I've been running a PC-based system, still on Windows XP with Winamp as my main player (a convenience/ease of use/compatibility thing). The operating system has been optimised for audio, although not as aggressively as it could be. The hardware is basically a mid-level intel based desktop PC that i put together in 2010, the only upgrades being a big, quiet power supply and an M-Audio Delta 2496 soundcard.
Previously, I was running a Blue Jeans RCA SPDIF cable from the output on the Delta 2496 into an Audio GD Ref 7.1. The amp is a Bel Canto Evo 4 (bridged) and the speakers are Revel Ultima Studio. Volume is controlled with software. I thought this system sounded impressive in most ways, particularly in terms of detail retrieval, dynamics and imaging, but in the last year I've become aware of what I think is an overly analytic quality, especially with poor recordings, which I've been desperately trying to get rid of.
Previous improvements included RCA interconnet upgrades, repositioning the speakers in the room, throwing a cloth over the TV screen, and optimising the operating system. The biggest improvements came with repositioning the speakers (bass much better) and optimising the operating system (sound more coherent).
Lately I've been listening to a variety of my favourites including Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Ainslie Wills, Fleetwood Mac, Curtis Mayfield, Radiohead, Giorgios Sfyridis, Gang Gang Dance, James Blake, Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, Phillip Glass, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Trentemoller and Pantha Du Prince.
Last fortnight, a John Kenny Hiface Mk3 arrived. I hooked it up using a generic USB cable from PC to Hiface, and the Blue Jeans cable (with an BNC-RCA adapter) from Hiface to DAC. Initially, it sounded pretty awful - harsh in the high end, thin and strange in the upper-bass and lower-midrange. and even more analytic than the Delta 2496. Switching the USB cable for a different generic one resulted in a significant improvement, reducing the harshness and restoring most of the upper bass. Replacing the USB cable with an adapter improved things more.
I then ordered a Black Cat Silverstar 75 and hooked it up from the BNC output of the Hiface to the BNC input on the DAC. A smoother and bigger (although not unnaturally so) sound. But not a massive difference from the Blue Jeans cable.
However, by the this point I felt that the Hiface sounded different, but not better, than the Delta. To me, the Hiface sounded more detailed and the Delta more musical.
Next, I got out my laptop, which is an Asus Core i7 based thing running Windows 7 (also optimised to some extent for audio). I plugged the Hiface into the laptop with the better of the USB cables (the adapter I'd bought for the desktop was on the wrong angle) and played music through both Winamp and JPlay. (The Hiface was still connected to the DAC via the Silverstar).
Jplay was clearly better than Winamp - cleaner, smoother, more detailed. This was the best sound I'd had so far, but only slightly better than the desktop running Winamp + Hiface via USB adaptor and/or the desktop + Delta via blue jeans cable. And overall, I still enjoyed listening to the Delta more than anything else for it's more musical, more laid-back and more elastic qualities. I felt that maybe I'd shelled out a lot of money for a sound that was only different, not better, than what I'd had.
Finally, I went back to the desktop and this time ran the Delta to the DAC via the Silverstar cable (with the Black Cat RCA-BNC adapter on the Delta end). That was two nights ago. There was no comparison this time, this was by far better than all the other combinations. I did some back and forth switching between the various setups - still a clear winner. Above all, much smoother. And more scale, more dynamics, more detail, tonally more pure, and far less analytic. It feels to me like my system has gone from sounding impressive to sounding (I know I'm a tosser for using this adjective) beautiful. And musical. So, so happy.
Anyway, I thought I'd share all of this because (assuming my opinion means something and also assuming there's not something wrong with, for example, the USB ports on my desktop's and laptop's motherboards - definitely possible) it really goes against the conventional wisdom about PC based transports, i.e. that async is always best. It also says something quite impressive about the Delta 2496, which is a PCI soundcard that I think I bought for something like $100-$150 in the late 90's or early-2000's. And also of course that the Silverstar seems to be an excellent digital cable.
The next step will be to upgrade the desktop to Windows 7 or 8 and to install Jplay on it. For the moment I'm just listening to everything I've ever loved and trying to convince myself that it's worth actually leaving the house..
Hope this was of interest
Edited by andreasmaaan, 06 May 2012 - 11:39 AM.