• Absolutely Silent Audiophile Music Server

    Earlier this week I published my extremely inexpensive music server based on a Dell Insprion 530. Now it's time to introduce everyone to the absolutely silent audiophile music server I've assembled in the last few days. Based on the Zalman TNN 300 PC case, this Windows XP system is worth the extra money in my opinion. No fans and no spinning hard drives equate to a very different user experience. Something seems amiss without any noise coming from a music server. If you've ever been in an electric or hybrid automobile you'll understand exactly what I'm talking about. We need some noisy feedback so we know everything is working. In the past this has always been from loud PC fans, power supplies, and hard drives. With this silent music server the only indication that it's still alive is the blue power light on the front of the case. It's very similar to adding a solid state power amp to your system.


     




     

    Since Computer Audiophile is not a geeky tech based website I'm not going to cover all the bits and bytes of system assembly in gory detail. I chose to assemble this silent music server from scratch mainly because I've done it before, I shaved about $1,000 off the price doing it this way, and I was "commissioned" to build it for someone. If you're not sure that you're capable of identifying the correct parts and assembling them you definitely should not attempt to build this silent music server. Take a look at the manual if you think you're ready for the challenge Zalman TNN 300 Manual. Here is a brief recap of what I did to complete this project.

    1. Selected the Zalman TNN 300 (CASH List component) case as my foundation of the system. This case is fanless and operates like a power amp with large heatsinks. Without active cooling the individual compatible components list is dwindled down very quick. The case has a built-in power supply with limited strength that also narrows down the components available for the music server. Price $589

    2. I selected the ASUS P5Q-EM motherboard as the next component. Everything else in the PC has to be compatible with the selected motherboard, so this is very important. In this specific situation the motherboard not only has to be the right size but it has to be in the subset of micro-atx motherboards that are compatible with the Zalman case. Most cases accept all motherboards as long as they are the right size. This ASUS motherboard is rock solid and has plenty of configuration options and support for the class of CPUs required by this case. Price $135

    3. I selected the Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 Wolfdale 2.53GHz LGA 775 65W Dual-Core Processor. This CPU comes in just short of the 70W limit supported by this case and power supply. The passive heatsinks can only dissipate a limited amount of heat and the power supply can't drive the fastest CPUs available. As evidenced by the Dell system I purchased this music server could operate with a less powerful CPU, but for this project I selected a middle-of-the-road model. Price $120

    4. I elected to go with a Solid State Drive (SSD) instead of a standard spinning hard drive. It just did not make sense to me to put in a noisy drive after piecing together an otherwise silent system. Not all SSDs are created equal. The price of two drives of the same size can vary by thousands of dollars based on the speed and build architecture of the units. The real cheap SSDs are based on Multi-level Cell (MLC) flash memory which is much less desirable than SLC based drives. Single-level Cell (SLC) drives are faster, consume less power, and last longer. These SLC drives obviously command a higher price. Since I'm not a fan of the MLC drives I selected a Samsung 64GB SATA II drive (model MCCOE64G5MPP-0VA00). This drive has plenty of room for the operating system and a decent number of uncompressed albums. This system is a perfect reason to purchase that NAS drive you've been longing for over the last year. SSD price $550

    5. Memory for this music server is low price, low speed, and low heat Kingston DDR2 2x1GB modules. Price $28

    6. A solid Pioneer 20x SATA DVD Burner (Model DVR-2910) is all this music server required. No expensive Bluray drive needed. Price $45

    7. As usual I selected the Lynx AES16 PCI card for this Windows XP system. Price $700 (required but optional cable $60).

    Total cost is roughly $2,200.

     





     


    I already have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and everything else I needed to get the system up and running. Now it's running as a headless music server right next to my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC for a few days. Strangely enough the Alpha DAC is louder than this music server. That's a story for another day, coming soon, but I'll just say the Alpha DAC case vibrates a little bit because of the design of the power supplies. Sonic compromises would have been required to eliminate the vibration.

    I spent hours stripping the operating system of anything that was unnecessary for music playback. Removing programs and startup items was pretty simple. The dirty work was disabling all but four services from starting upon the OS boot-up. Most services are easily identifiable by their name or description, but there are five or six that involve some trial and error before disabling. I was also able to get this system down to 61 MB of memory usage at boot-up and a handful of process running. That's not the easiest task. Tweaking an operating system is another thing that can cause a less-than-computer-savvy listener some pain. Avoid this if you have any doubts about what you're doing.

     





     


    Since there are many things going on here at Computer Audiophile I haven't spent much time listening to this silent server. Wow, that sentence is a weird one. Listening to something that's silent. Anyway, the server is running MediaMonkey and sounds superb. I did manage to lose clock for about 10 seconds during setup which caused some white noise to come through my speakers. Thankfully I had the volume on the Alpha DAC at 0.1 in anticipation of something like this happening. I don't think Focal would have been happy with me if I would have blown the beryllium tweeters on the review pair of speakers I'm using. When I lost clock I was doing a Windows search on my NAS drive for a specific 24/192 HDCD track. It's possible this took to many system resources away from music playback, but I can't be 100% sure. The track playing during the loss of clock was off the local drive so network contention shouldn't have contributed. For some readers this will be another reason not to go down the Windows path. I can't say I blame them for going the Mac route. All this afternoon and night I've been listening to my Mac Pro with Sonic Studio's Amarra and I've been much more relaxed knowing my tweeters are no in jeopardy. There's a lot to be said about having piece of mind.


     





     


     





     


     





     


     





     


     





     


     


     
    Comments 24 Comments
    1. BEEMB's Avatar
      BEEMB -
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      I like the look of that case, it's got a "purposeful" look about it.<br />
      <br />
      Solid state hard drives must be amazing. That's my next upgrade. I've got an HTPC case and by using an AMD4850e I have one system fan set to slow, the other disabled, and just a heatsink on the CPU, no fan. The only thing I can hear sometimes is the hard disk though I've minimised that with some rubber grommets.<br />
      <br />
      Makes me wonder what's next ... An Origien case maybe ?<br />
      <br />
      I'm using Vista and am really enjoying it having disabled a number of the services that I know won't impact security or privacy. Given WASAPI and ASIO I'd be interested to see you build a Vista system.<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. BEEMB's Avatar
      BEEMB -
      <br />
      Chris,<br />
      <br />
      Sorry yet another post from me ... just picking up on the white noise issue that you had with XP. Are running your audio playback software as a high priority ? This should help to prevent such occurrences with the system ensuring that your playback works at the expense of slowing down other processes.<br />
      <br />
      I'm not sure how you set XP applications to run as a high priority all the time. You can certainly change it within the task manager. Within Vista it's simple to set the application to always run in high priority.<br />
      <br />
      Matt.
    1. minzyman's Avatar
      minzyman -
      Hey Chris. Some nice pictures and commentary, once again. I too just finished this same configuration about a month ago and have some observations, not only regarding the case itself, but of the lengthy and technical build process of a music server as the two go hand in hand. In retrospect, I should have posted in the Music Server section.<br />
      <br />
      First, the shock of almost total silence is so amazing with this case, I can't believe that more people haven't discovered this fanless option for other applications. Makes you realize what horrible levels of noise we deal with in the office.<br />
      <br />
      Of course, we still have noise from our NAS drives, fans from Plextor drives, and some other accessories, but things are notably quieter and my machine is dead quiet.<br />
      <br />
      By the way. Has everyone seen the application for iPhone called "Decibel"? It's great and allows you to measure room noise, useful when you are comparing components. Yet I digress...<br />
      <br />
      The Zalman is built like a tank and is dead quiet. However, I have some concern that there are hotspots in the machine accumulating from improperly configured heat sinks on the motherboard. You see, the one issue with this machine is that it really needs to be thought thru and configured so that each chip set on the motherboard is properly equipped with heatsinks/bars that transfer the heat to the external case walls and heat sinks. This is fairly straight forward for the CPU. However there are other chip sets on the motherboard that one must consider as well, including any video related chipsets. For anyone with a Lynx sound card, I called Lynx and was told that heat produced by the card is negligible. Thus, avoiding hot spots is paramount and takes some noodling. Use the thermal paste generously...<br />
      <br />
      My configuration included the Asus P5Q-EM baby AT motherboard as well (CPU INTEL C2D E8500 3.16G): it includes a fairly decent onboard video card, negating the need for an external PCI card which might include a fan of it's own. The Zalman comes with it's own fanless power supply, but apparently many of these are defective and go bad immediately: not sure if Zalman has solved this yet. One computer tech I spoke to said he doubted the effectiveness of this heat-sink design and warned that the motherboard may burn out within a year or so. Nevertheless he said it sounded impressive.<br />
      <br />
      Here are a few suggestions from one quiet pc site:<br />
      <br />
      * Generous use of thermal paste <br />
      * Use of rubber screws and o rings for installation of anything that moved or spun (ie. HD and optical drive)<br />
      * Avoid use of spining components at all costs, such as fans.<br />
      * Keeping the machine as bare-bones as possible: this is a dedicated music server and nothing should be installed that might add unnecessary noise. That means, no devices or device drivers that might interfere with the audio signal.<br />
      <br />
      Per the hard drive, I too looked into Sold State but was told by more than one tech that the units weren't up to spec as are regular spinning drives, and that you needed to spend $2k to get a decent one. I bought a WD GreenPower 500 gb hard drive / $89.99, as they are said to be the quietest of the regular drives. I made sure it was mounted with rubber screws and dampened with o-rings so that nothing touched the mounting rails that might transfer vibration. When SS drives come down in price and improve, I'm sure I will make the easy upgrade.<br />
      <br />
      Per the white noise/clocking issue you spoke of via the Lynx card, I haven't yet experienced this. I heard that if you play a track and simultaneously change a variable, such as the track name, that you produce white noise. However I tried this at low volume and didn't find it to be true. I only heard the music stop for a minute.<br />
      <br />
      Per Tim Marutani's suggestions, I am using the legacy driver 057g with all of Tim's setting suggestions. I highly recommend anyone calling Tim for help on this lengthy and technical process. He's constantly testing new equipment and consults to pros in the industry. (Hope you don't mind my saying so Tim.)<br />
      <br />
      I did encounter a bass distortion problem during playback of several of my tracks stored on the Thecus NAS, but quickly discovered that these tracks were ripped improperly using XLD. I re-ripped them in MediaMonkey and they sound fantastic.<br />
      <br />
      What Dac did I go with? Over the past year or so I've listened to many Dacs on several high end machines, both at shows and BAAS events, and have learned a lot. My ears tell me that there is a "DAC sound" that we need to accept when comparing to CD, but that some Dacs are certainly better than others. Many Dacs roll off the highs and sound as if they are under a blanket. The Berkeley Alpha Dac seemed to me to limit this tendency more than any other I heard, and also produced an amazing soundstage, even in my small and poorly dampened room. It makes redbook ripped tracks sound better in many ways than they do from my cd player. This is precisely what I wanted from my music server: not just music organization, storage and efficiency, but better sound than I had before as well. I won't say too much about the unit until after Chris has done his writeup, but I can say that it sounds really amazing in so many ways and adds depth and dimension to the soundstage that I never expected. I also am impressed by it's revealing qualities: the decay of instruments like cymbals is just so detailed and probably due to the improved soundstage. I am definitely hearing things I never did before...<br />
      <br />
      One last suggestion is the Elo Touchscreen, which retails for $700 and up but can be found in excellent condition on eBay. I found the 1529L there (used) for $220: a commercial touchscreen by Elo that is built like a tank. The touch potential isn't all that great for the days, weeks and months of time you will spend tweaking the system and ripping your cd collection: you're better off using a mouse here. However for fun and easy playback, the touch screen is great. I have it mounted on top of my stereo rack with cordless mouse/keyboard stored down below, out of sight. You have great control of most everything in MediaMonkey.<br />
      <br />
      This brings me to my last comment: the user interface. MediaMonkey Gold is great and does an amazing job of storing reams of music data and tag info. However it is sloppy (on XP), seizes up constantly, such as when it is attempting to read a new cd, and doesn't usually tag your discs via the web properly. One is doomed to manually enter info on many cd entries and this can take foreeeeever. I prefer a simpler overall approach, without an explorer tree and other options, if at all possible. Finally, the learning curve is lengthy and one really needs to be a tweaker to setup and maintain one of these systems with this program. I have become pretty good at it. But I cannot say that it is "intuitive" after playing with iTunes, Sonos, and even Windows Media Player.<br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
      <br />
    1. scottj's Avatar
      scottj -
      I'm curious to know where you found the Zalman TNN 300 for such a low price. I can't find it for less than $650 anywhere.
    1. twist222's Avatar
      twist222 -
      Are you using XP Pro or Xp home on this system ? Have you or any of the other forumn members developed a preference for either option<br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Twist - XP Pro only because I have a copy.
    1. Steelman's Avatar
      Steelman -
      Thanks for the write up Chris.<br />
      <br />
      This is not a plug for my local audio shop but I am fortunate enough to live near a high-end audio shop (as its name implies). Goodwins has some gear for mere mortals but seems to focus on the no-budget crowd. <br />
      <br />
      Anyways, like most of us, I am looking for DACs and thought it would make sense to check out Goodwin's selection. One of the managers at Goodwins (whose name will remain anonymous to protect the innocent!) was excited to show me a new set up which he called something like, "The once in a decade paradigm shift in high-end audio." <br />
      <br />
      Incredibly this was pretty similar to the Zalman/Lynx/Windows XP/Berkeley systems discussed here on CA:<br />
      <br />
      http://www.goodwinshighend.com/silentmusicservers.htm<br />
      <br />
      Goodwin's spin on the new "technology" was not what I had expected. They were focused on the system's ability to rival the best CD units in the world irrespective of price and convenience. The manager believed that this computer-based system was more than competent; the paradigm shift for him was that this quality is now available to "Us mortals" (e.g. for well under $10k) and provides the bonus of a music server. In fact, we spent an hour in what I will call their $100k+ system room and this computer-based system was one of their main music sources. The system sounded fantastic, but given the price that should have been expected.<br />
      <br />
      For those of us who are not engineers, I see that Goodwins can configure computer-based systems at what appears to be a reasonable rate. This shop has been around for a long time and appears to be both passionate and competent in my view. Most interestingly, it is good to see high end audio starting to embrace computer-based systems, rather than lecturing me how outboard DACs have been obsolete for over a decade.<br />
      <br />
    1. minzyman's Avatar
      minzyman -
      Hi,<br />
      <br />
      I found the Zalman TNN-300 at NewEgg.com for about $550 plus shipping.<br />
      <br />
      Regarding my edition of XP, I use XP home and was told that there is no known differences between the two for this purpose.<br />
      <br />
      /LM
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Steelman - I'm glad you mentioned this! I talked to Alan Goodwin a couple weeks ago about the systems he is offering. Strangely enough I've had this system in mind for quite a while and it works out great that Alan is offering this to customers unwilling to piece it together themselves. But, I do have the other offering from Goodwin's (component style chassis) on the way here for review!<br />
      <br />
      This is really great news for high-end audio. Has there ever been a better and more exciting time for our wonderful hobby!
    1. timbo's Avatar
      timbo -
      ...beryllium tweeters eh? Focal? Floor standing or stand mounts? Utopia? Do tell :-)<br />
      <br />
      PS. what exactly is Amarra? Is it a software player, replacement for iTunes? Just curious as we haven't heard any more but you are still listening with it so must be good :-0
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Tim - I have some Focal Electra 1007 Be speakers in here right now. They are stand mounted with great build quality and sound. I'm working on some Utopias, but that's going to take a while :-)<br />
      <br />
      Amarra is a software application that works in conjunction with iTunes on a Mac. Amarra bundled with the Sonic Studio 304 FireWire DAC or Digital I/O is a great solution. Since it's in Beta still I won't go into all the details as they may change.
    1. wappinghigh's Avatar
      wappinghigh -
      Chris: is the addition of Solid State Drive the main reason for the sound reduction..?<br />
      <br />
      If so,<br />
      <br />
      What's the Mac equivalent....<br />
      <br />
      A SSD modded Macmini? Can you get such a thing.....?<br />
      A SSD added to a Mac pro (with various low fan noise software apps?)<br />
      or perhaps A solid state Macbook....(or can you mod an old macbook and add an SSD?)<br />
      <br />
      AB<br />
      <br />
    1. cfmsp's Avatar
      cfmsp -
      <br />
      <br />
      I'm looking into updating a Mac Cube as a music server.<br />
      <br />
      It's a fanless design to start with, but was left in the dust when Apple moved to processors that required fans due to generated heat.<br />
      <br />
      I've only recently started the project and therefore not a lot to report yet, other than a limiting factor being it can only support apps that can run on PPC chips (Intel based processor upgrades are NOT possible in a Cube, and would eliminate the fanless aspect in any event).<br />
      <br />
      As an example, iTunes is not a problem, nor likely to be one anytime soon, but Songbird has not yet been ported to run on PPC-based Mac machines.<br />
      <br />
      With Chris' permission, I'll share my progress, albeit slowly.<br />
      <br />
      clay<br />
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi Clay - Please do share your experience!
    1. VincentH's Avatar
      VincentH -
      [OT] Hi Chris, I'm curious to your impressions of the Focals esp on the highs, any idea on when you'll be ready to post them? <br />
      <br />
      I've got the Focal Twin 6 Be with (I think) the same Beryllium tweeters and I really like them. I A/B ed them with the Adam professional monitors who use Ribbon tweeters and liked the Focals better.<br />
      <br />
      Cheers,
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      H Vincent - The Focals are very nice speakers. The beryllium tweeters are wonderful. I'm going to be using the Focals with a couple integrated amps in for review. After those reviews I'll post my complete review of the 1007 Be speakers.<br />
      <br />
      Since the Focals arrived I switched back to my Avalons for about 10 minutes and that was it. I prefer the beryllium over the ceramic drivers. Both are still very capable, but given the choice Be wins.
    1. limesinferior's Avatar
      limesinferior -
      is there anybody who tried to use mdf or wood as a base for computer motherboard with separate power supply with no fan or even battery power for different components of the computer? any component recommendations?<br />
      <br />
      i am also wondering if anybody had an opportunity to directly compare Nova Physics Memory Player with Naim HDX Hard Disk player.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi limesinferior - Wood can certainly be used but it's pretty hard to do it fanless. Wood doesn't provide any heat disipation like the Zalman.<br />
      <br />
      I've heard good things about the Nova Physics player. The Naim HDX is simply a computer with a $100 motherboard in a nice case.
    1. Lord Chaos's Avatar
      Lord Chaos -
      Four years ago I started researching PCs. At the time I wanted a gaming computer and all I knew was that I wanted it quiet. I stumbled onto a silent (fanless) computer in a Zalman TNN500AF case. It was ridiculously expensive but I told myself that the case would last forever and could be upgraded. This is the computer that led me down the path to computer-based audio.<br />
      <br />
      Well, the time came to upgrade... and Zalman had discontinued the case. No updates for compatible motherboards or other components. I'm stuck, and will have to buy a new computer from scratch.<br />
      <br />
      Curious after reading this topic I went to Zalman's Web site. Apparently the TNN300 is listed, but the "Compatible Motherboard" list hasn't been updated since 2006. So... you may end up with an expensive, unupgradeable case unless you want to do a lot of experimentation to find motherboards that will work with it.<br />
      <br />
      I have no quibble with the quality of the Zalman product. It was worked perfectly. It's just that the motherboard in mine has problems, and none of the boards on Zalman's old list is still available.<br />
      <br />
      The TNN300 is still being used by others (as of this writing), so maybe it will last longer than the TNN500AF.
    1. The Computer Audiophile's Avatar
      The Computer Audiophile -
      Hi LC - Good to see you here. I too have built a TNN500AF based computer. That case is a monster! I think these cases can last much longer than Zalman's production of them. I don't use the compatible motherboard chart on the Zalman site. I just look at the specs such as Micro-ITX motherboard and CPU less than 70 watts and go from there.<br />
      <br />
      The 500AF takes a regular ATX board (I believe) and Intel socket 775 CPU, so you should be fine with upgrading if you want.