Music Server vs. PC vs. Transport vs. ?

I don;t really want to add another rack in my living room. If I do, I may end up sleeping on one of the couches. Ideally, I would like to do the following:

1. Either use a pc or a server to store discs and have them accessable.
2. Have a way for the kids/wife to hook up their ipods
3. Have a way to get digital radio (xm, sirius or even computer streaming, doesn;t matter)
4. Do all of this WITHOUT degrading the sound quality ( i know, the ipod, by definition will do this)

My understanding of most high end DACs is that they do not have USB ports, but that is the ideal port to use to negate jitter. As I was researching this, I got the latest issue of the absolute sound, and they address some of this a bit. My feeling seems to be that one pays a HUGE premium for a server, that both their DACs and PCs DACs suck, and one has to get a USB to AES or other adapter, and still use an external DAC. It also seems that if one is willing to use a lossless system, that the universal opinion is that a hard drive rivals or beats any transports.

So my initial thought would be to get a pc with an ipod dock, run lossless, get an additional adapter say from Wavelength, and use the current dac. That adds at least two pieces, maybe three.



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Showing 13 responses by ckorody

Good one Kana - and now for something completely different...

So here is the deal Chris. You are dealing with two issues here - hardware and software. A "music server" bundles (combines) hardware and software to make a theoretically easy to use application. Naturally there are all sorts of costs associated with same, and while they are handy, most people on these boards choose to roll their own.

The easiest way to make your own server is to get a Mac and use iTunes, which is Apple software that comes free with the Mac. iTunes enables you to rip (take the contents of a CD and put them on disk), add metadata (additional information such as album art), and create playlists. It also lets you do a lot of other things that you might like including video,, and radio.

The beauty piece of this is that the same library that works for your reference system can also be used for your iPods. (Though Apple Lossless will fill up your iPod faster then AAC)

There are a variety of ways to get the data from the Mac to the DAC. You need to consider what I call the lifestyle parameters - how many places in the house do you want access etc.

Again one iTunes library can support several different approaches - for example a USB DAC or USB to SPDIF converter for your reference room, and a bunch of ethernet or wireless devices (eg Squeezebox and Airport Express) in other rooms.

As far as the USB options, there are several. The most basic are devices like the HagUSB from Hagerman Technology.
This is a box that you plug the USB cable coming from your Mac into, it converts the USB to SPDIF and then on to your DAC.

The best stuff bypasses SPDIF entirely and uses a protocol called I2S. The Wavelength products use this approach and they are excellent though not inexpensive.

Do some searches in this Forum, as well as the PC Forum on Audio Asylum - everything you need to know is easily found. This is no longer hard, and the results are spectacular - both acoustically and from a convenience perspective.
No pops and ticks with my USB Wavefront Cosecant or Squeezeboxes running on Ethernet
see the current post on USB conversion to understand the options for transferring from Mac to DAC

you will in all likelihood want to use an external (perhaps dedicated) drive for reasons of space and convenience. this is one place an open system trumps the packaged server

there is no delay, certainly no more then you experience with a cd
Bronto - very elegant solution! And incredibly cost effective.

For those that are still struggling a bit with all this, might I add that nothing prevents him from also using a computer with a USB DAC on the same network - of course the computer does need to be on.
Jpod -

Not sure what's the latest and greatest as mentioned above but to date iTunes is redundant to the SlimServer software when it comes to actual playback over an SB. In other words, the SB software provides the same functionality of iTunes(not entirely accurate since it doesn't rip but close enough)

I use iTunes to do all of my ripping, adding metadata (album covers mostly) and generating playlists. The cool part is that all of the songs including the playlists and the metadata is also used by the iPod and the SlimServer software.

To be clear - iTunes, iPod and Slim all access and share the same files. Of course the iPod accesses them through iTunes, while you simply point the Slim software at the iTunes Library folder.
Brontotx - one of the very cool things about SLIM software is that it is open source - the apps you are describing are most likely just that.

The flip side is the "hard to get working" part. This is also true of EAC which is the "awesome" PC ripping software that is shareware (or freeware) from Germany. Here to it takes a lot of time and know how to get the most out of it.

While iTunes for the moment does not appear to be as good a solution for the PC folks as it is for the Mac, there are huge benefits in terms of ease of use, tech support etc. After all over 100M iPods have been sold, all running on iTunes. Besides the fact that I am personally very pleased with it, that is why I point most newbies at it.

BTW SLIM is coming out with a major whoel number release (V7) - it will be interesting to see what they have done to make it an easier to use and more lovable interface.
Interesting rig Under1630

If anyone reading this is considering going this route, keep in mind that it would have cost about $10 to install a USB card instead of the Card Deluxe, and then run to your choice of USB DACs...
1630 -

Dude, don't you think you are being a little harsh? There is no reason to be disrespectful.

Read - and understand my post. A USB card is NOT a generic sound card. It is a USB card. Nothing more or less. One can use it to run any kind of USB device - including DACs.

If you know enough to want the electrical isolation between the PC and the DAC that Toslink provides (because it is fiber) you can achieve the same thing at a lower price with the Opticis USB Fiber Optic cable.

I have been helping people do this for a long time. The point I always make is that there are a lot of different solutions.

Some involve roll your own solutions - because a lot of people who are geekish wouldn't have it any other way. Some prefer buying prebuilt servers as you did. Good choice you are obviously an analog guy.

Posting here is about making people aware of those choices. The best solution is the one that meets your needs. For some people it is budget, for some it is ultimate resolution, for some it is ease of use.

As for zipcord, had you taken one minute to look at my system you would see that we both use Cardas GR...
Thnx for the kind words.

I would like to clear up one misconception. That is, if you use USB you do not need an internal soundcard. The whole point of both USB and Squeezebox (Ethernet/WiFi) approaches is that you remove the conversion of data to audio formats from the computer environment which is filled with all kinds of nasty stuff (drives, power supplies, video cards etc)

That is why most people after some experience opt to spend their money "outside" the box.
Hi -

1. What is the right DAC to get? you can use the one you have. If you don't have one I suggest a USB DAC or a Squeezebox depending on what and where you want your systems

2. What is the right format to import files into iTunes for the best sound?
Apple Lossless with error correction on, all other sound functions off

3. Is there other software out there besides iTunes that should be considered on the Mac?

4. Is the drive on the Mac optimal for importing music to the drive?
Yes but it is probably too small and no matter what you will need a second drive to back up to

5. Does transmitting the music over a wireless Internet (Airport) degrade the music in any way?
WiFi is a radio signal. Line of sight is best, thick walls and floors are generally counter indicated for success.

WiFi can degrade the signal in that the signal can be disrupted by external factors leading to drop outs - if you have trouble with a wireless phone in your location, you will probably have trouble with WiFi.

6. Is Ethernet superior to Wireless for music transfer?
Yes in that it is more robust and can be run wherever you want it

7. Are there any good websites to learn more about this?
Do take a look at the PC Forum on Audio Asylum and also search on this Forum - a lot here - keep in mind that this is changing fast so I would look at the most recent posts first

Do keep in mind that doing this on a PC is a very different problem then doing it on a Mac - for instance EAC, Foobar, Secret Rabbit etc are specific to PC as is the K-mixer and ASIO issue

As far as commercial sites, take a look at the SLIM site - they are the leaders in the WiFi/Ethernet space

This blog is a bit old but has a lot of good info
Hi H -

obviously you replied to Rbstehno before reading my reply to your questions.

The absolute best file format to use on a Mac with iTunes is Apple Lossless. Apple Lossless contains exactly the same data as a WAV or AIFF file which are both uncompressed. However Apple Lossless was designed to work well with metadata (tags) which WAV and AIFF being older formats were not.

Metadata is the stuff that tells you everything you want to know about the album or song you want to select and play. It enables all of the sorting and list making that makes iTunes such a versatile and powerful integrated solution.

Trust me, you are not the first person who has come on this board fixated on quality reproduction. We all are, and we have all made the switch because we are enjoying better sound then we had before.

BTW no compression of audio files takes place when they are sent via wireless. Audio files are very small, and so they are very easy for computers to deal with. That is one of the big reasons that computers found their way to recording studios long before they ever came to film and television.

The compact file size is why WiFi works and why you can use USB1.1 - small amounts of data, even smaller when compressed.

Think of it this way. The data starts life as a AIFF on your CD. Using iTunes, the data is "ripped" from the CD and stored on a hard drive along with any metadata you may want. When you want to play a song one of two things happens.

If you are using Toslink or a USB DAC, you select the song in iTunes and push Play. The hard drive spins and begins sending data up the USB cable (or Toslink cable) to the DAC. It is the DAC that converts the data back to an analog signal. Incidentally this is the big benefit over sound cards which do the conversion in the electrically noisy computer environment.

If you are using WiFi you may or may not control play from iTunes - this depends if you are using AirExpress (iTunes control) or a Squeezebox on WiFi or Ethernet in which case you will no longer control play from iTunes.

Instead, you will control it at the computer from the SLIM web based browser which looks and works a lot like iTunes, and uses the iTune data library. (SLIM has no capability for ripping but it can read iTunes and iTunes playlists) But having a Squeezebox (SB) gives you a second choice which is to access the hard drive through the SB using the remote.

In short its two way which means you don't have to run back to your computer to change the song. Can be very handy! Also, if you are thinking about doing your whole house an Ethernet network enables you to add a NAS server and eliminate your personal computer from the equation entirely.

Anyhow once again via iTunes, the remote or the web browser, the hard drive spins and sends the data out via WiFi or Ethernet. The data is received and converted at the remote location.

If you want to cable, you have three choices.

If you want to run Toslink and are concerned about mazimum quality you will want/have to use a one of the premium Wireworld SuperNova 5+ glass cable. I ran this from my G5 to my TriVista for a long time with excellent results. The longest length available is 5 meters.

If you want to use Ethernet you will have to go with one (or a mix) of the SLIM products - the Transporter with the Modwright analog mods is supposed to be pretty rocking and will cost about the same as the BelCanto. Note that volume can be controlled through SLIM and iTunes (true digital volume control).

If you want to run USB you can use the Opticis USB fiber optic cable. For about the same money as the long Toslink you can go 100 feet. Note that an Ethernet cable is more compact and requires smaller holes in your house...

What is good about all four of the solutions you are considering is that in each case you are physically decoupling the computer from the DAC. This will help eliminate ground loops and sometimes weird static.

Hope that this is helpful.
Hi - glad to be of help.

Don't use AIFF - you need the metadata

As far as getting a digital signal out of the Mac Toslink, DAC, WiFi and Ethernet are all options. And who knows what Steve will have for us next week.

About SPDIF., Everyone is amazed at how a humble hard drive bests a fancy CDP. Why. Well reason number one is that a hard drive is not subject to the same kinds of jitter and other distortions inherent in a complex electro-optical-mechanical system designed in the 70s.

Beyond the transport which is clearly the primary culprit, the secondary culprit and source of jitter is SPDIF. SPDIF implementation is extremely problematic and often poorly done. A premium SPDIF cable is expensive and rarely longer then 2m. BTW Toslink was Toshibas answer to SPDIF and can be equally problematic. The best Toslink cables are less expensive then SPDIF cables and come in longer lengths. Toslink is often looked down upon by audiophiles but 6 moons (among others) ran some tests and it was pretty much a tossup. Remember that fiber decouples the PC and the DAC which a SPDIF cannot do.

If you have a SPDIF you would be better off looking at something like the Hagerman or Blue Circle USB to SPDIF devices.

Start with what comes free with your Mac - FrontRow is a pretty cool remote that might meet your needs. There are a lot of fine alternatives if you need them.

Put the room on the Ethernet now and be done with it. One thing to consider is where you will be doing your ripping. That Mac needs to be connected to the Internet in order to populate the metadata. (Of course you can use Airport for that as well)

Keep us posted and have fun!
Practically speaking you can go a lot further for less money using Toslink. In my experience the premium Wireworld Super Nova was every bit as good as a SPDIF - difference being I got 5 meters for less then the price of one meter of good (not great) SPDIF.

As for the soundcard, more is probably more but why not start with what you got and if it makes you nuts buy up.