Barry: Hey John – how are you?
John: G’day Barry. I’m well. Long time no see – you still enjoying your new hifi setup?
B: I’m glad you asked: yes…and yet sometimes no. Have a seat.
J: [Sitting down]. Oh? What seems to be the problem?
B: It’s a tricky one. You’ll see that I bought a pair of the Usher S-520 that you recommended. And I also snagged a REDGUM Black Series RGi35 amplifier from their Indiegogo campaign (again, as you suggested). And yes, it sound terrific. It’s just…well, it just doesn’t hold my attention for too long.
J: The sound isn’t engaging?
B: No, not really. It’s sounds tad flat and one-dimensional. You know how murky weather can put a bit of a dampener on your mood – it’s like that. Nothing major, just a subtle shift in the wrong direction.
J: I see.
B: Here, have a listen.
J: Man, I really dig this new/old Johnny Cash album Out Among The Stars. It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft – a serious album that you can laugh at.
[10 minutes later]
J: OK. I see what you mean about the emotionally distant sound. I see you’ve got the Schiit Bifrost Uber. That’s possibly the best budget DAC on the market right now, so I doubt that’s the cause of your woes. I don’t see a computer or CD player. How are you feeding the Bifrost?
B: The Mrs doesn’t want anymore ‘boxes’ in the lounge room so I’ve been using an Apple Airport Express. It’s tucked out of sight, behind that row of IKEA Expedit shelves over there. I’m streaming Apple Lossless audio to it via Airplay from an iPad. It’s super convenient!
J: And how is the Airport Express connected to the rest of the system? Not headphone out straight into the REDGUM I hope?
B: No no no – I’m not that silly! I’m making use of the headphone socket’s digital output (using that adaptor you lent me a while back) so the Airport Express is connected via an optical cable to the Bifrost’s toslink input.
J: Gotcha. Thing is, the Airport Express’s digital output is high/er in jitter. And jitter often translates to a sound that’s a bit lifeless and tonally bleached – kinda like what you have here. It reflects my experience with the Airport Express (that you’re using), Apple TV and Logitech Squeezebox Duet. They’re super convenient streaming devices but not the best sounding digital transports around – something that didn’t really hit home until I switched up to a MacMini with a USB converter. Diagnosing a lack listener engagement in digital audio fronted systems can often be traced back to whatever is feeding the DAC and less often the DAC itself.
B: But I thought digital audio was perfect? After all, it’s just ones and zeroes.
J: Sort of. Not only must the ones and zeroes arrive at your DAC (which they do) but they must arrive at the right time. Arrival timing errors are called jitter and your Airport Express’ digital output is – I’m sorry to say – probably full of it.
If you want to know more, there’s a chap called nwavguy who’s written a thorough explanation of jitter, what causes it and what it sounds like. Have a look here. One thing’s for sure: jitter isn’t your friend.
J: Yup – I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but that little Airport Express might be super handy for you – and sufficiently small to maintain domestic harmony – but digital audio stream timing is not one of its strongest suits.
B: Bugger. OK. What can I do? Can’t I just use one of those USB converter thingos that you use with your MacMini? The Wyred4Sound µLINK that you told me about last year – won’t that sort the issue?
J: Sadly not. The µLINK is for USB outputs only. It does a solid job of removing some of the jitter from a computer’s USB port…but you’re using toslink. There’s no USB port on your Apple device. Well, there is but it’s not for digital audio.
B: Oh, ok. Fair enough.
J: But don’t stress, I think I have an idea. Wyred4Sound have just released something called the Remedy and I think it might be just what you need.
B: Remedy? Are you saying my system needs medicating?
J: Ha, kind of. The Remedy is packed into the same size aluminium shell as the µLINK, only it doesn’t re-clock USB, it re-clocks S/PDIF.
J: S/PDIF. There are two (switchable) inputs – coaxial and optical – and three outputs – optical, coaxial and BNC. Digital audiophiles love BNC terminations, especially if they’re 75 Ohm rated. And they are here.
B: Yeah, yeah, but what’s all that gotta do with my system?
J: The Remedy will take your Airport Express’ optical output, use its internal Femto clock to retime the ones and zeroes and then output a nice, clean digital audio stream that’s considerably lower in jitter. At least, that’s the theory. Let me read you what the Remedy’s designer EJ Sarmento said about it an email to me last week: “The magic comes from our set of pre-buffered samples that are then loaded in the FIFO for precise reclocking from the Femto grade clock. Each output is then independently buffered for optimum drive to your favorite component.”
B: Sounds super expensive?
J: Not really. Four hundred US dollars isn’t cheap but neither is it anywhere near the stupid money that some hifi gadgetry can cost you. Think of it this way: the Airport Express + W4S Remedy will cost you less than a MacMini but sounds just as good as the latter feeding the Bifrost’s Gen 2 USB (which is one of the few really good entry-level USB implementations out there that doesn’t require USB-/SPDIF converter intervention).
B: Oh, ok. I think I understand. So if we add the Remedy to my Airport Express it will sound as good as your MacMini?
J: Well, that’s been my experience at home. I’ve had the Wyred4Sound µLINK playing re-clocker to the MacMini’s USB and I don’t think it’s quite as smooth as the Remedy working its magic on an Apple TV. And with the Remedy being a palm-sized unit and its 9V PSU being a small and light switch mode type, it’s easy for me to keep it knocking around in my bag. Hook it up will you? Connect the Airport Express’ toslink output to the input on the Remedy and then use this Zu Audio coaxial cable to make the connection to the Bifrost.
B: Why don’t I just use another toslink cable?
J: Good question – and a bit of a controversial one at that. All other things being equal, many digital audiophiles don’t reckon that toslink is as good as coaxial. It might provide electrical isolation but because it uses super fast light pulses (I’m simplifying) to indicate a one or a zero, its rise times aren’t as good as the tiny voltages send along a coaxial cable. And if rise times are compromised you’re essentially letting jitter creep back into the picture. Robert Harley of the Absolute Sound opined on this very matter right here, look. You’ll note the ensuing discussion suggests that there might not be ANY difference between S/PDIF-coaxial and S/PDIF-optical.
Anyway, we’re getting off track. We’re not here to see which S/PDIF carrier method is technically superior, we’re here to see if the Wyred4Sound Remedy can improve the sound you’re getting from an Apple Airport Express. So let’s get on with it. The Remedy’s ‘W’ top-plate logo will glow blue once it’s locked to a signal.
B: OK. What do you wanna listen to?
J: How about we go with that Johnny Cash album again? And then perhaps some Lana Del Rey? And a bit of Bowie?
B: Easy – as long as we don’t have to listen to any of that Klingon Battle Music you seem to love so dearly.
J: You mean electronic music? Nah – I don’t have any with me. Besides, it’s your system and your house so you should play music you and I both like (and know).
B: Right you are. (Singing along) “It’s midnight at a liquor store in Texas…”
B: You know what, John? It definitely sounds better. More relaxed, as if some tension in music’s shoulders has been massaged away.
J: Careful now – you’re starting to sound like me! What you say is true though. It’s just easier to listen to isn’t it? THAT, my friend, is what lowering jitter does. It lends music reproduction more graceful ease. Diamond Dogs doesn’t sound as tense or as rigid in its joints, does it?
B: Errrrm…..yeah, I think I know what you mean. I sure wish you’d speak in terms I could understand though. I’m hearing slightly better, more present bass on the title track of Del Rey’s Ultraviolence.
J: Ah, yes: presence. That’s a good descriptor here. Music sounds more present. And do you notice how the soundstage doesn’t sound as pancake flat as it did previously? There’s more depth to it.
B: Do you hear these benefits from this ‘ere Remedy with the other DACs you have at your place?
J: Another good question! Well, yes but…the improvement is slightly less pronounced with the AURALiC Vega. With the PS Audio DirectStream it’s barely distinguishable. Just when I think it’s better I then start to doubt myself. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put money on being able to pick it blind.
B: So perhaps the Wyred4Sound Remedy is more appropriate for use with budget DACs where the internal jitter rejection isn’t quite as robust as it might be with some of those bigger hitters?
J: That’s one way of looking at it, yes.
B: Well, it really works for me – and that’s what matters right now.
B: So, could I use this with my TV?
J: Most certainly. Toslink is often the only digital output found on most modern TVs and I have little doubt that it’d bring an audible improvement. You wanna make Dr. Phil sound more real, do you?
B: Very funny Darko. But hearing what I do here has got me thinking about other devices that might benefit from the Remedy’s re-clocking smarts.
J: Playstation, Apple TV, XBox, Sonos, Squeezebox Classic, Squeezebox Duet. And is it just me or do more consumer devices feature a toslink output than they do coaxial? (Wait – that’s a rhetorical question). Talking of which, do you still spin CDs with that cheap-ass Laser Blu-ray player?
B: Sure do but, like I said, the Mrs wanted fewer gadgets on display in the lounge room…ohhhhhh, I see where you going with thi-
J: [Interrupting] That’s right, you can re-clock its coaxial output with the Remedy and turn that $80 spinner into something that’d compete with CD transports that cost two or three times the price!
B: I thought you despised that kind of clichéd reviewer talk?
J: I most certainly do. I’m just seeing if you’re still paying attention…but you catch my drift, right? By the way, if you do get a Macbook or MacMini down the line, you’re no longer forced to use USB for its digital audio output?
J: The headphone output on those Apple computers doubles as optical output (with an adaptor), just like your Airport Express. And you can bring it up to ‘audiophile’ muster with the Wyred4Sound Remedy.
B: I see. Actually, I was thinking of buying a MacBook Air.
J: Oh. Well, know that the MacBook Air DOES NOT have a dual output headhphone socket.
B: Ah crap.
J: I found that out the hard way, after I bought one. Here’s a clever trick though: if you use the µLINK and the Remedy in series, it’s possible to completely electrically isolate the Air from the DAC and re-clock the data twice.
B: Why would you wanna do that?
J: Because I can. The connection chain goes like this: MacBook Air → USB → µLINK → toslink → Remedy → coaxial → DAC. I know it’s extreme but I think it sounds a shade better than running the µLINK solo.
B: You’re such a nerd, Darko.
J: I’m just getting warmed up. Get this: the Astell&Kern AK120 II also has a dual function headphone socket. You can connect it to an offboard DAC via toslink, just as you would with your Airport Express.
B: Yes, but that’s a luxury digital audio player made by geniuses. There’s no way the Remedy would make any difference there….right?
J: That’s what I thought. And yet it does. The uptick in smoothness and all-round easefulness isn’t enormous but it’s definitely there.
B: Wow – so this Wyred4Sound bizzo can be used to improve the digital audio output of almost any device!?
J: Based on my testing, it would appear so – yes.
B: Mental. Hey – can I buy your review unit when you’re done?
J: The Remedy is a genuine game changer for almost every entry-level digital audiophile so DAR-KO award assignation is the only way to wrap this review . And the review unit? It’s all mine!
B: Wait – what? I’m in your review?
J: You sure are Barry; thanks mate. Until next time we meet…
Further information: Wyred4Sound