The future of high end audio is on disk, not disc. Audiophiles who have traditionally been allergic to anything related to a computer are going to need disk space. Right now this means spinning hard drives that will eventually fail. In the not to distant future Audiophiles will be able to replace these traditional disks with Solid State Drives. These SSDs have a maximum number of read/write cycles that is very high, but eventually wear out as well. Since SSDs are not available in the high capacity that audiophiles need this article focuses on traditional disks.
So, you've got a few thousand CDs and you want to store them on your music server. You also download high resolution audio from numerous Internet sites like Linn Records, MusicGiants, and iTrax. You need a disk solution that is easy, within your budget, and will last for awhile. Nobody wants to fiddle with disk configuration or call The Geek Squad to upgrade their hard drives, when they could be listening to the latest Britney Spears album Blackout or Bolero from Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra, Reference Recordings (RR-92)
. Honestly, I have both and listen to both. I’m a fan of music and entertainment. One is music and entertainment while the other is more entertainment than music. Whether you use a canned music server like the McIntosh MS750 or a custom music server like a Mac Mini you need disk. The Mac Mini needs disk to get up and running whereas the McIntosh MS750 needs disk to backup the internal drive that comes standard with the unit. Yes, I mentioned backing up. I sense another allergic reaction from audiophiles worldwide. To be honest, you don’t have to back up anything. It all comes down to how much time and money you have to purchase music again, or to get a “ripping” service to reload your music. If you don’t mind loading a few thousand CDs and losing some irretrievable downloaded music, then don’t backup anything. I can see the out of context quote right now.
“To be honest, you don’t have to back up anything.”
Computer Audiophile, 01/2008
How large of drive you should get is best answered by you. Remember to consider the format factor. A 750 GB drive will not get you 750 GB of usable space. Roughly 10% of that will be lost to formatting and you'll want to leave another 10% as free space on the drive. You can try using formulas to determine how many songs at what bit rate / sample rate you can fit on your drive. I recommend copying a fewCDs at your desired rate to get get an average size. This way there are no external variables to consider. Right now 750 GB drives are the best deal on the Internet. Wow is this article going to be dated soon :-)
The simplest disk solutions don't involve backing up your music. If you have a canned music server with one internal drive then let it rip. Once your music has been copied to the drive you're done. Done working, but not done worrying. It is similar for custom computer based solutions. If you want the simplest disk solution just use a single drive, internal or external. Point your library to the drive and off you go. External drives are all pretty good now. usingUSB 2.0, FireWire 400 or 800, or eSata I or II will be perfect for your music library. If you'll be copying many GBs of data you may want to go with a drive toward the end of my previous sentence. eSata II seems to be the fastest one as of 01/2008. I call this simple solution the uninsured audiophile's method. You may save a little money and time up front, but chances are something will happen in the long run. Those of you without insurance on anything else, go right ahead and jump in to this simple solution with both feet.
The simple+ (plus) solution is an add-on to the previous solution. For canned music servers that work like the MS750, you'll need to connect an external hard drive to the unit. Then follow the on-screen instructions to backup your music to the drive. This is a manual process that you'll need to do whenever you see fit. Pretty simple, but very prone to the lazy or procrastination factor. Custom systems can also use a manual method that is pretty simple. If your music doesn't take up much space, you can copy it to another hard drive manually when you get the itch. This can even be an internal hard drive if your main library is on an external drive or viceversa. If you want to get into the Simple++ category you can automate this music copy with something like Mac OS X Automator (see previous Computer Audiophile article). You can even skimp by copying only your online purchases for which you have no physical disc backup. iTunes makes that very easy through the purchased musicplaylist . A minor off-shoot of this is another method the MS750 is capable of using. If you have a network the 750 will be accessible over that network allowing you to manually copy music from it.
Simple / Grand
Half way between simple and grand entails using a couple external or internal hard drives for your library on a custom server. To the best of my knowledge this method is not possible on any canned music server. Don't even think about using RAID 0. You would only increase your chances of losing data and would gain nothing because you won't need the increased speed. You can set the drives up to use RAID 1, commonly known as disk mirroring. This is a pretty good solution. It is a little harder to setup at first, but saves a lot of time when a drive fails. If setup correctly, you'll be able to remove the failed drive and replace it without missing a beat. The drive should then sync back up with the good drive and you'll be back to normal. The downside of RAID 1 is half of your disk is unusable. If you don't mind purchasing a couple 750 GB drives, using only half of the space, and setting up disk mirroring, you'll be pretty happy with this solution. I'm sure some readers are yelling at the screen because I'm not recommending a simple one unit RAID 1 array. Well, that is another option, but it's not without a downside. Using an external device, from a manufacturer such as LaCie , that contains two disks in one unit is even easier than two separate devices and would probably work perfect. You must keep in mind that these units use an internal RAID controller that can fail. If this happens and you can't get an exact replacement you will probably lose all your music. There is usually nothing hard to setup with these units other than selecting if you want to mirror the two disks or not. This leads into the next category Grand -.
The Grand- (minus) category is pretty expensive and can be more difficult to setup for a novice. In the long run this solution is a really good way to store your music. Devices in this category areNAS or direct attached storage. One difference between this category and the previous is this category will use RAID 5. This allows you to use much more of your purchased disk space. You'll need at least three drives to setup a RAID 5 solution. With three disks you lose the equivalent of one disk to store parity data. When a single disk fails you can replace it with another and the two good disks will rebuild the new disk. ANAS device is attached to your network and accessible via wireless, or wired ethernet, by your music server. This is a great solution when using a Mac Mini in your audio rack.
Leave the disk in another room and hide the mini behind your DAC
. The Apple Airport Extreme is very good at turningUSB RAID 5 arrays into NAS
disk because of the built-in USB
connection. The Airport Extreme does not limit you to 16 bit / 44.1 KHz music like the Airport Express does. This is because the Extreme is the same as a local hard drive as far as iTunes and your DAC
are concerned. The Express actually receives music sent from iTunes which flows through it. The Extreme is "in front" of iTunes whereas the Express is in "back" of iTunes. Vastly different approaches. A popular device in this category is theNetgear ReadyNAS which is pretty expensive. Buffalo Technologies has some reasonably priced NAS
solutions as well as a thousand other "off-brand" manufacturers. Many use the same internal parts so "off-brand" may not mean much. As with the previously mentioned LaCie type RAID 1 solutions, RAID 5 solutions are susceptible to RAID controller failure. I'm not suggesting this happens a lot, but it is something to keep in mind when selecting a music storage solution. The setup of these devices and performance of them ranges from difficult & slow to easy & fast. They are all over the board. Do your research if you don't like surprises. It is also possible to use one of these devices with a music server such as the MS750. Setup correctly the McIntosh will see the device directly connected as one large drive. Something to consider is you're going that route.
Note: The HP MediaSmart servers could go into this category. I don't recommend them for several reasons one of which is a data loss problem that has plagued the device. Another large issue I have with these servers is they use Windows Home Server for an operating system. This is way more than needed for a music server and way more work than you may think. I have nothing against Windows, but for this job it is not the right product.
Now that we've discussed simple, lets get to grand. This category has the biggest price disparity of them all. The Drobo is only $500 and storage for the Sooloos system is several thousand dollars. Since this is the grand music storage category these devices should do everything including know what you want to hear next. Maybe that is a stretch, but they come very close to doing everything an audiophile needs. Let's start with the relatively inexpensive Drobo from Data Robotics. I've been recommending this device for a while now because it is simple to use and it offers excellent music storage.
The Drobo connects via USB
and can be be upgraded as your music collection grows without any reconfiguration or hassle. This cannot be said for most other options. If you start with two 750 GB drives and run out of space, you can add a single 1 TB drive or an 80 GB drive or whatever you want. The Drobo will maximize this new disk, wasting as little space as possible. If this was a true RAID array you would want all the drives to be exactly the same or there would be some issues. The Drobo does this by using its own automated storage management. Don't know anything about music storage? That's OK becasue with the Drobo you don't have to. Just buy the thing and throw some disk drives into it and plug it in. To make this a NAS
drive you can attach it to an Airport Extreme or any other router like device that accepts USB
disks. Another option is to add the new DroboShare product from Data Robotics that is made specifically to turn the Drobo into a NAS
device. The Drobo is so easy any audiophile can use it and spend more time listening to Billy Ray Cyrus or Miley Cyrus. I don't actually own either one but if you do, hey that's cool around here. On the expensive end of the grand music storage category is the Sooloos. What I refer to as the Bentley of music servers. This system uses a RAID array similar to some of the other devices mentioned previously. What makes the Sooloos grand is the lack of configuration, ease of installation, great looks, and simplicity when a disk fails. When a disk wears out you send the single disk component back to Sooloos. They send you the unit back with a new disk, you connect it like a regular component and your done. There are no decisions to make with the Sooloos. You can't buy it unless you purchase fault tolerant disk stores as they call them. Once you get the Sooloos home you only have to think about music and sound quality. What format to store your albums in and if you should use an external DAC
. If you have the cash, grand is the way to go.
This is one category I wont spend much time on. I had to it include for all the nuts out there who have to have the absolute best. If you want the ultimate never-to-be-topped disk solution here you go. It consists of a one EMC Symmetrix DMX 4 with 1 Petabyte of storage and 256 GB of memory all setup in any RAID configuration you can think of RAID0, RAID1, RAID3, RAID4, RAID5, RAID 5+1
, RAID 10 etc... Wait we're not done yet. For the better protection you need identical Symmetrix setups. seriously I'm not joking. Wait we're not done yet. The ultimate audiophile music storage solution wouldn't be complete unless the second Symmetrix was placed off-site and the data was replicated synchronously using the gold standard in data replication EMC's SRDF. I could go on and on about what else an audiophile could do with this, but I'll cut it short. I have designed and configured this setup before for a global IT network and I know it may be a little complicated for the ultimate audiophile. Plus it would set the ultimate audiophile back at least $5,000,000. This makes some of the systems at CES look pretty cheap. I'll stick with something in the grand category.
There you have it, music storage from simple to grand. This is by no means a definitive storage document. There are hundreds of off-shoots you could configure based on these suggestion or something entirely different. I skipped much of the technical detail, but if you want to know more or have any questions or ideas of your own please contact me through the Contact Us form. I'll be happy to discuss it.