Based on emails and conversations with readers I've concluded that the expectations of readers are all over the board. Some are expecting a complete system from power cable to listening chair yet others have zero expectations and don't get what the fuss is all about. Fortunately the vast majority of readers are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The system I am about to describe is nothing new to many people and there are no secrets here. Why am I so enthusiastic about this whole thing? Because the vast majority of readers don't know where to start with when it comes to integrating a music server in to their high-end system. Many audiophiles are already hesitant enough about getting into the music server game. When they see the price tag of a Mac Pro with 10 GB of RAM and eight CPU cores these people cry foul because computer based audio is supposed to be so much cheaper than traditional high-end components. Another factor in my enthusiasm is the world economy. It's terrible right now and people are looking for the best value they can find. Value is a relative concept, but I think we can all agree this system is a tremendous value. Possibly the most exciting part of this project is that a true reference quality source is now within the grasp of "everyday" audiophiles.
I've known about the possibility of obtaining fabulous sound from a Windows XP based music server for a long time. Many people have been doing this for several years. Until now I was not convinced this was a viable path. The XP operating system is on life support and using a legacy driver and firmware for the Lynx hardware goes against my grain. Sure the legacy driver and firmware may sound better but what happens when an upgrade is required because of some incompatibility with the operating system or a music playback application? What happens when Windows XP cannot be found through any legal channels? What about the bit perfect playback issues and bypassing the KMixer? What about blowing tweeters? My list of reasons for not supporting this platform go on and on. The fact that Mac OS X & iTunes is bit perfect right out of th box does not help Windows XP one bit. With all these strikes against a Windows based system it was hard to keep an open mind. I even ran XP on my MacBook Pro and Mac Pro machines in an effort to get the best sound quality out of Windows just like some colleagues had been doing for quite some time. It wasn't until a friend of mine in Northern California recently went through some very thorough listening tests, with some of the most resolving components available today, that I started to take XP seriously. This friend of mine listened to Windows and Mac based systems and concluded his Windows XP music server was the most resolving. Not only did this friend test each system, he had several very respected mastering engineers and component designers listen to each system. In fact one person who listened to these systems was a member of the band who actually played some of the music! So, I decided to put together an XP based music server that is readily available for purchase and is incredibly cheap by high-end audio standards. Before I could tell the world about such a great system I had to be absolutely sure that I agreed with my friend's findings.
Dell Inspiron 530 $279
Lynx AES16 card $700
Lynx HD26 cable $60
Dell Inspiron 530 - This Dell 530 is a very inexpensive system from a very reputable manufacturer. To get this low price you must order it with Windows Vista and use a copy of Windows XP that you already own. Otherwise Dell will charge $150 extra to pre-install Windows XP. This is one way to keep the price down. Another way is to use an existing computer you already have. If I were building a music server from scratch I would never have thought to use the components in this Dell 530. I've never been a fan of the Celeron processor and building a system around this chipset made me cringe in the past. Fortunately I took the chance and it paid off big time. The Dell 530 is a little larger than the 530s model because it can hold a full height PCI & PCIe card. The 530s is smaller and more attractive, but the half height PCI slot was a showstopper for me. Spec-wise this computer has nothing going for it. Slow memory, 320 GB hard drive, and a 10/100 Gb network card shouldn't impress anyone. The 530 is a noisier than my Mac Pro. This is likely the biggest drawback to the system. In my listening room the 530 sits in a breathable cabinet so the noise is dampened very well. It's certainly not a space shuttle gaming machine in terms of noise, but I know many audiophiles have dead silent listening rooms and may take offense to the noise from this Dell. I chose Windows XP as the operating system because, I hate to say this, it's proven to work as a reference music server operating system pretty well. A dedicated music server can operate well with XP and most Windows XP problems have been documented on the Internet numerous times. I installed Service Pack 3 and Internet Explorer 7, but stopped there. I didn't install any of the extras and removed several pieces of software that are automatically installed as part of Windows. You wouldn't install a telephone line on your CD transport, so I uninstalled Outlook Express and many items of similar uselessness. I also tweaked the operating system as far as I deemed necessary. I did all the usual things like empty the startup folders, browsing through MSConfig removing unneeded programs, and setting Windows up for best performance not the best graphical experience. I also painstakingly went through every service and determined whether or not it should start automatically, manually, or be disabled entirely. After configuring the Dell 530 BIOS and Windows XP operating system the computer now boots in about thirty seconds. That's pretty good for a Windows machine.
Here is a link to the Dell page for the Inspiron 530. The base configuration is all you need! Dell Inspiron 530
Lynx Studio AES16 PCI card & Breakout Cable - As long as my colleagues have been using Windows XP on their music servers they have been talking up the benefits of the Lynx AES16 card with legacy firmware and legacy drivers. This is another one of those things I had to
Links to AES16 card and Lynx Cable
MediaMonkey - MediaMonkey is my playback application of choice on Windows XP. Some people have identified sound quality "issues" with MediaMonkey, but I have yet to find a better sounding consumer friendly application. The MediaMonkey interface is pretty good, but has its pitfalls. I will say its much more usable than Foobar2000, but there are some newer Foobar2000 skins that many readers find very impressive. I installed the in_wave.dll add-on for AIFF support in MediaMonkey. The Output Plugin I use is wave_out.dll. This plugin allows simple selection of the Lynx AES card and an option to disable the MediaMonkey volume control. Configuration is pretty simple, but certainly not as easy as iTunes on a Mac in my opinion. My favorite part of MediaMonkey is the auto-sample rate recognition. This allows the listener to click between 16/44.1, 24/88.2, 24/176.4, and 24/192 files without changing anything or closing the application. Something Mac users are not accustomed to. It is really pleasant to switch between all these sample rates and still get bit perfect output every time. I did try several other playback applications including Winamp and JRiver Media Center but these applications struggled with the Reference Recordings HRx 24/176.4 WAV files. When one application can't playback the best recordings I've ever heard and another has trouble at all it's an easy decision to make. MediaMonkey wins hands down. I am aware of many fans of the other applications and many of them don't like the current selection of higher resolution music. For now there is nothing pushing them to another application. There are also pro audio based applications like WaveLab and Samplitude that some people prefer over any consumer based application. These apps may offer wonderful sound, but have no library management. The system I put together for this article is an all around reference quality system with library management and readily available components.
Link to MediaMonkey
In anticipation of the first reader question I will attempt to proactively provide an answer. Am I switching from Mac to Windows XP? Not entirely. The user interface of iTunes and OS X, the simplicity and stability of the Apple platform, and to be honest the sound quality is fabulous. Not to mention my Mac systems may save me from blowing my tweeters. The same cannot be said for some MediaMonkey and Windows systems. Lately I've been all about my Dell Windows XP PC, Lynx AES16 card and MediaMonkey. I think the system has greater resolution than my current Mac music servers using OS X and iTunes. There is a certain "rightness" to the sound of this Dell based system. Drum attacks sound sharp and not rolled into, while the extension on the high notes is stupendous and incredibly resolving. But, the Mac does have a sound that's very pleasing and isn't fatiguing one bit. I think for many readers the choice between Mac or Windows in terms of sound quality will be based on personal preference. Some people like tubes while others like solid state. Some like electrostatics while others prefer horns. Now we can add an another one to the mix, some like OS X while others like Windows XP. Both the Mac OS X and Windows XP based systems are reference quality in my opinion. I would put either of these systems up against a physical transport / CD player any day of the week. Plus, the cost of this system is less than $1,040! Readers can use the DAC of their choice as long as it has an AES input. As you can probably guess I used my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC for most of my listening sessions with the Dell based system. Combind the Alpha DAC and this system are right around $6,000. This combination can bypass a preamp and directly drive your amplifier(s). Many readers should be adding up the dolar savings in their heads right now. No preamp, no extra set of cables etc...
As I said earlier, this system comprised of a Dell 530, Lynx AES16, Windows XP, and MediaMonkey is nothing new and is no secret formula. I personally know readers currently using very similar systems. What has me so excited is the cheap cost and high availability of the components I've put together in this article. Every single Computer Audiophile reader can now have a audiophile reference quality music server, that's as good or better than as anything else, for less than $1,040.