Media Player Q&A: Q9 Can you share some basic set up tips for getting better sound from computer playback?

9. Can you share some basic set up tips for getting better sound from computer playback?

Jonathan Reichbach, President, Sonic Studio (Amarra)

Here are some tips that we recommend.

1. Use a dedicated system for best results. Our experience has shown this eases maintenance, updates, and general administration of your music server.

2. As for hardware:

  • A later model Mac mini can provide the basis for a music server. MacBook laptops are also recommended.
  • An SSD for the internal drive and use a Firewire or USB external disk drive for your music.
  • 8 Gig of Memory as this can improve memory management in the OS and also allow for caching more songs.
  • Shorter cables are preferred for connecting your devices and DACs
  • Good Electrical isolation
3. Applications
  • Splashtop for remote login.
  • Use iTunes with Error Correction to Rip your CDs to AIFF. XLD is also recommended.
  • Apple Remote and/or Rowmote for iPhone/iPad control
  • Studio Six Digital / Audio Tools: A simple tool for room analysis. Very useful for setting up a listening room.
We would encourage interested parties to visit our website for more information.

Damien Plisson, Founder, Audirvana, (Audirvana Plus)

First: get an external DAC, preferably async. USB (with no driver). Plug it on an unused USB port. Then the default settings (with SysOptimizer) of Audirvana Plus will take care of the rest.
Tim Murison, Co-Founder & CTO, BitPerfect Sound Inc., (BitPerfect)
Disable any services that use lots of resources (memory, CPU, disk) during playback. Personally I don't find much difference having services like spotlight enabled, most of these are very well optimized already.
Stephen F. Booth, Founder and Developer, sbooth.org, (Decibel)
The first recommendation I would make is to get an external DAC. While the internal audio on most Macs is decent, an external DAC with a good pair of headphones makes a world of difference! The second recommendation I have is to use digital volume judiciously. Turning the digital volume down in an audio player and then turning the DAC's volume up is counterproductive. Finally, I would recommend using only lossless formats like FLAC or Apple Lossless. Bandwidth and disk space are so cheap these days that there is no reason to use lossy formats.
Jussi Laako, Owner, Signalyst, (HQ Player)
Use some audiophile music player software on a good quality computer. And have a mains filter for the audio equipment and keep computer mains separate.

If DAC is directly connected to the player computer, preferably use a computer purpose-built for audio use. Networked DAC connections help isolating player computer from the DAC, and make DAC(s) easily accessible from different computers.

Josef Piri & Marcin Ostapowicz, JPlay (JPlay)
We recommend using dedicated operating system installation for playback with absolutely no software installed except for vital drivers and player. On hardware side: high quality USB-to-S/PDIF converter between PC and DAC in most cases gives better sound than using built-in USB input in DAC, quality USB cable also makes a big difference even with asynchronous USB interfaces. Power cables and anti-vibration platforms also matter in computer audio systems.
Jim Hillegass, Founder and CEO, JRiver (JRiver Media Center)
Here's what JRiver recommends: wiki.jriver.com/index.php/Audio_Setup
Dr. Rob Robinson, Director of Engineering, Channel D, (Pure Music)
This stuff is covered in the documentation accompanying Pure Music. Getting a system up and running is not a big deal, just making some simple, one time settings to the system preferences, and in the case of Pure Music, activating Memory Play and Upsampling, if desired.

An overlooked issue, I think, is what happens when you have your system running perfectly with great sound and one day it “stops working?” First of all, a computer audio system or a music player application will never change behavior or stop working on its own (barring a severe hardware failure, such as a hard drive crash). For something to change, the user *must* make some change.

For example, a user installs a new OS version, and the player behaves quirkily afterwards. Solution: don’t jump in and play music as soon as you have upgraded; the computer needs time to perform some initial tasks that can interrupt normal operations (as mentioned above).

One not so basic tip, but of extreme importance in a digital playback system, is gain structure. This is not a problem if using an analog preamplifier to control the volume. However it is perfectly reasonable to connect a DAC directly to a power amplifier, and use the player volume control. We do this in our expo show systems, and our reference room. With high sensitivity speakers, this might mean setting the digital volume control below its optimum range (as explained on the Getting Started With Computer Audio section of our website). This will have an adverse impact on the sound, and the only solution is an analog attenuator. We have been showing a prototype of an active analog attenuator designed to address this issue at audio expos since late last year, and this product will go into production in about two months.