|High-Resolution Computer Audio: You Can Do It!
Dr. David W. Robinson
Editor-in-Chief, Positive Feedback Online
The New Wave: Computer-Based Music
There’s no doubt about it now: computer-based audio is here to stay. Its combination of compactness, portability, ease of handling and organization, lack of media wear, and remarkable resolution have made it a growing option for people all over the world. More than that, it is growing in popularity and in the quality of the music that it can provide to audiophiles and music lovers.
The advent of Apple’s iTunes system brought a new model of music distribution into being; now high-end alternatives like Super Hi-Rez demonstrate the power of computer-based audio at the highest levels of quality. You can now easily download music files of extraordinary excellence to your computer or music server, and have audio at a level that could only be dreamed about just a few years ago. It’s all possible now!
Complete audio solutions for Windows-based PCs, the Apple Mac, and Linux-based computing now exist. In this discussion, we’re going to concentrate on Windows and Apple computers, since this is what most audio users will be using. The idea is to help those audiophiles and music lovers who may not be very comfortable with computers and related technology. We’re going to give you as simple a sheet for getting up to speed as possible.
Remember: you can do this! In fact, if you think about it, setting up a turntable, and mounting and adjusting a cartridge correctly are extremely complex tasks. In some ways, putting together a computer-based audio system is easier than that, we’re glad to say!
We’ll help you to get there…and you are going to love the results!
"So…how do I do it?"
If you’re new to this, there are several things that you’re going to need to have to make computer-based audio work:
Naturally, you’ll also need to have some sort of music system or headphones on hand to play the music being produced.
Let’s take each one of these in turn.
You can spend a lot of time and money on a computer-based playback system, but it isn’t necessary to do so. Given the power and capabilities of many recent computer designs, you can get the job done with much of what’s out there already. The great thing about computers these days is that you can purchase a lot of horsepower and capacity for quite reasonable sums of money…and you may well have what it takes already!
Regardless of what type of computer you choose, one factor right up front is whether or not you intend to use this computer solely for audio, or if you will be doing other things on it as well (e.g., word processing, email, spreadsheets, Web browsing, and so on). Generally speaking, if you dedicate a computer for audio only, you may be able to use one that is somewhat less powerful. A mixed-use computer will almost certainly have to be more powerful, in order to handle the larger set of demands that you are placing upon it. We’ll keep this in mind as we continue.
You can use a Windows-based PC as one option for computer-based audio. A PC with Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows Home Server, Windows 7, and Windows 8 should all provide what you need for successful audio operation.
On the hardware side, you should plan on the following as a minimum requirement for solid audio playback:
Naturally, as with all things computer related, more is better! If you have it, or can afford it, this is the preferred set of specifications for computer hardware:
When it comes to desktop computers vs. notebook computers and computer-based audio, it’s generally better to use desktop computers if possible in your setting, since they are more powerful, more configurable, and do not have the compromises for size and battery life. Computer-based audio can be sensitive to the sorts of power management and data transmission compromises that are common on notebook computers. Unless portability is a major consideration, you’ll want to give serious consideration to the more robust desktop alternative.
For Apple computers, there are a handful of good options, in both desktop and notebook computers. Desktop alternatives include the Mac Mini, the iMac, and the Mac Pro. In each case, you’ll want to make sure that you have at least 8 GB of RAM (and more is better, as usual). We recommend 2.5 GHz or more for your CPU speed, as well as all the internal hard disk drive that you can afford. Once again, you’ll be able to add more hard disk space via USB 2.0 later, so don’t worry about internal hard disk storage limitations. Note that, as with Windows PCs, it’s generally better to use desktop computers for audio, since they are more powerful, more configurable, and do not have the compromises for size and battery life mentioned earlier.
For those with Apple notebooks, it is recommended that you use the Macbook Pros with Core i5 or i7 processors. At least 8 GB of RAM should be used for the best audio performance, but if you can afford it, bump that up to 16 GB of RAM. That will give you plenty of elbow room for your music files to play smoothly.
Those desiring a more thorough tutorial on Apple for computer-based audio can check out Dr. Rob Robinson’s excellent discussion at Channel D; see http://www.channld.com/computeraudio.html.
Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC)
Simply put, a DAC is a device that converts digital signals to analog ones. In this case, it is what turns digital music signals to analog ones, so that your recordings can be played back though your audio system/headphones. DACs have been around in high-end audio for many years now, but have become quite powerful over the past few years. They are now capable of handling extremely high-resolution music without a problem, given the solutions now available to us.
DACs can handle music files that are in two main formats.
The first format is called PCM, which stands for "Pulse Code Modulation." This is a method of translating musical signals into blocks of digital data (zeros and ones) at various clock rates. You don’t need to understand more than that, really, since your computer-based audio system will handle all of this for you.
The second format is called DSD, which stands for "Direct Stream Digital." This method of translating musical signals into digital data handles the zeroes and ones one-at-a-time, at a much higher clock rate than PCM. Again, you don’t really need to understand more than that at this point; if you have a DSD-capable DAC, it will figure this out for you.
Both formats can produce very fine, and even exceptional results. While PCM has been well-established in the past, DSD is now coming on very strongly as a major alternative, with sonic quality that is exceptionally impressive.
The good news is that you don’t have to choose between these two alternatives! Nowadays, there are very many DACs that can handle both PCM and DSD. You can find some of these for sale at places like Acoustic Sounds (https://store.acousticsounds.com/c/133/D/A_Converter_or_Processor), as well as other online distributors and audio outlets. You can also find a list of DSD-capable DACs at sites like Positive Feedback Online (http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue66/dsd_dacs.htm and http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue67/dsd.htm) and Audiostream.com (http://www.audiostream.com/content/ever-expanding-dsd-dac-list). There are DACs that handle both DSD and PCM by the dozens, and at price points ranging from $799.00 and upwards. If you have questions about what the most suitable DSD and PCM DAC would be for your needs, please consult the specialists here at Acoustic Sounds, or your favorite audio distributor or store.
Given the presence of both PCM and DSD music, and the reasonable prices of so many of the DACs that can handle both formats, it’s undoubtedly best to choose a DAC that can do both formats. You’ll be pleased with the results, and won’t suffer the frustrations of missing out on that terrific recording because your DAC can’t handle it.
A Side Note About USB 2.0…
One thing that the new generation of super high-resolution digital music has in common is that USB 2.0 is the pipeline for the tunes. If you’re an experienced computer-jockey, you probably know all about USB 2.0. It’s been around for many years now, and is on just about all computers made.
If you’re new to computers, then all you need to know is that it is a port for plugging in a cable that will handle your music data on its way from your computer to your DAC. It will also be an excellent way to plug in external USB 2.0 hard disks, so that you can store your music files in multiple external storage units. The correct USB 2.0 port on your computer should be marked with a logo that looks like this:
USB 2.0 has been adopted by all DSD-capable DAC manufacturers as the supported method of cabling. Since it is available on nearly all computers manufactured over the past 5-10 years, you should have at least a couple of open USB 2.0 ports. You’ll plug a USB cable into your computer, and the other end of the cable into the USB 2.0 port on your DAC. Make sure that you don’t plug the cable into your computer, however, until you’ve read the instructions for your DAC. Quite often, you have to load software onto your computer before you make that connection.
Caution: There are two types of USB ports to avoid for high-resolution audio.
If you are using a newer computer, you may have one or two USB 3.0 ports. If so, they will be marked with a logo that looks like this:
Do NOT use a USB 3.0 port for your DAC, since there are compatibility issues with those ports. Make sure that you only use USB 2.0.
If you are using an older computer (older than 6-7 years, for example), you may even have some USB 1.1 ports. Do NOT use a USB 1.1 port, as it is too slow for high-resolution digital music.
If in doubt, check the documentation for your computer.
Just be sure to use USB 2.0 only.
About USB 2.0 Cables
Some DACs may supply the USB 2.0 cable that you need, but others may require that you purchase one. You’ll need to make sure that you purchase a USB 2.0 cable that has the right male connectors at each end. Usually this will be what is called a USB 2.0 A-B cable ("A" connector at one end, and "B" connector at the other). It will look like this (image courtesy of Positive Feedback Online):
The squarish end of the above is the "B" connector; the rectangular connector immediately above is the "A" connector. A cable like this will cover most…but not all…cases.
Your DAC may have what is called a "USB 2.0 mini" connector for the DAC end. If so, the port will be much smaller than the "B" connector above, and will need a cable that is USB 2.0 A connector to mini USB connector. It will look like this (image courtesy of Positive Feedback Online):
You can see that the connector to the right is much smaller and rectangular.
The main thing is to get the right connectors on either end of your USB 2.0 cable. If the correct cable isn’t supplied with your DAC, then check the USB port on your DAC, and purchase a cable that matches. If in doubt, check with the DAC manufacturer for the proper cable type.
By the way, it is our experience that cables do make a difference!
You can certainly use a generic USB 2.0 cable, but you’ll likely find that audiophile-quality USB 2.0 cables will improve the sound of your playback. Many fine audiophile cable makers are producing excellent USB cables for computer-based audio; check with your preferred source for a USB cable in your price range.
Music Software – Windows PC
The third component that you’ll need in your computer-based audio system will be the software on your computer that will play your music files. This is the computer application that will translate your computer files into signals that your DAC will then convert into analog for your audio system.
JRiver’s Media Center 18 (image courtesy of Positive Feedback Online)
You can do research to choose high-resolution audio software; Super Hi-Res makes no statement of preference of one software package over another. One major alternative on the Windows PC side of things is JRiver’s Media Center (http://jriver.com/audio.html). This is a very complete application that can handle both DSD and PCM files of all current resolutions. The file can be downloaded from the JRiver Web site link listed above. The trial period is free; after the trial, you can purchase a license for the price listed at their site. Currently, the cost is $49.95, which is quite reasonable given the capabilities of the software.
Media Center downloads and installs like all Windows software: read the instructions, click on the link, and run the installation procedure on your Windows-based PC. The installation will place all of the software and drivers necessary for your computer to be able to send high-resolution audio files through the computer’s USB 2.0 port to your DAC.
Once installed, configuring the software for a given DAC will depend on the particular DAC that you’ve chosen. Many DAC manufacturers have specific information for the major playback software packages like Media Center, which makes the task easier.
There are several different ways to setup Media Center for DSD and PCM playback, depending on the way that the DAC has been designed. Since this can vary, you’ll have to read the documentation that comes with your DAC, and follow the instructions from Media Center. Experience is that the setup of the software and the DAC is generally pretty straightforward, but when in doubt, check with the application company and the DAC manufacturer.
Music Software – Apple Mac
Channel D’s Pure Music computer audio system for Apple computers (image courtesy of Channel D)
On the Apple side of the ledger, just as with Windows PCs, you can do research to find what music playback packages are available at the time you are ready to bring a computer-based audio system online. A major alternative in the Apple realm is Pure Music from Channel D (http://www.channld.com/puremusic/).
Like Media Center, Pure Music is capable of handling both DSD and PCM music files, and is supported by many different DAC manufacturers. Available from the Web site above, Pure Music can be purchased for your Mac Mini or Macbook computers. Once again, you follow the instructions from Channel D to download and install your Pure Music package. The configuration of the software for a given DAC will depend on the DAC that you purchase. You’ll want to check the instructions that came with your DAC for the specifics of configuration; check with Channel D in the event that you have questions about how to complete the setup with your DAC.
The final piece of the puzzle is your Internet connection. Many locations throughout the world now have high-speed Internet connectivity for your computer, with prices that are reasonable for this very useful aspect of modern life. A good high-speed Internet connection will allow you to purchase and download your high-resolution music files easily, and store them on your computer or external hard disk.
If you’re reading this, the good news is that you probably already have high-speed Internet access! If you are still using slow options like dial-up access, you’ll want to check the availability and pricing of high-speed options (cable, DSL, wireless, or satellite) in your area. This will make it possible for you to download the files that you purchase quite easily.
Once you have a high-speed Internet connection, you’ll have the final piece of the high-resolution computer-based audio puzzle!
Putting It All Together
So, we’ve made a list of things that you must have for a successful high-resolution computer-based audio system. Let’s review them:
Note that there may be some variations, depending on your particular system. You’ll have to consult the documentation from your DAC manufacturer and your software manufacturer before proceeding. When in doubt: re-read the documentation!
One Other Thing…Backup Your Hard Disks!
We should mention that you’ll find that high-resolution audio files do take up a lot of storage space. After all, DSD and high-resolution PCM recordings aren’t highly compressed .MP3 files! As your collection grows, you’ll find that there usually isn’t enough room on your computer’s internal hard drive to store very many albums. You’ll want to add external hard drives to your computer as time goes by, so that you can store your albums without being limited. This isn’t a problem, however, since very large (1, 2, or even 3 terabyte) external USB hard drives are relatively inexpensive and easy to purchase down at your local Costco, Best Buy, Office Depot, or other favorite computer outlet. Both Seagate and Western Digital, for example, offer solid, cost-effective external hard drive solutions.
You can easily add hard drives this way, following your computer’s procedures for loading and unloading external USB drives.
Please notice: external USB hard drives should be drives with their own external power supply; that is, an AC adapter with power line to the hard drive. Our experience is that external hard drives that do not have their own power supply and are powered by only their USB 2.0 cable, can have problems playing high-resolution music reliably. You may experience dropouts during playback, always an unpleasant thing. Powered external hard drives will avoid this problem.
Remember that you’ll want to back up your hard drives periodically, to preserve your investment. You can copy one external hard drive to another periodically, which is probably the best way to do this, or you can copy a single album’s music files to a DVD-R disc. There are procedures for doing this online; Google up help files if you need them, or visit computer audio sites for help. The truth is out there!
As you look over these notes, you may be saying, "I can’t do this!"
Actually, you can. In fact, as I noted earlier, in many ways, this is easier than doing something really complicated like setting up an ultra-expensive MC cartridge on a tonearm…now that can be hard! Take heart in the fact that many tens of thousands of fellow music lovers and audiophiles have already done this quite successfully. You can do it too!
And believe me, the payoffs are very significant. DSD and high-resolution PCM digital files provide extraordinary fidelity, and won’t wear out. Your investment in computer-based audio will reap rich dividends in future musical enjoyment.
Don’t wait…it’s time to jump in!