Early last year I began listening to a number of dac/music server combinations with the hopes of discovering a better alternative to my 16 bt/44k cd player. I’d already been considering a used turntable and phono pre as one possible option. But I had sold all my records years ago and the thought of buying back into vinyl all over again was a tough swallow. Fact is, my modified Shanling cdt-100 tube player sounded pretty good and was silky smooth, even did upsampling to 24/96k and native HDCD. Well, that player is now for sale on Audiogon. In the end, my listening and research paid off and now I have a pretty solid music server storing all of my 500+ cd’s and much downloaded music on a 4TB NAS drive (along with reams of photography).
Now, is that really such a big deal you might think? So, my cd collection is now ready for eBay. Yeah, I’ve got my Redbook collection, along with a handful of HDCD albums and HRx DVD’s, accessible from a networked hard drive. Big deal. So what’s it sound like? Well, my answer to that is pretty darned good, significantly more analog than my previous digital rig (to get the attention of some of you vinyl hard-liners) but more importantly, the collection is unified, like a jukebox, so that I find myself playing all of my music, discovering stuff I didn’t know I had, and actually feeling so in touch with my collection that I actually want to commence lessons in guitar (yet again). And piano. And maybe after that, sax… It’s amazing! Read on. You might too…
Following is a (formerly brief) explanation of my journey, quickly thrown together with a few helpful pics. So I apologize in advance for the sloppy writing and cheesy formatting, and the length. Fact is, there’s quite a journey to reveal. There’s a lot of variables out there: a number of cool components, a handful of different operating systems, a world full of opinions. So I just dove right in and began listening and let my ears lead the way.
First, my goals. What I wanted out of this was to achieve an iTunes-like easy access to my collection, but with significantly better sound quality than my current rig. And I’m not talking about a mere jukebox with a collection of MP3s either but a server that could possibly take the place of a solid sounding system, even improve upon cd sound if possible. Question was, did this exist? Surely I could easily just buy an SACD player, or buy into DVD-A. But these formats seemed as though their days were numbered, as music and video were increasingly becoming downloadable. It made more sense to begin digitizing my entire collection and just download any future purchases. No, I needed to build myself a dedicated music server.
First, a look at the necessary components needed for hi-rez digital playback. One needs a computer and server software, some sort of music I/O (sound) card, storage, appropriate cabling, a Dac, and of course I wanted a touch screen if possible. Sooloos system’s touch-screen is gorgeous and really puts your music collection together into a visual and manageable whole, a key advantage over my pile of cd’s.
Choice of Operating Systems:
Next question: was the system going to be Apple, Linux or Windows based?
The purchase of Windows XP PRO was an ironic next turn in my quest for great sound, as I am an Apple fanatic by nature. The XP interface is unexciting, but according to digital purists, superior sonically to anything else out there, even Vista, when configured with the proper legacy drivers. Apple’s user interface/experience is elegant, visually arresting, well thought through, and always evolving for the better in my opinion. Windows, on the other hand, was for me a K-car that got the job done and was inexpensive and unexciting. Problem was that Apple’s OS, although capable of pretty good hi-resolution bit-perfect output, lacked the ability to distinguish between different sample rates, called sample rate recognition, and switch on the fly to whatever sample rate was being played, necessitating a relaunch of iTunes. Windows had the advantage on this front as well and I understand that Apple still hasn’t solved for the problem yet but that a third party developer has with it’s introduction of Amarra (Sonic Studios: more on this later). Apple is however the clear winner in software useability with iTunes, a superbly written music server app that is both easy to navigate and incredibly powerful. In my opinion the ideal scenario thus uses iTunes as UI but also offers auto sample rate recognition and superior sound. Time will tell if Amarra will be this perfect solution.
Enter The Fanless PC
So I reluctantly trudged forward with Windows, which I knew almost nothing about, and began pricing out cheap pc components on NewEgg. I had read about fan noise being one of the culprits of jitter (along with a gauntlet of EMI from internal components) and so Googled “quiet PC”. The result was my discovery of a well-made aluminum box by a company called Zalman: the TNN-300. The company offered several different models, but distinguished themselves with the use of efficient heat sink designs instead of loud cooling fans. Computer fans produce a lot of noise. If you ever plug one in and hold it in your hand, the things are loud and vibrate like crazy (24 to 45db of noise). And many computers have 2 or 3 of them, cooling off the power supply, the motherboard and HD. To me it seemed like this was anathema to good sound reproduction so I inquired with a few online pc assemblers such as quietpc.com about having them build me a system. Turns out these guys want upwards of $3000 just for a bare bones quiet pc with Zalman case, Asus P5Q-EM Motherboard (with onboard video-engine) and E8500 3.16G chip, 2 Gig of RAM, burner and a regular Western Digital HD. These were the components for one of their “recommended” systems and I knew that I could build it myself for under a thousand. The Zalman case can be had for $550 on NewEgg, the motherboard and CPU for about $150 (less now), the HD for $100 and the OS for close to that. Since the motherboard included a decent onboard video card, one needn’t purchase an expensive (and noisy) PCI video card. So, with this, I had my system and was about ready to begin building.
Chris Conniker posted an excellent write up of the Zalman case 3 months ago on his blog: www.computeraudiophile.com. At the time of my purchase in May I didn’t know of anyone using the Zalman for audio purposes. But it appears to have taken off with both Chris’s and Robert Harley’s recent analysis and Goodwyn’s adoption of it as their server of choice for Windows. By the way, I highly recommend Chris’ website above for anyone looking to learn about this exciting hobby. Chris writes for the layman but is a wealth of technical knowledge, and he’s OS agnostic which is amazing.
The Zalman is a rugged design of solid aluminum and it’s dead quiet. So quiet in fact that it makes you wonder why we work all day long on our really noisy pc’s at the office. You simply cannot hear any noise at boot up except for the quiet spinning of a hard drive (which also should be removed with the addition of a non-spinning solid state drive when you can.) The only difficult thing about the Zalman heat design is the installation of heat bars (to transfer heat to the large external fans on the exterior). Make sure and use a generous amount of thermal grease anywhere that heat needs to be dissipated. The bars can be a bit tedious to install, as can the rear-mount thermal blocks. Since this design runs pretty cool, you may not need the rear mount blocks at all. Other than that, building a fanless pc is quite straight forward. Just make sure that the machine is bare-bones and has no unnecessary cards (ie video), devices or anything installed except those that help produce your music. The key to this or any pc based machine I’ve found is keeping it lean and dedicated to one thing: the accurate reproduction of music. For this reason you will want to go into your system settings and turn off all devices that aren’t totally necessary and this of course will depend upon your system. If you’re not mechanical, then order the parts yourself and take everything to a system builder. For about $150 they will build it properly for you. (The attached pics are credited to the Zalman web site and to Chris Conniker’s helpful digital audio blog: www.computeraudiophile.com).
Lynx Studio AES16 PCI Soundcard
For bit perfect output of hi resolution music tracks you will of course need to install a decent I/O card that can understand 24bit/192kHz tracks. Most of the units out there are used in pro audio configurations and I certainly did not try very many. Instead I took the advice of my friend and mentor Tim Marutani, for who’s advice I am grateful. Tim is a consultant and researcher in this exciting niche of hi-end audio and he is a wealth of information for anyone looking to build a music server. His lab in Emeryville is full of the latest gadgets, both PC and Mac based, that claim to offer a superior solution to digital pc based playback. His experiments test new components, new apps, different kinds of hard drives and the use of different interfaces, to find the best most analog sounding configuration possible. He does this for various price points and currently recommends the Zalman/XP/Lynx Card solution as perhaps the best choice for the money currently, if you care most about sonics.
The Lynx AES16 pci (not pci-e) is a $700 digital I/O card that allows for relatively jitter-free, bit perfect, hi-rez output to your Dac. The card incorporates stereo DACs and stereo ADCs of the highest brand (Crystal CS4396 and AKM AK5394), plus Synchro-Lock jitter reduction with powerfull word clock.. Physical installation is a snap and configuration with Tim’s screen-grab installation pdf is straight-forward and best done using legacy firmware and legacy drivers. The legacy .057g drivers and .22 vrs firmware do not come with the card but can be downloaded at the Lynx site. Lastly, you’ll need an AES cable to make the jump to light speed and get your music out to Dac. Tim provides an excellent and affordable HD26 pin to AES single breakout cable by Gotham and recommends this unit over several others.
Back to the Dac
There’s an increasing number of dacs out there with differing approaches on interface, jitter, bandwidth and other factors and I certainly did not try them all nor in every configuration possible. In the end, after reading and demoing a great deal, I just followed my ears. I auditioned the Benchmark Dac, the Weiss Minerva, the Bryston BDA-1, the PSAudio Digital Link III, and many other contenders in this exploding and ever changing landscape. And mostly I just wasn’t all that impressed when comparing to my current Redbook sound. Often what my ears heard was a consistently flat and/or rolled off treble with what seemed like a veil over the music and an often mediocre soundstage. For many reasons the music just wasn’t all that engaging for me personally and I began to doubt I’d even find a valid contender.
Admittedly in many cases this dissatisfaction may not have been due to the particular Dac being tested but rather to the combination of components and settings before it and overall lack of synergy. In one case I remember listening to the Bryston BDA-1 driving some nice Accuphase electronics and a pair of Avalon Isis speakers. The front end consisted of a Sooloos Ensemble (storage and playback in 1 box) and desktop controller/screen wired to the Dac via s/pdif or usb I assume. Also attached to the Accuphase preamp was a cd player I believe by the same manufacturer. Thus when playing both the digital track and the cd of Come Away with Me by Norah Jones, I need only queue up both and then switch the input controller on the preamp from A to B for an accurate comparison. And what I heard was quite revealing and failed to win me over. In the end, I had yet to find a Dac that made the whole experiment seem worthy of better than cd sound. Indeed, what good is a Dac that saves you money but doesn’t sound as good as your CD player?
My friend Peter Truce took interest in my ongoing quest but remained unconvinced, happy with the smooth analog liquidity he was hearing from his large collection of vinyl. Admittedly, there is something very liquid and natural about analog that is appreciated by every audiophile and continually elusive of digital. But that was about to change for me with the demo several BAAS members heard at Jason’s house last year and the introduction of the Berkeley Alpha Dac. Further readings and listening sessions only reinforced my conclusions that this Dac was something special and that it wouldn’t become obsolete by year’s end. At $5000 it wasn’t cheap, but also wasn’t the price of some EMM or DCS stuff, or as expensive as the new ($12k) Sooloos system on the market. The Sooloos interface (now Meridian) was simple and powerful to use and the sound from its separate Dac, storage unit and screen controller I admit was good. But the proprietary system is pricey and requires certain hardware and software from the company in order to work.
The Alpha Dac didn’t have this limitation. And it lacked that truncated sound I had heard from other Dacs, instead offering an nice tonal balance, detailed hi-end, defined bass and most importantly for me, a three dimensional and deep soundstage. I could clearly discern a recording environment and could hear transients decay into and define a back wall in many tracks. And others were hearing this too. Chris Conniker and Robert Harley both noted this experience as well and all I spoke to agreed that the Dac made Redbook Cd’s sound better than they remembered. You can refer to one of the authors above for an in-depth analysis of the Berkeley Alpha Dac. But in a nutshell, the unit offers bit perfect HDCD playback (as indicated by that infamous blue LED), does 24/192k natively and comes with a volume control, negating the need for a preamp. No preamp? That’s right and I believe the addition of a preamp only adds in terms of color: tube for example.
Some have suggested that digital may not be ready for prime time yet and that Dac technology still may not be there or is currently changing so fast that now is not the time to buy. But I differ with this opinion. The hirez 24/176.4k tracks are just starting to come out and true enough, there aren’t even that many available to us yet. But this is changing and changing fast. Just this past month at CES I received word that several large labels were progressing quickly toward the hirez front. Thus any Dac worth buying IMO ought to offer 24/192k capability natively (as in not upsampled). On the other hand, no one’s going to be cranking out 32 bit/384k albums anytime soon (although a few tracks are actually out there), ensuring that a quiet, jitter-free 24/192k (native) Dac should cheat obsolescence for some time. After months of chewing my lip about it, I finally placed an order for one and am just loving it.
Thus far, I’d evolved a quiet, fairly affordable pc that is fast and hirez capable, a solid-sounding Dac and appropriate cabling. Now I needed proper system configuration and a software app to organize and play hirez music files. Windows XP running Media Monkey 3.0.6 is where I netted out and seems the best overall software setup to date for the Windows market IMO, although it is far from perfect. Windows as I said is nothing special and seems at times visually clumsy. But it gets the job done and is easily tweakable. Sound is great with most tracks and hirez music is output with the 24bit flag easily illuminating the blue LED on the Alpha Dac and guaranteeing bit perfect playback. The app uses a tree file format on the left of the screen to show a vast number of views for storing, accessing and searching tracks, genres, albums etc and for displaying storage sources. There are even folders that clearly display files without genre tags, files that lack album art, and files to edit. And the interface seems very flexible and customizable. You can see album art mode, album art plus details, etc. As said, setup works best when the system is tweaked for just music playback, when volume leveling is turned off, and internet cable unplugged. And ripping is simple and accurate, although sometimes obtaining the correct freedb track info and art work from the web can be tricky. You’ll encounter this for example when ripping compilation CD’s.
What I don’t like about Media Monkey is that it is too geeky, too customizable, and just not all that intuitive. Indeed the app is marketed as the server app for the hard-core music enthusiast: perhaps someone who loves to spend hours inputing album data. I could care less that Stevie Nicks helped executive produce so and so’s album in 1992. But there are those who do and for them, Media Monkey has a place to include that detail.
Conversely, there is something very elegant in iTunes ability to simplify, to strip away all that isn’t necessary, so that you can quickly and easily navigate to your album or file. The litmus test for me: your wife should be able to approach the server and find here favorite Abba or Cher album without her voice dropping down into the slightly condescending frequencies. And frankly, being a visual person, I like to see the album art filling the screen much as Sooloos does it. You touch on an album and this reveals a list of the tracks: simple. Media Monkey does this album view but if you touch an album your tracks are listed in another dialog box and there is still so much unnecessary clutter. In my opinion it just needs to be streamlined and made more intuitive.
That said, I have overcome the learning curve and feel I’ve mastered the program and know how to keep the clutter to a minimum. But the wife? Grrrr.
Another issue to consider is the problem of random sputtering, pops and occasional blasts of white noise that, at their very worst, can easily blow a nice expensive tweeter on your new Magicos. I’m not exactly sure why, but for some reason this Lynx/XP/MediaMonkey configuration has the ability to “lose clock” and blast a horrible sounding white noise through your tweeters. Chris Conniker has experienced this once, as has Tim Marutani and I believe the latter may have blown tweeters as a result. But this problem seems to be rare and manageable. For example if one is listening to a certain track then it is advisable not to click on and change any preferences for that track until playback has stopped, as this can cause MediaMonkey to lose clock. And on my system when in the past the NAS drive has somehow dropped off network or become inaccessible, the system can lose clock. To my knowledge, no one has targeted the exact source of the problem. However the Mac does not do this I am told and this owner of pricey speakers would prefer it didn’t happen here either. Something to consider.
Storing the Music Library
My music collection, as said, is stored on a Thecus NAS drive running over ethernet on my network. I’ve mapped the music folder on this volume to a drive letter M: and this comes up consistently in the navigation tree in Media Monkey as the home for my music. When it doesn’t however, if say the NAS is not finished booting up, then the tracks will all be grayed out and you may have to reboot MediaMonkey. If instead you try and play a track, the cursor will quickly scroll down the list of tracks until it finds one not grayed out. This too can result in a burst of white noise. Who knows why.
For backup I use a 1TB (spinning) external Firewire drive and I cannot tell any difference sonically between it and the NAS over Ethernet. What I did appreciate was the addition of a solid-state drive as the only hard drive in the computer. Tracks played from the SS drive are significantly more analog sounding than tracks played from a spinning hard drive. Problem of course is that SS drives are small and unable to hold the OS, various apps, and your vast library of music all together. Thus, for real world listening one still needs to employ a large spinning drive to store a music library, at least for the next year or so. (Toshiba I read is working on a 1TB SS drive that could solve this problem.) Until then, I’ve settled on the NAS drive as my primary storage unit but have dragged over to the internal 120Gig SS drive copies of my favorite tracks for serious listening, a nice compromise. This is definitely where my system reaches its fullest.
For those buying an SS drive, Chris tells me that the SLC models from Samsung are much better than standard MLC models, although I have yet to test this. Some MLC models have what’s called a stuttering problem (OCZ forum) where the slow write speeds cause the system to halt (wait) a few seconds but there are ways to minimize this in the OS. The upside of the SS drive is faster read speeds and much quicker boot up times. But the sound is definitely much, much better with these type drives.
Tweaking The System
Further improvements in analog smoothness can be achieved by following a few logical suggestions. First, isolate all sources of EMI such as a screen, power conditioner, along with any strong magnets (your speakers) from the computer and any cabling going into/out of your computer. Next, unplug the cabling coming from your broadband modem to your router when doing serious listening. This will quiet down a lot of noisy traffic on the network. Third, install an SS drive or consider using rubber grommets and o-rings to dampen the spinning vibrations of a regular HD. Lastly, configure all software properly as above and never use “Volume Leveling” or any software EQ to alter sound, as these can further degrade sonics. If you know XP well, consider turning off all devices/services that are not necessary. In one case Chris Conniker disabled everything but RPC, then starting re-enabling services one by one until the server was fully functional but lean. Start with the onboard audio device, since this is no longer necessary.
Following these steps will IMO significantly close the gap between well done digital versus analog and deliver that warm, un-etched, liquid sound that seemed so elusive only months ago. And feel free to explore compression formats such as flac, wav, WMA, etc. My library consists almost entirely of uncompressed wav files, but often I cannot tell the difference between these and flac, and the latter has better tagging potential (so I read). Lastly, I rip with MediaMonkey’s built in ripper and can hear no difference between this rip app, max on a Mac, or EAC. If you got yourself a cracked cd, then perhaps EAC has an advantage.
Do I like the system as configured? Yes. It sounds quite amazing, puts all my music at the touch of a finger (to screen) and really puts you in touch with your music collection like never before. Existing server software is far from perfect and needs simplification in my opinion, making the entire experience exhaustively geeky, especially when you factor in about three months for ripping/archiving your collection. But the sound quality is significantly more natural and analog sounding than other digital systems I have heard and if you still doubt that digital output, when done well, still lacks the level of smoothness and musicality of vinyl or analog tape, then I refer you to an eye opening experience I recently had at CES that shows just how close we have come.
Comparison in The TAD Room
One of the best rooms by far this year at CES in Vegas was Andrew Jones’ TAD room, where the TAD Mini Monitors were being auditioned and driven by Pass monoblocks and a similar Zalman/Lynx/XP configuration. Server software was Sequioa Digital Samplitude, a pro audio recording and mastering suite that can be used for stellar playback results, even better than Media Monkey, and downloaded for a free 30-day trial (www.samplitude.com). Next to the Lynx sat the contender: a reel to reel setup by the Tape Project: Technics RS1500 using Bottlehead tape replay electronics. This was our AB comparison and we were fortunate enough to have Bill Schnee of Schnee Studios (and Sheffield Labs) on hand to narrate the demo and help us understand what we were hearing. Tim Marutani designed and assembled the components for the TAD room and was instrumental in putting this demo together. And what a demo it was. We listened to an RX track from Exotic Dances a total of four times and I was pleasantly surprised to hear the Zalman digital track easily compete with the sound from the analog rig and further, that it had significant advantages to analog in resolution, and dynamics. Timbrel accuracy was astonishing: a piano sounded like a piano. Analog liquidity was stunning and so close to tape as to be almost indistinguishable to my ears.
Here are Tim’s specific conclusions:
• S/N favors digital.
• Image stability favors digital. (A better tape transport will improve this category.)
• Channel balancing favors digital. (Again, a better tape transport improves this category.)
• What I term liquidity still favors analogue.
(credit to Tim Marutani)
To this last bullet point I must add “although not by much”. My ears had been pretty impressed.
Lastly, I want to hit upon my experience with the touch screen I bought and the convenient yet limited benefits when controlling Media Monkey. I looked into a few manufacturers of touch screen technology and then did a brief search on eBay to see if anything was listed there. I discovered (perhaps because of the state of the economy) that there were a number of options available and that I’d settle for the Elo 1229L touch screen, a $750 screen that is built like a tank and has a tilt screen allowing for flexible access when sitting in the listening chair. I found the 1229L used on eBay for $200 and bought it. And it is great. I can’t recommend it for editing tracks or tagging them with info as this is tedious and requires a keypad. However for simple playback use (after you finish ripping your cd collection) or when friends come over to use the system, the touch screen is really a convenient and fun addition. Just by touching the screen or dragging the scroll bar you can easily sift through albums, choose one, see the tracks and hit play. With the Elo screen, pulling down menus is as simple as when clicking on the header: it works just like a mouse would. So for listening sessions I now keep my keyboard hidden out of view and all one sees is the screen and a cordless usb mouse.
Making the move to digital is not a matter of if, but of when in my opinion and via what OS? This writeup explored just one elegant solution for the Windows platform, a system that is said by many to offer the best sound currently. Soon however I am promised the loan of a Mac system centered around iTunes (with Amarra running in the background and enabling hi-res playback, plus the Amarra hardware/Dac) for further exploration and comparison with my XP machine. Amarra acts almost as a plugin for iTunes and uses the latter as its face and function, but with much better algorithms for sonic purity and higher sample rates. I’m told the consumer version will cost around $6k or so. I promise to post my results of the comparison. And to try and keep it short.
Test System Used
Zalman/XP/Lynx Home-Made Music Server w/ Windows Service Pak 2 and Legacy driver 057g enabling the Lynx card I/O and OCZ 120Gig SS drive, 4 Gig RAM.
Plextor External DVD burner
Gotham Single BreakOut AES cable
Berkeley Alpha Dac used both as preamp and output to BAT-VK51SE tube preamp (which is now for sale on audiogon)
MBL 111E speakers driven bi-amped with VTL MB 450 Series II’s driving the mids and tweeters and a Crown Macro Reference driving the bass enclosures.
Kimber Select Cabling
Windows XP Reference Music Server
Windows XP Professional
Computer hardware – Intel based
Music App – MediaMonkey Gold ($20)
Digital I/O – Lynx AES16 (PCI version) Legacy drivers and firmware
DAC – Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC
1 Comment to Building a Music Server By Lee Mincy
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