• Build An Audiophile Music Server (CA04)



     

    The Microsoft contingent of Computer Audiophile readers has been very vocal about the lack of Windows content around here. Well, it never hurts to ask. The CA04 music server is a Windows only machine that uses Apple's iTunes. Before all the Windows "diehards" get up in arms about using iTunes instead of something like Foobar2000, I suggest you all give this system a chance. The CA04 offers bit perfect output in a tiny package and allows audiophiles to use the best music server interface available today, iTunes.
     

    Ask and You Shall Receive

    Windows users around here finally have a system to discuss with everyone. Granted this is not the top of the line music server to beat all other music servers, but for Windows users this is a very good option. In addition, with new products coming out that reclock data this system is upgradeable and will only get better. I designed the CA04 to be a great sounding system and a very easy system to piece together and configure. I've said it before and I'll repeat it here, "Getting bit perfect output from a Windows music server can be a challenge for some and impossible for many audiophiles without computer savvy." In fact, if high performance audio is going to thrive in the world of music servers the applications must be simple and provide superior sound. Whether you believe it or not, iTunes will save high end audio. If you're a fan of Foobar2000, MediaMonkey, JRiver, WinAmp, Windows Media Player and others that is totally cool with me. But, to take full advantage of this system you'll have to use iTunes.

    CA04 Specs


    1. Stealth Computing LPC-350W ($1095)
    2. Apple Airport Express (N) ($99)
    3. PS Audio Digital Link III DAC ($995)
    4. Thecus N2100 ($279, plus hard drives)
    4. Apple iTunes (Free)

    Total Cost = ~$2500 (plus hard drives)


     



    Stealth Computing LPC-350W Front

    click to enlarge



    Stealth Computing LPC-350W Back

    click to enlarge



     

    Apple Airport Express (N)




     

    PS Audio Digital Link III DAC




     

    Thecus N2100 NAS




     

    Apple iTunes.






    The System

    The heart of this system is the Stealth Computing LPC-350W. I've been a fan of Stealth's products for several years now and I know this is not a fly by night company. Stealth produces very good products. The 350W offers built-in wireless, Gigabit LAN, USB 2.0 and 1394a FireWire. This tiny package has a built-in slot loading disc drive and is compatible with Vista, XP, and even Linux. A very cool but expensive option is a solid state drive (SSD). Stealth offers SSDs as an option as you customize this tiny PC. (If you want to go without any moving parts you can opt for the stealth PC without any fans and an SSD. That model doesn't have built-in wireless but you could always hard wire it to an Airport Express.)

    Earlier I mentioned bit perfect output on this Windows PC. Accomplishing this is not something I find convenient or enjoyable in most circumstances. By far the easiest way to get bit perfect output on a PC is to use Apple's Airport Express. Using the AE, music is sent out the Ethernet/WLAN card bypassing the KMixer (XP) or any other audio manipulation Windows may attempt. Another option here is to use a Squeezebox, but I am not a fan of the SB software one bit. The AE allows/requires you to use iTunes. This is good in my opinion. I haven't seen a better interface for a music server yet. Sure some are better here and others better there, but all around nobody beats Apple at design and functionality. Some audiophiles are concerned about the CD ripping capability of applications other than Exact Audio Copy. In my opinion using anything other than iTunes is a waste of time and will not benefit you enough to justify the extra step. If you want to adjust your drive offset and comb over output log files to make sure your rips are perfect, you are certainly welcome to do that with this solution.

    I do suggest using the Airport Express in this system, but definitely not for the internal DAC. The AE has high enough jitter and using the internal DAC would only degrade the sound even more. So, use a TOSlink to mini-optical cable to go from your AE to your DAC. In this system the DAC I recommend is the PS Audio Digital Link III. I won't go into too much detail here because I have a very thorough review coming shortly. The DLIII offers SPDIF and USB input options. This DAC is certainly a great option by itself, and soon PS Audio will offer its Digital Lens reclocker to accompany the DAC. The Digital Lens will go perfect between the Airport Express and the DLIII DAC to reduce the high jitter coming from the AE. You'll have to trust me for now that the DLIII is well worth the purchase price. My full review will be completed shortly and I'll be very hesitant to send this unit back to PS.

    The Thecus N2100 storage solution is a NAS disk that offers RAID 0 & 1. In addition to RAID the N2100 has a built-in music sharing server for iTunes, and supports UPnP. Just like the stellar 5200B Pro that I reviewed recently this smaller Thecus unit has the one touch USB copy function. To transfer your existing music collection over to the N2100 you attach it via USB and select Copy. Boom, your music is all ready to go on the disks and if you use RAID 1 it is mirrored. The nice thing about all the Thecus units is that they don't force you into any specific disk size. You can start small or large and when a newer larger drive is available you can easily upgrade. For example, when the new 1.25 TB drives come out all you'll have to do is pop one drive in at a time and the mirroring function will take over. When the first drive is mirrored, you replace the other one and soon your capacity is increased without any reconfiguration* or manual data copying.

    *You just need to select the expand disk button and the Thecus units take over from there.


    Wrap Up

    The CA04 is the first Microsoft based music server I've published on Computer Audiophile. Fortunately for all the readers it is far from the first Microsoft based music server I've built. Long before I opted for OS X as my music server platform of choice I was building Windows music and media servers from scratch. When it comes to Windows there is no shortage of configuration options or different ways to accomplish something. My music server components above are only suggestions. You can mix and match some of your components or some of the components from previous music server articles (CA01, CA02, CA03). If this system is not up to your level you will certainly want to stick around for the other server configurations I have waiting in the wings. Want to run Windows Vista and OS X on one box, and output bit perfect 24/176.4 music via AES/EBU? If you don't yet, you will when Reference Recordings releases their HRx format. When that happens you'll know where to find a complete music server system that will reproduce the RR albums in all their glory. Stay tuned for the higher performance & higher priced music servers that will bring on the upgrade itch.
    Comments 33 Comments
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey pga - The Mac Pro / Lynx AES16e is one of the best solutions available today! I haven't seen anything that suggests iTunes can't playback 24/176.4 content bit perfect, but I have some questions into a couple contacts to verify this.<br />
      <br />
      About the SRC in iTunes<br />
      <br />
      This is from the Benchmark site:<br />
      <br />
      <i>iTunes 7 Performance under Mac and Windows<br />
      <br />
      iTunes sample-rate conversion (SRC) is greatly improved from version 6. In fact, SRC with iTunes 7 is of such quality that it is virtually inaudible (more about this below). iTunes 7 will establish a 24-bit connection with the audio engine of the operating system. iTunes 7 also provides a high-quality, 24-bit dithered volume control – a major improvement when compared to the non-dithered 16-bit controls in prior versions.</i><br />
      <br />
      I don't know of a real good way of getting AES/EBU from the Mini. I'm not a big fan of converting the signal just to change from something like USB to AES or FireWire to AES etc... <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      It is actually quite good timing to be discussing this now. I just received an email from Reference Recordings, literally 10 minutes ago. They'll be sending me an advanced press copy of the HRx 24/176.4 material very soon! I guess we'll know sooner than later if iTunes will output this stuff bit perfect!
    1. jtrade's Avatar
      jtrade -
      Chris - great website, thanks !<br />
      <br />
      So I have my new very quiet Vista 64 quad core computer with 8GB RAM & am putting together a system using some old audiophile gear that my wife will not allow in our new living room + a USB DAC.... what is the next best SIMPLE way of getting bit perfect sound from iTunes to my DAC, please !? I would REALLY like to avoid having to install any additional program interfaces if possible. If the AE could acommodate a USB DAC (which I think it will not ?), I'd get one tomorrow...<br />
      <br />
      J.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey Hey jtrade - Welcome to the site. Sorry for the delayed response, lots going on around here today!<br />
      <br />
      Let me think about this one a little bit. I know there is a solution. I know price isn't everything but how much are you willing to spend on this? <br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. jtrade's Avatar
      jtrade -
      Chris - I'd like to spend as little as possible, but no less (with apologies to Einstein...).<br />
      <br />
      For this, my first computer-based system, I am combining some original British gear which I bought new in the '80s with some "modern bits" :<br />
      <br />
      HotAudio USB DAC http://www.hotaudio.com/zen-cart/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=68&products _id=184<br />
      HotAudio Custom RCA interconnect http://www.hotaudio.com/high-fidelity-rca-cables.php<br />
      Onix OA21 amplifier (warm sounding and I love it)<br />
      Anti-Cables http://www.anticables.com/home.html<br />
      Linn Kans (Linn's fantastic rework of the BBC LS3/5a mini monitor)<br />
      REL sub (prob will not use as my office is only 10 ft square !)<br />
      <br />
      I am looking for great, untiring "musicality", that magical quality that elevates the enjoyment of a system way beyond the sum of its individual parts. My DAC choice may be at the low end in terms of cost, but I was influenced by the opinions of a respected, specialist British outfit, whose latest speaker product, the ADM9, builds in not only amplification, but also the DAC: http://www.avihifi.co.uk/avid/avid.html .<br />
      <br />
      Having read lots of posts on various forums, I am going to start by ripping CDs in Apple Lossless (I have read your recent comments re AIFF) and I am also keeping in mind my next living room system, which will have to overcome the challenge of my wife's aesthetic resistance to anything intrusive. I'm thinking iPod>iTransport>maybe ADM9s.... but that's a little further down the road.<br />
      <br />
      Maybe I need to change my DAC for one with an optical input fed from an AE (assuming I can hardwire the AE from my computer via Ethernet (which means going through a router, btw) ? I do have WiFi output from the new computer, but I am generally anti-wireless !<br />
      <br />
      J.<br />
    1. baxtus's Avatar
      baxtus -
      jtrade,<br />
      <br />
      You sound like you are on my type of wavelength!<br />
      <br />
      I remember that the Linn Kans and to an even greater extent, the Linn Saras delivered that elusive essence of the music, that which moves and inspires us.<br />
      <br />
      Use the Rel and drive your wife and your neighbours mad. Music isn't half what it could be without the bass foundation.<br />
      <br />
      If you are at the starting point in your ripping regime, learn from those who have paved the way before us - go AIFF from the outset. You will not be sorry. (And by the way, be careful of Gracenote as you rip. Pop, Rock, Jazz etc is OK. Classical is appallingly inaccurate especially if there is more than one disc for the work.)<br />
      <br />
      Baxtus
    1. jxo's Avatar
      jxo -
      Chris: thanks much for pulling this all together. I have been working on DIY computer servers for a few years and appreciate all the hard work.<br />
      Current System:<br />
      Windows XP<br />
      Chaintek 24/192 capable soundcard<br />
      Coax digital connection from soundcard to NuForce DAC/preamp<br />
      iTunes (like you, I prefer it); AIFF rips via iTunes with error correction<br />
      WMP (for Music Giants and Linn high rez files)<br />
      NetRemote (for remote iTunes and WMP control via a wireless PDA and wireless laptop-- my server sits two floors away from my listening area; I run a long coax digital cable). For the audiophiles out there, the computer server is fed to system with AudioRearch tube amps, MFA tube preamp, fully ModWright-modified Sony SACD player (with a tube output stage). The Music Giants downloads compare pretty favorably to the identical music on SACD.<br />
      <br />
      1. KMixer bypass: other than using Airport Express what are the methods for bypassing KMixer? Is there any tool to confirm whether you are getting bit perfect output or if KMixer is screwing things up (btw, what bad stuff does KMixer do)? I have made all the setting change recommendations on the Benchmark website and am curious about any more. your quote:<br />
      "Earlier I mentioned bit perfect output on this Windows PC. Accomplishing this is not something I find convenient or enjoyable in most circumstances. By far the easiest way to get bit perfect output on a PC is to use Apple's Airport Express. Using the AE, music is sent out the Ethernet/WLAN card bypassing the KMixer (XP) or any other audio manipulation Windows may attempt."<br />
      <br />
      2. High Rez files: what is your method for playing higher rez files on iTunes? My downloads from MusicGiants and Linn will not play on iTunes without iTunes converting and down-rezing the files. For now, I play those files via WMP. Btw, my display on my DAC correctly indicates the bit/sample rate of these files, so I am not sure if my set up is bit perfect or if KMixer is doing any nasties.
    1. airdronian's Avatar
      airdronian -
      First post - Chris, thanks for the site and the forums to learn about and discuss the music system for the 21st century. I'm enjoying the series of music server designs.<br />
      <br />
      Here's what I have so far, with a question directed to everyone towards budget DAC selection at the end.<br />
      <br />
      For me computer audio started with just listening to internet radio off the laptop/desktop into a 2.1 Altec Lansing speaker system. A computer refresh freed up an older box for server duty. Learning about the Airport Express opened up way more options. Began thinking out how I could serve music in the house.<br />
      <br />
      I sold off my 2 channel audio goodies years ago to get into home theatre. That setup is great for movies and sports, but I missed just listening to music. These days it's primarily Jazz (gimme the 50's and 60's, but there is a wealth of good stuff), with additional interest in Blues and Latin music.<br />
      <br />
      I set up a system that works on the computer side - a laptop with Windows (when this is retired it will be reincarnated as a MacBook) that runs iTunes. I have the server downstairs - it was to be a file server and hold anything. It runs OpenSuse 10.3 and the data volume is a software mirrored 320 GB drive. Systems like this do not have the demands of a file server in business and so a dedicated box with a software mirror works well.<br />
      <br />
      I mapped a drive from the laptop to the Music share on the server and use that as the back end for iTunes. I also connect to the server with the main pc downstairs, running Arch Linux with Amarok as the music player, though this is a wired connection. The speakers upstairs are connected via the AE. Works pretty well but I may need to rethink the placement of the wireless router. Next step is to start adding audio components.<br />
      <br />
      Basically I will start from scratch with little budget and scrounging audio gear to get something going - kind of like when I was 14. (still have my Luxman T-1 tuner from the 80's) Then I can plan for upgrades. My only concern (having been ignorant of home audio for years) is getting a good budget DAC that has a compatible interface with the AE. <br />
      <br />
      Phew - long post. Thanks to any and all who may have some suggestions for me.<br />
      <br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey airdronian - Welcome to the site and thanks for the post. I'm sure many other readers are in your same position and just haven't asked the questions yet. I like your idea of sharing out a Suse volume. Great for audiophiles with computer skills. I'm not sure if you've read all the great press lately about Luxman. They are back with some great products!<br />
      <br />
      A good budget DAC compatible with the AE will be very easy to come by. All you need is a TOSlink / SPDIF input. The AE has a mini TOSlink output. There are many cables around that have mini on one end and standard TOSlink on the other. The Apple store sells one and Monster Cable sells the LighSpeed 100 Mini optical to TOSlink.<br />
      <br />
      My guess is that some of your home theater gear has TOSlink inputs. You could always test your setup through that gear and the AE. Otherwise, about how much do you want to spend on a DAC? A good budget DAC means many things to many people as I'm sure you know :-)
    1. airdronian's Avatar
      airdronian -
      Hey thanks for the reply.<br />
      <br />
      No haven't seen any Luxman press, I have been looking at Audiogon for the hybrid integrated. I also used to have one of the nice dd turntables from the 80's....<br />
      <br />
      The HT receiver does certainly have toslink optical and the AE is portable, so good for testing. Thanks, I may not have thought of that since the focus is on getting better audio upstairs.<br />
      <br />
      I've found the file sharing off the Suse box to be very stable. Reconnects when rebooting are subjectively quicker now that when Windows 2K3 was in that role. And the install allowed the mirror to be set up thru the gui, which was nice, especially since this is not their commercial version.<br />
      <br />
      As for the DAC, in this case budget means budget. Around $200.00 give or take. I am after a starting point. I am very keen on your review of the PS audio unit ( as an upgrade path) since I am aware of the many good reviews of their products over the years and my experience of a preamp I owned. (PS IV w/ the external power supply). That preamp had me relistening to my album collection.<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      One DAC that I've wanted to try out for some time is the Spitfire 24 Bit DAC from Firestone Audio. Through the AE 24/192 wouldn't matter, but the DAC appears to be of good quality.<br />
      <br />
      http://www.audiophileproducts.com/spitfire<br />
    1. celebrat's Avatar
      celebrat -
      Hi Chris<br />
      Great site. My first post<br />
      I have a question about your microsoft server system. I currently have the Crimson DAC and am using J River (which I'm not thrilled with) Operating software is Vista. If I understand correctly, there is no K mixer in Vista only XP. Will I benefit from the Airport express and using Itunes? How can one be certain that you are outputting "bitperfect"? I used to use EAC and all my music was ripped with uncompressed wavefiles. But J River can not pure wave files (at least I don't see how it does it) Even lossless compression seems to have audible consequences in my system. Any advice or comments are welcome. Thanks.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey celebrat - I haven't forgot about you. My wife and I moved across town over the past five days and it has been a little hectic around here to say the least. I'll dig in to this one shortly.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey celebrat - Am I reading this correctly that you're using a Wavelength Audio Crimson DAC? Wow, I've heard some incredible things about that DAC, but the Computer Audiophile coffer is certainly not full enough to afford it! You are correct about the absence of the KMixer in Vista. I still think you will benefit from sending audio out through the Ethernet/802.11 port because Vista is Vista and I haven't heard many stellar things about its audio capabilities. Don't get me wrong there are certainly good ways to get great sound from a Vista box. As far as bit perfect goes, this is often discussed in two different scenarios. 1. Is the bit for bit rip or copy of the actual music file. 2. Is the actual bit perfect playback of the music. There are a ton of programs out there that will address number 1 by comparing the files every which way but loose once you have ripped them. Using error correction while ripping has worked totally fine for me and I don't bother with comparing everything. In the audiophile world you have to pick what you really want to sink time and money into and think about return on time investment as well. For me, spending time and money on other things is better spent. <br />
      <br />
      For bit perfect playback there are a couple ways to do it. If you have an HDCD recording ripped and you can play it back to a device that indicates HDCD playback this "should" tell you it is bit perfect. I can't guarantee this, but I have heard more than a few people in the industry suggest this method. <br />
      <br />
      Another method is probably some very expensive equipment built for this purpose and a few others.<br />
      <br />
      I'm sure there are several other ways to determine bit perfect output that I have let go in one ear and out the other. I usually let the engineers determine this one and go with their suggestions. <br />
      <br />
      I too have all my music in uncompressed format, but I use AIFF. I don't want to have anything less than what came on the CD. Just my personal opinion and I have no desire to debate sonic differences of of compressed v. uncompressed music. We all like what we like and nobody else should really care :-)<br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. jxo's Avatar
      jxo -
      Chris: am not familiar with the AE. How should it be used with PCs?<br />
      1. Is it effective as a wireless device to stream a digital feed to a remotely located DAC? Can I get the optimal bit perfect results by connecting the AE to a DAC that is not located by my PC?<br />
      2. Do you have to use the ethernet connection to hard wire the AE to your PC to get the benefits?<br />
      3. If 2 is correct, does the AE work like a soundcard? I have a PC that does not pass 24/96 signals via the SPDIF output on the mobo. Will I be able to get 24/96 (or higher) with the AE connected to the same computer?
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      The AE is a pretty neat device, but usually considered mid-fi for very high jitter among other things.<br />
      <br />
      You can certainly stream you iTunes library wirelessly to an AE that is connected directly to your DAC. This would allow you to leave your PC outside the listening room. Using the AE this way should give you bit perfect results because the audio is sent out over the wireless network and not through the internal sound card first. My understanding is that Apple has limited the AE to either 16/44.1 or 16/48. I can never remember. It is actually discussed on the site here quite a bit :-)<br />
      <br />
      Does that clear it up? Let me know if it doesn't and I'll be happy to chat some more.
    1. jxo's Avatar
      jxo -
      This topic has been picked up on the music server forum.
    1. Donkeyshins's Avatar
      Donkeyshins -
      http://www.mini-box.com/Intel-D945GCLF-Mini-ITX-Motherboard<br />
      <br />
      Intel D945GCLF motherboard running the new Atom 230 CPU. TDP of < 4W (that's the CPU next to the penny). Reports indicate that it runs Vista with ease (as long as you're running a decent amount of RAM). With a street price of < $90, it could be a great choice for a Windows-based music server. You'll probably want to put a better northbridge heatsink on it and pair it with a PICO PSU.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Those are pretty cool. I thought about putting together a music server with one of these, but I couldn't decide if I wanted to go the pico-its route instead.
    1. jtrade's Avatar
      jtrade -
      Further to my posts earlier in this thread, I have been really enjoying my first computer system... so much in fact that I have hardly ripped any music (still plan to do see if I can hear a difference between AIFF and Apple Lossless) ! I have been exploring masses of different music via Internet radio, mostly at 192kbps. Two issues have prompted me to post now : firstly, I am getting a low level of interference through my speakers : not disturbing for most listening, but for late night choral, a real drag. I have 2 x 24" monitors side by side, a third monitor to one side, and two computers : is there anything I can do apart from running the (inevitably close together) cables as far apart as possible ?<br />
      <br />
      Secondly, and related to this, I read recently on a Linn forum that plugging one's amp directly into a mains socket or cheap, standard mains extension block is far superior to any kind of special (and sometimes hugely expensive) mains cable / block. I have my primary computer equipment plugged into a Monster Cable power block with spike protection and mains conditioner and had originally plugged the amp into that : today I plugged it directly into a wall socket... Holy Moly.. a quantum leap forward in just about every area...<br />
      <br />
      I still plan to add my REL subwoofer in July (it's in storage far away...).
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hey jtrade - It's great to hear you're really getting into your computer based system. <br />
      <br />
      The low level interference can be many different things. There is actually some good information about solving this in the PS Audio DLIII manual. Not sure if the problem you describe is the same as they are talking about, but it's worth a shot. <a href="http://www.computeraudiophile.com/files/dl_iii_manual.pdf">Here is the manual</a>, scroll down to about page 10 (or the page numbered as 6 in by PSA).<br />
      <br />
      I highly recommend plugging your amp directly into the power outlet. The only power product I would even think of using with an amp is a unit from <a href="http://www.runningspringsaudio.com/">Running Springs Audio</a>.