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This was a bit of a surprise.
Now that Roon supports Airplay, I took an old airport express out of the closet and moved it to my bedroom. Using toslink out to my Mojo sounded great via my Etymotics. Listening to The Pole Winners Ride Again (Shelley Mann and Ray Brown) the cymbals sounded great. No digital hash or sandpaper. Really quite surprising.
This morning I took my Mojo back to the hardwired Roon system and listened to the same music thru the same dac and headphones (although this time via USB) Not so great. The cymbals did not have the same definition...more sandpaperish like I expect from crappy digital.
Culprits? Too many cheap power supplies? The Rpi? A few freebie Cat cables still in the system?
I'm sure as always the answer is noise..but from where????
A good USB interface direct attached to a DAC should sound better than AirPlay to the Airport Express with its limited 16/48KHz resolution. USB can handle much higher resolutions and can sound excellent but it is known that the USB interface on the Pi has it's limitations.
I would look to the RPi, it's software, and it's USB interface to your DAC, as USB should not sound worse than the Airport Express.
Difficult to say what is the cause of your problem from a distance. However one major difference that you cite in the less succesful setup is the use of a USB connection as opposed to wireless. What is the USB DAC connected to, a computer running Roon?
As I have a USB connected DAC I have learned both from experience and from advice that such an interface is prone to transmitting noise generated at the computer and via the 5V power supply line ( USB cables are often not properly shielded internally).
So I would first look at your USB cable and consider one of the various devices available for dealing with USB noise. For example I have had some success with an iFi Defender (inexpensive and small - just a kind of dongle really).
This may or may not provide a solution but ultimately only you are in a position to find out.
That would have been my guess too. But the 5v in my case, comes from a battery with proper voltage regulators. The dac never sees the 5v from the Rpi.
It will take a lot of experimenting to figure it out I'm afraid.
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