Advice on Setting Up A Laptop-Based Audio System?

Hey, I'm looking to set up a workspace audio system based around my Apple Powerbook G4. I've got about 100 GB of uncompressed audio on an external hard drive. I currently have Monsoon planar speakers and matching subwoofer hooked into the laptop through the 1/8" audio out, which soundsokay, but I think I could do better.

I don't have a PC card slot in the Powerbook, so I'm limited to a USB audio connection. I'm not looking to hook this system up to my "big rig" -- it's just for my workspace. I was looking to bypass getting an amplifier, unless it's fairly small.

I was thinking of going with some powered mini-monitors and maybe some kind of adapter/DAC in between, but I'm space-constrained and not looking to spend more than say, $600 total.

Any suggestions?
There was another guy that did a similar thing with good results using Mackie HR824 powered monitors. Do an archive search for the Mackies and you'll find it. I think it was
within the last month.
Let us hear how your project turns out?
Happy Listening!
I've been looking around a bit...and I've read some good things about the Tivoli Model 2 stereo systems...or possibly a system like Cambridge Soundworks Megaworks 213...

I haven't read up on the Mackies, but I will.
Assuming you already have an Airport card in your Pbook, I'd invest in the new Airport Express, which has a pretty good DAC inside it, by all accounts.
How about a Griffin Powerwave? It takes USB from your Powerbook (which is better than spdif anyway) to a built in dac (I really don't know about the quality of the dac itself) and sends it to a built in tripath amp...$90 which gives you a lotof $$ for speakers. People are buying the Powerwave just for the amp (and modding it also).
BTW, have you tried Apple lossless? It really seems to work..I'm building a digital system around a G4 iBook, external 2.5" drive and a Twin Dac (via USB)... all battery powered, fillterless, without jitter.
What's a Twin DAC? Who makes that?
Bomarc, what would the benefit of using the airport express be? I'm planning to have my whole system sitting on my desk (and the one shelf underneath it for a possible subwoofer), so I won't really need the wireless aspect...
Lots of good advice at on this subject, if you ask.
If you have no interest in wireless, then Airport Express is just an alternative connection to USB, or audio out to powered speakers. I'm not sure one is any better than the others, though I don't have enough first-hand experience with this yet. But you mentioned an external DAC, and the Express is one.

If it's a home office, however, consider this: You could take the Express downstairs to your main system and play music from your computer system on it. (Or buy a second Express for your audio system.) That, plus wireless Internet and printing for $129 is a pretty good deal.

If you're talking about a workspace at work, however, wireless may hold no advantage at all. In that case, a set of powered speakers, or passives and a used amp, might be the better choice.
If I go with passive speakers and a used amp, could someone recommend a small digital (preferred, as they run cooler) amp that I could use for my desktop setup?

Target sells a cheap digital amp on the web. Don't know anyone who has tried it.
If your Apple PowerBook has a FireWire I/O connection, I would forget about the USB connection route and take advantage of the higher bandwidth and stability of the FireWire connection. M-Audio offers the FireWire Audiophile, a compact audio/MIDI interface with 4 X 6 audio I/O, powerful on-board mixing, ultra-low latency ASIO software direct monitoring, and a 1 x 1 MIDI I/O, which sells for less than $200 on the street. M-Audio, KRK and Mackie Tapco offer very nice sounding powered (i.e., active) monitors for less than $400 per pair on the street. MAudio's StudioPhile BX5 Monitors, KRK's RP6 Rokit Powered Monitor and Mackie Tapco's Tapco S5 should provide far better imaging, higher resolution and more audiophile punch than your current PC speakers. Keep in mind that you will have to invest in a complimentary subwoofer in the future for low bass output.
You can start with a M-Audio Transit and a Ack! Dack. Then later when you want it to sound better and have some money to spend, get the Ack! Dack modded and install the transit inside, eliminating the Toslink interface.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
I have about 160gb of uncompressed CD/AIFF music, and I was NOT impressed with the Transit, terrible drivers, and the output via optical was sub-par compared with my rotel RDV-1060 dvd player. We're not talking about a 'subtle' difference either, my non-audiophile friend who was over with the Transit was like "wow, that really SUCKS in comparison." This was after we spent almost 2 hours getting the stupid thing to output at 44.1/16 since it INSISTED on trying to go to 48khz (sounded even WORSE). From reading a lot on HeadFi and elsewhere, I too recommend the Firewire Audiophile (supposedly better drivers) or look into Edirol (Roland) such as the UA-25. Too bad you don't have a pcmcia / cardbus slot, as I've also heard very good things about the Echo Indigo card.

I'm looking to do the same, with my 15" G4 Powerbook - I may just go with the Echo Indigo - but my only worry is being partially internal to the computer, that it might pick up hard-drive / processor noise. If that's the case I'll try something like the Musical Fidelity X-DAC v3 and find a decent digital out via PCMCIA or external, via FW or USB, similar in function to the Transit, but a Transit will surely NOT be part of the system. I used to use a G5 w/ built-in optical but now I need the portability of the Powerbook, dammit if only Apple put optical on the PB, and it's too bad the Airport Express has mini-1/8" optical as I've yet to see a quality TOSLINK (boy is THAT an oxymoron) cable in that format...
The Transit that I use is modded and outputs coax S/PDIF. It is superb sounding. I use Foobar and ASIO4ALL plug-in to avoid Windows mixer.
I fount the roland ua-1d works better than the m-audio. no drivers necessary, fuller sound, coaxiaql and toslink in and out. the airport express sounded better than the m-audio, the roland beats them both
The ua-1d samples only at 48kHz. The M-Audio transit will pass 44.1 bit-perfect and 96.
audioengr, i found the oposite to be true re: the m-audio on my powerbook, stupid thing kept going up to 48k no matter what i set in the driver.....

i gave up and picked up an apple airport express... signal as follows:

CD ripped to AIFF via iTunes -> Airport Express -> optical -> MF TriVista -> MF X-CAN -> Grados

i'm lovin' it ;)
I've tested the Transit with a Big Ben. I had trouble at first, but with the right settings, it changed from 44.1 to 96 and back. You need to set the correct frequency in the Transit panel and then set either 16 or 24 bits in the Foobar output panel.

According to the ua-1d documentation, it only does 48 kHz.
For those of you with PCs, a Transit might sound great, but if you have a Apple Mac, DO NOT get the Transit. It sounds BAD. this is not a subtle difference. This has been verified with 3 different Transits on high end systems. Two with with blind switching back and forth.
Sounds like the S/W is a bit hosed for the transit using the apple equipment. At least on a PC, you can use ASIO to bypass the windows Kmixer. Maybe this is not possible on an apple system. Good to know, thanks.
I have a Mac and a Transit. The analogue out leaves something to be desired, but is it really that bad if you are just using it to get the optical digital signal to a DAC? I think my setup sounds really quite good, but I would be happy to explore replacing the Transit if it really is a problem. Of course my DAC is not very expensive, so perhaps it is the higher end equipment that the shortcomings of the Transit would be more noticeable?

I have heard dozens of positive and rave reviews of using the Transit to provide a digital out of an iBook. This is the first time I have heard of it being so terrible. Can you elaborate?

I now have confirmation from 5 Mac based transit users - I should say former users.

The whole idea for a device like the Transit is to pass un-altered PCM to your DAC. The transit just does not do a good job of it. It really is noticeable.

I don't think this is unique to the Transit either. I think several of the popular low end devices actual mess with the PCM stream to one extent or another.

If you are concerned, call the manufacturer and verify that the device supports Core Audio (Mac OSX) and passes the PCM data unaltered.

I know that the Waveterminal U24 and the Edirol U25 both do a good job. There are probably many more.

As always, though, if you are happy with what you have, why change?

Thanks for the information. I will check into those other external cards. I love upgrading and I have run out of things to upgrade (while keeping the system portable). I had looked at the Waverterminal before but I figured the extra features are what was making the unit cost more, and I only need it as a digital out.

Thanks for the info.

You could try better D/A converters via the Echo Indigo cardbus card
I am using an iBook G4 which has no card slot, USB is the only digital out possibility. Thanks though.

Okay, USB...
I am currently using an Apogee MiniDAC, and I love it. The MiniDAC does require an external power supply, which might be a consideration for an iBook user. I have had a few problems with the unit dropping the USB connection. Apogee said that it is my computer. . . .

The MiniDAC does not have any digital output, so you have to use the on board DAC. Sounds great.

If you want to use your own DAC, the MiniDAC is not the solution.
I have been looking at the MiniDAC after a few people on Head-Fi actually said they preferred it to the Benchmark. I was thinking this might be what I get especially since I listen to classical music primarily and if I get a sound that is too digital/detailed I get listening fatigue. Although I have not heard the Benchmark, those who don't like it as much as some say it is a bit analytical.

Edumke, have you compared your MiniDAC to the Bel Canto or Benchmark units?

Thanks, dshea
I have only compared the MiniDAC to a Monarchy DIP and Monarchy M22c DAC. It was really hard to compare, because I only had one pair of cables, so it would take me 5 minutes to switch between DACs. No obvious difference that jumped out at me.

I talked to an Apogee tech who said he thought the MiniDAC sounded as good as some of their high end DACs.

I have a McIntosh MDA1000 coming next week. We'll see if there is any difference in the sound for 8 times the price!
I have a headroom total bithead right now, which goes out of the USB of any computer (instantly recognized as a destination for sound out in your preferences) and to some ultimate ears or powered monitors. it's more than okay and a huge improvement over the minijack out for the cans. however, I am looking into the apogee mini-dac, and the wavelength brick, for a more permanent setup with a computer that I might leave in my main system. another thing I tried is the new outlaw rr2150 receiver, which is a strong integrated amp that has a USB input. sounds pretty great for the money, but won't help you at work I guess. I would recommend checking out the total bithead.
Asio4all - computer based players should all download this - for free ! It fixes problem in window, and makes the sound smooth, like an upscale gear.
Gonglee3 - ASIO4ALL is only for S/W drivers that do not accept an ASIO plug-in. Drivers that can accept the plug-in should use ASIO plug-in, not ASIO4ALL. I have heard that ASIO4ALL is actually an ASIO emulator using Kernel streaming.
I'm surprised no one has mentioned SlimServer It works through a LAN. You can go with either WiFi or hard wired, or a mix. I've been using a Squeezebox for a couple of years. For a DAC I feed it into a Behringer SRC2496, which I bought based on very good user reviews and the fact that it has well regarded jitter reduction capability. And it is cheap. The two pieces together are about $400. Or you can get the Transporter, which has an "audiophile" DAC built in ($2000).

I may try a high end DAC, but for now I really don't have any complaints.

You can control either setup from the computer using the SlimServer software or with a remote control.

I prefer the laptop sitting next to my listening position. I control everything and create and arrange playlists as the fancy strikes me. This is what I have been wanting to do for years. But dedicated servers are way overpriced, have undersized HDDs and are inflexible. The laptop and lossless compression is the solution in my opinion.

The whole package is designed around open source. There are countless plugins, add-ons and hardware tweaks available. The forums on the website are extensive.

The software works well. I've lost count of how many media players I have tried. Once you get use to it, Slimserver is as good as any I have used. Far easier to use and more flexible than most. If you've ever felt imprisoned by the straightjacket called iTunes, you'll love slimserver.

It will never be as stable as a dedicated piece of equipment - it's a computer and software. What can you expect? But it works great when it works, which is nearly all the time. I have found that it works better on IE than Mozilla.

I rip using EAC and do lossless compression. It sounds great. In theory it should sound as good or better than a dedicated CD player. The reality seems to match the theory, at least to my ears.

I have over 5000 tunes stored on an external HD. All of them available at my fingertips.
Regalmal: I am just now exploring the viability of laptop control and storage for a music library. Can you explain to me in simple terms what equipment is necessary. So far I have a good HP Laptop that I have sent in to have the HD cleared off and anything else not necessary to managing my system. It will be a dedicated PC. I use a Krell HTS 7.1 pre/pro that has an RS 232 Communication Port for computer use and Krell amps all-around to drive Maggies all around. There seems to be a ton of info on line and herein but I cannot clearly see just what exactly is needed in the way of other equipment. Obviously I would need an external storage unit but that is all I really know. You seem to have it working pretty well. Puerto
A SqueezeBox or Transporter if you are reasonably computer savvy. If you aren't then you might try a DAC with a USB input. DAC1 seems to be pretty popular. Connect the USB on your computer directly to the DAC. WinAmp seems to be pretty good player for this purpose. I use EAC for ripping. DBpoweramp for editing rips is my favorite. They are both free, though DBpoweramp makes you buy an MP3 license if you are going to be creating MP3 files for your MP3 player. It is well worth it. I couldn't find another program that allows you to edit metafiles (data displayed by the media player, artist, genre etc) and batch convert files to other codecs any where near as well as this one. Plus they seem to provide very good support. That is a rarity among free programs.

I have both FLAC and MP3. FLAC for home and MP3 for portable players.
Many Thanks Regalmal! I presume that the DAC then, in turn, is plugged directly into my pre/pro with a USB to RS 232 cable. Does the Squeeze Box and Transporter perform the same function as the DAC? Puerto
Yes, the Squeezebox and Transporter both have built-in DAC's. They also permit the use of an external DAC by way of coax and Toslink digital outputs.

Puerto, the output of a DAC is analog, so it can be plugged into any analog input on your pre/pro. Another choice is to buy a USB to SPDIF convertor. The converter can have coax or Toslink digital output. You would then plug that into the appropriate digital input on your Pre/pro and so use its built in DAC. M-Audio makes a converter called the Transit that is around $100. That is a lot less than a good DAC.
Got it! Thank you both (Regalmal and Sufentanil). I've learned a lot from these threads but sometimes they get heavy into the techno-talk and I'm left behind! Your simple explanations were useable and appreciated! Puerto
Regalmal: Can you capture and store music from the Squeeze Box transmissions directly into your music library or is it for "listening only"? Couldn't quite tell from the ads. Maybe that is a function of the software that you install. Perhaps the music library that Squeeze Box can control for you is one that you have compiled yourself from your own sources such as I have done in Media Player with CD burn software. Is there a monthly charge to use Squeeze Box? I think I would see how the DAC in my Krell HTS 7.1 does with this before purchasing an external DAC. One review that I read claimed that there was very little quality difference between the Squeeze Box DAC and an external DAC that he had added to his system. Seems that you automatically have two DACs to chose from - Squeeze Box and your Processor. Puerto
The Squeezebox uses your own library to work. (It can also work with internet radio.) I believe it works with iTunes, as well.

The Slimserver (which the Squeezebox uses) is installed on your computer. You use the server to send the audio data to the Squeezebox. The Squeezebox is hooked up to your stereo, either via analog or digital connections. There is no monthly charge; you're using your own music library.

I'm currently using the Slimserver software on a Linux box with 300 GB of FLAC files. I have a wired ethernet network in my house (you can also use wireless), and I control the server with a laptop. It's really a slick setup, but you can get away with a lot less.

Sufentanil: Can you store the music coming from internet radio in your library or is it for "listening only" and cannot be retained in storage? Your system does sound pretty slick. Puerto
Have you seen the Scott Nixon USB-Tube DAC reviewed here

I think you can buy it in a kit to save money

Just plug it into your laptop and connect the other end to any amp

Of course the quality is only as good as your amp & speakers, but it gets you past the analogue output and with no other type of interface, like SPDIF, in between

Should provide the best quality available from a PC
$600 total ?
get M-Audio/RME/tc electronic and logitech x-540
uhmm... for a bit more:

most pcs have a feature that allow the soundcard to output s/pdif. from the 1/8" phono jack. not the best way, but works.
dont know if macs can do it.
if they can...
just add a nice DAC that has s/pdif input and jitter elimination system.
Mytek dac96, Benchmark dac1, Lavry Back, apogee minidac, Lucid DA9624, RME Adi-2, etc... etc...
altman micro machines, etc... etc... etc... etc...
I would use a firewire DAC option. The one on this page

is the echo firewire 12 12 I think.

I have heard nothing but good about it. I is a bit unknown at this time in high end audio but well know in pro community.

But the firewire protocol is known to be better than USB by anyone who knows the difference between the two.

Just my opinion!