As I sit here sideways at my keyboard, with my twice-daily ice wrap around my knee, elevated and precarious, I am reminded of my doctor's response when I asked him why this seemingly innocent outpatient knee 'scope is taking so damn long to heal (three and a half months of pt, etc). To paraphrase: "Even though we have been doing these for many years, hundreds of times each per year, the prognosis is always different. Everything matters! Age, location of tear/damage, predilection to fast healing, diet, exercise, etc etc. So, PLEASE, do not read about 3 week recoveries on the Internet and expect that to be the norm. It's not a new science, but it's full of variables. We took a lot of lateral meniscus out, for example."
Well...this article is not about my knee pain. It's about my music pain!
Not really, but it is about one aspect of our own science (hobby) that is filled with many variables, where "everything matters" (note: as much as I like that terse, succinct, accurate, frustrating mantra I have to give credit to our own CA
contributor Barrows for truly inventing it as his own).
So..what am I getting at? Computer audio is far enough along that many new hobbyists expect there to be some standards and feedback that can help reduce the almost infinite variables involved in making a good knowledgeable decision about a new music system based on computer playback. That would seem to be a fair expectation. So why aren't there more "fundamentals" or "dogmas" in computer audio after all this experiential data from many users. Why not? My opinion, alone, is this: few of us can experience removing enough of the largest variables in this hobby to discuss any semblance of "fundamentals", because those variables are
our own room;
our own hearing limitations;
our own listening preferences;
our system make-up as a whole (i.e cake recipe vs cake) and finally,
the introduction of a new piece into those first four aspects.
Moreover, even if we could, there are now more than a few ways to get the music signal to the system (DAC
-amp-speaker setup) in the first place. (great! just what we need, moving parts). Well...I am in a somewhat unique (for me, at least) perspective currently, in that I have the ability to remove all the above variables and then systematically evaluate three different ways for my DAC
(s) to have its' signal delivered.
Gone are the days when computer audio simply meant taking a general pc/Mac and loading it up with music, and sending it to your hi-fi. We began this journey with sound cards, then USB
, then aysnchronous USB
and firewire. Then folks began to realize that an optimized computer sounded better, then an isolated one, then a silent, isolated, optimized one. Then maybe a tweaked operating system, and so on. Today there are numerous ways to try and isolate the noise and activities of a computer from the pristine fragile music signal emanating from our libraries.
I am here to try and dumb down three increasingly popular approaches to signal nirvana. In all three cases the back end system synergy (DAC
-amp-speakers), room, listener preferences, listener hearing and miscellaneous cabling (for the most part) will be the SAME!
Spoiler alert: all three approaches easily outperform (musically) a standard Mac Mini or standard CAPS
implementation. There is no winner, per se, in that all three technologies have huge tradeoffs, the largest one being what I like to call "care and feeding", the daily or weekly responsibilities of the user/listener/owner to maintain both the music library and the signal path demons that may crop up now and again. This tradeoff, alone, may be all that is required for some of you to make a good decision.
Another large tradeoff is user friendliness, which can take form as remote control flexibility and readability...but also the ease (or lack thereof) in troubleshooting (i.e even a plug and play solution needs to be rebooted when the power goes out).
I have a selfish and secondary goal with this 3-way approach: it allows me, in a three part article (intro part notwithstanding
), to review several products that are on my docket. In the streamer/renderer category, for example, I will be reviewing the Auralic Aries
. For an all-in Linux server I will review the Aurender X100L
, and for a DIY tweaked CAPS
solution I will review several products including the JCAT
family of products (USB
card and several dedicated cables), Audiophil's Audio Optimizer
for Windows Server 2012 and TotalDAC's D1 USB cable
. In fact, I will use the subtle but important differences in these top two USB
cables (JCAT and D1) in all three of the categories.
Let me summarize the categories before going further. I will detail each of them as I go along (but this is by no means a technical discussion. I am approaching this as joe user, mainly cuz I am not very technical when it comes to much of the networking involved, and frankly like it that way
Streamer/Renderer. This is where the user decides he/she will use an ethernet solution to send the music signal/data to the system, using a home network protocol called DLNA
, or a modified version (simplifying) called OpenHome. The major point of this solution is that one can use their home network, even wirelessly, to get music data to their systems. A DLNA
server (usually free software), renderer (client), control point (remote) is needed. Many solutions put the server on an existing NAS
so as to reduce the clutter in the signal path. This is where the notion of "I have no pc in the system" comes from (although both the NAS
and the renderer have computers embedded, frankly).
I am using the wonderful Auralic Aries for this category.
All-in Linux music server. This is the category where networking is used minimally, at least in my example. The music server is fully dedicated to music only, and built to very lightweight OS specs (Linux) in order to reduce the harmful but infrequent non-music processing that must occur, and the music library exists inside the server. An ethernet connection is used for two reasons only: 1) to move music into the server, either on a regular basis, or all at once; 2) to connect to the home LAN so a wireless tablet app can be use for browsing and any maintenance. This solution presupposes a server box in the music room, so the box is "hardened" for that experience (silent running, nice front display, heavy duty build quality).
I am using the wonderful Aurender X100L for this category.
This category is an amalgamation of DIY efforts to tweak and improve upon Chris Connaker's CAPS
V3 designs. Call it DIY tweaking for it is not really about building one's own pc but instead about how far one can take the existing Windows CAPS
V3 design by using cabling, optimizations and software tools to eek out a few more percent goodness. I will try and do one more thing that, up till now, I haven't done with this system...that is, add up the costs of the pieces parts. Forget adding up the hours!
The net/net here is about the highest level of care and feeding, and does that equate to any risk/reward payback sonically, especially given the other two categories clear successes.
I am using a dual CAPS
setup here, using JPlay and JRiver software on two Windows Server 2012 machines, one a smaller Caps
Lagoon, one a larger CAPS
It is important to spell out what my current setup mess is comprised of when doing these comparisons. In all three cases I am using a Synology NAS
to store my permanent music library ( a subset of it has been moved to the Aurender internally, but Aurender can also access the NAS
via the network, if needed). Minimserver (DLNA
server software) is running on the Synology. My JRiver installation on my CAPS
Lagoon doubles as the music library player software for category 3 and as a secondary DLNA
server for category 1.
My music room is connected to my router (home office) via an 8 port D-Link switch. Off that switch are my NAS
(home office, wired through wall), CAPS
Lagoon and Aurender. The Aries is connected wirlessly (although a wire is available for comaprison). The switch uses a $30 linear ps from Jameco. LAN cabling from the switch is either Audioquest (Caps
Lagoon and Aurender) or generic Cat 6 (NAS
Enough about my stuff....in my next installment I will describe my experiences with Category One and specifically the Auralic Aries.