Help with finding best solution for hard-disc based music playback.
I have transferred all my music to hard-drive, and am looking for the best way to be able to play it back easily and with high quality. I don't want to spend a large amount on very expensive systems. Is it best to use a computer with external drive and external dac, (it seems like a lot of gear to have to fire up each time) or is there a one box solution . I have a metric Halo ULN-2 in my studio which is great for playback from my mac, but that really needs to stay in the studio for work. I am a little behind the times with this side of things and can't find a good internet site for advice. Any advice much appreciated.
for a one box, perhaps a Logitech Squeezebox Touch? takes usb from your harddrive and outputs rca into an amp .
If you already have a playstation3, that makes a fine standalone file player as well imo. Your external hard-disk however has to be formatted as FAT. Drawbacks are PS3’s are not very “hifi”, use a bit of power, need a TV to see what you’re doing, but the options are numerous as far as quality is concerned. PS3’s have an optical out, or you could run HDMI to a flatscreen which outputs RCA straight into an amp. Neat.
Last edited by kittykat; 07-04-2011 at 03:19 AM.
Reason: add ps3 related info
Have a look at www.computeraudiophile.com. They cover the subject fairly extensively.
Having spent a lot of time on this the last few months, the best solution I found was to simply use a laptop computer as a music server. I used a 3 year-old MacBook Pro that was about to be retired from daily business use. It is connected via ethernet to the home network and to my DAC/preamp via USB.
There are a few nice integrated units available that combine DAC/preamp/amp available now and will simplify things for you. Notable products are the Peachtree iNova and the Bel Canto C5i.
As you see in the photo, the system is very simple. This preamp has its own internal DAC, so all you need do to play music is to turn on the preamp (which triggers the main amp), select music from iTunes and hit play. The Macbook runs continuously since it serves the entire house, but is configured to sleep and wake automatically on network access to save energy.
The computer runs the Squeezebox server as a service, configured to monitor the iTunes directory structure. This makes lossless music, at any bit depth and sample rate, available to Logitech Squeezebox devices around the house. The next version of the server software, in development now, will also make the music library available via the DLNA protocol. Many current-issue consumer-grade AV receivers will connect to your network and consume content via DLNA.
Once this is in place, making music available throughout the house is easy:
- Stream lossless (Redbook max) music with Airport Express devices through the Express' optical port.
- Share music among computers running iTunes (Win or Mac). You can place another computer with any system in the house and share music from the main server or play from that machine directly via USB or TOSLINK output. You can use another laptop or even a headless Mac Mini with remote screen sharing enabled.
- You can pull lossless music from your server with an Apple TV that is hooked up to your theater or regular TV viewing system. You'll even see your cover art on the big screen.
- You can control the server with the (free) Apple remote software for your iPhone or iPad. The remote allows you to:
- Remote control the server and route music to any Airport Express or Apple TV device.
- Remote control any computer (Mac or Win) running iTunes and play local content or content shared from the server.
A few tips I learned the hard way:
1) Connect your server computer via hard wired ethernet as opposed to wireless if you plan to share music throughout the house. Otherwise, you may experience dropouts when your 18 year old comes home from school and fires up his xbox on the wireless network, or when your daughter calls home from college on skype. ;-)
2) Use USB to connect to your DAC since, unlike S/PDIF, USB provides error checking. If you happen to use a MacBook Pro, try both USB ports to see which works best. Some have reported that the forward port is better than the aft port. In my case, I found that I was getting some random pops and clicks once in a while on the aft port. Switching to the forward port reduced this. There appear to be some differences between the ports in terms of output power. For example, some bus-powered portable USB hard drives that will not work off one port will work off the other. This is typical with some of the older Western Digital Passport drives.
3) Configure your computer for a bit depth EQUAL to or ABOVE the bit depth of your recording
4) Configure your computer for a sample rate EQUAL to the sample rate of your recording
5) If your space requirements are beyond the capacity of your computer's internal drive, use a portable, self powered hard drive as opposed to a full-sized desktop drive. I initially bought a pair of industrial-grade aluminum-clad eSATA external Hitachi G-Drives drives and they turned out to be very noisy sitting in my rack as the enclosures had their own fans. You could hear them whirring away all the time. I replaced them with a small portable firewire drive that is extremely quiet. And, because it is a self-powered firewire drive, that's one less power supply and its wires to complicate things.
6) If using an external drive, choose a Firewire drive. This way, bits being read off the hard disk travel on the Firewire bus while bits going to your DAC travel on the USB bus. You can connect both your drive and DAC connected to the USB bus, but if you have the option, it's always preferable to spread the load to avoid saturation. Two terabyte bus powered drives are now available, but most are USB. Seagate makes a portable drive with interchangeable interfaces. It ships with a USB interface which you can replace with an optional Firewire 800 interface.
7) Back up to a drive elsewhere on your network in a different room to keep the noise down. It can take months to rip all your CDs and fix all the metadata, so don't neglect your backups. I have a good friend who designs large scale network infrastructure and is fond of saying "If data doesn't exist in 3 places, it doesn't exist at all."
Don't let anyone sell you a story about how some lossless formats sound better than others. Or that proprietary music servers sound better than computers. They ARE computers! It is true that you must be careful to configure iTunes for the best quality, but lossless is lossless. You can also use iTunes to store AIF files. For FLACs and other formats, I use Decibel (sbooth.org, $33), which has the ability to dynamically configure your computer for bit depth and sample rate to best match each track. Mozilla Songbird (songbirdnest.com, free) is also a good solution. If most of your material is plan Redbook CD quality, then just configure your computer for 16bit/44.1kHz and leave it alone.
Since it sounds like you are a Mac user and you already have your music on a hard drive, here's the simple way to get started. You have two choices here. You can decide to import (i.e., copy) your tracks into iTunes directory structure, or have iTunes maintain pointers to the files in their current locations on your hard drive. I would recommend getting a new hard drive that will be your "music server" drive, then importing the files across from your drive to a new drive. It's generally easiest to let iTunes manage its own directory structure, especially if you plan to integrate 3rd party software or devices into your system. All software and hardware engineers will test against the iTunes directory structure, but test coverage will be thinner on unknown/random/unique directory structures. Put your original drive, containing all your hard CD ripping work in a safe place, somewhere offsite. Backup your server using Time Machine and now you have 3 copies.
You can do a setup like this with Windows or the Mac, though with Windows you would need to have a higher level of computer expertise to get it done. If you have specific questions, please feel fee to post here. I'll try to help.
Last edited by jplaurel; 07-04-2011 at 11:05 PM.
Reason: gramar, clarity, additional info
Remote solutions for headless Mac Mini music server
Here are some photos to clarify the remote control setups I describe in the post above. There is a Mac Mini on the rack in the background of these pictures. It is always running iTunes. The primary music server is the MacBook pro sitting atop the rack in my earlier photo. You will notice in the photos that the instance of iTunes running on the Mac Mini is pointing at a shared library called "Music Server". That's the library being served up by the MacBook Pro in the earlier photo. Of course, you could also have music stored locally on the Mac Mini and that would work just as well. In fact, if you are playing around with 24bit/192kHz music, you might want to store that locally if your network is not fast enough to handle the traffic that sharing such large files will generate.
The first photo shows an iPhone running Apple's "Remote" software (free from iPhone app store), which is configured to connect to the Mac Mini. Using the Remote application, I then point the Mac Mini to the primary music server and select music to play.
The second photo shows a MacBook Air notebook running the screen sharing app (built into OSX). The screen sharing app displays the Mac Mini's full desktop, which you can manipulate using the notebook's built-in keyboard and trackpad.
The last photo shows an iPad running iTap VNC, a screen sharing app available from the iPad app store for $10. The nice thing about this app is that it uses the native OSX screen sharing protocols and therefore does not require any additional server software running on the host machine. You move the mouse by tapping the iPad and a keyboard can be displayed with a gesture.
So, even though the Mac Mini does not have a keyboard or display connected, it can always be controlled in one of these three ways. I may not have the notebook or iPad with me, but as with most people, the iPhone is always at hand.
Hope this helps those of you trying to set up systems for hard drive-based music playback. Setting these up is not as complicated as you think and it's wonderful to be able to access anything in your music library almost instantly. This is a particular interest of mine, so please feel free to ask any questions you might have.
Thanks for all the posts. jplaurel, thank you for taking the time to explain things in such detail. I'm still finding it difficult to understand, I get confused around networks etc, so i shall give a couple of scenarios in my own terminology, and hopefully things can be explained.
Here is the hardware i already own: Macbook pro, iphone, external usb/firewire drives with music files loaded, broadband via a usb mobile modem and a Metric Halo uln-2 ..
The scenarios :
1. To have macbook pro sitting next to my stereo. To load music via itunes using the mac directly, or to use iphone as a remote. To have the mac directly connected to my preamp as any other source would be, with a cable either from headphone out, or via a firewire/usb dac.
2. To keep the mac in my studio room with the music hard drives connected, and to stream the music (via Bluetooth?) to a device (receiver) attached to my preamp. To then control itunes via my iphone.
Scenario 2 is better as i can then transmit music via my mac wherever i have it in the house, to my hifi in the main listening room. What extra hardware would i need on top of what i already have, and how would i set that up? I need to be able to play 24/ 96 files if possible because then i can listen to my studio recordings via the main system when i am checking mixes on the HL5s rather than my studio situated P3ESRs.
Let's focus on scenario 2, since that's your preferred configuration.
Additional Hardware you'll need
In your listening room, you need a device that moves bits from the server (such as a Logitech Squeezebox Touch or Airport Express) and a device that converts those bits to an analog signal (such as a DAC). Looking at the Metric Halo ULN-2 information on their site, I think it would serve as a stand-alone DAC. To be clear, the DAC would reside in your listening room physically connected to the preamp. You cannot have the DAC in your studio unless you want to think about running some long balanced lines through your house from your DAC to your preamp, which could be costly and fraught with problems. If you use the ULN-2 in your studio, it may be inconvenient to move it back and forth from studio to listening room. I would recommend a dedicated DAC for your listening room connected directly to your preamp. You want to move music around your house over the network digitally, then convert to analog just before the destination (i.e., your preamp).
Option 1 - Logitech Squeezebox Touch by itself
Squeezebox Touch is a small device that can connect to your network via hard wire or WiFi. It can output bit perfect digital music from your server via its coax or TOSLINK optical ports. It also incorporates its own internal DAC, and has line level outputs. It will not equal a stand-alone DAC in sound quality, but it's not bad for casual listening. The Touch will stream and decode 24bit 96kHz music.
Steps for this option:
a) Connect your Macbook running iTunes with your music library to your home network.
b) Install the Squeezebox server software on your Macbook and configure it to point at your iTunes directory structure.
c) Connect the Squeezebox Touch to the network in your listening room. Complete the configuration process which will attach the Touch to the Squeezebox server.
d) Connect the Squeezebox Touch line level outputs to line level inputs on your preamp
Squeezebox Touch is here:
Squeezebox Server is here:
Option 2 - Squeezebox Touch + stand-alone DAC
You can significantly improve your sound by using a stand-alone DAC instead of the Squeezebox Touch's internal DAC. If you are checking mixes in your listening room, I think it would be worth the extra cost for another DAC. There are many DAC choices, ranging widely in cost, but there are a couple low cost ones with good performance worth mentioning:
Cambridge Audio DAC Magic
Musical Fidelity V-DAC
The Cambridge DAC Magic has garnered good reviews, but I've never heard one. However, I recently purchased a V-DAC as a gift, and found that it sounds great. For USD $299 it represents a lot of value for the money.
Steps for this option:
a) Perform steps 1a, 1b and 1c above
b) Instead of connecting the Touch's line level outputs to your preamp, you would connect it to either the V-DAC's coaxial or TOSLINK inputs.
c) Connect the V-DAC's line level outputs to line level inputs on your preamp.
Control of music with these options will be through the Squeezebox Touch interface, which is actually quite good. You simply use your finger to scroll and select in much the same way as your iPhone. It also comes with a remote that works very well.
Option 3 - Airport Express
I have not discussed using an Airport Express until now because you want to stream 24/96 and the Airport Express will only output 16bit/44.1kHz from its optical output port. But it's worth mentioning because of the convenience of controlling it through the Apple Remote software for iPhone and iPad. Any 24/96 material that you stream to the Express from iTunes gets downsampled to 16/44.1. I am not quite clear about whether the downsampling is performed by the iTunes software or by the Express device itself, but I suspect it is happening at the Express. An advantage of the Airport Express is that you can remote control your MacBook Pro running iTunes with your iPhone and cause it to stream music to the Airport Express. If you wanted, you could have both the Squeezebox Touch and the Airport express connected to the V-DAC at the same time and use one or the other whenever you like.
Hope this helps!
Last edited by jplaurel; 09-04-2011 at 06:10 AM.
Reason: added more info
Home AV system diagram
Here's a diagram illustrating a home AV system with the following features:
-- A 7.1 and 2.1 system in the same room.
-- A separate listening room
-- Auxiliary rooms, such as bedrooms
-- All consuming content from a single music server
-- All controllable by a variety of device types.
Hopefully, this will serve to clarify some of the discussion above.
Last edited by jplaurel; 09-04-2011 at 07:26 PM.
Reason: Modified diagram
Thanks for the extra descriptions, now I understand what i need to do. I have been doing some research on Dacs. Benchmarks Dac1 HDR seems a great product, and one i would happily use in my studio when needed. It's out of my league financially right now so i am deciding whether to find another cheaper model, or wait on Dacs for a while until i can afford one. I usually wait! I like to go for Professional Studio products generally, as i find them better quality and often better value for money, but if i get a chance to hear some others , i will .I will get the Squeezebox Touch in the interim, and start to enjoy the freedom of streaming. I will let you know how i get on. Regards, Bluegrass
Don't forget this site
Originally Posted by EricW
the SB on its own is good enough
The Squeezebox is a very good option. You don't need a DAC as well - its internal DAC is good enough. Try it on its own first and then ABX it with a DAC if you want to be sure - I doubt you will hear a difference.
...or even an HRT Music Streamer II? takes usb from imac and rca's straight into your amp. even more affordable than a sb, but the drawback is that your computer has to be switched on, unlike a squeezebox which has its own screen.
You will enjoy the Squeezebox Touch. They've clearly taken a page from Apple to create a delightful product that surprises you with its clever design.
The SB's internal DAC is amazingly good for the money, but you will hear a marked overall improvement with a good outboard DAC. I connected the SB line outputs to a preamp, and its digital outputs to a Musical Fidelity V-DAC, then the V-DAC to the same preamp. With that setup and some input level matching, it's easy to do A/B testing just by switching inputs. To me, the outboard DAC is obviously better sounding, but you may not hear such a big difference. The SB is good enough that I'm planning to use it solo in one of my rooms with my home-built amp for casual listening.
Originally Posted by bluegrass