High End User Interface for PC Audio

In the future, I am sure high end manufactuers will give us the same tweaky, visual and tactile happiness that we enjoy with exotic digital and analogue source devices.

In the meantime, however, one of the things that really disappoints me about PC audio is the cheesey, plasticky feel of surfing through iTunes on a computer, with my Tympanis, ARC and Mark Levinson eyeing me suspiciously from the background.

Indeed, there are times when I almost feel guilty, as if I were pouring cheap wine into a beautiful glass.

So I am wondering: using technology available TODAY, what would you use to upgrade the look and the feel of a hard drive based system, using UNCOMPRESSED files, delivered to the DAC of your choice?

A metal keyboard? laser mouse?

A sexy, HD capable monitor sitting on a coffee table to surf through your digital library?

Wireless technology to increase the - wow this is cool -factor for PC based audio?

Apple Mac G5? (Not a good answer IMO.)

Airport type wireless device? Or USB based device?

Thank you for your ideas.
I am currently researching options myself and I am being lured into investing in a Bluetooth-enabled and WiFi enabled Apple Mac Mini and Sailing Software's Clicker software to use a Palm or other Bluetooth-enabled PDA device to control the Mac Mini. I would use the Mac Mini as a dedicated music server, so I wouldn't need a display, keyboard or mouse for normal use. I am actually waiting with bated breath for the new Intel-powered Mac Minis that may came out at Macworld next month.

For a DAC, I am looking into Wavelength Audio's Brick USB DAC. It has received great reviews from Art Dudley of "Stereophile" and the Webzine "Enjoy the Music." Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio presents a strong case for using the USB bus as a digital transport for virtually eliminating jitter and other digital transport errors. Coupled with the fact that a PC (Mac or Wintel machine) is capable of delivering an error-free digital audio signal (memory buffers, hard drive error correction, etc.), a USB DAC makes good sense. Check out Wavelength Audio's Web site (http://www.wavelengthaudio.com/usbdac.html) and read about this emerging, and possibly disruptive, audio technology. I've also contacted Ack! Industries (http://www.ack-industries.com/dAck!.html) and they are developing a USB-enabled DAC as well. Another great argument for PC-based audio systems comes from Steve Nugent of Empirical Audio (http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue22/nugent.htm). Mr. Nugent is a former Intel engineer.

Because the Airport Express relies on an optical digital signal transmission, you may lose some quality of the digital signal from the optical-electrical signal conversion that could result in digital jitter. I'd stick with a hard wired S/PDIF, or better yet USB, connection.

If you choose the PC route, check out the offerings from Hush Technologies, a German Wintel PC manufacturer that uses fanless PC cooling. They employ heat pipes, heat sink fins and other acoustical and mechanical damping technolgies for creating a media-friendly PC. They offer remote options as well as a WiFi-to-Pocket PC connection option for remote control.
Hmm... Something in a form factor that looks like a piece of audio gear, not a computer. Try A-Tech Fabrication, for example. Heat pipe, fanless technology to limit sound. Quiet, isolated HDDs, or RAM drives for added quiet. Real audio outputs with better reclocking. Better indexing and CD lookup capabilities--song by song, for example. Something that will bring back cover art, lyrics, song, title, artist, genre, tempo, etc.

I'm actually in the process of redoing my computer interface. I've got an old Viewsonic 10" touchpanel that is wireless--it uses 802.11 on a wireless network to serve as a "remote desktop" for WinXP. I picked up a Serener fanless ITX mini-PC with a quiet 120 GB Samsung spinpoint drive, 800 MHz processor, and 0.5 GB of RAM, with WinXP. I was going to run both Cinemar's Mainlobby software and (probably) Foobar 2000 on it, as well as using it as the Slimserver for my Squeezebox 3s. The Mainlobby software, with girder and a USB to RS232 hub, will talk to my dCS stack, my Pio plasma, and HDMI switch. I'll have to use a USB-UIRT to talk to my PS Audio Power Director, pre-amp, and CATV box, but in the end, I should have a 10" wireless touchscreen that serves as a universal system remote and interface to audio. I'll just use the existing waveterminal U24 I have to run audio out of the ITX box to my gear.
This is all great and thank you.

I still think we are giant steps away, however, from the look, feel, build quality and high performance luxury of super high end audio components.

Re: "Great wine in a cheap glass" to me, perhaps I should have said that this PC audio stuff feels more like eating foie gras, or rack of lamb, on a paper plate with a plastic fork.

But there is no debate regarding the convenience and the dramatically improved quality of audio that is possible from this format.

Apple is a step in the right direction, but still doesnt really compare to a Rowland or Levinson or Jadis device.

Everything from the PC case itself - whether a "tower" or "home theatre" configuration...to the monitor, to the input devices should go well with our super high end, hand made heavy weight gear.

So please give us more ideas.

Ultimately, I would love to have hundreds of CDs, conveniently archived for "surfing", ripping for the car, or transfer to iPod, all CDs put in storage, then listen only to analogue and SACD when I really feel the need to have a geeked out listening session.

This is the future. High end, although smaller, is not going away, and I am not trading my SCD-1 for a Dell notebook.


put the PC in a nice case or hide it right behind your preamp! Then use VNC, windows remote, etc to remote control the screen like you were there off of a tablet pc which will make it like a big touch screen remote you can use anywhere in the house, oh yea you can surf the web as well or pull up information if you are in the kitchen. I am going this root.
If you want to pursue software upsampling and other DSPs, go with a USB to SPDIF converter or a DAC with built-in USB input.

Otherwise, you can save yourself a lot of trouble to go with Squeezebox or Soundbridge (avoid M1001) and use their digital output to the DAC of your choice.

See http://www.enjoythemusic.com/magazine/equipment/1205/slimdevices_squeezebox.htm
I just bought Dell Dimension 5100 PC as a dedicated Audio/Video Server in my Audio/Video room.

It's feeding USB to Waveterminal U24 to my Meridian.
(I don't trust wireless signal feeding for the quality of sound for now)

I'm using Microsoft Bluetooth wireless keyboad and mouse with it.
Use a tablet PC that gets the data from a network server drive and transfers by USB to your system. Totally wireless and has a nice portable screen that you can put in your lap.
My sleek 17 in. MAC G4 Powerbook looks pretty nice sitting on top of my stereo rack. It took a little getting used to but it has been well worth it. I too favor the "wired" connections (Wavterminal to DAC) over the wireless optical options.

I cannot honestly see replacing this set-up with a CD player. Even handling CD's has become passe' for me.
Personally, I think that the Apple Powerbooks are as elegant as anything put out by the high end audio crowd (and in a different league than most PCs)

I have a Power Mac G5 that is loaded with Apple lossless files playing through my DAC and Monoblock amps to the speakers.

But the best part is that I have a small (12"), elagant Apple Powerbook which controls the G5 wirelessly (and flawlessly). I can sit where I want in the room or wander around the house and have access to a staggering amount of music.

I will never go back to CeeDees!
I'm using a 12" IBM Thinkpad laptop to remotely control my VRS Audio music server over a wireless connection. Not as elegant as a MAC solution perhaps, but very convenient.

That said, I recently purchased a couple of Sonos zone players and controllers for a whole house system (www.sonos.com). The Sonos controller is a truly wonderful device in a great package. I would love to be able to control my VRS system with this! I've emailed both VRS and Sonos to that effect.
ibooks are perhaps the most contemporary small-sized package you're going to get. Run a firewire or USB cable behind the couch to get at your ugly drive enclosures or buy the Lacie enclosures.
I have started this journey myself and am waiting for the Intel chip MAC Powerbooks to come out before buying the laptop. I have however already started loading a sweet looking little 250GIG external HD made by a company called Wiebetech. The hard drive is all aluminum and should look pretty sweet on my rack once I have it loaded with high quality files. It is the tough tech model on their website http://www.wiebetech.com/home.php
I was informed of the tough tech drive by someone who I was discussing the Wavelength Brick USB DAC. I am going to go for the Off Ramp Turbo from Empirical Audio to a state of the art DAC. Babysteps....
To be fair, Off Ramp Turbo is state of the art. Pairing it with a good DAC, it should be as good as anything else.
Curious as to what DAC's you folks have found success with out of the Waveterminal.

Would anyone consider SRC upsampling in Foobar (channeling through a capable device) superior to an upsampling DAC downstream of the U24? Or non OS DAC for that matter?
I'm using a WT U24 with great results with a dCS Purcell/Delius combo. Haven't really messed with SRC, but I know there is one person who would say that its a better upsampler than any hardware out there... Audioengr?

One more scenario to your question: SRC upsampling in Foobar to an upsampling DAC. I use SRC upsampling to 96k and Benchmark DAC1 upsmapling to something like 110k.

This is conceptually hard to accept. But once I tried it, I became addicted to this configuration. Obviously, whether the sound is better or not, it's more a matter of personal preference.
Kenn39 - no external soundcard in your configuration?
I use a lowly M-Audio Transit and yes, Toslink. Happy so far.
We all have different tastes in decor, but I've had the iMac G5, with Front Row software, for 2 months. It works well and is a gorgeous piece of design, IMHO. It fits in as well as a computer can in my audio room, but if you're really into having it all look like audio gear, a lot of server-type systems are hitting the market. See, for example, the McIntosh review (the audio co., not the comptuer) on 6moons.

I've got my iMac plugged into a Wavelength brick, and am in hog heaven. If I get ambitious, I may post a review. -- David
Got my wireless link working last night, so now I'm using a Viewsonic Airpanel: http://www.viewsonic.com/products/mobilewireless/wirelessmonitors/airsyncv210wirelessdisplay/ (basically a 10" touchscreen remote desktop for a networked PC) and a hidden small form factor PC (doesn't matter how it looks if you can't see it) to run iTunes. The SFF PC is fanless with a quiet spinpoint drive--inaudible. Its hooked to the dCS gear with a waveterminal... Great fun.
Like Kenn39 I use the M-Audio Transit ($80). It is connected to a Benchmark Media DAC1 with a two meter glass fiber toslink cable. The rest of my system is a Bryston 14BSST and Von Schweikert VR-HSE speakers. My player is Foobar 2000 running at 44.1 khz with the ASIO (exe) driver. I'm extremely pleased with this setup.
Several things make the stock Transit only fair - powered from the PC, Optical output and power/signal noise. If you like the stock Transit, you will love the Off-Ramp Turbo or Freeway which are based on Transit with a coax, AES or I2S output, improved clocks and external power (even battery). These have 1/100 of the jitter.
This is all great and thank you everyone.

The mist is clearing a bit here, but I am realizing that I have a habit of sitting in my chair in whatever room, and wanting to have internet access and music 24/7 but without my laptop in my lap (too hot, screen too small, keyboard too cramped) but also without a PC obviously sitting in the room.

So I am wondering if I can

1) incorporate all your suggestions for best audio
2) hide the PC, put in a rack etc.
3)use a wireless keyboard, perhaps with some sort of IR booster device so I can take it around the room like a laptop - or even use it in another room

4) have only very sleek, unobtrusive monitors on a coffee table next to my chairs (but I guess this has to be hard wired?)

When not using the keyboard, I can put it away etc.

This way, the hardware would be much more stylish and discreet, but still somewhat permanently installed near my favorite chairs, no need to plug and unplug laptop, nice big display etc.

But I welcome further comments and suggestions.

I've tried the wireless keyboard and mouse thing. Its kind of cool, but only so-so functionality-wise. Optical mice, for example, don't track well on glass tables.

That is why I revived my touchscreen Airpanel--I can pretty much get away with doing anything or everything with iTunes w/o a keyboard. The airpanel is small enough that I don't mind carrying it around a bit.

The other alternative I've seen is folks running thin-client front ends on pocket PCs--you know, the little Palm Pilot like things. Might be able to figure a path to VNC or remote to your computer off one of those, and do it all with a touchscreen. Those things seemed a bit small to me when trying to index stuff on iTunes, hence the 10" touchpanel.
I have used several wireless combos for my setup and they disappointed me with their lack of range. I now own the Gyration product. 100 foot range. Never used my keyboard at that length but I have often been over 30 feet away from my DLP screen using it. You can use the mouse in the air or on a surface. Once you master the air method, using the mouse is a gas.

url=http://www.gyration.com/ultraprosuite.htm]wireless keyboard and mouse[/url]
Get a Squeezebox and use the remote control.

That looks good. Now we are getting somewhere...
You really like the gyration thing? Problem is... Don't ya still need to be able to read the monitor and focus on small lines to select items to play? Having a w/less keyboard and mouse work at 100' is great only if you have a Jumbotron to see it on. I've got a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and this doesn't seem that different, other than the funky motion sensor. I can't believe its all that good for fine control, though. Frankly, what is really needed is a good wireless trackball.

I still think touchscreen is the way to go. "Mouse" cursor goes to where ever you touch, double tap selects. Works great for iTunes. I can set the resolution/text size up so its easy to operate, even after fine motor skills are, er, slightly impaired.

I've also got Squeezebox 3s in some rooms, although I haven't really thought of it as an audiophile device. Is the digital feed out of the SB3 coax as good as, say, coax out of a Waveterminal U24? Gotta say, the SB3 has a display that is actually legible across the room...
When it comes to the digital output, Squeezebox is an audiophile device. It claims an output jitter of less than 50ps.
SB can get a lot better, no matter what they claim. Start by using a battery supply.
Maybe I had too much champagne last night, but I am a litte fuzzy on how the sqeezebox works.

Can someone please explain the basics?
Can it be used with iTunes?
The best source is SlimDevices.com.

Basically, you run a software called SlimServer on a computer or some NAS device. You can tell it where your music files are. Then, over a wired or wireless network, you can play these music files on the Squeezebox which offers analog and digital output.

No, you can't really use iTunes. SlimServer does scan iTunes playlists and incorporate the information in its own directory. A similar product, Soundbridge, can use iTunes in place of SlimServer.
The Squeezebox is a thin client. It interacts with a server program running on another network machine. Simplistically, the SB3 is a remote control front end that displays stuff as told by the server program, manages commands (like add this song to the current playlist), and is set up to receive music files and output those files through a coax digital port or analog L/R jacks. Its a non-functioning lump without a program running on another machine to support it, but... One server program can support multiple SB3s, and the "program" supporting them runs in the background.

So, I've got the server program (slimserver) running in the background on my XP machine in my study. The SB3 in my bedroom wakes up, sees that program, and starts interacting with it.

Theoretically it can interface with iTunes in the sense that you can tell the server program to look for an iTunes library file to manage the library. That means changes in the iTunes library are recognized by the slimserver program. I say theoretically because I'm spending my morning trying to make that work. There seem to be some issues with finding files over a network... Aie.
Nothing theoretical about interfacing the SB with an iTunes Library, in fact this specific capability is built right in to the SLIM software.... (though I will be the firs to admit that writing the path is baffling)

Lot of power in that since you can use on library for both - so for instance you can support a USB device off iTunes in one room, several SBs, access your music remotely over the internet and feed your iPod.
I find combining Slimserver and iTunes a headache. I have dual libraries--AAC files for portable iPod and ALAC for home use. The only way of keeping the AAC files out of slimserver and clogging that up (esp. since you can't tell an AAC from an ALAC until it plays) is to restrict the AAC files to a separate directory and *not* use the iTunes library file or to check all the ALAC files in iTunes and get slimserver to only use iTunes checked files. But since you check and uncheck things in iTunes all the time, it means you have to disable the slimserver from updating. Brain damaged either way.

Right now I've separated my AAC files and ALAC files into separate directories, but there are issues there too--I use EAC/iTunes to rip to ALAC, but when I convert to AAC, I've got to copy those files from one directory to another. Total PITA. I thought about resetting the "use this directory" setting in iTunes before doing the AAC conversion, but that seems to take forever, and it scares me because I have no idea what it is doing.

I'm also rethinking my support of the iTunes UI. I really wish the indexing was better and categories could be collapsed--how about a "view by album"? Or "view by album art"? How about a "now playing" queue that can be added to by double clicking on a song, rather than having that cut-off the current song and start the new one?

In some ways, this still has a long way to go...
I have stuck with a single format approach (Apple Lossless) for that very reason... but you're right it will only get better