Sunday, January 23, 2011

Back after long break

It's been a few years since I first started this blog, and my system has changed substantially. The VAC Avatar SE was replaced by a pair of Airtight ATM3 monoblock amps, with an Aesthetix Calypso preamp. Speakers are the Merlin TSM Mme and the REL Strata III.

Digital is still the Squeezebox, heavily modded by Bolder, feeding a TriVista 21 DAC. I've been tempted to try out something new, perhaps one of the Ayre or Wavelength USB DAC's, but really, the SB3/TruVista sounds just great, I don't really see the basis for upgrading. Plus, I am not listening to the system as much as I did previously, making any upgrade a lower priority.

A note to those using Squeezeserver. I upgraded to v.7.5.2 today and spent the better part of several hours trying to understand why the SB3 kept rebuffering. After several tries suggested at the Logitech forum, I followed the advice of an Audiocircle user and deleted 7.5, and reinstalled 7.2. Problem solved, the system is back to its former stable self.

Since this Blog, Logitech has acquired Slim Devices and introduced a range of new devices, including the Touch and Duet, which can still be modded by Boldercable to sound better. They have also discontinued the Transporter. I compared one and still preferred the modded SB3 into the Trivista.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

First Review of the new Transporter

Tech site "The Register" has posted a quick review and internal pics of the new Transporter. The review is pretty light, but there is positive information regarding the quality of the components and features. While the internal guts look adequate, the positive thing seems to be that there is room for modding and upgrading parts.

Monday, July 24, 2006

SLIM announces Audiophile Music Server

Slim announced the new Transporter today. It would be a shame to call this a high end Squeezebox, since it doesn't appear to share the same critical components with the SB3.

The technical specs are pretty incredible. Check out the word clock support, the amazing range of digital inputs and outputs, and the specs on the DAC. Man, I really really want one. Is $1999 too high? I don't think so given the range of features, but I sure would like to see one around $1200 that doesn't need to have all the word clock and home automation support, or even a built in DAC, since most of us may consider using our external DACS.

If I can get my hands on one, I'll be happy to report the findings compared to my hotrodded SB3.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

JA on the Squeezebox and Digital Files

At the recent HE2006 show in Los Angeles, I had a short hallway chat with Jon Atkinson, editor of Stereophile, about his recent experiences with the Squeezebox. First, he has not tried out any modifications or upgrades, keeping with his editorial preference of first sampling products as originally issued. He did note that the stock walwart switching power supply is undoubtedly limiting the performance of the Squeezebox. I encouraged him to get ahold of modifications or improved power supplies, perhaps this may come in a follow up.

While the sound of the stock unit was quite good in his opinion, JA felt that the only way to use the squeezebox was via a separate stand alone DAC, in his case the Mark Levinson. While I will await his final review, he hinted that he was mightily impressed by the sound of a Squeezebox feeding the Levinson, but that it did not outclass the best of current high end digital.

He had tried several digital file formats but professed not to hear any differences between FLAC, WAV, Apple Lossless and AIFF. He mentioned that his Squeezebox review will be delayed until August.

While JA has his biases as we all do, I have consistently agreed with most of his reviews of gear over the years, and I find his measurements of gear absolutely essential to my own product purchases. This is not because I rely on measurements, but because I want to know objectively how certain gear will interact with mine, and in the case of digital gear, I do tend to lean towards digital gear that measures well, finding that such better measurements have a distinct correlation with better sound, something that cannot be said for, say, low powered SET amps.

I also spoke briefly with Robert Lee, founder of Acoustic Zen, which makes sublime sounding cables and interconnect. I use a 1m pair of MC2, which is a 110 ohm cable. Recent online gurus (Steve Nugent of Emperical Audio among them) have indicated that a 75 ohm cable at least 1.5m in length is always preferred when using the RCA outputs of the Squeezebox. Lee confirmed that the better AZ option is the less expensive Silver Byte, a 75 ohm cable that lists for $200.

Since I am waiting for my house to be finished and my music system is in hibernation, I'll be following up with a comparison.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Which Slimserver firmware sounds better?

With the release of Slimserver version 6.2, more chatter has emerged about which version of Slimserver, both software and firmware, sounds better. V. 6.2 fixed many things, including router compatibility, and it also changed the sound quality slightly.

The consensus is that version 15 of the firmware sounds the cleanest: extended bass and more air on the highs. To hear for yourself, one user (mgalusha) has created a killer tool for switching firmware in and out. Click here for more details. This link contains details on installation and a link to firmware v. 15 and others.

Read the thread all the way through to see installation notes. You will need to install, if you don't have it already, Microsoft .Net 1.1 in order to use the tool.

Why would the firmware have any impact on the sound quality? Slim Devices CEO Sean Adams says:

"After fw15 the volume curve was changed to provide more resolution on the low end. This used a wider multiplier and a bug was immediately reported in the calculation of the LSB. It was later fixed by using an 8-bit multiplier on the higher end, and several people who were hearing the bug before have confirmed the fix. You can't simply A/B with the old firmware because the levels are different. "

Adams also notes that running firmware 15 is definitely NOT recommended as we do not test old revs with current versions of slimserver.

One interesting point: V. 15 does NOT invert phase whereas more recent versions do invert phase. This only occurs when you use the analog outputs of the SB3; if you use digital outputs, phase should not be impacted.

For Macintosh users wanting to test the older firmware, if you have access to a PC, run mgalusha's software to update the SB3 using the PC, and set the options in Slimserver on your Mac to disable automatic firmware updates. Otherwise, v. 15 will be updated automatically everytime you connnect.

Post your comments as to what you think sounds better.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Stereophile Gets On the SB3 Bandwagon

I sent John Atkinson a long email about the Squeezebox, but never got a reply (he's been quite punctual before). But several months later, I find this nifty review in my email box.

He likes it and that's without any mods.

Wait till he hears a modded unit....

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Enjoy the Music: Second Review of Modified SB3

Another great review of the SB3, this time comparing the stock version to the Bolder mods. The best part of this article is the explanation and measurements of the stock power supply and the upgraded Bolder power supply, and why power supplies make an impact on sound.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Mini Review of SB3 vs. transport

I had hoped to write a long detailed review of several things: the SB3 unmodified vs. a power supply upgrade, and a Bolder-modified SB3 vs. Stock, and the modified vs. my transport, etc.

These days, I am lucky to get uninterrupted listening time twice a week. I had a few hours this weekend , so this will be a quick overview. I’ve written a number of reviews for gear I’ve owned, but this was probably the toughest. Usually, there is a clear “winner” if I am comparing products, but the Squeezebox has me alternatively smiling, tapping my toe, gritting my teeth, or puzzling over whether the sound I hear is better or the same.

My CD transport is a rare Pioneer Elite PD-S95, a showpiece 40 lb stable platter transport that Pioneer made in tiny quantities, and last sold for $3k, and with a brand new laser and a Herbie Grundgebuster CD mat). Music burned via iTunes (WAV with error correction on). Stock SB3 (wifi) and Bolder modified SB3 (digital only mod, with Deluxe PS).

Stock SB3 vs. Transport/Tri-Vista.
No contest. The transport smoked a stock SB3. Bass through the SB3 was thinner, soundstage was flatter, highs lacked air and extension, voices and instruments did not have the definition and weight of the transport/DAC combo. I will say that a stock SB3 does acquit itself rather nicely for $300; however, high end CD manufacturers should not lose sleep fearing a stock SB3 will take sales away. But they shouldn’t rest easy…
Stock SB3 into Tri-Vista vs. Transport/Tri-Vista
Much closer, but the Transport/Tri-Vista held the lead. Biggest areas of difference were still bass definition, soundstage, and “airiness”. The Transport/Tri-Vista still had that “presence” and palpability unique to high end gear, while the SB3/Tri-Vista was a cut below. I would compare the stock SB3/Tri-Vista combo to my old transport: a Technics DVD A10, or a cheapie Toshiba. Good, but you only find out what you are missing when you add a really good dedicated transport and digital cable.
Stock SB3 with upgraded Bolder Deluxe PS/Tri-Vista vs. Transport/Tri-Vista
It is getting much closer now. Switching back and forth, they are both very musical. But the transport is still more believable, more realistic in rendering differences between vocals and instruments. By analogy, my VAC Avatar has two modes; triode and ultralinear. Triode is sweet and the presence is quite amazing (SET-like); Ultralinear rocks more but is less involving. Both are musical, but my preference is triode mode and its “reach out and touch the musicians” appeal. This is the same as I heard with the SB3 vs. transport. The SB3 was like the ultralinear mode, the transport like the triode mode.

Bolder Digital Upgrade/Deluxe PS/Tri-Vista vs. Transport/Tri-Vista
WOW!!!! What happened? The roles are nearly reversed. Now, vocals through the SB3 are stunning and pure. Detail abounds; you can hear the layers of instruments in good classical and jazz recordings; steel pedal guitars resonate wonderfully with that instantly recognizable tone. Bass detail is far more distinct with the SB3. The transport, by comparison, now sounds “grundgier”, with less detail. However, the transport seems to imbue the vocals and instruments with a bit more “weight” and body. The SB3 bests the transport in most areas except for this “body” thing. And while the SB3’s bass detail is much better, the transport actually seems to add more bass slam. It’s as if the SB3 is tad lightweight. Both are really really musical, and I have to hold my leg still when listening critically. But I think the SB3 gains the upper hand here.

I brought my wife in for a listen (what a great sport, listening to 10 repeat loops of Three Dog Night, Al Green, Norah Jones, and Martin Sexton). She preferred the SB3 too, but also noticed the SB3 seemed just a tiny tad lighter sounding than the transport. I tried a few things to see if something else was contributing to the lack of weight. First, I switched the Asylum cable (DIY AC cable) I was using with the Bolder PS to a Cardas Golden reference cable. Much better. Now some of the weight seems to return.

I’d like to get another Foundation Research LC-1 power cable/conditioner to add to the mix, this solved similar problems before and outperformed the Cardas AC cable. But an LC-1 costs $800 new, and I’ve already sunk enough into the SB3 and mods and Mac Mini system.

The convenience of the SB3/Mac Mini combo would probably be enough by itself for me to switch completely over. Now, the sound quality is pretty much better in almost all areas over my CD transport. It’s no contest. The only thing nagging at me to keep my transport around is the general reliability of computer systems vs. audio gear. I’ve had a few hiccups with the SB3 connecting to the Mac Mini, all caused by standard networking or computer performance issues (that was the teeth gritting I referred to above). Also, if the labels have their way, future CD’s will be copy-protected and may not actually be able to be ripped to computer.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Modifying the Squeezebox: Step 1: Power Supply: Cheap tweak

You have several tiers of modifications available for the Squeezebox, and at least two available and well-known and well-reviewed companies who can do the work for you, for a price. The mods for the Squeezebox fall into three tiers:

  1. Upgrades to the power supply
  2. Upgrades to the digital section of the SB3
  3. Upgrades to the analog section of the SB3
The two companies who mod the SB3 are Boldercable and Red Wine Audio. Both do exceptional work, have legions of satisfied customers, and each takes quite a different approach to the power supply upgrades. I had Boldercable perform the digital mod, and provide an upgraded, deluxe outboard power supply for the SB3, at a total cost of $425 including shipping but excluding the cost of the SB3. But first, a few cheaper options for the power supply.

The stock power supply of the SB3 is a cheap little "walwart" plug not much better than what you use to charge your cell phone. Most users report a noticeable improvement by simply switching to an ugraded industrial adaptor. Hosfelt makes a bargain one ($7), part number 7202 C3 which is a 5 volt, 1.5 amp version, which has received good reviews. Elpac also makes one, the 5v 1.5a Elpac WM075-1950-760, available for not much more. Both resemble the power adaptor of laptop computer. The reported improvements include greater weight, clarity, and smoothness of sound.

In my prior experience upgrading the walwart of the Art DI/O DAC to a cheaper but improved adaptor, I did notice these improvements. However, with the DI/O, I later upgraded to a much more expensive custom-built Boldercable power supply. The difference was much more noticeable and the construction quality was impressive, but the cost was more considerable.

I decided to opt for the Boldercable deluxe power supply for the SB3. It's a tank of power supply, as the linked pictures demonstrate. Housed in a black anodized aluminum case, it is a slight upgrade over the standard Boldercable power supply, and is priced around $350-375. It does NOT come with an AC powercord, which will add another $80 or more (I used one of my Cardas Golden reference cords I had lying around, which can be had used for $250 (retails for $500 new); Bolder makes a good power cord, the Nitro, for about $80). For the cost-no-object crowd, Bolder makes an even more expensive ($1k) version with all silver wiring and very expensive caps.

OK, reality check here. Along with a a good power cord, you are talking $450-$650 for a power supply simply to feed power to a $250 device which already has its adaptor. Or out even more clear: 20x-30x the cost of the el cheapo Hosfelt or Elpac upgrade. Am I nuts? Of course I am and so are you; all audiophiles are nuts, some more than others. Since the Boldercable PS takes about 100 hours to "burn-in" before any critical listening tests can be done, my review of the audible changes with this power supply will have to wait a week, but I can say that even with a few hours of burn in, the changes from the stock walwart are absolutely audible. The construction quality is superb.

I have not listened to the Red Wine Audio power supply, but it is quite different in philosophy, using a battery-powered supply also housed in a black anodized aluminum enclosure, which looks quite similar to the Bolder deluxe version. Inside, however, things are much different, with the AC charging a 12V, 10Ah SLA battery, and a 5V linear regulator. There are many opinions on the benefits of using a battery power supply, as well as the drawbacks. Generally, battery power supplies are usually quieter.

If you don't have the chance to hear both versions for yourself, you can sample the various opinions of pro-battery and pro-AC.

Squeezebox Blues

With all the positive buzz around the Squeezebox and other computer based audio solutions, it only takes a few hiccups to remind you that the SB is still a computer hardware/software device, which means you may invariably suffer computer glitches both in the setup and use. With over 20 years of computer experience, I am used to all manner of computer hiccups, but it still irritates me when I have to spend time resolving the issue. This is a good reminder to keep ahold of my CD-based system, just in case. I had planned to sell my CD transport, but am resigned to keeping it as a backup.

Most problems with the Squeezebox have very little to do with the Squeezebox, and more to do with the computer hardware or with third party software settings. The biggest bugs usually are:
  • firewalls (you need to configure your firewall to allow access to the SB)
  • incompatible or unruly wireless routers or their settings (See the slimdevices website for known compatibility problems with your current wifi router)
  • standard network configuration issues (DHCP problems)

I had been running the SB3 for weeks with no problems, then yesterday, I could not access the computer. While I didn't think anything had changed, I realized the Mac Mini had automatically updated some software, plus I had upgraded my wireless router settings. My wireless router serves both a Windows PC as well as the Mac Mini. Anyway, I spent 2 hours troubleshooting, and finally chased the problem down to a configuration setting on the wireless router.

This is the downside versus CD transports, which are pretty much plug n' play with my audio system. It did get me thinking about the negatives of relying on a computer-based audio server compared to more traditional CD based systems:

CONS of a Squeezebox:

  • In its most general form, it is a computer network device. Any issues common to setting up a computer network could be encountered with the SB, especially if you are using your computer for other tasks.
  • Used in wireless configuration, SB3's can be prone to the same issues impacting other wifi devices, like signal strength or wifi router incompatibility.
  • It does not support computer audio files that have commercial DRM. This means most files downloaded from iTunes music store, or other similar online music stores.
  • It does not yet support high resolution SACD or DVD-A formats.
  • Need and Expense of Backup: Music files must be backed up in order to avoid any risk of file corruption or hard drive failure (this is not a SB problem; rather, a problem common to any computer based system).

None of these outweigh the positive benefits, and in my current experience, they are encountered usually initially (if at all), or following some software upgrade or change to your computer. Plus, I have noticed that the Squeezebox online community is ready, willing, and in most cases, able to help you out with free advice, tips, or trouble shooting.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Squeezebox reference material

I have received lots of questions about the Squeezebox, including questions about how to set it up and how to tweak it. Here are several links to assist users:

1. Official Squeezebox information
2. Audiocircle's Squeezebox FAQ
3. P Farrell's Squeezebox Tips

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Great review/overview of the technical aspects of the Squeezebox

Check out the review by Mark Lanctot, which does a really good job of describing the SB2 (the precedessor of the SB3) from a technical point of view, complete with videos of the screensavers.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Enjoy the Music.Com reviews Squeezebox 3

This is a good review of the features of a Squeezebox, and discusses the benefits of using an external DAC and a slightly upgraded power supply. The typical Squeezebox installation looks like this:
I agree with reviewer that using an external DAC is the way to go. The Squeezebox 3 (SB3) has incredibly low measued jitter, approximately 65 picoseconds. Using a S/PDIF output to your external DAC may introduce added jitter, and hopefully your DAC has good jitter rejection.

Monday, November 21, 2005

What Format Should I Rip To? Basics

Start here for a very technical and thorough discussion of the types of audio formats. Using an SB3, you have the option of pretty much any type of audio format, unless you also use iTunes in combination with Slim Server. iTunes does not yet support playback of FLAC files, so if you plan to use your music server to download to an IPOD, you have to rethink your approach. So far, the possible audiophile formats appear to be:
  • WAV (uncompressed, large file sizes, about 1442 kbps bitrate)
  • FLAC (lossless codec, about 60% compression)
  • Apple Lossless (about 40% compression)
  • APE (proprietary format)

I've compared WAV vs. Apple Lossless, and need more time to decide whether there is a difference. I am ripping most of my files to WAV using iTunes, figuring that I can always convert to a compressed file format when I need to. Besides, storage is cheap. More on file formats later as time permits.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Daddy's Got a Squeezebox...

The Squeezebox (SB)is pretty revolutionary, and after playing with unit for several weeks, I am convinced the high end industry will quickly undergo the same type of upheaval that occurred when the CD began displacing the turntable. If I were a mid to high end CD player maker (say, $1000-$5000), I would be very worried after experimenting with the Squeezebox powered by a reasonably inexpensive computer system (like the Mac Mini, read below).

I have my SB, the latest third generation (SB3) feeding a Tri-Vista DAC via Acoustic Zen MC2 cable (the cable cost more than the SB3!). In its unmodified form, the SB3 sounds pretty good, but not quite up to the level of definition of the Pioneer Elite PD-S95 CD transport that it and the Tri-Vista are sitting on. Of course, the Pioneer sold for more than 10x the cost.

The SB3 can and should be modified, however. Two current companies provide mods that allegedly turn the SB3 into a giant killer. The Bolder Cable company mod consists of replacing two of the main input power supply capacitors with higher value, low ESR versions. The 12.28 MHz crystal oscillator is removed to lower jitter. The signal path to the digital output jack is rerouted, and the digital output jack is replaced with a 75 ohm, WBT NextGen, gold plated, copper RCA. Perhaps equally important, customers can upgrade the cheap walwart power supply with one of Bolder's customized versions: a plain vanilla box, or the extra deluxe one.

The other company is Red Wine Audio, who uses an altogether different approach for the power supply, setting up a battery powered system recharged by an AC walwart. RWA's internal mods are similar. Both Bolder and Red Wine substantially upgrade and modify the internal guts of the SB3 analog section, if you choose.

I have heard excellent things about both companies, and have personal experience with Bolder, who earlier did a fantastic job upgrading my former DAC. I was very impressed with Bolder's build quality, and both Wayne of Bolder and Vinnie of RWA have legions of satisfied customers. I wish I had the time to do both, but with my experience with Wayne at Bolder (and a general reluctance to try a battery setup, no real good reason), I opted for the Bolder digital only mod with the upgraded power supply. I'll get it back in a month, and report my comparison with a stock SB3.

NOTE: OF course, any of these modifications void the warranty of the SB3. Each modder offers their own warranty. If you have never had any of your hi fi gear modified, and consider this to sound like "shade tree" audio tweaking, let me remind you of a few points. First, modifying hi fi gear is a thirty year old tradition. Audio Research, one of the oldest and most respected companies, got their start modifying gear, as did many of the most respected companies today. Most current hifi companies typically have upgrades offered to customers that consist of the same tweaks practiced by Bolder and RWA.

How to get the sound from your PC to your HiFi

Any music server is not a complete audiophile solution, in that it simply rips, stores, and organizes music for playback, but does not currently provide a proper output to your hifi system. By proper, I mean that most PC's (Mac, Linux, or Windows), typically have a sound card that has audio and digital outputs. These sound cards are a mostly inferior method of tranmitting the audio to your hifi, and even the best sound cards outputting S/PDIF introduce measurable jitter. If you are wondering why the audio outputs of the computer aren't sufficient, well, they suck. Fine for casual listening, but no more "fidelity" (and probably less) than having an IPOD hooked up directly to your system via the headphone outputs.

You have four legitimate options when transferring the signal to your system, depending upon whether you will use an external DAC or use something with a built-in DAC and analog output.

1: Higher end sound card with S/PDIF outputs, like an M-Audio. There are lots of competitors with supposedly better sounding cards, and lots of folks who mod these cards. I think these cards are on their way out, personally, but they make it easy to work with an existing computer. You take the S/PDIF output of the card and send it to an external DAC; you could use the audioputs of the card, but again, these are generally seen as inferior.

2. External USB Box, converting from USB to S/PDIF. There are several options, from cheaper solutions like the Xitel (which I used to send digital to MiniDisc) (~$100) to the Waveterminal U24, which hooks up to your PC via its USB port, and outputs a S/PDIF signal to your DAC (about $225), to the expensive Apogee Mini-DAC used by pro-audio types. Except for the Apogee, all of these devices require an external DAC with analog output stage. The Apogee has balanced analog outputs. Another well-reviewed product is the Empirical Audio Offramp, based on highly modified M-Audio guts and with a SuperClock.

3. External USB DAC. There is one current audiophile champ, the well-reviewed Wavelength Brick. The Brick employs both a high quality USB DAC and a high quality tubed analog output stage. Wavelength also makes a gorgeous looking USB DAC, the Cosecant, which I would love to own for looks alone. The Brick has one downside, at $1700, it is not cheap. But neither is a high quality external USB box coupled with a DAC. For example, a Waveterminal plus a Benchmark DAC would run about $1250 plus the cost of a good S/PDIF cable. I'll have to audition a Brick when I can.

4. Squeezebox ("SB"). What is the Squeezebox? I have read more about this unit than anything else. Think of the SB as a combination of #2 and #3 above, plus an all around Internet appliance. A clock radio meets wireless or wired digital transport. It has a built in DAC and analog and digital outputs, and hooks up to your computer via an Ethernet cable or a wireless connection. At $250-$300, who could take this thing seriously? Well, actually, lots of people, starting with 6 Moons, Positive Feedback, and a whole host of audiophiles. I was so intrigued by what I read, I decided to buy two myself, one wired and one wireless. I planned on having the the wired unit modified by one of two well-known modders.

Stereophile Editor Chooses Mac Mini as Music Server

Interestingly enough, on the day my Mini was delivered, I received the Stereophile newsletter from Stereophile editor John Atkinson, detailing his choice of a Mac Mini. I make up my own mind on gear, but over the past 20 years, I have noticed JA liking many of the same gear I have (Celestion SL-600 si's, Technics DVD A10). Here's an interesting quote from JA:

"I chose a Mac Mini as the base unit because of its tiny size and its silent running. This cost $550 with an 80GB drive and a Wi-Fi card, plus another $100 for a Bluetooth remote keyboard and mouse. (The monitor was free, as I used an old LCD panel retrieved from the closet.) With the Mini sitting in my test lab running iTunes 5.0, it could drive my listening-room system via the Airport Express. With iTunes in Shuffle mode, this setup was fine for CD-quality background music but clunky for choosing specific tracks to play...I moved the Mini into the listening room and used an M-Audio Transit USB external soundcard ($79) to provide an S/PDIF optical datalink to the Levinson DAC. This was much more convenient."

I'll have more discussion on choice of S/PDIF interfaces, but it was reassuring to know JA found the Mini a good choice.

Mac Mini System

I narrowed my choice to a Mac Mini. Being an XP user and never having owned a Mac, this is a leap of faith. The Mini won out for several reasons against my next choice, a Linux fanless system, for several reasons:
  • Integration: The Mini has everything I need bundled in an amazingly user-friendly manner.
  • Sound: This unit is very quiet, except when ripping CD's, when the Superdrive can be a bit noisier. I can barely hear the fan, and the unit is fine when listening.
  • Cost: Fully configured, a Mac Mini with 1.44 ghz CPU, a DVD-RW, and built in Airport Express and Bluetooth, plus 512 mb RAM, is $625 delivered from Amazon (after a $75 rebate). No display, mouse, or keyboard are included in this price.
  • Style: Nothing touches the look of a Mini.

Here is a pic of the unit on top of 2 LaCie Hard drives. Each LaCie is 250 gb, and runs off FireWire. I chose LaCie because of generally good reviews, their quiet nature (I think this is the most quiet of all the Mac Mini drives), their cost ($165 ea shipped from Amazon after rebates) and the included hardware and software. A great bundle, and I am using one drive as the main storage unit, and the second as backup. LaCie includes great backup software that automatically backs up each newly added track, and includes a short and long firewire cable. For reviews of other compatible Mac Mini drives (and a great review of the Mini), see One note: the LaCie does not have any USB ports (though it has an extra FireWire port to daisy chain); several other Mini compatible drives also include powered USB and Firewire ports.

Installation of the Mini was the easiest thing I have ever encountered in over 20 years of using computers. It took about 20 minutes to set up the Mini and it found my wireless connection after a bit of tweaking the wifi router settings. The drives were recognized immediately. For input devices, I chose the Mac Bluetooth wireless keyboard (a bargain at only $60) and a MacNally Bluetooth mouse ($49), which has a nice recharger base. Again, installation was painless, with no software drivers to load or configure, the Mini recognized the devices immediately. I finished off the display choice by adding a Samsung Syncmaster 730b, a 17" LCD display with DVI cables included, a great deal at $249 after rebates from Office Depot.

With almost a week of use, I am incredibly impressed with Apple's Mini. The speed is great, the burn time of CD's is very quick, the interface is so amazingly simple and easy to use (and intuitive, even for a Windows power user). If Mac could support running Autocad (my wife uses it for business), I would be a Mac convert in two seconds. Any doubts I had about running a Linux solution or even an ITX case on Windows XP have been banished.

As a committed (as in insane asylum) audiophile, I have gone overboard in the AC filter dept, using Foundation Research LC1 and LC2 cables, plugged into a PMI outlet, with Cardas Golden Reference AC cables for other components. I haven't tried these with a Mini yet, but I did identify the need for a surge protector and UPS battery system. APC, one of the oldest UPS makers, provides a great unit perfect for the Mini, the ES 35oVA, which has a USB connector cable to the Mini that will automatically and safely shut the Mini down in case of power failure, and provides up to 20 minutes of power.

After a week with the Mac Mini, I have zero regrets, and a few observations.

Don't skip on RAM. Order the version with 512 mb; I have tried the cheaper Mini's with 256 mb RAm and they have to work harder, swapping memory with the hard drive, which increases the noise.

Bluetooth can be a little quirky. The keyboard has never given me fits, but the mouse can be slow to react if it has been inactive for a while, and occaisonally needs to be "recognized" (a short process of pushing a button on the mouse). If your input devices will rarely leave the stand, you might consider the wired versions, which are cheaper. I liked the idea of being able to "surf" my music from my chair, but you can do this other less painless ways.

The sound of PC Audio is very very good. I compared the Mac Mini using WAV files against my PC using WAV files. I couldn't hear the difference (but I could hear how loud my old XP machine's fan was. Many have claimed that PC audio playing WAV files and using Foobar 2000 sounds audibly better.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

PC Audio Gets its Props from the HiFi press

Six moons has a nice commentary about the emergence of PC Audio systems and how they are making inroads into traditional CDP's. Conclusion? CDP's are the new turntables of the 90's, and PC Systems will gradually take over. This has amazing implications for the Hi End industry, but may see a reemergence of the traditional stand-alone DAC. An article worth reading, and a nice round up of the potential hardware issues to consider.

Six Moons reminds you that the products are still not mass-market ready:

"PC audio to entirely replace a traditional front-end is not for the timid. Being a complete computer newbie, I spent many nights fighting with software and hardware to get it right. If you're an audiophile just thinking about dabbling in PC audio thinking it's the easy way to good sound, think again. Just like traditional audio, it takes constant fiddling and dedication to set up correctly but to me it has been worth it just purely on sonic quality alone. The ability to instantly access all my music in 2 seconds from my listening seat is simply a bonus (a big bonus you cannot live without once tasted)."

Steve Nugent, owner of Empirical Audio, has a terrific discussion of why computer-based systems inherently sound better than transport systems. Steve should know: he's well-known (along with Dan Wright) for modifying the Sony 999ES and adding his SuperClock. Steve makes his own USB-S/PDIF device, which I heard at 2005 CES, and which first got me seriously thinking about moving to a computer.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Which OS/PC sounds the best?

The hardware choice comes down to ease of use, cost, pain of integration, and for those more shallow amongst us, style. But does a PC system sound better than a Linux system, or a MAC system? Inquiring minds want to know.

I've met Steve @ Empirical Audio and I've heard his system at CES 05. Impressive. Steve has posted his opinions at He concludes that a PC system running Foobar and playing .WAV files edges out a MAC system or Windows system playing Apple Lossless (at least using 24/96 sample rate).

But Gordon Rankin, creator of the highly regarded Wavelength Brick and Cosecant USB and tube based DAC, seems to prefer MAC Mini. See his thoughts at

So, two recognized experts at some odds with each other. Here is what fellow audiophiles thought, namely, that the hardware and OS doesn't matter much (except when you are comparing a USB DAC system to one that outputs SPDIF).

I'll compare my Windows PC with the MAC Mini once the MAC arrives. Both will be running iTunes/Slimserver software, playing an Apple Lossless, so it should be easy to tell, no?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Which Hardware?

Lots of choices and lots of info for those new to setting up a system.

First thing: Do you have an existing computer? If not, or like me, if you want to set up a separate dedicated system, your choices include:

MAC Mini:

Other resources to learn about MAC Mini (good reviews of external drives) (great review of the guts of a Mini)

PRO: Complete, compact, reasonably quiet, good value, very user friendly, can use Itunes playing .WAV or Apple Lossless files, easy to burn to external drives.
CON: Accessories add to price, people claim Foobar playing .WAC or FLAC is better, can't use EAC to rip.

PC: Mini ITX system. Fanless, No hard drive; boots off a 1gb CF card: (~$450)
PRO: No hard drive, small and very dedicated, can use FLAC files.
CON: OS is not newbie friendly, still have to figure out how to burn to the external hard drives.

Lots of choices for small ITX cases. The key is to find a quiet, preferably fanless system. The best site for review of cases and systems is


I am amazed the time it took to research how to assemble an audiophile quality music server and transport. So in the interest of sharing this information, I have created this blog to assist others.

I am building this from scratch: new computer, new OS, new software, new transport interface. Enjoy, and please post your own comments and experiences.

Current System
Pioneer Elite PD-S95 transport (stable platter), feeding a Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 DAC via Acoustic Zen MC2 digital cable
VAC Avatar SE with EH tubes.
Merlin TSM-MM's on Target RS4 stands, with a REL Strata III subwoofer
Speaker: Acoustic Zen Satori Shotgun
IC: Acoustic Zen Silver Reference I
AC: Foundation Research LC-1 and LC-2 and Cardas Golden Reference
Daruma isolation devices, JR Filter, PIM upgraded AC outlets