Computer Audiophile Pocket Server C.A.P.S. v3 Topanga
The first of four CAPS v3 designs to be published is called Topanga. This is the lowest cost and easiest to assemble CAPS server ever designed. Low cost doesn't equate to low quality components and poor performance. Properly configured Topanga is capable of great sound quality and providing a great user interface for computer audiophiles. I didn't skimp on any part of this design. The key was research and selection of the right components for the job, not the cheapest or the most popular. This server will appeal to several readers in that it's a great entry into computer audio for the uninitiated, it's a simple bit perfect server for the objectivists who believe bits are bits, it's a great UPnP/DLNA server for all the network audio aficionados, and it can be upgraded to a CAPS v3 Lagoon or even Carbon without replacing all the components. It has been about eighteen months since the previous design was revealed. The wait is finally over. As Mills Lane and Marvin Gaye would say let's get it on.[PRBREAK][/PRBREAK]
For an introduction to the CAPS v3 server designs please read the article linked here .
Motherboard - Intel DN2800MT Marshalltown Mini-ITX
This motherboard is the successor to the board used in CAPS v1. After comparing nearly all available motherboards and considering the CAPS requirements the DN2800MT was the last board standing. This motherboard has a lot going for it including low power, low profile, no fan, and external DC power input among other items. I'm a firm believer in using as little power as possible, within reason, to accomplish a task. The key is finding a balance between low power and features. The DN2800MT has a Thermal Design Power (TDP) of only 8 watts. CAPS v1 had a TDP of 11.8 while CAPS v2 had a TDP of 13 watts. TDP is the maximum amount of power the computer's cooling system is required to dissipate. Many CPUs today have a TDP around 65 watts and can range from 17 watts for mobile CPUs to 130 watts for a powerful desktop CPU. Keep in mind that's only the CPU, not the CPU / motherboard combination like the Intel DN2800MT. The DN2800MT features a 1.86 GHz dual core Atom N2800 CPU (6.5 watt TDP). This processor has plenty of power for most music servers designed to output bit perfect audio. Using room correction or an add-on application like JPlay will likely require a much faster processor.
A newer feature to the CAPS servers is the mSATA slot. Versions 1 and 2 were designed before any motherboard feature this technology. Traditional boards have standard SATA I/II/III ports that connect a spinning hard drive or solid state drive to the board via a SATA cable. mSATA drives are much more like computer memory in size and appearance. These drives are solid state and fit directly into the motherboard without any cables. Part of CAPS v3 Topanga's design simplicity revolves around using an mSATA drive that also cleans up the look of the computer inside because it doesn't require cables for neither power nor data. I believe small design decisions like this will add up to make Topanga assembly easy for even the most unlearned computer audiophile. Using an mSATA drive also leaves standard SATA ports available for music storage should a user want that option.
The DN2800MT will likely be in production until the end of 2014. After that availability will be curtailed but readers should be able to find them online if needed. I prefer to use motherboards with extended life cycles when possible. This specific board isn't listed as part of Intel's Extended Life Program, but two years of remaining production and limited availability after that should get us to the next CAPS design.
A frequent request from CA readers is an HDMI port on the CAPS servers. The DN280MT offers both HDMI and old school analog VGA ports. The onboard graphics are nothing to treasure but should be fine for displaying one's music library via JRiver Media Center. I haven't tried video playback as that is outside the scope of the CAPS designs. This is one area the CA community can help each other by testing video playback and reporting successes or failures.
This motherboard features both standard and high current USB 2.0 ports. Sticking with my lower power philosophy I used the standard USB ports for testing playback. I had no issues with these ports. Lack of USB 3.0 ports may be disappointing to some, but I don't think it's a showstopper. If connecting USB DAC to Topanga one should consider avoiding USB hard drives due to how the USB protocol operates. This issue may be alleviated some by separate USB 3.0 and 2.0 motherboard bus lanes and controllers but that doesn't change the USB protocol. USB relies on a host processor to manage the low level protocol. This can load the host CPU with interrupts and buffer copies. A long way of saying why I don't think built-in USB 3.0 ports would enhance CAPS v3 Topanga. Plus, I don't believe the pros of selecting another motherboard with USB 3.0 outweigh the cons.
This raises the question of how should users store their music collections if the internal hard drive is too small? I recommend two methods. I use a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive. ALl my music is stored on the network and accessible to any network attached device in my house. On the Topanga server a mapped drive such as M: can point to the NAS and JRiver can be configured to watch the M: drive for library changes. The other music storage method on this server can be eSATA. How is this done without an eSATA port? Connect an internal SATA to eSATA cable to the black SATA port on the motherboard and run the eSATA end through the horizontal opening in the motherboard's backplate. When running this cable make sure to go from outside to inside as the eSATA connector is often too large to fit through the backplate opening. Also, avoid the internal gray colored SATA port as it's shared with the mSATA slot. All internal SATA slots and mSATA slot run at SATA II speeds of 3 Gb/sec.
Sticking with USB readers will notice I don't connect the front panel USB ports to an internal USB header. The reasons for this are twofold. One I wouldn't use these ports for anything even if I only had one USB device. Two leaving these ports unconnected removes an internal cable from the PC design. Tidiness is important to me even on the inside of a computer where nobody looks.
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Storage - Mushkin Atlas mSATA 60GB Solid State Drive (MKNSSDAT60GB-DX)
The current selection of mSATA drives is very limited compared to spinning or 2.5" SSD drives. I selected the Mushkin Atlas drive based on its specs and weeks of testing. Specs alone aren't enough. The Atlas drives are available in 60, 120, and 240 GB sizes. I recommend the 60GB version as it's large enough for the operating system and applications. If one's entire music library can be squeezes on to the 240GB version I highly recommend spending the extra money. Most of us need much larger drives for music storage. Purchasing the larger than 60Gb drives would leave unused GBs and increase cost without reasonable justification. This mSATA drive has a Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) of 2 million hours. Not long ago drives with this kind of MTBF were several hundred dollars and only available in the enterprise SLC drives. The Mushkin Atlas series is MLC drives only. The Atlas drive supports trim like most solid state drives. Trim is a command run by the operating system that identifies unused blocks of data the drive can delete. This helps avoid severe performance degradation down the road. The Mushkin Atlas series of mSATA drives use the SandForce (recently acquired by LSI) 2281 controller. SandForce has been in the SSD controller market for a long time and is highly respected. The drive has impressive numbers for read (up to 555MB/sec) and write (up to 505MB/sec) with IOPS topping out at 80,000. Astute readers will probably wonder why I selected a drive with SATA III 6 Gb/sec speed even though the motherboard only supports SATA II at 3 Gb/sec. I prefer to use this drive because it's hundreds of MB/sec faster than the competition even at SATA II speeds and it can be used in the future if paired with a SATA III 6 Gb/sec capable motherboard.
Random Access Memory (RAM) - Mushkin Enhanced Essentials 4 GB (991644)
I suspect the main item readers will want to know about the memory selection is why 4GB rather than the brand and specific modules. I'll get the later out of the way first. I selected the Mushkin memory because it's readily available, has worked very well for me, and meets the RAM requirements of DDR3 800/1066 SO-DIMM. One additional item in this category is my selection of a single 4GB module rather than two 2GB modules. I did this because the modules are 1.5v each. Doubling the power requirement for the same amount of memory doesn't make sense. Also, I could not locate readily available RAM modules with low voltage of 1.35v. Thus, a single 1.5v module was selected. Why 4GB when many readers are using 8, 12, and 16GB? According to Intel the DN2800MT motherboard only supports up to 4GB of RAM. I know a few readers have placed more memory on this board successfully, but for this music server I don't know if the pros outweigh the cons. My hunch is that 4GB is plenty of RAM in Topanga. Related to the selection of 4GB of RAM is the fact that Intel's Cedar Trail platform (DN2800MT) doesn't support 64-bit or DirectX 10.1 Graphics Drivers. A major benefit of 64-bit is the capability to use more than 4GB of memory. Without full 64-bit software support Topanga runs on a 32-bit operating system. The maximum amount of memory in this 32-bit OS is 4GB.
Power Supply - Seasonic SSA-0601D-12
Selecting a power supply for the CAPS v3 Topanga server involved a bit of research into the energy efficiency standards and finding a balance between efficiency, quality, and cost. I have no doubt a music server's power supply can have a great impact on a high end audio system. I the CAPS v3 Lagoon and Carbon models I'll detail my findings and recommend a terrific but not inexpensive PSU upgrade. The Topanga server doesn't require a lot of power. Thus I selected a readily available 60 watt PSU. In my tests this server maxed out at below 25 watts! The Seasonic SSA-0601D-12 is a 12v 5A DC adapter with reduced idle power draw. It complies with Energy Star 2.0, CEC level V the highest level currently in use (>87% efficiency), and Eup Lot 7. I've used this supply for months without any issues and highly recommend it to CA readers.
PC Case - LGX MC500 Compact Mini-ITX Case
The LGX MC500 case didn't impress me at first with its unassuming appearance. Once I took delivery of the case I quickly changed my mind. It looks much better in person than online. It's black unobtrusive design somewhat disappears in one's audio system. I like that the case has no front LED lighting indicating either hard drive activity or power status. Computer audiophiles don't need to see if the hard drive is being accessed and with a little education can identify if the server is on or off by looking at the Ethernet port. When Topanga is turned off the Ethernet port, if connected, will have a single green light blinking. When the server is on and connected to a Gigabit switch the lights will blink both green and amber. If the computer had a sound one would know instantly if it was on, but the silence of Topanga requires this little peek in the back for confirmation it power state.
More important than the appearance of this case is its versatility and ability to meet CAPS requirements including a fairly inexpensive price tag. The case is designed for only mini-ITX motherboards. I like that because there is no extra space when it's not needed. The CAPS v3 Carbon design has extra space but there's a reason for that space. Logic Supply states a single 2.5" hard drive can be placed in this case. In my testing I easily placed two 2.5" drives in the case even though none of these drives are used in the Topanga design. Using two 2.5" drives could enable readers to customize this server design and fit a nice sized music collection on internal drives. The LGX MC500 is delivered with one fan attached to the chassis. This fan is easily removed to satisfy the CAPS fanless design requirement.
The LGX MC500 is also used in the CAPS v3 Lagoon design. Readers will see how easily a couple items swapped in and out can elevate this server into a different class.
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Assembling CAPS v3 Topanga In Under 3 Minutes
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Operating System - Windows 8 Pro 32-bit
The operating system for all the CAPS v3 designs is Microsoft Windows 8 Pro. Topanga, Lagoon, and Carbon run on the 32-bit OS and Zuma runs on the 64-bit version. Three main questions to be answered with this selection are 1. Why 32-bit over 64-bit? 2. Why Windows 8 over Windows 7 or Linux. 3. Why the Pro version over the standard Windows 8 version?
1. Why 32-bit over 64-bit?
CAPS v1 is 32-bit, CAPS v2 is 64-bit, and CAPS v3 is both 32 and 64 bit depending on the design. A simple answer is you don't bring a knife to a gun fight. In other words use the right tool for the job. As previously mentioned the the "Intel the DN2800MT motherboard only supports up to 4GB of RAM and Intel's Cedar Trail platform doesn't support 64-bit or DirectX 10.1 Graphics Drivers." When designing the CAPS servers I select the hardware before a specific version of the operating system. Reversing these selections leads to decisions based less on needed features and more on specifications.
2. Why Windows 8 over Windows 7 or Linux.
One major reason I selected Windows 8 over Windows 7 is longevity. I know both operating systems will be supported after CAPS v4 is released however I want users of a CAPS v3 system to have support for as long as possible. According to Microsoft the End of mainstream support for Windows 7 is January 12, 2015. Around two years from now the third party vendors will also stop supporting Windows 7 as they typically follow Microsoft's lead.
I can't say that either Windows 7 or Windows 8 is sonically better than the other. The audio portion of the Windows 8 operating system is unchanged as far as I can tell. I'm sure there are some minor changes but I haven't seen any that really matter. Windows 8 RT is another story but that's for tablets using an ARM processor. Windows 8 still supports low level audio access and exclusive mode for low latency and bit perfect output. WASAPI (Windows Audio Session Application Programing Interface) is still in Windows 8 as it was in Windows Vista and Windows 7. Audio output modes WASAPI and WASAPI - Event Style work just fine in JRiver Media Center on Windows 8.
Windows 8 also has native driver support for USB 3.0 chipsets including the TI chipset on the SOtM tX-USBexp PCIe card. This card isn't part of the CAPS v3 Topanga design but is a critical part of the other three designs. I don't see a benefit to recommending Windows 7 for Topanga and Windows 8 for Lagoon, Carbon, and Zuma just because Topanga doesn't use USB 3.0. This USB 3.0 native driver support is a must for good performance with the SOtM card.
All Windows 7 USB DAC drivers I've tried on Windows 8 have worked without issue once installed. The installation can require Compatibility Mode on the 32-bit version of Windows. This is a simple check box to click and the installation will work without a hitch. DACs that don't require driver installation such as the AudioQuest DragonFly also work perfect on the CAPS v3 servers. It has been reported by several CA readers that the DragonFly has issues with Windows 8 and AudioQuest mentions this issue on its website. I've tried several configurations to cause an issue with the DragonFly and I can't make it stutter, pop, or click on playback.
One additional item that may be important to some readers is Windows 8's touch capability. Readers who use JRiver Media Center in Theater View with a nice touch enabled screen like the Dell S2340T 23" multi-touch monitor will benefit nicely from Windows 8's built from the ground-up touch support.
I selected the Windows operating system over a Linux based solution for two reasons. First I still don't believe Linux is easy for an end user without Linux experience. I've tried many solutions and always found issues that would stop the unlearned from enjoying a music server rather than learning a new language. I haven't found a Linux distribution that supports easy click & learn navigation. By that I mean enabling users to click around and figure things out on their own. Without Linux knowledge it just ain't gonna happen. Readers shouldn't take this as a dislike for Linux. Rather it's part of selecting the right tool for the job. The second reason I selected Windows over a Linux distribution is the new initiative to get the CA Community involved in CAPS designs. I believe a Linux based CAPS server will be much more successful if lead by a group of dedicated CA readers to perfect and address some of the issues other readers may have with the OS. The customizability of Linux lends itself to endless possibilities for CA readers. If someone can think of it, it can be done. Linux is only limited by one's imagination. As a group the CA Community can likely take a Linux based CAPS design to an incredibly high level. I would love to recommend a specific Linux ISO image for CA readers to install on CAPS v3 hardware. I know a few readers have been working on Linux based projects and those projects are great places to start.
3. Why the Pro version over the standard Windows 8 version?
This one is simple. Windows 8 Pro support Remote Desktop, using its built-in RDP capability, from both Mac OS X and another Windows computer. There is no need for third party solutions running in the background. I've used Windows RDP for years as the main connection method to my music servers when I need to view the whole desktop. It works every time, it works well, and it's free. The standard version of Windows 8 doesn't support RDP using the Remote Desktop Client.
Windows 8 Pro Customization
This article is mainly about hardware and software selection. It will be much more effective for me to write a specific Windows 8 article addressing tweaks and OS customizations at a later date. Plus, the CA Community has already started tweaking Windows 8 and discussing it in the Forum. I will use those discussions and the assistance from the Community when publishing a Windows 8 music server guide.
Playback Software - JRiver Media Center 18
The selection of JRMC as the playback software for all CAPS v3 designs should come as no surprise to CA readers. I haven't' seen a better playback, library management, and remote controllable application to date. In addition to the application's superiority over the competition the JRiver team has been terrific over the years supporting even the smallest of audiophile requests such as native DSD playback. For more details as to why I prefer JRMC over everything else please read the following article -> Link .
JRiver has a Benchmarking feature that runs computers through Math, Image, and Database tests. The CAPS v3 Topanga server produced the following scores.
Running 'Math' benchmark... Score: 438
Running 'Image' benchmark... Score: 564
Running 'Database' benchmark... Score: 723
JRMark (version 18.0.81): 575
I didn't recommend a remote control application for JRiver in the CAPS v3 designs. There are a few available ranging in price from free to about $10-15. Readers unfamiliar with the options should consider JRiver's own Gizmo if using an Android device or JRemote is using an iPad/iPhone/iTouch.
That's the Computer Audiophile Pocket Server CAPS v3 Topanga. The server is absolutely silent, capable of great sound, great/good looking, has no moving parts, fairly inexpensive, has no legacy components, is easy to operate, easy to assemble / install, small in size, consumes low power, produces low heat, accepts PCIe card is necessary, and plays all pertinent sample rates from 44.1 kHz through 192 kHz and DSD. That's the entire CAPS requirement list from version 1 of the server through v3. Readers interested in squeezing more sonic performance from a CAPS v3 design should consider the CAPS v3 Lagoon, Carbon, and Zuma servers.
Where to buy retail: Small Green Computer
Where to buy components:
CAPS v3 Topanga - Total Price: $493
Case: LGX MC500 Price: $65.00 Link
Motherboard: Intel DN2800MT Price: $110.00 Link
Memory: DDR3 4GB RAM (991644) Price: $19.00 Link
SSD: MKNSSDAT60GB-DX Price: $84.00 Link
Power Supply: 60W, 12V (PW-12V5A-L5) Price: $25.00 Link
OS: Win 8 Pro 32-bit Price: $140.00Link
Playback App: JRMC v18 Price: $50.00 Link
Edited by The Computer Audiophile0