Where should I start for computer audio??

I've always been a late bloomer, late on picking up on the new tech, and just generally late where ever I go (especially work), but I have been reading a lot lately about computers replacing our CD players and have been overwhelmed in how it not only works, but how to do it. I currently have a pretty nice 2 channel audio system: Magnepan 3.6s, Tjoeb CD player w/ upsampler, H2O S-250 amp, modified Mapletree Ultra 4A tube preamp. Nevertheless, I see the writing on the wall; the death of CD players is soon to arrive. I can even see a time coming where there will be streaming audio that will function like "on demand" cable, ie., you won't own CDs, but just choose from a list of all albums available and the music on an album will be playing on your system with the click of a mouse. My problem is that I am a computer dummy. Where do I begin to learn about how to put together a comuter audio playback system? I have an iMac, iMac laptop and an Airport express, but have no idea how these things work or how I could set up a playback system (my wife is the computer geek in my house, but more interested in graphic design than music). I realize my question is way too broad, but is there any reading material out there that would be a good place to start to not only understand this stuff, but how to implement it and make it work? Is there anything like Robert Harley's book on highend audio for computer audio (wonder if Harley's book will be revised to discuss this subject)? Thanks for any guidance you might have.
Do you live near a Bestbuy?
They have guys who can help you with it.
If not, you can search the yellow pages for a computer advisor.

You should be able get one going in an hour of advice.

Perhaps your wife can set it up for you.

There is a sight called www.listen.com - you can stream from it.

www.classicalarchives.com is for classical music.

Depends but recently I have gone to a PC based system utilizing it as a transport & storage of ripped music from my CD collection.

Before this I had a PC with a wireless router plus a dedicated Transport/DAC (or CDP if it is integrated). I added the Squeezebox 3 by Slim Device & I 'm hooked, with a bit of figuring out on the installing of the SB3 software ie: SlimServer. Now instead of the Transport feeding signal to the DAC, I 'm using the SB3 instead.

Chekout the link below for the SB products which might help
and a review as well below
Audiophile computer audio is just in its infancy, if you ask me. There is not a lot of common knowledge yet. A couple places for you to start learning are:


First link is to a head-fi (headphone) forum dedicated to computer-sourced audio. Second link explains why computer audio sounds better than from a CD (if done properly).

There are several questions to figure out for computer based audio:

1. What quality will you encode (rip) with, and what format?
2. Is your stereo system further than a cable's distance from your computer.
3. How nice do you want the sound (i.e. how much do you want to spend).

I have my own personal biases. I would go with a lossless compression for sure, if you're going to take the time to do it, do it right once. If you have a Mac, rip with iTunes' Apple Lossless compression, and check the box for error correction, to make sure you get perfect reads from your CD's.

Squeezebox is a great solution if you need to connect wirelessly. Personally, I am going to buy a usb source (sold from either www.redwineaudio.com or www.empiricalaudio.com - there aren't many commercial products offered yet, it's mostly the modifiers building these right now). I will then feed that source through a DAC. Because a usb source can use a good clock and run from battery power (in the case of the ones I linked to), it can provide a really nice stream of audio. Basically, my understanding is you can spend $1000 (usb source and dac, say), and get something that will best a multi-thousand dollar CD player. Nice.

Of course, if you don't need super-high end, your solution can be as simple as adding a nice sound card with a good analog or digital out (if you don't mind noise added from the computer). I have heard Macs audio outputs are pretty good. My big advice would be make sure you do the data part right (encoding your CD's). You can always upgrade your gear, but I'm almost finished encoding my 500 CD collection, and believe me, I don't want to go back and do it again.
Wanted to add just a bit more. My last post is more of a general answer. For you specifically given the gear you already have, do the following:

1. Install iTunes if you haven't already, and encode your music.
2. Stream your music from iTunes to your Airport Express (you do this directly from iTunes once the Airport Express is configured).
3. Run the Airport Express into your stereo. You have 2 options for doing so. First option (least good) is to get a mini stereo plug to RCA adapter, and plug it into the line in of an amp or reveiver. Second option (best) is to but a mini-toslink (digital) plug, plug that into the Airport Express (it accepts mini stereo and mini toslink), and then plug the other end into the digital input of a receiver (or DAC). That will give you the best sound.
You need about 400 MB per CD if you use Apple lossless. So if you have say 1000 CD's then you require approx 400 GB drive....now to be safe you should have two drives and have them mirrored in case a drive dies...as half life of disk drives seems to be around 3 years....

It can be done...it is not that easy though...unless you go for lossy compression algorithms.

Note that La Cie make 500 GB drives available at Apple store (but make sure you read the reviews....a lot of complaints about early deaths....)

I prefer to use CD changers....but I will switch to hard drives eventually as they get more reliable and have even higher storage.
USB out to USB/SPDIF converter (Hagtech, Empirical Audio) to the DAC of your choice: Benchmark, BelCanto. Or just use a USB DAC such as the Brick or Apogee, directly from your computer. Dedicate one of your Macs to audio, get yourself a big hard drive. Rip to an uncompressed or lossless format. You should be set. USB has some distance limitations, but you can get a repeater if you need it. That's all you need.
The best place I have been for this type of info is Audio Asylums PC Forum. There is a very active and knowledgeable group there. You should do some searches since questions like this come up every day. You can find my posts under xmasparty


I find that it is helpful to break the problem down into two parts.

The first part is using a PC hard drive instead of a CD player as the transport. There is a huge benefit to this in that all the jitter associated with CD playback is eliminated. No more complex electro mechanical optical transport spinning imperfect discs in real time at varying speeds. Eliminating the CD player is the biggest single performance improvement.

Using a hard drive as your transport, you are pulling relatively small quantities of data off a drive with full error correction - keep in mind that to a computer audio files are very small and easily managed. You will however need a lot of inexpensive storage, and the discipline to back the drives up.

Ther key to quality is how you encode the data (rip) to the disc. The only satisfactory solution for an audiophool is either in .wav or .aiff or in a lossless format. iTunes and EAC are the premier tools - iTunes is crossplatform and offers a very high degree of integration. EAC is freeware, PC only and has a steep learning curve. There are plenty of people who are happy with each. Some people do .wav but as I understand it there are issues with file tagging (naming) Plenty of info on this on Audio Asylum

Part 2: Now that you have your music on the hard drive, you need to get it to the preamp. There are two things happening here. One has to do with the software that lets you select the music, make playlists etc. We won't touch on that - there are a number of solutions available, iTunes being the most highly integrated and easiest to use.

The big issue for most people is how to get the data from the hard drive to the preamp inputs. There are a number of choices:

#1 - you can put a sound card in your computer and output an analog stereo signal and send that to your preamp. This is almost unanimously considered to be the worst possible way to do it since computers are nasty electrical environments - lots of EMI and RF, switching power supplies, fans etc.

#2 - you can take data off your hard drive and send it to another device using USB, Firewire, Toslink, SPDIF, 802.11g (WiFi) or Ethernet. A few notes here:

• SPDIF smear is the number two culprit you are trying to eliminate (thus the USB DAC) Besides which practically speaking a premium SPDIF cable over 6 feet is brutally expensive. Since you need a soundcard to provide the SPDIF out, you are back to ground zero - plus the DAC is not isolated from computer - more bad. And since SPDIF is not a computer format, it will never be ubiquitous or cheap since PC buyers don't care about it.

• USB is an excellent format for taking data off. There was a wonderful, inexpensive device called a Waveterminal which let you plug USB from the PC into a little black box on the other side of which were toslink and SPDIF outputs to connect to the DAC. Unfortunately it has been discontinued so people are trying a variety of products instead.

A very fine high end solution is a USB DAC, which as previoulsy noted eliminates the need for a SPDIF output and connection. The only downside is that a USB cable goes 15' max - so you have to be willing to have the computer in your listening space.

• Firewire - there are a few devices using Firewire, no real market acceptance. Firewire will go to 30' with a repeater. A lot of people are using Firewire to run their external hard drives for their libraries and backups. Its good but if you can use SATA its much more robust and its faster.

• Toslink - I run a premium glass Supernove 15' from the built in output on my Mac G5 to my DAC. Works very well, much less expensive then a SPDIF of the same length and immune to RFI etc. Of course the Toslink has to be well implemented but I prefer it to my USB>Waveterminal>SPDIF. YMMV

• WiFi - 802.11g This is the wireless standard that Airport Express is based on. Squeezebox also is available this way. Results vary - it is totally environmentally dependent. Tough to beat the convenience though.

• Ethernet - this is the low cost, long distance ubiquitous cabling champ. The premiere device taking advantage of it is the SLIM DEVICES Squeezebox. This is a network device - meaning that it plugs into the Ethernet network just like a computer, printer, router or anything else. This is particularly nice if you have a network (Ethernet or WiFi) connected to the Internet - now you can stream radio without using your computer

To use the SLIM, you install an applet on each computer on your network that has music you want to access. SLIM provides a browser based interface that is organizationally similar to iTunes; as well as access from a remote using the display on the device. (The WiFi version works the same way)

This means that the computer need not be in the same room as the system. Very convenient if you want to support multiple listening areas with a common library. Also note that the SLIM browser can share an iTunes Library - so for instance I can use iTunes to rip and manage my library, iTunes with a DAC in my office, iTunes to support our iPods, then SBs in the bedroom and living room.

There are at least two companies, Bolder and Red Wine Audio who are doing mods for the SB2 and SB3 at very reasonable prices ($400-600). The resulting quality is nothing short of astounding and is delighting everyone who is trying it - myself included. Just a matter of time till someone publishes a shoot-out between the modded SBs and the USB devices. My guess is that unless you have an extraordinarily high quality system you will be happy either way.

Last week, Steve Jobs announced that Apple had sold 14 million iPods in Q4. This means that as more and more people want to use the music they have gone to the trouble to rip; more and more companies will offer ways to do so.

But get your feet wet now. You will be amazed at how good the results are and how inexpensive it is.

Here is an excellent blog on the subject


And here are the writings of a very knowledgeable modder - Steve from Empirical - on the benefits of this approach


Here is a review of a SB3

Finally Srajan has started covering this and had a good kickoff article recently you can find at www.6moons.com

Download iTunes, purchase and install an Airport Express, and then master iTunes for a while. Then decide what you ant to do
Take a look at A Mini Guide

Unless you want to explore computer-based DSP (e.g. upsampling, equalization, etc.), Squeezebox/Soundbridge is the best choice.
Some people are interested in using the CD-Rom drive of a computer for a transport because it has very low jitter due to its internal cache and high speed processing.

Albert at space tech lab has been making cdplayers using computer cd-rom drives for years.
Ckorody - THANKS!
Ckorody- GREAT post. I was going to point my old frient Kubla to headfi-org, but your explanation was complete without going overboard on tech stuff. Thank you very much for taking the time to put that out there for us.
Here's a great link -(really, everyone interested in computer audio should read this):


Wavelength audio
Thanks for the kind words - great link too!
another question with iTunes. I have some concern about using iTunes with my new home audio system in that if I use loseless for importing how will my ipod be able to store anything? Can you differentiate the download quality for the ipod?
The iPod can use the lossless files - though it obviously reduces the number of songs that the iPod can hold.

I am reasonably certain that you can downconvert a lossless file as well - try doing a search in this forum, on the apple site and on audio asylum

If you are a Mac guy, you might spend some time on this incredibly useful site:

Shadorne, from personal experience, I can state that you get more compression out of Apple Lossless than you indicate. I just ripped 1,000 CDs, and it fit in 260 gb. So each gb of storage will get you about 4 CDs. Put another way, a CD stored with AL takes up about 40% of the space. If the typical CD is 600 mb, then you need 240 mb of space.

FWIW, I can second everyone's positive experience with hard disk servers. I have an Apple iMac G5 feeding a Wavelength Cosecant (a USB DAC). I have never heard digital as good as this, including the Denon/Exemplar CD player (a very fine unit) I traded out of. -- David