Computer, CD transport or Network Player?


I currently have most of my music downloaded on my computer as FLAC files and listen to it through JRiver or Signalyst HQ (audio players for Windows) on my Dell desktop. The sound is amazing but I have a question and it is this:

Which do you find to have the highest sound quality;

1.  Redbook CD's directly played in a high quality CD transport?
2.  Ripped FLAC or Apple lossless files played through a high quality PC or MAC computer based audio player (such as JRiver or Signalyst for Windows or Vox or Clementine for MAC)?
3.  or music (from one's own private CD collection) loaded on a network player?

Using a DAC of course.
mewsickbuff
I prefer not having a computer in the system. For myself, I use a Melco N1A/2 Digital Music Library with USB out going to my DAC. That has been my favourite so far. Disclosure: we're Melco dealers, so you can take that with a grain of salt if you wish. However, over the years, I've found a dedicated device like the Melco to give the best results.
No difference - you can go any route provided

1) The DAC is a very good one (jitter immune and with a robust algorithm that reliably process all data inputs in the same manner)
2) The source files are bit perfect and there is no manipulation of volume or sample rate by the setup prior to the bitperfect data reaching the DAC.

Agree that you can go any route provided, but, with respect to shadorne, I disagree that there is no difference. Even with DACs that handle jitter extremely well, I've still heard the differences between the options mentioned by mewsickbuff. How much of a difference is highly dependent on the quality of the system and the components in these scenarios, but they can be different for sure. My best results have been obtained with a dedicated network server/player. If you're using a network player that doesn't have storage and are accessing a NAS, the quality of the NAS will make a difference as well.
 I agree with shadorne, but one caveat - the quality of the design and implementation will decide among any of the 3 approaches.

Big money is not required, but careful attention to ground loops, noise injection and phase error will be important.  USB can be a problematic interface too.

The speakers, their locations, room treatments, and the SQ of the initial mastering & recording processes will all be much more important.

A rel. new DAC design will give better SQ/$ than older ones, so I would avoid used if older.

Your question would be an excellent one for the numerous audiophile and industry engineers at
https://www.computeraudiophile.com
I prefer to transfer (WiFi) data instead of music.  Data does not contain timing thus computer itself (speed, playback program etc) is not important.  It can be done using WiFi, Ethernet or Asynchronous USB.   When you connect transport to a DAC then most likely it will be done using digital cable and S/Pdif protocol.  Timing of the D/A converter clock will be dependent on incoming signal timing and many factors can affect it, including digital cable itself, playback program, computer speed/setup and electrical noise.
So it looks like either of these setups can work IF implementation is top notch. I'm not much for Spotify, Pandora, etc. because I like to listen to my own music. If I listen to an album sample & like most of what I hear I buy the CD. Would an SSD computer be better than the HDD I'm currently running? Does a network player with storage have any advantage over an SSD computer?
I can't answer your question about DAC implementation. But.... My buddy Ghosthouse suggested a number of years ago to try out Spotify. At first I treated it as you do: like music, then buy CD. Now I just go to Spotify and listen to it there. My CD collection is getting smaller now and I'm fine with that. The best CDs stay but those that aren't getting play go to the car for evaluation and if they don't pass the test they get added to the pile that goes to Fingerprints in Long Beach where I sell them. I usually pick up a some new CDs, but many less than I sell. I've also shelved ripping all my discs to an NAS. Lots of work for little return with online sources like Spotify and Tidal. Of course YMMV and this is but one mans IMO. Have fun!
I have seen claims that SSDs sound better than HDDs, also that the LCD drivers in a laptop create more noise in the digital stream than say a mac mini (more room between components, so the inverse square law helps quite a bit).

What I have not seen is actual measurements or reliable listening tests (blind, randomized, adequate sample size, etc.).

BTW, I am a WiFi type guy also.  It also breaks ground loops and is convenient.

Some problems are only going to be of importance if you are spending many thousands of $$ on a system.
I once heard a demo in a friend's home of HDD vs. SSD, same music file.  The differences were not subtle, with the SSD offering much better everything.  This was a good, but modest system with bookshelf speakers, and plenty of tweaks.  I made up my mind that if SSDs get a bit cheaper, I will try to replace the HDD in my Vortexbox appliance with a SSD. 
I would think a non moving parts transport would be superior. But just wonder about the pros and cons of an SSD versus network player. How would a DSD DAC fit in this mix? Would it increase SQ?
Any of the three will work.  My personal preference by far is a silent Windows based PC.  Doesn't look like a PC if you choose the right enclosure.  It can be built for about $1,500 including an audiophile sound card, graphics card and very good Blu-ray optical drive.  Due to driver restrictions for the sound card it has to be W7.  Sounds phenomenal and no noise what so ever.  Allows you to do everything on your list and then some.  Personally, I fought this approach for quite a while. I am totally happy that I finally did this.
If interested I can give you the Email address to inquire and obtain the sound card. I can give you some advise on components as well.
Best of luck!
After lots of investigating my interest has been roused by PS Audio's DAC's, 1. DirectStream, 2. DirectStream Junior. Also impressed with what I've read about the exaSound e32 DAC. For all who are familiar with these DAC's I'd like to hear your opinion on them. My Calyx Femto came out in 2012 and as I said the sound is wonderful, but I wonder what's evolved since then and how might these newer DAC's compare. 
I hope that my experiences make sense and contribute. 
I've tried several paths for music.  I've  been running computer audio since 2005.  I've ran SPDIF, Toslink, USB.... I've used JPlay and Fidelizer. 
I've am on my 4th DAC,  I've had dedicated music servers in my system and have used general computers also,  towers and laptops. I have tried SSD drives, playing from Flash drives and from SD cards. 
So, the Melco N1A/2 or another dedicated music storage:  If you don't want to take the time optimize the computer being used for playback, these systems are superior to computer playback...
Although, when I have a dedicated computer for music playback and I turn off ALL background systems, use minimize drivers for any other software and dedicate this unit for Audio only,  I have gotten a computer to work as well as the dedicated servers. 
SSD vs hard drive:  SSD sounds better.  I have taken music and loaded it on an SD card, playing directly from an SD card slot,  this is most likely the best I've heard overall. (of course, this bypasses USB completely) 
As USB has improved,  I prefer USB over Toslink,  1 good friend of mine uses a Regen USB with external power supply,  I haven't tried that,  One of my personal problems, is that I'm very cheap and always feel that there must be an inexpensive alternative out there that is just as good, Of course,  I've been proven wrong on that one,  but I tried a couple of cheap Chinese USB solutions that go from the USB output on the computer to the cable that runs from the DAC,  trying to clean up the power and reduce jitter... the 2 Chinese plugs, both made a minor difference,  I recently put in a Holo Titanis USB filter,  this was very audible.  I was expecting better midrange and hi end, which I did get a bit of,  but to my surprise,  the biggest difference was a blacker back ground,  deeper, yet tighter bass and a slight improvement in image placement within the soundstage.
I hope that my experiences all make sense and may help someone.  I really enjoy reading others experiences, occasionally,  I pick up some new insight.  Tim
timlub (or anyone who can answer) how do you "optimize" your computer for superior playback. I always thought all you needed was a great DAC with a decent computer based media center like JRiver or Audirvana (and of course the rest of your downstream gear had to be decent) and it would give you superb music. Now I'm hearing music servers are superior to computers. Well I 'm happy with my computer (because it's simple) but now I'm curious about "optimizing" it. Suggestions?
I switched from a MAC Book Pro computer to the Aurender N10 Music Server.  All my CD’s are stored (AIFF) on the Aurender and it also supports Tidal Streaming (and Qobuz Streaming). The ability to switch back and forth between Tidal music streaming and my stored albums in the Apple App is now a very easy process (one mouse click).  The Aurender iPad app is much easier to use than my MAC Book Pro computer.   Album selection is also excellent with several different album selection choices available.  

The Aurender N10 Music Sever is highly recommended for its great sound quality and ease of use.

mewsickbuff, optimizing a computer for superior playback involves the reduction or elimination of as much as possible that's not audio related. Uninstalling as much a possible, turning off a wide variety of system services, etc. That's why I don't recommend a computer. You can buy software that does a lot of this for you, but it's a slippery slope optimizing computers, in my opinion. You now have a device that you're really not using for other computer related functions in order to attain the best sound quality. You're buying usb jitter reducing devices, etc. A good dedicated music server/streamer eliminates these issues.
optical or WiFi also eliminates the problems

- why not do some listening tests vs. an existing computer using the return privilege you get at several online places, or ask a local dealer?
If you decide on a computer, or a music server (like the Aurender), the device needs to be connected to the Internet using an Ethernet connection and NOT a Wi-Fi connection.  An Ethernet connection is especially important if you plan on streaming music using Tidal or something similar.  

In my case, I had to run an Ethernet cable under my house to my router that is located on the other side of my house.   I started using an Ethernet over power connection but discovered the sound quality was not solid and so I switched to an Ethernet connection.   My Ethernet connection is working perfectly and the sound quality is much improved over the Ethernet over power connection.
The first option might have better control of the "timing" than the other two, and apparently the human brain can detect timing errors fairly easily (what some people characterize as "digital glare" or "digital sound").
So, everest_audio, I'm understanding a dedicated music server is superior in sound to a computer and the music server doesn't need a DAC, correct? How is that possible? And randy-11, I'm understanding optical or WiFi eliminates computer jitter problems and also doesn't require a DAC, correct? The DAC is the most expensive item in my system. It seems going this route would be complicated (and expensive) to transition to. And I would still need a computer to rip CD's or download music purchased online.

It seems I'd need to purchase
1. a network music player probably with an upgraded PSU. (Takes the place of a computer). Does the player automatically playback HiRes, DSD or DXD files at their original resolution? If yes, it would take the place of JRiver and HQPlayer, too.
2. a media controller (probably an iPad (I don't care for i anything) with an app to browse and control music playback). (Takes the place of a monitor, mouse, keyboard and JRiver and/or HQPlayer)
3. a Network Attached Storage (NAS) where all my music files would be stored (Takes the place of a computer).
I already have a (wired/wireless) WiFi network connection. Again, STILL I'd need my computer to rip CD's or download music. So I'd be trading 2 expensive boxes (NAS & music player) for 1 computer and 1 DAC (or would I still need a DAC)?  Also trading 1 iPad and app for 4 items-mouse, keyboard, monitor & JRiver). Is this correct? If not please let me know because this new technology is just so complicated to me. Please keep in mind my number one priority is superior sound quality.
I have no full knowledge about DAC implementation. But as for music quality and music listening, I prefer to use Tidal and Spotify. Tidal supports high quality, Spotify supports free service. 
So nice to meet them. Besides, I have found a professional Spotify Converter, which allows me to convert Spotify music to MP3 so that I can also listen to music, playlists, podcasts offline on my portable devices.
You can have a try of them, Tidal and Spotify! Have a good listening experience with them. 
Although we are in a streaming time nowadays, there are some users still want to use CD for its best quality. If you'd like to play Spotify on CD, you can follow the tips to use the Spotify music converter. For more tools, visit: DRmare media software
Hi there I am getting into this thread a bit late in the game so forgive me . My choice is unequivocable I chose the computer and my reasons are as follows . How would you store your musical collections if you give up your chance by not having a computer with an optical drive in it. Also forget the c**p that any ol computer will do IT WILL NOT . I have built my own computer for music only and nothing else so cutting off precious windows apps does not bother me. Also an off the shelf PC does not give best performance for music , you have to build your own or get it built for you. It will not be cheap either ( remember this PC is for the best sound ). My machine cost quite a lot of money but I was a musician for a long number of years so I know the kind of sound I am looking for. Besides first class components making up the PC you also need first class components front and back of the PC. I use J Cat Femto Network and USB cards to get the digital signal to my DAC. As an aside I used to have a Gryphon Mikado Signature CD Player for a while untill I built my PC and l put the two side by  side. The Gryphon now resides in South Korea . If you would like more details about the contents of my machine and getting far supreior sound quallity private message me and I'd be delighted to let you know more.