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15-9-2019

Pink Faun i2S Bridge
Review (2019)


For those who have never heard of the "Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge" before;
Here is the link of my earlier 2015 review:
Link: http://modelpromo.nl/PinkFaun_I2S_Bridge.htm


This article is about the question:

What is the best way to connect my DAC to my self-built audio PC?

 

To get an answer to this question you must first know how your DAC is
can be connected, and which way sounds best in your ears.
DACs can usually be connected to an audio PC in 3 different ways:



S/PDIF (coax/optical digital)

S/PDIF is an already outdated way to transport digital audio files.
The maximum PCM resolution S/PDIF can transport is 32bit / 192 kHz.
Therefore it's not suitable for the newer and larger DSD, DXD audio files.
This connection still can be found on many older, but also newer DACs.

Although S/PDIF is dated; this does not alter the fact that S/PDIF can't sound very good!
There are very good sounding S/PDIF DACs for sale, such as the
"Tentlabs b-DAC mkII" that sounds much better than many other USB DACs.


USB

Most DACs that are currently available have an USB connection to which the DAC can be connected.
This can be: a streaming device, amplifier, or DIY audio PC.
USB is popular because it is cheap, versatile and can also transport the newer and large DSD, DXD and PCM audio files.
But the disadvantage is that
most USB DACs do not sound really musical.
Often the music sounds a bit unreal, too dynamic, tiresome or not organic.

This is because USB DAC chips (eg: ESS) are not only very cheap, but also very integrated
This is especially easy for the manufacturer, he doesn't have to do anything else but place the chip in a housing, and the product is ready.
As a result, the margin (profit for the manufacturer) is high, but the quality for the consumer is low.
It is therefore better to invest in a DAC with a better (more expensive) DAC chip such as "Burr Brown" or a good ladder DAC (R2R) such as the open source community DAC called: "DSС2 v2"

Example: In my Audio-gd Master 7 DAC there are no less than 8 (!)
Burr Brown DAC chips of the type: PCM1704UK
These now cost around $ 70 each.
My DAC already has a cost of $ 560 in DAC chips alone ...
Quality costs money, but never pay too much for a DAC.
An expensive DAC containing an ESS chip is a waste of money! you can do better on Aliexpress
buy an ESS DAC for around 200 euros, and that probably sounds even better :-)

 

But the cheap and low quality DAC chip is not the only reason USB DAC's sound not so good
It's also because of the fact that USB was never designed for transporting High Definition audio.
There is no official standard for transporting High Resolution audio over USB.

In order to get this done, the manufacturers themselves have developed their own protocols and other ways to ensure that High Resolution audio files still can be transported over USB.
So every manufacturer has his own "technique" or "trick" to do this...

The problem is to transport digital audio over USB a lot of conversions steps have to bre made


Also a special interface chip has to be used to converted the music data over USB like the "Amanero" or "XMOS" module.
In addition, the data must be converted into a protocol developed by the manufacturer itself.
Again because USB does not have this functionality of its own.
So with all these conversions
it's understandable that things can go wrong...


That does not mean that there are
not also good sounding USB DAC's available
but they are rare.

I have good experiences with the "Amanero Cobo384 module"
This module is used by many manufacturers and has very good specs.





As you can see in the above diagram:
USB was never been designed for transporting high-resolution audio, there is not even special master clock
signal!

In summary:

Some USB DACs sound very good, others significantly less, and others just sound very bad.
How it ultimately sounds all depends on many factors, the quality of the implementation of all aspects of the DAC by the manafacturer are important.
(power supply, digital part, analog part, used DAC chip, master clock, etc)



I2S

 

i2S = a serial link especially designed for digital audio

The serial bus has only to handle audio data, while the other signals, such
as sub-coding and control, are transferred separately.
To minimize the number of pins required and to keep wiring simple, a 3-line serial
bus is used consisting of a line for two time-multiplexed data
channels, a word select line and a clock line.

- serial data (SD)
- word select (WS)
- continuous serial clock (SCK)

Therefore I2S can be implemented in many different ways:
Over multiple BNC, RCA connectors or even over a single HDMI cable:

“ I˛S” HDMI pinout
(Audio-gd)

 

Note:
While the I2S is a official protocol especially designed for digital audio, there is no official way to connect two digital devices together.
Therefore every audio manufacturer has his own specific "I2S" implementation.
Above is the “I2S” implementation of “I2S” over HDMI of the brand "Audio-gd"


Pink Faun also has choosen for HDMI to transport I2S signals

 
It is important to know that I2S was designed for "PCM only" at that time.
DAC
's with an "I2S connection" can therefore usually only handle PCM audio files of max 32bit / 192 kHz.

But some manufacturers are making now DACs that can also play DSD audio files over I2S.
They go way beyond the original specs booklet.
I don't know if this is wise, I have no experience with streaming
native DSD and DXD over I2S
.
That doesn't mean that if you have a I2S DAC that you cannot stream or listen to DSD or DXD audio files.


ROON or JRiver for example can convert all your DSD and DXD audiofiles in realtime to the highest bitrate your PCM I2S DAC can handle.
So there is absolutelly no reason to not buy a very good sounding I2S PCM only DAC for the reason that you also want to listen to DSD or DXD.

My Audio-gd Master 7 DAC also can only handle 32bit 192 kHz as maximum, and all my DSD and DXD music
is converted by ROON (or JRiver)

and I am very satisfied with the sound quality.

Regarding the length of the I2S HDMI cable
:
As long as the length of the HDMI cable between audio PC and DAC is no longer than one meter, everything goes well.
But it can be said that an "I2S" DAC is still a bit of a "niche".
There are only a handful of DAC manufacturers that deliver their product with this connection.
The list of manufacturers is getting bigger and bigger.
They are usually the better and also more expensive brands.

I2S is seen by many as the best way to transport PCM audio files from the Audio PC (or streamer) to the DAC.
This is because I2S protocol is specially designed for this task,
and is also very good at this.
For example, the "clock" signal is transported over a separate line which is less "Jitter"
has as a consequence.
And with I2S there are fewer conversion moments than with "audio over USB", which means that the signal paths are shorter.
Shorter and simpler sounds better in practice.




Ethernet (RJ45) – I2S DAC

There is also a fourth way to connect a DAC, namely directly via the Ethernet network (RJ45)
For this you need a special DAC (often called "endpoint" or "bridge")
This DAC has an
Gigabyte Ethernet connection (RJ45) and the DAC sets the audio data internally
immediately into I2S, so that the signal can be processed internally.
So there is no USB involved.

Please note:
This is not quite the same as a DAC with an "I2S - RJ45" connection.
Because for these types of DACs you still have a special "I2S - RJ45 Bridge card" and an audio PC to convert the audio signal to I2S over Ethernet (RJ45)
What I'm talking about now is a "special" DAC (or endpoint) that is directly connected to the Ethernet network.

You don't need an audio PC again for these I2S DACs!
No USB cables, and no special “I2S Bridge PCI-E card.

You can easily connect these “Ethernet I2S DACs” to the existing network in any room where you want to hear music.
The "HiFi Berry DAC + XLR" is a good example of an "I2S DAC" directly on
the network can be connected. It is actually an Audio PC + Bridge + DAC in one!



Which connection should I choose now?

Owning an Audio-Gd Master 7 DAC (8 X Bur Brown 1704 UK) that can handle a maximum of 32bit / 192 kHz,
and in addition to an "Amanero Combo 384 - USB" also has an "I2S - HDMI" and an "S / PDIF" input.
allows me to make a good comparison of which connection sounds best on my DAC.

It is important to realize that the result of this review is therefore DAC specific.
So it may well be that with a type X DAC of brand X the "I2s" input sounds the best,
and that with another DAC brand Y a different type of input sounds better.
We must therefore be careful not to generalize the conclusions too much.
So far background information on different ways in which you can connect DAC with your home-made audio PC.
Technically you can state:
With USB you can go in all directions, and this connection can also transport all audio files. (PCM, DSD, and DXD)

If you mainly have "PCM Only" audio files (and also a "PCM Only" DAC)
the S / PDIF connection is a good option that is definitely worth trying.
On the internet you can buy a so-called: “S / PDIF Out Braket” for less than 10 euros,
that you can easily place in your self-built audio PC.
(check your motherboard manual first to see if you have this connection)
With this "S / PDIF Out Braket" your DIY audio PC will get a real "S / PDIF" coaxial digital output.


Afbeelding van een “SPDIF Optical and RCA Out Plate Cable Bracket” te koop op Aliexpress
voor onder de 10 euro

https://www.aliexpress.com/item/32810954369.html


i2S

I2S: a serial link especially designed for digital audio.

The serial bus has only to handle audio data, while the other signals, such
as sub-coding and control, are transferred separately.
To minimize the number of pins required and to keep wiring simple, a 3-line serial
bus is used consisting of a line for two time-multiplexed data
channels, a word select line and a clock line.

- serial data (SD)
- word select (WS)
- continuous serial clock (SCK)

 


 

If you have a DAC that has an "I2S" input connection, then you can choose to use
"Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge" PCI-E plug-in card in your DIY audio PC.
I wrote a review about this card in 2015, and I was very pleased with this product.
After the review I had to give the card back to the supplier with pain in my heart, because it sounded fantastic!
I was about to purchase one myself, but then the opportunity came
to upgrade my DAC with an "Amanero Combo384" USB-I2S module.
I opted then for the Amanero solution, because I didn't need a special I2S Bridge card anymore, and I just could use a standard USB cable.
The Amanero Combo384 card had some benefits over the Pink Faun I2S Bridge card ecause it could also transport DSD and DXD audio files.
That's something the Pink Faun card I2S cannot do.

After having enjoyed listening to High resolution music via the Amanero Combo384 card for many years,
I did miss the typical analogue and nice and relaxed analogue sound of the Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge.

Recently I went back to the manufacturer's website, and I discovered that the Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge has had some big revisions in the meantime.
I found out that the card has been improved on many points.
Reason enough for me to review the Pink Faun I2S Bridge again!



Innovations:

The Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge has been given a modular design where
the manufacturer maintains a database of all manufacturers that make an I2S DAC
Pink Faun therefore knows exactly what the relevant I2S HDMI pin layout is
of every DAC.
When ordering the Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge you must first select your I2S DAC
after which Pink Faun ensures the correct configuration.
This way you are assured that the card will work perfectly with your DAC


Another important innovation is the ability to easily upgrade the standard TCXO clock.
For audio streaming with I2S, the I2S card in the audio PC determines the tempo
That is why it is important that the "clock" on the I2S card is very precise.
The standard clock gives excellent results according to Pink Faun
But if you want to experiment with other (more precise, better) TCXO clocks
then this was now possible.
Pink Faun has created a very simple upgrade system with its HEA bridge system for upgrading the TCXO clock.
The clock upgrade consists of a separate board that is very easy to install on the HEA bridge (without soldering or programming)
This clock upgrade can also take place at a later stage, for which no technical knowledge is required.
The clock upgrade is easy to install and the HEA bridge automatically switches to the improved clock.


I chose this review to first review the standard version, because I first want to know what that sounds like.




Installing the card

After ordering the Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge, the card was received in an anti-static bag in a sturdy box.
Without any manual or drivers.
What I'm already used to as an IT professional when, for example, I order a PCI-E card.
But when inquiring with the supplier this turned out to be normal, the card would not need any drivers by default.
I did receive a download location from the supplier via email where I could download an optional "driver", with which you can stream using "kernel streaming"
In the first instance I will not do this for a while, I will first go to the Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge
configure by default and listen how this will sound.
But no installation manual ... or any other info ...

The card apparently still needs to be fed extra with the Molex connector to your power supply
or even better to an external linear power supply



After reading the “installation manual” it appears that the Molex power supply connection is also used for the operation of the card.
The card can be powered in two ways:
1) via the power supply of the PC (via the Molex connection),
2) or via an external linear power supply through the 5.5 / 2.5mm center positive DC jack connection on the rear side.


There is no technical specs mentioned of the card in the "installation manual" which is a shame.
Because I don't know how much power (Ampere) the card needs to function properly, this would be nice to know if I wanted to feed the card via a battery.


Because I will first test the card as standard, I use the "Molex" connection.


Conclusion


For those who like to build audio PCs themselves, and are looking for the best way
to connect their PCM DAC to their audio PC, this Pink Faun I2S Audio Bridge is a very good solution.
The music sounds compared to a USB connection a lot
more defined, more relaxed, more details,
just more "analogue".


In my earlier review from 2015 of the Pink Faun I2S Bridge
I was already very excited about the product, now the newer version sounded even better

The only drawback I encountered was the lack of a good manual for the installation of this product.
After e-mailing several times, I finally received a PDF, but unfortunately the wrong product ...
the HEA Bridge ... the chaotic and poor support can really be better, I think.

But still I liked this product so much that I decided to give "Pink Faun I2S Bridge" the seal of recommodation:
"Audio Dandy Approved"

Because if you are serious about high quality audio streaming, I think that there is no other way
to do it better.
T
his product is not only unique it's also improves the joy to listening to music so much that it must be considered the only right way how your dac should be connected to your audio streamer pc.





Well done Pink Faun!

Audio Dandy - Maarten van Druten  ©2019


         






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