Creating a PC-based Music Server on a Budget –
In just a couple of weeks I'll hit the one year mark in my exploration of digital music playback via a PC-based music server, and there are a few items I'd like to pause to reflect on, not necessarily in any particular order.
Streamlining your system
A topic of constant obsession is improving PC system performance with the goal of also improving music playback; a growing trend I've witnessed is that one dedicates a PC solely for the task and strips it of any unnecessary functions unrelated to music, even to the point of having the PC completely disconnected from any live network. There are a number of sources on the internet that suggest seriously stripping any real functionality from the PC that will essentially limit it to disc transport, file storage and signal output to a USB DAC. Personally, I cringe at the thought of crippling my PC, and would at least like to maintain internet access for easy music player updates and convenient digital downloads. And while the few hundred dollars I spent on the PC I currently employ as my music server is a relatively paltry amount for what is essentially a higher-end source component, I can't imagine intentionally maiming a true high-end source component (like a Meridian Sooloos, for example) by disabling much of its designed functionality.
Benchmark, one of the most highly respected DAC manufacturers currently out there, has a Wiki site (http://www.benchmarkmedia.com/wiki/index.php/Main_Page) that offers a great deal of information on setting up your PC with a variety of different operating systems and music players. There's also a link there to one of Benchmark's distributors, Sweetwater, who are obviously vested in helping provide the highest level of computer performance to guarantee an equally superb level of DAC performance. Through the link to Sweetwater's tutorial PDF, I was easily able to make meaningful optimizations to my PC's USB power management, hard drive performance and processor task scheduling that has greatly enhanced my audio playback with minimal intrusions from the PC. Seriously, since I completed these optimizations a month ago, I've had nary a hiccup in digital playback, and my PC's start-up speed and functionality is better than ever!
Stick to the Basics
My entire proposition here is building a system on a budget—of course, the definition of "budget" will vary wildly. I honestly feel that I'm getting some of the most musically satisfying and realistic playback that I've ever experienced, and that's with a system built from new and used equipment with a total cash outlay of less than four grand. That price tag covers my entire system, including room treatments, cables, speakers, subwoofer, amp, preamp, USB DAC and source components, including the PC music server (with external hard-drive storage), a turntable and an SACD/CD player. And if you remove the units currently getting extremely limited use from the equation (the turntable and phono preamp, SACD player and associated cabling), that lowers the price to under well under $3000. I still subscribe to Stereophile and TAS, and based on a lot of what I see there, my entire system is priced way less than many individual audiophile-grade source components. I'm not dissing those with mega-buck systems; trust me, had I won the recent Mega Millions drawing, I'd be right there with all of you. I do believe that spending a lot of money should result in a whole lot of musical satisfaction, but I also believe that you can achieve a goodly portion of that same satisfaction on a relatively modest budget.
I believe the following recommendations definitely apply:
1) Don't break the bank in choosing a PC. I'm currently using a slimline HP model, with a boatload of RAM (really cheap right now!) and a sufficiently large internal hard-drive (500 GB); I find it to be perfectly adequate to the task at hand. It's a refurb unit, which has supplied flawless service for almost a year now, and with the external hard drive (1TB) and minimal system upgrades, cost me just over $300 (again, almost laughably inexpensive for a major portion of a source component system capable of true high-end performance). A lot of folks have older machines just sitting around, and just as many people seem to think that you should just take one of these old boxes (probably running XP), strip it down and use it for your music server, but why go that route when you can have something really nice for a few hundred dollars! And with careful optimizations, maintain virtually all of its functionality and usefulness.
2) Choose your music player carefully. There are a multitude of choices available, and many of them are free. I'm currently using Foobar, and while out of the gate, it appears minimalist at best, there are almost limitless component upgrades that greatly enhance its functionality and seemingly spartan appearance. I really like Foobar a lot, and chose it after auditioning a number of other players that to me can't match its musicality, customization options and intuitive set-up menus. I actually tried J River Media Center for about a month—it's one of the most popular and talked-about music players out there, and is the focus of a lot of discussion on the internet. While it's a great looking program with one of the most impressive and beautiful GUI's I've seen, it's really aimed at those looking to create a true media center, with almost as much emphasis on video and other media as music. I felt its' basic set-up was difficult at best, much less intuitive than Foobar, and more challenging to achieve good results with. I heard no improvement in sound quality over Foobar, and I really don't need all the bells and whistles in my system that's aimed almost solely at music playback, especially for $50 versus zero dollars for Foobar. Of course, personal preference plays a large part here—you make the call.
3) Do spring for the best USB DAC your budget will permit. The price range will vary greatly, anywhere from $150 to in excess of $2000, but I'm getting excellent results from my HRT Music Streamer II+, which retails for $350 and offers exceptional asynchronous USB performance for a truly budget price tag. And don't let any of the naysayers scare you off—there are a number of impressive USB DACs out there in the sub-$500 range that will give you a thoroughly delectable taste of the high end.
4) I strongly believe that the best sound available from your music server will come via its connection to a high quality preamplifier. I'm currently using an Acurus RL-11, a built like-a-tank minimalist design that was purchased used for around $300—check the internet, it's one of the most highly regarded, affordable preamps currently available on the used market. I hear constantly from people complaining about the lack of transparency when trying to stream directly from a DAC to an amp—unless, of course, you have one of the higher-end models from Benchmark or the like that also serves as a full function preamp! And don't even think about trying to stream music sources through a mid-fi receiver serving as your preamp—you'll most definitely be disappointed with the lackluster sound. If your system synergy is good with your current source components, there's no reason why you shouldn't experience similarly thrilling results with a music server. You may be shocked (as I was) by the astonishingly good level of musical fidelity available through a music server.
5) Don't skimp on cables, but don't go overboard. I learned the hard way—a good USB cable is a definite must, and there's a growing selection of good ones in the under $100 market. Of course, budget permitting, the sky's the limit here, but I can't really see spending an inordinate amount of money for a USB cable—you'll have to let your ears be your guide. And don't listen to those guys who try to tell you that 1's and 0's are exactly the same regardless of how they're transported from device to device—there's simply more to it than just a straight transfer of digital information. The DH Labs Silver Sonic USB cable that I'm currently using offers superb musicality for around $70—mucho dinero when compared to the abundance of give-away USB cables out there, but not really serious bucklage at all in the audiophile realm.
Avoid the Upgrade Obsession
As a died-in-the-wool hardware geek, I've spent a great deal of my adult life in pursuit of almost continual improvement in my system's playback capabilities, almost to the point of neglect of the music, constantly in search of improved fidelity. I remember a Stereophile article from years ago; the writer was having the legendary J. Gordon Holt over for a listening session, and was keen to impress him with the capabilities of his system. He carefully chose the music for the evening's entertainment, and after playing the first piece in its entirety, asked Gordon for his thoughts. Gordon paused contemplatively, and then informed the writer that he had both good and bad news. The good news was that the playback system was indeed a very good one; however, the bad news was, "I'm sorry, but you're not an audiophile!" When the startled writer queried the venerable author on the severity of his remark, he simply stated that no true audiophile ever listened to any piece in its entirety, they simply skipped from piece to piece, skimming through the parts that showed off their system to best effect.
Which is essentially what I've been doing for years; trying to convince myself of how good whatever incarnation of my current system was. Since the music server has become part of my playback system, I've spent a great deal of time in refining its capabilities (mostly through system and music player optimizations), but I've been mostly spending time in the listening chair, enjoying the music! And the crazy thing is, I've been finding myself so literally, totally involved in the music, I haven't been skimming through my collection—I've been listening to complete songs and albums, symphonies, concertos et al—and marveling at the glorious music. I just can't see it getting any better than this without spending an embarrassing amount of cash.
Enjoy the Music!
I've been hitting the thrifts a lot recently; one of my favorite places is the Brown Elephant in Chicago—there are several of them scattered around town and they benefit a local medical charity. They usually have many thousands of CDs on hand, all for a buck each—I've scored dozens of really good finds there over the last year. My company headquarters is located in Chicago, and my daughter lives there as well, so I always look forward to any reason to head to the windy city with great anticipation!
I've been hitting Amazon.com pretty hard, too—they've had a ton of often remastered catalog titles in the 5-7 dollar range, and I can usually come away with 5 or so CDs for under $30 bucks with no sales tax and free shipping. I can't even begin to list the amazing titles I've picked up over the last year for what I consider a really nominal investment.
Recently, on a whim, I picked up a $7 copy of Bruce Springsteen's seminal work Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which had been repackaged as part of a back-catalog reissue along with the recent release of his new album. I hadn't really listened to the music much since it was new way back in the seventies, and when I bought the original CD release in the early eighties I was terribly disappointed by the totally lackluster sound. While I was aware of the meticulous remastering the album underwent last year as part of the Promise package (the near $100 retail scared me away), I really didn't expect much from the catalog edition, and there was nothing in the packaging to alert me to anything otherwise—it looked essentially just like the 1980's release on the outside. On the way home, I opened the CD and popped it into my car's CD player, and was nearly dumbstruck by how great the sound was! My car system's OK—alright, maybe just a little bit better than just OK—but it's not anywhere nearly as revealing as the home system, and I was totally waiting for my euphoria to be crushed once I got to the house. Not the case—this disc is freakin' amazing—I never in a million years dreamed it could be this good! This record has historically sounded so flat, so lifeless, so full of grit and grain (and not in a good way!)—so very nearly unlistenable that I'd essentially given up on it. Listening to the FLAC of this disc via the music server is such a delight that I have a hard time not cranking the volume and listening to the whole damn album! It's a complete triumph on every level—especially artistically; I couldn't believe how this music spoke to me again after so many years.
Of course, bolstered by the Darkness experience, I immediately headed back out and picked up the equally historically horrible Born To Run, which cost me $10—hey, it's a classic, and probably his best, most endearing work, right? Having undergone a remastering of its own a few years ago, I really hoped for the best here as well, and the news is good—this is undoubtedly the finest this album has ever sounded in a digital disc format. The original analogue tapes were never audiophile quality to begin with, and this disc is not quite on the same level as Darkness in terms of warmth and clarity, but nonetheless, it's still a revelation compared to anything available in the past. One of my favorite tracks is "Meeting Across The River", in which Bruce is sparsely accompanied by Roy Bittan's piano and Randy Brecker's plaintive trumpet—Bruce's voice is so realistic and three-dimensional, he's almost in the room with you! Most recordings of this tune are just fraught with tape hiss—and there's still an appropriate level here, but it doesn't distract from the performance—it sounds about as close to high-end vinyl as it gets. I'm absolutely convinced that both these budget reissues are derived from the same new remasterings used for the box sets of each respective version—and for a whole lot less cash!
And the Springsteen experiences have been quite typical of many of my recent acquisitions, with the end result most often being closer to elation than disappointment. The bottom line—build a music server! Get a USB DAC! Preferably one with asynchronous transfer! You won't be disappointed, and your enjoyment of the music will be transformed!