HIFICRITIC reviewing the HiFiBerry boards
The article was originally published at HIFICRITIC Magazin Volume10/Number4 October – December 2016
‘CHEAP AS CHIPS’ IS THE PHRASE THAT COMES TO MIND, AS ANDREW EVERARD EXAMINES THE DIY AUDIO ADD-ONS THAT A SWISS OPERATION CALLED HIFIBERRY MAKES FOR THE RASPBERRY PI COMPUTER
By Andrew Everard
We’ve had a Raspberry Pi in the house for ages: it was initially bought to see what all the fuss was about, tinkered with for awhile and then, like all those toys that seem like such a good idea in the Christmas rush, put aside simply because I really couldn’t quite work out what it was good for.
Yes, it has audio outputs and an HDMI connection, and the latest version even has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But even so it still seemed like something of a toy, with minimal internal RAM, the need to add external storage to do just about anything, the hunt for a small, affordable monitor to use with it, and above all an operating system running on a sliver-like microSD card. Oh well, it only cost £30 or so… HiFiBerry thinks otherwise: this Swiss-based company makes a range of audio add-ons for the Raspberry Pi, most of which need no soldering skills but instead just plug into the expansion block of the little on-board computer. Which is handy, as a decidedly fumble-fingered lack of skill with a hot iron seems to have arrived at the same time as a need to wear reading glasses for just about everything…..
The range includes both digital expansion boards, offering standard S/PDIF co-axial and Toslink optical feeds, and available in a basic version and one with transformer isolation for galvanic decoupling from the main computer board. A new iteration is able to be used with a second external power supply for the audio board (rather than being powered off the Raspberry Pi’s plugtop supply). That last one requires a bit of soldering skill to ‘break out’ the power and attach a second supply. The range starts at around £23 for the standard Digi model, and rises through the £33 transformer-isolated Digi+ to the £38 Digi+ Pro with those extra power supply options.
The company also makes a range of plug-in DAC boards, with a choice of RCA phono or 3.5mm stereo jack output, offering 192kHz/24bit conversion using Burr-Brown DAC technology. Starting from just under £15 and rising to £38 for the Pro version complete with dual low-jitter clocks, these again plug onto the main computer board with no soldering.
HiFiBerry will also sell you these devices in various bundles, with enhanced power supplies, the computer itself if required, and smart custom cases to suit the various add-on boards. And while there’s a range of software out there to run on the Raspberry Pi, the company also offers a free download of the operating system with Roon integrated – you just burn it to a microSD card, plug it into the computer’s slot and fire it up.
You can operate the Pi using a computer, phone or tablet to control it remotely, plug in a mini-monitor – we found a little 7in one designed for in-car use for about £45. You can also plug in a keyboard and mouse or, if using it with Roon, just designate it as an end-point and drive it with the Roon remote app.
And how does it sound? Well, I really like the little DAC board, which you could easily plug into an inexpensive amplifier or a pair of active speakers – though HiFiBerry also has a tiny add-on MiniAmp board for well under £20 with 3W Class D amps, or the £45 Amp+ with 25W output. However, the star of the show is the Digi+ configuration: for less than £100 including computer, board, power supply and case, I have a ‘black box’ able to connect to any DAC I choose, instantly turning anything with a digital input into a Roon device. It sounds good, works reliably, and in more than four months of use hasn’t missed a beat. It’s the epitome of affordable alternative hi-fi, and an obvious Best Buy.