Happy Holidays. I'm writing this early in October, just before the leaves begin to fall here in New Hampshire, the picking up of which will take all of my spare time probably until Thanksgiving, and probably several appointments at the Chiropractors. Thus, please don't be upset if some smart entrepreneur comes out with a Computer Music Server for Audiophiles that completely negates my arguments in this tome by publication time.
Last week I had a visit from Roman Bessnow, founder and chief cook and bottle washer of the very entertaining and informative Good Sound Club. Where he get the time to run the plethora of discussion boards, run his own business and have the time to listen to music is beyond me. Romy is another hornophile with a two channel system that significantly beats mine for complexity and quality of implementation and is truly a sophisticate in his knowledge of music and the theatrical arts. While within my home he gave considerable constructive criticism about my system which, while crushing to my ego, was very informative and did point out some areas of improvement that I'll definitely look into. It's always best to have someone evaluate your system, especially a reviewer's where equipment is being changed frequently and who may lose sight (or is that sound) of what's happening.
I took his hints on problems possibly with my implementation of my AC line noise equipment by plugging all of my low wattage equipment into one unit and voila, there was significant improvement in transients. Why, I have no idea, but it worked. Which only goes to show me that the field of AC noise reduction is still an art rather than a science, and only experimentation on your system will allow you to get the best out of it. Thank you Romy, and come back again.
The precipitating event for this article was a letter sent to me by our illustrious editor, Steven R. Rochlin, from Bill Wooden, as follows:
TAS has been remarkably helpful for years. Was wondering, when will you review music servers? I am leaning towards an Olive, any thoughts? I will just use it as a server to my Genesis Time Lens and Theta IIIa DAC. Your comments on this would be greatly appreciated.
If you've read my previous tomes on using a home computer or music server for storage and playback of music and video, you'd realize that I have a hair up my backside for what the industry is foisting upon us at present. In most cases, they are charging exorbitant amounts of moolah for a prettified computer running Linux, Windows or Apple's operating system and adding a program to simplify its operation, and using inferior mid-level parts. In their favor, the programming allows the non-technically inclined average person to control his whole-house listening system from a central storage area using in most cases a touch-screen monitor. But to do that, in most cases they lose the ability to put out audiophile quality sound.
Take for instance the OLIVE system mentioned above, as this is actually one of the better configured and reasonably priced audio only systems available. The system consists of the Opus 4 server for $1499 with a 500 gig drive, $1599 for 1 TB, and $1799 for 2 TB of storage. It has an IEC AC plug, wi-fi Ethernet and USB in and output, 2 channel analog and SPDIF RCA and optical outputs. For the above price they will load up to 100 CD's and it has a built-in CD platter for loading disk information into the hard drive. The 4 inch video screen on the front is used rather than a monitor for programming and playback. For an additional $599 each, one can add one or more Melody 2 multi-room players which connect to the Opus 4 through your Ethernet or Wi Fi system for playback in other rooms of the music stored on the Opus 4.
While I haven't had a chance to hear the system, from the web site it appears to be a well thought out at a fairly reasonable price, but who knows the quality of the sound through both the analog and digital outputs. In addition it does not seem to be able to store or play back high definition two track files such as those from HD Tracks discussed last month. On the other hand, it will connect to internet radio stations which are already programmed into the Opus 4 through your network.
The above though is the exception to the rule for pricing. For instance, the SOOLOOS system, recently purchased by Meridian, consists of the Control 10 Media Server for $5500, which is a 17 inch touch screen display attached to a base containing a CD transport, electronics and analog and digital outputs. This connects through a Cat 5 Ethernet cable to one or more TwinStore boxes through a broadband network connection and contains two 1 TB. hard drives. Each costs $3100. That's $3100 for a pretty box with less than $200 of hard drives. In addition, if one doesn't have a decent DAC, they also have the Source One/Five or Ensemble DACS that connect to the other components through Ethernet. Get one of these and you've driven the system price to well over $12,000.
Unhappily, the system doesn't have a remote control so one has to go to the touch screen to input information or phone or iPod through the network. Give me a break.
Next up the price ladder is the Kaleidescape Movie and Music Server, which is the originator of self-contained hard drive music servers. I remember seeing their first unit several years ago at a CES, priced somewhere above $30,000, with their present Minisystem going for $8000 plus. While the unit holds 2 TB of removable storage, it is striped, meaning all data is stored in two places for redundancy so if one drive fails, it is backed up on another. But that allows for only 1 TB of storage, which allows for over 2000 CD's worth of storage, but only a couple hundred DVD-Audio or 24-bit/96kHz files and fewer than 100 Blu-ray discs ( which the Kaleidescape can't play anyway). I can remember when a 20 megabyte drive was considered large. While it can send different programming to multiple sights in the house, and has a good interface making finding programming very easy, if they haven't improved the sound over what I heard previously, it's a non-started for audiophiles.
Then there is the systems from Niveus including their Rainier HD Media Server and their Denali Limited Edition Audiophile System. Now we're getting somewhere as far as relatively reasonable price for a fairly complete system. First off, the unit is a glorified computer in a very pretty audiophile style chassis with large heat fins to cut down on fan noise. It uses Windows Vista (with Windows 7 coming in the near future as an option) using its Windows Media Center software to cut down on the cost of building a one-off GUI (Graphical User Interface) like the others.
It contains a Blu-ray transport that will play back everything from CD's to Blu-ray to HD-DVD and a 1 TB hard drive for internal storage. A 3.0 GHz. E8400 Core 2 Duo chip with 2 GB of RAM should be more than fast enough for all audio and video applications, and with a wireless keyboard and mouse with a 50 foot range one can comfortably sit back in one's listening chair. It has 7.1 analog output but can only decode standard DTS and Dolby Digital signals with its present software. On the other hand the HDMI output will allow high bit rate recordings to be decoded by an external pre-pro, but from the sounds of it will not transmit the full DTS Master Audio or Dolby HD at full bit rates. The six USB and one Ethernet and FireWire connectors will allow for more terabytes of storage using external hard drives or a Server. There are also Infrared Blaster and RS232 ports for external control. It even has a separate remote control for disc playback. If one is familiar with the Windows Media Center format and Vista, using the unit should be simple and convenient.
Unhappily the fly in the ointment is the inability to play back the high bit rate DTS and Dolby codecs because of the lack of the software necessary. This is a problem with Windows and the movie studios reluctance to allow their precious movies to be transmitted in their full glory. There is a way around it through software but Niveus has decided not to pursue it. Also, there is no way to add a hardware card, such as the Xonar, to do the necessary decoding or transfer of the high bit rate signal. But for the audiophile who only plays back two-channel 44 to 192 kHz recordings, the machine would be the easy and fairly reasonable way to storage and playback of HD-DVD recordings and any downloaded high bit rate files from the web.
So there you have it. Not one of the servers mentioned above and any others I've heard of, are built in such a way as it would satisfy any hard-boiled audiophile of modest means. They've been designed for the above-average Joe Six-Pack with several thousand dollars of coin weighing down their pockets who want to be able to watch their favorite movie in one of several different rooms. As usual, nothing for we few brave audiophiles.
Now For The “Piece de Resistance
2. Go to any one of several sites that sell reconditioned computers, such as eCost.com. These are usually returns from geeks who buy one and then send it back before the 30 day return policy expires or one that the average Joe couldn't figure out how to run and messed up the programming. I've purchased several over the years for usually 40-50% off the market value. For instance my last computer which I am now using in the media room had a list on the day of purchase of $1300, but for which I paid $595 at the above site.
They have an HP Pavilion Elite 2.2 GHz processor with 1 TB hard drive, Blu-ray drive and DVD burner, 8 gig RAM, Geforce 9300GE with HDMI output with two PCI express slots available, and Windows Vista 64 bit home premium with Media Center. It's almost perfect as a high end media room server as it has no extra programming that uploads automatically and takes up RAM, runs the 64 bit Vista which may be upgraded easily to Windows 7 when available, has Media Center programming, a Blu-ray player for those new high definition video discs and DVD-Audio playback, plenty of RAM and a good sized hard drive for storage, and extra PCI-express slots for a great audio card. Total price: $549 plus shipping. Such a steal.
As of this writing, for $799 they have a 2.66 GHz. Core I-7 processor, 1 TB drive, Blu-Ray player and NVidia GTS 250 video card. Normal price at Hewlett Packard is $1350. It's such a good deal that I've ordered one as a replacement for my media room computer.
3. Add a decent to excellent sound card. One can use the SPDIF output of the motherboard and get good results, especially if one has an excellent D/A converter that will isolate jitter, but a good sound card will give you the ability to do the D/A in the computer. While one can spend upwards of $1000 for a professional grade card, there are several very good ones in the low hundreds range that will do an excellent job.
One then has to decide whether to go with an external box hooked to the computer by USB or FireWire or an internal soundcard. While the external cards have the advantage of isolating the D/A conversion from the internal computer RF noise, most have the disadvantage of using USB with its high inherent jitter rate. Internal cards need excellent isolation from the computer RF but work directly off the internal bus with very low jitter, especially if the data is being read from RAM (see below).
If one is using an external DAC, up to now the major way of transmitting the bits has been by SPDIF. If one has one of the newer pre-pro's, there is a significantly better alternative now in the HDMI transmission system, which has the ability to transmit gigabits of data at low jitter rates, something that the high end companies have not caught onto yet.
A reasonably priced 2 channel card is the JULI@ from ESI. It
will do 24-bit/192kHz, has the ability to run either single-ended or balanced,
takes up one slot and has excellent DACS for analog output and either optical or
RCA SPDIF output. I've used one in the past and still have it and find it to be
equivalent to the pro cards for sound.
If one wishes to do multi-channel from Blu-ray with its high
bit rate PCM, Dolby or DTS systems, and be able to either do D/A conversion on
the soundcard or transmit the digital data to a pre-pro, one will need a card
with HDMI output. There is only one available now that can do this, the XONAR
HDAV 1.3 card from ASUS. I have reviewed it previously at this
link and will be transferring it to my new computer as I haven't found
anything better. It will transmit or decode all of the high definition codecs
available now through HDMI when used with the TMT software discussed below. With
its daughter card it will output 7.1 channels of excellent analog audio if one
doesn't have a pre-pro that will decode the new codecs.
4. SATA card. If one is going to store your audio and/or video
digits on external hard drives, the best way of transmitting the data to the
computer is through SATA. One can either get cords that have external SATA plugs
on one end and internal SATA plugs on the other end and directly wire them to
the SATA inputs on the motherboard (best) or get an ATA card that will do it
through the bus ( somewhat more jitter.) Obviously USB or FireWire drives can be
plugged into the motherboard inputs
5. Media Server. Another option rather than storing on external hard drives would be a media server. One of the easiest to set up is the HP MediaSmart Server line. They come with four internal SATA hard drive bays and several external inputs for USB and Firewire hard drives, and the Microsoft Media Server software. With the new 2TB drives that are available one can have 8 TB of internal storage and 12 TB of external. (When I got into computing 20 MB was considered a lot of storage. How times change.)
It hooks up to the computer through the low jitter Ethernet CAT 5 wiring and even will set up mirror drives to do two copies of your files and will warn you to add a new drive when it senses one may go belly up. Price about $500 plus the drives, with ecost.com having sales on reconditioned units from time to time at about half that price.
I suggest hooking it directly to your computer's Ethernet input if you have two or you are not connecting to the web through the house's Ethernet system. Obviously, if you are using your computer as a whole house music server then it would be better to connect the Media Server to the system. Cost: $500 plus about $100 per Terabyte.
2. cPlay: Reviewed by me at this
3. Exact Audio Copy (EAC)
4. Media Center 14 from J. River
5.Arcsoft Total Media Theater 3 from Arcsoft
I have used the program extensively on video I had captured years ago from old 8 mm family films and the difference is amazing. Totally worth it if you have old video files.
7. Windows Media Center: Included with Windows Home Premium,
this program can be used as a server type software to do all of your audio and
video storage and playback routines. As most home computers come with it today
it's a free add-on to the operating system.
So there you have it. For less than $1500 you can have a self-built home media server with several times the storage capacity that will beat the crap out of anything available out there for 5 to 10 times the price. I know, we've gone over this before, but I keep getting mail asking me what I think of the servers available. So here it is, as none will play back every possible file or disc available out there at anywhere near a home-built media center computer's quality and its cost will be significantly less. Maybe someday somebody will think of audiophiles and produce a high end music server at a reasonable price, but I doubt it.