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Raspberry Pi i2s DAC: why this sounds so good

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There’s one thing better than a Raspberry PI, and this is an Raspberry Pi i2s DAC!

 

INTRODUCTION: WHY RASPBERRY PI I2S DAC IS THE RIGHT CHOICE

I may be aware there could be also other stuff worth of our joy, but this time I’ll concentrate only on that magic word, which audiophiles should have heard somewhere, sometime… So, what are we talking about?

I2S is a communication protocol specifically designed to carry digital audio data. To quote from Wikipedia

I2S, also known as Inter-IC SoundIntegrated Interchip Sound, or IIS, is an electrical serial bus interface standard used for connecting digital audio devices together. It is used to communicate PCM audio data between integrated circuits in an electronic device. The I2S bus separates clock and serial data signals, resulting in a lower jitter than is typical of communications systems that recover the clock from the data stream.

To better explain, i2s is used in all your fancy CD players, connecting the reading mechanism to the DAC and\or the S\PDIF output. Most important, i2s is used also on every standalone DAC you may encounter. If it’s USB, i2s is the pathway from the USB receiver to the very DAC chip, if it’s S\PDIF the same as above. Starting to smell why we are talking about this?
As straight as we could be: I2S is the protocol of choice when talking about digital audio signal transmission. I could also add that using USB as connection, in the Audio domain, is way far from being an ideal situation. And even if it was, an I2S direct connection has one great advantage: the signal path is shorter. See those examples:

Scenario 1: My little Raspberry Pi (powered by Volumio, of course) is hooked up to a zillion dollar USB DAC, which feds my interstellar amplifier. 

My precious one and zeroes are facing this path:

Raspberry Pi -> USB Bus -> USB Cable -> Zillion Dollar USB receiver -> I2S -> Zillion Dollar DAC -> Interstellar Amplifier

Quite a long way, isn’t it? Add to it all the intrinsic issues affecting connection interfaces, and you got quite a good idea of what is happening here.

 

Scenario 2: My little Raspberry Pi (you know what comes here…) has a tiny DAC hooked on it, via I2S connection, feeding my full-of-common-sense amplifier

The flow of my zeroes and ones?

Raspberry Pi -> I2S -> DAC -> Full-of-common-sense-amplifier

I’m sure now you feel the truth deep in your heart, and the force is with you. But there’s more to come, to sum up and make it shorter, these are the main advantages of having a raspberry pi i2s DAC setup:

  • Ideal signal path: shorter signal path and interfaces (USB, S/PDIF) avoided
  • We’re not using the troublesome USB bus of the Raspberry PI, consider pop and clicks a thing from the past
  • Cheap yet good sounding setup: 80 bucks for a staggering price/quality combo

 

THE OPTIONS

Now that you’re enlighted about raspberry pi i2s DAC wonders, let’s see the options we have:

RPI-DAC : THE DIYER CHOICE

RPIDac Raspberry Pi i2s DAC: why this sounds so good

This is an exquisite work of Audio Engineering. Let’s make it clear, this is a no-compromise solution, even if we are in the DIY domain. What Torsten Jaekel  created is a double layered addon raspberry pi i2s board, which has pretty amazing specs (quoting) :

  • 24bit DAC, Opamp I/V Conversion, Stereo Headphone Amplifier
  • State-of-the-art components on small footprint PCB
  • Single DAC solution with I2S Interface, On-Board Low Noise LDOs
  • Best in class parameters [1]:
    SNR:   > 120dB
    THD+N:   < 0.0006%
    Low Noise:   < 5µV/sqrt(Hz)
    PSRR:   < -82dB
  • No additional Power Supply, just AC transformer required
  • no heat sink needed (PCB used)
  • external filtering possible (connecting a FPGA)
  • Dual DAC (Dual-Mono) available (even higher SNR)
  • Upsampling, Dynamic Range Expansion … in planning (with FPGA)
  • cap-free transmission path

 

Hook it to the PI and you’ll have a fine-tuned Heaphone oriented Digital Music Source. The boards consists of a Audiophile grade PSU paired with PCM1794A DAC. You can also have a dual mono version, which will raise SNR of 3db. What I really like about it? It’s designed with only one goal in mind: Audio Quality. I really wish to congrats with Torsten for what he achieved, and for the fact he published everything you need to build this at home. The culprit of raspberry pi i2s RPI-DAC is the price: it is quite an expensive solution, ranging from 120 to 255 USD. But as you know, quality has its price.

 

HIFIBERRY: THE BANG FOR BUCK KILLER

HifiberryPI2s Raspberry Pi i2s DAC: why this sounds so good

Here we have the most successful Audio accessory for our little PI: I want to applaude crazyaudio for creating such a simple, good sounding and straight to the point device. What makes the HIFIBERRY special is its price\quality ratio. With 30 euros you have a device which will skyrocket your Raspberry PI’s audio attitude. This means that for a mere 80 euros (50 for the PI in full working order + 30 for raspberry pi i2s Hifiberry) you can have a really good sounding Digital Audio Music Player. What I really like? It’s simplicity: few components, DC taken from Raspberry’s 5v rail. Simplicity is the ultimate sophisticacy, we may say. Culprits? You may want to isolate the 5v rail from the PI’s and use a dedicated PSU, this will raise the bar even more, but you need to mess around a little with the PCB. I would have liked to have that option already prepared, with a switch and a connector.

 

RASPYPLAY3: THE VERSATILE CHOICE

RaspyI2SKompletSmall Raspberry Pi i2s DAC: why this sounds so good

You know, Raspberry PI can be hooked up to a wide variety of Accessories. I really do like to have a little Display attached to it, to show current title playback (coming soon on Volumio!) and so on. This clever raspberry pi i2s DAC has it capabilities, since it offers a GPIO connector, to easily hook a display on it. Not to mention that this little board offers the same advantages of raspberry pi i2s connected DACS. RaspyPlay3 is developed by a serbian community of DIY and audio lovers, just browse their website to find out they really interesting articles (use google translate and be prepared for some lost in translations…). This raspberry pi i2s dac can be customized with your preferred Capacitors, meaning you can really tailor it to your personal tastes. Plus, you can find all the documentation you need to find out how to build this raspberry i2s cad on your own. Thanks Nebojsa!

Some specs:

  • SNR: 112dB
  • Dynamic Range: 112dB
  • THD+N @ – 1dB FS: –93dB
  • Full Scale Output: 2.1VRMS (GND center)
  • LCD + keyboard connector on board

 

ESS SABRE 9023 + MCLOCK GENERATOR : THE THIRD WAY

RaspberryPISABRE9023 Raspberry Pi i2s DAC: why this sounds so goodRaspberryPIMasterClockGenerator Raspberry Pi i2s DAC: why this sounds so good

 

 

 

As most of us believe, ESS SABRE 9023 is one of the most interesting pieces of silicon around. I always wanted one hooked directly into my little PI. As raspberry pi i2s dac solution however, there is one technical issue preventing us to do that: Raspberry PI cannot deliver a Master Clock, which this DAC needs. So, let’s give it one! What you need is just get a ESS 9023 I2S DAC:

 

And pair it with a Master Clock Generator:

Then, feed both with DC voltage (you can use the same rail if you wish, the range is from 7 to 20 Volts DC). This should be a very effective solution, more pricey and complicated from the ones above, but you’ll be rewared with premium sound quality. And if you really want to get to higher levels, and also higher pricetags, you can choose to hook other fancy semiconductors:

 

CONCLUSIONS

Now you should have a comprehensive idea of why raspberry pi i2s dac is the way to follow if you want to achieve pretty good sonics performances, while  slightly emptying your pockets. I am really reccomending to use this solution if you want a really valuable Audiophile Music Player withouth spending too much, furthermore Volumio + PI + raspberry pi i2s DAC is a solution you can tailor to your very own needs. And as Volumio development will progress, you’ll have also more functionalities available.

 

VOLUMIOI2S Raspberry Pi i2s DAC: why this sounds so goodThe last step is enable raspberry pi i2s DAC support from Volumio’s WEBUI, just go to settings -> I2S DAC -> I2S ON . Then reboot your PI, and enjoy the subtle joy of your one and zeroes flowing via i2s.

 

I’m going to publish soon a complete overview of every raspberry pi i2s DAC mentioned in this article, and hopefully show some measurements of their performances. So, stay tuned and support these amazing engineers, that not only are bringing exciting stuff to us, but they are also sharing their hard work!

 

You can also discuss about raspberry pi i2s DACS on Volumio’s Forum

Enjoy!

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Michelangelo Guarise

Passionate. Heretical. Deeply in love with Technology and Music. I live in Florence, Italy. I'm getting graduated in Psychology and I work as freelance Web and Technology consultant. My audio gear is some strange mix of valve and digital amplifiers, all self built in some cold winter sleepless nights. And I just can't turn that volume knob down.
  • bjarnevip

    Hi Mikelangeloz
    Do you have a new version of Volumio that support I2S?
    At the download place I only see version 1.1 !
    thanks in advance
    Bjarne

  • Vincetronic

    The third way- how do you know which clock freq to pick?

    • Marco ter Bekke

      For the ES9023 and -18, this rule applies:
      Minimum clock frequency is sample rate times 192, so if you want to play a maximum sample frequency of 96KHz you need a minimum clock of 19MHz or so. If you want a really good clock, you could choose one like this, which is about €20 at Digikey or Mouser:
      http://www.crystek.com/home/oscillator/clockdetail.aspx?pn=CCHD-957
      Btw: you don’t need an exact multiple of the sample frequency with a Sabre DAC, you can also choose 27MHz, 35 or whatever.

  • AndrewS

    There’s also the http://www.element14.com/community/community/raspberry-pi/raspberry-pi-accessories/wolfson_pi

    (I haven’t tried *any* I2S cards on my Pi, just informing you of another option I’ve seen!)

  • ny_tid

    Ouch! I would like to build “The Third Way” so bad my brain hurts! I am no audio engineer and I guess I will need a lot of guidance. I found your site after reading about making a Squeezebox compatible device (Logitech Media Server) and googling for a good DAC for Raspberry Pi. I am curious to try piCorePlayer & RaspyFi / Volumio: http://www.head-fi.org/t/681593

    I don’t have all the equipment.
    What do I need to build it? Solder iron? If so what kind? Voltmeter?
    How do I know if a power supply is good, test it with an oscilloscope? Do you have any advice for power supplies for this project?

    I want to put it all in an enclosure. Is there a quality difference in RCA connectors? If so where do I find good and cheap ones? Any disadvantages for having the PSU inside the enclosure? Or would it be better with an USB connector on the outside of the enclosure forwarding to Raspberry Pi board?
    http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_nkw=%28Case%2C+enclosure%2C+enclosures%2C+Cabinet%2C+Enclosure%29&_sacat=122649

    What about WiFi support?

    I also would like to find a company in Europe for angled USB cables. Like this one i US http://www.angledcables.com

    And thanks for all the information!

  • r_pl

    i am trying to connnect tlv320aic23 chip to raspberry… the problem i m getting is swapping in both channel data…so can any1 help me out….

  • Marco ter Bekke

    Please get your facts straight guys. This is not going to work with a WM8741, it specifically states in the datasheet: “The master clock should be : “synchronised with LRCLK, although the WM8741 is tolerant of phase differences or jitter on this
    clock”.
    This means: you can`t just add some masterclock from anywhere, or any pcb or whatever, that you like. It would help if Udoo, Raspberry etc had Masterclock inputs, but they sadly use pll`s and division circuitry etc to derive BCK and WCK from some onboard clock somewhere.
    The ES9018 & 9023 are different animals though, should work flawlessly, espescially if the masterclock is at least 192 times the input samplerate. Goodluck.

    • ny_tid

      Thanks!
      Do you know any (cheap) single-board computer with proper Masterclock inputs?

      • Marco ter Bekke

        I wouldn’t know of any that do, but I also don’t know all boards. It would be surprising if one would support it though.
        The whole I2S-story here is, in my opinion, a bit incomplete.
        I2S is indeed the only protocol dac-chips use, the only exception is DSD, but that’s besides the point. The thing with i2s is though, that the exact sample rate has to be given to the dac, as well as timing problems (read:jitter) have to be of outstanding quality, to make a dac sound well, as well as measure well. What makes the Rpi, or maybe any board for that matter, flawed for serious audiophiles, is the used master clocks (or clock to be precise). It is not exactly 44K1 KHz, and the music sounds slower than it should. This is also a software issue, which uses a 19.2MHz clock to generate 44K1. That’s hard to do. I haven’t measured it, but there was a distinct difference between the direct i2s-out and an Amanero Usb->i2s board to connect to an ES9018. Those are just some things that are just as important to the perceived sound quality as leaving a few steps out in the interfacing..
        My 2 cents.

        • ny_tid

          Thanks once again. You seem to know what you are talking about. You might already have made some similar builds.

          Question, would:
          Rpi > Amanero USB I2S > ES9018 (DAC-24192-ULN)
          output better audio than
          Rpi > HPRC-331 audio clock > ES9018 (DAC-24192-ULN)
          ?

          Or am I misunderstanding something here …

          • Marco ter Bekke

            ny_tid, you’re understanding perfectly!
            I am not a big fan of the Rpi, because of the undocumented resolution that can be played without hickups and clicks, which also seem to change wether using Usb or i2s. I would definitely recommend using an Amanero, or similar, in between, but hesitation kicks in advising this as Usb-problems with Rpi come to mind. A real , usable, advice would be to use an Udoo or Cubic I, combined with an Amanero. It rocks!
            Looking at the current versions, the Cubic would be best, as it already has version 1.2 of Volumio.
            I wish the guys developing this awesome product would give a little bit more insight about the status of developing on the various boards.

          • ny_tid

            Ok, we are getting somewhere. Thanks!
            I might join the Volumio forum. But for now I will continue here ;)

            As the options increases, so does the confusion of what to choose.

            So you claim that even the clever workaround that doesn’t use the unreliable USB on Rpi, but the onboard I2S will still be unpredictable?

            How reliable is the CuBox-i’s USB, I2S and S/PDIF outputs? What would be the best path to a quality DAC from CuBox-i?
            Is it’s USB reliable, or should the trick with going via extra an audio clock to I2S be applied again?

            I see these basic scenarios for good audio in the context we are talking about:
            1.
            CuBox-i > Amanero USB I2S > ES9018 (DAC-24192-ULN)
            2.
            CuBox-i > HPRC-331 audio clock > ES9018 (DAC-24192-ULN)
            3.
            CuBox-i > off the shelf comerical DAC, but which interface, USB or S/PDIF?
            4.
            CuBox-i > HiFi amplifier with inbuilt DAC

            I am also in the need of an amplifier. And I love small form factor. TEAC are renowned for their good quality at a reasonable price and well sounding. And I noticed that their network amplifier NP-H750 has got an inbuilt USB DAC (BurrBrown PCM1795). But it might not be compatible with Linux. S/PDIF might be safer.
            http://www.teac.com/product/np-h750/

            But of course, if the CuBox-i’s audio system works well, then a “dumb” amplifier with no modern network features will work just fine.

            CuBox-i Hardware Wiki
            http://imx.solid-run.com/wiki/index.php?title=CuBox-i_Hardware

          • Marco ter Bekke

            ny_tid, I claim the Rpi to be unreliable in any case: where are the thorough test results of playing high-res files without hickups? At which resolution? It is being said it plays better now, but i see nobody claiming any steady results, let alone playing DSD or doing any upsampling. As a testplatform and as a study object the Rpi has been a real breakthrough, exemplary even, but I am afraid that it will stay at that level, the platform is just not powerfull enough to go beyond or be really flexible in other resolutions than cd, or a little above. Another thing is that, despite clever workarounds being made for Rpi, other boards are just usable out of the box, for almost the same price.
            Anyway, it`s really good for experimenting and there is a big community.

            I bought a Udoo Quad, with the idea that it could replace the Atmel controller to control the ES9018 ,and at the same time have Volumio on it. One board, 2 functions. turns out, it`s rather hard to develop code on the Udoo. It is really slow uploading code to it, has problems connecting, lacks an Eeprom and some other things, which all of a sudden doesn`t make it such an ideal piece of pcb anymore. But it does really well with Volumio. There are still some things that don`t work well on it, restarting MPD Deamon always hangs the darn thing and upsampling doesn`t want to be put in medium or higher quality settings, just to name a few. But it does play all the way to 384 KHz, 32 bits, plays DSD64, DSD128 and upsamples (again: low quality settings) every pcm format all the way up to 384 KHz. So what do I think of the Rpi in comparison? Gues..

            The Cubox I is based on the same Freescale soc, so I take it the results will be the same as with the Udoo board, but I haven`t tested it, maybe someone here can verify? It also has a much newer version of Volumio, so it might also be stable restarting MPD Deamon and support higher quality upsampling. All things being said and if you want to spare waiting for other people`s testing or verification I would suggest buying a Udoo Quad and an Amanero board. Let`s hope the guys from Volumio here are ready soon with a new version for it as well. The Sabre ES9018 will rock, especially with a good onboard clock ( e.g. a Crystek 100 MHz, well known in the DIY-community). Don`t forget to look for a very good power supply for the 9018, or tweak it yourself and set the kernel setting for Volumio to Orion. It makes all the difference!

          • ny_tid

            Good input again Marco

            I fully respect the Rpi, but it’s been designed to be the cheapest usable board possible. So if you are demanding high quality, then Udoo or Cubox looks more fitting for this task.

            As you didn’t really reply to my questions. I rephrase it. How would you (in more detail) build your (dream) digital HiFi player/DAC? Which ES9018 card, which interface etc?

            What PSU do you recommend for this project?

            I am leaning more towards Cubox ;), but as you write it might suffer from the same problems as Udoo does. Or maybe not with the new version of Volumio. Who knows.

          • Marco ter Bekke

            Sorry for the delay, but in short: build everything yourself. There are no already made/buyable on ebay solutions that do everything right. Layout, choice of components etc must all be cherry picked to get the most out of every piece of audio equipment. Regarding interface formats: use i2s if pcm is your source, use dsd if that`s what you`re playing, but don`t convert one to the other just to make a sound. Use parts with certain flavours to do that. Best yet: choose the most neutral ones. Cerafine, Allen Bradley, linear power supplies, etc are all a great choice of basic parts. Just listen. Anyway: listening, comparing and verifying is key. Regarding digital: I
            `m suspecting low EMC emissions and/or low power devices for whatever reason make the best source. Volumio is excellent for this, but sound character,flow of music etc is also depending heavily on it`s power supply, as well as its software settings. Cheers!

    • guussie

      Marko, I just saw your remarks but too late: I already got the WM8741 board and indeed I am having important distortion problems, especially using Volumio (1.4). When i use Wheezy with the software mixer, the distortion is significantly less if I bring down the volume to 70% but still the sound is not very good.

      I am using a rather simple USB to I2S board from DIYINHK and this board works well with other I2S DACs. In your view, is there a way to make the WM8741 work with the RPi?

      • Marco ter Bekke

        Hi guussie,

        If you”re having problems with normal audio files (no high-res etc.), and it’s is not a known bug of Volumio (I don’t follow these issues), and you use the Usb output with an Rpi or similar, then in your case I suspect there’s something wrong with your interconnects. E.g. does the distorted sound change when you fiddle with the wires that go from the DIYINHK to the WM8741?

        How long are those wires? All power supplieswithin range/stable etc?

        If there are no known bugs with the new software, I guess it should just work fine, regardless of the nice price of DYINHK..;)

        • guussie

          Hi Marko,

          I was indeed having some problems with my interconnects before but I eliminated those. The cable length is about 10cm (I am using a standard flat cable). Power supply is OK. I have tried with batteries and this does not change anything.

          I have the same problem whether I use mpd or mplayer. But strangely, the distortion is much more significant when I use Volumio.

          If the problem is indeed related to a characteristic of the WM8741 and the USB–>I2S board does not address this issue, then there may not be a solution.

          The manufacturer of the board is also looking into this and is very helpful.

          • Marco ter Bekke

            Weird. This may be very hard to fix, without being able to use hands etc.
            The flat cable has ground wires isolating the mclk from the bclk etc?
            What does come to mind is that, because volume control does change the amount of distortion, it may be that either the dac isn’t adjusted to the output of-, or Volumio isn’t to the DIYIHK. The amount of mismatch can, that way, change with volume. I guess you could change output resolution (16-32 bits) on the pc, and on Volumio if possible with an Rpi, and also change the expected bits on the WM board. That should do it.
            Another thing: distortion is common with not enough power supply for the opamps after the WM-module, but that shouldn’t be the problem since it seems it’s more software related. On the other hand: you always have distortion problems, so it might be a combination of both …

            G’luck!

  • Daniel Strauss

    Where is also a Wolfson HD audio card for the Raspberry Pi: http://linuxgizmos.com/raspberry-pi-gains-wolfson-high-def-audio-card/

    This is the easy soultion for anyone who wants good sound with a Pi.

  • Timothy Zander

    Can Volumio support the new Wolfson card?

  • Ralf Napierski

    I just
    tested several i2s-DACs with RPi and finally found out, that RPi is just a good
    toy. I reached the best sound so far with PRI-DAC (http://www.tjaekel.com/T-DAC/raspi.html) (single stereo). The sound is
    much better than with hifiberry. But the problem is, that RPi CANNOT play 24
    bit audio via i2s. 24 bits are always converted to 16 bits. The internal clock
    works best with 48 and 96 kHz sample rate but not very well with 44,1 kHz. The result is jitter! The
    most sellers of RPI i2s DACs out there just conceal this fact.

    But, I just had a revelation. I ordered
    RPI-DAC SPDIF (XMOS) from Torsten Jaekel and used CuBox-I as a player. I
    connected it via usb with RPI-DAC SPDIF and RPI-DAC. The sound is absolutely
    superb and much better than anything via i2s and PRi.

    Maybe i2s sounds better with other boards (UDOO) but I think for me the race is over.
    Asynchronous USB with a very good DAC (RPI-DAC) has won.

    • Ron Lee

      Hello Ralf,

      I’m curious about your comments re. i2s on the RPi. I understand you to be saying that the RPi is dropping 8 bits out of all 24 bit audio passed to any DAC using the i2s interface? I’m new to all this, and very curious. How do you know this?

      Thanks,

      Ron

      • Ralf Napierski

        Hello Ron,

        the i2s-Driver can only
        support 16 bit because of the DMA. It only allows 16 bit.

        But this is indeed not a
        problem, because there is no audible difference between 16 and 24bit audio (http://xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html)

        The problem is the amount
        of jitter. RPi has a poor clock.

        I just build my own simple DAC
        (PCM1794 single stereo) with a very simple passive I/V stage. You just need 20
        parts for about $20. The sound is superb. But why? I am using an asynchronous
        USB receiver (WAVE I/O) which is the best one I ever had.

        Feeding all with a very
        good power supply. That’s it. No voodoo! You can never reach such a sound
        quality with RPi and i2s. Maybe with RPi and USB. But RPi has some problems
        with USB Dacs. I use Cubox pro and Volumio. The best possible combination.

        • Ron Lee

          Thanks Ralf. I ran across that same xiph page yesterday–very interesting stuff. I’ve never been able to hear a difference between 16 and 24 bit, and also with higher res (>48k) sample rates, but I’m not using high end equipment. Always wondered what better ears/better equipment might hear.

          Funny thing is, when I setup a Hifiberry/Pi combination, I immediately heard a difference between that and the PC/HRT Music Streamer II setup I’ve been using. The high end wasn’t nearly as nice–the Music Streamer has a nice combination of detail and softness in the highs that I really like. But the Music Streamer often pops and spits when changing sample rates, and I want to be able to play different sources without worrying about that. My little Pi/Volumio setup does it flawlessly.

          So now I’m wondering if the Music Streamer might play nicer with a Volumio setup like you use, with a Cubox feeding it. I may try it out. Also, do you know much about the Beaglebone? Wondering if it has good enough USB output for what I want.

          Finally, I my searches yesterday I found this, which seems to show someone figuring out 24 bit playback on the Pi i2s:

          http://www.raspberrypi.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=44&t=8496&start=500

          But then this, which seems to show a software bug breaking it?

          http://www.raspberrypi.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=44&t=8496&start=575

          Although, in looking just now, I think this stuff may have been centered on more recording specific stuff. My head is spinning. I just want decent playback! :)

          Thanks again for the reply.

          Ron

  • http://www.tjaekel.com tjaekel
  • Pitichai Au

    I have submitted the kernel driver for Duriosound which allow you to force PCM over i2s to have 32 bits. However, most of music that ripped from CD is 16bits. I have tried with cmus (application no covertion) I can play 32bits m4a file format without any issue. I will try to rip XRCD (24bits) into flac and play.

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