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DAC to replace Tone Board - Anyone using a high end DAC with RPi 4?


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Hi All,

I’ve finished setting up a RPi 4 running PiCorePlayer connected to a Tone Board DAC.  For anyone that wants to give this a go I’ve provided some history/background below with some links to resources that I found useful.  I’m certainly no expert and if you do try this you will need to set some time aside as it can be frustrating when encountering issues.  I found Google (other search engines are available) to be very useful as the answer can usually be found on a forum somewhere.

At present this solution is fine for listening to new/recommended albums via Qubuz and allows a decision to be made on whether to purchase a physical copy.  I'm intrigued as to how good this could sound and was wondering whether anyone has tried running a RPi to stream Hi Resolution files to a high end DAC?   At the moment I’m thinking of DACs such as the Denafrips Terminator;  Aqua La Scala or similar.   I’ll keep an eye on the systems that will be at the show in October but am interested in hearing of anyone’s first hand experience.

I’ve seen several comments about having to use re-clockers, but in an ideal world I’d like to keep it to one box.  I can add a shelf to my existing rack for the DAC, but it would be difficult to add further devices.

Please let me know whether you have tried something similar and how you got on?  If you couldn't get the result you wanted and ended up going down a different route I'd be interested in hearing about this too.

Budget is around £5K.   I appreciate that to try a La Scala it will have to be used (unless significant discounts are being offered).

Thanks for reading this far and I look forward to hearing about your experiences.

 Some History and set-up

I’ve used a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ running PiCorePlayer / Logitech Media Server (LMS) connected  to a Classic SqueezeBox (SB) player for several years.  The SqueezeBox is connected to a Denon RCD-M40DAB & Monitor Audio Bronze speakers in our kitchen/dining room.

                All our CDs are ripped to FLAC although we mostly listen to 6 Music via the BBC Sounds plugin.  We find streaming 6 Music offers a significant improvement in sound quality compared to the Denon DAB,  your experience may differ.

                Prior to starting with the RPi I was using a NAS drive connected to the Classic SB.  I experimented streaming Flac files with the player connected to the main Hi-Fi which didn’t last long - after a brief listen it was returned to the kitchen and I carried on using vinyl & CD in the lounge.

During lockdown I started thinking about trying streaming using a high resolution audio streaming service (Qobuz).  This was partially with a view to listening to albums in an effort to avoid purchasing any more ‘lemons’ on physical media.  I also thought that DACs will have improved over the years and that this coupled with high resolution files might lead to the replacement of the CD player & CDs.   Another rabbit hole to explore.

RPi3 or RPi 4?

One limitation of the RPi 3 is that the USB and Ethernet share the same bus which might cause contention when streaming larger files.

The RPi4 doesn’t have this issue, but does run hotter than the 3.

With the RPi3 I’ve never experienced any overheating issues using a heatsink case.  The device also powers an external USB hard drive and is rarely switched off.

Much as there haven’t been any issues streaming FLAC files from USB to the SB via Ethernet, I didn’t want to build another RPi3 only to find out that Hi Res files caused an issue, so opted for the RPi 4+. I went with the 4GB model but the 2GB might have been perfect for the job.

I originally ordered a heatsink case as I wanted to avoid the possibility of any interference caused by a cooling fan.

Image1.jpg.b1e6878d8ab4ad9e2038b43dd737e1b2.jpg

Once assembled in the case, PiCorePlayer was installed - instructions can be found at:- https://docs.picoreplayer.org/getting-started/

 I worked through the instructions step by step which led me to a page on editing the config.txt file.   I learnt that I didn’t need to do this a little too late and ended up in the VI editor.  This is a different from most text editors as it has insert & command modes, the following resource should prove useful in case you end up in the same position, or  want to start using VI:-

www.howtogeek.com/411210/how-to-exit-the-vi-or-vim-editor/

One thing that the piCorePlayer document states is that you use Ctrl-V to paste into vi.   It didn’t work for me, but I found that once you have set vi to insert mode – right clicking the mouse pastes the text.

 I noticed that KJF Audio stocked the Tone Board and thought I’d try them as they support the forum rather than Amazon.  Many thanks to Stefan and his team for the prompt delivery.

 Once the Tone Board was assembled in the case I connected it to the RPi4 and amplifier and had a listen.  I was impressed at the improvement in sound quality compared to the SBox - DACs have certainly improved.

 As a temporary installation it looked like this:-

Image2.jpg.57548d2cd057d81171b4cbbf13d5deb6.jpg

Needless to say, after an hour or so the music stopped.  I set up an external fan and with this going everything was fine, having shown it was a heat issue I ordered a different case and swapped the Pi over.

 After some research I settled on the Argon ONE V2 Raspberry Pi 4 Case.  This has a fan which can be controlled and the picoreplayer site has instructions on setting this case up:- https://docs.picoreplayer.org/projects/setup-argon-one-case-for-rpi4b/

If you go down this route you will have to become familiar with VI editor, something I found useful:- www.howtogeek.com/102468/a-beginners-guide-to-editing-text-files-with-vi/

 After initial setup I found that the temperature/fan speed settings needed to be tweaked after which it hasn’t shown off again.

 The Argon case won’t fit alongside the Tone Board so for the time being:-

Image3.jpg.bf7834e5e830c2b32609fc1fe33e4440.jpg

At the moment this is perfectly acceptable for listening to an album to make a decision on whether to purchase it.

 Having listened to it I’m intrigued as to how good it would sound with a better DAC.

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I don't use a Pi, but a fanless mini pc, running Musicbee, but I see no reason why you could not improve your dac, although I'm led to believe it is very good anyway.

You've mentioned, Denafrips, maybe the Ares or Pontus would be a good starting point, you could add to that list Pegasus Musician and Soekris on the R2R front. Topping D90, Gustard X26 and Chord Qutest also spring to mind as alternatives.  I haven't mentioned more expensive models simply because you might like to try/compare a purpose built streamer before splashing out £5k on a dac.  I do use a re-clocker in my system, not necessary, but I thought it a worth while improvement. Alternatively you could try a usb to SPDIF convertor, then using whichever is the best input into the dac. If you did decide on the  converter route, you might like to look out for a dac with an i2s input. Good luck with your search.

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5 hours ago, antonio66 said:

I don't use a Pi, but a fanless mini pc, running Musicbee, but I see no reason why you could not improve your dac, although I'm led to believe it is very good anyway.

You've mentioned, Denafrips, maybe the Ares or Pontus would be a good starting point, you could add to that list Pegasus Musician and Soekris on the R2R front. Topping D90, Gustard X26 and Chord Qutest also spring to mind as alternatives.  I haven't mentioned more expensive models simply because you might like to try/compare a purpose built streamer before splashing out £5k on a dac.  I do use a re-clocker in my system, not necessary, but I thought it a worth while improvement. Alternatively you could try a usb to SPDIF convertor, then using whichever is the best input into the dac. If you did decide on the  converter route, you might like to look out for a dac with an i2s input. Good luck with your search.

Interested in this mini fanless pc. Do you connect direct to external dac (no audio card in pc?). Do you leave pc running 24/7? Music on hard drives attached? or external on nas? Sorry for loads of questions but might try this at some point.

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I run a Pi 4 2gb into an Oppo Sonica DAC via USB with great results. I run the latest version of MoOde software, and listen for hours on end, with no problems, via Qobuz or local files on a USB 2TB HDD. The Pi has just the heatsink and no case.

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I run a pi3 with hifiberry digi+ hat serving from a separately powered 4tb hdd, into a Wyred4Sound dac2v2 with femto clock upgrade.

I am very happy with the results (even though I am tempted to compare the dac with the PrimaLuna Evo dac with valve clock).

I do not use streaming services like Qobuz, Tide, and so on, but JRiver will connect to Radio Paradise with good results

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3 hours ago, hermano said:

Interested in this mini fanless pc. Do you connect direct to external dac (no audio card in pc?). Do you leave pc running 24/7? Music on hard drives attached? or external on nas? Sorry for loads of questions but might try this at some point.

This is the pc I purchased, approx $150, Amazon.com: Mini PC Fanless Intel Celeron N4020 (up to 2.8GHz) 4GB DDR/64GB eMMC Mini Desktop Computer Windows 10 HDMI 2.0and VGA Port 2.4/5.8G WiFi BT4.2 3xUSB3.0 Support Linux,NGFF 2242 SSD,Auto Power On: Computers & Accessories I'm living abroad at the moment, that is why it came from the US.  I use and external hard drive as my library, and it is output to an Oehlbach re-clocker, then into a Topping D30.  I am not streaming any music although I've just been looking into that, tried to get the Tidal free trial but it is not available to me at the moment, may just try Spotify.  I have been using Foobar2000, and then tried Audirvana free trial, could not get my music to download, then read a good report on Musicbee and am now using that, slightly better sq than Foobar, but I don't understand all the options on Musicbee, so it is left as is, except for a couple of tweaks.  I don't know whether I should have got a pc with 8gb of RAM, when looking at Audirvana 4gb was needed but 8gb was recommended, any more questions, ask away.

Sorry forgot to answer, I don't leave the pc on 24/7, there are no special audio cards and I have managed to recently stop Windows 10 updates, they have been a real nightmare to me, stopping the audio drivers and therefore stopping me playing music.

Edited by antonio66
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I run a Pi4 running Picore player connected via USB to a Project Pre S2 DAC. Digital is now pretty much indistinguishable  from Vinyl.  Vinyl is HANA SL into Partridge Transformers feeding a Guy Sargeant  valve based Phono stage.

I can play High Res downloads and  ripped SACDs through this setup as well as ripped CDs and 320K Radio 3 stream, all coming through LMS  on my Vortexbox server. Some might not consider this a high end DAC as it only cost me £300 but I am very happy with the sound from this setup. Perhaps soon (Covid willing) I can host a bakeoff with a range of DACs to compare results. The DAC is powered from a linear supply I built form a kit based on the Sigma 22 project.

https://www.amb.org/audio/sigma22/

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Got to agree with slavedata, I’m running a pi4 usb to a benchmark DAC2 hgc and it’s superb. Better than any of the hats I’ve tried on a pi (boss, digione and a pile of others) and Logitech transporter. Pi is powered by an LPS from diyAudio (l-adapter). The sigma22 is also a great LPS if you need dual rail, I use one to power my Project Phono RS.

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Many thanks to you all for taking the time to respond and confirming that it's feasible to explore DAC options with the Pi.

@slavedata - hopefully things improve on the Covid front and bakeoffs start to become a frequent event again.  Depending on how things progress, hosting one would make sense in order to hear some of the DACS suggested with my amp & speakers.

@antonio66 - from what I've read you're right about the Pontus being the sweet spot in the Denafrips range.  I'll try and listen to one and hopefully get to compare it some of the others suggested.

@greybeard - I'm wondering whether I might have been unlucky with the Pi4 I received, I've read that some batches run hotter than others.  Changing the case seems to have this under control.

@killie99 -thanks for the details of the LPS options, I'll take a look at those.

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Not the cheapest option out there but you might want to look at these as well Sbooster | Audiophile power supply upgrades and more | Welkom

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With regards to the Raspberry Pi 4 being hot this was mainly isolated to the very first batch on units and the condition was identified and solved with a firmware update.

If yours was a very early unit do a search for firmware update to cure over heating and you will find both how to see if your Pi has no been updated and what you need to do to get this completed.

I had a very early 4GB unit and a 2GB unit they both ran very hot when I first had them the 4GB being the main issue as this was being used as a Server only unit that was on 24/7 . An IIrc case helped but upgrading the firmware did more and this now runs at a very healthy 35 - 38 depending on what it is being asked to do .

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