Someone please 'splain me

I want to set up a hard drive system so that my wife can enjoy uninterupted music as she is working downstairs. I'm somewhat familiar with the steps involved, but have several specific questions. Here is our setup:

One room upstairs:
Cable internet connection with PC connected to wireless router

Other room upstairs:
Audio system - CDP has digital input with USB-digital converter

Networked PC

1) Which 250GB external hard drive should I buy? I'm hearing conflicting opinions about what works/doesn't work with PC
2) Should I simply hook up the external hard drive in the audio room to a laptop, or....
Should we put a wireless Squeezebox on the router in the computer room upstairs, and is it even worth the expense to do so?
3) What cabling will I need?
4) Can my wife control the music from her computer downstairs?
5) Is iTunes the best music organizer for our needs?

And finally, do you think we need to install $1100 PC's on all of the CPU's? Only kidding, cable flamers...

Thank you,
Howard -

I think you need to take the long view here and recognize that you are building the foundation for what will become your digital media network. Trust me this is insidious, once you experience the quality and convenience you won't want to go back to your wicked old ways...

You are actually off to a good start since you already have some first hand experience with the computer side of the equation.

Here is what I think you are asking about...

#1 - Assuming you are going to RIP in a Lossless format plan on about 10Mb per minute of music - so a CD is between 400 and 700 Mb (rare but happens). So - how many CDs you got? How many you likely to get? BTW makes no sense not to rip lossless - eventually you are going to want this in your big rig and MP3 sounds like caca at that level. Here is the mantra for the day - rip once, use many.

Point being that HD space is very cheap - go and find a deal somewhere like Newegg on a pair of USB2 or Firewire drives -one is your backup. You want a 7200 RPM drive with 8Mb buffer from Seagate, Western Digital, Maxtor, Samsung or Hitachi. All about the same. The better ones are sold for the near enterprise market (as opposed as to the consumer market), have slightly longer warranties (not helpful but an indication of longer MTBF) and only cost a few bucks more then the cheapies used as come ons by the electronic stores. If you want to save, put them in the case yourself. Make sure the case has a fan and substantial power supply (>30w)

It is not essential but I recommend a dedicated hard drive for your audio assets if you have a substantial library. Just cleaner and neater.

Ignore the useless posters who would only use Brand X or know for a fact that only Brand Y is any good for audio... it's a very competitive global market dealing in the millions of units, it ain't that hard and as usual you get what you pay for. It is so cheap now its not an issue.

#2 - The tricky part here is the wireless and what lives where - you will just have to try it to see how well it works in your specific environment. WiFi is a crappy, very directional radio signal so it gets fussy about walls etc (good clue - how is it working now - does she have good download speeds?)

Assuming you go with iTunes (see #5 below) the discussion and analysis you have to do is really between iTunes and Squeezebox (SB) since they will both let you do what you want to do at any given location in your home...

The big key here which is gaining huge traction fast is that in addition to your library she can listen to a bazillion radio stations for free or for a slight subscription fee (live365 etc) This is an awesome feature especially if a) your CD collection is limited or b) her tastes are eclectic. All that is required is a reliable internet connection to do the radio thing - the same one she uses to surf the Web and do her email.

A key difference is that SB can do this without using any computer resources - in fact the computer need not be on at all. If her machine is RAM limited this may be important. I would definitely include a RAM upgrade in the planning for this.

#3 & 4 - The SB or Airport device needs to be near the audio system not the hardware. Both the SB/Airport are network devices which need a place on the network with their own IP numbers BUT, and this is the key, they also have to physically interface to your sound system.

Meaning that you need to get an analog RCA pair from the SB/Airport to the preamp/amp (or a SPDIF to a DAC if you already have that gear) - so it probably wants to be near her unless the house is wired for sound. Sketch a diagram and you will see it immediately. Practically speaking this puts the device within 6 feet of the sound system.

If you go SB - She can control the SB using the dedicated remote (a distinct difference from Airport and a very useful thing if you are going to have multiple nodes), or from the free SB browser based app that looks a lot like iTunes.

If you go iTunes she will control things with the iTune app in her computer.

There is a volume control in both the SB and the iTunes software and a complete 'transport' interface to stop/start etc. She can select by artist, album, genre, playlist, shuffle etc in either application

Again you may want to look at upgrading RAM etc if she does heavy work or has an entry level unit. Its not a big processing load but the key with audio is no breaks - worse case she will hear something like a long dropout when she is hammering the computer with some other task and then you'll know you have to either live with it or upgrade the hardware.

As far as where the drives live. Using premium cables (for conductivity not sound quality) with USB you can go 15', with Firewire 30' so a nice handy closet in her office would be fine. The drives (the second one only needs to be on when you are doing backups) will be connected to a PC not the SB...

If you don't mind if the upstairs computer being on all the time, then you could certainly leave them up there - haven't tried it but should work - again YMMV based on your very specific WiFi conditions,

#5 - Is iTunes the best? If you have a Mac absolutely. If you want something bulletproof supported by a F500 company (OK so the help line is in India but there is one and chances are good you won't need it) that will continue to invest in the product, absolutely. If you want an elegant seamless integration of all aspects of PC audio - ripping, file management, and player control plus the opportunity to shop for music online, easily integrate album cover art, manage an iPod, burn CDs absolutely.

The really good news is that SB is totally compatible with iTunes so you can have a mix and match system using various devices as appropriate - remember the foundation thing at the top...

If you are a very fussy audiophool with abundant Windows computer skills, have time and patience or simply are someone who enjoys geeking about, and you want/demand the ultimate in playback and control, you can of course go into the wonderful world of freeware and shareware and roll your own. If you are on the fence, I suggest you spend some time on Audio Asylums PC Forum searching on topics like EAC, Foobar, FLAC, ASIO, K mixer, Secret Rabbit and the like to get a better understanding of what can be accomplished and what you will have to master to get there.

Very powerful to be sure but... Lets just agree that the guys who whine about iTunes and how much better EAC is are a)right in a absolute sense and b) the same guys who carry on about hard drive brands.

My experience, and the experience of hundreds of people whose posts I have read is that you can get 98% of the goodness with iTunes including a choice of lossless formats. Note that there is no combination of apps I know of which gives you the flexibility of iTunes - and if you have an iPod or two, you are going to end up with iTunes anyhow. Remember the mantra here is rip once, use everywhere...

PLUS iTunes gives you two other important options you have not mentioned or may not have considered.

First - you can put iTunes on her machine and connect her machine (via a USB device or worst case a soundcard) to the preamp and skip the whole network thing for now. Or you can use Airport Express as a networking tool, be wireless and forego the SB. For a single node/starter that is the most cost effective solution and it does not limit your options going forward.

As you evaluate the two, be sure to take a look at workflow - who will do the ripping and where would you prefer to do it.

Hope this is helpful - in many ways its easier to do then write about.
Fantastic response, Ckorody. One of the best thought out and written explainations I have seen on Audiogon.

Considering SB myself, and have been hung on the installation and coordination of devices, etc. Your timely post helps me make some decisions.

Howard, if you get SB or another route, please share your findings.

Thanks again,
Thank you so much for taking the time to explain all of this. That was very thoughtful of you.

First, it would seem that the easiest way to do this might be to connect the external hard drive to an old laptop that we don't use much now, and then we wouldn't need to buy the SB or Airport Express, correct? If she's downstairs, we won't be able to connect a cable from her to the preamp upstairs. Listening between floors generally doesn't present a need to control volume, so maybe she could simply turn on the music in the morning and let it play all day.

We're in the process of starting a new business, so I don't have much time (or desire) to play around with this. I'm hoping for a quick and easy setup. I'll be ripping much of the tunes from a friend's CD, as he, my wife, and I share musical tastes, and that way we both have a backup drive in case of a meltdown.

I will look into some of the suggestions you mentioned regarding file management. We don't have iPod's (imagine that), and won't have a use for them anytime soon. Other than the older laptop, all of the other computers in the house are brand new, and our business is web-based, so we should have sufficient RAM, I would hope.

I'll read through your post again and see what else I might absorb. Thank you again for taking so much time to respond.


Excellent post.

I just wanted to stress that you should backup your music library regularly. I had almost 1300 CD's ripped in lossless go up in smoke last month when my music HD turned into a flaming ball of crap. I had a backup drive, but I had just loaned it to a friend to backup his data while doing a clean install. If you have a large collection of music, I suggest you go with either a Firewire800 or E-SATA drive for backup. USB2.0 drives are painfully slow so figure about 60-90 minutes for every 100GB of data.

On a side note, I have the Bolder modded SB2 with the deluxe power supply. It is so good that I sold my reference tube SACD/CD player here on Agon. I'll never go back to listening to the physical CD's again. I use a wince PDA to control the SB via wifi. I can browse through my entire collection with ease.
Hi Howard -

An old laptop should have the poop to do it assuming that's all its doing.Certainly won't take much to figure that part out. If that is the case, hooking the external HD to it makes fine sense, and will also make a good place to rip. (BTW I agree with my friend Prpixel but did not mention SATA because I don't know if/how it works with a laptop... )

That said, sooner or later somehow the data needs to get from the laptop to the preamp. If you don't have Airport or an SB that means that you have to use USB. It also means you will need a DAC. If you have a DAC you can also use a sound card - not recommended - to provide SPDIF or Toslink to the DAC. But somehow the data needs to become audio input again. So pick your poison.

Seems like it would make things nicer for your wife to get a small self powered pair of speakers (Klipsch sells refurbed ones very inexpensively) and let her have all the interface and control where she is working. Nothing worse IMHO then having to run upstairs to turn down the volume because an important call came in...

I will monitor this for a few days in case you have any other questions.
Sorry, Ckorody, I should have explained further:
We have a CD player, and I'm having a digital input installed into it in a couple of weeks. We will also have the modder (APL) make us a USB-SPDIF converter. So...the DAC will be/already is connected to the preamp.

If she has iTunes at her computer downstairs, will she be able to turn down the volume from there? I guess that's what the SB or Airport Express would be for, yes? And finally, we would only be using the laptop for running iTunes upstairs, yes. I can put a wireless adaptor on it and connect it to our network. She'd be sitting pretty if she had a Palm to control everything from downstairs, but alas, I'll have it with me as I'm out visiting customers.

Thank you again for the input. This is so helpful.

Any old Mac laptop will do. But as others say, backup your music! I use Glyph drives designed for hard use in the pro music biz. I'm trying to get a wireless AE network going as that's the simplest for me, but it still drops out periodically. Need to get that resolved. Then I'm set. Would prefer a USB DAC, but too much clutter in the living room having a computer and drives set up there.

I just changed from an old iBook to one of the new Mac Minis and prefer it. Faster and more convenient. Already had keyboard, mouse, and small, cheap LCD laying around.
Ckorody, I have to say that is one of the better posts on using an HD for your source. Thank you.

Hi all - Good questions, glad to be able to offer answers.

Now Howard - I am sensing a small failure to communicate.

If I get this right, some helpful soul is modding your CD player so you can access the built-in DAC. I assume that this is either a truly killer megabux CD, or a truly killer minibux deal. Not to rain on your recycling scheme, but IMHO it doesn't make a lot of sense any other way.

At any rate in this model the slick solution is to put the USB connection right in the CD player and have him jumper right in to the DAC. You can read Steve Nugent's stuff - he posts as audioengr on AAPC, and the sole proprietor and wizard at Empirical Audio. He does this kind of stuff all the time, in fact I give him credit for inventing it.

The new problem that is revealed is that you need to get from downstairs to upstairs with the USB output from her laptop - this is assuming she is running iTunes which would be her management environment. I believe that Airport Express will do it. I have not fiddled with it so I would suggest you spend some time on the Apple site. If there is an Apple store near you, go see the helpful boys and girls who man the Genius Bar - they will know.

Failing that I guess you could set up Apple Remote Access and or Timbuktu so she can drive iTunes running on the upstairs computer from the downstairs one - only plus here is that you would be hardwired from the PC to the CD.

SB is an Ethernet device and will not work in this model since it outputs SPDIF and analog, but not USB.

The other choice is a USB cable run, there is a very tweak new optical USB cable that goes long ways and supposedly sounds fab. But talk about trouble, now you are running wire through the house...

But really - unless this is a flat out drop dead CD player I am not sure what you going to get back for your money... and you are going to be locked into that DAC - betcha you can get a SB for less money and not need a DAC at all - you sure as heck don't need the CD player for anything...
I agree that Ckorody's post was a good one. I almost hate to interfere... but, Howard, yes, you would be able to control volume from iTunes running on the downstairs computer. And that's regardless of whether you have AXpress (I would assume same holds true for SB) or a laptop feeding your CDP/DAC. (Actually, AX probably isn't an option by itself since its digital out is optical and I assume your digital in is S/PDIF.)

If you go with a hard drive in your audio room upstairs and you intend to use it while you're listening there, be sure it's quiet enough not to annoy you.

There are several ways using iTunes to wirelessly serve up music files under the control of a remote computer. Probably the most obvious is using iTunes' music sharing feature. With music sharing, in my experience dropouts are truly rare. Budrew, are you using music sharing?
Thank you all for the input. Jayboard, yes, we will have an S/PDIF digital input. And I don't know if any of these applications are MAC-only specific, but we have only PC's. So it appears that the best thing for us to do is:

External hard drive into USB/SPDIF converter into DAC, managed by old Dell laptop connected wirelessly to network.

So then, my wife can control the selections as necessary via iTunes from her networked PC downstairs, right? Can she also control volume from there via iTunes, or will we need the SB for that?

Sorry if I sound confused. Despite being so close to having a grasp of this process, I am often left wondering if I'm even asking the right questions.

Thank you all,
Jayboard, Yes I'm sharing the music and in doing some research I learned that it helps if you set all the AEs to 802.11b instead of 802.11b/g (I still have one older computer with the "b" standard). That helped, but not 100%.
Thanks again for the response. Yes, that helpful soul (I like that!) is Alex of APL Hi Fi. We recently 'downgraded' from his modded Denon 3910 to a modded Marantz 5400, and we're quite happy with it. He will add the digital input for a modest fee, so the cost & pragmatism are not at issue for us.

What is now an issue as that I set up the older laptop in the listening room, and it apparently has no high-speed USB connections for the wireless adaptor. We had it running with DSL with an ethernet cable, but that won't work if we don't have a modem in that room. I'll have to call the cable provider and see what it would cost to hook up the line in there.

Thanks for the suggestion on the Airport Express/Remote Access. I think there is an Apple store nearby, so I'll go talk to them there geniuses. :-)

Again, I really appreciate all of the help.

I'll have to call the cable provider and see what it would cost to hook up the line in there.
Nope. They require that you pay for a second account, and I don't need that. Without having a high-speed USB port on the computer, I'll have to figure out how best to do this. I'll head to the Apple kingdom tomorrow.

Thanks again!
Tell me if I'm wrong, but it seems like the easiest thing to do here is to connect the older laptop to our upstairs router, and then use an Airport Express in the listening room, which would be connected to the external hard drive with a USB cable, and also connected to the DAC with AE audio cable. Then...won't all of the computers in the house be able to control the playlist/volume via iTunes?
Howard, you might be on the right track, but it seems you're envisioning the
hard drive in the wrong spot. The only thing the hard drive gets connected to
is whichever computer is going to be the music server. Before you get that
USB-S/PDIF interface built, figure out how you're going to connect your music
server to your DAC, because you may not need it.

The basic chain (before adding remote listening stations) would be: music
server (taking data off of external hard drive) --> wired or wireless to data/
spdif interface --> wired to DAC. The data/spdif interface could be a SB or an
AX or the thingy that you are considering having built. This component needs
to be in the upstairs audio room, since it will be cabled to the DAC.

Any of the three computers you've mentioned could be the server. If you used
one of your computers already in operation as the server, you wouldn't need
the old laptop. I'd assumed that a big reason for thinking about using the
laptop was so that you could also use the hard drive based system in your
audio room, but now I get the sense that that is not important.

Your downstairs PC could serve, as long as the wireless signal from
downstairs to upstairs is reliable. Or, your upstairs PC could serve. Both of
these options could be less than ideal if having iTunes running in the
background on the server would interfere with other work you are doing on
the server machine (not likely for "normal" computer work) or you
want to independently listen to music via iTunes on the two computers at the
same time (a more likely issue).

Finally, your laptop could be the server. Let's say you choose the laptop
(depending on how old it is and what version of OS it is running, you also
may have to pay attention to whether the most recent versions of iTunes will
run on it). Then, as you say, you would cable the laptop to the router, since
it's not wireless-capable. Next, comes the data/spdif interface. I'm surmising
from your comments that you're not interested in running cable from your
upstairs computer room to your audio room. So, you'd have to purchase a
wireless interface like SB or the AX (not the USB/spdif thingy you are
considering), which would connect with your DAC by coax cable in the case of
SB or Toslink (with a $3 miniplug adapter--IMO, don't listen to concerns that
this will degrade the signal) in the AX.

In this scenario, you would have iTunes running on the laptop, with the music
sharing feature turned on. Each of the other computers also could run iTunes
and, with "look for shared music" turned on, independently select
music to be played locally by communicating with the server.

BTW, the music sharing feature of iTunes is all you need to play music from a
remote machine -- no ARA or other software is required.

Under music sharing, the remote machines do not have full-featured control
of the music library. You couldn't add new music files to the library from the
remote machines, and you couldn't edit the library's metadata, which makes
tasks like creating new playlists and assigning star ratings to songs you're
listening to off limits. You would have control over the playback functions,
like selecting albums and tunes and existing playlists, controlling volume,
using shuffle, and using the Visualizer...yeah, baby.

A more advanced topic: There is a way to set up a remote machine to have
full control over the library. However, in my experience, this requires the
remote machine to be on the network via ethernet in order to avoid dropouts
during playback (and to speed up tasks like ripping new tunes to the library)
...though maybe a totally 802.11g wireless network would not have these

Hope this clarifies more than it confuses.
Budrew, and I suppose you already have streaming buffer size set to large? Wish I had other suggestions to offer...
Thank you for the informative response. I'll read through it again tonight and proceed from there.
Howard - Easiest thing from a networking and interface perspective is probably SB. Why not save the money on the USB/SPDIF DAC 'thingy' and buy a SB instead. Feed the CD/DAC via SPDIF - or try the SB straight to the preamp.

You are making this way harder then it needs to be

Just to be clear, you only would need the USB/SPDIF converter you were
talking about getting if you were planning to connect your music server to
your audio system by a cable. You don't seem to be contemplating that.

I don't know much about the SB, but I'm not sure it's the best choice for the
last configuration you've talked about. The SB is designed to give you a user
interface for music playback, and like the AX, it also does the data conversion
to SPDIF and DAC (if desired) functions. If you're using iTunes on a computer
as the user interface, one of the main features of the SB is superfluous. The
AX is cheaper. A difference, if it matters, is that the connection for the SPDIF
signal from SB to DAC is coax, whereas for the AX it's Toslink.

P.S. I've come back in and added this as an edit. Actually, I do see a role for
the SB. Since you can't put your laptop in the music room, having a SB there
would let you use your music server while you're listening there. You haven't
said that's a factor at all, but it wouldn't cost much to make that service
available. Ckorody talked earlier about looking down the road at the big
picture. 'Course, if I were looking down the road, I'd be looking at getting a
wireless laptop to devote to your music room.
Thank you for the info. This is for background music only. I will not be spending time in the listening room, as we are launching a business that will have me out of the house for most of the day & evening. My wife will ONLY be listening as she works downstairs. She will have the music on upstairs only, NOT downstairs at her desk.

So, I just purchased a 320MB hard drive, with the specs you noted above, Ckorody. Also was able to pick up a Buslink USB 4-port PCMCIA card so I'll be able to keep the older laptop connected directly to the external hard drive, in the room with the audio system.

So, what I still need to know is will the SB and/or AX do the same thing that the USB/SPDIF converter would, thus making it superfluous. And if I'm not going to use the DAC from the SB, I can spend less and just get the AX, correcto?

Finally, do I need to be concerned about the caliber of cable running from the SB/AX to the DAC? Please keep in mind that we are of the camp that hears big differences between one IC and another. I'm not looking for tip-top audiophile quality, but I don't want it to sound thin either.

Thank you,
Let me guess at what you're envisioning. With the new and fast USB ports you've installed in your laptop, you can connect your new hard drive to the laptop and connect the laptop to the wireless adaptor you mentioned in an earlier post. The wireless would let your laptop communicate with your network.

To answer your question about the AX directly, yes, that would do what you want. Like the SB, the AX has a built-in DAC, which you will bypass. The SB also has its own user interface, which you don't need. The SB and the AX, like the USB/SPDIF converter you were thinking of buying, convert data into the SPDIF format--the only function you need.

If you use the AX, you'll go wireless from the laptop to the AX. If I'm not mistaken, the AX only performs its music function when it is serving as a wireless receiver for iTunes. (It has an ethernet port, but that is for use when the AX is serving as a wireless base station. And it has a USB port, but that is for connecting to a printer, with the AX serving as a wireless printer connection.)

Be as concerned about the cable from AX or SB to DAC as you would a cable from any transport to your DAC--but, then again, your wife will be listening from downstairs. If you go with the AX, I don't think "thin" will be the issue with a plastic Toslink. It will be more like extension and resolution. But there are some very reasonable glass Toslinks, like Sonicwave.
Shazaam! You've cracked through my thick skull, and now I understand. Hopefully, by the end of next week, I'll have all of the pieces and be up and running.
Thank you all again for the input. My wife also thanks you!
Thanks again to all of you for the help. Ckorody, you've been indispensable in so generously responding to my questions both here and privately.

I put iTunes on the computer in our upstairs bedroom so I could avoid having the unwanted computer noise in the listening room. I put a 300GB hard drive on the same system, and the Squeezebox sits in the listening room. The wireless arrangement between the two works perfectly. We have about 400+ CD's loaded onto the hard drive, and even with the SB DAC the sound is decent. Tomorrow, however, we will be picking up our CDP, which is having a digital input installed, and we'll run a digital cable between the SB and our DAC, which sounds dramatically better than that of the it should, considering the price difference.

Nothing like having the convenience of the hard drive. We end up listening to CD's that might not otherwise find themselves into the rotation. This is a lot of fun, and my wife is thrilled at the ease of using this setup.

Thank you all again.
P.S.--It should be noted that if you are using the SB with a PC, you can rip to an external hard drive VIA iTunes, using the iTunes editing software, etc., but as far as I understand, you can NOT 'drive' from iTunes. In other words, you must use the SB remote OR Slim Server in order to control the playback, not iTunes. If anyone knows differently, please say so.
Hi Boa2,

I was hoping that you could provide what your experiences were after using your CD player's DAC with the SqueezeBox? I have a Cary 303/200 that accepts digital in for use with its built in DAC and was thinking of doing something more or less like you did.

Also, do you regret using iTunes?
Thus far, it is difficult to say as to whether I prefer the SB -> DAC, or the player by itself. They definitely sound different, but both are superb. The bottom line for me is the convenience, and the enthusiasm I have for the Random Mix. The surprise of that next song makes listening a lot of fun, and we have the music running all day.

The SB reads the free download software from Slim Devices, known as Slim Server. It's their version of iTunes, if you will. So, I do use iTunes to import from hard disc into my music library--on an external hard drive--but to affect any changes in the playback, I have to 'drive' with the Slim Server, the layout of which I happen to prefer to iTunes. In addition, I can dial up songs or re-program the playback by using either the SB remote, or at the computer where the external hard drive is connected.

Let me know if I've answered (or not answered) your questions.
Hi Boa2,

That is interesting that you find it difficult to say which you prefer... I would have thought that playing the SB through your modified player's DAC would have been the clear cut choice. Show hows little I know...

Also, does anyone one have any idea about what this KMixer issue is? If I use iTunes to convert all my CD's it's now my understanding Windows XP will automatically upsample and then downsample the recordings. This apparently has a negative effect on the music's sound quality from what I understand???

Actually, if forced to choose, I would say the player itself is the winner thus far. It digs a bit deeper and gets me closer to the music. However (and this is a BIG however), there are a number of factors to consider:
The SB & the digital cable are nearly new;
The external power supply on the SB needs to be replaced; and
I can only draw this conclusion by sitting in front of the system, actively listening, which I rarely do now. Most of the time, I just have music on while I'm working down the hall or somewhere else in the house.

So...with those caveats, all I can say is that the sound with the SB -> DAC is totally engaging whether I'm in the room or anywhere in the house, and having the 'cyber jukebox' is downright magical.

I will say also that while the DAC on the SB is listenable, it sounds compressed and sterile in comparison with ours. So it's great to have the option of using whatever DAC you prefer in your system.

Sorry I can't help you on the KMixer issue.
Best of luck,
Thanks for all of the info... This thread has proven to be a great tutorial... I'll post the KMixer question under separate title... Thanks again!