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