We all know that a decent stereo is a necessity if you care about the fidelity of your music. But, if you want to listen to digital audio from a computer, a nice stereo is wasted if you’re using the built-in sound card. The quality of the source going into the stereo also needs to be high, which means you need both lossless music files and a good DAC. Orchard Audio’s ApplePi DAC is designed to provide that on your Raspberry Pi.
A DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) is what translates the 1s and 0s of a digital audio file into the analog sound waves that are amplified by your stereo system. The full-size Raspberry Pi models do have a built-in DAC, which is accessible through the 3.5mm audio jack. But, the quality of that output is notoriously lacking — which is understandable when you consider that Raspberry Pis are designed to be affordable.
However, a Raspberry Pi is otherwise ideal for a dedicated music player. The form factor makes it perfect for tight spaces, and there are a number of free software packages available to turn it into a fantastic music player. ApplePi lets you take advantage of that capability, while dramatically improving the sound quality of the audio output. ApplePi is also compatible with the Asus Tinker Board and Sparky SBC, if you prefer to use those instead of a Raspberry Pi.
ApplePi isn’t the first DAC on the market that was designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi, but it’s intended to be the best. It uses two Texas Instruments PCM1794A Burr-Brown DAC chips in monaural mode, which drive either RCA or fully-balanced Mini XLR outputs. With those chips, it can achieve an SNR (Signal-to-Noise Ratio) of 128dB (2,510,000:1), and a THD+N (Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise) of less than 0.0005% (-106dB). If you’re well-acquainted with audiophile equipment, you know how impressive that is. If not, you probably just want to know how it sounds.
To test the performance of the ApplePi, I needed to find some high-quality stereo equipment. Ken Login over at Premiere Audio / Video Integration in Las Vegas, Nevada was kind enough to provide me with a setup that did the ApplePi more justice than anything I own. That consisted of a Marantz PM6005 stereo amplifier and a pair of Triad InWall Silver/6 LCR speakers, all tied together with top-shelf cables. The total cost of the system, including cables, was around $3,000. You don’t need a stereo system that expensive to benefit from the ApplePi, but I needed to make sure I wasn’t limiting the DAC.
During testing, I used Volumio running on a Raspberry Pi 3B+ to play high-quality lossless music in FLAC format at greater than 2,000Kbps. The balanced Mini XLR outputs provide the best quality, but Premiere didn’t have a stereo open at that time with XLR inputs. Instead, I used the more common RCA outputs on the ApplePi, and compared that to the 3.5mm output that’s built into the Raspberry Pi. I also used the optional Orchard Audio Volume Clocker board, which provides bit-perfect volume control for any I2S DAC.
The quality of the ApplePi DAC was better than the on-board Raspberry Pi DAC by leaps and bounds, but that was to be expected. While the Raspberry Pi alone had a cramped sound stage, shallow range, and muddled reproduction, the ApplePi was full-bodied, clear, and open. That said, just about any dedicated DAC on the market would be an improvement over the Raspberry Pi’s built-in DAC. ApplePi isn’t just intended to outperform the Raspberry Pi, it’s meant to be the best DAC in this market.
I believe that ApplePi succeeds in that regard too. It doesn’t color the music in any kind of gimmicky way, and instead it’s designed to reproduce the music with clarity. The soundstage felt wide and distinct, without making the instruments or vocals sound isolated or distant. The music was clear across the entire range, and didn’t sound artificially weighted in any frequency.
Everyone has their own tastes, of course, but audiophile stereo equipment should provide faithful, uncolored sound. Descriptions like “warm” would be inappropriate, because the goal is to let the artist’s recording come through without bias. ApplePi achieves that ideal without question. If you want your music to sound like the artist intended — and you absolutely should — this is the DAC you want.
All high-end stereo equipment has a distinct point of diminishing returns where you have to spend more and more money to get increasingly minuscule improvements. You can easily spend thousands of dollars on an upgrade that even the most discerning audiophile would strain to perceive. At $199.99, the ApplePi is more expensive than most DACs for the Raspberry Pi, but it hits that sweet spot to give you incredible sound quality while remaining affordable. It’s comparable to DACs that cost many times more, and the value is unquestionable.