In the living room are just under a thousand compact disks, assembled lovingly over the course of twenty-five years. My CD player, an excellent but 15-year-old Linn Karik, is getting erratic. At this point in history, buying a new CD player doesn’t seem to make sense. It’s time to move it all online.
The Context · Regular readers will know that I am the worst kind of sicko deranged audiophile—well, not the worst kind, I use plain well-manufactured 12ga copper wire. For that reason, and because our house is extremely open-concept, I really have no interest in any of the options for digitally routing background music to unobtrusive (as in, crappy) little speakers in all the different rooms. I want to get the music off the disks and into the carefully-crafted combination of fine electronics and carpentry at the south end of the Big Room where we live, with as little damage as possible to the music.
It turns out that, right next to the table the electronics sit on, there’s a large piece of rather thick wooden cabinetry containing a beefy Mac Pro. The Mac Pro’s many virtues include remarkably silent running, and while the cabinet now has a large ragged hole in its back (consider following that link, it’s amusing), the combination is quiet enough to run even while listening seriously.
Overall Design · So the idea is this: Rip all the disks onto the Mac, take digital audio out of it and into a good DAC and then into the front end of the big stereo. While conceptually OK, there remain a lot of details to sort out.
Storage · A thousand CDs, with lossless encoding, constitute less than half a terabyte of data. I’ll buy more music, but realistically, probably not as much in the rest of my life as I have so far. And certainly not as much in the lifetime of a hard disc drive.
So, I went and bought two Samsung 1TB drives at the wonderful NCIX, approximately the best walk-in geek store on the planet, for under C$250 including taxes. Slapping them into the Mac Pro took only a few minutes, even allowing time for furniture moving and help from a toddler. I thought OS X did ZFS but apparently only in its “server” config, so they’re set up in a straight mirrored RAID which I take to mean that I need never worry about backup.
Software · Well, er, iTunes. Wikipedia says that Apple Lossless can be decoded, so I don’t think I’m losing important freedoms. I find iTunes’ interface, while not perfect, to be mostly OK. Also I can control it from any of the laptops via VNC, and Simon Phipps tells me there’s a great remote-control app for the iPod Touch, if I feel like spending $400+ for a remote.
Digital-to-Analog · This is where it gets interesting. Well, to a sicko deranged audiophile, anyhow. The Mac Pro, of course, has a “line out” socket and if you have a minijack-to-RCA converter, you can run this right up the back end of your high-end preamp, assuming you don’t mind hurting its feelings. I do mind.
I may be an audiophile but I’m also an engineer, so I do understand that bits is bits. However, I do also appreciate that turning dual 16-bit 44Khz PCM data streams into ±1V-potential-difference musical waveforms without sampling artifacts and with enough punch to drive the not-quite-infinite impedance of the preamp is a nontrivial design challenge. And that it’s particularly hard to execute inside a computer enclosure that’s oozing RF energy from all that hotwired silicon.
So what I want to do is get the bits out of the computer and hand them off to specialized bits-to-waveform electronics; in common parlance, an outboard DAC.
And are there ever a lot of them. Precisely because, I suppose, there are a lot of me; people wanting to get good sound out of archived oceans of bits. I already own two; this very Mac is plugged into a cheesy Creative Labs SoundBlaster the size of two decks of cards and much lighter, which has multiple inputs and outputs, claiming to be able to manage seven-channel immersive audio, forsooth; it exists here for the purpose of driving headphones while we scale cultural summits such as Need For Speed and Bioshock. For which it is just fine.
At my office I perversely drive a Cary tube amp and very old but still good Totem speakers from my laptop, via USB into a KingRex UD-01, about the size of two packs of matches, with no controls, one input, one output, and one LED. Endearing little thing, and sounds good over the noise from the bakery downstairs, especially when I turn it up.
For the big system at home, there are many options, ranging from what I have to an $800 Lynx outboard-audio board routing a balanced digital stream to a $5,000 Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC.
The Bryston BDA-1, from a really very good Canadian audio company, checks in at a “mere” $1995. But that price point gives me heartburn, given especially that it has no moving parts and that the key Bryston extra (you can defeat oversampling) seems silly.
Then there are oddball products like the devilsound DAC; also various bits of tube-driven weirdness.
The Process · Someone suggested I not bother ripping the CDs, just go and get the stuff from BitTorrent somewhere. I dunno, it seems pretty effortless to jam ’em in one after another, and I get to clean up the metadata in the (considerable) number of cases where what comes off the Net is broken. Plus I’ve got quite a bit of weird shit the Net doesn’t know. Based on a some early experiments, I think I can get through them all in just a few weeks.
What’s Wrong With This Picture? · That’s not a rhetorical question. What am I missing?