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Analog to Digital Converter Shootout: Which Sounds Best? (All Files Now Corrected and Available)

Analog to Digital Converter Shootout: Which Sounds Best? (All Files Now Corrected and Available)
Ed. note: ALL of the files are now as intended including "File 6" thanks to a replacement A/D converter from that company. So please listen to all files and vote for your favorite! lOne more note: there is a very low level of 60Hz hum, not really audible other than on headphones. This is a trade-off I accept because of the open sound of the cable compared to better shielded cables that are not as open.

Here’s your opportunity to compare ADCs (analog to digital converters) priced from $300 to $3995. They offer a wide range of features and enhancements that will be discussed in the reviews to be posted shortly.

Meanwhile, below are seven 96/24 files produced by five A/D converters. Why seven from five converters? One, the M2TECH Joplin offers a choice of 96/24 or 96/32 resolution (it can also do the conversion at 384/32 resolution but for the purposes of this shoot out we’re sticking with 96kHz).

Of course, though the conversion is at 96/32 the files are both 96/24 but it would be interesting to hear if recording at a higher bit rate and decimating it to 24 bits sounds better or worse than the one converted directly to 96/24.Two files were created using the Lynx Hilo but using different recording chains as described below.

So, what you will be hearing is a three minute excerpt from Vanish an upcoming Yarlung Records release by the percussion group Smoke & Mirrors, used with permission. The record was produced from an analog master tape. The image here is from the DSD version recorded simultaneously using that format.

The recordings were made using the Continuum Caliburn turntable and Ortofon’s new A95 cartridge mounted on the Continuum Cobra tone arm. The Ypsilon VPS 100 phono preamp and 10L step up transformer was used for six of the seven files. Vinyl Studio software for Mac recorded those six. The USB cable was WireWorld’s Platinum Starlight, while the Lynx Hilo connected via an Apple Thunderbolt cable. Do USB cables really make a difference? Perhaps in the near future we’ll test that with downloadable files.

One of the files was created using Channel D’s Seta® PIccola battery powered phono preamplifier sending a “flat” (no RIAA equalization) signal to the Lynx Hilo A/D converter and recorded using Channel D’s Pure Music software, with RIAA applied in the digital domain. So two of the files use the same converter but very different chains.

Lowest to highest price, the A/D converters are the HRT Linestreamer+, ($299.95), the P.S. Audio NuWave Phono Converter ($1,899), the Channel D Seta Piccola ($1,899, or $2098 as supplied including optional RIAA module), the M2TECH Joplin ($2,499), the Lynx Hilo ($2499) and the Ayre QA-9 ($3995).

These units have a wide range of operating features. For instance the P.S. Audio includes a built-in MM/MC phono preamplifier, two earlier versions of which was previously reviewed by analogplanet. The M2TECH includes a MM phono preamplifier as well as a variety of EQ curves. The Lynx Hilo is a pro audio product that’s both an A/D and D/A converter. Some of these units are DSD capable but more about that in the capsule reviews coming up.

We chose PCM over DSD because more readers probably have PCM DACs. So here are the seven files. Please listen and vote. These are large files and will take some time to download depending upon the speed of your internet connection.

File "1"

File "2"

File "3"

File "4"

File "5"

File "6"

File "7"

Superfuzz's picture

The point here is to evaluate A to D converters... it converts an analog signal to digital. We are supposed to compare and notice any differences in sound between the digital files.... if there are any differences, they can only be because of the A to D converters, if every other piece of gear was the same when creating the files (and using the exact same source, of course).

zzcorey's picture

You can hear the difference between these recorded files yes, but in terms of hearing what gear actually sounds like in a signal chain this test is moot, and that is the only way this gear is used in the real world, in actual stereo systems

Superfuzz's picture

The test isn't moot, the whole point of the test is to hear noticeable differences in the files, as you said in your first sentence.

Incidentally, this test isn't the best way to test A to D converters.
A better way (and common, it's done on many audio forums), is to start with a high-resolution digital file as the source. Play it back from DVD-audio, or right from a computer with a high end DAC, and input the analog signal into the various A to D converts, and compare the files. This way, we can all also use the original file as a "control", and determine which of the test files sounds most like the original file.
In the test presented here, we are asked "which one sounds best", not which one is the most accurate, or most like the source (which is impossible, since we can't hear the vinyl source, all analog, played back through Mike's rig). It's possible that one of these converters in this test may be adding something to the signal that we find pleasing. But the real measure of how good an A to D converter is, is how accurate it is.

zzcorey's picture

Why does that matter when the only way these products are used is in an actual audio system. Nothing but how they perform in a real world scenario matters, and saying how something is done on "forums" is a giant red flag to begin with. That is unless you want to bring the "all solid state amps sound the same" crowd into it. Subjective testing in a real world scenario is the way to go, thats all im saying.

Superfuzz's picture

We're talking about a piece of gear that can be measured, and tested, and for an A to D converter, the goal is accuracy. Blind A/B testing, when we have a reference file, and sample files made from various converters, is the ultimate test.
These kinds of tests are done on forums with professionals in the field, equipment manufacturers, etc.
If you have no use for an A to D converter, fine, but other people may have a use for one, and may like to know which ones perform the most accurately. Again, the goal is looking for the most accurate one, how it sounds in your system is not even a factor - we're not talking about phono cartridges, or preamps, but an A to D converter.

Chris F's picture

Ummmm why would you use a signal which has already undergone analog to digital conversion + digital filters and then another trip through a (coloured) DAC before hitting the ADC under test? How are you going to determine "accurate" from this? Please point me to where they do this?

my new username's picture

I could only download 1, 4, 6, 7. Track 6 isn't yet a contender because of the speed error.

7, despite the increased hum, sounds most immediate and alive. Track 4 smears the transients and begins to blend and bore me. Track 1 is somewhere in between.

I look forward to hearing 2, 3, 5 and 6.

Michael Fremer's picture
I don't know why you are having trouble but I just checked and all are available. We are working with the manufacturer of A/D converter used on file six to determine the problem.
Miro Muzlai's picture

I like my music and do not give a sh.t where it comes from. If it sounds good on my system, I am happy. This to me is an pointless exercise and a waste of time, time I would rather spend listening to the music I like.

firedog55's picture

Some people might want to buy an AD converter to convert LPs or tapes. So the test might be a useful guide to them which ones they might like better.

Michael Fremer's picture
You shouldn't bother with this test. However for those contemplating buying an A/D converter to archive their vinyl it should prove useful.
SHR's picture

was searching for needle drop A to D articles last night! I think your "test" is a great step in the right direction. If you can hear the difference then pony up, if not be happy and enjoy that money spent on more music. I'd love to hear the USB cable test with all else being equal. My bet is I can't tell but would love to try and see what I hear. Long time reader - thanks

skolis's picture

Question re: the statement: "Vinyl Studio software for Mac recorded those six"

recorded at 96/24 - check
rumble on or off - ???
Hiss on or off - ???

( this is first post, sorry if you get this twice)

Michael Fremer's picture
Off. I chose to leave all filters off.
seeforth's picture

They all sound very good but file 4 did not gain my attention as much as the others so it may be the HRT - which is all I can afford anyways. Its OK for the albums I want to digitize which is mostly Canadian pressings of 60's to 80's rock - and we always got the tape copies up here to press from. So on my system - PrimaLuna, Totem Staafs, Schiit Bifrost Uber, I can tell one difference and will know what I am buying and how it compares. Thanks.

OldschoolE's picture

I agree that this test is something more for those who are in the market looking to archive their vinyl. I don't have an outboard DAC, but I'll listen to the files anyway just for fun. I archive my vinyl (selectively of course) using a direct connect to a Tascam pro CD recorder and then I do a copy in FLAC. That way I have the CD for convenience and FLAC for archive. That's just me though.

mlgrado's picture

Actually, quite a few of the Yarlung albums are available as digitally unedited direct analog to DSD transfers at the 256x rate.

I must admit that analog tape captured in this digital format sounds absolutely incredible. It really does give pure analog a good run.

That detail now offered, off to listen to these files and participate!

deaconblue66's picture

That's what I keep getting when I click on any of the files.
Does it matter that I'm in New Zealand?

Michael Fremer's picture
Sorry You Are Unable to Access the Files. However there were issues with all but 1 and 7 that have been fixed so try again...
Jim Tavegia's picture

I had a very hard time picking a winner, and ended up liking 2 the best, but also liked 7. It was clear to me that they were closer to each other then different and I could live with any of them. Since my DAC is not SOTA it may have been harder for me. DACS have dramatically improved and even the affordable ones can sound amazing now.

Another fun test and you keep us on our toes for levels of discernment. Not sure if I get to keep my Audiophile Card, but fun to try. Thanks.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Every thing I record now is 2496 and it is so hard to go back to redbook anymore. The smoothness is unmistakable.

Chris F's picture

After fixing the reverse channels I picked file 1 with 2 a close second. IMO 1 did the best job preserving with the attack/decay of the stick percussion and general ambiance. 1 also performed very well in the busy sections of the sample.

2 was also really good; the smoothest of the bunch.

7 was very similar to 1 to the point where I suspect it is the same ADC.

4 seemed a bit lifeless. 5 and 3 nothing particularly remarkable though nothing really negative. Didn't listen too much since 1, 2, 7 were obviously better to me. Did not consider 6 as it was impossible to evaluate properly.

My guesses:
1 is Lynx Hilo with Seta Piccolo (due to the bass rolloff; suspect you left it on as part of the RIAA filter)
7 is Lynx Hilo
2 is Ayre

agentsmith's picture

It would have been nice if you had included files generated by the Devialet. With build in phono that reaches directly into the digital circuit it "should" be one of the purest.

Of course it would not be a like to like comparison to the others, but it would be an interesting comparison.

Alternatively you could use the line out of the phono amp to the Devialet's line in as another option.

skil's picture

Honestly, I couldn't tell a difference between any of the files. I'll add, the music was painful to listen to.

calaf's picture

I liked a lot 1 and 7, which have the best instrument placement, an impressive sense of physical presence, and excellent detail retrieval in the castanets (if that is what's opening the track), and not a hint of harshness. In other word they are the most analog sounding ADCs... 1 and 7 sound identical to me, so I arbitraeily voted for 1.
Notice that 1 and 7 have L/R channels swapped with rispect to the other four recordings, and since my earing is not symmetrical (right ear bit worse than the left in high frequencies), I suspect this may have played a role in my preference.
Of the "non-swapped channel ADCs", 6 is my favourite. Quite close to 1 and 7.
The other four sound rather digital to me (those sparkling highs also have quite some grain). In particular 2 is way too bright for my personal tast
2 and 3 and 5 sound way too hot to my ears.

kenkirk's picture

I too noticed the channel swap on a couple of the tracks. No biggie, I just reversed my head phones. I picked #1, but I could live with the sound of most of them. But one thing for sure, your analog front end is the bomb! I am still amazed at the sound you are getting with that table and arm! And I know it must sound better "live to the speakers". Thanks for taking the time to record these tracks. I know what a time eater projects like this can be.


eatapc's picture

I agree with Chris F that file #1 sounded the cleanest, with very little smearing and nice air/ambience. When the music builds in the middle, it was easier to concentrate on what the individual instruments were doing in file #1; a couple of the other files had more of a cacophony happening. Not to get into a Linn "toe tap" test, but I did feel the music was a bit more "intense" (in a good way) with file #1, probably due to the fast attack/decay.

AnalogJ's picture

Hmmmmmmm.......If these all sound identical (yes, the music is identical -- or should be), then your system isn't discerning. I'm just playing on my Dell with Monsoon planar speakers (and sub). I'm hearing plenty of differences.

eatapc's picture

With 28% right now not hearing a difference, I wonder if people are playing these files at their native resolution though high-end systems. Are people simply playing them on their laptops, as AnalogJ above? That may or may not be good enough. I would think that playing them through a good DAC rather than the laptop's analog-out jack is pretty important.

bull winkle's picture

While I liked the sound of #2 most, I heard an equal amount of hum noise on tracks 2,3,4,5&7.I heard a significantly louder hum on #6.
Track 1 had less hum noise than the rest though it and #7 had the L/R channels flipped. What I don't get is the poll results where 38% of participants chose the all sound the same vote. WTF?