• Build An Audiophile Music Server (CA03)

    Music Server Model CA03
     
    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.
    Model CA03

    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.

    CA03 Specs.


    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

    Apple Mac Mini












     

    Western Digital My Book 2TB.




     

    Stello DA100 DAC.







     

    Apple iTunes.






    What's New

    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.

    From AprilMusic.com

    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.

    Setup


    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.

    Wrap Up

    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.
    Comments 62 Comments
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      My thoughts exactly Rick. There are some other options, but right now Signal on the iPod Touch is the best bet in my opinion. A little quirky, but certainly good.<br />
      <br />
      With the release of the Apple iPhone SDK should come a bunch of apps.
    1. jimim's Avatar
      jimim -
      I know this isn't the right place to talk about this but. . . with signal can't you surf your library? or do you have to use all playlists? <br />
      <br />
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Like the new setup. How does this USB DAC rank to the benchmark in your eyes?<br />
      <br />
      Jim
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Jim - CA is laid back as you know, so feel free to discuss anything anywhere :-)<br />
      <br />
      You are correct, with Signal you can browse you entire library not just playlists.<br />
      <br />
      The Stello DA100 appears to be a good DAC from what I've read and heard. This unit may be very close to the Benchmark in performance for 16/44.1 music because it is a DAC only and doesn't have any headphone amp or preamp built-in. Not that these are bad things, but there is often something to be said about single purpose devices. There are some other really nice Stello DACs and I am guessing there is some trickle down effect going on here with good technology.
    1. Donkeyshins's Avatar
      Donkeyshins -
      Some of us out in the world don't like Apple products. Any chance you could do a PC (Windows or Linux) version?<br />
      <br />
      Perhaps something like this (Windows):<br />
      <br />
      High-end PC:<br />
      - AOpen MP945-D (http://minipc.aopen.com/Global/spec_945D.htm) - $280<br />
      - 2GB PC4200 SODIMM (2x1GB) - $40<br />
      - Celeron 430 (since you don't need much CPU for a music server) - $52<br />
      - 160GB WD Scorpio 2.5" SATA HDD - $90<br />
      - Windows XP or Windows Vista (OEM) - $100<br />
      - Windows Media Player - FREE<br />
      <br />
      Alternately, if you want to go cheaper:<br />
      - D201GLY2 motherboard + CPU ($75)<br />
      - mini-ITX case ($80 - $150 depending on what you want)<br />
      - 2GB PC4200 DIMM (single stick) - $40<br />
      - 160GB WD Scorpio 2.5" SATA HDD - $90<br />
      - Windows XP or Windows Vista (OEM) - $100<br />
      - Windows Media Player - FREE<br />
      <br />
      All other components could remain the same.<br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Thanks for the post Donkeyshins. I'll try to offer an equivalent PC model next time. I've been a little hesitant because I don't like the non-bit perfect issues on PCs. No worries though, I'll get to it.
    1. Joe Fonebone's Avatar
      Joe Fonebone -
      FWIW - I run a Stello DA100 DAC in combination with a Stello HP100 headphone amp and an X-HiFi speaker system on my desktop at work (where, sadly, I spend most of my time). I have been very happy with the sound quality of the system. I found the following review to be quite informative back when I purchased the DA100. Keep up the good work.<br />
      http://www.soundstage.com/revequip/stello_da100.htm<br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Thanks for the info & link Joe.
    1. Donkeyshins's Avatar
      Donkeyshins -
      You can install FLAC support into Windows Media Player and Media Center (see http://flac.sourceforge.net/documentation_tasks.html for how-to). I've done it and it works well - it allows for bit-perfect copies in Windows. Plus, if you use Vista Home Premium, you can use the built-in Media Center functionality (and a suitable MCE remote) to remotely control your system (provided you have an monitor).
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Thanks for the info Donkey.<br />
      <br />
      I think we should be careful with the use of "bit-perfect."<br />
      <br />
      flac may produce bit-perfect copies as you noted. But, this should not be interpreted by others to mean bit-perfect output on Windows.
    1. Donkeyshins's Avatar
      Donkeyshins -
      Good point. I was under the (mistaken) assumption that Vista had bit-perfect output, but evidently this is not the case (unless you are using something like XXHighEnd, which is still in beta, supports only .WAV files and costs 72 Euros). My apologies.<br />
      <br />
      On the other hand, from a purely subjective standpoint, how easy is it to tell bit-perfect from non-bit-perfect output? Personally I have no experience so I can't answer this question, but perhaps you can?<br />
      <br />
      Thanks!
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      The difference between the two and all the variables that can effect the sound make this an impossible question to answer. <br />
      <br />
      Is there a difference between the way a Porsche 911 handles in a traffic jam and the way a Mini Cooper handles in a traffic jam? Probably not because they are both going 5 miles per hour. So, on certain systems there may be no difference in audible quality between bit perfect and not bit perfect. There are also differences between every bit perfect application and every not bit perfect application that are audible. <br />
      <br />
      I always say if it sounds good to you then it sounds good. No worries.
    1. rom661's Avatar
      rom661 -
      Ahhh, but you can squeeeeze in the Mini.
    1. PeterSt's Avatar
      PeterSt -
      <cite>unless you are using something like XXHighEnd, which is still in beta, supports only .WAV files</cite><br />
      <br />
      plus FLAC and MP3 (and DTS passthrough) at all common sample rates and bit depths.<br />
      Why provide wrong information ?<br />
      <br />
      :-)<br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Thanks for clearing this up Peter. It must have been a misunderstanding. I'm sure Donkeyshins wasn't trying to spread misinformation.
    1. barrydmd's Avatar
      barrydmd -
      I have become very much interested in PC based music since buying a new Mac Mini recently.<br />
      Your CA music systems all seem to go directly to the DAC from the computer.<br />
      Is there a better quality of sound achieved by going directly to the DAC via USB vs. going to the DAC via the optical output from something like the Airport Express with Airtunes?<br />
      <br />
      My Mini is running my desktop system. I just received my Audioengie2 speakers, and will probably get the KingRex $199 USB DAC. However, I would like to control my living room stereo system from my desktop Mini. <br />
      I would probably use something like the Benchmarc DAC1/USB in that system. I'm trying not to have to buy another Mini for the living room system.<br />
      <br />
      The Squeezebox Duet looks interesting, except that I download my music from ITunes which squeezebox doesn't accept unless you convert the songs to a lesser audio format.<br />
      <br />
      Barry
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Barry welcome to Computer Audiophile. Many people think the sound quality is better when going directly from the computer to the DAC via USB v. using an Airport Express and optical output. I don't know of many people who are fans of TOSlink, but the Benchmark guys are fairly certain there is no difference in sound on their DAC1 using USB or TOSlink. This of course was in a hard wired situation. The AE does ad a very mid-fi quality to the whole equation. It also does not support any 24/96 content.<br />
      <br />
      I recommend purchasing the new Airport Express for a hundred bucks or so. At this price you can really lose. If you like it then you've saved the cost of a new Mini. <br />
      <br />
      I'm not a big fan of the Squeezebox products because of the software and limitations.
    1. jlowe's Avatar
      jlowe -
      Hi Chris, <br />
      <br />
      Thanks for another exciting episode in the series. I have a few questions to help me understand the incremental value between CA02 and CA03, and also also get a handle on music servers in general:<br />
      <br />
      * What specifically does the DA100 DAC give you over the UD-01? It seems to have lots more features, but is there a sound quality difference, and if so, what contributes to that?<br />
      <br />
      * Does the MyBook contain 2 separate physical 1TB drives? If so, when you say "The drives also appear as a single external hard drive to you", it seems that for all intents and purposes there is only one drive in use, with the other being exclusively backup. Is that what this means? Obviously I don't have any experience with RAID.<br />
      <br />
      * Let's say for the moment that I have the goal of having my music server sound as good as my current audio setup. Based on my current understanding, it would seem that I need to get a DAC of the same caliber or better than the one in my current CD player. Am I on track here? To rephrase the question: assuming iTunes bit-perfect output, is the DAC the only part of the digital chain that affects sound quality?<br />
      <br />
      -Jeff<br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Jeff - <br />
      <br />
      1. The DA100 DAC v. the UD-01: The difference in the DACs is features as you suggest and "should" be sound quality. I'm a firm believer that everything makes a difference. Every part that makes up a DAC can effect the sound. In addition to hardware there are many software/firmware differences between products. Many manufacturers put their own spin on how they implement DACs such as how they convert USB input once it comes into the unit. Do they convert to I2S or SPDIF etc... I used the word "should" earlier because all of this depends on your playback system. Good or bad may matter just as much as system synergy. A more expensive DAC is not always better and may actually sound terrible under certain circumstances.<br />
      <br />
      2. The MyBook contains two 1 TB drives. These will appear like one drive. You can set them up how you want. 1 TB of usable space with the remaining 1 TB as a backup is my suggestion (RAID 1). The drives mirror each other automatically. You can also use them in a RAID 0 configuration where both TB are usable. This doubles your chances of failure. Lose one disk and you lose the data on both. <br />
      <br />
      3. I think the DAC is the most critical piece of the system, but certainly not the only one that effects sound quality. On a Mac you have TOSlink or USB output. Many people think USB is vastly superior to TOSlink. You also have the option to use a device like the Airport Express and transfer your music via wireless through a mid-fi box (AE) and out via TOSlink. There are also external reclockers like the Empirical Audio Pace Car. I would start with a DAC equivalent to your existing CD player if that is how you're leaning. Connect it direct via USB and listen for a while. Many people think the sound is better even though the DACs are equivalent. If you're listening to a NAIM 555 or Audio Research CD7 you'll need to spend some serious money to better their sound, but I believe it is do-able.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      4. One more thing I forgot to mention. Application all effect the sound quality. even if the apps are bit-perfect they don't all sound the same. Many people are looking into this one.
    1. xvimbi's Avatar
      xvimbi -
      Chris - You are saying 'Many people think USB is vastly superior to TOSlink', but my limited insight into these issues tell me 'it depends'. Granted, the signal may carry a clock with it in one case but not in the other, which may or may not be a big deal. However, some USB DACs convert the USB into SPDIF, so why not use SPDIF right away? Like for everything else in an audio system, it comes down to what reaches the ear, and I am sure that most users won't notice any difference between USB or Toslink.<br />
      <br />
      Also, what makes the AE a mid-fi component? Isn't it simply a transmitter, i.e., the optical signal emerging from the AE should be pretty much identical to the optical signal coming out of a Mini or Powerbook. Are there any clock or other issues that make the AE a lower-quality component?<br />
      <br />
      Best - MM