Recommendation for Computer/Digital

So I've been doing research into various solutions to my issue- most of my music is on my computer. I don't have a pretty low-end CD player right now and instead of spending money on a decent player I have been exploring computer based audio solutions- Squeezebox, Roku, new soundcards (M-Audio etc.). I have a laptop and its internal soundcard is all I have.

I've been getting caught up in the idea of a squeezebox right now, and with the cost of mods it's getting out of my range. I'm looking to spend up to $500 max. An M-Audio transport, which is the basis of the Red Wine Audio USB Select solution (a $500 solution) costs $99. I'm having a huge problem in figuring out how the variety of solutions compare and where the most bang for the buck lies. I've even been using my XBOX as my digital music player for awhile now.

My request- your views on the best way to get great sound in my price range from a computer with a crummy soundcard. Personal experiences are greatly appreciated. Is a stock Squeezebox a good thing? It seems that all the raving is from the modified end.

My system so far: I have a McIntosh MA500 Amp and B&W Nautilus 803D speakers (I think that's the right Nautilus model- I'm away from home for several months for work). Any suggestions to improve that would also be appreciated. I'll admit I bought without knowing too much- my wife's ears were the main reason we ended up with what we did, even though I'm more of the music lover.

Thanks for any responses.

I would suggest an M-audio card preferably with the RCA outputs. They do a great a deal of audio recording gear which is in large part done with a computer now. I had an M-audio card and it sounded good.
I have the Red Wine USB Select and love it. I bought the $400 version (I'm feeding SP/DIF into a ack Dack 2.0). It sounds truly amazing. If you need a solution for $500 that includes a DAC, you may want to try the version with analog outs. If you need remote access, I'd try a Squeezebox. You can always modify it later if you like it.
You have some pretty nice pieces. And there is no way that you can get a traditional source of suitable quality for anywhere near $500.

I think that you will do well with a stock SB - just upgrade the power supply and be sure to use a pair of ICs that is as good as the rest of your system - after all its a source... What you will have to do to get great sound (mod or stock) is do a good job of ripping - no hope for MP3s...

As Matt points out, you can always send the SB away later. Or you can add a DAC or the mod and a DAC.

BTW I agree with your overall approach and went much the same route myself - no regrets. In fact, with the modded SB units I go analog out to the preamp. From a dollar point of view this means that I have also skipped the DAC, the extra pair of ICs and the extra premium source power cable, plus the tweaks for the DAC. When you start to add all that up, it makes the mods look like a total bargain.

I think I would go with the SqueezBox to start at $250.00 I don't feel you can go wrong. I chose the Roku but I am going SPDIF out to my MF Tri-Vista DAC. I have heard the analog out of the SqueezBox although it has been a while. I feel that the SB is better than the Roku in this area. Instead of modding the SB I feel that when funds permit you can go with a standalone DAC fed by the SB. I haven't heard any of the USB DAC's but that is also an option.

Not a recommendation... but I'm happy with the Roku Soundbridge. I have the M1000 w/SPDIF going to a Musical Fidelity A3.24 DAC and A3 integrated amp. In addition, I am also streaming WMAs and mp3s with Yahoo! Music Unlimited. The DAC doesn't do much for mp3s, but the WMAs sound just as good as CDs.
We've been running a computor-based transport for several years. It is based on Linux, and so does not crash like a lot of Micro-based approaches.

Data is read from the CD drive at a multiple of the playback. If a bit cannot be read, a variety of software and hardware techniques are used so that the bit stored on the hard drive is actually correct. The data on the drive is then buffered through memory and sent to the data output, jitter-free, as the Linux kernal is configured for zero-latency.

We used to have to work to find decent audio cards, but now that there are (finally!) DACs available that use USB inputs, we have a fairly easy connection.

Its a nice setup, and the process will run on a Pentium III, so it is not expensive. We couldn't figure out how to market it and never have, but the process is solid and performs as well as any transport we have seen.

Once you operate a transport that uses a hard drive, its hard to go back to one that does not! Hard drives get rid of all sorts of problems and ultimately you can get much better sound. Plus its cheap.

Another nice thing about this approach is that the process can be run remotely and wireless, so you can use the squeezebox as a remote interface. If you add a mouse, keyboard and monitor, the machine is Linux and can cruise the web effortlessly with no viral problems. It can store 1000 CDs. I am convinced that this is the future for CD playback, or for that matter, all digital formats.
Can I jump in here please?

I am also looking for a $500 ish solution to use a Mac iBook g4 as a music server (no fans on this puppy and I have a few extra 300 GB very quiet firewire drives as well), but I am confused about a few things. First, what about jitter? I read about it, but is it a problem I need to consider? From what I have read (or comprehended) only a USB DAC is "jitter free"? Alas, seems USB DACs are either $200 or $1000+ - nothing in the middle no? Should I be jittery about jitter (sorry, that was a bad pun) or at my $ point am I dreaming? Also, am I letting super discrete audiophiles scare me off? I have a decent system and it sounds very nice to me - HH Scott 222 integrated, Rotel 1070 CD player, Omega Super 3R speakers and decent interconnects, speaker cables and stands. Sure, this isn't the pinnacle of audio, but it sure sounds better than most (everyone notices right away) and the thing I do not want to have happen is for a music server solution to not sound as good as what I have now with the CD player. Advice and knowledge appreciated in advanced! Thanks.
Don't sweat the jitter. You remove so much grunge by dumping the electro-mechanical-optical complexities of real time playback that what's left is simply not an issue for most folks.

There are some USB DACs in the middle, notably from Scott Nixon. SB2-3 is the other standard choice. There is a clear upgrade path available starting with a $20 linear power supply.

Since you are a Mac guy and will be using iTunes and ripping Apple Lossless, the choice between USB and SB really comes down to lifestyle and convenience. USB is great if you want it in the room where the system and the computer are. If you want to wire the house or access the computer from another room, SB has the advantage as it is a network device.

Either way you are looking at plug and play. The big effort will be ripping your CDs.

Have fun
Thanks Ckorody - also for the advice to have fun! After I posted this I was reading all night about the SB3 and mods. I think that is the way to go for me.

Can I ask one more dumb question? What about Apple Lossless? Seems the rest of the world is all about FLAC, and I could get some software to rip all my CD's as FLAC (puts iTunes out of the picture, but...), but since both are "lossless" I am having to assume I won't be losing anything - except maybe hours of my life re ripping all of my CD's some day in the future.
Hi Karavite -

Ya know, there are Mac people and there are PC people. EAC/FLAC/Foobar is clearly a good way to go but it puts a certain onus on the user to make it all work. iTunes on the other hand does the work for you. There is an ongoing debate about whether Apple Lossless (ALAC) or any lossless format for that matter which would include FLAC, can be as good as an uncompressed, unprocessed WAV or AIFF file - this seems to come mostly from the PC side because there is some evidence that ALAC doesn't work as well on PCs as it does on a Mac. As best as I can tell, these are very small differences, not gross ones - I have no first hand experience since PCs give me a rash...

If you are truly persnickety and have a highly resolving system you might compare ALAC and WAV and decide for yourself. The problem actually comes with the way the various file formats handle metadata (called tags) such as album info, artwork etc. ALAC integrates beautifully with iTunes - you have a single, easy to use application that makes it easy to manage every aspect of the experience.

For my part I'll leave the rest on the table.
Hi Ckorody,

Yes, I just discovered the inability of .wav files to contain metadata. Good thing I found out before ripping all my CD's! :-) One thing confuses me - I do have a few CD's ripped into iTunes as wavs (I have iTunes set to import as wav) and yet, these CD's have information on them within iTunes (album, artist...). Is it that iTunes does some type of propiertary "meta tagging" when importing CD's as WAV (or any format), but that the same information would be lost when those same wav files are accessed by something like the SqueezeBox software?

I'm going to do it. When I get my modded SB3 all set up, I will try a "blindfold" AB between ALAC and wav just for kicks. Do you think any human could tell the difference? If ALAC is lossless, then I am not sure how that could be.
I've been hard-disk based for a few years now, and last year I bought a Wavelength Cosecant USB DAC. Absolutely stellar sound quality, minimal hassle. I screwed around with audio interfaces and DAC's for my first year before just getting something that worked well in a single box.

The Cosecant is different in that there's no upsampling/oversampling, no digital filters, just the pure sound from the source. If you've read about the 47 labs Shigaraki and how pure it sounds, the Cosecant is similar in design principle.

It works - there are several of us that have replaced five-figure CD players with Cosecants. My last cdp was a Naim CDX2/XPS2 and the Cosecant betters it by a large margin.
Hi -

I am not sure about the nuances of the tagging issue but clearly it can be a bear. iTunes (which is a database program at its core) - has its own data management scheme for storing the Gracenote data. (Gracenote is the databased that iTunes hooks up to in order to retrieve all the information it populates when you rip a CD, except for album art.)

Based on some quick research it seems that "the Itunes software can store the Gracenote data in it's database instead of storing it a file tag, but then if you switch players (or the itunes database is corrupted) you lose the data from Gracenote (can't move the Gracenote data to another player like you can with true file tags)."

As far as the SB goes - it automatically imports data from iTunes - at least ALAC. I am not sure if it gets it al (eg the composer) but it certainly gets anything you might reasonably need to find and play a cut. But just for the record, though the two applications share a passing resemblance, iTunes is a much more powerful database.

For simplicity, I always create my playlists in iTunes, then access them from the SB. I also find this works well on the iPod. IMHO neither the SB remote display nor the iPod are very convenient for sorting through large collections quickly - and SB software has no facility for creating Smart Playlists.

Finally, I have no idea if any human can tell the difference but please report your findings - there is no doubt that the online community is split on this one! Classic case of YMMV...
For audio, Linux is your best setup. You can configure the kernal for zero latency, which is something you cannot do with other platforms. Then use 'CD Paranoia' to read the CD onto the hard drive. Playing the CD back at that point you will have all the bits and with careful soundcard selection, as close to zero jitter as is possible. This is the best sounding transport we've heard so far and the process is cheap to set up.

This setup works with the Squeezbox, plus it is a Linux platform so it is very stable and secure (no viurses, worms, etc.).
Atmasphere, some corrections are needed to your post:

For playback, zero latency could actually degrade performance if anything should happen to interrupt system resources. A minimal audio buffer is far preferable. Low latency systems are important when considering virtual instruments or monitoring a recording.

Jitter does not impact cd ripping as it remains in the digital domain and out of the audio domain. It is purely a file transfer, and not an audio stream where timing artifacts can come into play.

For a simple task such as ripping CD's, the Linux/Mac/Windows argument really comes down to which operating environment you're most comfortable with. There are excellent choices available for all three platforms.
Hi Ghunter, yes, the jitter issue is only during playback. On our system we buffer the playback from the hard drive through memory. The idea was to create a dedicated transport- thus the zero latency configuration (we found on Windows that the system itself creates latency issues even when no other process was present- Linux seemed to solve that very nicely and no system crashes either :)

If you are running the transport with other processes at the same time a normal Linux kernal would be the way to go although is less than optimal (although newer sound cards that have appeared in the last few years seem to have erased some of these concerns).

Bel Canto has introduced a DAC that runs off of USB. Now we can bypass the stupid sound card issues altogether! Not tried it yet though.
Zero latency still isn't going to fix jitter - that occurs at the DAC stage and there's nothing in the OS level that is going to fix it. If you are buffering the signal in memory whatsoever then you do not have a zero-latency system.

I'm not being super-picky here, these are digital audio basics that you are misunderstanding.

Here is some good reading from Wavelength Audio:

I've been using their Cosecant USB DAC for about a year now with great success.
If you survey the posts on PC Audio, you will quickly discover that using a soundcard is not the way to go. It is very, very difficult to get clean audio out of the PC environment. That is why USB and Ethernet are so attractive - in both cases its about getting the data away from the PCs electro-magnetic interior before converting back to an analog signal.
I second the USB DAC route. I just bought a Wavelength Brick (Silver). It replaced a Wadia 861 and I couldn't be happier -- either from a sonic or ease of playback selection perspective.

Before buying a MacBook to use as a music server(and from which I'm typing this reply), I briefly used a 7 year old Dell PII (300mhz) desktop with the same success as the Mac. Old, nearly obsolete PC's are quite servicable as HD based USB music servers. So it's wise to put your bucks into audio hardware rather than PC hardware.
Alas, I am in the midst of big bucks home rennovation with no $$$ end in sight and it seems like all the worthwhile USB DACS are 1k - 2k or more. Originally I though a modded SB would be the way to go, but there are a few things that keep me from making the plunge.

1. Modded, it will cost about 1k after all is said and done.
2. I have a spare iBook and firewire drives up the wazoo I can dedicate solely toward music serving, co-located with my audio system. I don't need or really want wireless. Honestly, I like the idea of a little white iBook on my rack - you can always close it.
3. I don't know if I would like the user interface of the SB. I am really really picky about such things (my profession and education is in UI development/usability - I am the hardest person to satsify on this type of thing).
4. I really really like the iTunes interface (have used it for years on my computers) and I have a wide range of Bluetooth options for controlling my Mac if and when I am too lazy to get up and walk 10 feet to the computer.

So, it seems to me I should either lie to the wife and get a USB DAC (look honey, it is small and only cost $250 - so evil of me to even think this!!!) or maybe just wait as new and better products come along. The latter seems to always be a good option. Then again, is there no sub $1k USB DAC worth a try? Any other direct from the computer options less than/equal to $1k worth a try?

Thanks in advance.
I think it all depends on the quality of the rest of your components. If you're spending $20k on the rest of your system and are trying to get away with spending less than $1k on a DAC, you're going to be disappointed. The Brick and Cosecant are greatly underpriced when you consider the price of the cd players that they outperform.