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Should I be using digital outs?

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Zak Ray
Should I be using digital outs?
on Sep 7, 2010 at 3:52:07 am

I've been told that the 1/8" out on Macs is not as good as using a USB/FW interface, or the SPDIF/TOSLINK (I forget which is which) digital out. Is this indeed the case? And if so, how do I maintain that quality down the chain? If I buy a DAC to get signal into my analog mixer, will that defeat the purpose?

I don't have golden ears by any stretch, so if the difference is negligible, I'll be glad to stick with what I've got.


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Richard Crowley
Re: Should I be using digital outs?
on Sep 7, 2010 at 1:44:35 pm

There are two different questions there:
1) Is a digital output from your Mac (actually ANY computer) higher quality than the default audio output? The answer is YES in virtually all cases.

2) Is the difference in quality worth the cost/effort/time for my application? That is a different question that depends on the particular application.

Note that it is easy to find inexpensive USB "dongles" with analog outputs and inputs (like Behringer UCA202). The default analog audio inputs/outputs in most computers is lousy enough that even these inexpensive USB devices are an improvement. Frequently in terms of signal to noise ratio. Because the interior of a computer is full of digital "noise" and poses a hostile environment to delicate analog audio.

But then you also have to ask what exactly you are doing? For example, if you are playing background music in a noisy location, the difference between the default audio output on ANY computer (or even an iPod, etc.) and a high-quality digital interface makes no discernible difference.

But if you are recording tracks for an important, high-quality production, certainly the default analog audio input/output in a typical computer is less than ideal.


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Zak Ray
Re: Should I be using digital outs?
on Sep 7, 2010 at 2:05:02 pm

Thanks, Richard. I'm in a small home studio (editing video, but of course I want good sound if I can get it).

The Behringer you mentioned (and most other devices I can find) output to RCA. Is there anything that outputs higher quality, i.e. 1/4" or something? Or should I not be concerned with that at such short distances? I'll be feeding the output to a small mixer, then RCA to a receiver, which goes to my speakers.


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Richard Crowley
Re: Should I be using digital outs?
on Sep 8, 2010 at 1:50:06 am

1/4 inch and XLR connectors do NOT make "quality". There are examples of exactly the same internal circuit in a product sold for 100s of $$$ more as "professional grade" simply by virtue of having XLR connectors.

Are RCA connectors appropriate for serious professional use? You would probably be surprised at how many critical signal paths use RCAs buried down inside the racks. For something set-and-forget at home like monitor speakers, I wouldn't have a problem using RCA connectors. But there are certainly snobs who would turn up their noses at it (but who also couldn't actually HEAR any difference.)

Frankly, the speakers and the room acoustics will make 1000% more difference than any premium gold-plated connector of ANY kind. Don't sweat the small stuff. Connectors are small stuff.


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Zak Ray
Re: Should I be using digital outs?
on Sep 8, 2010 at 3:11:44 am

Believe me, I don't take stock in "gold plated" connectors, etc., I just generally prefer XLR if it's not much more expensive. They're just more durable connectors.

Thanks again for your help!


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Sam Mallery
Re: Should I be using digital outs?
on Sep 8, 2010 at 2:50:04 pm

Zak - The lowest I would go for an interface is the Steinberg CI1. It's $99 and has balanced 1/4" TRS outputs. It also has 2 XLR inputs with phantom power. Then you can record nice sounding voice overs.

My only question to you is if your rig sounds good to you now, are you really investing in the right gear? If it sounds decent, it seems like you would be better off saving up and buying more accurate studio monitor speakers. Sending your audio out from the mixing board and into a consumer stereo receiver may be your weakest link.

http://www.sam-mallery.com


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Zak Ray
Re: Should I be using digital outs?
on Sep 8, 2010 at 9:04:12 pm

Hi Sam,

The receiver I'm using is an old Yamaha R-30 (http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=160420470321) with Denon speakers. The Denons seem to be decent, not sure about the receiver, but despite being old it seems to do a decent job.


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