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Dematerialization - Best Practices

A few of you, particularly if you entered in the high end world more than 20 years ago when the vinyl was King, may be confused by this word "dematerialization". It just means that the music is not longer stored on a physical support such as the vinyl, a CD or a cassette, but within a file or on a logical support.
As it took us many years to acquire the expertise to differenciate the good and the crapy things in the CD players/DACs/preamps/amps world, it took us many years before considering that the dematerialized music world can offer serious alternatives.
The reason is that we were systematically disapointed by any dematerialized system we lessoned to...But recently we were obliged to recognize that the situation has imporved and we can know get very good or very decent systems (for the less costly alternatives) from a musical viewpoint.
So we propose you to share our last discovering and experiments in this dematerialized music world.

II-.A surprising info for the most of us....

We have found that the musicality delivered by the 2 following systems is at least equal to 90% of the current high end systems...
By high end systems we mean a dCS Puccini (for the separates) or an EMMLABS CDSA SE (for the integrated category) or a combo costing around 20,000€...
This surprising information clearly shows one thing: the improvement achieved by the dematerialized configurations over the past decade is: simply huge !; and you know that ThresholdLovers always lesson to any system we talk about (do not believe that all the reviewers do the same...).

The major difference still comes from the investment made in terms of $: there is no miracle in this domain, except that the "vintage approach" can offer you more quality for less money as usual.
But the quality/price ratio of a few "serious" dematerialized systems remains unexpected for most of us, probably because most the dematerialized systems are compliant with the Financial Director specifications and not compliant with our ears requirements...You wll obviously notice that this phenomenon is exactly the same that fired the very respected high end brands in the mid 80s, when the costs killers started to design the schematics instead of the chief engineers...
We do have an unlimited list of famous brands that have turned to mass production or to bankrupt after having abandonned their core business (true high end audio) to pursue shareolders goals...

Well, back to our experiment sharing.

III-.A bit of technical considerations.

Over the past years, the core technlogies used in the dematerialized music world have largely evolved:
  • USB:
This serial interface has largely evolved from its crappy/unachieved/very slow version 1.0, to the current stable/extremely fast/very user friendly version 3.0, via its good/very popular version 2.0.
The USB interface is therefore available on every computer and supported by all the operating systems.
  • Firewire (IEEE 1394):
It has been a reference for the high speed transmission flows (particularly in its Firewire 800 version) but it is mainly found on professional devices (as well as the Apple computers) than on the mass products. It actually suffers from the USB 3.0 competition which should win the battle in the very near future.
It is nevertheless a truely excellent interface.
  • Jack (small or big size):
It is available on every systems and is a must have to begin.
  • Source:
This point has always been a dilemna and it is still one. Do we need a PC or a Mac ?
It is a personnal choice: the PC is more complex whereas the Mac is simpler and more stable, but more expensive.
Take care that we need Jack and USB outputs, at least.
The Linux systems fully support all these interface, but the limiting factor comes from the proprietary drivers delivered by the manufactures, which are often available only for Windows and Mac.
  • Software:
There is a tremendous quantity of various audio formats out there...I personnally prefer the FLAC format.
Regarding the Audio CD 16bits-44.1kHz ripping tools (we have to mention here that you should care about copyright issues....) we strongly recommand EAC (Exact Audio  Copy) which is able to deliver an exact bit to bit copy.
On Linux systems, you can run EAC by installing the WINE software (which allows you to run most of the windows programs in a Linux environment), or use one of the very good native Linux programs such as AUDEX for example.
For the audio players software, we advise to NOT use iTunes because we have found the sound
to be crappy...maybe the look has been prioritized over the musical quality ? We recommand to use AUDIRVANA, available in a very good and freeware version, as it provides a significant quality improvement over the iTunes musical results...

Here is a screenshot of the software in a Mac environment:

IV-.A sophisticated configuration.

The configuration that we show you herebelow is the first one that has shown us a true and very high level of quality. It is a of course more expensive than the simpler ones, but reaches a level of sonic performance.
  • Source: PC or Mac with a ripping software (average price: 1,400$)
  • Drive: Server Logitech Transporter (average price: 1,000$)
This server is an excellent audio server: nothing in common with the new Logitech Squeeze Touch that has moved to the mass products with a poor sonic quality... So you will have to look towards the second hand market.

Here is the front face of the Logitech:


  • Server/storage: a NAS with at least 1Tb of storage and using an Ethernet connection (average price: 700$)
Here is a common example of a NAS:
  • Preamplifier: your personnal choice
  • Amplifier: your personnal choice
  • Loudspeakers: your personnal choice

So, as a summary, our source costs a average of 3,100$, that is approximately the price of a very good integrated CD player such as the EAR Acute, for which we do not resist to the pleasure of a photo:

We also recommend you to place the NAS far from the source to avoid any undesirable noises (fan for example).
What about the result ?
The sound is fully bodied, beautiful and the dynamics and speed are present. The silence is perfect. Access is easy (in the Logitech menus)

We will conclude by adding an evident but important remark: the best your preamp/amp/loudspeakers are, the best the final result is...

V-.A simpler configuration.

This is a different approach, but it can nevertheless provide a lot of pleasure.
The solution uses a headphones, but you can also reurn to a loudspeakers solution very easily.

  • Source and drive: Mac with a ripping software (average price is around 1,400$)+AUDIRVANA (freeware version)

WARINING: You MUST configure the software in order to force it to exclusively use the RAM during the reading, and NOT the hard disk. This option is of course available in the presets.

We are not fan of a PC in this domain, because based on our tests, a PC with FOOBAR is sonically less performant...

Here is the frontplate:

and the back:
  • Preamplifier: your personnal choice
  • Amplifier: your personnal choice
  • Loudspeakers: your personnal choice, or the GRADO SR-125i (average price: $160).

This GRADO SR-125i headphones is a bargain ! I have also listen to the higher models, such as the 325is for example), and they do not perform as well as this SR-125i...The only problem may be that is tiring if you keep it on the head for a too long time.

I recommend you to change the original cushion for the dedicated and more sophisticated spare cushions: L-cushion (average price: $40).

You will also need the Grado Female to mini-jack adaptor in order to connect your headphones to the NuForce:

VI-.A recommanation of the highest importance.

WARNING: you must use a high quality USB cable !

Yes you might be surprised by reading this, as a USB cable carries only digital data, but it is exactly as classic P/DIF digital cable: the audio domain is very sensitive to the quality of a digital cable...

To date, after having tested various USB cable, we recommend the WIREWORLD STARLIGHT (average price $120):

And last but not least, we recommend you to use a high quality modulation cable. In this configuration, we have preferred the JENA LABS Symphony (approx. $1,000). This brand is almost unknown in Europe and particularly in France where it seems that there is no importer, but their cable are hand made and have given excellent results.

As a summary, this configuration costs around $2,900, that is more or less the price of a good integrated CD player such as a Naim for example.

The result is truely excellent: the sound is bodied and beautiful, the dynamics are present. Of course you do not feel the same sensation with an headphoe than with loudspeakers, but the result is astonishing.


In order to reach a high end level of quality, we have to invest no less than $3,000: this is already an amount, but the result we get at this price is astonishing. The less expensive configurations we have tried did not provide us with an equivalent level of quality, or let say that we have not considered that they matched the quality we are looking for at Threshold Lovers.

Nevertheless, the things evolve and if you find antoher configuration in the same price range that could compete ith this one, let us know.

This article has been written by Florent(provence13 on our Forum).

Creation date : 06/11/2011 @ 10:22
Last update : 12/01/2016 @ 19:55
Category : Dematerialization
Page read 931 times

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