Computer Audio Primer
I will start by saying computer audio can be the simplest method of listening to music ever invented and many people are unnecessarily intimidated by it. Setup requires a learning curve that can be easily mastered by even a modest knowledge of computers. Aside from a high end vinyl rig, I believe computer audio offers the best sound available today.
Since I published my first computer audio primer over six years ago, times have changed as far as my personal preference for a computer audio setup. Also, DSD, DXD etc., has been added to the growing list of music file types such as AIFF, ALAC, WAV, FLAC, etc., not to mention hardware has changed dramatically with many amplifiers becoming an all in one amp, DAC, streamer, dock, etc.
I will deal with computer audio in it's simplest, most reliable, and most economical form: computer, digital to analog converter (DAC), and stereo amplifier.
My personal favorite method of storing music files is on a laptop computer with a large hard drive. If you have more than one stereo system, the laptop can be moved from system to system. I do a considerable amount of web and graphics work on an older Mac Mini so I use my MacBook laptop to play the music files on my desktop system keeping the load off my Mac Mini while I am working. The other advantage of using a laptop as a music server is that it is self contained and can be operated directly or remotely via wireless network or Bluetooth. I am not a big fan of "all in one" music servers, streamers or amplifiers as the technology of DACs are advancing so fast and hard drives expanding so fast that an all in one product will become obsolete in no time. Having a separate computer and DAC gives unending options for upgradability. My favorite connection from computer to DAC is USB, and from DAC to amp it is RCA or XLR.
I am not going to get into the unending wireless options, as it would require a book to do so. I personally believe the current wireless revolution is going to have negative repercussions down the road, as there is mounting evidence it may be causing health problems including various cancers, and I read in a consumer electronics publication that with the current exponential proliferation of all things wireless there may be major wireless infrastructure crashes within the next ten years due to overload. Three advantages to having a hardwired network over wireless are: security, reliability, speed, and as mentioned, possibly health. But if one must operate their system wirelessly the most common way is to use an iPod Touch, iPad, iPhone, or laptop to control your music server via the home wireless network or Bluetooth. A very popular setup is to use a headless (no monitor, keyboard, or mouse) Mac Mini in the audio rack and control it with one of the aforementioned devices. Monitor, keyboard and mouse will be needed for initial setup though.
As far as player software goes, Apple iTunes, and Windows Media Player are the standard players for computer audio, and If you are just starting out I would recommend staying with these until you become more familiar with computer audio. After you become more familiar, then I would recommend one of the many software players that are available online for anywhere from free to quite pricey.
What media form should I use, hardcopy CD or downloaded music file? Each has an advantage.
CDs: In the mad rush to put one's entire life on their computer, people are ripping their CD collection to their hard drive, or worse yet, somewhere offsite on the internet and then giving away their expensive CD collections to thrift stores etc. claiming the CDs take up too much room. Bad plan, in my opinion. Keep your collection for that rainy day that will likely come when your hard drive breaks, or you can't access the music you have stored in the cyber clouds somewhere. If you are on a tight budget, a large music collection can be amassed quite quickly and economically if you shop the thrift stores and used music stores for CDs. Also, hard copy CDs can be purchased new on line at very reasonable prices. Bottom line? Keep your hardcopy CDs.
Downloaded music files: The list is growing every day in both CD quality (16/44) and higher resolution (24/96, 24/192 etc.). The latter, though they have excellent sound quality, make up a small percentage of available music compared to 16/44 downloads or hard copy CDs. Downloading is a very convenient way to shop for music and the prices of 16/44 files can be very reasonable, but always burn a hard copy on a disc that is made for music. Burn at a slow speed to allow the laser to make nice, clean edged pits in the CD disc. Do the same with your high resolution files on a DVD or back them up on an external hard drive, preferably solid state.
In my personal experience, I find there is a synergy between the the digital medium and the SET tube amplifier. Some might think the tube amplifier has a rolled off top end thus smoothing out the so called "grainy" and "harsh" nature of the digital source. However, the opposite is true, as no amplifier type I have heard can extract inner detail, ambience, and sense of three dimensional space like a good SET tube amplifier. All I can say is a good SET amplifier when coupled with a good digital source sound like a well tuned vinyl rig. Liquid and analog.
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