Computer-based audio

If you look around the world you will see some very different approaches to systems playing music stored on a computer or computer-based device. Which of the available approaches will appeal to you the most depends upon a multitude of factors, the first of which is what is the primary source of music in your system? You might have an already established collection of vinyl albums or shelves stocked with CDs. If you have such a collection then you need first to digitise it – convert it into a format that can be stored on a computer hard disk. Let us put vinyl to one side for the moment and concentrate on Compact Disc because this is the easiest format for digital conversion: and, yes, I know CD is already digital but the music on those silver discs is not in an optimum format for hard disk storage. We will come to the nitty gritty of CD conversions and so on very shortly but let me begin by outlining my beliefs about the best way to extract music from a computer and get that into your hi-fi system…

Naim HDX

The ideal way to store and serve music files – not the only way but by far the best in my opinion – is to place that music on a hard disk within Network Attached Storage, a Storage Area Network or a computer dedicated solely to the purpose of storing music, and then send that music over an Ethernet connection to a Network Music player, such as a Naim HDX, Linn Klimax DS, or a Cambridge Audio Minx Xi. All the aforementioned devices use the UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) or its close relative the DLNA (Digital Living Network Association) protocol to discover and request music from the server device. All work over an Ethernet network so can be placed remotely from one another, so there is no need to cram noisy – physically and electrically – computing equipment alongside the hi-fi equipment: my music server is three rooms distant from my music room, for example.

The computer storing the tunes

In my own system I use a home-built, .multi-core, 2.9GHz Pentium powered Windows 7 PC with around 6GB of hard disk space available as the music store, and to serve as my CD-ripper. I use my main desktop PC (a 64-bit Windows 7 machine) for accessing Internet downloads. The music server runs only 32-bit Windows 7 so its RAM memory capacity is limited to 4.0 GB. Because it also serves as the CD-ripper it has access to a Plextor USB CD drive alongside a SATA internal Hitachi DVD reader, both of which are throttled back in software to read discs way below their fastest speeds. The machine is only ever connected to a keyboard, mouse and monitor when these are required – such as when ripping discs or updating metadata on stored music – but most of the time it runs “headless”. It has little in the way of software installed: just a stripped down version of Window 7 (tuned for pure performance), Illustrate’s Asset UPnP server and CD-Ripper suite, and the MP3tag metadata organiser. This system software is installed on a small, 500 GB, hard disk while the primary music library is stored on a couple of separate 3.0 TB disks that hold nothing but music files in FLAC format.

I always rip CDs to FLAC rather than WAV format, which is popular among many computer audio fans. FLAC files are losslessly compressed and so occupy less space than WAV files, and, most importantly, they allow the attachment of “tags”, which is the metadata that identifies each file and allows it to be organised into a formal library structure. Metadata is vital for much more than providing album sleeve photographs and data: without it your library would be no more than a jumble of disorganised, impossible-to-locate files on a hard disk. With it you can view a library as separate ‘albums’ organised by ‘artist’ with individual ‘songs’ within those ‘albums’, which is a far more logical way of arranging music – as well as being one with which most people are familiar. Searching for a song is like looking through a shelf of CDs to find the appropriate case…

The one-stop ripper/server

oliveO4HD[1]

Another option to a NAS or computer store is an integrated music server such as the Naim Audio HDX, the Olive 04HD,or the Meridian Soloos. Thus far I only have experience of the first two in this list and still own and use the Naim HDX, albeit the SSD version (Solid State Drive) which requires a NAS or some type of external storage device because its internal SSD hard disk only stores its operating system. It is, however, one of the finest rippers known to man, producing exquisite WAV rips of CDs. You should note that WAVs, once removed from the Naim infrastructure, might exhibit no meta information so it is best then to use software such as Illustrate’s dB Poweramp Music Converter to change the WAVs to FLAC format files.

It is wrong to think only of the HDX as a ripper and audiophile server even though it performs both functions admirably. One can simply replay stored music from it straight through one’s hi-fi, but the unit also works as a network streamer and provides useful access to internet radio. While it is supplied with a remote control handset and can easily be operated through its front-panel touch -screen, I think the best way to use the HDX is with an iPad or iPhone and the free i0s ‘app’, and I say all this as someone who could never be described as a big fan of Apple and its ios.

Ripping CDs

If you opt to rip your CDs manually rather than leave the task to an HDX or Vortexbox you will need to install appropriate software on your PC: and I say PC because I believe Windows computers do a better job of ripping CDs than their Apple counterparts. That is what my ears have told me and other listeners, anyway. The best options are Illustrate’s dBpoweramp CD Ripper and Exact Audio Copy. Of the two, I think most people will find dBpoweramp the easiest to use and get good results from. While EAC can produce better results on occasions its interface is not the most friendly you will find: it is a touch hair-shirt and hard-core by comparison to dBpoweramp.

The Vortexbox alternative

vortexboxAn oft chosen alternative to the like of the Naim, Olive and Soloos storage/player “solutions” is the Linux-based UPnP offering, the Vortexbox Appliance. I run one of these – although I confess to using Windows in preference to Linux on it – as a backup and alternative to my primary storage. It is an excellent and highly affordable choice that is available through the internet. Do buy from the VortexBox UK site rather than through eBay, though, because you really want the genuine article and not a clone put together on someone’s kitchen table. If, however, you enjoy building your own computers there is nothing to stop you installing VortexBox software on your own home-brewed machine. You will not get the elegant, compact VortexBox case if you take that rote, though. There is now, I note, a VB appliance with an SSD.

My VortexBox also runs Squeezeserver software to enable me furthermore to run the highly capable but inexpensive Logitech Squeezebox Touch streamer on the network when I wish.

Connecting the gear together

CHORD-ETHERnetSo, the music server, called PrimaryNAS in this system, sits in my office and is connected to the Ethernet network through a Meicord Opal Ethernet lead going through a Zyxel Gigabit switch and the Music-room network by way of a Netgear N300 router with wi-fi enabled so that the iPad controller can talk to the server’s UPnP software. This is connected by unshielded Cat5 cable to another Netgear Gigabit switch in the music room, which is hooked into the Naim HDX-SSD through a Chord Company TUNED ARAY Indigo Ethernet cable. ( It might only be the last link in the chain and it is expensive but it does make a difference to the sound you will hear through your system. The profound effects of TUNED ARAY cables should not be underestimated!)

The HDX feeds signal to a Naim DAC/XPS2 through a BNC-BNC Chord Company Sarum TUNED ARAY digital interconnect, which then delivers my Naim NAC52 pre-amplifier with an analogue signal through a Chord Company Sarum TUNED ARAY analogue interconnect.

So that is the start of this high-end computer-driven array, most of which is almost as painfully painstakingly tweaked as the rest of the set-up. More of which later, but the PrimaryNAS uses a Naim Audio mains connection.

Posted in: Computer Audio, Opinion

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