A new PI is out, but is it a worth upgrade for your Volumio Music player?
14th of March is the PI day, and thanks to the Raspberry PI foundation, not only math geeks are happy today. Yes, because the new Raspberry PI 3 model B+ has been released.
Before moving any further, it’s however important to note that this is not a brand-new product or a radical evolution of our beloved PI, but rather an incremental upgrade. So, if you’re still struggling to decide whether this upgrade is worth for your music listening habits, I’m here to help with some considerations.
Please note that we’re still testing the new Raspberry PI 3 B+, and those considerations are based on official statements of the Foundation, we’ll update this article as soon as our tests are done.
WHAT IS CHANGED
The hardware makeover of the Raspberry PI model 3 B+ covers basically 3 areas:
- Slightly faster processor
- Better thermal management
As we will see later, what really matters for us is indirectly related to point number 3: networking. But let’s see in detail all the 3 main upgrade areas.
The new Raspberry PI 3 B+ is built around BCM2837B0, an updated version of the BCM2837 processor used in Raspberry Pi 3B. The most notable change is that processor speed bumps from 1.2 GHz to 1.4 GHz. As always, GHz are just a small part of the whole picture, and those extra 200 MHz are surely welcome, but surely not a gamechanger over the previous generation.
The foundation reports a real-life performance improvement ranging from 15% to 30%, but I would not expect to see a substancial difference while using Volumio. A potential impacting side-effect is however how this chip (and the whole board layout) dissipates heat, so let’s move to the next point.
The BCM2837B0 SOC incorporates power integrity optimisations, and a heat spreader (see the metal bit in the pictures?). Cleverly, the foundation used such features to get higher clock speeds, when temperature is below 70 degrees, and to throttle the processor only in extreme cases. Also, thanks to the on-board heat-spreader, thermal performance has improved.
Heat is not coming out only from CPU’s top, but it’s rather spreaded on the whole PCB, therefore applying an additional heatsink is not necessary anymore (and IMHO it wasn’t necessary with model 3 as well). It appears then, that the PI 3 B+ has been designed to be very well suited for long-time operations, even in confined spaces, without the need for an external heatsink.
The only downside I can see here is that, the Raspberry PI foundation itself claims that ” Raspberry Pi 3B+ does consume substantially more power than its predecessor. We strongly encourage you to use a high-quality 2.5A power supply”.
This means, more than ever, that a good quality Power Supply is mandatory for stable operations, and if you’re using a sub-optimal PSU with your current Raspberry, you absolutely need to replace it along with it.
This to me looks like the real deal. Finally the PI gets Gigabit ethernet, altough it’s connected via an USB 2.0 BUS so it’s not the same “Gigabit” you’ll find on its competitor. But 10\100 was more than enough for audio use, so this is not a matter of concern.
On the Wireless side we also find finally 5.0 GHz and wireless AC. This is indeed a notable improvement: while the extra speed of AC is not much of a deal-breaker, it is the AC protocol in itself. As you might know, the main issue wiht N (and 2.4 GHz) wireless is usually the overcrowded signal range (it has only 13 bands of frequencies available, and if you live in a crowded area your WiFi is most likely to suck due to congestions). AC wireless instead, has an awful lot more of channels, therefore virtually minimizing the chance of bad wireless networking due to congestion. Of course, you will be able to benefit from AC networking ONLY if you already have an AC capable wireless Access Point.
However, none of those 3 points might be necessary to trigger your compulsive upgrade (BTW, the PI 3 Model B+ is available now from our store), if it wasn’t for a side effect.
THE NEW USB HUB
Hidden within the new specs, comes a very interesting part. Quoting:
“Previous Raspberry Pi devices have used the LAN951x family of chips, which combine a USB hub and 10/100 Ethernet controller. For Raspberry Pi 3B+, Microchip have supported us with an upgraded version, LAN7515, which supports Gigabit Ethernet.”
This means that the new PI 3 B+ features a new USB HUB chip, and this might put an end to the PI’S first flaw in Audio-related usage, the USB bus package loss issue. If confirmed (we’re carrying out our tests and will update this article once done) this would be the absolute cherry-on-the-cake of this new Raspberry PI Model B+, and might justify alone the upgrade.
We are now testing this new hardware and we will upgrade this article with more definitive conclusions (so what you read above are speculations on what can be understood from PRs and Foundation’s statements). In any case my early conclusion is:
The new Raspberry PI 3 B+ is a worth upgrade, especially if you listen to Music via USB DAC or if you use Volumio with a wireless connection.
For those of you eagerly waiting to get their hands on the new Raspberry PI 3 B+, it’s available now from our shop!
I’ve lived with the new Raspberry PI B+ for a couple of days and done some careful testing on it. Of course, my main interest was to back my hypothesis of better USB Audio performances, so I went straight ahead and connected my Pro-Ject Pre BOX S2 Digital (since it can reach up to 32\768 via USB and play DSD 512 in Native mode).
All tests were made with the experimental image that can be found here
As usual, I started playing my “Raspberry killer” track: a 32 bit, 678 kHz .wav file from my NAS. And… What a terrible disappointment: loads of crackles and a whole lot of lost packets.
Tried then with DSD, 24/192 flacs, and even 16/44.1 flacs. All sounded just terrible. So, indeed the new USB BUS did change USB Audio performances, unfortunately, it did for the worst.
Luckily though, I then tried to play the same files from a USB drive (and not from a NAS), and magic happened: spotless playback up to 32\768. Seemed that taking ethernet (I was connected on wired connection) out of the equation did the trick. So connected the PI via wifi and restarted without ethernet: same result, HI-Res Music playback was just perfect to my USB DAC.
So, it seems that there is still some issue (hopefully it’s driver related) to the Ethernet controller, which seems to give up lots of packets in high-bandwidth situations. I am however pretty confident that the foundation will solve this issue, as it’s not uncommon that hardware performances get dramatic improvements as software gets tuned up after community feedbacks.
The good news is that there are actually tangible improvements on USB throughput, as I did not experience a single glitch with a great variety of files: 16\44.1,24\96,32\768 flac, DSD64, DSD128, DSD256 and 8X MQA (this is an extremely meaningful test, since if even a single packet is lost the MQA decoding would stop).
So, for now, if you avoid using Ethernet to retrieve your Hi-Res files, the PI 3B+is just perfect to feed your USB DAC with bit-perfect joy.
During my tests, also some other meaningful results emerged, I will summarize them for your convenience:
- The Volumio experience did indeed benefit by the extra horsepowers of the new SOC, the overall UI responsiveness is noticeably better
- Wireless transfer speeds are way better, even when using 2.4 GHz radio. The new Antenna design (that would deserve an article on its own) seems to do the job much better than the previous one (I was able to get the 32/768 .wav file from NAS without a glitch).
- The system had no problem whatsoever in resampling any kind of file to 32 bits and 768 kHz with SOXR quality set to very high (and system load stayed on about 30%), this result is in itself impressive (try to do the same on a PI3…).
- Power consumption has increased with respect to the previous generation: idling the PI3B+ needs about 2.1 W, and takes about 3,5 W on higher loads
The next round of tests will involve playback via I2S DACs, although I do not expect any difference compared with previous PIs.
So, all in all, I think this upgrade is definitely more than welcome, although it will not constitute a major reason to upgrade for existing Raspberry PI 3 owners.
The only situations where I am suggesting the upgrade are wireless setups: in this case, yes, upgrading is well worth the cost.
As always, getting stuff from our shop, not only gets you awesome bang for the buck Audio equipment, but helps the Volumio project, so thanks for your purchase!