Getting Started With Computer Audio Part 1: Hardware
Jumping into Computer Audio can seem daunting. How and where should you take the plunge? Do you want a server or streamer? Or how about one box that does it all? And how do you get your file-based music to play through a hi-fi? What if they're in different rooms? In Part 1 of 3 we're going to talk about the pieces of hardware you'll need to play back file-based music whether its through a server, a streamer or an all-in-one device. Part 2 will cover the software side of the equation and Part 3 will touch on the most important piece—the music.
There are three main approaches to dealing with Computer Audio; a Server, a Streamer, and an All-In-One device. This overview will tell you what you need to get started in each scenario and point you to other resources where you can learn more as well as to some specific component recommendations. The other focus of this article is on a plug and play approach or making computer audio as simple as possible without sacrificing sound quality in the process. The good news is getting started in computer audio can be relatively inexpensive while delivering everything you need for a musically engaging experience.
Perhaps the simplest and least expensive way to test the Computer Audio waters is to use the computer you already own since any computer can act as a music server. With a Server system, you have a few choices relating to how you want to listen to your music— through your hi-fi, on your desktop, through headphones or some combination of the three. Let's start with the first and talk about how to get the music that's on your computer to play through your stereo.
Connecting to you Hi-Fi
One important consideration when looking to connect your computer to your hi-fi is proximity—ideally your computer should be within feet/meters of your hi-fi (see our Recommended Cable Lengths for specifics). If this is not possible, you can either use another computer as a music server or skip to the next section on Streamers.
If distance is not a problem, the next practical piece is determining how to connect your Computer to your Hi-Fi. If you already own a piece of hi-fi gear that includes digital inputs you are nearly there. Most current receivers have multiple digital inputs, as do some disc players, preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers. If you have available digital inputs somewhere in your hi-fi, they are most likely S/PDIF (Sony / Philips Digital Interconnect Format) which can be either coax or toslink. Some PCs will have an HDMI output which can be used for audio as long as your hi-fi has an HDMI audio input.
Most Apple computer's headphone jack doubles as a Toslink output so you just need to buy a mini-Toslink to Toslink cable and connect your Mac to the Toslink input on your hi-fi. If your computer does not have a S/PDIF output, you can buy a USB to S/PDIF converter which does exactly what it sounds like—converts the USB output of your computer to S/PDIF so you can connect to your hi-fi's S/PDIF input. There are a number of choices on the market including the Halide The Bridge (see review) and the Musical Fidelity V-Link 192 and we recommend using coax to connect to your hi-fi from a USB to S/PDIF converter.
If your hi-fi does not have an available digital input, you can buy a USB DAC which again does exactly what its name suggests—connects to one of your computer's USB ports, converts its digital output to an analog signal, and its other end connects to your hi-fi's line level input through either single-ended or balanced interconnects. For some recommended DACs, check AudioStream's Greatest Bits where we pick some favorites.
For either approach, whether using a USB-S/PDIF converter or USB DAC, you'll want to make sure the device you buy can handle at least 24-bit/96kHz music files because they typically sound better than lower resolutions and high definition downloads are the future of high quality music playback. If you want to check out a long list of 24/192-capable USB DACs, here it is. We also recommend using a high quality USB cable and there many choice starting at under $30.
Some Basic Server Connectivity Methods
External Hard Drive > USB/Firewire/eSata/Thunderbolt cable > Computer > USB Cable > USB DAC > Interconnects > Hi-FiDesktop Speakers
External Hard Drive > USB/Firewire/eSata/Thunderbolt cable > Computer > USB Cable > USB to USB to S/PDIF Converter > Coax > DAC > Hi-Fi
External Hard Drive > USB/Firewire/eSata/Thunderbolt cable > Computer > Toslink > DAC > Hi-Fi
There are two basic approaches to getting your music from your computer to a pair of desktop speakers—connect your computer's headphone output to your desktop speakers input or connect your computer to a DAC (some desktop speakers include a DAC) and then connect the DAC to your speakers. While we recommend using an external DAC for the best sound quality, if you are on a budget you can get started by connecting your speakers to your computer's headphone jack. We also recommend buying powered desktop speakers and you can see our choices on AudioStream's Greatest Bits list. There's really not a heck of lot to talk about with powered desktop speakers as they are really plug in and play. If you decide to add a DAC in between your computer and speakers, you'll need to tell your computer to play music through your DAC. Exactly how you do this will be detailed in your DAC's manual and we'll be covering some basic software setup tips in Part 2.
Some Basic Desktop Speaker Connectivity Methods
Computer > 3.5mm cable > Powered Desktop SpeakersPurpose-Built Music Servers
Computer > USB Cable > USB DAC > Interconnects > Powered Desktop Speakers
It's certainly worth mentioning that there are companies who make purpose-built music servers which are essentially computers designed and built for the sole purpose of serving music. You can also build your own music server but since this is beginner's guide and our focus is on plug and play, we'll leave the discussion about purpose-built servers for another day.
For those looking for a headphone-only setup, there's no better place on the Internet to go for good advice than InnerFidelity (I may be biased because we are part of the same family/company) so I'm going to take the easy way out and send you there to read all about headphones and headphone amps. If you want just the facts, m'am, check out their Wall Of Fame which includes their top picks.
- You can use your existing computer
- You may only need to buy the correct cable if your computer and hi-fi have compatible outputs and inputs
- You can greatly improve the sound quality by adding an external DAC
- External DACs that will crush your computer's internal DAC for playing music start at under $300
- Computer software is easy to upgrade so you can stay current with the latest music playback formats like native DSD
- You are not locked into one manufacturer's sandbox for everything
- You use your existing computer which should be dedicated to music playback for the best sound quality
- Your computer needs to be near your hi-fi so you can connect them
Buying a streamer allows you to play music without using a computer which also obviously means your computer does not have to be near your hi-fi. This also means you have to make your music library available to your streamer and this is accomplished over your home Ethernet network. And I specifically say Etherent network because we highly recommend using wired connections for music playback. While a wi-fi connection can work, there are too many variables at play that can ruin, yes ruin, your enjoyment.
For a list of recommended streamers, you could go to our Greatest Bits list or I can save you the trouble and include it here - the Logitech Squeezebox Touch. Even though the Touch has been discontinued by Logitech, its still available from places like Amazon and for a street price of under $250, the Touch is a no-brainer recommendation and it comes with Logitech's Squeezebox Server software that's a breeze to setup and use and it turns your computer, external hard drive or compatible Network Attached Storage (NAS) into a music server in minutes. Again, you'll want to connect the Touch to your home network with Ethernet and its worth the trouble and expense to run an Ethernet connection (I recommend running Category 6 Ethernet cable) from your router to the Touch. But yes, the Touch can also connect to your home wi-fi network so you can give it a try. The Touch connects to your hi-fi with a pair of standard interconnects.
Since this is a beginner's guide we'll just mention that the Touch includes digital outputs so you can bypass its internal DAC and roll your own in between it and your hi-fi and there are a number of third party applications and tweaks that can improve the Touch's stock functions and sound quality. And since our focus here is on Hardware, we'll also leave discussion of Application/Software layer stuff for Part 2. But it is relevant to note that other Streamers on the market incorporate additional features you may find very useful including Apple's Airplay compatibility and an iDevice input.
For more information on Streamers, check out our Getting Along With Streamers 101 article.
Some Basic Streamer Connectivity Methods
NAS > Ethernet > Router > Ethernet > Streamer > Hi-FiStreamer Pros
External Hard Drive > Computer > Ethernet > Router > Ethernet > Streamer > Hi-Fi
- You do not need a computer to play music
- Connects to your existing home network
- Can be an inexpensive way to test the computer audio waters without having to dedicate a computer to music playback
- There may be file format restrictions that will not allow you use the same file types for your Streamer and iTunes
- You are locked into one manufacturers sandbox in terms of the user interface
- You really should have an Ethernet connection to connect to your Streamer
The All-In-One System
You can think of an All-In-One system as a combination Server and Streamer and sometimes a preamplifier and amplifier in one box. If we focus on the All-In-One systems that work as an add-on device to your existing hi-fi, there's not a heck of a lot to talk about since the specifics will depend on which device you choose. Some popular brands of All-In-One players include Linn, Naim, Olive, Sonos, and perhaps the granddaddy of form, function, and the artful interface, the Meridian Sooloos.
There are some important considerations to make when buying into an All-In-One system and one very important question you'll want answered is how open is their file storage system. If you find out that the answer to that question is we encrypt all music files stored in our system my suggestion is to look elsewhere.
The main advantage to an All-In-One system is simplicity. Some systems include a CD slot drive for ripping so all you need do is stick your CDs into that slot and let the system do the rest. You don't have to think about file formats, ripping software, metadata, and on and on. Of course, you are completely dependent on your chosen manufacturers system so choose wisely. We will be reviewing a number of All-In-One systems and we'll be updating this page as we go with specific recommendations.
- You do not need a computer to play music
- You do not need to know or care about ripping software and file formats
- Simple to use
- You are locked into one manufacturers product
- Some All-In-One products encrypt your files so you cannot use them with any other system
- You may be limited in terms of file formats such as no native DSD support
Music Library Storage
We're going to talk about ripping and downloading in Parts 2 and 3 but from a hardware perspective, music storage is as important as music playback when it comes to file-based music. There are two basic options for music storage—an external hard drive or Network Attached Storage (NAS). Most people are familiar with an external hard drive and today you can buy a drive with USB 2.0/3.0, FireWire, eSata, and Thunderbolt inputs. The main thing to keep in mind if you are using a USB DAC is to pick a non-USB method of connecting to your external hard drive. There are many options for external hard drives on the market but you'll want yours to be reliable and quiet. I'd recommend checking out the G-RAID drives from G-Technology, Buffalo Technology, or Western Digital.
Network Attached Storage can seem overly complicated which is why we devoted a series of articles to this subject. You can start here and work your way through or if you are impatient you can just go buy a NAS. We recommend buying a NAS from Synology that fits your storage needs but there are other options out there so feel free to shop around. The main advantage of NAS is availability—since a NAS device sits on your network, any network-attached device can access it. This means you can play music stored on a NAS from more than one device in more than one room. In terms of price, NAS will cost more than an external hard drive and only you can say if this extra cost is worth it.
Another option that may already exist in your home network is to attach an external hard drive to your router's "Share" port. While this is not an ideal method for very large music libraries, it can be a handy and easy way to share your music over your network. Basically a router's share port is a USB input on your router and once you plug your external hard drive into it you'll need to deal with some software configuration (see your router's manual) to allow it act as a shared network drive.
Backup, Backup, Backup
Regardless of your music storage method, you need to have another full copy on an external hard drive.
We have obviously just skimmed the surface of computer audio hardware. You can check our Hardware Reviews to learn more but I thought I'd leave you with some basic take-away points:
- Regardless of the route you decide to travel, make sure that the hardware you buy can handle at least 24-bit/96kHz music files (see our Hardware-Imposed Bit Rate Limitations below).
- You can get great sound from Computer Audio for a few hundred bucks.
- For recommended components, check out AudioStream's Greatest Bits.
- Network Attached Storage allows you to share music in more than one room through more than one system. See our NAS Series for more info.
- When buying into an All-In-One system, make sure the file format system is not encrypted and also make sure it can handle #1.
- If you are just starting out and need help putting together the rest of your hi-fi (amps, speakers, etc.), I'd highly recommend reading my friend and colleague Stephen Mejias' column in Stereophile called The Entry Level and check out Stereophile's Recommended Components (there's even an App for that).
Some Hard(ware) Facts
What about Apple TV? And how close does my computer need to be to my hi-fi? I thought it would be useful to include a list of facts about common connectivity methods and their associated limitations in one place this seemed like as good a place as any.
Recommended Cable Lengths
This is intended as a general guide and factors such as the impedance of the equipment you are connecting at each end of a cable will factor in to this equation as do the physical characteristics of the cable itself. If you find yourself in need of lengths longer than those specified, you may very well be able to do so without sonic degradation so please consider these a playing it safe approach.
USB 2.0: Maximum length 5 meters but the shorter the betterSome Hardware-Imposed Bit Rate Limitations
S/PDIF Coax: Maximum length 10 meters for a true 75ohm cable
S/PDIF Toslink: Maximum recommended length for plastic fiber is a few meters. For glass optical fiber figure a 5 meter max.
Ethernet: Maximum length 100 meters (328 feet).
RCA Interconnects: Maximum length depends on cable construction but a reliable general Maximum length is under 5 meters. I'd also suggest that the shorter the better rule applies.
Balanced Interconnects: Maximum length depends on cable construction and other factors but figure 10-20 meters.
Speaker Cable: Maximum length depends on cable construction and other factors but a reliable general Maximum length is under 15 feet. In general, its better to use longer speaker cable and shorter RCA interconnects.
Apple AirPort: Up to 16-bit/44.1kHz
Apple TV: Up to 24-bit/48kHz
Apple Toslink output: Up to 24-bit/96kHz
Sonos System: Up to 16-bit/44.1kHz
Logitech Squeezebox Touch: Up to 24-bit/96kHz in stock form but there are third party apps that allow it play back up to 24-bit/192kHz files