Deciding on a DAC and Sonos connection for an audiophile room


Userlevel 2
I mostly use Sonos for multi-room ambient sound. But I am trying to build a hi fi room that is connected to my Sonos. I would like to play lossless files stored on my computer (computer located in a room remote from the prospective hi fi room), managed by iTunes (perhaps with Amarra or another player add-on) and appreciate that a DAC would likely improve the signal that any ZP 90 (Connect) sends to my integrated amp. So, here's my question: With the Sonos system limited to 16/44 resolution, why bother with the newer and expensive high end DACs that have asynchronous 24/192 USB ports etc... Isn't the ZP 90 a limiting component in the chain from computer to amp? I was also wondering if it would make sense to run a CAT 6 ethernet cable from the router feeding the Bridge near my computer directly to the Connect rather than having the Connect pull in the digital bits "over the air" (or maybe this is where Sonos folks jump in and talk about sonos' "bit perfect" transmission so the real focus should be on the DACs ability to eliminate jitter and do its other "magic)?

152 replies

So, here's my question: With the Sonos system limited to 16/44 resolution, why bother with the newer and expensive high end DACs that have asynchronous 24/192 USB ports etc... Isn't the ZP 90 a limiting component in the chain from computer to amp? I was also wondering if it would make sense to run a CAT 6 ethernet cable from the router feeding the Bridge near my computer directly to the Connect rather than having the Connect pull in the digital bits "over the air" (or maybe this is where Sonos folks jump in and talk about sonos' "bit perfect" transmission so the real focus should be on the DACs ability to eliminate jitter and do its other "magic)?

No, the zp90 is not the limiting factor to the quality of the sound you will hear.
For hifi sound the limiting factors these days, not in any order of importance, tend to be:
1. Quality of the original performance and its mastering to the CD from which you have ripped the music in lossless.
2. Quality of your speakers
3. Speaker positioning and room acoustics.
Get the above right, and you are addressing 90% - maybe more - of the subject.

Hi res music is a gimmick. The only time it sounds better is when the mastering of the source material is done with greater care than for the regular CD. Which isn't to say that all regular CDs are poorly mastered.

Running a wire from the bridge to the Connect is not required for sound quality, but to eliminate interruptions if your house isn't Sonosnet/wifi friendly. I assume that the computer is wired to the router for streaming the music it contains. You might think of introducing a NAS that is so wired, allowing you to not have the computer on just for music replay.

If you are satisfied that the three items referred above are in good shape, then it is time to think of a DAC between the zp90 and the amp. To make any difference, it will have to be an expensive DAC, the Sonos DAC is itself quite decent. Before buying the DAC, I suggest you audition at home, level matching volume as best as you can before making a comparison. Louder always sounds better in quality, even if the db difference is marginal. It is quite easy to be fooled into thinking that the new DAC is delivering better sound, when all it may be doing is getting the amp to sound louder at the same volume setting.

Good luck!
Since you are familiar with Sonos, you know about the net as a music source - play some of the good streams in your hifi room and you will be surprised to see how good they sound. Linn radio at 320k is an example, and there are many others that stream at just 192k and sound as good as lossless CDs.

If they are streaming well mastered music, even though the stream isn't the technical equivalent of lossless CDs, let alone hi res, you will get very good sound from that source too, giving you a wide open window to lots of new music.
Userlevel 2
... So, here's my question: With the Sonos system limited to 16/44 resolution, why bother with the newer and expensive high end DACs that have asynchronous 24/192 USB ports etc... Isn't the ZP 90 a limiting component in the chain from computer to amp? I was also wondering if it would make sense to run a CAT 6 ethernet cable from the router feeding the Bridge near my computer directly to the Connect rather than having the Connect pull in the digital bits "over the air" ?

I think you will find that 16 bit is as good as any audiophile needs... take a look at this expensive high-end £11,500 DAC which is only 16 bit using the simplest of DAC chips... http://www.rightnote.co.uk/products.asp?cID=59 as a fine example of that.

I too was hesitant when comparing the Sonos with the SBT as an alternative streamer, because the SBT accommodates 24 bit - but don't worry about it.

The only other issue is the apparent superiority of a well implemented async. USB connection compared with S/PDIF DAC - you will only have the option to connect via S/PDIF using the Sonos which I am sure is still not a problem.

The only other issue is the apparent superiority of a well implemented async. USB connection compared with S/PDIF DAC - you will only have the option to connect via S/PDIF using the Sonos which I am sure is still not a problem.

Just for my continuing education on the subject: Isn't a USB connection required only when connecting the computer by wire to the DAC? If so, how would the OP do this across rooms anyway?
I think you will find that 16 bit is as good as any audiophile needs... take a look at this expensive high-end £11,500 DAC which is only 16 bit using the simplest of DAC chips...
In fact this article asserts that hires is not only unnecessary but could also be detrimental: http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html
Userlevel 2
I too am considering a DAC.
I understand all the part about speaker positioning etc - but my conundrum is as follows:

Although there is nothing wrong with the sound I get - it is not as good as through my 15 year old CD player.

If i did not have the CD player then I'm sure i would be happy with what I have - but having been used to the sound from that i want to try match it.

My CD collection has been ripped to FLAC so the src is the same.
The amp and speakers are the same - so that only leaves the DAC of the Sonos connect - (or am i missing something?)


I guess it's like a £279 CD player v a £500 one and the DAC included in them.

Although there is nothing wrong with the sound I get - it is not as good as through my 15 year old CD player.
My CD collection has been ripped to FLAC so the src is the same.
The amp and speakers are the same - so that only leaves the DAC of the Sonos connect - (or am i missing something?)
I guess it's like a £279 CD player v a £500 one and the DAC included in them.

No, you are not missing anything, and they should certainly sound the same. And given that price points are similar, all the more reason.

Is Sonos set to uncompressed streaming? I am not sure it always makes an audible difference, just part of the elimination process, this question.

PS: Given that nothing in your system is changing other than the Connect replacing the CDP, feeding the same input sockets of the amp, the only other reason I see for the CDP sounding better is that it must be delivering a higher voltage signal to the amp, leading to a little louder sound at the same volume setting of the amp, leading you to think it sounds better. And just a small db increase from the speakers is all it takes for this effect to kick in. It is very hard to make a A to B comparison, compensating for this reason, my suggestion is to recalibrate in your mind the volume control knob setting on the amp, and spend the money saved on the DAC on other more useful stuff:-)
Is Sonos set to uncompressed streaming?

The uncompressed setting only applies to Line-In. Network-sourced .flac's are delivered to the players in their natural state, where they're decoded back to the 16/44 bitstream.
The uncompressed setting only applies to Line-In. Network-sourced .flac's are delivered to the players in their natural state, where they're decoded back to the 16/44 bitstream.
I did not know this. Are you sure? I ask because one of the things Sonos support asked me to resolve some streaming issues from my bridge was to try using the compressed setting. The solution lay elsewhere finally, but this was one attempt. Although to be honest, maybe this referred to the setting on the Sonos Dock, I can't recollect now, after a year.
spend the money saved on the DAC on other more useful stuff:-)

With reference to the above, I recommend good wine. You will be surprised how much better music sounds after:) Or, get a play 3 or 5 to extend the music to more of your home.

Another thing to see is if your amp volume is set so high that you are playing the Connect with its volume set low, which can impact sound quality. Using the fixed output on the Connect is one answer, but then you lose the volume control on the Sonos controller. A via media is to set the amp volume such that it is at your normal listening levels with the Connect volume set close to 90%. This still leaves you with a plus minus 10% volume control via Sonos, without audible impact on the sound quality.
one of the things Sonos support asked me to resolve some streaming issues from my bridge was to try using the compressed setting.
It would have been the Dock. The compression setting only relates to Line-In and the Dock (which is kind of a smart Line-In).

For other music streams the client is the target Player (where all decode/processing occurs), with any intermediate Sonos units just acting as network bridges.
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To the OP, best bet is to TRY a good dac and let your ears decide.. I'm not going to get into a battle over SQ with others, it's pointless. I will say that way back when I first started with Sonos I also found my CD Player spanked the Sonos for SQ, I went the outboard Dac route and it was a very noticeable improvement. I will say that I think that to get a truly substantial improvement over the Sonos that Dac's like the Rega Dac, W4S, or similar should be considered..
Userlevel 2
Thanks everyone for the input.
It is true that even with the Sonos at 90% of the volume my amp is turned up considerably higher than I ever have done from the CD.

That said SQ is still not quite the same - however as the previous poster mentions to get a DAC that would make a significant difference would likely cost more than it's worth so I will probably invest in another sonos unit for the bedroom and some more wine as wisely suggested!:)
willmac,

There is very little correlation between the position of a volume control and goodness of sound. It is not so much the position of the controls, it is the absolute output level that creates distortion. If you are playing a very quiet section of music, 100% control rotation will not cause any distortion, but you may notice some noise. Similarly, a very loud section could create distortion after only a few percent rotation.

In the case of the SONOS units, 90% or even 100% on the CONNECT is not an issue. And, as you have noticed, the CONNECT output is lower than many CD players.

A good overall plan is to run the CONNECT output as high as practical and the follow-on amplifier low. You'll need to adjust both such that you have a reasonable control range with whichever remote you are using for routine volume adjustments.

It is true that even with the Sonos at 90% of the volume my amp is turned up considerably higher than I ever have done from the CD.

the CONNECT output is lower than many CD players.

I haven't noticed this in my set up, perhaps because my preferred sound levels are never very high.

But this points to a probable reason why even reasonably priced external DACs seem to improve things for many people - not so much for superior conversion, but by delivering more voltage into the amp than what the Connect does. I haven't found the Connect output volts specified anywhere in the specs, to allow for it to be compared to the specified input sensitivity range of a given amp.
Userlevel 2
From experience, I have used couple of v different DACs and also upgraded PSU for the first ie an Arcam RDac. Both made a good difference in my view. And ones was good entry level and the other reasonable high end so able to get an insight in how good SONOS is with external DAC ... And my ears think ... Very.
Userlevel 2
http://www.wyred4sound.com/webapps/p/74030/117839/539960

I have not bought one yet, I am running a ZP 80 in to the DAC of my Audiolab 8200CDQ

I also have a ZP 90, and to my great surprise the ZP 80 digital out sounds better hooked into my system than the ZP-90 !

I have also discovered when playing CD's plugging and unplugging the ZP 80 changes the sound of the CD playback !

I suspect that both the ZP 80 and 90 have a significant Radio Frequency signature which they are injecting back down the AC cable which other parts of the play back system are picking up

ZP-80 > Audiolab 8200CDQ > Hypex NCore 400 > B&W 805 D

ZP-90 > Cambridge DAC Magic > Arcam Solo > Canto Karat 720
I have also discovered when playing CD's plugging and unplugging the ZP 80 changes the sound of the CD playback !

I suspect that both the ZP 80 and 90 have a significant Radio Frequency signature which they are injecting back down the AC cable which other parts of the play back system are picking up

Could be. I am a former (recovering?) audiophile. I've had more conversations than I can count about the value of improved power supplies and power cords. Yes, power cords. It's all theoretical and mostly snake oil.

How many times have audiophiles been sold on the sonic differences of more expensive amplifiers. And yet, when you blind test people they are simply not able to tell the difference. A large percentage of the time these are placebo effects.

While your idea may have some merit, I would encourage you to have somebody else with good hearing (likely a woman) do some blind listening and see if they hear the same difference you do.


I suspect that both the ZP 80 and 90 have a significant Radio Frequency signature which they are injecting back down the AC cable which other parts of the play back system are picking up



Or, the ZP80 could be shunting the RF signature of another device.

You can investigate this by plugging things into a good power line filter that isolates sockets from each other.

While not a research grade method, another way to investigate power line noise is with a portable AM radio. Tune between stations at the high end of the band and listen to the background noise. As you approach a potential noise source, you'll hear it in the radio. Take care when deciding if the noise is emanating directly from the box, down the power cord conductive path, or radiating from the power cord.
Userlevel 2
I had what I would consider a fairly high end system of Naim CD, Naim pre and power amps and Proac Speakers, for me at the time it really was superb.

I then heard of SONOS and gave it a trial, very happy with the convenience not blown away by the quality, that is until I had it modded to 96Khz by these people

http://bit.ly/WNcRpq

You can either buy the SONOS direct or send yours to be modded, which is what I did.

Playing music through this new system blew my CD player out of the water, I couldn't believe the new results. I sold my CD player.

Obviously this is my view, but coupling this new pimped up SONOS with my new DAC

http://bit.ly/jKCuBC

and Naim amplification is a great great combo
Userlevel 1
http://www.wyred4sound.com/webapps/p/74030/117839/539960

I have not bought one yet, I am running a ZP 80 in to the DAC of my Audiolab 8200CDQ

I have also discovered when playing CD's plugging and unplugging the ZP 80 changes the sound of the CD playback !



I have a 8200CDQ set up in the same way you have (with a ZP90).

I can test the CD sound and see if I can hear any difference. I got my CDQ at the same time as my Sonos so never tried it without. 😉
Userlevel 1
TBH I still don't get the "A dac makes no difference" argument as CD players sound different from each other and that's all down to the DAC.

It could be argued that its different not better, but to say that there is no difference is to say that all CD players sound the same and that you may as well get the cheapest you can.

I can tell you that playing CDs through my xbox sounds very different than playing them through the CDQ. 😛
Userlevel 1
TBH I still don't get the "A dac makes no difference" argument as CD players sound different from each other and that's all down to the DAC.
Not entirely, the analogue output stage is important as well.
Userlevel 2
You guys will be telling me that the digital interconnects will make a difference to the sound next........
Userlevel 1
You guys will be telling me that the digital interconnects will make a difference to the sound next........

Why would we say that? Its a completely different argument.

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