Music lovers can easily jack their PCs or iPods into their stereo system to hear their music collection on something with a little more oomphthan earbuds.
But if they are serious music lovers—audiophiles, that is— they probably fancy one of the new digital music servers, such as the Yamaha MusicCast 1000. A digital music server is a jukebox for digital music files, a hard drive to store the files and some software to pump it through your existing stereo system. And it costs about $1,000.
PCs and iPods are essentially the same thing, but we are talking about music for audiophiles here. If they tried running the audio output of a computer into their sound system, even on the most expensive sound system, they would be sorely disappointed. PC sound cuts the high and low frequencies. And because a single chip on the motherboard has to handle all the digital and analogue chores of converting bits into Beethoven, the noise generated by the computer’s own circuitry is also reproduced.
With the addition of a simple plug-in device called a USB-DAC, or universal serial bus-digital to analogue converter, even an older PC or Mac can make an excellent music server, with sound rivalling or even better than most CD players.
A USB-DAC provides substantially better sound by taking this task outside the computer, where the only limitations on sound quality are your willingness to spend (and the limitations inherent in digital audio itself, which we need not go into here).
USB-DAC prices start at $200, and while you can spend as much as $60,000, even the low-priced devices provide audio far superior to PC sound cards.
Amplify your music
You will need an amplifier and speakers if you do not plan on connecting the computer to your stereo or home theatre system. And you will also want an external disk drive, as storing the lossless files needed for the best sonic results takes up a lot of space. You can rip CDs to a hard disk drive using the Apple Lossless Encoder with error correction from iTunes. Although these big files are essential for optimum sound, you can get surprisingly good results with MP3 downloads, Internet radio and DVDs.
With lossless files, you can’t escape the need for more drive space. A music file stored in the lossless format from Apple, or the equivalent, is about 25 megabytes for a four-minute song, or about six times the size of an MP3 file. That means you’ll need a 250-gigabyte hard drive for a typical music collection. It will cost about $80, but consider buying two, so that you can back up your collection.
Because the USB-DAC handles all the heavy lifting, even an older computer will be enough to make a fine music server, as long as it can run a relatively recent version of Apple’s OS-X or Microsoft Windows, and Apple’s iTunes application or one of the free alternatives, such as Foobar.
Like most things, installing a USB-DAC is easier on a Mac than a PC, but it’s not at all hard on either.
Plug the power cord into the wall, plug the USB cord into the computer and select the new device in the Sound panel; set volume all the way up on a Mac, at 50% on a PC, and either disable alert beeps or set them to go through the internal speakers.
Turn off any so-called sound enhancements in your playback software, such as “crossfade playback”, “sound enhancer” and “sound check”, and you are ready to go.
Tube vs solid state
Among audiophiles there are two schools of thought regarding vacuum tubes, that pioneering voltage-controlling device invented well over a century ago.
One says audio components using tubes capture an ineffable depth and dimension that somehow escapes even the best solid state equipment. The other camp says that tubes wash the signal in a euphonic bath of harmonic distortion that may be pleasing, but is hardly accurate.
Stereo-Link Model 1200
Finished in sparkly blue plastic and light as a feather, the Stereo-Link Model 1200 looks more like a computer peripheral than a music device, but its designers and manufacturers have serious audio credentials, having worked for AR, Boston Acoustics and Sigtech. And at just $200, including USB and audio cables, the 1200 offers the best bang for the buck of any of these devices. With a single USB input, stereo audio outputs and a useful headphone amplifier, it is simple but capable. Music reproduced through the Stereo-Link had dynamic range, clarity and a pleasing smoothness utterly lacking in the direct audio output of my computer. I also found it quieter and more musical than my CD player, which was true with all the USB-DACs tested.
I count myself among those people who say that audio components which use tubes are better than those which use solid state equipment. Indeed, I auditioned all these devices with tube amplifiers. Therefore, keep that in mind in considering my impressions of the Wavelength Brick, which uses a single 12AX7 tube in its analogue section.
I found music played through the Brick, priced at $1,750, had an appealing warmth and three-dimensionality beyond what I heard from the other DACs. Whether it was more or less accurate, and whether the difference I heard was caused by that lonely tube or some other aspect of its design, I cannot say.
At $1,275, the Benchmark DAC1 USB has the look of professional sound-processing equipment, with a thick brushed-aluminium faceplate, a heavy volume knob and toggle switches. It feels dense in a reassuring way, and it has numerous inputs to accommodate not only computer sound, but also the digital output from your CD player, DAT or hard disk recorder. Did it sound better than the much less expensive Stereo-Link? Yes, definitely. Six times better? That’s a tougher question. In audio, as in most things, you do get what you pay for but, on the other hand, the law of diminishing returns has not been repealed. The Benchmark sounded significantly better than my CD player, and the manufacturer claims that it outperforms high-end players, costing far more than it does
©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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