Monday, November 19, 2007

DIY music server

Recently I've been thinking a lot about building my own music server. With my recent purchase of a Hitachi H31000U 1 TB hard drive for the bargain price of $199 , I'm one step closer. This weekend I tried the PS Audio Digital Link III DAC which has a USB digital input. The PS Audio offers the ability to upsample the digital data to 96kHz or 192kHz. When upsampling the USB input to 192 kHz every couple of minutes there was a strange occurrence. There was a temporary drop in volume and a very slight interruption of the music, which lasted fractions of a second. Switching the unit to 96kHz solved this issue but also didn't offer quite the same sound quality.

A shootout between the PS audio and my current DAC, the Theta DSP Pro Basic III ended with the Theta coming out on top. So now the HagUsb from Hagerman Tehnology looks will be how I get my current DAC digital information from my future server project. At between $119 to $139 depending on whether one chooses the SPIDF or the AES/EBU, it seems like a bargain. Add to the affordable price a 30 trial period is it seems like a great opportunity. Of course the ideal solution would be a sound card that would have a digital output, however nearly all of those are toslink which is unacceptable for high end applications.

My current vision for the finished music server would be using a Windows XP based PC using iTunes playing WAV files. Apple lossless probably won't be used because even though the files are smaller and there is a mountain of evidence that they have the exact same data as a WAV file after being uncompressed it is a proprietary. If I change to other programs or buy a server a couple of years from now I don't want to have to re burn my music collection. Foobar2000 as an organizational interface also seems popular some more research into that might be warranted. Many use Exact Audio Copy to import music so some reading on that is also probably in order.
Getting better sound from a computer running Windows XP using iTunes is easier than you think. The following changes in total caused a profound increase in sound quality of the 1/8th inch analog out jack of my lap top. Windows XP Setting changes:

After right clicking on the volume control in the tool bar make sure that the “wave” volume control is at maximum and that the balance is in the middle. Both setting are implemented in the digital domain degrade the sound if used. Volume is reduced by reducing the resolution. 1bit of resolution is lost for every 6db of attenuation applied with a digital volume control. Also make sure that you press the advanced button and un click the “1 mic boost” setting. It raised the noise floor dramatically. Going into the “Sound Effect Manage” via the control pannel and making sure that there isn’t any EQ being done there is also advisable. On the “S/PDIF-Out” tab change the sampling rate from 48KHz to 44.1KHz. The bit conversion done by this setting when it is at the 48KHz setting destroys the sense of space as well as reducing tonality in the bass and destroying micro dynamics.

To stop windows sounds from interrupting the music go to the control panel select “Sound and Audio Devices” then to the “Sounds” tab. Under “Sound schemes select “No Sounds” and press the “Apply” and “Ok” buttons.

Changes in iTunes:

If iTunes is the player that will be used to interface with the music library make sure to turn the “Sound Enhancer” and “Sound Check” features off. “Sound Enhancer” boosts the high frequencies and also exaggerates left/right separation. Thus if we want a true representation of the audio this box should be unchecked. The “Sound Enhancer” does nothing more than add dynamic compression in an attempt to reduce the volume difference between songs when in random mode. It goes without saying that compressing dynamics changes the sound and is therefore inherently less accurate, hence undesirable. To turn these features off go to the “Edit” tab, select “Preferences”, then the “Playback tab and make sure that both the “Sound Enhancer” and “Sound Check” boxes are not checked. Also make sure that the volume on iTunes is set to it’s maximum setting because again this is another digital volume control that reduces volume by reducing resolution.

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