My latest electronic toy arrived last month and was immediately put to use in the theater. The unit is called a "hiFace" and it is made by an interesting Italian company named "M2Tech". The hiFace plugs in to a computer's USB port and provides digital audio output that you can feed to a digital-analog converter (DAC) or a receiver equipped with one. Rather than connecting the computer to the receiver with the usual two red and white cables, this allows me to connect the computer to the receiver using digital audio, much in the same way that a DVD player can be connected to a home theater receiver (one equipped to handle Dolby Digital and other surround-sound inputs). By using this device I can completely bypass the computer's sound card and output all digital audio directly to my receiver. This means the task of producing the sound is in the hands of the equipment that can do the best job.
Some modern computer sound cards have a digital output, but the sounds are first converted in to analog form by the sound card driver, then back in to digital by the card itself. The goal of the hiFace and the driver that comes with it is to produce the digital signal exactly as the program intended.
This device is the final step in my attempt to achieve bit-perfect playback from my music library. My CD collection has been saved on the PC in a lossless format called FLAC (see previous entry). When a FLAC file is played back it provides the exact same bits that were on the original CD. Now with the hiFace these bits can make it all the way to the receiver unaltered. It's a whole lot of effort to get the same thing I would get if I just connected a CD player (using a digital connection) directly to the receiver. Of course with everything on the PC I have instant access to my entire music collection.
Is the hiFace better than what I had before? Absolutely and without a doubt. Previously I was sending the stereo output of the computer's sound card directly in to the receiver. Even at moderate volumes, and especially at high volumes, I could hear a background hiss and buzz. With the hiFace providing digital all the way to the receiver there was no background noise at any volume. In fact one of the first selections I played through the hiFace was so loud that I feared I would blow one of my speakers out.
But the hiFace can do even more than that. It can handle audio recorded at a bitrate higher than that of a CD. Music on a CD is sampled at 44.1 kHz, but the hiFace works with audio all the way up to 192 kHz. Of course I had to experience this for myself. Audiophiles are always claiming that CDs have "inferior" sound quality and that music digitized at higher sampling rates sound so much better. So I purchased a 96 kHz FLAC recording of Beethoven's Symphony number 9 from the website hdtracks.com. This particular recording was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Claudio Abbado. Making this recording play at 96 kHz was an interesting exercise as it revealed a few settings that I had wrong on the PC. But once I got it working I was able to confirm via the front panel of my receiver that it was really playing a 96kHz source. So did it sound any better? Yes, a bit. Or maybe I just imagined it.