How Do I Get High-Res Audio?

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Q I would like to get my feet wet with high-res audio, but don’t want to make a huge hardware investment. I’ve found some 192/24 tracks I’d like to buy from What would be the next step after I download these in ALAC format to my MacBook Air? Can I play them via my Mac’s optical output to the optical input on my preamp-processor (Emotiva UMC-1)? Can I stream them to said pre-pro via Apple TV or Airplay? Since the UMC-1 doesn’t have a USB input, do I need to buy a Dragonfly DAC or something like that? How about a USB headphone amp?  I obviously want a hardware setup that preserves the highest resolution. —Steve Burbidge / Minneapolis, MN

A It’s easy to get up and running with high-res audio. And yes, it can be done with a minimal hardware investment.

The Macbook Air’s headphone output is analog-only, so if that’s the computer you’re using then you won’t be able to make an optical digital connection to your pre-pro. (The Macbook Pro, on the other hand, does support optical digital output, with sample rates up to 192 kHz on late 2013/Retina models.) Instead, you’ll have to tap your Macbook’s Air’s USB port to connect to a USB digital-to-analog converter (DAC). More on those in a bit.

Going the Airplay/Apple TV route isn’t an option for high-res audio since the Apple TV box outputs audio signals at 48 kHz/16-bit resolution. You can find other devices that support wireless high-res playback such as the Bluesound PowerNode, but those options will cost plenty more than the $99 Apple charges for its Apple TV.

Your best choice here will be to find a USB DAC to connect the Macbook Air’s USB output to your pre-pro’s analog stereo input. While the Audioquest Dragonfly you mention works fine and costs just $149, it only handles files with up to 96/24 resolution. For 192/24 playback, you’ll need to step up to a higher-end DAC like the Meridian Explorer ($299) or Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS ($190). Portable DACs like these have a headphone output as well, so you’ll also get the option to listen via headphones.

Gordon Brockhouse's picture

Steve should also look into playback software. By default, Mac OS X outputs digital audio at CD resolution. So if Steve is playing a high-res file through an outboard DAC, the OS will downconvert it to 44.16/16, which defeats the purpose of playing high-res files. Using the Audio Setup Utility in OS X, you can change sample rate and bit depth, but then it stays at that setting. Playback software (there are many changes) will play everything at the native sample rate. The cheapest option I know of is Bit Perfect, which costs $10 from Apple's iTunes store. Other options include Audirvana Plus, JRiver Media Center and Pure Music.

Al Griffin's picture
Gordon: Thanks for adding that info. I have used Audirvana Plus and Pure Music on my Mac to play high-res and both work seamlessly with iTunes.
vinht23's picture

Should give Vox player a try. It's free and has a plugin that let's you use the playback keys on you MacBook Air keyboard. My current setup is audioquest dragonfly with Vox player.

stodgers's picture

You can also look at consolidating devices. If you're in the market for a blu-ray player, the OPPO handles streaming HD audio files (though admittedly, I'm not sure the Mac formats work). I have my PC running into a router into the OPPO and get great results.