I’m beginning to think about migrating my CD collection to hard disk, and it’s starting to be feasible (even for a hard-core audiophile), but there are some interesting music-technology issues. [Update: Wow, did I ever get feedback; this area is action-packed.]
Updates · Since posting, I’ve learned that the LaCie FireWire disks are way too noisy for this application; and about devices from Slim Devices, Sonus, M-Audio, and Apple; and my question about the Wavelength Cosecant was answered. There’s a new section on Options, that tries to sum up.
The Problem · Lauren and I have about a thousand CDs, which occupy a remarkable amount of wall-space in the living room and, to be honest, don’t look that great. For some of the following to make any sense, I have to explain that I’m a hardcore audiophile; my gear comes from companies most of you will never heard of, but fellow cultists will nod sagely at these names: Simon Yorke, Linn, Cary, SimAudio, Magnum Dynalab, Totem.
Anyhow, it would sure be convenient to have all that music available on one smaller out-of-sight box and not have to be slinging pieces of plastic around all the time. Up till around now, this wouldn’t have been a reasonable thing to try; here’s why:
The disk space required (maybe half a Terabyte?) would be ridiculous.
Computers are too noisy, serious listeners value background silence. (I regularly turn off the fridge in the kitchen, thirty feet away, when I’m listening seriously.)
The sound-cards on computers are designed for playing MP3s through headphones in airplanes (and they do just fine for that), not serious music through serious gear.
Those first two issues are, more or less, history. These days LaCie will sell you a nice terabyte FireWire drive for a price which, while high, is not insane and is falling steadily. Furthermore, there are now a few choices for lossless audio encoding that drive the storage requirements down without damaging the music.
And the Mac Mini runs plenty quiet enough, particularly for people like me who have a piece of big heavy oak furniture in the living room to hide the computer in.
Unfortunately, it turns out the FireWire disks are way too noisy to use in the listening room. So, one way or another, they need to be somewhere else.
D-to-A is Hard · Earlier, I sneered at the quality of the digital-to-analogue found in computers. I don’t want to diss the computers; it turns out this is a hard problem. The problem, that is, of taking the bits on a CD and turning them into line-level analogue signals suitable for pushing into an amplifier. Yes, you can buy a CD player for almost nothing these days and what comes out sounds kind of like music. But you can also go to someone like Linn and buy one for over $20,000, and they sell lots of them. No, I’m not that nuts, but there is no doubt in my mind, based on personal experience, that engineering overkill in the DAC stage can make a big difference in how the music sounds.
If building a good DAC is hard to do, it’s especially hard to do inside a computer, which tends to contain quite a bit of electrical pollution at all all sorts of frequencies.
DAC Options · So how do we get the digital musical bits out of the computer and into analogue form, well enough to not be embarrassing through high-end gear? It turns out that most computers will take the digital audio signal and copy it, bit for bit, out through the USB port. So there’s a niche in the audio ecosystem for something that will take that USB signal and turn it into music. Such things have existed for a while, and more are arriving all the time.
Creative · At the low end, computer-sound stalwarts Creative Labs sell a line of USB DACs, often equipped for multi-channel and other fripperies, under the Audigy and Extigy brand names. These are aimed, I think, mostly at gamers; not audiophile-oriented in the slightest. We have one on the PC in that living-room oak cabinet, installed for game-playing and little-used now; it works just fine, but I don’t use it for music.
Stereo-Link · One step up from the Creative gear there’s the Stereo-Link 1200; they seemed to fall on hard times and were off the air for a while, but they claim to be re-launching. I have one and it works well enough for my office system, which has a decent amp and speakers but is in a kind of noisy environment (over a store, between a main street and a busy alley).
Sutherland · The one that’s been around the longest is the Sutherland Engineering 12dAX7, which seems to be a fairly standard DAC hooked up to a high-end tube-driven volume control. Since the volume control is superfluous for most home systems, and this box is pretty pricey at $1600, it doesn’t seem like a good fit.
Wavelength Audio · Another option would be the Cosecant from Wavelength Audio, a company fairly well-known to audiophilia’s really extreme lunatic fringe as makers of insanely expensive tube-driven amplification gear. Click the link and have a look; it’s a weird-looking puppy. And the price? No, that’s not a misprint.
You gotta love the high end; when I looked at that picture and couldn’t figure out the acrylic thingie, I sent an email off to the address on the web-site, and the next day got a note back from Gordon Rankin, Owner and Chief Scientist, noting that this is a vacuum tube product, and “The acrylic top guards the tube from little fingers.” Good idea too; not only are tubes delicate, lots of tube-driven electronics involve lethal voltages.
Did I say you gotta love the high end? I sent email off to Perreaux asking about buying the stuff and heard back today from Martin van Rooyen, Managing Director, telling me that that SXD2 is shipping to dealers this week, and directing me to their North American distributor.
Slim Devices · Plenty of people wrote me about the Slim Devices Squeezebox; it’s not a USB DAC but it’s interesting. This thing sits next to your stereo and fetches digital music from a server in your network; it has a built-in DAC (from Burr-Brown, a good name) or it can talk digital (optical or coaxial) if you have your own. Plus, it has a nifty display and a cool remote control.
The neat thing, though, is the server. This is definitely a product for the geek; the server is a chunk of open-source software (written in Perl apparently) that runs on pretty well any computer you might have around. They’ve also got a service where they’ll rip CDs for you a hundred at a time for US$1.29 each, plus shipping, plus a surcharge if you want lossless.
The Squeezebox is under US$300, which makes me a little suspicious of cut corners. But at that price I ought to get one, give it a listen, and if it doesn’t make the cut sell it on EBay or something.
Sonos · Someone else wrote me about the Sonos Digital Music System; nice web site, looks more like it’s aimed at background-music than audiophile values. One gripe with this site and some others; in a couple of minutes poking around I couldn’t find a tech-specs page that told me concisely what the actual inputs and outputs are and how you hook it up. But I must say it looks like a really polished product.
M-Audio · Someone pointed me at the Transit Hi-Resolution Mobile Audio Upgrade, with a note that it’s really designed for professional applications. Looks nifty, but not like audiophile gear.
Airport Express? · This multifunction gadget from Apple advertises, among many other things, a digital-out capability. Poking around on the Apple site turns up nothing about what actually comes out of this. But for the purposes of this article, let’s assume that you could plug it into a DAC, if you had one.
I’m assuming the Airport Express’s built-in DAC is not going to be up to audiophile standards.
Options · One way or another, it seems pretty clear that the music is going to live on a big disk that’s kept where the computers live—in our case, the usual basement office—and get to where the stereo is over the network. At this point, I see three possibilities:
Put a Mac Mini near the stereo, run iTunes with the library located on the remote disks. Take the digital audio out through the USB and into some sort of USB DAC. I’d need to check and make sure that the household network will move the bits fast enough to play lossless-encoded music off a remote filesystem; but given that, this seems quite workable.
The same option, but with an Airport Express instead of the Mini; assuming its digital output is appropriate. Both these options have the disadvantage that you’d have to be running iTunes somewhere just to play a CD.
Use the Squeezebox. This seems like the minimum-cost and minimum-effort approach, and then (for geeks) there’s that nifty Open-Source server you could fine-tune to your needs.
There’s the issue of DAC quality, but then if it turns out to not be good enough, you could take the digital out into an audiophile DAC.
I’ll go on poking around and update here as the research progresses.
For the Nay-Sayers · There are those out there who consider that audiophilia is disease, that the effects are imaginary, the specifications misleading, the culture anti-scientific. The Wikipedia’s write-up is generally coloured by this viewpoint. Lending support is the fact that some high-end vendors make claims that are ludicrously beyond belief, and that indeed, there is quite a bit of snake oil for sale.
Diving seriously into this issue would fill up months’ worth of ongoing fragments, and that’s not why people come here, and furthermore the arguments are religious and boring. But, for the record, I’m an engineer after all, and I’m keenly aware of both sides of this argument, and I’ve put my stake in the ground: I’ve put quite a bit of money into this hobby and I consider every penny well-spent.
Those of you who just know I’m wrong, go off and plug your computer’s headphone-out jack into your boom-box’s input and if you’re happy I’m happy, you’ll get no static from me.