S/PDIF Battle: Mutec, Singxer, Lynx, Rednet, Eitr, Et Al.
August 4, 2016 Luckbad 8
I am a born skeptic. Until I heard a properly good amplifier with legit headphones, I didn’t think they were necessary. Until I heard a good R-2R DAC against a theoretically-good Delta-Sigma DAC, I thought all DACs sounded essentially the same.
As I’ve progressed in my audiophilia, I am left with few frontiers to conquer when it comes to convincing myself to spend money on audio products. Cables and USB to S/PDIF converters
arewere perhaps the last bastion for me.
Note that I won’t be talking a lot about specifics for any of the S/PDIF converters here. There’s ample information on their websites about technical data, features, and prices. If I listed all of the information here, this entry would become far too long. Do your research and come back here for one user’s opinion.
Gustard U12, Audio-GD DI-2014 & DI-U8, CIAudio Transient MKII
I started my journey into S/PDIF conversion with some common converters. The Gustard U12 was hardly an improvement over the USB in my DACs, and in fact seemed worse in a few cases. The Audio-GD DI-2014 seemed like maybe it was slightly better, but it was hard to definitively say I was hearing any benefits. The Audio-GD DI-U8 felt like a slight improvement over that. The CIAudio Transient MKII was only slightly better than the DI-U8 but started getting into audible territory–when I switched back to the DAC’s USB input, I perceived a difference more than heard one.
I breeze right by all of those converters because they had one thing in common: while I could convince myself that I was hearing some slight improvements in my (at the time) Audio-GD Master-11, I didn’t ever feel they were worth the money to keep in the chain. The simple USB gizmo known as the UpTone Regen (pre “Iso” generation) did as much for the Amanero Combo384 in that DAC as any S/PDIF converter I tried.
The journey continued. I eventually discovered how much I love tubes, and my beloved Master-11 went to a new home. I also found that I really enjoyed the sound of non-oversampling DACs after a few false starts in that direction, and ultimately found MHDT Labs. They make non-oversampling tube DACs with R-2R chips. I love the heck out of them, and they also benefit quite a bit from good S/PDIF input over USB. After finding MHDT, I embarked again on my journey of S/PDIF conversion.
Mutec MC-3+USB & 1.2
Not to be put off from spending too much money, I heard about a couple of pro audio contenders: The Mutec MC-3+ Smart Clock USB and Mutec MC-1.2. The MC-3+USB is a re-clocker and USB interface rife with features (many that I’ll never use), and the MC-1.2 is the little brother that doesn’t re-clock the incoming signal.
When I first plugged my system (now a modded MHDT Labs Atlantis going to the ampsandsound Mogwai amplifier) into the Mutec MC-3+USB, my smug look born of my belief that I’d hear little difference was wiped away immediately.
The Mutec MC-3+USB was the first USB to S/PDIF converter that I could unequivocally state audibly improved the sound of my system. Everything got smoother, more effortless, more expansive, and extension and separation seemed to improve. The effect is still subtle, but it is on the order of two completely different DACs rather than something extremely minor. Update: Note that there has been quite a bit of discussion over this converter. It seems that different firmware versions yield audibly different results, which can be a bad thing. Some firmware imparts minimal coloration, while other firmware changes the sound (not necessarily improves it).
The Mutec MC-1.2 was also very good for the price, but simply can’t satisfy after hearing its big brother. It’s a bit less smooth, a little swooshy and airy at the top in comparison, and less hard hitting. It’s better than the previous crop of converters I tried out, but can’t measure up against the much more expensive MC-3+USB after you’ve heard it.
Thus began a spending spree to find the the right S/PDIF converter. I wanted to find the best at the top of my price range as well as the most practical devices that I’d be happy with.
I grabbed some non-USB solutions first. The ESI Juli@ XTe, Lynx E22, and Focusrite Rednet 3 were among the contenders.
ESI Juli@ XTe
The ESI is in the realm of the mid-priced USB S/PDIF converters overall. It lacked what I’ve come to understand as digital hash (swooshy feeling to the sound, almost like you’re rubbing together dry napkins inaudibly while listening to music). But it also didn’t work wonders with the soundstage or separation, and was outdone by the Mutec MC-1.2 in this regard. It lends a slight murkiness to the overall picture, like a very thin veil that makes everything pleasant but not detailed. It’s better than just about any integrated USB solution and does fix the USB swoosh, though.
Next up was the Lynx E22. This is a no-nonsense PCI Express card that is built for pro audio. No digital hash, no glare, very good dynamics and separation. It’s a touch less smooth than the Mutec MC-3+USB in my setup and with that firmware.
Update: I discovered that I originally failed to change the E22’s mode from AES to S/PDIF mode. It still worked with my DAC, but wasn’t doing anyone any favors. I also had recently adjusted my tube choice to account for the sound of the Mutec (very smooth). After adjusting for user error with the jumpers and changing out the tubes in my equipment to complemented the Lynx instead, I discovered an amazing solution in the Lynx E22 (and AES16e).
Organic, dynamic, clean, excellent staging. If I have one complaint it’s that it is a little dry in presentation. If I have another it’s that it costs a lot to use it just as an S/PDIF converter when you aren’t using all of its functionality.
Focusrite Rednet 3
Now comes the Focusrite Rednet 3. It’s a Dante-based converter intended for professional audio use. It is the first audio-over-IP device I’ve tried. I directly connected it to my computer’s ethernet port. Immediately, I was faced with issues. It doesn’t work out of the box at all because the installed firmware doesn’t work with the latest software. So I had to go download the firmware update and install it. Twice, for good measure, because the Rednet software doesn’t trust you and does it again after the device is detected for the first time.
Then it started working, albeit with the caveat that all music must be piped to it at the same sample rate. And my was I impressed. The Rednet 3 sounds absolutely outstanding. Despite the bad taste in my mouth from the early frustrations, it might be the best of the bunch in overall sound quality. I did start to experience some occasional dropouts, but I eventually tracked it down to JRiver because foobar2000 wasn’t causing the issue, so I switched media players.
Weaknesses? Well, it’s not user friendly. It can’t change sample rates on the fly. It’s a double rack height massive red behemoth. And, it takes over your ethernet port unless you buy a separate card for it or use wireless. Plus, it ain’t cheap. The reward for all of the sacrifices is an amazing sound. No digital hash, incredible extension, wonderful dynamics, top notch separation.
So I sold it.
What? Yeah, I couldn’t deal with the size or redness. Am I an idiot? Probably. I also didn’t feel like spending another $100 to get AES output since it doesn’t come with breakout cables, nor did I want to spend the money for a good internal ethernet card. Will I go back? If they ever make a Dante-based Rednet device that sounds just as good and is intended for personal audio use (and is much smaller), absolutely.
I settled in at home for a while with the Lynx E22 going to the Mutec MC-3+USB as a re-clocker (eventually deciding the Mutec wasn’t doing the Lynx any favors, I dropped that out of the setup). Much smaller footprint than the Rednet and it sounds nearly as good to me as the Rednet 3 alone.
All of this madness at home made me miss the devices at work, so I experimented with some more economical options rather than using a four-figure device there.
Singxer F-1 & SU-1
That led me to try the Singxer F-1, which uses the new XMOS XU208 USB converter as opposed to the XMOS U8 in many of the other devices I’ve tried (including, I believe, in the Mutec).
It garnered significant praise over at Head-Fi, and I found that it was indeed warranted. This sub-$200 device was nearly as good as the Mutec MC-1.2 at less than half the price.
It shares some of the weaknesses of other USB devices in a similar class though, with that slightly swooshy USB sound that I’ve developed an aversion to. People have solved that with all sorts of UpTone Regens, cables, linear PSUs, and other decrapifiers. I’m not willing to go to such great lengths (pun intended) to clean up a USB chain. So off it went to a new owner.
But I was intrigued by the performance to price ratio, so I ordered a Singxer SU-1. It uses the same converter but has more outputs and a Talema transformer inside.
I was not disappointed with the results.
The Singxer SU-1 is absolutely outstanding, especially with consideration for the price. It’s definitively superior to the Mutec MC-1.2 and all other USB to S/PDIF converters I’ve tried apart from the Mutec MC-3+ Smart Clock USB (Update: See Schiit Eitr below). In my “modest” (MHDT Labs Canary to a Garage1217 Project Sunrise III) work setup, its not discernibly inferior to the Mutec at all. Differences can be heard in my home setup, but they are hard to hear.
It’s the middle of 2017, and Schiit has to take a dump all over the industry and introduce a USB to S/PDIF converter of their own.
Let me be clear about my position on Schiit before I begin: I think their name is a load of childish marketing and most of their products are too treble-intensive for me to listen to for more than a few minutes. The only other products of theirs that I’ve kept are the Sys (allows you to quickly switch between devices with RCA connections) and Wyrd (which objectively corrected some USB connectivity issues I was having at work with some devices).
So they come up with USB Gen 5 and pack it in a box the size of the Magi/Modi/Wyrd/Sys then pop a price tag on it. It does one thing: converts USB to S/PDIF on its single RCA output.
The price tag didn’t inspire much confidence in it being a worthy solution. $179 and from a USA company? Probably a piece of shit. Pun always intended.
Obviously, the second I saw that it was announced and available on their website, I ordered it. Then I briefly read what it could do, then I went to Super Best Audio Friends to see if anyone had heard it. Then I waited. Like a day, because I live an hour south of them. And I chuckled when I realized that I just bought a Shit Eater.
Using an MHDT Labs Atlantis+ or Orchid, it’s astonishing how audibly superior the Schiit Eitr is to common USB solutions.
For something at the Eitr’s price point, I was expecting something roughly as capable of ditching the USB swoosh as the ESI Juli@ XTe.
I was wrong.
I was guilty of being tricked into believing the Mutec MC3+USB was utterly amazeballs because it made audible differences to the sound.
What I eventually realized in comparisons with the likes of the Rednet 3 and Lynx E22 (especially after I tried the latter with AES or remembered to switch it properly to S/PDIF mode for all my other DACs) is that the Mutec was not neutral. Different, yes. Great–to my ears–yes. But after experiencing proper neutrality with the Lynx and Rednet I now perceive “different” as what it is rather than “better.”
The Schiit Eitr doesn’t make the sound “different.” The ESI Juli@ XTe is very neutral and does a great job of not coloring the sound. When compared directly to a Lynx E22, the Lynx (sorry for this overused expression) lifts a veil. Clarity, detail, and dynamics all improve with the Lynx above the ESI without changing the color of the music in any way.
That’s what the Eitr does. Switching between the ESI to the Schiit Eitr removes a bit of blurriness you didn’t realize was there. It doesn’t accentuate anything or color anything, it just allows the music to flow unfettered from the computer to your DAC.
It may very well be the best USB solution I’ve ever heard. No hint of the digital hash or swoosh I associate with USB. Beautifully black background. Effortless.
I now have one for home, one for work, and bought one for a friend. 3 for the price of 1 Lynx (which is arguably still better, but complete overkill for the slight benefit).
Faults? There are a few, yes. I had issues getting the driver to recognize I had the device plugged in and wasn’t having a wonderful time getting it installed. Luckily, the MHDT DACs use the same USB processors (CM6631A) and turning those on with USB got the drivers installed. I’m guessing it had to do with lingering drivers for the MHDT. People have also complained about getting it to work with iPads/iPods and other phones and tablets, though some seem to have it working fine.
Are you done rambling yet?
So, this wandering sojourn has led me to a promised land. My wallet suffered in the process, but I’ve sated my curiosity and found some incredible devices.
Here’s my subjective ranking of the various devices I’ve spent a fair amount of time with when used alone (adding more into the chain just confuses matters):
- Lynx E22 (or AES16e)
- Focusrite Rednet 3
- Schiit Eitr
- Mutec MC-3+ Smart Clock USB
- Singxer SU-1
- ESI Juli@ XTe
- Mutec MC-1.2
- CI Audio Transient MKII
- Singxer F-1
- Audio-GD DIU8
- Audio-GD DI-2014
- Gustard U12
There’s a gap in performance between #4 and #5. Below #4, I tend to experience some degree of digital hash or other imperfections. Below #7, I don’t know that it’s worth buying unless your DAC has particularly bad USB (or none at all).
Best S/PDIF Device
- Overall: Lynx E22/AES16e
- Truly neutral presentation without coloration. This is much easier to use than the Rednet that it trades blows with as the top contender I’ve used, but the Rednet is just too much of a hassle to recommend it to anyone.
- USB: Schiit Eitr
- Cures the digital hash/swoosh of USB and does the exactly one thing it does incredibly well. You’ll need a converter to go to AES if that’s your thing. It doesn’t do DSD or exotic sample rates (greater than 192kHz). But it does its one thing better than every USB converter (and this review is about S/PDIF), so it wins.
Best Bang-for-the-Buck S/PDIF Device
- Schiit Eitr
- Nothing comes close to the value of the Schiit Eitr. The other USB devices might as well not exist if all you’re after is S/PDIF conversion. You have to spend more than 4x the price to get something better (Lynx E22 at $700 + breakout cable + AES->S/PDIF cable).
What do you use then?
Here’s what I used for a good while before I had to do a pretty hefty gear shrink:
Lynx E22 → Sonic Frontiers SFD-1 MKII SE+ [6н23п-ев] → ampsandsound Mogwai aka “Gizmo” [6н9с МЭЛЗ металл.цок., 6п3с-Е] (Home)
Singxer SU-1 → MHDT Labs Atlantis [6н26п] → Garage1217 Project Sunrise III [6н6п] (Work)
Post gear shrink and back into more intelligent levels of spending on audio gear:
Schiit Eitr → MHDT labs Atlantis+ [6н26п] → Garage1217 Project Horizon III [6н6п] → Sennheiser HD650 (Home)
Schiit Eitr → MHDT labs Orchid [6н26п] → iFi micro-iCAN SE → Future Sonics Spectrum G10 (Work)