Help....I have a blank slate and am flying blind


I am not an audiophile and am trying to get my arms around the whole thing - quickly. The water is deep. I've never had a nice system and am buying a new house. At the expense of all furniture, I want to rig the place for sound to the chagrin of my wife (who hopefully will not discover this post) and 4 kids (though the kids may well opt for music over furniture):

I basically want the system to be PC driven, but also have a couple of components that I would like to include (Teac H500 CD recorder/player and XM receiver). I have at least 4 rooms to rig and am shooting for low to mid-level audiophile grade.

I am thinking of setting the system up something like this: (but am missing a few pieces, which is where I need guidance):

750 GB external hard drive (just purchase new) --> P4 laptop computer (just puchased used) --> DAC (perhaps HAGUSB and/or something else --> cheap/decent receiver (need to purchase or perhaps a pre-amp with A and B channels):

A channel (for room 1) --> good amp (need to purchase - perhaps simaudio i-3) --> totem hawk speakers (just puchased);

B channel (for 3 other rooms) --> cheap amp (need to purchase) --> russound 10 speaker selector (just purchased) --> 8 inferior speakers in 3 different rooms (have them);

The critical threshold at this point is PC to receiver or pre-amp. I use iTunes and have a ton of music in Apple Lossless format, so compatability is an issue I think. My sense is to avoid a wireless connection and soundcards (I've heard they are inferior), so I think I need some sort of DAC, which is where I get off the bus.

I was looking at a HAGUSB (Hagerman Technologies - under $100.00) and a squeezebox ($299 model). The thing I don't like about the squeezebox is it appears that I would have to control it through their box and not through the PC/iTunes. If possible, I'd like to simply use the laptop as the the control center with iTunes as the interface (if that is the right word). I'd rather not spend more than a few hundred dollars on a DAC (I still have to purchase two amps, a receiver or pre-amp, wire, connectors, protectors, rack, etc.)

The second (less critical) threshold is choice between a receiver and a pre-amp. I suppose I could buy a cheap but decent receiver with an A/B channel, but I don't think I want the music filtered through a receiver. Is there a pre-amp with an A/B selector that I could raise the roof by selecting both A and B? This may affect the DAC connection decision from the PC. I have a couple of other components I want to include (CD player and XM receiver) so maybe I have no choice but a receiver - maybe I just answered my own question. You can see I am processing.

Long way to the short question: What is the best way to get from the PC (via usb?) to a receiver or pre-amp in a way that is both compatible with iTunes and would be considered "acceptable" from an audiophile standpoint at a reasonable cost (under $400.00)?

Any assistance is appreciated. Please respond in crayon and do not use "big" words.
graves
...it's even worse than that, you're mixing metaphors as well!
thanks for wading through my rambling garbled plea. unfortunately, i expended all my mental powers in boiling down the issue to this:

What is the best way to get from the PC (via usb?) to a receiver or pre-amp in a way that is both compatible with iTunes and would be considered "acceptable" from an audiophile standpoint at a reasonable cost (under $400.00)?

my mind is now completely spent - like the dollars i should be using for furniture and tuition but am instead throwing at this audio system - which is like throwing money at a hollow log. metaphor is too "big" a word to register at this point....
Very good, Viridian. Cunning linguistics, unite!
i would look into pbn audio. go to there site and look around. not a very well known company but very high end if you want nice realistice very high quality sound at least go look at there site
You don't even need the USB DAC. Simply get a LinkSys WMB54G Wireless MusicBridge. Connect the Digital Out (coax) from the WMB into a Digital In on your receiver. Then you can either connect the WMB to your laptop using wireless or an Ethernet cable. Voila! You can now play anything that can play on your laptop thru your home system.

I am doing exactly this and it works and sounds great. The WMB will set you back all of $89...

-RW-
Viola is definitely a word I can understand! Thanks for that! Word (not a real one): WMB54G

No compatability issue with windows based iTunes, eh. I've read about some issues with apple's "protected AAC," not that I have more than a couple of those files which I only purchased to plug holes in a few scratched CDs - and I can certainly live without them. Anyway, sounds like just plug in via ethernet and let'er rip.

My family thanks you for the $89.00 price tag.
Thanks, WWshull - great tip. PBN Audio appears to be very high end. With all the money I save by purchasing the WMB54G instead of a $2K DAC, I might be able to afford a large portion of the shipping charge for one of those speakers (actually, the prices aren't listed so they actually be within the stratosphere). Speakers are way down the line from the PC connection. PBN definitely looks like something to aspire to, though. My next task is to find a cheap/decent receiver that will connect to the WMB54G and not filter the sound too much. Also need two amps: (1) one to power a pair of totem hawks (simaudio perhaps); and (2) a cheap one to power 8 other inferior speakers. But I digress. Word: WMB54G.
If I'm interpreting all this right, you may also want to check out the Squeezebox (may be two words). It does a nice job either wired or wirelessly transmitting PC based music to your preamp. It's got a reasonably good DAC built in. You get a bigger boost by using a separate DAC but you don't need to go there right away. Good luck.

P.S. I'm not sure if it works with iTunes but you can look that up on their website.
If everything goes through the pre-amp, don't get cheap here. If you get a multizone pre like an Anthem or Sunfire, you will be set. Most good receivers will work but, it takes a lot to make Totems go...
For zone 2, most 80-100 watt amps will work. No junk though or you will have issues down the road. Get something that can always be on. If it is going to be out of sight/mind, something with a cooling fan is ideal. Also, you will need something to control this sound from other rooms unless you want to keep having to run to the main room. Go look at what dealers are pushing, Niles, Xantech...
If you want iTunes, the just buy several AirPort Expresses from apple.com, put them in each room and get a good glass-fiber Toslink cable for each. Then run this Toslink to some inexpensive digital receivers, like the Panasonic SA-XR57. For your "good" system you can use a better DAC, like the Northstar 192, Benchmark DAC-1 BelCanto DAC3 or Lavry. If you want it even better, reclock the Toslink with a Pace-Car reclocker and then send to the DAC's above with S/PDIF coax.

Steve N.
Empirical Audio
Manufacturer
Hmmm. I was quite satisfied with the two words: Viola and WMB54G. Now we seem to have introduced a few competing words, namely: (1) Squeezebox (w/built in DAC); (2) AirPort Express; and (3) a better DAC (Northstar 192, Benchmark DAC and BelCanto DAC3).

Squeezebox sounds appealing and has great reviews, but I think I would have to run the system off of the their "box" and not the iTunes profile, which would seem to cut the PC monitor, keyboard and mouse out of the picture. Sounds like that might add a level of complexity, but maybe not. I could be off base here - don't really know.

The BelCanto DAC3 is a notch above for sure at $1800.00. I think I saw a used BelCanto DAC1 for about $350.00. I wouldn't mind springing for that I suppose, but frankly, I'm not sure exactly how the external DAC rig would work and whether it would be any better than -- say -- a WMB54G (wired via ethernet). This may be where the rubber meets the road: Would a BelCanto DAC3 at $1800 sound 18 times better than a WMB54G at $100, or would a used BelCanto DAC1 at $400 sound 4 times better than the WMB54G (wired via enternet), or would a Squeezebox (may be two words) at $300 sound 3 times better than a WMB54G?

This is where my ignorance shines best: I'm don't understand the difference between an external DAC (like a BelCanto device) and something like a WMB54G or Squeezebox (with built in DAC). The PC/receiver connection seems critical, so I'm willing to go $300 or $400 I suppose, but I'm not sure what I'm getting. I'm not really ready to go $1800 for BelCanto DAC3 at this point.

Elevick, I will not go for junk on the amp and will sufficiently power the totem hawks - thinking of simaudio i-3 specifically dedicated to the hawks. I think I just need power for the other speakers, so maybe an old integrated NAD or somesuchthing. Still hung up on the PC/receiver bridge....

I haven't even stuck my big toe in the water yet, so maybe a starting point would be the WMB54G (I have no comparative bias so won't know any better) and then upgrade at some point to a good used external DAC. But if there is an absolute marked difference in sound quality with better DAC, I'll skip the intro/entry level and move up a notch past the WMB54G.

I'm wondering whether this is really about sound quality, or, rather, finding something that works without bridge/conversion glitches. I have read about "jitters" but I have no idea what that means. If an upgrade from a WMB54G to a squeezebox or used BelCanto DAC1 reduces sound glitches or results in better sound quality, then it's probably worth $200 from the outset if I'm going to spend it anyway. Or perhaps these are apples and oranges.
Difficult to discuss/compare/decide when I'm still flying blind....

I must say, Viola and WMP54G sounded big. It works and sounds great. However, the learning curve is quite steep here and I am so new that my mom is actually typing this for me.

Thanks for all the insight.

G
If you want iTunes, the just buy several AirPort Expresses from apple.com, put them in each room and get a good glass-fiber Toslink cable for each.

Can you stream audio from iTunes simultaneously to several Airport Express? (this may be a weakpoint of this suggested setup...)
Shadborne, yes, iTunes will stream to up to three Airport Express units simultaneously. There's a pop-up control that lets you turn them on or off individually so you can play through one, two or all three.
Shadorne - yes, you can drive several AE's from one computer.

Steve N.
Talking about differences in sound quality is probably about like canning fog. It sounds like multiple AEs may be an option, but that is a wireless solution. The WMB54G and Squeezebox both can be wired via ethernet, so presumably would avoid any airborn glitches. However, the Squeezebox costs 3 times as much at $300.00. It does not appear that anyone has a strong opinion about sound differences between the WMB54G and Squeezebox. So I'm inclined to go with the WMB54G - Viola - it works. Perhaps the next step up would be a more expensive external DAC, but I'm not sure why that is any better - though I'm sure it is.

In any event, in the absence of any objection from the audiophile community, it sounds like a wired WMB54G is an "acceptable" PC-->receiver connection solution from an audiophile standpoint. And that is good enough for me.

Thanks for helping me connect the dots. I am still blind and dumb as to the particulars, but I look forward to hearing well -- at the expense of just a few key pieces of furniture.

G
Graves - I'm not arguing with your solution, I'm sure the Linksys box will work fine but, just in case anyone else with a similar question reads this thread, the Airport Express can be used hard-wired, as well. It's got an ethernet port.
Hmmm. So the AE would do the same thing as the WMB54G...and would be fully compatible with iTunes. So the AE connects to the PC via ethernet and then somehow directly to the receiver (not wireless). That does sound like another good option - confarnit. Several good options requiring yet another decision: WMB54G or AirPort Express (wired via ethernet). A difficult situation for the indecisive, but both good entry level options for the would-be audiophile trying to build his or her first erector set. Thanks for the clarification/insight!
The AE is designed primarily as a wireless access point and the ability to connect it to a audio system is an add-on.

There are two ways to get the audio stream from the AE to your receiver. You can get an analog signal by using a stereo mini to RCA cable and connecting to any of the line-level inputs on the receiver. Alternatively, you can use a mini-toslink to toslink cable and get a digital signal which would go first to a digital/analog converter and then on to the receiver. Both the analog and digital outputs come from the same jack on the AE and the output you get just depends on which cable you use.

I've used the AE only with a Mac and can't compare it to the other options you have but I do think it could work.
Sqeezebox is excellent. I have two in my house.

I can control it from the "box" and equally well from my laptop.

On the laptop, I connect to the machine running the SlimServer. E.g. I type "http://192.168.11.2:9000" in my browswer (or create a link) and my laptop is now "browsing" the slimserver (in much the same way that the Sqeezebox "browses" the SlimServer.

I actually have two different SqueezeBoxes in my house. From any laptop anywhere in the house, I can control either Sqeezebox (e.g., adjust volume, change playlist, play/pause/stop, shuffle, etc.).

The DAC on a Sqeezebox is very good. If you are an audiophile with money, you have an awesome amp and you have awesome speakers, then you may (or may not) want to get an off-board DAC. Otherwise, just connect Sqeezebox staight into your amplifier, processes, AVR, whatever. I'm using RCA jacks into my NAD; but it has optical and coax digital if you want to use the DAC built into your AVR instead.

There are other digital music solutions than Sqeezebox, but I've been very satisfied.

p.s., I'm also very interested in this thread since I want to find an effective solution to drive speakers in four different rooms.
I pulled cat 6 wire throughout my house and I am running two slimdevices (Transporter) and Squeezebox. It is amazing just how many ways I can access my music as the slimdevices software seems to cover all possibilities.
Follow up question re: the squeezebox (best of both worlds?):

All my music will be stored on a large external hard drive, which I envisioned would be connected to a laptop, which would, in turn, access/control the music via iTunes. I have spent the better part of the last two years importing my CD collections and saving each CD in two formats: AAC (for iPod) and Apple Lossless (for home use). I am now married to iTunes.

I envisioned the laptop being stationary - hard wired to both the external hard drive and DAC/receiver. It would nice for the laptop to be mobile, but I prefer not to have a wireless bridge for the music. Perhaps - with the Squeezebox -- there is a way to have the best of both worlds, a hard wired connection to the PC music with wireless/portable control from any room (or on the back porch) via laptop, which brings me to my question:

Can the Squeezebox ($299.00 version) be hard wired to both the receiver and external hard drive, but controlled wirelessly via laptop so that the music is piped to the pre-amp directly from the external hard drive (via squeezebox), but volume and browsing could be controlled anywhere in the house?

Sure, you can use a network ethernet cable to the SB3. Then you can access it using a wireless network from ANY computer. It does not improve the audio quality though.

Steve N.
Regarding the connectivity, keep in mind that the SB3 solution has three components:

1. The disk storage that contains the audio files. This should be phyiscially wired on the network or directly attached to the PC below

2. The PC (or laptop or media server) functioning as the SlimServer (any old laptop can do). This is the device that will read the files (from the drive) and stream the audio to the Slim Devices. This should be physically wired on the network as well.

3. The Sqeezebox (or Transport or PC/laptop running SoftSqueeze). This can be wireless or connected to the network -- it makes no difference as AudioEngr noted.

[As an aside, the Wireless Sqeezebox also has an ethernet port. You can use this to connect the SB to the hardwired network. Or, you can use the SB as a wireless bridge and use it to other non-wireless equipment to the network.]
This is a link which describes various network configuation options for the squeezebox. If you scroll down, the last illustration called "bridging" seems to allow a laptop pc to wirelessly access the squeezebox which is hard wired to a stand alone pc (with stored music). It's over my head, but fortunately there are no big words and just few arrows. I think this might be the answer:

http://wiki.slimdevices.com/index.cgi?NetworkDesign