The two means of getting streaming audio to your DAC is via a direct cable tethered to your computer or a network solution.
With a direct cable you’re always in close distance to your computer, with a network solution your player and computer can be miles apart if you want. While this is a fairly significant diference between the two approaches there’s more going on here than may meet the eye. The most obvious differences between a USB connected DAC and a network connected DAC, the connection method, pale compared to a bigger difference: where and how the music is played.
In a USB connected DAC the player is in the program you are using on the computer you’ve connected to. In a network connected DAC the player is in the DAC itself. Why does this difference matter? It matters because when we convert the digital audio bits into music, the player that makes this conversion controls much of the sound quality we hear and care about.
Remember yesterday we covered drivers and how a USB DAC connects to your computer through them? Today we’re going to touch on exactly what is being connected by the driver to your DAC.
To help you get a clear picture it’ll first be necessary to increase your understanding of what is actually taking place when you play a track on your computer. Let’s imagine for a moment that we are using iTunes as our music manager and player and connected to our computer is our USB DAC. With me so far? Ok, when you press play after selecting a track, what happens? Here is the path.
Your music is stored on your hard drive and each track memorized on the hard drive has a location on that hard drive. Think of this like a road map with all the streets and houses having an address you can punch into your car’s GPS unit. I want to go to 2324 Smith st. in Allentown PA. so I enter that address information into the GPS and it spits out a set of directions I can drive to. Your music on the hard drive is really no different. Each track has a number that represents the sector it is located on with a drill down map (think of this like the state, the city, the street and the house number). When you press play you are really connecting the player in iTunes to this specific memory address and the information located at that address starts to stream to the player where it is played. Simple, eh? Well……
What if the music living at the address you specified has been compressed and reformatted? What if the music at your address has a higher sample rate and bit depth than your USB connected DAC can handle? What actually is this player doing to allow you to hear this music?
Tomorrow let’s follow this path and see.