Jack of All Trades Master of None
Like many audiophiles I am never satisfied with the status quo. The status quo in computer based audio is to purchase a Windows based PC or a Macintosh, plug it in, and let 'er rip. That type of a solution works wonderful for the vast majority of the world's population and it's one I recommend frequently when the situation arises. Moving beyond the status quo many audiophiles including myself customize standard Macs and PCs until they're satisfied with the sound quality. This customization still does not address many of the issues inherent in a machine built for general computing and is often like polishing a turd. The CA Pocket Server Project began with a completely blank whiteboard. This way I had no turds to polish or in audiophile terms I had no jitter to clean up from the start. It's always better to build a fanless system rather than install inches of acoustical foam, fight with noise, and worry about other issues related to fans. That's the general thought process I used to approach this project. Plus, the always pertinent acronym K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid.
The Computer Audiophile Pocket Server requirements were non-negotiable. I had to satisfy these requirements or the project would be a failure. I also elected to use many components that I haven't already discussed. I didn't want to rehash The Zalman or hFX based music servers I wrote about in 2008 and 2009. Those servers are still great, but don't meet all the C.A.P.S. requirements.
01. Absolutely silent.
02. Capable of great sound.
03. Great looking.
04. No moving parts.
05. Fairly inexpensive.
06. No legacy components.
07. Easy to operate.
08. Easy to assemble / install
a.Assembly / installation by one's self or
b.Assembly / installation by local computer shop, son, daughter, neighbor, or friend.
09. Small size.
10. Low power consumption.
11. Low heat.
12. Accept an add-in card for audio or additional capabilities. Hardware & Software must accept appropriate add-in cards.
13. Play 16/44.1, 24/44.1, 24/88.2, 24/96, 24/176.4, and 24/192 all bit perfect.
The first step in the process was to test different operating systems. I rules out previous versions of Windows, including the apparent audiophile standard XP, because they were not current. Copies of Windows XP (OEM) are still floating around some of the online shops, but I was ready to retire XP anyway. That left Windows 7 as the Microsoft based candidate. Building a Mac OS X based machine (Hackintosh) is of no interest to me as it violates the Terms Of Service of OS X and is more of a tweaker's system than most audiophiles are willing to accept. Beyond the mainstream consumer operating systems I used used a variant of Berkeley Unix called FreeBSD in addition to a few distributions of Linux. I ruled out FreeBSD fairly quickly. After using it for a few hours as a music server I concluded FreeBSD was better left to host web servers and other business type applications. I am very fond of FreeBSD and I really wanted to like it as a music server OS but squeezing a square peg in a round hole wasn't a goal of the CA Pocket Server Project. I spent much more time researching and using Linux based operating systems than all the others combined. As I said at RMAF 2009, and I still believe today, Linux is the future for music servers. The only caveat is Linux requires quite a bit of knowledge to setup as a music server. The amount of knowledge required is a show-stopper for 99% of the Earth's population let alone analog loving audiophiles. However, if I could satisfy the C.A.P.S. requirements I was willing to attempt writing an extremely thorough how-to Linux guide for CA readers to build this music server. The Linux based operating systems I used are Debian Linux, Voyage Linux, Puppy Linux, Arch Linux, openSUSE, Ubuntu Studio, and probably a couple more that I can't remember at this time. The final selection of an operating system for the C.A.P.S. server came down to Windows 7 and Voyage Linux.
Voyage Linux is an incredibly small operating system. It can fit on a tiny USB memory stick, compact flash drive, or any hard drive currently available. The initial installation requires about 128 Megabytes of disk space, not to be confused with 128 Gigabytes. Voyage installs as a barebones operating system. The user must add or update audio features such as Music Player Daemon (MPD), Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA), and other tools like NCMPC and Minion. There are countless options when using Linux. This is a great thing for most Linux users but can be overwhelming to those trying it for the first time. I forced myself to use Voyage Linux for many weeks. Without the option to jump over to a Mac or Windows based server one can become very well versed in Linux music servers. On the contrary one can quit using a Linux music server due to frustration if one doesn't have the necessary time and skills to work through problems. The Voyage based system I setup satisfied all but three of the stated C.A.P.S. requirements. Requirements 7,12, and 13 were constant battles. I tried a few different audio cards and had varying levels of success with each of them. I used an ESi MAYA44 and RME 9632 for much of the time. I was unable to pass 24/176.4 digital audio out of the ESi MAYA44. The MAYA44 data sheets proclaim support up to 24/192, but the user manual states clearly on page 34, "Sample rate supports : 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, (192)kHz *Coaxial Output only." Without 24/176.4 the MAYA44 card failed the requirement. The RME 9632 audio card was a different story. About 100 hours into the configuration nightmare I was able to pass bit perfect audio on all required sample rates. Configuring the RME 9632 in Linux was extremely frustrating. There are bits and pieces of outdated user generated documentation all over the Internet. If there is demand I will create my definitive guide to the RME 9632 on Linux. There are software, firmware, and hardware incompatibilities to work through. I'm really happy I put in the time to make it work on the C.A.P.S. server as I learned quite a bit in the process. Once I had the card working on all the required sample rates I still had problems changing sample rates on the fly when I switched audio tracks. I could not get this to work no matter what I tried. I did create scripts to change sample rates but each one had to be called up via command line before playing a track that required a sample rate change. This mix of problems is what lead me to exclude Linux from the list of possible operating systems. Requirements 12 and 13 combined equate to a system that is not easy to use. Audio cards with Linux support that also support the required sample rates are few and far between. The cards that do exist are not user friendly enough for most people to use on a daily basis. Canned servers, that one can purchase off the shelf, based on Linux and cards such as the RME 9632, RME HDSP AES-32, Lynx AES16 (with OSS drivers), or even the ESi Juli@ card have a bright future. Creating this type of solution at home for one's self is not for the average audiophile seeking to listen to music rather than fiddle with a computer. That said, I continue to use Linux in my listening room next to my other servers.
Note: The ESi Juli@ card supports all the required sample rates but can be very hard to obtain. I was unable to procure one during the several months of this project. Even with a Juli@ card a Linux based solution still does not meet the C.A.P.S. requirements.
Windows 7 satisfies all of the software based requirements. It is capable of great sound, it's a current OS, easy to operate and install, works with more hardware than any other OS, and is capable of bit perfect playback at all required sample rates when configured properly. I selected the more efficient 32-bit version of Windows 7 Ultimate as the operating system of choice for the C.A.P.S. server. More than anything the 64-bit version ruled itself out because of the minimum hardware requirements for a 64-bit OS. I could not use the hardware I wanted and still use the 64-bit version of Windows 7. Even if the hardware supported 64-bit Windows 7 I still think I would use the 32-bit version. There are no benefits to using a 64-bit operating system on the C.A.P.S. server. I selected J River Media Center 14 as the playback and library management application for the C.A.P.S. server. MC 14 has become my new go-to Windows based music application because of its features, flexibility, and bit perfect playback.
The motherboard is the most critical component of the C.A.P.S. server. Without the right motherboard most of the requirements can't met. Readers not schooled in computer hardware should know a motherboard is the main board to which everything in a computer connects. The motherboard dictates what CPU can be used, how much memory can be used, how many and what type of hard drives can be used, and everything else that goes together to build a working computer. The first criterion I used to determine the best motherboard for the C.A.P.S. server was number four, no moving parts. There are many methods to eliminate moving parts from a motherboard such as the addition of passive cooling used in servers based on the Zalman TNN300 or hFX chassis. Adding passive or active cooling only increases complexity. I wanted a motherboard with no moving parts out of the box. Such a motherboard had to include passive cooling as part of the board's design. This requirement reduced the number of qualifying motherboards down to a handful. I had previously built a Linux based music sever using a motherboard from the swiss company PC Engines. These boards are very small, have incredibly low power requirements, but have too many limitations for the C.A.P.S. server. PCI slots, memory slots, hard drive capabilities, and operating system limitations were too much to overcome. One capability I really like using with a current PC Engines board I have is Power over Ethernet (PoE). This board receives all its power via an Ethernet cable. It's a nice bonus in the aesthetics department when one can remove the power cable from a component. After much research and testing I selected the mini-itx Intel D945GSEJT motherboard for the C.A.P.S. server (Photo 1) (Photo 2). This board has a built-in, non-removable, Intel Atom N270 1.6 GHz CPU that is passively cooled with low profile attached heat sinks. No CPU fan required. The Intel D945GSEJT has two SATA hard drive ports. Connecting standard SATA solid state hard drives (SSD) eliminates another source of moving parts from the server. Spinning hard drives are a source for noise, greater power requirements, increased heat, and can limit the computer case options. One feature that elevates the Intel D945GSEJT motherboard above others is the built-in full size PCI slot. This satisfies the requirement for add-in audio cards or additional capabilities. By additional capabilities I am talking about a PCI FireWire card to connect a FireWire DAC or FireWire hard drive for people using USB DACs.
Power requirement for the Intel D945GSEJT is very flexible. One can use a traditional computer power supply that connects to the board's 2x2 power port. These traditional power supplies are rarely fanless, rarely silent, and can decrease the number of computer case options due to mounting requirements. The Intel D945GSEJT also accepts an external 12 volt power supply similar to most laptops on the market. A silent fanless external power brick was easily my choice to power the C.A.P.S. server.
Other notable features of the Intel D945GSEJT include on-board S/PDIF digital audio output headers. Header is another term for pins on the motherboard to which one can connect devices. This output supports 16/44.1, 24/48, and 24/96 sample rates. A special cable is required (Photo 1) (Photo 2) to use this S/PDIF output as there are no built-in S/PDIF ports. A full-mini PCI Express slot is available for wireless cards or other devices like a hardware decoder to increase video playback capabilities. One of the USB headers on the D945GSEJT can be used for an eUSB solid state drive. I purchased an eight GB eUSB drive for this server (Photo 1) (Photo 2), but did not use it with the Windows 7 installation. Windows 7 will not install to a USB drive even if it's placed directly on the motherboard. I have installed Linux to this tiny drive without any issues. An underrated feature of small mini-itx motherboards is the network speed capabilities. Many small boards only contain 10/100 Mbps network cards. The Intel D945GSEJT has an on-board 10/100/1000 Mbps card commonly referred to as a gigabit Ethernet card.
The maximum amount of random access memory (RAM) the Intel D945GSEJT will accept is two GB in its only memory slot. The decision to use two GB of RAM doesn't require any thought or further discussion here. Just add to cart, it's cheap. Selecting a hard drive to meet the no moving parts requirement is easy if one has unlimited funds. Fortunately Solid State Drives (SSD) continue to decrease in price every week. At the time of this writing an OCZ Vertex Turbo 60GB SSD is $219. This is not the exact drive I used in the C.A.P.S. server but it's contains the same amount of disk space as the one I used. If I were putting together the C.A.P.S. server today I would purchase the OCZ drive previously mentioned. There is currently no way store most people's music collections on local solid state hard drives. The available sizes just aren't large enough without spending thousands of dollars on convoluted PCI/e SSD devices. That's why I selected a 60GB SSD. Most music must be stored elsewhere. My music is located on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. If an external spinning USB or FireWire drive is necessary then so be it. At least C.A.P.S. server is free from internal moving parts for now. In the future it will be possible to house all one's music locally on solid state storage.
Audio card selection for the C.A.P.S. server was fairly easy for me, a Lynx AES16. I am a strong supporter of the Lynx AES16 PCI card for its sound quality and its advanced capabilities. The Lynx enables one to use an external clocking device and supports dual wire AES. I used both of these features during the dCS component review. Along with the Lynx AES16 card I also recommend a custom cable from a place like Redco. Redco will make a cable with only one or two AES wires and a clock wire if desired for about $60. That said, there are many more audio cards available. I hesitate to say it but I did use the Merging Technologies Mykerinos card and Pyramix software on the C.A.P.S. server for a few weeks. Wonderful sound, but it doesn't meet many of the requirements of this project. An audio card I would really like to use in the C.A.P.S. server is the ASUS Xonar Essence St. I currently have the STX PCIe version that will not work in the C.A.P.S. server as it doesn't have a PCIe slot. A few weeks ago ASUS provided me a prerelease ASIO driver for the STX card. I was very pleased to see the card now outputting bit perfect audio at 16/44.1, 24/96, and 24/192. According to ASUS 24/88.2 and 24/176.4 support will be part of the final ASIO driver version. The reason I mention all of this about a card that won't work in the C.A.P.S. server is because this driver also works for the ST PCI version of the Xonar Essence card. Since I haven't heard the ST version I can't comment on the sound quality. However if the quality is similar to the STX version with the new ASIO driver I will highly recommend the ASUS Xonar Essence ST card and consider it a great option for the C.A.P.S. server. The ST PCI version of the card is available for around $200 at many online stores.
During this project I researched a countless number of computer cases. I'm glad I did the research, but I could have saved all that time by selecting the case I originally wanted from day one of the project. The Origenae M10 computer case was clearly the best case for the C.A.P.S. server. Audiophiles not only like great sound, we like excellent build quality and products that look just as good as our audio components. The all aluminum (5mm) Origenae M10 case meets or exceeds all the requirements set out for the C.A.P.S. server. The case ships with a 60mm fan, but it's only required if the internal components need additional air flow. I never took the fan out of the box. The M10 is built for a mini-itx motherboard such as the Intel D945GSEJT. Installation is very simple. Origenae provides the four required screws to attach the board to the bottom of the case. The 2.5" 60GB SSD selected for the C.A.P.S. server screws easily onto the inside panel right next to the SATA power and data cable ports on the motherboard (Photo). Also included is a mountable tray to hold a slim slot-loading CD/DVD drive. I didn't install such a drive as I wanted to keep things very simple and I had no need for an internal CD/DVD drive. I used a USB CD/DVD drive to install Windows and I use a different computer to rip my CDs to the easily accessible NAS device. If I did install a DVD drive I would select the Pioneer DVR-TS08 slim slot-loading SATA drive for under $60. The M10 case features a very nice looking front display and hidden infrared sensor. I was unable to utilize these features because the Intel D945GSEJT motherboard has a power incompatibility with the M10. The M10 ships with its own 150 watt external power supply but I was unable to make it work with the Intel D945GSEJT motherboard. The D945GSEJT would not accept power via the 2x2 connector and the internal case electronics required a 20/24 pin motherboard connection, that the D945GSEJT doesn't have, to function properly. This incompatibility may have a silver lining. Audiophiles are always seeking ways to turn off unneeded features or capabilities and frequently use single purpose components such as a DAC with separate power supply or separate external clock. Turning off a component's display is nothing new to audiophiles either. This time there is no option to turn the display on or use the included remote control. I don't know if the lack of these features reduces any electrical noise inside the case but I'm willing to bet an argument could be made in support of such a reduction. Again, this is strictly because I selected a motherboard that was not 100% compatible with the M10 case. I've read other reports of these features working very well. In fact with a compatible motherboard it would be possible to control applications like J River Media Center via the infrared remote control. The Origenae M10 case supports half-hight PCI cards sitting vertically in the motherboard's PCI slot. I placed an ASUS Xonar HDAV 1.3 Slim card into the PCI slot and it lined up perfectly with the hole to screw the card into place stabilizing it with the unique internal metal frame of the case. The M10 can also accommodate full size PCI cards like the Lynx AES16 and ASUS Xonar Essence ST by use of a PCI riser card (Photo). A PCI riser card simply enables the PCI card to mount horizontally instead of its native vertical placement. I know of no detrimental effects by using such a riser card. I was initially concerned about heat dissipation as most of the motherboard rests underneath the horizontally mounted Lynx AES16 card. Thus far I've yet to experience any heat related issues. I've even listened to four hours straight of 24/176.4 HRx material outputting dual wire AES to a DAC without a single hiccup and the M10 case is cool to the touch. Inside the case the Lynx AES16 card is no hotter than any other installation I've seen. The bottom of the Origenae M10 case features four metal with rubber bottom feet. The feet are tall enough to allow placement of the case on short carpeting and the rubber bottom of the feet enable one to place the case on any surface without scratching. I currently place the M10 case on carpet in my listening room instead of behind a wall where my other music servers reside. The case looks very nice and I have no reason to hide such a component. This placement also allows me to use short AES cables from my Lynx AES16 card to my DAC. Overall I don't consider the power incompatibility an issue. I would purchase this case without the extra features were it available in such a configuration. Plus, I personally user remote desktop for control of the server and wouldn't use the IR receiver or front panel anyway.
Use of a monitor is not something I normally consider with my music servers. The Intel D945GSEJT does have analog DSUB and digital DVI video outputs. One of these is certainly required for system setup and could continue to be used if necessary. Seeking to add something extra to the C.A.P.S. server I contacted the nice people at Mimo. A few days later an iMo 7" Pivot Touch USB monitor arrived at my door. On paper or computer screen this touchscreen monitor seems too good to be true for only $199. Unfortunately it is too good to be true. I used the iMo 7" Pivot Touch on Windows and Mac system before concluding it wasn't my cup of tea. Connected to the C.A.P.S. server I had nothing but trouble using this little touchscreen. Initial setup wasn't very smooth, but I was eventually able to see my desktop on the iMo. Next I went through all the calibration steps to fine tune the touchscreen. Calibration is pretty simple, but when it came to actual use the iMo was a nonstarter. If I had infant size fingers I would like the monitor about 10% more than I currently like it. I don't have huge fingers but they are too large to click on a single track easily. Forget about navigating a menu. I had to touch the screen about one inch away from my intended target. This was troubling when I had to touch the lower right corner. My finger needed to be an inch off the screen over the non-touchscreen frame of the monitor. The only good thing I can say about the iMo Pivot Touch 7" touchscreen is that it may work as neat display similar to how Jeff Kalt of Resolution Audio used the non-touchscreen version at CES this year. I do not recommend people purchase this monitor before using it themselves. Needless to say the iMo 7" Pivot Touch did not make the cut to be part of the C.A.P.S. server.
Compared to a Zalman TNN300 based silent music server the C.A.P.S. server comes out very well. The two main benefits of the Zalman baed server are disk space and the ability to use PCI Express cards in addition to PCI cards. The Zalman is also capable of handling more memory. Both servers are absolutely silent with no moving parts. The Origenae M10 based C.A.P.S. server is far more visually appealing than a Zalman TNN300. The Zalman case is no longer manufactured although there are plenty left in the supply chain here in the U.S. The C.A.P.S. server case is $320 and the Zalman TNN300 is $690. Not a single component in the Zalman servers is less expensive than coresponding C.A.P.S. serve component. The C.A.P.S. server (9.5" x 4" x 9.8" w feet, 6.6 lbs.) consumes far less space than a TNN300 (13" x 9" x 18.5" 32.5 lbs.). The CA Pocket Server is an excellent way to use a Lynx card in one's system without planting a huge PC tower next to audio components. I think both the C.A.P.S. and Zalman based servers are capable of similar great sound quality.
The Computer Audiophile Pocket Server project was frustrating at times but well worth the time, money, and effort. Make no mistake the C.A.P.S. server will never be a commercial product that benefits Computer Audiophile financially. This server was created to be a great solution for myself and CA readers alike. There are an unlimited number of ways to change this configuration or adjust it to one's personal needs. No single configuration is the right configuration for everyone. Despite some technical terms weaved into the article this is a really easy music server to build as a whole or in part. I know many people who like to dig into projects like this and I also know many people who want nothing to do with a computer project. Fortunately the C.A.P.S. server was created with both groups of people in mind. Using off the shelf parts currently available to anyone CA readers can undertake this project themselves or simply call up a local computer shop and have them put it together. Whether one builds it, buys it, or brushes it off is irrelevant. The Computer Audiophile Pocket Server's purpose is to increase one's enjoyment of our wonderful hobby.
The Computer Audiophile Pocket Server piece by piece
- Power Adapter DC 12 V, 80 W - $29.00
Solid State Drive
- PCI Riser Card for D945GSEJT - $10.95
Digital Audio Card
- Lynx AES16 PCI Audio Card - $625
Custom AES Cable
- Lynx AES16 Cable - ~$60
- Origenae M10 - $320
- J River Media Center 14 - $50
Other bits and pieces used during the C.A.P.S. Project that did not make the final build.
- Broadcom BCM970012 - PCIe Mini Card - $59.00
Solid State Drive
- Emphase 44-pin Industrial Flash Disk Module 4 GB - 4000X - $69.00
(Windows installation too large for 4GB version)
Solid State Drive
- OCZ 16GB PATA PCIe Mini Solid State Drive - $151.69
(Will not fit on Intel D945GSEJT motherboard)
Solid State Drive
- ATP eUSB SSD 8GB Z-U130 - $139
(Windows can't be installed to this drive)
Click To Enlarge Photos
C.A.P.S. Server in my listening room.
Stock Photos of Origenae M10