Can a PC match the quality of the best CD players?

Okay, if an audiophile CD player can run you anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, how do you build a PC that is in the same league? With the audiophile CD players you have to figure that every part of them is maximized to be the best that it can be: Transport, circuit designs, DACs, power supply, signal path, power cable...

How can a PC compete when you're stuck buying consumer grade CD burners, power supplies, motherboards etc.? Even if they are the most expensive that you can find. Is there a way to build a PC that rivals a $5,000 CD player? Of course you can add an audiophile power cable to your PC, but I have to believe that it's just throwing good money after bad when you consider the rest of the non-audiophile components used (and non-audiophile components are the only ones available as far as I know).

Does anyone know the answer to this? I know that the better CD players use great DAC's, but I am not so concerned with that as I use an RME sound card which is indeed a beautiful sounding converter. But I can't help wondering about the rest of the machine... What separates this $1000 computer from a $5000 CD player???
Here's my narrow and non-technical view:

Each time a CD/Transport reads data off a silver disk, its doing it in real time. Yes, there is error correction and yes there is error tolerance. But, its subject to the vagaries of reading in real time or near real time.

Computers read blocks of data off a hard drive a lot faster, and those data storage systems are built with much better error detection--yes, disk sectors go bad, but how often do you see that? When you rip responsibly (i.e., EAC), you end up with a copy of the disk that has had each block read over and over and compared to make sure you minimize faulty read data that might occur on a one-time only play.

Onto the computer. There are several things you can do to make computer audio sound better:

- Use an external DAC
- Optimize the digital connection; in some cases this may be a USB path to the DAC itself. In my case, it means a USB audio device (waveterminal U24) to a DAC via coax digital. I tend to dislike sound cards generically; I think a computer is a noisy environment in which to perform that format change.
- Use decent software. Foobar, for example. Make sure you are bypassing the kmixer in windows.

YMMV, but I think a decent computer can sound as good as a $5K transport.
CD drives/burners on PC are never used. Also, never use DAC on PC.

Digital data is read off from hard drive and sent directly to a external USB device such as U24 via USB cable, then the signal is sent to the external DAC via digital cable.

If this is done properly, it'll sound quiet good.
Check out HUSH PC's they are fanless and are of pretty high quality, you can put them right in your rack if you want, they would make a pretty nice music server. I agree use an external DAC with a nice Digital cable could make a big difference.

I am currently experimenting with computer based audio using a Squeezebox ( I ripped my CDs to hard drive using EAC and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Compression). The Squeezebox directly supports the FLAC format, and decodes it.

I have my computer in a different room from my audio system, and have the Squeezebox connected to it with a CAT 6 Ethernet cable (you can also do it wireless). The Squeezebox decodes the FLAC and then I send that digital signal via a DH Labs D-75 digital cable to a Bel Canto DAC2 (you can also use the Squeezebox's own internal DAC).

At this point, the ease of use is fantastic...I have approxmately 3000 songs available instantaneously, all searchable by song, album, artist, genre and year. The sound quality is pretty decent, but not in the same league as my Wadia 861 with GNSC Statement mods.

I am going to be playing with different DACs and cables etc. to see just how good the audio quality can get.

If nothing else, it's a lot of fun to play with.


I agree with you. I am using a Bel Canto Dac2. To avoid the "noise" and "ground loops" I changed the Coax for an Optical cable and it does sound cleaner. I use an external hard drive (1,000 GB) and the I-Tunes program to store all my cds using the WAV encoder.
"How can a PC compete when you're stuck buying consumer grade CD burners, power supplies, motherboards etc.? Even if they are the most expensive that you can find. Is there a way to build a PC that rivals a $5,000 CD player?"

Certainly, infact, it will beat your $5K transport. Read this article for more info:
the HUSH PC looks nice... sort of what I was looking for... but the price is little too steep for me...

I just picked up a refurbished Dell 5150 from for $500 and it is pretty quiet. Looks ok with the new silver case.

Thought I would chime in on this one...

In most "cheaper" PCs on the market, there are three cables coming from a DVD/CD drive in a computer; "general data", a "left/right analog" and a "digital" cable.

Therefore it is my experience and understanding that if you play a CD directly from the drive the signal passes over the "digital" cable which is a VERY poor grade cable that connects directly to the sound card on the computer.

However, if you "rip" the CD to the computer's hard drive first and then play the file off of the hard drive, you should and do get a better sound as it does not transfer over the poor quality "digital" cable from the DVD/CD drive.

Anyway, give it a try. I have noticed far better sound from the hard drive compared to the DVD/CD drive directly.

On a side note, the fans in computers and such really do destroy the audio quality. I have upgraded my HTPC to a fanless system entirely and it sounds much better.

Doesn't your Wadia have digital input? If yes, you should feed your computer data to Wadia to see if Bel Canto is the limiting factor and feedback to us. I am very interested in computer based audio system and willing to spend money on a good DAC if the end result is worthwhile.
If you are looking for a fanless solution that is really dedicated, or near dedicated, for audio, look at the Serener ITX PCs. With the NEC spinpoint drive, its dead quiet (that doesn't give you a huge amount of storage, but its networked to a 1TB Buffalo terastation in a remote location. I'm using one and my only complaint is that the blue LED on the front is like a friggin' laser.
Thank you all for your input. I understand the points about jitter, the need for an external DAC, and data being read from a hard drive being more accurate than data being read from a CD. Thank you Audioengr for the extremely informative Empirical Audio link.

Okay, so let's say for argument's sake that by following some of the tweaks in the replies above, and for the reasons stated in the Empirical link, by reducing jitter, that a computer has the potential to be better than a $5K CD player. But what about all of the non-audiophile hardware making up a computer?

Is the $100 Plextor CD burner I buy (not for playback, but necessary for reading CDs to get them into the computer) as good as the transport/laser in a $5K CD player? Surely this element is key as it is the 1st step where any sort of audio data copying/transmission - and the chance for errors - takes place.

And what about power supply? AFAIK the best PS for a computer doesn't cost much more than $100-$150 (Enermax, Antec). And if people are willing to spend 10 times that for an audiophile grade power cord going to their $5K Cd player, I have to assume that the PS in that CD player has got to be "better" (I guess that means in terms of noise and stable current output) than a $100 Antec. Is anybody out there using audiophile PS chords with their computer?

In a $5K Cd player, every component (PS, wire, solder point, circuit, transistor, etc., etc.) is (in theory anyway) maximized to the best that it can be in order to do ONE thing: reproduce music in the most accurate way possible. Doesn't it seem then that by using computer hardware components not designed with audiophile goals in mind, that the hardware of a computer is hampering (at least minimally and perhaps drastically) its'audiophile potential???
Actually, you don't need a burner to read CDs... ;)

The issue here is that if you proceed like some have recommended, *everything* behind the USB cord is isolated from the audio chain and--unless your computer is so bad it blows the buffering for the serial output or can't keep up with reading--will not affect the audio quality.

And, there are folks--like audioengr--who do audiophile mods for USB devices.

I have the Wadia 861b, which doesn't have the digital I/O boards. When I got the "b" model a couple of years ago, it was at Steve Huntley's (GNSC) suggesion because he is of the opinion that having the digital boards hooked up has a "slight" negative impact on sound quality, so he recommends not having them.

I considered installing them when I started experimenting with a computer based system, but have decided for now to try different outboard DACs. I may still put the I/Os in the Wadia, but that will be more of a last resort because I am very reluctant to do anything that will be a step backward in the Wadia's sound, no matter how slight.

I'm likely going to try a Benchmark DAC1 next. Then I may try some mods on the Bel Canto.

Don't get me wrong, the Bel Canto actually does sound pretty darn good, and it may be unfair to compare it to the GNSC modded Wadia.
Ok you lost me there Edesilva, how do I get my CD data to the hard drive without 1st ripping it from a burner/reader?? I guess you must mean that it doesn't have to be a "burner" only a reader, but does a consumer grade cd rom drive perform as well as an audiophile transport for reading? And during the initial rip, and perhaps even during the hard drive playback, doesn't the power supply come into play?
Sorry, a CD burner is the lingo used to describe a drive that "burns" CD blanks--i.e., writes to them. To rip a CD, you need a CD reader.

A CD transport gets to read the data on a CD once and, even if there is some buffering, the bits read off the CD are basically what goes to the DAC. So, a transport is subject to the vagaries of power supplies, glitches, whatever. The disk has to be spun precisely, because it just gets one chance.

On the other hand, the software that controls a CD reader on a computer can tell the reader to read the same block of data over and over again. A good ripper--like EAC--does that and compares the data it gets, over and over again, until it is statistically satisfied that the copy created is a complete and accurate duplicate of what is on the CD. Because a computer can read the data created off a hard driver--where much more sophisticated error correction can be employed--timing sort of ceases to matter. The data is spit out asynchronously over USB--no timing information.

That is why I say everything behind the USB cable is irrelevant. The timing is supplied by the USB audio device, which buffers the data and outputs it based on its own clock.

To give you a very concrete example, I've got several "unplayable" CDs--stuff that won't read in my DV50S, my Theta David, my Sony SACD player... But, I can rip those with EAC and get a perfect set of .wav audio files off of it. Takes forever, and I wonder if replicating a bad CD is worth the wear and tear on a CD ROM that is basically running for 24 hours straight, but it works...
I think Edesilva explained many issues effectively. I just want to "amplify" that what PC replaces is just the transport. The big change is from reading a CD in real time to reading the hard drigve (much faster and error free) with plenty of time to spare; and hence, much better chance to obtain a low jitter, bit perfect digital stream.

The digital IC and the DAC in the final set-up are still subject to the same issues as a conventional transport and DAC set-up.

To evaluate a PC audio set-up is to evaluate whether it is a good tranpsort, but not whether it is a good CD players.
Aha... Edesilva, Kenn39, the fog around my head is slowly beginning to clear. Thank you, I now "get it". So I guess to answer my own question that started this thread - "Can a PC match the quality of the best CD players?" - the answer is a definite YES, even surpassing, ***provided that*** on the other end of the USB cable is the best DAC/cabling/power.
Hmm... I think I've made some blanket statements in the past that USB was effectively jitter-free; that was based on my understanding that USB was an async protocol that had to be buffered and reclocked. I conceded, however, that jitter could be introduced in reclocking the stream.

Looks like the serious tech-heads at the Asylum have looked at some measurements and are concluding that USB may not be the panacea... Check out this thread:

I am not sure I quite understand this, and I'll still stand by my statement that my PC-based rig sounds as good as several different transports I've used. Just thought I'd make sure the record was a correct as possible...
the HUSH PC looks nice... sort of what I was looking for... but the price is little too steep for me...

for a less expensive alternative to the hush pc, check out the via epia based serener gd-L01 at, in the "fanless systems" section. it has room for one pci card, plus a firewire port, 4 usb 2.0 ports, and onboard sata raid0. using external hdd enclosures with esata connections, it is possible to rig up an external raid0 volume, currently up to 1 terabyte. very nice looks and function... fits right in with other stereo components.

i use this with an m-audio firewire transport and an external dac. i use a samsung notebook (2.5") hard drive for the system drive, mounted in the case on soborthane pads. for music storage, i use a 250gb samsung sata hard drive in an external enclosure, connected via esata. it's taken me a several years to arrive at this setup, and it's awesome...

you can put together a great system, with 2.5" system hard drive and 250-500gb esata external hard drive, for under $1000. i would highly recommend soft-mounting a 2.5" hdd inside to minimize noise levels from hard drive seeking and also to reduce heat build-up inside the case. from my experience with a 3.5" seagate hard disk installed inside the case, i would say it runs too hot (mid - high 50's C, occasionally peaking over 60!). by comparison, the 2.5" runs in the high 30's or low 40's, never reaching over 44 or 45 under the heaviest loads. it has the added benefit of being virtually silent.

another recommendation, if you have a laptop and windows xp pro, use "remote desktop" to connect to your audio pc and control foobar2000 remotely.
For those looking for cheap network storage, this looks interesting:
Studioray - you do in fact 'get it'. Good job listening - it really is a headcracker since it flies in the face of everything that we know as "audiophools".

Once you get the data out of the PC, getting great sound is all about everything you know and are used to. Power supplies, cables, speaker selection and placement, component synergy, tweaks. ie All the stuff that makes this such a rewarding obsession.

The miracle here is that you can use inexpensive PC gear to replace a very expensive transport. The reason that a truly premium transport is so expensive is of course that it is an incredibly complex electro mechanical optical device. In direct contrast PC gear is inexpensive because it is much simpler, and because it is mass produced to a single global standard. Stuff made by robots in the millions is a lot more cost effective then stuff made by hand.

This concept can be extended. The stock Squeezebox has a decent DAC and analog out. The big mod everyone goes for is $20 for a better wall wart. The thing to note here is that this is an effective demonstration of what is possible when you work with chips and silicon. You can get a lot of functionality for a very good price. An iPod is another example, as is the Nano. 14 million sold in Q4 2005 is going to change the game quick.

The other big piece of this is the joy of having instant access to your entire music library. It's really fun, really easy and very convenient. Most people, myself included, end up listening to a lot more music then the ten CDs that happen to be piled up by the player.

Beyond the very helpful folks in this forum, you will find a lot of good info in the PC Audio Forum on