• Serving Up Audio today - Three real world examples (Intro)

    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;
    2) our own hearing limitations;
    3) our own listening preferences;
    4) our system make-up as a whole (i.e cake recipe vs cake) and finally,
    5) 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 ):

    Category One:

    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.

    Category Two:

    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.

    Category Three:

    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 Zuma.

    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, spare).

    Enough about my stuff....in my next installment I will describe my experiences with Category One and specifically the Auralic Aries.

    Ted Brady

    CA Profile

    Comments 28 Comments
    1. firedog's Avatar
      firedog -

      Good Intro. Can't wait for the next installment.
    1. REShaman's Avatar
      REShaman -
      Dear Ted,

      Thank you for installment one and for helping me understand a region of this hobby I have avoided for some time in part because I did (do) not understand the sum of the parts that make the Whole System. My present system (hardware/software) is good enough (my two-word singular perspective for enjoying the music). Yet I am eager to understand, and, if possible, appreciate other solutions. Your presentment is making it easier for me to comprehend what the sum of the parts are. Hence my appreciation for the information. Actually hearing what is delivered through these various solutions is an experience I may want to make happen, if only as a spectator.

      With appreciation,
    1. tranz's Avatar
      tranz -
      Thank you Ted!

      Your time invested and sharing is much appreciated.

      Are you using a linear PSU on the NAS?

      Are you using a LAN isolator (e.g. EMO, Acoustic Revive)?

    1. DaQi's Avatar
      DaQi -
      Looking forward to next installments as you have wetted my interest on this as I have been dabbling and wish to learn more.
    1. Typhorn's Avatar
      Typhorn -
      Dear Ted,

      Just to mention, the AURENDER (I have the S10 model) has also streaming capabilities: for example online music streaming with the mandatory iPad through Airplay or stored music streaming from a computer over Lan and iTunes.

      I currently listen to my system that way because of a hardly acceptable iOS 8 compatibility issue. This incident not yet solved by Aurender and Apple highlights a new type of problem that a non-specialist user can encounter due to an imposed reliance on external providers. I am keen to read your experience and opinion about such side-effects in the parts of your article to come.
    1. Vinh's Avatar
      Vinh -
      Sounds like answer to the questions I wanted to ask many times! Just looking forward to reading this as comparative reviews are just what is really expected from less experienced readers. Ordinary users do not have time nor possibility to compare. But what about Chord Hugo review you promised to publish long time ago? When this is due? Are you going to publish it?
    1. krass's Avatar
      krass -
      Ted B thank you !
      just today I posted elsewhere (DevialetChat) asking about X100 and Aries.......
      good timing that man
    1. jhwalker's Avatar
      jhwalker -
      On a personal note . . . you're not the only one who had an issue after what was supposed to be a "routine" 'scope.

      I was on a cane for a year, and still walk with discomfort four years later. As your doctor says, it all depends on the individual - my surgeon basically had to remove all of my meniscus, so there's just not much cushion left :/

      Hoping for a better outcome for you
    1. Ajax's Avatar
      Ajax -
      Hi Ted,

      Like most I am seeking a hassle free high quality digital play back system for my family who just want to listen to music without the fuss... so your reviews are timely.

      With regard to your knee IMO the major factor in recovery is your age as attested to by my 15 year old son who is currently attending a school known as "Timbertop". It's a special year based on the outward bound program and is located in the Australian Alps (OK hills), where 220 kids live together in units of 14. Along with normal schoolwork there is a weekly diet of outdoor activities including hiking, long distance running, canoeing, skiing (winter) etc. It teaches life skills such as resilience, leadership, teamwork etc. etc.

      There are 4 terms and my son broke his foot at the beginning of the 2nd term (playing the fool) and after 5 weeks in a cast, followed by 5 weeks of rehabilitation, he was as good as new. He then fell over on ice in a car park and dislodged some cartilage in his knee. After an MRI scan the surgeon decided it needed to be removed.

      After another 5 weeks of rehabilitation he is now home for the holidays and I asked him to go for a run yesterday to start re-building his fitness in preparation for the last term and hopefully salvage something from the year after missing two terms of activities including the skiing.

      He ran 5km and on return I nervously asked him how the knee was. He looked at me kind of strange - "its fine". Is it swelling at all? "No". How's the foot - "no problem". "Stop stressing Dad I'm fine".
    1. fabiodeluca's Avatar
      fabiodeluca -
      Great, Ted!..... The courage to compare...this is what we ask for...eagerly waiting for next installment
    1. Jon L's Avatar
      Jon L -
      Things are so much more complicated due to different servers and DAC's implementing wide-ranging quality of USB and spdif modes. As maligned as traditional CD audiophile transports are, IMO it is still very difficult to beat a good CD transport, especially if some sort of I2S implementation is used.

      The way this intro article is set up, with the dual-CAPS/Win Server 2012/JCAT listed last, I am afraid it might be the winner overall, which would be unfortunate because the total costs (hardware, software-darn Win Server 2012) and man-hour needed is out of reach for most normal human beings
    1. Ben-M's Avatar
      Ben-M -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jon L View Post
      The way this intro article is set up, with the dual-CAPS/Win Server 2012/JCAT listed last, I am afraid it might be the winner overall, which would be unfortunate because the total costs (hardware, software-darn Win Server 2012) and man-hour needed is out of reach for most normal human beings
      Ted said from the beginning though that all 3 represent top tier approaches. Even if one does turn out better, it's not like the others are last place.

      As for cost, even the Aries is already pricy, and the Aurender even more so. Put that with having to connect them to a NAS(+$), a DAC(+$), an amp(+$), and speakers/headphones(+$), and that's besides room treatment and an array of many, many other possibilities, and you can see right away that this is a pricy thing to get involved with anyway. I think the only way to avoid that is to get a Peachtree or PS-Audio/Sprout + speakers/headphones.

      As long as you take this in increments it's doable. The DualPC Jplay approach can start as a single PC with just windows and you can add in from there. That's exactly how I started out and I've just tacked on pieces little by little. I don't make huge paycheques right now, but I haven't felt the heat too much. I'm to the point now where I've opened a Group Buy on here for an all Linear ATX PSU to hopefully take mine and anyone else who's interested's Single & DualPC setup to the next sonic level.

      The thing is, there's no set take on the DIY approach; though there seem to be some best practices. You can start with better software or hardware, it's your call. Even the setup that Ted will list will just be his own flavour, and it'll be different than mine.

      Anyway, I'm just trying to say it's doable and listenable all along the way :-)
    1. Jon L's Avatar
      Jon L -
      For me, the biggest reason I have stuck with computer audio is the instantaneous and easy access to ALL my music at my fingertips, largely due to numerous Foobar 0.8.3. playlists I have made over MANY years. I cannot give this up, which is the reason I abandoned the whole CPlay thing. Win 2012 server with AO in core mode destroys the very reason I am in computer audio; I might as well break out my old CD jewel cases and pop them in one at a time. I will make do with Foobar 0.8.3 with Jplay on Win 8.1 for now with all the easy access intact via playlists.

      I also stopped adding up my computer front-end costs (software, hardware, linear power supply, battery PS, etc) because it has gotten huge, probably rivalling the ultra high-end transport/DAC combinations of yesteryear (Spectral, Levinson, Krell, etc).
    1. ErikM's Avatar
      ErikM -
      I really hope you can give these units a through investigation. I mention this because at least with the Aries there are numerous choices. Wired or wireless
      (Auralic seems to think wireless is better? ) Server software.. Minimserver, or Audio Station or Jriver.. Then we have USB, Coax, AES, and Toslink.. Seems that lots of folks listening to and commenting on the Aries are using USB.. I'm not so sure that's always the best choice for SQ.. and I imagine that the choice of output will depend on the Dac.. likely some Dac's will sound better with one or another.

      As far as the Aurender goes it only has USB so that makes it a bit simpler to configure. And the Caps is another kettle of fish, one I'm not all too interested in.

      Anyway I'm really interested in your findings, I'm on the fence about what direction to go since go the Aries and the X100 both have pluses and minuses.
    1. krass's Avatar
      krass -
      very interested to know if you have a timetable for releasing parts 2 etc Ted ?
    1. Birddogthecat's Avatar
      Birddogthecat -
      It is my understanding that the the Aries cannot stream DSD (on its own) via USB until a new firmware is released within the next 60 days or so. Is this true?
    1. firedog's Avatar
      firedog -
      Quote Originally Posted by Birddogthecat View Post
      It is my understanding that the the Aries cannot stream DSD (on its own) via USB until a new firmware is released within the next 60 days or so. Is this true?
      Not sure quite what you mean, but the Aries is designed to play DSD over USB. Will play it.
    1. miguelito's Avatar
      miguelito -
      Quote Originally Posted by firedog View Post
      Not sure quite what you mean, but the Aries is designed to play DSD over USB. Will play it.
      Will it play it without conversion to PCM? That is, if a DSD-capable DAC is connected (over DoP).
    1. Birddogthecat's Avatar
      Birddogthecat -
      I spoke with USA importer and was told that the following configuration will not work for DSD at this point in time until new FW that is to be released in the very near future:

      External HD>Aries (USB in)>Aries (USB out)>DirectStream (USB in).

      I am staffing at RMAF and plan to chat him up during the show.
    1. firedog's Avatar
      firedog -
      Guys, you are talking about 2 different things here. Yes the Aries will play USB without conversion (DOP mode, which isn't conversion) over USB to a DAC designed to accept it, if that DAC is compatible with the Aries. Presently that means the DAC needs to be driverless in order to be compatible with the Aries.

      Mr Wang of Auralic has written on one of the Aries threads here that they are going to add support for a few other devices, such as the Mytek 192 DSD DAC and the old M2Tech hardware that need drivers. Then those will work over USB also.

      The external USB HD is a separate issue - that capability will be added in one of the firmware updates in the near future. At present, the Aries won't work with any external USB HD, just with a NAS or external server of some kind over a network. Nothing to do with DSD or PCM playback in per se.

      The Aries has 2 USB ports: one is for sending playback output from the Aries to a DAC - that presently works with the right DACs. The other is for connection of an external USB HD instead a server connected over the network. That's for file transfer from the external USB HD storage to the Aries. In other words, doing the same job that a server (storage) connected over the network does at present. That external USB HD function doesn't work at the moment - for any format - with the present firmware. Not until the previously mentioned update takes place.