It's becoming more and more common to use your PC, a PC based consumer product or a standalone solution for storing and playing you music. The possibilities in te meantime are endless and it's getting difficult to choose. PC, Mac, Network, Wireless, NAS, Firewire, USB, SP/DIF etc.
These are all terms that the may make the beginning audiophile or musiclover unsure about the next step to take. With this article, I will try to shed some light on this situation.
As you may have gathered from these options, a regular PC can do all tasks associated with computer audio recording/storage/playback by itself without the need for further hardware. This could be the simplest and most cost-efficient solution for many, were it not so that many people don't like to have a PC in the livingroom. PC's can be made silent though, and needn't be very large. The PC itself can be hidden. Simple PC or Mac systems can be very reliable and don't need a lot of maintenance. The only items you will have to tolerate will be the monitor, mouse and keyboard.
2. PC to record, store and playback the music files but controlling it via an external device
This is the same situation as above but using a remote control or touchpanel to control the playback, thereby eliminationg the need to have a monitor, mouse and keyboard in sight. For control, you could use another PC or a laptop via a remote desktop utility, an iPhone, iPad or AMX/Crestron-like touchpanel. This is a good solution if you are comfortable using a PC but don't want to use or see the monitor, mouse and keyboard.
3. PC to record and playback, External hard drive or NAS for storage
This is still basically the same situation as above but using an external drive for added space or using a NAS so the files can be accessed by multiple PC's in multiple rooms, or even from anywhere in the world. The PC is still used for playback so every extra room in which playback is needed still needs its own PC to access the network and play back the files.
4. PC to record, External NAS/Music Server for both storage and playback
This is comparable to the previous situation but now the PC is merely used for recording the music (cd-ripping or downloading). The files are then transfered to the NAS or server so they can be accessed by any other PC in the network. But the main PC is no longer used for playback; the NAS or server can do this now because it has its own (simple or elaborate) operating system. But the possibilities vary per brand and model. In the simplest form, the NAS knows nothing except how to present its mediafiles to a suitable program running on a (remote) computer or piece of separate hardware, such as the Logitech Squeezebox or Sonos. The list of compatible hardware devices keeps growing and they needn't be expensive. In their simplest incarnations they can only be controlled via IR. In their advanced incarnations they can be controlled in a number of ways, such as a proprietary remote control with touchscreen, remotely via a webbrowser on any computer or on the device itself. Depending on the possibilities of the NAS/Server, you could even stream straight to a iPhone or other mediaplayback-capable device. In its most elaborate form, a music server could be capable not only of holding the media files and playing them back, but also present useable signals, such as an analog or digital audio output on its rear panel so all you need is an audiocable going into your audio system.
5. Going Wireless
Thus far all connections were assumed wired. But anywhere where a network is needed, the connection may also be wireless. Apple has a smart solution, called Airport that makes it possible to send music from a computer to another room without using a cable. The Airport is a wireless receiver that adds playback hardware and audio-output connections. You still need to control the music from the computer or by using an iPhone. But really, so long as both PC and playback devices are connected to the same network, be it wired or wireless, the same options should exist using any wireless router, assuming that you have a playback device at the receiving end. I have not yet found that wireless sounds less than wired, but I suspect that audible differences do exsist, depending on the encryption used. I also think that a wired connection may prove to be more reliable. Using wireless though, you could create a largely invisible solution in which only a small sophisticated control panel and/or display are visible evidence of the PC based system.
Music system 2 - Standalone
Going standalone means that you no longer use a PC at any stage but only one integrated device for recording, control and playback of the files, this is sometimes also called a music server. There are again some options.
1. Integrated Music Server
Several brands have components that, in their simplest form, resemble DVD players/recorders for looks, but also in the way you control playback. The CD drive, hard drive and audio outputs are all built into the same device and you select files by using the buttons and display on the device itself, or by using the supplied remote control. Good examples of such devices are the Naim HDX and Olive Mediaservers. Both are compact all in one solutions that sound very good and are very simple to use. The Naim is soundwise currently the best option, but is also pricey. The Olive would probably be the second-best solution at this time. (may 2011)
2. Standalone but consisting of multiple devices
Here the possibilities are so endless that I can't possibly name all of them. But in the basis they are still the same as the integrated device mentioned above, but spread apart in function. You could have, for example, a recorder+hard drive unit and a playback+control unit. The latter may be a monitor-like display with touchpanel control, like Soloos, (now owned by Meridian) or just a hand-held device. There could also be three units in which you have a separate audiounit to which you connect the amplifier or da converter. Really, the possibilities here are endless and ever evolving.
Music system 3 - Standalone, but with occasional help from a PC
This may sound contradictory but it is easily explained. This solution is also explained in the PC section above but may sound elaborate that way. If you think of it the other way around, it starts to sound real simple. With this solution, your music playback system can function standalone but you still use the PC to download or rip music. After downloading/ripping you transfer the files to an external device that either has a built-in hard drive or uses an external hard drive or NAS for storage. The music is then played back using a device like the Squeezebox, Sonos or any other available external solution. To make this solution even simpler, you could take a Ripping Nas so you'll only ever need a computer for more advanced tag editing or file renaming.
As stated above, PC and Mac are broadly similar when speaking about their abilities to play back digital audio files. I am aware that there are still Mac-haters as well as Mac-enthusiasts. Without trying to choose sides, I can mention that I own and have owned both Mac and PC systems my entire life and as such can say that both have had positive and negative sides. But lately Macs are also PC's since they decided to let go of the old Motorola chips in favour of Intel's PC offerings. Macs are essentially PC's now, with the exception that they run Mac-specific firmware and software. The hardware is the same. But that doesn't say it all. Software is also very essectial and a very deciding factor for the eventual sound quality. For example, iTunes sounds excellent on Macs but not so hot on PC's, unless you install third party software and do some tweaking (for more advanced users). More on this subject here. Also noteworthy is Mac's possibility to install a version of Windows next to the Mac OS by using Bootcamp. This is completely supported by Mac and works flawlessly. Don't confuse this with the virtual programs like Parallels and Fusion. While these programs also work as advertised, and on quicker machines work excellent but they consume a lot of the computer's resources, thereby slowing the system down on older machines. Bootcamp is a way to use the Mac natively as a Windows machine and this works best if your mac is a little older. It functions excactly as a "real" PC would. The only remaining downside of Mac, as far as I'm concerned, is price. You pay for the design, but also for reliability as the software has been designed with standardised and known hardware in mind.
In the past, when hard drives were small and expensive, mp3 was invented in order to squeeze more music onto a given drive. mp3 is a lossy codec, which means that usually 4/5th of the original information is thrown away. During playback, the missing original material is re-calculated by means of a smart reconstruction process. Although mp3's can sound pretty good (depending on the encoding software), they are far from equal to CD quality. While disk prices are low these days, you can store files natively in the WAV or AIFF format if you want the best possible sound quality. AIFF and WAV both use PCM code and are completely identical in soundquality. The only difference is the header in the bitstream which is of no concern for the audio quality. However, WAV tends to be slightly more compatible across many systems. Do keep in mind though that both WAV and AIFF do not carry info tags, like mp3 does. So all info they have is in the actual filename. If you want your playback application to display all fields like artist, album and such in the corresponding fields, you'll have to enter these manually. The extra info won't be appended to the actual files but will be kept in the playback application's library. Be aware that if you copy your music, the extra info will not be transferred! mp3 is easier that way. All info you add in the playback application's library will be appended to the ID3 tags. In the meantime lossless compression formats have been invented such as FLAC and Apple lossless. The data is still compressed, usually to a third of the original file, but in such a manner that none of the data is really gone. It is just encoded more efficiently. During playback, the original signal is restored. While this process creates measurably identical files, and many companies claim the results are the same as when using native WAV or AIFF, I have to disagree. My listening tests have shown that native formats still have a slight edge over any format that "messes" with the code, be it lossy or lossless. I do agree however that lossless formats sound a lot better than mp3 and the difference between FLAC and WAV really is small, so unless you're as anal about it as I am, you should be fine;-). Lossless formats are an excellent alternative to mp3 or wav. They just don't sound exactly as good as native. But there's another rub: not all playback- or editing programs can use these lossless formats. iTunes for example only supports Apple Lossless. Not FLAC. So if you plan to use iTunes or plan to edit your files in a wave editor you'll have to re-encode them into WAV or AIFF. And as always, any conversion brings along a loss in fidelity so therefore it is best to start with native formats if you have the option. There are ways to cheat iTunes to play back FLAC but so far I'm not happy with the results. It is cumbersome and unreliable to do so and I don't consider it a very good solution. Also, on a PC, iTunes is far from the best sounding application but there are ways to tweak it. Read more here.
USB, Firewire, SP/DIF. What to use? These abbreviations stand the various protocols. Basically they all do the same: they are methods of connecting 2 devices for transfering digital audiosignals. You need to get the audiosignals out of the PC or whatever device you use. These signals in their simplest form are analog and can be connected straight to any amplifier. But the DA conversion inside computers and affordable external devices is really not up to scratch. At best it sounds like a cheap cd player. As Audiophiles, we want the best, and no less:-) Therefore, in order to maintain the highest quality, we need to extract the audio digitally from the PC or external device. This is where the connection method becomes more important because the differences will be easier to hear when you use a high quality D-A converter instead of the cheap chips on soundcards or built-in to most external devices.
This is probably the easiest solution. All PC's now have at least 2 USB ports and digital audio is natively supported on these PC's. There are two rubs though. The first is that not all dacs have USB inputs. The second is that USB can only be approximately 5-8 meters long, depending on the sender chip, without using an extendercable with built-in signal-amplifier. Lastly, I have found during this extensive review that USB and Firewire don't sound as good as regular SPDIF. Also, there are now discussions going on about synchronous USB versus asynchronous USB. There are theoretical advantages to asynchronous USB but not all dacs are capable of handling this protocol. More about this here. USB can give excellent results though. It is just that I feel that SPDIF souns better still.
Firewire is more or less comparable to USB in terms of plus sides and downsides. It is, however, more robust and its bandwith is always guaranteed, as opposed to USB, which shares its resources with a lot of other processes inside the PC. As PC's get faster, this has become less of an issue, especialy for simple 2-channel audio, but purists swear by firewire nevertheless. More about firewire here Firewire is capable of technically perfect results. But perfect is not synonyous with good or pleasant sound. This is a very subjective matter though. I feel that SPDIF sounds better. Not technically speaking, but emotionally speaking. You can read more about that here
This is the original Sony/Philips Digital Interface, first featured between cd players or transports and DA converters. Theoretically SPDIF is at an disadvantage compared to Asynchronous USB and Firewire, when incorporated in the best way, by using software to control the bitstream accurately. This can produce a bit-perfect stream that sounds very precise. Nevertheless, I have found that the resulting sound can be somewhat sterile and too controlled. Although this is a matter of taste, I feel that if you care more about music enjoyment than about accurate reproduction, you might feel the same. It's not that SPDIF lets through less detail, rather it is presented in a more relaxed fashion. Exactly why this happens is unknown to me. But I have tested it with multiple dacs and with various PC's and Macs. It is a phenomenon that's always there. Besides the sound quality, there are two major plus sides to using SPDIF. First, you easily can use 15-20 meters without any loss to speak of. Second, any dac has at least one digital coaxial input so you have a lot of choice in choosing the right dac for your musical taste.
Then of course there is the UTP network cable. Over a network you can send any signal you like, using any coding you like. I won't get into the specifics here but basically a network cable is used to simply stream the raw music data from a PC or NAS to a device that can decode the signals. Believe it or not but network cables also put their stamp on the sound. Go for a good cable if you care about the sound. El cheapo cables will of course work but it's best to go for a good Cat6 cable due to the more strict regulations they have to comply with. Internet connections are not critical as the data can simply be sent again, and again if any corruption takes place. In music streaming this is not recommended. You want all the data in perfect shape, right away. Or the interpolation will degrade the original signal. I cannot recommend "the best" brands yet as I haven't experimented with it enough. As soon as I know more, I will add it here.
Well, this is already a lot of info to take in, I am aware of that. So I'll stop here with the details and move on to the conclusion.
What is the best system for you? This comes down mostly to the choice between Versatility and Ease of Use, but there's also still the matter of sound quality.
As you've read above, there are too many variables for me to give well-funded advice here but there's one mean divider: those who like tinkering with computers and their complexity and possible inherent problems, and those who just want to play music. The first group could go with any solution they like while the second group is probably better off with an integrated solution. A standalone music replay system like a Naim HDX is not likely to display Windows' feared blue screens of death. Alternatively, if you want the simplest solution but want more possibilities than a standalone solution can offer, go for a system that needs a computer for initial setup but works on its own from that moment on.
Thus far, I've written mostly about the possibilities, not much about the sound quality. But there are large differences in quality. The best solutions, as always, usually are also the most expensive. But for a modest outlay, you can obtain very, very good sound by using a regular PC or MAC, adding the HiFace EVO USB/SPDIF interface and your choice of DAC.
Even though I still feel that CD's played on a high end CD player (lately I've been using the Mark Levinson no.390S) sound better than any computer-based system I have tried thus far (the best solution thus far being using the HiFace EVO USB/SPDIF interface, going ST glass into the Levinson no.360S DAC) I also firmly believe that server-based music replay is going to be the future. Companies around the globe are continuously bringing new hardware into the market and the quality will keep improving. Mind you, already the quality is so high that anyone except perhaps purists like me will be able to find a satisfying solution. It may even come to a point that server-based music replay will sound better than good old CD when higher samplerates are used more widely. I for one am keeping an open mind!
Good luck in choosing your digital playback system. Please, don't let the technicalities spoil your music enjoyment!
Update december 2010:
Using the Ayre QB-9 USB DAC, computer audio replay is now side to side with my preferred CD player (Levinson 390S). The Ayre trumps the Levinson in the areas of resolution, air and fluidity but the Levinson still has more colour and substance, as well as much better bass. The quest continues...
Update may 2011:
I have now bought the PS audio PWD (Perfect Wave Dac). This unit may well provide better playback from hard drive than the PC-HiFace-Levinson 360S DAC combo. Whether it will defeat the Ayre on its strong areas remains to be seen, but it may well come side to side with the CD player, just like the Ayre did while having more 'meat on the bones'. It may even beat CD player. Nah, probably not. But I do hope so. the Once the device has arrived, I will add the results here, as well as in a separate extensive review.
Let's first see what you need. When I say PC, I also mean MAC because these two computer systems are mostly compatible and more or less equal possibilities exsist. Where there are differences, I will mark them. Following are the basic 3 elements needed for computer music replay. Instead of a PC you could use a laptop. The only downsides here are the limited hard drive size and the sound quality which is less than a full size PC. I've tested this extensively and even when using usb or firewire you could still tell the difference between a laptop and a full size PC. Of course there's more to it, like external DA converters and such, but I'll get to that later.
There are three main components in any computer based audio playback system:
This may be internal, like a hard drive inside a regular pc, or in an integrated musicserver system. It could also be external, like a regular hard drive or a NAS (Network Attached Storage). The latter is no more than one or more harddrives in an enclosure, running simple software so that they can be accessed via a network by computers attached to the same network. This way they still function as a regular external hard drive. A NAS can also be more complex, offering a more advanced operating system and even playback hardware so you don't need a PC for playback. More popular now is the so-called Ripping Nas. This is a typical NAS, with added optical disc drive so that you don't need a computer for the ripping of music.
2. Hardware for playback of the files (and recording them)
This may be inside the same regular PC, it may be part of a NAS or it may be some extra hardware in the shape of a device such as the Logitech Squeezebox.
3. Control of the playback
This can again be just the same regular PC, again the NAS (sometimes with a simple remote control), a device such as the Logitech Squeezebox, or a PC that only controls the playback but doesn't actually store the music on its discs nor uses its hardware to process the audio. It can even be an iPhone if you have the appropriate software. For iTunes this is freely available and works very well.
These three components provide the basics for seemingly endless options. Listed below are three of those options:
Music system 1 - PC Based
A PC based music system gives you various options for deciding how to record/rip, store and playback your music. These options are listed below.