“No way am I going to have a computer in my living room!”
by, 01-11-2012 at 02:22 PM (464 Views)
This blog chronicles my journey from Luddite to computer audiophile and I hope it will be useful to others considering taking up computer audio. As you are deciding whether to read my lengthy thesis, know that I am using a USB solution and am also using the PC to play DVD-videos (i.e., sonic quality is my top priority but not my only priority).
I didn’t understand computer audio for several years. I usually enjoy reading Art Dudley but I glossed over his reviews of the Wavelength DACs (http://www.stereophile.com/artdudleylistening/905listen ). The big lure of computer audio is the ability to play hi-rez files (i.e., >16/44) but, outside of classical, there have not been many hi-rez titles to choose from, and almost none that interest me (http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/t.mpl?f=pcaudio&m=84430 ). Some users have commented on the ability to organize all of your music in one simple place, like an iPod. But I have never minded perusing my CD/album collections for a title that fit my fancy. Plus, I almost always spend some time with the liner notes that come with each album/CD.
I got a bit more curious when Ayre released the QB-9 (I’m really happy with my Ayre AX-7e integrated amp and CX-7eMP CD player) and I began lurking the forums at computeraudiophile and audioasylum (PC forum). But still, the thought of having a computer in my living room was repulsive. I read reports that the QB-9 bested the CX-7 (an opinion written by, among others, Charles Hansen; http://www.audioasylum.com/forums/pcaudio/messages/5/52545.html ). Chris Connaker introduced me to the concept of the completely silent PC, one that could be cased such that it didn’t look out of place in the stereo rack (http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/Computer-Audiophile-Pocket-Server-CAPS ). Perhaps most importantly, more and more hi-rez titles have been released (albeit still just a tiny fraction of all titles available on CD and vinyl). I slowly warmed up to the possibility of computer audio.
Still, reading ComputerAudiophile.com and PCasylum at audioasylum.com was making me crazy. It seemed like each week there is some new revelation about computer hardware or software makes a difference in sonic quality. Solid state drives, USB cables, power supplies, amount of memory, operating systems, motherboards, specific USB ports, various music players (and variations in set-up), ASIO v. KS v. WASAPI, non-USB storage drive if using a USB DAC, even the cable to an external drive are said to make a sonic difference. All these variations and tweaks make vinyl enthusiasts seem downright grounded. Your audiophile neuroses will not be resolved with a foray into computer audio! I decided there is no one right answer even for a single user, much less for all computer audio enthusiasts.
Okay, I’ll try it: DAC choice
After deciding to try computer audio (I was lured over the cliff by 24/96 releases from Kate Bush, Paul Simon, Allison Krauss, and Wilco; https://www.hdtracks.com/ ), my easiest choice was the DAC. I was already very happy with my Ayre CX-7e and the QB-9 was getting great reviews (http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/Ayre-Acoustics-QB-9-Asynchronous-USB-DAC-Review ). Moreover, Gordin Rankin’s asynchronous USB solution struck me as very elegant and effective for getting music off a computer. I demoed the QB-9 in an unfamiliar room/system and, while it didn’t bowl me over compared to my home system, it sounded promising and I was able to hear the superior sound of Plant/Krauss’ “Raising Sand” on 24/96 compared to 16/44 resolution of the same album. I didn’t get much of a chance to demo other DACs. I did hear a bunch at the 2011 RMAF where the unfamiliar rooms and widely varied gear made comparisons impossible. From the reviews, the Wavelength Proton seems exceptionally good for the money but I’ve not heard one (http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/Wavelength-Audio-Proton-Asynchronous-USB-DAC-Review ). But, as I’ve written, I’m already happy with my Ayre gear and really like that they are made in the US and have exceptional customer service, including an upgrade program (which is vastly superior to having to buy the latest model every couple of years as improvements are made). I bought a QB-9 in December; Merry Christmas to me!
Computer in my living room?!?
On the other side of the ledger, I spent the last year or more considering what computer I might “want” to have in my living room. The Mac Mini first got my attention as it is as close to plug-n-play as it gets in computer audio and is said to sound excellent. Over the months, I considered many different solutions. Among my more serious options were the various Mac laptops, PC laptops (models with an eSATA port), the “cics memory player” (http://www.cicsmemoryplayer.com/index.php?n=Main.HomePage#cMP ), the Auraliti PK90, and CAPS versions 1 and 2. Now I should mention that while top-notch sonics are my highest priority, they are not my *only* priority. Because our household has but an “old-fashioned” CRT TV (which makes watching widescreen movies a bit ridiculous), I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to use the computer for decoding the occasional DVD movie. Plus, it would be pretty cool to watch music DVDs with the audio thru’ my stereo rather than crappy TV speakers! This ruled out the cics and Auraliti. At RMAF, a well-regarded manufacturer (whose room was among my top three favorites) offered that a well set-up Mac was 20-30% better than any PC. Meanwhile, Chris’ recent review of the Aurender suggests that the CAPS 2 is better than any Mac! I have neither the time nor money to make these comparisons for myself. Now you know why I wrote that there is no one right answer . . .
Narrowing the field, I decided to go with something approaching the CAPS 2 (http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/Computer-Audiophile-Pocket-Server-CAPS-v20 ). I share most of Chris’ priorities in designing the CAPS, so I used that as a template. I wasn’t totally sold on the Jetway Atom ‘board, however, as the AMD 350-based ‘boards seem to offer better performance (especially the GPU, which many of you won’t care about), more features , and greater maximum memory for about the same power consumption (http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/e-350-motherboard-brazos,2958.html). The ASUS ‘board (http://www.asus.com/Motherboards/AMD_CPU_on_Board/E35M1M_PRO/) was a frontrunner ‘til I read about its high temperatures and potential power supply issues http://www.computeraudiophile.com/content/CAPS-20-alternative ). I came back to the Jetway and was about to pull the trigger when I noticed the Zotac Fusion350-A-E was on sale for