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Topping DAC vs Audio Interface - Latency? Balanced outs?

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Apr 23, 2020
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#1
Hi,
I have always bought soundcards or USB interfaces to use with music production. I currently have a budget Lexicon Alpha from about 2011 which I would like to upgrade as I think some newer DACs or USB Audio interfaces might sound better for listening back to music. I have been listening to a bit of 80s rock like Guns n Roses which has a lot going on and I think the DAC on the Lexicon can't quite seperate all the threads of the music. I'm looking at making a headphone amp to go with whatever I buy. The Lexicon has ok converters (was considered good when it came out) but the headphone out is not great.

So I was reading the reviews of the Topping DACs and the D30 sounds like a good bet. Or possibly the Fiio D5 as it has a headphone amp.

The alternatives to the Topping or Fiio would be something like a MOTU M2, SSL 2 or some other low-ish price USB recording interface. Possibly an older MOTU firewire device. I would love an RME inerface but they are about 2 to 3x the price of these options.

There are 2 concerns though,
1. Would a "Hi-Fi" DAC like the Topping D30 have low enough latency to use it for soft synths played from a MIDI keyboard? (sub 10ms would be ideal)
2. Would having un-balanced RCA outputs be an issue if I want to connect up powered monitor speakers at a later date?
3. Would having a DAC with no volume control fed through a pre-amp (Cyrus 5) degrade the signal quality vs Audio interface with a built in volume knob?
4. Does a Hi-Fi dedicated DAC sound better?

(My plan is to have the DAC feeding into a Cyrus 5 Hi-Fi amp for the moment which would power my hi-fi speakers, but I may want to add a pair of near field monitors to the setup at some point, because of where the Hi-Fi speakers are placed. I am thinking that a simple Unbalanced to Balanced DIY PCB board connected close to the Pre-Amp out of the Cyrus amp might work well? Do the DACS that have balanced out just have a balanced driver board inside or is the whole signal path balanced? I have not worked that out.. Would it even matter as long as the monitors have short-ish RCA leads, like less than 2m?

Its really hard to find comparisons between the Hifi DACs and the Recording interfaces, it seems there are 2 or 3 sub-sets of people on different forums who are interested in specific qualities of the units but dont know much about the hardware available outside of their interest area. For example its quite hard to find what DAC chips are inside some units.

Price in the UK for these items are about:

Topping D30 £75
Fiio D5 £150
SSL 2 £165
MOTU M2 £165
MOTU Ultralite MK3 (used) £160
 

PaulD

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#2
Hi dunkuk, I work with a lot of pro audio...

1 - Probably ok, it most likely depends on your platform and the drivers... test it if possible.
2 - Yes, unbalanced outs may be an issue, depends on cable lengths etc and what the monitors expect (it makes my head explode that the DJ community standardised on unbalanced RCA connectors!)
3 - Probably not significantly
4 - Absolutely not.

If I was you I'd put a Focusrite Scarlet interface on your list.

Several years ago a hifi buddy tried my MOTU interface, said it sounded as good as hit multi thousand dollar Meitner DAC...

Hope that helps!
 

M00ndancer

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#3
I dabble with lots of different types of interfaces/hardware synths. PCI-E based, USB based and toslink based on the digital side and lots of different analogue outs to deal with. Trying to get Voice Meter Banana with VBAN Lan based streaming working together with Waveform 11 PRO and all the stuff above. Then getting things to work with my Yamaha MODX6 synth and software synths. It's a challenge if your on a shoestring budget.

1. Extremely dependent on drivers like ASIO for the interface. My cheap DAC / AMP (swissonic HAD-1) doesn't work as it should. So unless the manufacturer clearly states that it has ASIO, you either have a good return policy or the option to try before you buy.
2. Yes, I have issues with the crappy wiring in my house. So the only option to get my Fluid Audio F5 to stop humming is to use balanced cables.
3. Could, but depends on the volume control.
4. NO!
 
OP
D
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Thread Starter #4
PaulD,
Thats excellent, thanks, yes the Focurite is very popular here in the UK, its like the industry standard for bedroom producers. I think I couldnt go too wrong buying one of those.

Sounds like my pre-amp isnt an issue and a Hi-Fi dac may not sound any better, I would ideally like to retain some line input channels to record my hardware synths so an audio interface would be nice and flexible.

Moondancer
I completey forgot to mention I am on a Mac so ASIO would not apply here.
The Lexicon Alpha I have actually works well to record at 44.1khz and 24bit, I get good quality recordings. I spent a while reading all the Sound on Sound reviews and it was said to sound as good as some of the better mid-range interfaces that were around at the time. I do wonder if the interfaces have actually improved or not over the years, I used to have an EMU internal soundcard and I now see they are well regarded for sound quality and seem to sell for more than I sold mine for! I think you are right about getting things to work, a non stable/non working high quality soundcard is useless compared to a stable standard quality one.
The volume on the Cyrus is digital so I think it might well be fine, its has a rotary encoder for the volume knob.
Seems you too agree with PaulD and think a recording interface will not sound any worse. This is good news :)

I could well try out a Focurite, compare it to my Lexicon and I can always sell it again if it turns out its no better.

I wonder if the Mk3 is better than the Mk1 and Mk2? A friend used to have a studio built around the old blue firewire Focusrite interfaces and the band recordings sounded pretty good. I'm sure bands on a limited budget would have killed for these things back in the 70s.
 
OP
D
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Thread Starter #5
Just to add I've been looking at the MOTU 828 Mk2 and it seems to be a high quality unit, and goes for about £150 used. The only issue is that its firewire but I think I can use a pci firewire card so that might be ok.
 

JohnYang1997

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#6
That depends on do you really want inputs or not.
New ones like e30, d90 etc can run on extremely low latency no issues. If you need inputs new focusrite, motu, audient are probably the best options.
 
OP
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Thread Starter #7
Yes now I have thought about it having inputs would be quite handy as I can do things like digitise my LP records.

I've been looking at this thread on Gearlslutz where people are using a standardised test on various interfaces and one of Audients ( ID22 ) comes up quite near the top of the list, also the MOTU 828 Mk2 does very well. I wonder if the Audient ID14 uses the same converters as if it does that would be a good option as it's USB and costs about £170. I will do a bit of research and see if I can find out some more info. The new budget MOTUs are getting some bad reviews to do with reliability and I'm not sure they are up to the standard of the larger MOTU interfaces.

https://www.gearslutz.com/board/showpost.php?p=14630377&postcount=1922

https://www.gak.co.uk/en/audient-id14-usb-audio-interface/116779
 
Last edited:

VeerK

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#8
I’ve done some preliminary tests with a high speed camera and I think the D90 is really excellent compared to pro devices like the MOTU and RME stuff, but Topping needs more options in their drivers. I know they’re just using Thesycon drivers, but it’d be nice to see device aggregation, clock choices, etc just some features that the DAC already supports but needs driver support for. Otherwise, I love how well rounded the D90 is
 
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