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Musings on Building a Digital Music Server: The Next Generation

11-06-2015 | By Andy Schaub | Issue 82

"How can I even try
I can never win
Hearing them, seeing them
in the state I'm in"
—"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" by Lennon–McCartney

I haven't written a column on digital music servers in a very long time, and I think that's because I haven't really had anything new to say. Everything remotely capable of amplifying anything comes with a DAC these days, or at least an optional one. Almost everything accepts 24-bit/192kHz PCM signals over USB and most things accept at least DSD64, if not DSD128 and DSD256 as well. Plus, lots of people use headphones to the exclusion of loudspeakers. Metaphorically speaking though, it's not just about megapixels. The best sound I've ever been able to get out of a high-resolution download still came from my Sonicweld Diverter HR and my Audio Note DAC 4.1x Balanced Signature, using a combination of AudioQuest and Stealth cables at 24/96 running the music files from a headless Mac mini with a combination of iTunes and Pure Music, all through my Audio Note Phono SE Signature and a pair of Audio Note AN-E SEC Silver loudspeakers with some enhancements. However, all things must pass.

For practical reasons I disassembled the anathema of cables and switch boxes that let me use the Audio Note DAC both with my CD transport and with high-resolution downloads, then I moved and put almost everything into storage (destroying my Transrotor Fat Bob S and SME V in the process). Then, a year and a quarter later, moved back into larger quarters where I could setup my reference system again, although I decided to just use my analog front end (now a Transrotor Rossini with a Jelco tonearm and Audio Note Io-1 phono cartridge plus an Audio Note AN-S9 stepup transformer) and my Audio Note CD player as a transport plus the DAC 4.1x alone; although I did put my Magnum Dynalab MD-807T and Woo Audio WA-6SE into place, the latter with a pair of modified Fostex TH-900s (Moon Audio Silver Dragon). I've been collecting a lot classical LPs and playing a lot of Swiss Jazz Radio, the latter on my headphones late at night.

So what happened to my digital music server? Well, I gave most of it, including my Mac mini, my RAID drive, my Rega DAC, and a some older Locus Design cables to an audiophile friend who's Quad CD player was failing and really just wanted to create special playlists from ripped CDs, all going into his Quad 909 system with a pair of Spendor SP-1s. I sold off most of my secondary system and made my 3TB iMac into a digital music server using an Ayre QB-9 DSD as my only source into a Tri KT88-based amplifier, a pair of Micropure Kotaro mini-monitors, and an Essex 12" subwoofer, although I have an older Tri headphone amplifier with a special cable going from the speaker taps to a pair of original Audeze LCD-2s, all lovely and simple. The single thing that I did that really improved the sound was to stop using iTunes as my music file database manager and switch to Audirvana Plus 2.X as both music processing and storage software, turning on some system optimizations, effectively using A+ as the hub for high-resolution music playback on a multipurpose iMac; and you know what? It sounds great. I even like DSD now, which has never been the case before, although I will admit that SACDs didn't sound so bad on the Ayre C-5xeMP universal disk player that I briefly owned many years ago.


I guess you could say I'm taking a pause. With all of my friends turning to wireless NAS clusters and quadruple DSD playback through things like the Auralic Aries and the Exasound e28, too much is changing too fast. So I'm putting my money into good old reliable vinyl and trying to learn more about classical music, having been a jazz aficionado for most of my adult life.  I'll be back, though. I don't trust every source out there to have albums properly recorded and mastered to be high-resolution downloads, and converting an SACD master into 24/192 PCM file through Pro Tools then throwing it up on a website just doesn't count. Most of that got formatted off of the RAID drive I gave my audiophile friend. I trust Channel Classics, Linn, and Blue Coast Records implicitly. Otherwise, I'm very picky about what I'll download, relying on only a few labels, such as ECM, to do it right. So I guess that's about it for now. Like I said, I'll be back. Now I'm off to play an old Decca SXL-2000 series classical LP through that wonderful Audio Note AN-S9.

Kindest regards,