Getting Started in Computer Audio
If you haven’t taken the dive into computer audio, you may be asking yourself a very simple question—Why should I? The very simple answer is accessibility and sound quality. Computer-based audio allows you to store all of your music in one central location on a computer network, making it accessible from virtually any network-attached device. And when your network is connected to the Internet, you have access to the largest source of free (and legal) and paid music on the planet. Unlike disc-based music, computer-based audio is not restricted to any particular format. You can have CD quality, DVD-Audio quality, SACD quality, and even music in greater resolutions than disc-based formats allow. With computer-based audio, you can have your cakes and eat them, too, in as many rooms as you’d like.
What Is Computer Audio?
Computer audio is a somewhat misleading term since you don’t really need what most people think of as a computer to take advantage of digital file-based playback. It’s also the case that any computer can be used as a music server or network player, and if you’ve ever played back a music file on your computer or phone, you’re already doing the computer audio thing. Whether that means playing back a downloaded file or listening to music from YouTube, computer audio is darn near everywhere.
One question you’ll face is whether to use an Internet-connected computer as your network player and music server or buy a dedicated device to accomplish these same tasks. In terms of sound quality, there really is no best method. But if you do a lot of processor-intensive work on your computer while listening to your music, you may want to consider a dedicated device for music—the greater the additional demands you make on your computer during music playback, the more you will negatively impact sound quality. In the worst case, you may experience dropouts similar to skips on a record. One of the general rules of thumb for tricking out your computer for music playback is “the more memory, the better.”
Computer Audio Hardware
Since using your existing computer as your music server and player is the fastest and easiest way to dip a toe into the endless stream of music that’s available online as well as access your file-based music library, we’ll start here.
Once you decide to explore CD ripping and downloads, the most important thing you can do for yourself and your file-based music collection is to put it on a dedicated hard drive. This can be a traditional external hard drive or a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. Deciding between these two storage methods really comes down to a question of accessibility—do you want to access your music from more than one device, and if so, do you want that music available 24/7 without the need to fire up your computer? If the answer is yes, I recommend going with a NAS device. I like the NAS devices from Synology, but there are many other options out there from brands including QNAP, Western Digital, La Cie, Netgear, and more.
A NAS device connects to your router with an Ethernet cable, and once set up, any compatible network-attached device can access its contents. I also recommend buying a NAS with at least two drives configured in a RAID array for fault tolerance. Hard drives fail. This is a fact of computer life, so the second best piece of advice I can give to someone getting into computer audio is “back up!” I’d go as far as to recommend using a multiple-drive NAS with a RAID array and another separate hard drive for backup. It’s important to note that a RAID array is not a backup. Rather, it’s there as a measure of fault tolerance in the event of a hard drive failure. Basically, if one drive fails, the other(s) will take over and you won’t suffer any downtime. Having a second copy of your music library on a completely separate hard drive offers an additional and necessary step in securing your precious music files in the event of disc corruption or failure.
While all of that may sound daunting, it really isn’t. Many NAS devices come with everything you need to use them as a music server, so your most difficult choice will be deciding how much storage space you need for your music library. I’d recommend starting out with at least 1 terabyte (TB) of music storage. This will provide enough storage space for approximately 2,000 uncompressed CD-quality albums. If you feel you’ll need more, good for you! By all means get more. There’s really no downside to having too much storage beyond the initial cost.
If you decide to go with a single computer or other device accessing your music library, you can go with a basic external hard drive from companies including G-Technology, La Cie, Western Digital, or others. Another rule of thumb is to try to avoid using the same method of connecting to your digital-to-analog converter (DAC) as you use to connect to your storage. I’ll say more about DACs shortly, but as an example, if you decide to use a USB-connected DAC, get a hard drive that hooks up with FireWire, Thunderbolt, or eSATA. The reason for this is that you want to avoid loading up the USB bus during music playback if possible. If you have no other options, you can certainly go with a USB DAC and a USB hard drive, and the world as we know it will not end. But if you’re looking to optimize your setup for music playback, this is one easy step. And remember, you still need to back up to a second external hard drive!
Once your storage is sorted, getting your music from your chosen storage device to your ears can be accomplished in a number of ways from a hardware perspective. Perhaps the simplest method is to get a pair of active desktop speakers or headphones and connect them to your computer. Since all computers come equipped with an analog output (3.5mm headphone output), we’re looking at a plug-and-play solution. At this point, while we’ve accomplished our first goal of computer audio playback—accessibility—we’ve left out the second and equally important goal of sound quality. The way I look at the issue of sound quality is pretty straightforward, and that’s to suggest that we should care about the quality of our experiences. And when we can influence that quality, we absolutely should, especially if we’re talking about something we plan to do repeatedly and for extended, dedicated listening time. After all, we’re ultimately talking about enjoying listening to music on a hi-fi, so why not get all the enjoyment we can?
To put it bluntly, the headphones or speakers you got for free with your computer, and your computer’s built-in digital-to-analog converter, are not going to cut it for a high-quality listening experience. Luckily, there are an endless number of excellent headphones out there and many capable contenders these days among active desktop speakers. Along with the coverage in Sound & Vision, you’ll find no better source of information on headphones than our sister Website InnerFidelity.com, edited by respected expert Tyll Hertsen. For recommendations on active desktop speakers, you can visit our associated Website dedicated to all things computer audio, AudioStream.com.
If you’d like to play your computer-based music through your existing hi-fi or improve the sound of your desktop speakers, the simplest way to accomplish this is with a high-quality external DAC. Again, there are almost an endless number of options, and some DACs also incorporate additional functionality, such as a headphone amp, a preamplifier that accepts inputs from other sources, and even a full integrated amplifier that’ll directly drive a pair of passive speakers. Along with a few products listed in the accompanying sidebar, I can again point you to my site AudioStream.com and our sister publication and Website Stereophile and Stereophile.com for a longer list of recommendations; InnerFidelity.com extensively covers dedicated headphone amps.
All of the recommended DACs on the accompanying list can connect to your computer via a USB cable. But, since the maximum distance for a USB cable is 5 meters (about 16 feet), your computer has to be near your hi-fi. The signal flow for a simple setup looks like this: your computer > USB cable > DAC > RCA or balanced analog interconnects > your hi-fi. All of the recommended DACs also employ asynchronous USB technology, which essentially puts the master clock for the digital audio transfer inside the DAC. This means the standalone DAC controls the flow of data as opposed to the computer, so the problem of system-induced jitter can be greatly reduced.
Another option if you already own a home theater receiver is that it most likely has a digital S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital InterFace) input. There are two varieties of the S/PDIF interface that most home theaterphiles will be familiar with: optical TosLink and coax. All modern Apple computers include an optical TosLink S/PDIF output that you can access through the headphone output, so all you need is a mini TosLink-to-TosLink cable if your receiver is equipped with a standard TosLink input. You may also have an HDMI input on your receiver and a matching output on your computer, so again, all you need here is an HDMI cable and you’re good to go.
Yet another option is to use a USB-to-S/PDIF converter that turns your computer’s USB output into a TosLink or coax S/PDIF output that your receiver will accept. This approach offers both improved performance in terms of negating system-induced jitter as well as the ability to play back higher-resolution formats than Apple’s TosLink output, which is limited to 24-bit/96-kilohertz data. There are many choices here as well, but the Musical Fidelity V-Link192 ($199) is a good place to start. For additional recommendations, check out AudioStream’s Greatest Bits list.
If you want to consider a dedicated playback device instead of using your computer, there are two basic choices: a music server or network player/streamer. The difference between these two choices is that a music server is designed and optimized to play back music stored on a hard drive, while a streamer will also play back music from the Internet. A nice entry-level network player is the Pioneer Elite N-50 Networked Audio Player ($699). With the Pioneer, you can play back music from your network-attached storage device, from an external hard drive, from your computer, from an iPod or iPhone via Apple’s AirPlay, and the Internet.
If you went with a NAS-based storage solution, you could have something like the Pioneer N-50 connected to your hi-fi in one room and your desktop setup with a DAC and active speakers in another room, with both systems accessing the same central NAS-based music library. You could even have a third setup for a separate home theater connected to the same NAS!
One last note on hardware and connectivity: A number of products now offer either AirPlay or Bluetooth connectivity. This allows you to play back music from your iOS (AirPlay and Bluetooth) or Android (Bluetooth) device wirelessly. While the sound quality of AirPlay is limited to CD-quality and Bluetooth is a compressed format, the convenience and wireless connection make this a very attractive option, especially for family members and guests who don’t want to fuss with cables and hi-fis.