Taxingonomy: The World of Computer Audio Hardware Today

If you’re reading this odds are you already own a music server. And a music streamer and a network music player with access to millions of songs—for free. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that we live in an age of musical abundance with access to more music than at any other time in history. Technology has brought the world’s living music library into our homes and onto our smartphones.

This is potentially good news for us and for music. A rare win win. I say potentially because with ease of access comes ease of absence and what can get lost in the technological translation is our attention. Music as background is a wonderful thing (try watching a movie without a soundtrack). Music as foreground is even better.

When we’re ready to listen, really listen which we all are at some point in our lives, we want that experience to be immersive and enveloping so we can get lost in whatever music we choose as our guide. This is where the quality of the experience comes in and this is what AudioStream is all about. We are here to help you get the best musical experience from computer-based audio regardless of budget. We’re also here to make sense of the evolving and expanding world of products that are designed with this simple goal in mind – the enjoyment of music.

One of the ironic things about computer audio is the more your computer functions as a computer, the less capably it functions as a music player. This is why you see manufacturers from the worlds of hi-fi, pro audio, computer hardware and software converging to build products designed to improve or remove your computer as a music playback device. These solutions range from add-ons like USB DACs to purpose-built components like network music players which replace your computer in the music-playback equation.

Which solution is best for you depends on a number of criteria including your budget, your current and future computer and networking plans and the size of your music library to name just a few. The goods news on the other side of the computer audio coin to get excited about, in addition to access to more music than any lifetime has time to hear, is the price of admission for better performance begins with free.

While we’re not jumping on board this stage of the music reproduction journey at its Pro Audio roots, we believe it’s the most opportune time for those people who are most interested in spending their time listening and enjoying.

The State of Computer Audio Hardware
It seems a worthwhile exercise to take a snapshot of the types of components that fall under the catchall heading of computer audio. The main categories, which you’ll see reflected in our site navigation at the bottom of each page, are as follows:

  • DACs
  • Docks
  • Preamp/DACs
  • Integrated Amp/DACs
  • USB–S/PDIF Converters
  • Sound Cards
  • Music Servers
  • Players & Streamers
  • Networking & WiFi
  • Storage & NAS Drives
  • Desktop Components
  • Cables & Accessories
Pretty straightforward. Or so it seems. But here’s the rub—manufacturers of computer audio components are taking the self-determination approach when naming their products. Some appear to have their focus set on incorporating popular keywords instead of reflecting actual functionality or trying to adhere to industry-standard nomenclature. That’s because there aren’t any accepted naming standards, yet. In other words, all music players and music servers are not created equal.

Back in the olden days when we wanted to add the capability of playing CDs to our hi-fi we knew we needed to buy either a CD Player or a Transport and a DAC. And we knew this because every CD Player incorporated both. Simple. Today, if we want to play back our ripped CDs through our hi-fi, what should we buy? A music server, a music player, a sound card, a USB DAC or an S/PDIF converter? And if we buy a music server, are we done? Or do we need to deal with storage and a DAC? And if I’m replacing my Mac or PC, my new music server will have its own disk drive for ripping right? Not necessarily is the catch-all answer.

Today, when shopping for computer audio components, we need to know what features we want and of equal importance what we do not want so we get what we need. Features including internal storage, a disk drive for ripping, networking capabilities and high definition audio playback are not standard features within any computer audio device category (except for an actual computer).

Our approach in terms of navigating this wild west of nomenclature is to create general hardware categories that best match up with current and common component types. Ideally this will help you get to the kinds of things you’re looking for with a minimum number of clicks. The all-important details pertaining to specific functionality will be clearly stated in our reviews right up front so you don’t have to scour a manufacturers specification sheet looking for clues.

There is no doubt this apple cart will get toppled and rearranged as time goes by and as new products hit the market. Some day we may even be able to adhere to industry-standard component types for computer audio. First they have to be created and agreed upon, which we view as part of our to-help-do list. One thing is for certain—with each passing day and revision level, computer audio is becoming more about listening and less about figuring out what to buy and how to make it work. From our point of view, that’s progress worth applauding and exploring.

AudioStream, Computer Audio For Everyone. We hope you enjoy the ride.