Positive Feedback ISSUE 62
july/august 2012

 

Musings on Building a Digital Music Server: The New Standard
by Andy Schaub

 

digital music server

"Everything comes and goes

Marked by lovers and styles of clothes"

—Joni Mitchel, "Down to You"

It occurred to me that it's been a while since I refreshed the digital music server and that I have a lot of cables just lying around not being used for much of anything. So I started playing with different combinations discovered that in (or on) that wicker basket from Ikea that holds most of my high-end cables, I had the power to take things up a notch. So after much experimentation—and some dismay—I wound up replacing all of my Locus Design cables (except the FireWire 400 Herald cable with the Moshi FireWire 400-to-800 adapter) with things from the basket. First, I replaced the Keynote power cable—which I dearly love—with one of the thick, silver, "no name" cables that I bought from Nick Gowan in batch of six two-three years ago. That made a definite improvement in the midrange and in the overall palatability of the DMS, bringing back some of the musicality I had had with the PS Audio PerfectWave DAC but retaining the resolution I had gotten from the Woo WDS-1, all from the Berkeley Audio Design Alpha (again, I stress, the original version).

Next, using both the copper BNC-to-RCA connector that came with my Sonicweld Diverter HR and what I think must be an aluminum one I bought from Amazon, I replace the Core S/PDIF cable with the highly touted Audio Note Pallas digital interconnect, terminated on each end with an Eichmann silver bullet plug. This brought about a different sort of transformation. It more opened up the system and let the treble stretch a little, separated everything out and at the same time gave it a harmonious glow not unlike a good set of output transformers on a high-end, single-ended tube amplifier. Finally, I replaced the very good sounding but somewhat rigid Cynosure v2 with a Moon Audio Blue Dragon USB cable. Now this is the most controversial change since the Cynosure v2 originally sold for several thousand dollars whereas the Blue Dragon retails for $65. It's a much simpler cable, more elegant looking and easier to snake around which is important given the obtuse angle at which the Diverter HR must sit to accommodate the Pallas digital interconnect; but I honestly think it sounds more neutral and throws a wider, deeper soundstage.

So how does that all add up? It's quite a bit of equipment to compete with a Rega RP 6 (which sounds oh so much more delightful than one would expect from a $1595.00 turntable):

  • A PS Audio Power Plant 10

  • A 20 Amp Equi=Tech balanced transformer

  • A recent-generation (*) Apple Mac mini with

  • 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor

  • 8GB of RAM

  • 128GB Solid State Drive

  • Snow Leopard (10.6.8)

  • Pure Music 1.86

  • iTunes 10.6.1 (7)

(*) The machine, including Pure Music, was remote-configured by Channel-D for optimal sound, including Memory Play and "DIM" to reduce digital 'issues'. I don't currently use upsampling. I run it headless, controlling it either from my 11" MacBook Air using Apple Remote Desktop or via the Remote App on my "new" iPad; although, I do have a wired keyboard and mouse plugged in and a long HDMI cable I ordered from Amazon going to my Sony HDTV for emergency situations.

  • A 1TB LaCie RAID 1 drive to store music along with a "regular" 2TB LaCie drive for backups; I manually run LaCie's SilverKeeper to do the backups when I add new music.

  • A Sonicweld Diverter HR USB-to-S/PDIF converter

  • The original (first generation) Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC

  • Cables include:

  • A "no name" thick silver power cable that I used to have plugged into my Audio Note DAC 4.1X Balanced

  • A Moon Audio Blue Dragon USB cable

  • An Audio Note Pallas S/PDIF cable with Eichmann Silver bullet plugs and high-quality BNC-to-RCA adapters on the Diverter and the DAC

  • Kondo Sound Labs KSL-LP interconnects with silver Eichmanns going to a Manley Skipjack with more KSL-LP interconnects going to my integrated amplifier, again with silver Eichmanns

  • The Locus Design Herald FireWire 400 cable going between my RAID drive and the Mac mini, using a Moshi FireWire 400 to 800 adapter

  • A tall, black Quadraspire shelf for the whole thing

I'm listening to the 24/192 download of Feels Like Home by Norah Jones that I got from hdtracks.com and it sounds really lovely. I should comment that I downloaded it on a Quad-Core iMac with a 27" monitor and 16GB of RAM plus a 256GB SSD boot drive and a 2TB data drive, all running Lion, then converted it to Apple Lossless via Pure Music and copied it via a FAT32-formatted thumb drive at Apple's suggestion from one machine to another. Maybe this is a particularly well-mastered and sampled track, but it's the closest I've gotten to that elusive tube sound I strive to attain. Still, much as I love it, it's note there yet, and it's definitely not cost-effective. Plus, the whole thing is a bit of a hassle particularly when I can just pop in the CD or put on the vinyl; but I'm playing with boundaries here; and that, my friends, is why I've written this epistle to tell you of the changes to my DMS, something that all too often sits silently in its corner while I play the Martzy box set on, again, the Rega RP6. The day will come when we get most of our music from a cloud or at least from downloads, it's coming; but it's still a ways off from now.

Kindest regards,

Andy

P. S. Out of curiosity, I pulled out my Fantasy [re]issue of A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio and played "Linus and Lucy" side by against the 24/192 download from hdtracks.com on my DMS and I have to say, I was hard-pressed to hear much of a difference. Have I reached Nirvana yet? No, I don't think so; but on that one album, on that one track, on this one afternoon, I came shockingly close. Perhaps the future is bright after all.

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