  3. PETER JASZ
    November 29, 2017
    Reply

    Hi Lachlan: I too (recently) have a Raspberry Pi 3B (with moode/MPD) connected to a Schiit Modi-2 Uber VIA Audioquest ‘Carbon’ USB cable -a stunning improvement in sound quality.

    Anyway, I noticed you didn’t mention the USB connection/sound -from the Pi ?
    My question is how it might compare to that using a spdif converter/Digi PRO -out to the same DAC.

    At this point, I’d like to introduce you to a Chinese brand by the name of Gustard. Gustard has been making ‘waves’ with its (by many accounts) excellent X-20PRO DAC, but also its ‘U-12’ spdif interface (approx. $149. US$).

    Summarizing, the Raspberry Pi as part of a ‘Streaming’ source is indeed capable of performance playing with (and exceeding) that offered by multi-thousand dollar alternatives.
    (Don’t think for one minute (readers) that authentic, genuine high-fidelity/resolution sound is not achievable at near every day man prices. It does exist. And can be thoroughly enjoyed -if not more- than haphazardly assembled mega dollar gear.)

    peter jasz

    • November 29, 2017
      Reply

      Hi Peter, I’m familiar with the Gustard products, but haven’t yet tried them so please share your thoughts if you buy a converter. I haven’t bothered trying the RaspberryPi as a USB source because I implemented it purely for BNC out and it’s actually right next to my computer so I take USB from that for the sake of convenience (plus it has a relatively quiet USB circuit)

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