Alright it's time to kick it up a notch or two. I'm not turning it up to 11 quite yet, but the CA03 music server is a significant step above the previous two in both functionality and sound quality. I am changing the computer this time in order to keep the price down. Driving the price up is a really nice DAC and quality disk storage that doesn't require any work-arounds, provides plenty of space, and 100% data redundancy. This is a music server that could make you happy for a long time with great sound and hard drive space for a large collection of music.
The first two models of Computer Audiophile music servers were very elementary, and for the price were very nice. The feedback received was very positive, but I sensed everyone really wanted something more. That sounded great to me because designing average Joe systems can get boring. After all most readers are audiophiles who aren't satisfied with run-of-the-mill systems they can pick up at BestBuy. If you are looking for something in between the CA02 and CA03 you will have to make a couple substitutions where you see fit, or just ask a question here on CA and you'll have an answer in no time. On with the show.
1. Apple Mac Mini ($599)
2. Western Digital My Book Premium II ($460, 2 TB)
3. Stello DA100 DAC ($695)
4. Apple iTunes (Free)
Total price = $1,754
Now that I look over the specs one more time I notice the only thing that isn't new on this model is iTunes. Fortunately the core functionality of the music server is the same as the previous models. The Stello Dac works the exact same way as the other DACs. Connect it via USB and your done. This DAC does have an upsample function that can be enabled by the flick of a switch. In addition there are inputs for optical and coax digital audio feeds. If you really want to run an AB test on the Mac Mini's USB v. TOSlink output this DAC will enable you to do this with ease. There are no other features to get in the way on the Stello DA100. I like equipment that is simple and has a purpose. Thus, I shy away from the all in one type boxes with every feature known to man.
Supports up to 24Bit/192kHz Upsampling (Upsample On/Off)
True 24Bit Delta-Sigma DAC
On-Chip PLL Eliminates Jitter
Custom Designed 6th Order Digital Filtering Circuitry
High Quality Electronic Components and Gold Plated RCA Connectors
Digital Input 1 Coaxial, 2 Optical, 1 USB
Analog Output 1 pair RCA/Unbalanced
Analog Output Voltage 1.2 Vrms
Dynamic Range 110 dB Typ.
Signal-to-Noise Ratio 120 dB Typ.
Distortion 0.003 %, 1 kHz
Frequency Response 20 Hz~45 kHz
Sampling Frequency Bypass or 192 kHz Selectable
Power Requirements 100~117VAC, 220~240VAC (Switch Selectable)
Dimensions(WHD) 212 x 55 x 290 mm, 83 x 22 x 113 inches
Weight(Net) 3.5 kg, 8 lbs.
What's New Continued
The Mac Mini and the external Western Digital hard drive are also major upgrades from the CA02. I selected the mac Mini solely for price reasons. Another big benefit of the Mini is its small size. Placing this in your equipment rack should be simple. There are some cons involved with the Mini that can take some computer savvy to work through. First, you'll want a monitor to setup the system. I'm unsure how you'd get trough the initial setup without a monitor, but I won't rule out the possibility. Second, If you're set on using the mini as a headless system you'll want to setup iTunes to automatically rip all inserted CDs and then eject upon completion. Third and most important, you'll need a way to control iTunes during listening sessions. Hopefully you'll have another machine that can either fully control the Mini through an app like VNC or you can run the application NetTunes that uses iTunes on another Mac to control iTunes on the Mini. Very slick app, but as of this writing it does not work with OS X Leopard. I spoke with the the creator who said Leopard compatibility is all up to Apple at this point. Hopefully this will happen soon as NetTunes is a great app.
The western Digital MyBook Premium II 2TB is a pretty good deal at $460 through NewEgg online. This external disk has two interfaces that can connect to the Mini and one that cannot. I recommend using the FireWire 400 interface as this leaves the USB Bus solely for the USB DAC. The WD can be setup a few different ways. I will only recommend one way for an audiophile music server and that is RAID1 disk mirroring. This will give you 1 TB of space and about 930 GB of usable space after you format the disk. With this disk configuration there is no need to worry about losing your music to a single disk failure. You data is 100% redundant because it is copied to both disks automatically without any user intervention. The drives also appear as a single external hard drive to you. Configuring the disk is also very simple. Non-technical people I know have had no problems with configuration. This is a very popular disk and the chances are very high that you'll find answers to all your questions online if needed. On caveat with this disk is the noise it puts out. Some users say it is silent while others claim they can have it in their listening room. I suggest checking one of these drives out at a local retailer before purchasing if you think noise might be an issue for you. Another option that is popular right here on CA is the iOmega Ultramax series of drives. Run a search on this site and you'll find a few post about the Ultramax drives.
1. Turn your Mac Mini on.
2. Plug the Stello DA100 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 Stello as your output source if it is not already selected.
5. Connect and format your WD external hard drive and setup RAID1 disk mirroring (easier than you think).
6. Open iTunes and enter iTunes preferences.
6a. Make sure that Sound Enhancer and Sound Check are not enabled.
6b. I select AIFF as my preferred format. (optional).
6c. Most important piece - Make sure to enable error correction on CD reads.
6d. Tell iTunes to auto import CDs upon insertion and eject upon completion (since this is a headless Mac Mini).
Note: All of these audiophile settings can be viewed with screenshots here.
7. On the iTunes Advanced >> importing tab (still in preferences) change your iTunes Music folder to your WD external hard drive.
7a. If you already have music in your library use the iTunes library consolidation feature to move everything over to the WD.
8. Put a CD in and wait for it to auto eject.
7. Start playing music with your new model CA03 music server.
The CA03 is a very good performing music server. Sound quality and disk storage are pretty high on this one. The overall ease of use on the CA03 is not as good as the previous models simply because of the Mac Mini. If you attach a monitor to the Mini this system becomes better and simpler than the previous two models without a doubt. The Mini also comes with the standard Apple remote that may be OK for you if you have a monitor in place. The iPod Touch is always an option for this server, but I'll be breaking that one out as we move on up (to the East side). Hopefully you currently have a Mac and you can use VNC to fully control the Mini during listening sessions. I didn't say this system was perfect and in fact it may not work for you at all based on your current computer situation. If you only have another desktop in another room then VNC is out for you and you're going to need another remote. You'll find some remote options in my series called Laid back Library Control here on CA. If you want to a different solution all together I suggest you hang around for the next Computer Audiophile music server installment. See you then.