As discussed in a previous post and also visible here, lately I have bought quite a number of musical records as FLAC files (partly because it is convenient, certainly more than having CD delivered by post, and partly forced by the lower and lower stocks of "live" record shops, for what is left of them, in Paris at least). I usually enjoy these on my rather high-end hi-fi after burning them as CDs.

This being said I thought it would be good to be able to listen to these directly without burning CDs. Given the excessive price of most audiofile DAC offers (for, I suspect, a poor overall quality), I headed for Stanley Beresford's Caiman. Stanley is a friendly guy (he will pack your DAC and answer your emails himself!) who runs a family business and offers for about 250 € approximately (depending on Pound rate) a very pleasant DAC with direct USB (so called usb-audio) interface. I headed for this one after reading the review in What Hi-Fi. When listening with a good headphone (mine is a Sennheiser HD 595) the sound is indeed rather impressive. By comparison, using my computer's audio output sounds ridiculous, with almost no bass sounds whatsoever. A side effect of the Caiman is also to make it very clear that you are listening to lossily encoded music (ogg or mp3 files) if you do so. Thus, except for using on mobile players, I almost only listen to FLAC encoded music these days. When plugged in on my hi-fi the Caiman was still not really a competitor for my usual setup but this isn't a fair comparison as it meant comparing it to products that are way pricier (in particular a Cyrus CD8 SE player).

Using the DAC under Linux worked flawlessly. When you plug the DAC (USB 1.1 interface) the module snd_usb_audio is loaded automatically and you have a second sound interface which you can see with aplay -l:

card 1: default [USB Audio CODEC ], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0

To make amarok use this output when asked to, I created an alias for the card by editing my ~/.asoundrc file to

pcm.usb-audio {
   type hw
   card 1
   device 0

and then did as instructed by the FAQ: check alsa as Output plugin in Configure -> Engine (rather than autodetect), you then see a box whose label says Stereo (ALSA Device Configuration) in which you can write usb-audio. The output stays set as long as the device is still present: if you remove the DAC, amarok will fall back on default (internal sound card) when started again, which is convenient.

My amarok version (debian 1.4.10-2) suffers from this bug which cause audible distorsions when playing FLAC files (mostly at each track start), especially for tracks encoded with recent versions of the FLAC encoder. Doing as suggested here (editing ~/.kde/share/apps/amarok/xine-config to uncomment the line engine.decoder_priorities.flacdec:0 to engine.decoder_priorities.flacdec:1) fixed the problem.