Archive for the Audio Equipment Category

Aune T1 Unboxing | DAC Headphone Tube Amp

Posted in Audio Equipment on September 12, 2013 by darthbane883

Well, its been quite some time since I’ve added to my blog.  I have been busy obviously but I will try to post more frequently.  There is much to talk about.

As the title suggests, I have just received a nice package from the mailman.  I have thoroughly enjoyed my Aune X1 DAC/Amp that I purchased from Aune Audio a couple of years ago.  While not perfect, it has served me well and I hope it will continue to serve me well in the years ahead.  Its still a terrific little unit but I am finding I rarely use the headphone am feature on it at all.  Its mainly used as a DAC/Preamp for the Aune X2 amp that drives my home-made bookshelf speakers (which I might add, are terrific!).

But since I am moving offices, I thought I would like to treat myself at work with more discreet listening.  This is the ideal time to look into a vacuum tube amp.  I had originally planned to build one myself, but at $200, I was really tempted to try this puppy out.  I talked to Candy at Aune directly (she remembered me!… must be my boyish charm…).  She was kind enough to send it to me express and it arrived within a week despite a delay from the export officials in China.

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As you can see, the package arrived wrapped with customs tape suggesting that the contents might have been violated.  That was not a good sign…by no means a fault of Aune…just luck of the draw I guess.

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The brown cardboard packaging is not as slick as the X series DAC or Amp, but the contents seem well secure in heavy weight foam.  Looks like everything looks good so far.  Power supply is North American compliant thankfully, instruction manual (chinese & “english”)

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The tube 6N11 tube was neatly tucked into a 1″ hole.  At first I almost thought it was not included.  But first lets look at the unit itself:

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Fit and finish of the brushed aluminum is solid.   It does not seem as dense as the aluminum used by Apple, but it’s got a nice weight to it.  Thankfully the T1 comes with nice rubber feet.  That was a complaint I had with the X1 DAC/Preamp and X2 Amp.

The rear analog line in and outs are nicely protected with vinyl “condoms”.  I suspect I will not be using those at all.  This will be strictly a headphone amp for me.

The rear panel also has powersupply input, USB, and a rocker switch labelled “SW”.  Hmm.. not sure what that is yet.  Subwoofer?  low pass filter?  Instruction booklet has it labelled as “SW Socket”.   Trial and error to determine exactly what it does once I have it connected.

Ok.. Now let try to connect the include 6N11 bulb.

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Egads!  There appears to be a crack in the bulb!.. Oh my.  This sucks large.  Yes, it is indeed a crack.  Because the package was opened at some point and time during the delivery, I suspect that some bonehead export/import good manhandled this delicate bulb.   Not the end of the world at that is a low end bulb anyways (probably $5-$10), but still would have liked all working pieces out of the box.

In anticipation of upgrading the bulb anyways, I recently acquired a Genelex Gold Lion E88CC bulb that I will most like use for test purposes.  but sucks I cant compare to the “stock” one.

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At this point I’m a bit giddy with excitement, despite the realization of the broken bulb.   I will now insert the working bulb I have into the unit.  For those of you that have not done this before, please be very very careful.  You can damage the bulb and/or the pins if you use brute force.  I only handle bulbs with a microfiber cloth and gently rock the bulb in a circular fashion until it almost seats flush:

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I just discovered what the SW switch is.. It’s simply the power switch I believe.  Bulb is glowing nicely after about a 20-30 second delay.  Sound is coming out nicely.  I will refrain from making any more comments on audio quality until the bulb, and unit have had a chance to properly burn in over many hours.

Thank you to Candy at Aune for a flawless transaction.  It’s not her fault the bulb broke, but I imagine like me, all of you will/should try out other bulbs as well.  So until next time.  Peace to all.

 

 

Concrete Speakers – Project

Posted in Audio Equipment, Consumer Electronics on November 29, 2011 by darthbane883

In my quest to maximize the quality of the music that originates from my Macbook Pro, I first started off with the DAC component previously reviewed.  While I feel the Aune X1 made a huge improvement in sound, it’s not much of an argument to suggest that the speakers themselves will have the largest impact.  As such, I contemplated for sometime what to do to replace the venerable AudioEngine 2′s that I’ve enjoyed for about a year.  Don’t get me wrong, for their size and price, I’m not sure anything can match those little babies.

But in order to find an ideal complement to the DAC, I was looking as several monitor type speakers that ranged anywhere from $500 to over $2000.  Again, I had to remind myself, the goal of this project was to gain the best possible sound at the lowest possible cost.  So while I was considering this, I had the epiphany to make my own speakers..At first, I considered the traditional wood/MDF cabinets, but I felt that route was too boring.. been there..done that.   I wanted something different.  Something more creative.  Something that is a culmination of all my past handyman efforts.

The issue with wood speaker cabinets is that it’s very difficult to stabilize/brace them internally to minimize resonance.  Theoretically, you want the cabinets to “vibrate” as little as possible.  For the price, I cannot think of anything more dense than concrete to achieve this goal (on an unlimited budget, I suppose cabinets made out of solid Osmium or Iridium would be better…but that’s a project for another day=).

Now, I consider myself a bit of an artist.  Recently, I’ve gravitated to the organic and rustic beauty concrete has to offer for sculptures and furniture.  Recently, I’ve built a bathroom vanity as well as an 11 foot concrete countertop for my bar.  But building a one-piece enclosure is a very daunting task…The tolerances for a speaker cabinet need to be very precise if you want a clean look with the drivers mounted flush with the surface.  You can’t exactly take out a plunge router after the fact like you can with MDF or plywood.  All these things need to be planned out in advance.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about the construction, but let’s just say that for a first attempt, I think I did ok (despite some near disastrous incidents that I don’t care to talk about right now).

After some research, I settled on the RS621 kit from Parts Express.  The Dayton Audio tweeters seemed to be inspired in design by some ScanSpeak tweeters that I’m familiar with but at a fraction of the cost.  In total, the drivers with assembled crossovers cost just over $400 (USD) delivered to Canada. So it was right in my price range of being sub $500..While waiting for shipment, I pulled out the specs and fabricated the cutouts for the drivers out of acrylic and 1″ plywood.  The cavity of the enclosure was cut from rigid stryrofoam.

Above is a picture of a speaker just prior to releasing the form.  I used 1/4″ metal rods to the pour for the binding posts.  While I thought the acrylic and the plywood would release easily, I was quite mistaken.  I literally had to hack away at them with a chisel.  But after an hour or so, I managed to chip away and remove all the Styrofoam cavity lining as well…Thereby creating a seamless enclosure.  The design I went with using the drivers is a sealed design.  I may tackle a larger vented/ported speaker project sometime in the future.

When working with concrete, it’s important to understand it’s crystalline properties.  After about 3 days, the form can be safely released and the rough grinding can begin.  I have a diamond cup wheel that I used for the back (speakers were poured with drivers face down), and polished the remaining surfaces from a 50 grit all the way up to 3000 grit diamond resin pads using my wet Fein polisher.

Polishing from 50 to about 800 was done within the first two weeks.  The final polishing was done about a month after the initial pour..Why?  well, concrete gets progressively harder over time..In fact even after 100 years, if only minutely each year.  But for all practical purposes, it reaches it’s maximum hardness in about 27-28 days.  At this age, the high polish pads do a great job creating a sheen that is close to polished granite.  I chose not to wax or seal the final finish.. I purposely want a more organic semi-gloss lustre.  I added sue black and green dye into the mix to give it some colour.

This was a project  that  suited to my anal retentiveness.  Without this valuable skill set, I could not have created the flush mount exactness I was looking for.. I would say less than 1/100th of an inch all around the flange of the drivers.  Near perfect fit.  Above is a picture of the taps for the driver bolts.  I replaced the ones that came with the kit with M3 cap machine hex-head screws instead.  If you’re wondering, I cast 1″ sections of aluminium rods as part of the form.  That way I would not have to drill into concrete for the speaker screws so close to the edge and risk breakage.  I think they worked out well.  With the foam and polyfill installed, the final assembly is almost complete.

With the units assembled, the anticipation was too much for me.  I lumbered these 50lb (each) babies to my main stereo room and hooked them up to my ancient Classe SSP75 and Parasound 2205 amp.  I should have let them burn in a bit, but I was still blown away to be honest.  Vocals are crystal clear and a surprising amount of base for a sealed unit and the 6″ woofers.  I will be using these primarily in my office and I will not be matching them with a sub so very happy with the Dayton drivers.  I imagine that over time, the units will sound even better.  I am currently using the Aune X1 for the DAC, which then flows to the Aune X2 amp.  I have not yet taken the time to give the X2 a proper review, but so far, i am very impressed with the little guy.  For a solid state amp of this size and price, it’s terrific., however, at very low volume, I notice that the right speaker is a touch louder than the left.  I will keep my ear on this to see if it persists.  I will let the speakers and the X2 warm up for about a month before I give a fair assessment.  But I don’t imagine my mind will change too much.  With my concrete speakers, the Aune X1 and the Aune X2, I think I have the perfect set up for my needs and at the best possible price.  Aside from my labour (which is really worth thousands…seriously), total costs of my office set up is roughly $700.

As an aside, I will soon tackle my winter project to build a 35W/channel tube amp that I hope to use to drive these speakers sometime in the next few months.

I hope I didn’t disappoint anyone by not giving a detailed review of the speakers themselves.  That’s because these are not available at any store at any price.  You just have to trust me that they sound great… Far exceeded my expectations and they certainly won’t be my last.  But I trust you enjoyed reading nonetheless.

Aune X1 DAC – Review

Posted in Audio Equipment, Consumer Electronics on October 9, 2011 by darthbane883

Well, it’s been about a month now since I’ve taken delivery of the Aune X1 DAC and I thought I’d provide a follow-up as promised in my unboxing post.  But before I get started, let me remind everyone what my intend was in purchasing an outboard DAC along with setup used.

First and foremost, I want to qualify that I am on a budget.  I have spent ridiculous amounts of month over the years on stupids things and I am in the mode of “simplifying” my life.  I have over $20k in electronics in my living room that were once considered “high-end”.  I’m sure a $500 Costco receiver can kick the pants out of my $10,000 Classe SSP 75…Well..maybe not for all things, but still, it’s a bit long in the tooth at this point.  What was I thinking?

But I digress..You have most likely stumbled upon my blog because you too are on a budget and looking to get the best value possible in music listening from a digital source.  In my case, that source is my Macbook Pro (mid 2010). Perhaps yours is your desktop PC or laptop as well.  If you are here looking for a DAC to match your latest Bryston purchase, then move along..these are not the reviews you are looking for.

Again, I am only going to focus on MY own listening impressions and I will NOT go into technical details like THD and the like.  I really don’t give a ^%#% (any more) about THD, S/N, RMS and any other acronym you can think of.  At some point in my life I did, and it really doesn’t matter.  Just trust yourself and don’t get caught up in the marketing.

Ok, so you’re on a budget and while $250 for a chinese made DAC could be a bit of a gamble, it was for me, but someone had to take the plunge.  I’m sure you’ve gone through eBay and searched the ends of Goggle to narrow down your decision to the Aune X1, Aune Mini DAC (does not include optical out), Topping, Music Streamer, or even something from Fiio.  I’ve looked at all of those too but I decided to roll the dice and go for the X1 because, “I too like to live dangerously”, it was the only one of the bunch that had an optical input, it was the newest, had a pretty good set of components on paper, and it looks pretty.

For those of you that don’t know, the Macbook Pro has an optical output inside the headphone out.  So what I did was connect the X1 via USB as well as through the toslink out using a mini toslink to toslink cable.  They sell these at the Apple store but costs $40.  I ordered mine from ebay for $5 shipped.  took almost 3 weeks, hence the delay of this review.  For those of you with a Macbook Air, you are out of luck.  The Air does NOT have a “hidden” optical out like the Pro’s.  You will be stuck with USB, which isn’t neccessarily a bad thing.

The speakers I am using for this review are the AudioEngine2′s.  They are excellent for their size and price.  For $150, they are the best speakers on the planet.

So I connected the AE2′s to the Aune x1 using Ultralink Audiophile RCA interconnects which I had lying around from years ago.  Again, the only digital music source is from my iTunes that has been configured to maintain lossless audio..in some cases 24bit/96khz source files.

Test 1

In my first test, I connected the X1 via USB and the speakers directly to the Macbook Pro’s headphone out using a regular mini-jack cable.  I wanted to first compare the quality the MacBooks internal audio processing compared to the Aune first.  You can toggle between the two outputs in the Sounds section of System Preferences.  I won’t waste your time.  The quality between the two are night and day!.  The Aune X1 blew the pants of the regular analog output, which, without comparison sounds pretty good.  So mission 1 accomplished: The outboard DAC of the X1 is superior to internal Mac DAC.  The range, depth of soundstage, separation created from the X1 is terrific.  Really very happy with the USB performance of the X1.

Test 2

After confirming the merits of an outboard DAC, I wanted to compare the differences if any, to the Aune X1′s processing capability from it’s optical input compared to USB.  So using the mini toslink cable, I toggled between the optical and USB digital outs of the Pro to the X1. I would like to test the coax input one day, but I will most likely never use that as the X1 will be used 99.9999% of the time with my current or future mac. This is what the output toggle pane looks like:

I gotta be honest, I cannot tell the difference between the USB and the toslink outputs with the X1.  Some will talk about jitter and other theoretical reasons why one might be better than the other, but my humble ears cannot tell the difference.  Both are excellent and you can’t go wrong with either connection methods.  So this was test confirmed to me that when connected DIRECTLY to the X1, either USB or Toslink sound great.  So you Mackbook Air people need not worry.

Test 3

Ideally, when I come home and plop my Macbook onto my office desk (my home office PC is the Macbook), I want to plug as few cables as possible into the laptop.  So I have the mandatory magsafe power plug, USB printer cable and..well, that’s about it.  I don’t really want to plug in anything else.  With the Aune x1, I would have to use up the second USB output on the Macbook, or get a USB hub.  But I may want my speakers placed elsewhere at some point and time in the future…Maybe on a shelf somewhere (I am in a temporary workspace at the moment in my wife’s craft room).  A solution to this is to use an Airport Express unit.  You may not know this. but the mini plug audio out on the AEX has a built in optical output when using a mini toslink!  The USB does not output audio in the current generation of the Airport Express.

So this is wonderful, an optical out that I can use Airplay with from my Macbook iTunes that will eliminate one more wire.  Super.  Or so I thought.

So with the Macbook streaming to my AEX and then via toslink to the Aune X1, I was expecting similar performance to the direct wired connection with USB or optical.  Well, after firing my beloved Natalie Merchant’s “Ophelia” (excellent production btw), I was expecting an truly immersive experience.  Far from it.  I was very disappointed with the flat and soft sound stage when streaming wirelessly with the AEX.  Maybe it’s the fact that the volume was about 30% lower when connected in this fashion compared to direct wire. But I cannot fault the Aune X1 in this case.  After some research, I realized that the AEX is only capable of outputting 16 bit/44.1khz.  Maybe that’s the reason, but while the sound from the Aune X1 when streaming sounds great at a decent volume, it sounds less full when compared to direct connection via USB or optical.  I won’t waste to much time as to why this is, but my ears tell me that streaming to the Airport express with the X1 should only be reserved for desperate times….like when I need a pair of speakers in the backyard for a BBQ, I can plug the AEX into the patio outlet and bring my speakers outside.  Other than that, I will be sticking to directly optical or USB connections.

Also, the Aune X1 drops the connection sometimes when I pause a song and then ski to another one.  I’m not sure if this is a fault with the X1 or the Airport Express.  I think it’s the X1.  I solve this by toggling the input button on the X1 until I get back to “optical” and the music plays again.  But this is annoying.  I cannot live like that.  The AEX and toslink should only be used in emergency situations.

Airport Express and Aune X1 via Toslink

Summary

At $250, the Aune X1 is not the cheapest DAC out there.  But then again, there are others out there that cost 2,3,and even 10 times as much.  I doubt they can be significantly better sounding than this little unit.  at the same time, the X1 has an excellent headphone amp.

Note that the volume control only works when used as a headphone amp.  It cannot be used as a preamp volume control when using speakers despite what the company’s literature might allude to.  My powered AudioEngine2′s have their own volume control, or you can use the volume control built into iTunes.

I highly recommend the Aune X1 if you are on a budget and want an excellent headphone amp that is more than capable of handling the best headphones you can throw at them (Beyer, Grado, AKG, Sennheiser, etc).  No Dr Dre users please =).

A gripe that I have is that the X1 does not have any feet.  I am currently sourcing some rubber feet that I will screw on myself. Without feet, the slick aluminum chassis just slides around.  It’s a minor upgrade cost-wise, so I’m surprised that this was overlooked by the designers.  Otherwise I love the black powered coated aluminum enclosure and sleek lines of the design.

Are there cheaper DAC’s?  Yes there are.  I’m sure the previous generation Aune mini-usb DAC is just fine too.  But I cannot comment on that as I’ve never heard it.   I have bought a lot of things where I experience immediate buyers remorse.  Not so with the X1.  I can happily recommend it if you are looking to maximize the quality of your lossless audio files.  I would not spend any more than $250 for it though.  Frankly I think it’s a touch on the high side and think the “correct” price should be around $200-220, but it’s priced at what the market can bear I guess.  So with the DAC, AudioEngine2′s, a decent set of interconnects, you too can enjoy the best sound possible for less than $400 in my humble opinion.  I have recently purchased Aune’s 2 channel mini amp that pairs aestetically with the X1 which I will review in the near future.

Aune’s done a great job with the X1 and for the price, you really can’t go wrong if you are going to be using it in a similar way that I am.  My iTunes library has never sounded so good.  I’m enjoying every minute of my old vinyl rips thanks to the Aune X1.

P.S.  My project for the fall is to build a pair of concrete speakers.  yes, concrete.  I am currently designing the enclosures and figuring out the best way to conduct the pour.  I will post progress when I the process starts.  They will eventually be replacing the AudioEngines on my desk.  Stay tuned.

Aune X1 DAC – Unboxing

Posted in Audio Equipment, Consumer Electronics on September 12, 2011 by darthbane883

In my quest to maximize the sound quality of the music in my iTunes library from my Macbook, I thought I would lay out my strategy for the coming months.  One of the biggest factors in music reproductions are the quality of your speakers/headphones.  Secondly (imho), the quality of the recordings. And finally the way in which your files are converted from it’s digital format on your hard drive into an analog signal that your speakers or headphones can understand.  For the moment, I will concentrate this post to my third point – the digital to analog conversion.  FYG, I have recently reimported my entire CD collection into 16 bit 44.1 kHz lossless format.  I also have some digital vinyl rips of some classic LP’s in 24bit/96khz, which we will get to later.

After some thorough searching, I decided to go for the new Aune X1 DAC (Digital-to-Analog-Converter).  My criteria for selecting this was that it had to be less than $250, include a headphone amp, and accept usb,coax, and toslink inputs.  Aune is an electronic manufacturer in China and it’s older Aune DAC has been well reviewed, but the X1 is brand new and as far as I know, this will be the first review of this particular unit.  So lets get started.

The Aune X1 came neatly packaged from the courier.  Wasn’t too sure what to expect, but the box showed only slight damage after having traveled almost 7000 kms (I have not checked Google Earth but I’m sure I not far off on my estimate).  The contents included:

  1. Aune X1 DAC
  2. Heavy duty USB cable
  3. Power Adapter
  4. 3.5mm to 1/4 stereo plug adapter
  5. Users Manual
Everything was protected by thick foam and assembled in a tidy fashion.
The unit has solid metal construction chassis and the front volume knob is machined out of a solid piece of aluminum.  However, I noticed that there are no “feet” on the unit and it will have a tendency to slide around on slick surfaces.  At the same time, all four corners do not make contact on a flat surface, so it will tend to wobble on two corners by about 0.5mm.  I will have to get some rubber feet at some point.
Before, plugging it in, the first thing I did was to take it apart to have a look at the internals.  Below are pics of the surgery (I know, potential violation of warranty).  But I was curious.
 
The Multi-layer PCB seems to be of good quality and I even spotted the manufacturer claimed WM8805 chip.  Soldering is solid and looks like a lot of thought went into the layout.  So far so good.  Getting the unit back together was a bit easier that taking it apart, but overall, happy with the construction in and out.
Initial Listening Impressions – headphone amp
I usually like to “burn in” my electronics before giving a listening review, but I was too excited.  I hooked up the power to the X1, connected the USB, and took my Etymotic earbuds and jammed it into the 1/4 adapter and opened up ITunes.  The first song I saw was AC/DC’s “Hells Bells”.  Well the sound I got from the headphones was quite hellish.  I had some bass and mid tones, but the vocals were almost non existent.  I thought, “Oh no, I got a dud.”.  But then I realized that the Etymotics have a built in mic and the 3.5mm jack (having 3 contact points rather than the typical two, was not meant for the 1/4 adapter.  But as you know, you can pull the plug about 1mm away from the adapter and get a loose connection.  Not a good practice, but it will work in a pinch.
I said good bye to Angus and went to my vinyl 24/96 rip of Hotel California.  All I can say is that it sounded fantastic.  I could make out the familiar “hiss” of the stylus on the vinyl, something I never noticed before..on speakers or headphones.  When I listen on my Macbook, the volume is simply inefficient – even a full blast. But with the Aune X1, I barely got to the fourth dot (there are 25) on the volume knob.  I am uber confident that the X1 as a headphone amp would have no trouble at all driving a pair of 600 ohm Beyer full size cans.  The X1 volume just doesn’t go to 11…it goes to 25!.
Summary
I can honestly say that for the price, the Aune X1 is not the cheapest miniDAC you can buy, but given the construction quality and unscientific initial impression as a headphone amp, it seems to be good value so far.  I will continue to listen with it as I go through some of the 80GB of Clapton, Floyd and Zepplin works I’m been ignoring over the past few years.  At the very least, the X1 has re-invigorated my interest in music and is encouraging me to get the most I can with my Macbook.
I plan on doing a speaker test review with the X1 as a DAC with both powered speakers and with a two channel amp as a DAC/Preamp in the weeks ahead.  Please stay tuned.
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