Remember Computer Audio? When I was hired as Editor of the then nascent AudioStream in 2011, Computer Audio was all the rage. If you wanted to play with all of the newfangled higher PCM resolutions and DSD, USB was your only option. The thing was, USB had issues.
Let’s take a quick step back in time to say that in computer audio’s early days, the majority of adherents used a computer (desktop or laptop from here on out) as source (thus the name), connecting to an external DAC via USB. If you wanted to play high(er)-resolution PCM music files (above 24bit/96kHz) and DSD, USB Audio Class 2 was the only way to go. One big hitch in USB Audio Class 2’s giddyup from a user-friendly perspective was the fact that Windows did not support it (Apple did). If you wanted to play in the big high-res leagues and you didn’t use a MAC, installation of a USB Audio Class 2 driver was mandatory before you hit “Play.” Demographically speaking, this was not friendly.
There were additional issues for computer audio that fall under this same heading of mind-numbing, music-enjoyment-killing complexity. In brief, Apple / iTunes did not support FLAC files which was the most common format when buying CD-quality or better downloads, Windows didn’t support Apple’s file formats, and WAV files were notorious for their lack of a standardized method of metadata support. This meant that if you decided to move your music library out of iTunes, for example, your WAV files’ metadata may not move with your files. I can still recall the feeling of exasperation when seeing missing album cover art when it was just there! Drats!
Then there was UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), a networking protocol that was meant to allow disparate devices to easily communicate with one another which was never really universal or plug and play when it came to playing back disparate file format types like DSD, and the primitive, file-tree navigation offered by UPnP-based music playback software (I just had a shiver travel down my spine). And don’t get me started about Gapless playback which was touted as a feature — as if inserting a gap of time between songs that isn’t in the recording was somehow the norm…
Of course those weren’t computer audio’s only issues, and many of those issues are still with us (unless you use Roon but that’s another story. Or is it?) [footnote 1]. It turns out that USB, like Ethernet, is a noisy communication channel [footnote 2]. This led to the advent of add-on devices like reclockers, jitter reducers like the AudioQuest JitterBug, and more. While some hardcore data guys were never able to get beyond bits are bits, ignoring the fact that USB Audio is part of a mixed signal system (digital to analog converter) where electrical noise is a no-no, most people with experience in computer audio readily heard the improvements offered by reducing noise in a computer audio environment.
Fast forward to today and we find that most people don’t buy music downloads and those who want to stream beyond Spotify Connect to their headphones no longer use a computer in the audio chain. Major consumer audio brands including Marantz, Denon, and Yamaha offer streaming HiFi components that make traditional computer audio, i.e. the need for a computer, obsolete. Not to mention Sonos, the elephant in the billion dollar revenue room.
Back in the high-end where people still buy downloads because its what we do, demographically speaking, it turns out computers are also noise generators and even relatively inexpensive purpose-built devices, let’s call them streamers, can outperform a standard computer in computer audio [footnote 3]. One could argue that a streamer is a computer but that’s like arguing bread is pasta.
If we take a quick survey of today’s purpose-built streamers, one thing you will not find common to all is USB output. These USB-less streamers include the dCS Network Bridge, Primare NP5 Prisma, Metrum Acoustics Ambre, Bluesound Node 2i, Audiolab 6000N Play, Cambridge Audio CXN (V2), Moon Neo MiND, and others. If we focus on higher-end DACs, we also see the inclusion of AES/EBU, I2S, and Ethernet inputs as preferred connectivity options. The big question being – why no USB? Is USB output too hard to get right? Is USB input too hard to get right? Is USB audio simply not worth the time, cost, and trouble?
I was a very happy owner of the dCS Network Bridge which, when first announced, was said to offer USB Audio output at some point in the future via a firmware update but those plans never materialized. My best guess is, and it is just a guess, dCS was more interested in offering dCS DAC owners a dCS-quality network solution, one that connected to their DACs via AES, than they were in catering to the USB DAC market by and large. In other words, not worth the time, cost, and trouble (but I’m still guessing).
Of course there are still plenty of USB-equipped streamers and DACs out there but when I peer into my crystal ball, which connects to my thoughts via forward error-correcting WiFi, I see a future where the streamer is in the device. [footnote 4] Network in, analog or music out. Done.
If we also take into account WiFi-based options like Apple’s Airplay, Bluetooth, and Google’s Chromecast Built-in which supports PCM resolutions up to 24bit/96kHz, coupled with the general trend to make (audio) life less complicated by offering cross-manufacturer software control (e.g. or maybe even i.e. Roon) — from a phone, tablet, or computer — of streaming DACs, streaming receivers, streaming integrated amplifiers, streaming active speakers, and any combination thereof, USB Audio appears to be on the brink of niche-within-a-niche extinction.
1. A potential topic for another article, How Roon Is Helping to Make USB Audio Obsolete
2. Exhibit A – the Ethernet protocol includes error detection and correction because noise contamination creates errors in data transmission.
3. “The biggest problem with computer audio is the computer.” – Charles Hanson of Ayre Acoustics
4. That future is now so I didn’t really need my crystal ball. The following streaming devices are currently in Barn: Ayre EX-8 Integrated Hub, Hegel H95 Integrated Amplifier, Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC, totaldac d1-tube DAC/Streamer, Bluesound Node 2i, and the NAD C 338 Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier