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As you may know, I’m a huge fan of the Raspberry PI. Some even think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread 🙂 There are countless use cases in audio for a Raspberry PI. Some of my friends have replaced their SONOS clients or Squeezeboxes with even better quality and even lower total cost thanks to the little PI.
My own Raspberry PI Rev. 2.0 runs great on both RuneAudio and piCorePlayer (works as my Roon Labs playback client). I haven’t updated to the newer 3.0 yet because I no longer rely on crappy WIFI connections and the latest revision doesn’t offer benefits for audio. Ethernet is the way to go for me.
Until now, I limited my choices to digital-out only either via USB or using the Hifiberry Digi+. Both of which run absolutely great.
But there’s another way of enjoying audiophile sound with your PI – by simply stacking a DAC board directly on top of your PI. After theoretizing for a moment about how noisy CPU components might contaminate the DAC performance, I decided to give it a try and see what the fuss was all about in audio forums across the globe. On second thought, it makes a lot of sense. Your PI offers a direct I2S signal through its onboard connectors which can be directly interpeted by a DAC chip. So no need for stupid I2S > SP/DIF conversion, no interconnects – just pure simplicity.
Enter the Hifiberry DAC+ Range
My first test candidate is the inconspicuous DAC+ brought to you by the Hifiberry foundation which is based in Switzerland. All of their DACs adhere to the HAT (hardware-on-top) specs for the Raspberry PI. This means you can simply plug the DAC board onto your PI without any soldering or electronic skills. Most boards are compatible with Revision 2 and 3. Some older models are supported, too. Power is delivered directly by the PI itself. Hifiberry boards feature the excellent ESS9023 and Burr Brown PCM5102 chipsets boasting impressive specs. Even the lowest priced boards selling for under 20 Euros offer up to 192kHz sample rate. This is plenty even for high-resolution audio. With a theoretical dynamic range of up to 112dB, the sonic performance shouldn’t be far behind dedicated multi-thousand buck converters.
I tried their most expensive DAC+ Pro module priced at a hair under 40 Euros. This one has dedicated clock circuits for improved jitter performance. Just connect the outputs to a preamplifier or even directly to a power amp (you can use digital volume control!) and you get a stunning system. I was shocked how clear and dynamic this little board sounded! No hiss or background noises were noticeable. I’d say this thing is going to make a lot of $300+ DAC units sweat.
I used a linear power supply for my Raspberry PI which I highly recommend if you’re using the PI as a DAC platform. You can further tweak your Hifiberry DAC+ Pro by feeding the DAC board itself with clean linear power. I haven’t tried this yet. Hacking will void warranty as they explicitely say so don’t try this without a minimum knowledge in DIY electronics. Many users run their DAC+ Pro setups into pretty expensive audio systems. I’m talking multi-thousand dollar systems with Revel and Magico speakers. So I’m definitely not the only person who’s a surprised convert.
Before enjoying the sound though, you need to enable the DAC+ Pro board in your Raspberry PI distribution. I had to manually do this in RuneAudio which requires some Linux experience. But if you’re just starting, why not give the Hifiberry Installer a shot which automatically prepares your SD card with the distro of your choice. This would also enable the DAC+ Pro board by default. I recently prepped a new SD card with piCorePlayer and Digi+ enabled and it took less than 10 minutes! You can find the installer right here: Hifiberry Installer
You can buy the Hifiberry DAC+ products on Amazon or directly via Hifiberry.com which may be an advantage if you live in Europe and get lower shipping costs this way.
Other Raspberry PI DACs
I’ve also heard great things about the IQAudio Pi-DAC+ which retails for 31 GBP in the UK. It looks pretty well designed with surface mount components, tightly arranged. This is optimal for digital audio. The IQAudio PI-DAC+ is pretty popular and is constaly sold out 🙂 I guess this tells a lot about the performance. If you like, you can even add a small Class-D amplifier to the mix. But I personally would use this only for non-critical listening. I hope to be able to test this DAC in the next couple of months.
If you are seeking even cheaper options, the Hifimediy ES9023 I2S DAC based on the ESS9023 chip comes to mind. Heck it’s only 17 Euros. If it only gets 70-80% right, I’d consider it a major steal. Of course you aren’t going to get the most attention to layout details or low noise regulators like on the Hifiberry boards. But I definitely want to see this in a blind test versus more expensive candidates 🙂
Amazon is also flooded with cheaper Raspberry PI DACs starting from just a few dollars. Those are strikingly similar to the Hifiberry designs but as always in digital audio, PCB layout and component choice is everything.
If you live in Europe or don’t mind additional shipping costs, check out Audiophonics in France. They sell their own apparently great PI DAC designs optimized for hardcore audiophiles. Audiophonics also sells tons of accessories around the Raspberry PI so it is a great place to start shopping.
Want the absolute cream of the crop? The Durio Sound modules look like the best designed ones out there. These start from $50 up to a whopping $100. A lot of attention has obviously been given to the PCB layout. Then you can run these dual mono for improved DAC performance. I’m not sure whether it’s worth the premium, though. With some tweaks the Hifiberry modules shouldn’t be any worse in my opinion.
Updates as of December 20, 2016
Some readers have reported that the ifi Audio iPower 5V offers a significant bump in performance even compared to standard linear power supplies. This looks like a solid choice and I suggest you give it a try, especially if you are using an on-board DAC module on your Raspberry PI where clean power supplies are super-important.