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PC-Based Music Server on a Budget - Further Adventures
Little did I know when I started this project less than six months ago what an incredibly rewarding obsession it would become—with a few caveats, of course. I fully realize now that choosing a computer to use for a music server can be a totally polarizing decision, and that camps have formed on both the Mac and PC side, with each camp touting the unique benefits and advantages of their chosen OS. I actually occupy a relatively unique position in this war of operating systems; I'm a Jekyll and Hyde sort of figure—for the last fifteen years I've been a Mac operator by day, and a PC person by night. The PC part is really not by choice, it's pretty much been dictated by my personal finances, but computers have always been to me more of a means to an end by day; my nights were reserved for my real love—listening to music. And with the continual improvements in Windows technology and the conversion of Macs to Intel processors, the differences between the two are far less than they once were—with the exception of price, of course. The typical PC retails for about 1/5 the cost of a similarly equipped Mac. And during my frequent visits to the net, I see just as many people struggling to get bit-perfect sound from Macs as from PCs.
My original investment in this project (especially considering the inherited PC) was minimal at best, with less than two hundred dollars for memory upgrades and a monitor—the only real expense was for the Music Streamer II. After becoming increasingly unhappy over a couple of months with my hand-me-down PC's relatively restricted level of performance, I caved in and headed to Microcenter, where I found a refurbished HP s5703w, with 4 gigs of RAM, a 500 gig hard drive, and a dual-core processor, running Windows 7, 64-bit—for only $225! With Windows 7 and the dual-core processor, I expected a tremendous leap in performance, as it would finally give me access to WASAPI—Windows Audio Session Application Programming Interface, which allows the computer to control the data stream path from the music player application to the audio device, guaranteeing bit-perfect playback through Windows 7 and Foobar 2000.
Although WASAPI was first introduced with Windows Vista—which I was running in my music server's first incarnation, some structural inconsistencies in that machine's processor prevented me from upgrading it to Vista Service Pack 1 (necessary for accessing WASAPI) despite prolonged and repeated upgrade attempts. I was forced to use ASIO, and while I'm convinced I was getting bit perfect playback from ASIO with the previous PC, it's really nice to have another application to compare and contrast source material. And as unlikely as it seems that there would be differences between two bit-perfect devices, I do hear differences, and thus far, WASAPI seems to be the winner—it seems to offer greater sonic transparency to everything I've played—in 16-bit formats, at least. ASIO seems a bit hotter in playback, and on most files I definitely prefer WASAPI, which seems to offer a more effortless performance. I'm still having problems with stuttering artifacts with 24-bit files through WASAPI (with Foobar)—nothing I've tried seems a definite fix, so I still switch back to ASIO for 24-bit files. Foobar 2000 offers plug-ins for both ASIO and WASAPI, making A/B comparisons and switching quite easy. Hell, I've switched back and forth so freakin' many times, I'm beginning to abandon any certainty as to which application I really prefer! At least they both work to provide exceptional sound in my current implementation scheme.
I've been doing further research, reading just about everything available on the net regarding digital music streaming, and I've come across quite a few good ideas that have greatly enhanced my music playback. One of the first changes I made was with the addition of the new PC—which despite being a slimline, compact machine has multiple cooling fans, and is considerably noisier. The previous PC had only one fan, and was whisper quiet, and during playback of low-level material, was virtually inaudible. That isn't the case with the new machine—it's not that loud, but nonetheless compromised my enjoyment of low-level information, so I made the bold decision to relocate it to an adjacent room. Of course, this would require some serious rewiring; I needed at least the monitor, mouse and keyboard available in the listening room, and an unrestricted path from the Music Streamer II to my preamp. I had a fifteen-foot Belkin USB cable on hand, and a fifteen-foot VGA extension cable for the monitor. I ended up relocating the ATT network hub from my listening room into the adjacent room in my basement to accommodate the new setup; this turned out to be relatively painless, with about a ten-foot distance between the PC and my preamp. I located the Music Streamer close to the preamp, and connected the 15-foot USB cable to the PC.
This setup seemed to work pretty well; and it was really quiet in the room, but I wasn't totally convinced that the sound I was getting was quite as transparent as prior to moving the PC. Some further surfing on the Audio Asylum blog offered quite a few opinions on optimal length for USB cables in use with USB DACs, and the consensus was that 15-foot cables, while OK for data transfer, are less than optimal for use in music applications. The general recommendation was to use a shorter USB cable with longer stereo interconnects, and I happened to have a decent pair of three-meter Monster interconnects on hand. This required me to move the Music Streamer II to the adjacent room with the PC, but truly made all the difference in the world—the sound was now returned to its previous level of immediacy and transparency. Of course, I miss the MS IIs' LED display, but it's a small sacrifice to pay for improved sound. I can upgrade the Monster interconnects later with something slightly more refined, and I'm already looking at a better half-meter USB cable.
There were other minor complications; my monitor extension cable was obviously not triple-shielded, so I had some ghosting issues, but I was able to obtain a better quality cable that solved the problems for only $20 on Amazon.com. I was also able to employ the now unused 15-foot USB cable in tandem with an additional 15-foot USB extension cable ($7 on Amazon) to extend my keyboard's range; maybe a wireless setup is in the not-too-distant future! At least, at this point, I could spend most of my time concentrating on finding more new and legacy music to add to my collection—so much of my music collection is on vinyl that sometimes it can be quite a daunting challenge to find digital versions of my favorite LPs. And, of course, until my very recent experience with the music server – why would I want to?
Tracking Down Some Old Favorites
I've recently been able to locate some discs that I consider either true classics or just plain guilty pleasures. Probably the one disc I've just about played to death after conversion to FLAC is Michael Hedges' guitar masterpiece Breakfast In The Field, which sounds shockingly close to the vinyl – only minus any ticks, pops or post-echo effects. At seven bucks, I consider the CD a major score; my near-mint vinyl copy—which has a few issues—cost me twelve, plus shipping! The thing that still gets me every time is how analogue-like the sound is; the level of hiss is virtually identical to the vinyl, and the virtuoso playing of Michael Hedges excites room modes in ways that eerily parallel the vinyl version. Falling more squarely into the "guilty pleasure" arena is Gino Vanelli's 1978 classic Brother To Brother, which found him offering an entertaining mixture of power-pop ballads and extended fusion-esque jams such as the title track. The sound is remarkably robust, easily rivaling my slightly dished LP's presentation, and Carlos Rios (Bowie's guitarist at the time) just wails on most of the tracks.
I've also started looking much more closely at thrift store CD offerings; in the recent past, I totally ignored them, although most of the thrift stores here in the metro Atlanta area have an abundance of CDs priced at a buck or so. A recent trip to a thrift store that serves a local animal shelter turned up CDs priced at 6 for $5; I scored six Depeche Mode discs, and while the cases were a bit ragged, the discs themselves were virtually in perfect condition. I also found standard jewel cases at Frys $15 for 50 cases—making it really easy to get the CDs back into more acceptable condition. Depeche Mode may not be everyone's cup of tea, but makes for some pretty cerebral and entertaining listening – I especially enjoy 1989's Violator and 1997's Ultra. Besides some toe-tappingly good songs, they also both contain some pretty challenging transients that will totally rock anyone's system. The "Waiting For The Night/Enjoy The Silence/Policy of Truth" sequence makes for a staggeringly good listen—and I don't have to get up midstream to flip the LP!
I've also been looking through bargain bins at my local WalMart and Barnes and Noble—they've had a lot of Warner and Sony/BMG titles over the last few months for $5 each, and while digging through the massive cardboard bins can be pretty challenging, the rewards have been remarkable. I've turned up three Linda Ronstadt titles; especially impressive are 1974's Heart Like A Wheel and 1977's Simple Dreams—they both sound better than ever, especially Heart, which through the music server is quieter and more dynamic than the vinyl. Linda's duo with Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams' classic "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You" has me hitting the replay button every time—the blending of those two voices is absolute ear candy! I've also found several James Taylor titles, as well as ZZ Top's Deguello and titles by Yes and Jeff Beck. And while some of them have been remastered, most have not, but they still sound uniformly fabulous, especially the discs that feature vocals; James Taylor's Sweet Baby James just exudes the kind of in-your-room realism I never got from listening via a CD player.
A Unexpected Paradigm Shift
I really didn't expect much from this experiment at the outset; at best, I hoped for improved CD playback, and not much else. What I didn't expect was that the level of enjoyment I soon found myself getting from digital files would so totally challenge my fundamental beliefs about music playback in general. Granted, I've always felt positively about SACD and higher resolution digital disc playback from day one, but just never believed that CD-quality digital was capable of offering anything approaching musical satisfaction—at least, within my limited budget. That belief has been quashed by this experience; that a total expenditure of less than five hundred dollars would offer sound from 16-bit files that challenges SACD and vinyl in terms of resolution of sound and sheer musical enjoyment is almost unfathomable—but that has indeed been my experience. And of course, my enjoyment of 24-bit sound is totally off the charts! Repeated listening to CDs and FLACs created from CDs has me hearing musical details that were either blurred or totally obscured by my previous CD playback, and I now truly believe that satisfying musical reproduction can be obtained from 16-bit sources with proper digital-to-analog conversion.
I recently noticed the appearance of the "Ask Dr. Digital" column here at PFO and it appears to me that Dr. Digital absolutely delights in bashing low-cost digital gear. He essentially states that it's impossible to build gear that retails for $299 and under that offers anything approaching audiophile performance, that the Music Streamer is plagued by "distortions and colorations," and that you'd be better served by spending your hard-earned dough for a $1000 DAC. While I don't disagree that the level of parts and construction in a thousand-dollar DAC should easily outperform any three-hundred dollar DAC, I just don't believe it's fair to dismiss the $299 DAC out-of-hand so quickly, especially after evaluation on a modest "office system." Most "office systems" I've had experience with sounded "muffled, rolled-off and wooly" compared to my home system, and didn't really offer what I'd consider a reasonable basis for serious evaluation of any component.
And Dr. Digital was referencing the $349 Music Streamer II+. My truth is, the $149 Music Streamer II has brought some amazing new digital music into my home system, and has renewed my interest in much of my seriously neglected digital music in a way I'd never previously thought possible. And based on Dr. D's analogy of parts cost-to-finished product cost, that's with about $40 worth of digital to analogue conversion. And yes, his performance charts show the obvious inferiority of the MS II+ to much more expensive DACs, but I've never been one who totally correlated equipment tests with musical satisfaction. The analog output from the Music Streamer II just sounds like music!
The Music Streamer II+ arrives
Scot Markwell with Elite AV Distribution had promised me a review sample of the upgraded Music Streamer, the Music Streamer II+, which he claimed bettered the already good MS II by a wide margin. When months passed with no further word—and not really being one to nag—I just assumed that it wasn't going to happen. No real matter, I couldn't be happier with the performance of the MS II, and couldn't really see how a couple hundred dollars could improve on the already superb MS II that significantly. A month ago, I got the email that it was on its way, and I've spent the last few weeks in serious evaluation mode.
Is the MS II+ that much better? Yes, in a nutshell. The differences between the baseline Music Streamer II and the MS II+ are subtle, though significant. While each shares the same basic character of sound, the MS II+ is just a tad more analogue-like in its presentation; the sins of the baseline MS II are more that of omission than any particular trait that called attention to itself. The $349 Music Streamer II+ offers the slightest bit more delicacy and air to the musical textures; one of the most striking differences is in the more natural decay of sounds, which is strongly more analogue in character. You don't have the heavy digital fade-to-black so typical of CDs—the presentation is much more similar to that of an LP. When A/Bing between LPs and CDs with the MS II+, the differences are much less apparent than with the baseline MS II—although still very subtle.
Another area in which the Music Streamer II+ excels over the baseline MS II is in its ability to reproduce complex musical passages. One of my fairly recent classical favorites is the Deutsche Grammophon SACD disc of Ann-Sophie Mutter playing Tchaikovsky and Korngold's Violin Concertos; it's a dynamic and fabulous performance, so I thought it would be really interesting to rip as a FLAC for comparison purposes. Through the MS II, it sounds fantastic; and although only a 16-bit rip, it still compares favorably with the SACD in terms of sheer dynamic range and clarity of sound. The second movement of the Korngold concerto is very melodic and lilting, and it's a real temptation to crank up the volume and let the delicate solo violin and string orchestration just wash over you. However, the third movement Finale comes in suddenly with brute force forte orchestration, and will challenge any amplifier and speaker system's limits. The Music Streamer II handles this transition with no signs of strain whatsoever, and comes very close to the SACD in character. Through the MS II+, the presentation is virtually indistinguishable from the SACD; the delicacy of the musical textures are finer, with more effortless peaks than through the baseline MS II, and the overall sound seriously rivals the analogue-like quality of the SACD.
I'm still extremely happy with the Music Streamer II; it has lifted my CD-based playback to an unexpectedly high level of enjoyment. And the ability to playback 24/96 digital files opens a whole new world of musical opportunities. But I'd easily pay the extra $200 for the upgraded MS II+; at $349, it's a real steal, and will lift your current CD and digital playback even higher. Would I buy a thousand-dollar DAC? Of course, if the budget allowed, but until I reach that point, the Music Streamer II's performance is acceptably superb for $150; the Music Streamer II+'s performance is magnificent for $200 more.
This is an exciting time for audiophiles; at the same time, it's a pretty scary time as well. With most of the accepted practices we've come to expect as the norm seemingly disappearing, probably the most troubling one to audiophiles is the apparent transition from disc playback of various forms to manipulation of digital music files. There's something strangely comforting about holding a CD or LP in your hands, whereas FLACs and such are just out there in cyberspace—at least you can see a visual on your computer's monitor.
Twenty years ago I was in a record shop looking for a Sonny Rollins LP, when the clerk handed me the equivalent CD and instructed me to "just enjoy the music." When I made it clear that I was looking for the LP, not the CD, he retorted "It's just an object, man. You're just looking for an object. You don't care about the music. It's just an object to you." That struck a chord with me then, and it's especially thought-provoking now, in an era when those objects soon may no longer exist. Playing an LP was part of a ritual of cleaning and careful handling that ultimately resulted in the music, with perhaps a few warts in tow. Now, with a few mouse clicks, we get the music, generally wart-free. And that's what it's all about, right? The music, man, the music!