Last week I changed around my stereo a little bit just for fun and wanted to share a few of the things I learned in doing so. I didn’t do anything too crazy, just removed the Schiit SYS passive pre-amp and replaced it with a Denon AVR-1801 receiver. The receiver has been part of my garage theater which is currently undergoing some modifications. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to add it to my 2-channel stereo setup so I’d have an actual active pre-amp in the mix. Or rather, an active 5.1 receiver that happens to have a pair or RCA pre-outs (not something every receiver has these days I’ve come to find out) that should double nicely as a dedicated pre-amp. Acting as a pre-amp only the Denon holds its own quite well. A plethora of inputs, optical, coaxial, analog, even a phono input. Right now I’ve got two modest sources, an Apple Airport Express and a Sony DVP-S300 DVD/CD player. It’s worth mentioning that I bought the Sony unit from Goodwill for $6, the Airport Express from a guy on Craigslist for $20 and the Denon unit from a different guy on Craigslist for $50. Total investment at this point – $75. I do audio on the cheap, I know. But good gear doesn’t have to cost a fortune either. And good used stuff is even better.
Now back to the setup. Since the Denon has both analog and digital inputs, I was left with two connectivity options for each source: connect the CD player and Airport Express to the analog CD/DVD inputs using a couple pairs of RCA cables, or connect the S/PDIF or Toslink output from the CD player/Airport to the S/PDIF and/or Toslink inputs on the receiver. Either way you get sound coming out the other end. What difference would either option make? Was there not an obvious better way to connect up this equipment? If so, what was it? And was there a way to know which option would be better without actually listening to them?
So my first instinct was to connect everything up using only the digital interfaces. I figured the Denon probably has a better digital-to-analog path in it and therefore would sound better. This means the conversion to analog is bypassed on both the Apple Airport and Sony units to allow the Denon unit to do all the work. I have nothing against running analog in’s and out’s between stereo gear, but if you can keep things in the digital domain longer, and not flip flop between them too often, then it just seems like that should be better. Especially if you have reason to believe one of the two potential DACs and subsequent analog parts in your signal path is significantly better in one piece of gear than in the other. Imagine having two pairs of speakers connected to your amp via an A/B selector switch and selecting the crappier speakers all the time without even realizing it. Little did you know that just by switching to “speakers B”, you could have been listening to a much better pair of “speakers”, you just had to pick the better pair and put those in your signal path. Just about every stereo setup anyone owns probably has an unused DAC in there somewhere. Missed opportunity perhaps?
After connecting the CD player to the Denon via the S/PDIF port, I popped in some CDs and had a listen. Up until this point my setup was such that I was using the DAC in the CD player to convert the digital 1’s and 0’s to analog, but now I was feeding those same 1’s and 0’s to the Denon unit and allowing it to decode and convert those bits into analog sound. So what did I think? Did it sound better? Actually, my first impression was that it did sound better. Inexplicably better, not definitive, but somehow just better. Maybe I was just hearing things? Probably, but could I prove that one setup was superior to the other? Sure, why not? So I decided to do a little deep dive into the physical signal path differences between these two setups and compare them. What is actually different? Which configuration looks better on paper? What DAC chips are actually in these units? Were there other obvious defining differences? Read on to learn what I found out.
For now this is just going to be a paper analysis. I’m not going to actually measure anything. So if you’re hoping for FR and phase plots, THD and FFT plots, sorry to disappoint. But this is an easy analysis just about anyone can do with their own stereo, though your mileage may vary depending on which gear you’ve got, brand and how old (or new) it is. The internet is a huge resource, but even then, some old parts are just not going to turn up. And some of the newer and boutique audio shops just aren’t going to publish that kind of info. No sense revealing the Colonel’s secret 11 herbs and spices.
You can download a pdf of the information I put together for this chain analysis here which includes excerpts of schematics and block diagrams for both units. Datasheets for all of the components can be found by clicking the hyperlinks within this post.
I started out by searching for service manuals for both the Sony DVD/CD player and the Denon AVR. Service manuals are great for digging into this kind of thing and I found a ton of super useful information on both units. Such as schematics, part numbers, troubleshooting tips, you name it, these service manuals had it. That’s when the fun began! I traced out the digital and analog signal paths for each unit starting at the optical transport and finishing at the pre-out of the receiver. The one thing I was interested in initially was what DAC was in each of these units (but I actually learned quite a bit more). I was hoping from there I could then find out some specifications that might indicate which one should be better. My search didn’t stop at just the DAC though. But I’ll jump right into that part, since it’s the most relateable component. And if you don’t end up reading this entire article, you will at least have learned that much.
The Sony DVP-S300 contains a Sony CXD8750N-T2 2-channel DAC. There is absolutely zero information about this DAC available online. It is most likely one of Sony’s proprietary designs so they aren’t inclined to publish anything on it which means there’s no info out there to get any sense of what the DAC can do. Searching the part number online reveals that it appears in units with model numbers M35/S300/S305/S315/S500D/S705D/S715. So it was a popular DAC in its day used in a wide variety of now discontinued models. Not much else go go on there.
So let’s move on to the DAC in the Denon receiver. This is where it got a lot more interesting. The DAC in a Denon AVR-1801 is an AKM AK4527 “High Performance Multi-channel Audio CODEC”. AKM have been making DACs for ages and have a wide portfolio of DAC and DAC-related products. The the most interesting thing noted in the datasheet for the AK4527 is they claim it supports multi-bit. The first paragraph in the data sheet states,
“The DAC introduces the new developed Advanced Multi-Bit architecture, and achieves wider dynamic range and lower outband noise.”
There is no other mention of multi-bit in the rest of the datasheet and in most cases there are references to sigma-delta processing if it does come up again. I have no idea if this DAC does in fact support multi-bit as it’s commonly referred to today or not. This data sheet is dated 1999. Other specs tout 128x oversampling, 96 kHz sampling rate, 24-bit 8x digital filter, 106 dB S/R and high jitter tolerance. EEtimes.com wrote a short article about this DAC when it was released back in 1999 and here’s a short excerpt from that article:
“The six D-to-A channels use a new multi-bit sigma-delta architecture with 128X over-sampling. The dynamic range in this direction is 106 dB. This part brings a new performance level to multi channel codecs,” said Ahmad Nowbakht, applications engineer at AKM Semiconductor, a subsidiary of Asahi Kasei Microsystems Co. of Tokyo. He suggested the AK4527 could be used with compressed audio applications such as AC-3, DTS or other multi-channel standards. “It could be used in DVD players, DVD-RAM drives, or home audio receivers along with many other multi channel audio systems,” he added. The AK4527 is packaged in a small 44-pin LQFP, 10-x-10-mm, package with the same pinout as AKM’s previous two-input/six-output codecs. Prototype quantities are available now, priced at $6.12 each for 5,000 pieces.
So there you go, what’s the real takeaway? That they use the term multi-bit and sigma-delta in the same sentence? Like, which is it? How about the fact that this is a $6 DAC? Either way, if I had to blindly pick a DAC in my setup, either the Sony unit or the AKM unit, based on the information available, I’d probably pick the AKM DAC over the Sony DAC just because it’s got some decent specs against a part that has, well, no specs. It offers good dynamic range with 24-bit/96 kHz processing whereas the Sony DAC probably only supports 16-bit/44.1 kHz audio, seeing as how it is designed for a regular CD player, ideally there’s no reason for anything higher. Besides the bit depth and sample rate, are there other less obvious sonic benefits to one DAC over the other? Perhaps other features built into each chip make a larger difference, like better digital filtering, better tolerance to jitter, better DC biasing (power supply and power supply filtering) and better analog filtering. Specs alone hardly tell the whole story. But it’s certainly a starting point.