There are a few articles around this place that detail the different parts of music servers such as storage and software. Now, I'm going to put all of this together and start the "Build An Audiophile Music Server" series.
The Computer Audiophile readership ranges from absolute expert to absolute audiofool. It doesn't matter to me where you are on this continuum. I like when the experts answer questions and when the audiofools ask questions the experts have too much pride to ask. With such a wide range of readers, it is time to create the Computer Audiophile line of music servers. This will of course be a virtual line of music servers that will provide readers with options for building their own servers. Readers can print off the complete specs of each music server and bring it to their local retailer like a music server shopping list. Readers can also deviate however they want and order from the usual online suspects.
This series will provide a start for some and a complete solution for others.
The model CA01 music server is an extremely simple design that produces high quality sound and functionality. This system is as simple as it gets. If you are considering a music server I recommend this approach because of the relatively little investment and ease of operation. This is not a long term solution, but gets you started. There are potential pitfalls with this system. The most glaring pitfall is the lack of a backup solution for your music. On the other hand the most expensive piece of the system, the laptop, is the main component in all of my recommended music server configurations. Whether you go for this system or the highest quality, highest dollar system, a laptop can be used as the audiophile source for your music.
Let's begin with the requirements.
1. Apple MacBook laptop ($1099)
2. Firestone Audio Fubar II USB DAC ($120)
3. Apple iTunes (Free)
Total price = $1,219
This system is a balance between sound quality, price, functionality, and ease of use. I selected a MacBook as the music source because OS X & iTunes provide bit-perfect output, the cost is relatively low, built-in functionality is high, and it is the easiest to use of all the music sources. A Mac Mini is cheaper than a MacBook, but requires more knowledge & skill to use without a display. If a display is purchased with a Mac Mini, the cost will be very close to a MacBook with a built-in laptop display. The Firestone USB DAC is very simple and inexpensive. There is one input and one output on this unit. It can't get easier than that. There are other solutions that use the MacBook's built-in optical out port, but they all require a Toslink connection. Since USB is a better transfer method I am recommending it here. Apple's iTunes software is as good as it gets. The library management is very good and the audio output is bit perfect. The MacBook comes with the Apple remote control. This will allow you to navigate your music in a rather primitive way, but for the money (free w/ MacBook) it is a great deal. You can use this remote with the built-in Front Row application as well, but I find Front Row less than good. With the right preferences selected in iTunes and the minimal hardware connected, this complete music server is a great entry into the computer audiophile world.
Many readers considering this system will be amazed at the simplicity of the setup process. This process literally takes fifteen minutes.
1. Turn your MacBook on.
2. Plug the Fubar II USB DAC into an open USB port on the macBook.
3. Connect RCA cables to the DAC's output and your audio system's analog input.
4. Open Audio Midi Setup and select the Fubar II as your output source if it is not already selected.
5. Open iTunes and enter iTunes preferences.
5a. Make sure that Sound Enhancer and Sound Check are not enabled.
5b. I select AIFF as my preferred format. (optional). Note: With limited disk space Apple Lossless is probably the best selection for importing.
5c. Most important piece - Make sure to enable error correction on CD reads.
Note: All of these audiophile settings can be viewed with screenshots here.
6. Put a CD in and click import to library. When finished eject the CD.
7. Start playing music with your new model CA01 music server!
Music servers can be simple and sound good for relatively minimal money. Chances are many readers will already have a MacBook or similar laptop for this configuration. While it is possible to cut costs by using a mini-to-RCA cable from the MacBook headphone output, I would never use this option myself or recommend it to anyone. To be blunt, the internal DAC and amp in the MacBook are not good. The Model CA01 music server is a great deal for $1,219. The sound will equal or better any standard disc player near this price. Plus this will give you a portable computer for other uses when not placed in your audio system. Good luck finding a physical disc player that doubles as something other than a dust collector. As I said earlier there are pitfalls with this system. If you're going to make this your permanent music server you'll most likely want to make some upgrades. To make the upgrade decisions easier Computer Audiophile will be publishing several music server models in future installments of "Build An Audiophile Music Server." See you all next time.
Note: As of Tuesday February 26, 2008 Apple no longer includes the remote with a MacBook purchase. This is a $19 add-on.
Please post questions and comments below. I'd like to help you out.