Hello fellow Audiolics! Welcome to another meeting of Audiolics Anonymous, our support group for the insatiably tweaked. Have we done any listening this month, or have you been spending most of your time tweaking as usual?
Back in AA Chapters 7, 16, 29, and 36 (see archives by clicking here), I discussed my love affair with using a home computer for audio storage and playback. I picked up my interest in this through the AV Sciences website, where they have an HTPC discussion board on this subject. Back three years ago, in the early days of HTPC (home theater computers), while the units did give great results, they were very difficult to use as there weren't programs available that could coordinate all of the functions that were necessary for recording, storage and playback of both audio and video sources. Good old Windows was a pain, both in function and need to reboot every time something went wrong, and none of the programs spoke to each other. The hardware, on the other hand, was and is up to reproducing high end audio and video at significantly less cost than buying separate CD and DVD players and D/A converters.
I know that sounds like heresy to audiophiles used to spending thousands of dollars per piece of equipment, but, as far as I'm concerned a well built HTPC with the appropriate programming and sound (and video card), will have equal or better sound (and video) than the vast majority of separates out there, with the added ability to record and store audio up to 24-bit/192kHz sampling rates, record and play back DVD-Video, and with the Audigy 2 Platinum EX card play back DVD-Audio, and be able to be used for all those other computer functions. Don't believe me? Remember, most if not all digital done today passes through computers with their sound cards. And no, that's not the reason that most digital sounds inferior to analog.
The only thing that can not be done is play back or record SACD. On the other hand, they are a real pain in the butt to operate, even today. My computer is presently at the computer doctor's emergency room for evaluation for brain trauma. Luckily it was only the hard drive with my programming and not the one with my 300 CD's stored on it. But I've been without it for a week. Boy has this taught me to backup frequently.
Coincidentally, I have had in for review a possible fix for what ails my computer and the above problems with HTPC in general, the A La Carte personal music library from Audio Monument of Colorado. Steve Stannard is the founder, designer, engineer, chief cook and bottle washer.
Mr. Stannard obviously came to the same conclusions as I re: the possibilities and problems using an HTPC, and developed a computer system and program to make the HTPC as easy to use as a CD Player-recorder. So what has he done?
First the hardware as he uses a black, horizontal computer case about the size of a standard CD player with a Plexiglas front with a blue lighted A la Carte insignia, with simple feet. He uses a high quality CD-ROM drive, the CPU is an Athlon 1.1GHz with simple motherboard, 128MB of ram, with, at least on the unit I received, a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sound card, which he has modified with high quality RCA's for stereo in and outputs and S/PDIF output. There is room for one additional card. My demo unit only came with a 30 gig hard drive, which would only have room for about 20 recordings of 16-bit/44kHz CDs, after subtracting the space necessary for the programming, but the unit can be supplied with up to 1,000GB of memory, which should hold any sane high ender's CD and vinyl collection in one box. The CPU has a huge copper heat fin on it and there is an additional fan inside the unit for cooling, which is very quiet.
There are a pair of USB type 1.1 connectors which could be used for external hard drives, and a video and serial port and 12 Volt outlet which connects by a long cord to an ELO Accutouch LCD screen on which the video appears and on which one can control the computer and type in information, thus obviating the need for a mouse and keyboard. Thus you can sit at your favorite listening position, have the computer in another room, and listen to one CD after another with complete control without getting off of your corpulent behind. Thus the computer has been simplified to its least essentials.
Second is the software. He has loaded Windows XP home edition and Windows Media Player 9, the difference from standard computers being that they run in the background with XP booting up to his A la Carte program. This program then controls all of the functions of the other programs through invisible macros. Other programs include DX-Vumeter that runs an oscilloscope, and his A La Carte program for running the system for audio in front of XP. In addition, he will load some music along with the program to start you off. If you wish, for an extra price, he will load any CDs you wish.
To roll your own, you load a CD or hook up your phono stage or pre-amplifier to the RCA inputs. Then hit the ADD LP or ADD CD button, which takes you into another screen. He has built in a library from CDDB of CD information that recognized most of my discs and filled in all of the information such as musician, label, type of music, etc., and the names of individual tracks. One CD had no information in the computer, and a second, an old Joan Baez recording had the wrong information pop up as if the program mistook it for another recording. With analog and unrecognized discs, one has to fill in the information by a pop-up key typing system. Then one decides whether to record at 16-bit/44kHz or a low bit system. Finally, one hits the record button and a CD will automatically be recorded to the hard drive in about 5 minutes. With analog, you play the loudest section, set the volume to a little less than 0dB, to prevent distortion, then record.
So How Well Does It Work?
First the positives:
1. Sound. For an inexpensive sound card it is excellent. It comes very close to my M-Audio 1010, which one of the best multi-channel sound cards out there. It even gave somewhat tighter bass, although slightly less feeling of space. Whether that is a function of the card or software is hard to determine, but I would say it was at least equivalent to most of the CD units I have heard in the $2,000 to $3,000 range.
2. Programming. It is very easy and intuitive to use, somewhat simpler than the usual CD recorder.
3. Storage is 240GB to 480GB will easily accommodate 300 to 600 16-bit/44kHz CDs or vinyl LPs in one place.
4. Playback. One can rapidly switch between tracks once play lists have been set up, which is ideal for audiophiles that don't normally listen all the way through one track or symphony at a time. Also volume control is done from the screen.
Now for the negatives:
1. There were a couple of glitches with the unit. First, when listening to recordings in the pre-record mode, there is no volume control. If one tries to go back to the previous screen to gain volume control, the program freezes and continues to play the recording until you reboot. Second, rather than setting up listening by CD or record, one has to set up play lists, which is somewhat of a pain for old codgers like me but would probably be a snap for the computer generation. Finally, about two weeks into using it the program would freeze on startup with an error message about its inability to find a mixer. Turns out the sound card had come loose. Unhappily, the sound card because of the shape of the cabinet and has to go on a right angle adapter to the motherboard so it may be more liable to movement. In addition, the sound card then blocks one of the two other ports for cards so only one is available.
2. I feel the unit is extremely expensive for what one is getting (Note: see manufacturer's reply at the bottom as the price has come down a bit since this review). The 240GB gig unit, which will hold about 300 CD's, costs $4,399. The 480GB unit is $1,000 more. As 120GB hard drives can be purchased for about $100 and 240GB for less than $250, I find a thousand dollar difference a little too much. My own HTPC, which has a 2.8GHz P4 chip, 480GB of storage, 1.5GB of ram, a six channel pro sound card, and a top of the line video card with a DVD-R recorder and programming cost me only $3,000 to have made by the best computer shop in the area. So one is paying about double what it cost me for a six-channel top of the line CD-DVD system. On the other hand, his program is very easy to use, and the touch screen with its long cord is easier to use than my keyboard-mouse.
3. The unit can not play stereo 24-bit/96kHz, DVD or multi-channel playback. In today's marketplace, where for instance Yamaha has come out with a similar system with WIFI which allows use of your music library from anywhere in the house for $2,400 and NVidia which has a $600 unit, this is a problem. I have discussed this with Mr. Stannard and he is planning on adding this in the future. I have not heard the other two units and cannot comment on their sound compared to this one, which indeed does give audiophile level playback.
4. One can only record at 16-bit/44kHz or less, which is fine for CD but leaves those individuals trying to archive their vinyl with less than optimal storage. In the days when 120GB drives cost $500 (about a year ago), this may have been too expensive. Today with internal 120GB drives for less than $100 and external ones for less than $200, plus the sound difference between 16-bit/44kHz and 20- to 24-bit/88kHz to 96kHz is not subtle. One should have this option for digital recording and playback, especially in a high end unit.
Hope I have not been too negative with this review as I think there is a place for a high end audio-video storage and playback system, and Mr. Stannard certainly has the program which turns the computer into an easy to use and excellent sounding storage system. Still, I can not recommend it as presently conceived and priced. If it had the above capabilities or cost maybe half of what it does now it would be a good value.
So all in all I like the concept and the programming of the unit, but for the price the unit does not go far enough. He should add high-end sound card, preferably 5.1, add a high-end video card using its RGB output for a regular TV or projector and the mother board output for the ELO. While he is at it, use a DVD-R or +R drive rather than the CD-ROM and should also add a DVD playback program such as Power DVD5 or WinDVD 5, and rewrite his program to allow these to run in the background, and also enable the CD program to do the digital signal processing that it is capable of. Then he'd have a product worth the $4400. Or he could keep it the way he has it and drop the cost about $1500. I think he'd sell quite a few of either to both audio and videophiles.
Since this was a relatively negative review. I have given Mr. Stannard the chance to reply as seen below.
I'd like to thank Mr. Gaw for taking the time to review a la carte. As far as I can tell, this is the first review of any kind of a digital music server in an audio publication. Being new to reviewing this genre of audio component I'd like to respond to some of Mr. Gaw's comments.
Mr. Gaw finds a la carte expensive, however it is priced very competitively with similar products on the market and well below some of the biggest sellers. Direct comparisons to specific units (Yamaha for example) are inappropriate as they have neither the capacity, the touch screen interface nor the sophisticated software of a la carte. And in the end, Mr. Gaw admits that he's never heard or tried to use them.
Also note that as of the CEDIA show, we will be lowering our prices to $3,999 for the Model 240 (400 hrs), $4,399 for the Model 480 (800 hrs) and $5,399 for the Model 1000 (1,600 hrs).
Comparing a la carte to a home-built PC (HTPC) is like comparing home-built speakers the quality high-end speaker systems on the market today. You may save some money but you won't get the same results. a la cart is not intended for the do-it-yourselfer; if you don't mind a PC in your living room and it's ok to have a mouse and keyboard on your coffee table, you probably can do this yourself (but you won't have a la carte).
High sampling (24-bit/96kHz) analog recording capability is definitely worth developing to (possibly) satisfy vinyl enthusiasts. a la carte will have that capability in a year or so, and existing models will be upgradeable. Believe it or not, one of the barriers to this capability is disk size. A terabyte unit (a la carte's largest model) which stores 1,600 hours of uncompressed music at CD sampling rates would store only about 250 hours at 24-bit/96kHz sampling. We don't think this is large enough for a serious audiophile's collection, but hard drives are always getting bigger....
Lastly, I wish Mr. Gaw had focused more on what a la carte can do rather than on what he would like it to do. Compared to other digital music servers available today, a la carte has specifications and capacities equal to units selling at three times the price. a la carte's touch screen user interface and sophisticated library system are absolutely unique (for example no other music server will allow users to search for music by composer - essential for classical music).
I hope to see more reviews of digital music servers in the future, and again, thank Mr. Gaw for this review.
Company InformationAudio Monument
17330 Colonial Park Drive
Monument, CO 80132