Streaming & what not - Raspberry Pi 4 + DigiHat vs iPad vs Vinyl (Turntable)


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Jul 4, 2020
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This is a ramble about my journey into Hi-Fi to date... I posted this in the forum but would be interested to hear local guys's a looooong ramble!!!

I grew up listening to my dad's Sansui Hi-Fi which for its time had very good sound. The speakers had 12" woofers in a sealed box, so really good, tight bass with a warm full sound - maybe not as much detail and wide soundstage as systems today. In college, I then ventured into car sound so was still pretty much active in the music/audio scene. Fast Forward a few years and I made the mistake of marrying someone who hated all things music/audio/Hi-Fi - suffice to say, we are no longer (for various other reasons too) - so after a long hiatus (15yrs maybe), I decided to go back into the things that made me happy, one being putting together a good stereo system. I am not into home theatre, so this system is purely for stereo music.

I started last year without much experience but I guess you have to dive in, buy some stuff on reviews and auditioning and what you know at that time and then take it from there. I bought a pair of Monitor Audio Silver 500 and paired it with a Cambridge Audio CXA60 with a view to upgrade the amp at a later stage when I can afford it. I really liked the sound at that point, very detailed, wide sound stage but still wasn't too impressed with the bass - not that I listen to bass heavy tracks but general at low volumes (normal listening levels) - I want to feel the bass and not hear the putt putt putt of the speaker - I should not hear the speaker, I should hear the music. After a lot of reading and YouTubing, I came across Paul Mcgowan from PS Audio and decided to take some of his advice and bought a SVS SB 1000 subwoofer to complement the system and wow, it did exactly what I was looking for, hear the music and not the speaker - the second sub is on order so it will be a dual subwoofer setup using the high-level inputs of the subwoofer.

As source components, I was using my Dad's old Sansui turntable (FR-D35) into a Cambridge Audio Alva Solo phonostage into the CXA60 and an iPad Air 2 streaming Apple Music connected to the CXA60 using a lightning-to-minijack adapter with a cheapo mini-jack-to-minijack cable into the amp. I could hear a difference in sound between the 2 sources playing the same albums but it was not the case for all albums, some later albums sounded the same in digital and vinyl but Dire Straits as an example sounded a lot more open and spacious with more detail in vinyl compared to digital which sounded closed, smaller soundstage.

Vinyl is quite expensive and I'm not fanatical about the format of music - I enjoy both digital and analog for different moods and situations. Some days I want to put on a record, just sit back and listen with the occasional pop or crackle - but its a process, take out my records, clean whatever I want to listen to and start my listening session. Other days, I just want to shuffle a playlist. I also want to be able to listen to various kinds of music, new and old and then decide to buy the vinyl version - you cant really sample stuff in a vinyl only chain unless you have millions to spend.

I then decided to try and improve my digital chain - upgrade the iPad Air 2 streaming Apple Music. There were 2 objectives for this, one to improve the sound quality to get it closer to the vinyl openness and detail and secondly to enable remote control - the iPad Air was hardwired to the amp. After lots of research, I narrowed down the options, based on availability in South Africa and price, to BlueSound Node 2i (sells for R14400 - $850), Cambridge Audio CXN V2 (sells for R27000 - $1590) and then an RPi based streamer as the left field option. I was also offered a second-hand Cambridge Audio Azur 851N for R17 000 - $1000. Having a background in Electronic & Software Engineering, I decided to test out the RPi option as it was quite a bit cheaper (R3500 - $205) and it would be fun (being stuck in lockdown due to COVID-19).

I ordered the RPi 4B 8GB with 64GB miniSDXC, official HDMI, power supply and case. I then had to decide on the HAT. I decided to get something with S/PDIF out that I could use with the built-in DAC in my amp but it would also give me options for using an external DAC and/or upgraded amp later on. The options available in South Africa was quite limited - the Justboom DigitHAT was available locally for R1000 - $58 while other HAT only options like Allo DigiOne ($155 - R2635 excluding import duty and tax) & DigiOne Signature ($255 - R5015 excluding import duty and tax) would have to be imported. There are lots of opinions here too - measurements seems to indicate that minor differences between these options that shouldn't really make a sonic difference while other people can clearly hear differences. I decided to go with the JustBoom DigiHAT from a pure cost perspective as I was just testing this all out and wasn't sure about the software side of things too.

Once all the hardware arrived, I installed and configured picoreplayer with both squeezelite and LMS running on the same Pi. I have a TIDAL Hi-Fi subscription so streaming FLAC from TIDAL through LMS to Squeezelite. The software setup was fairly simple and everything worked pretty much out of the box without too much hickup. I didn't want to spend a fortune on Roon so am quite pleased with picoreplayer. I also bought the iPeng app for my phone and iPad. Apple Music in South Africa is R60 ($3.53) a month, TIDAL Hi-Fi is R120 ($7.06) so I am not willing to pay $9.99 for Roon - I don't have multi-room or any other requirements. I initially had the analog audio out from the Pi to the amp (while I waited for the HAT to arrive) and I must say the sound was harsh and tinny - gave me an ear-ache after a few seconds. But, hooray, HAT arrived yesterday so installed and connected to my CXA60 digital input using a Chord C-digital coaxial cable. All the HAT interfaces, Justboom, Hifiberry, Allo use the Wolfson (Cirrus Logic now) 8804 Transceiver to pull out the digital signal and my CXA60 has a Wolfson 8740 DAC so I though this should make a good pairing.

So what does it sound like... I setup my iPad Air 2, RPi and Turntable with the same album - Dire Straits and played Sultans of Swing - as before the turntable was more open and airy with both the iPad and RPi sounding similar - I couldn't really hear a difference between the digital solutions. I then switched off vinyl and did more comparisons between the digital solutions. There were slight differences between some recordings but for the most part, I couldn't really hear a difference, maybe slightly more detail with the RPi and TIDAL but that could be placebo effect too. I will do more listening and comparisons this weekend to see if I can hear or pick out any more differences.One thing that does stand out is that the system is quite transparent/revealing to source - if i play something old - Simon & Garfunkel - I can hear the quality of the recording coming through - some systems may smooth out older recordings - not sure if this is a good or bad thing!!!

Where to from here... I know that my amplifier is the weak link in my system - I am looking at upgrading to a Roksan K3 / Blak or Denon PMA-1600ne so would like to do that upgrade first to get rid of the slightly bright, thin sound from the CXA60 to a slightly warmer, fuller, rich sound. After that upgrade, I will revisit the streaming/DAC options. I'm thinking about the Allo Signature, 2nd-hand Node 2i or CXN for now. I should maybe borrow one of those units to demo it at home. I'm hestitant to spend money and not hear a significant difference.

I'm really interested to hear other people's insight and journeys and maybe recommendations of things to try out or audition.

Shew....that was a lot!!