How to connect a computer for music

March 19, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

13 comments on “How to connect a computer for music”

  1. I’ve been using a computer for audio since the early 90’s. Back then it was just an analog sound card output to amplifier inputs, usually integrated stuff or a pre-amp. It wasn’t very good but once I realized the enormous potential for audio management and availability I was hooked. Then the video cards got better and better adding video/tv viewing as well as audio and the integrated media systems started popping up everywhere. I have always built all my own stuff and designed my crazy systems with all my devices integrated so the keyboard rig, both analog and digital synths, the TV and the stereo were all connected and data, both digital and analog was easily accessed by any device that could handle it. Noise was a nightmare, but I was relentless and between ground matching, optical connections where I could, and balanced lines where I could it became manageable though my homes a/c power struggled to supply this system when all devices were operating. I am a bit insane about high power amps and multiple speakers. Between the Crown DC300’s bridged for the L/R front, and the 3 DC150’s bridged for the rear surround and center channel, the Carver 1.5 for the subs, a power sucking computer with a massive (for the time) SLI video card system a 36″ HD tube TV and 36 (yes 36) synths all wired up for playing power was quite an issue. Jump 25 years to the present and all the big power amps are retired due to servicing needs, the keyboard rig is reduced to 13 keyboards, the TV is 60″ Plasma, (yes plasma I hate LED/LCD) and my decoders and processors retired, VHS and Beta retired I am down to a much smaller computer drawing only 70 watts running at average load and a Harman Kardon AVR. Audio and Video are all run from the computer with a single HDMI cable to the AVR and the TV is driven with a 30 foot long HDMI with a timing chip built in to accommodate the excess length. I still have my TT and CD analog inputs through an aging NAD preamp then into the AVR, but they are rarely used these days. The computer runs everything. And now with a personal cloud device I can access everything from anywhere I have internet service. Remembering the limits of vinyl playback with all the cleanliness and limited access and time required to play individual tracks and space constraints for the collection itself, the computer is now a must have device. I miss the sound of the old Big system, but the simplicity of the AVR in wiring, noise and versatility coupled with the computer and the fact that it’s really not bad, just not quite as good, makes it just too practical to ignore. Sure, I would love to have another room for just 2 channel perfection, but it ain’t gonna happen in a 980 sqft house. I really shouldn’t be reading and commenting at 4 am . I am too long winded and I apologize for the rambling. But I would hate to do without the computer and my media. It’s been a dream come true in nearly every way. Oh and I use a program called AIMP to playback. It’s a Russian software and is ultra simple, and doesn’t mess with my file systems and has all kinds of digital features for 2 and multi channel outputs and inputs and handles all the audio file types I use. I use VLC for video watching because it’s also easy and handles a wide variety of video codecs well. OK I’ll shut up, have a great day all.

  2. Is it a coincidence that only a month ago I connected my computer to my 2channel audio system?
    Your a mind reader Paul…nice video.

    While my concept was a little different it still had the same working parts.
    I use TIDAL to stream and was interested in listening to MQA but the only way I could do this is thru my computer. I decided to purchase a Mac Mini that was on sale at $100.00 less than the store price. I also bought a relatively cheap monitor from Samsung but it is more than adequate to do the job.
    Total investment with shipping was $538.00.
    I also needed an HDMI cable purchased at BJC.
    I setup the Mac Mini with little problem BUT still had to have APPLE guide me to the finished product setup I wanted for my needs.
    From there I purchased an App called AIR-SERVER for $15.00 enabling the Mac Mini to have AirPlay. The Mac Mini was connected toslink to Mini-toslink that I purchased form Audioquest. The preamp dac I am using is the GRACE design m920.
    It was on the whole a simple process but I will admit having my friend giving me some guidance and talking to APPLE made the process much smoother.
    It sounds great and I enjoy having TIDAL on the big screen
    In the near future I intend to step things up a bit with a custom made SP14 tube pre-amp and an Audionote 4.1dac.

    Thanks for all of your hard work Paul and advice!

    1. Frank, to run MQA all the way without any loss, you’d want to get an MQA capable DAC, which you can connect using USB to your Mac Mini. From there you use RCA to your system.

      Not sure if or when PSAudio is adding MQA support to their DACs.

      Running a Mac Mini here as well.

  3. My computer has been the heart of my home theater for several months – since I updated the source with a three figure DAC from Asus. It’s been love at first byte. High quality mainstream digital has a host of issues to overcome. From computer protocols that don’t understand timing to $10 earbuds to speaker companies that can’t retain institutional memory of amazing inexpensive one-hit-wonder speakers.
    I thought I’d hit my sweet spot with Soundblaster USB SPDIF->Sony EP9ES->NADs->NHT 2.5. The love affair lasted some 15 years. The Sony died an agonizing death, slowly losing channels over a period of a year. When I was down to a minimum three channels to run stereo and sub, I started looking. After lots of research I made a series of market purchases and updated to Asus Xonar STX II->Marantz CX-A5000->Anthem 50->B&W 683. The difference between MSRP and what I paid for excellent equipment is almost criminal.
    The STX DAC is the only item I paid MSRP, that used market niche is a desert for several reasons. Used audiophile DACs are still well into four figures, I suspect owners have them enclosed in their coffins when they pass on; refusing to part with their loved ones. To this day, the Sound Blaster DACs remain prominent in the low end consumer market. They are excellent units, one of the few computer components are unchanged yet has doubled in price. However few people want more cords and boxes, preferring to plug directly into their motherboards.
    With this update, it’s the farthest up the logarithmic price/performance curve of the audiophile market that I’ve ever ventured. Some of Paul’s sharing of the basics of audio technology contributed in my search for equipment. I’d like thank Paul McGowan for regularly panning the camera around his perch at the top of audio Mount Everest. It’s a sweet view from the top.

  4. Sitting in INDIA, far away than the HiFi center of the WORLD.
    With BAD 220v/50Hz power supply and the worst sound possible from even the Best HiFi.
    Then took the decision to buy the AUDIOQUEST DRAGONFLY BLACK.
    Plugged into my TABLET ‘old trusted Microsoft RT’ and with Output out into a LUXMAN re-amp and a MITSUBISHI POWER AMP +
    DYNAUDIO Monitors…..and its a true HiFi Digital Sound.
    Amazing DAC and MPQ. Dont believe me?? Just trust and listen to GURU PAUL M above.
    Its worth it.

  5. Paul, I claim to be the “Computer Audiophile on the Cheap” which is to say, my philosophy is to get the greatest value from each component, to produce the best possible results.

    My entire Music Library lives on a 4Tb external drive ($129), and the USB transport (Which is basically what my old Dell Vostros 200 functions as) is a computer ($14) I built from barebones and spare parts at the Goodwill store. I upgraded the memory and replaced the HDD with a 120 Gb SSD ($39) which runs silently.

    I have tested four ‘entry-level’ USB external DACs, starting with the Audioquest Dragonfly (v1.2) which was close-out priced at $79. I then upgraded to a Schiit Modi 2, ($99) and am currently testing the Modi Multibit with Wyrd ($348).

    I have also tested the iFi Audio iDSD nano LE and their iOne.
    I didn’t care for the nano LE because it ran the line signal through a headphone amplifier. The iOne was an exceptional value at $199 and offered Bluetooth connectivity and the ability to decode native DSD.

    I have found that using a Linux-based Operating System and the open-source Audacious music player (with ALSA plug-in) provides a very compact, small footprint, which is very lightweight on computing resources. There are so-called “Audiophile Linux” programs, but I am a firm believer in “If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it” school and Audacious is very conservative in its demands on the processor.

    Three things I can share with your readers: An external DAC is essential; 16-bit/44.1kHz sound great, 24-bit/96kHz sound better; and only cats can hear a difference between 96kHz and 192kHz, with one exception- that being what the Cheskys are doing at HDTracks. Only HDTracks really sound different, which has to do with their expert technique when remastering and digitizing existing recordings.

    Call me old-fashioned, but I am well-pleased with 24/96 PCM Hi-Res from HDTracks, and MQA or DSD hold no fascination for me.

    I am playing around with a Raspberry Pi computer with the Allo BOSS DAC which becomes integral when mated with the RasPi.
    I am working on Networking my secondary bedroom system.
    Since this is about an introduction to digital music systems, the rest of the system really is not germane, but let me add, I love Vintage electronics which have been refurbished, and Classic speakers, like my 1975 Advent Loudspeakers.

  6. laptop to usb cable to Uptone Audio’s ISO Regen powered by LPS-1 power supply (providing galvanic isolation) to DirectStream Jr. dac.
    Simple and magical.

  7. As Paul mentioned, using digital files can be such a delight.

    I’ve been playing off and on with it for years, here are a few options:

    1. Online streaming: Spotify is probably most known, there’s also Apple Music, Amazon Music, TIDAL, and many more. For audiophiles, TIDAL offers actual High-Res audio with their “HiFi” plan, sending MQA encoded streams. QOBUZ is another High-Res one, but have not tried that yet.
    2. In-House streaming: Think Airplay, ChromeCast, DTS Play-Fi, and so on. There are many systems that support one of more of these protocols, so depending on what your preference is, you can send your music from any supported device, to any supposed receiving device. Quality is obviously not that great, though on a good network, not horrible either.
    3. Music Server: This is probably the thing to look at for an audiophile: You have a server on your network, that hosts all your digital files. The actual storage of the files can be on a NAS (Network Attached Storage), or on any computer you’d typically leave on. There are also several manufacturers that have media servers you can buy, and some even have a CD drive to digitize your (red book) CDs. Paul mentioned JRiver (JRiver Media Center), which is a great software to run on your “server”, to manage your music, if you want to use a computer. You can update the details (tags, metadata) of all your files, create playlists, and so on. I use JRiver myself to manage the actual file data, and then consolidate my files through JRiver in one folder that holds (in their individual subfolders) all my “cleaned” files. The actual day to day use of my music, playing songs and such, I do through an application called ROON. So cleaning and managing files is JRiver MC, and playing it is Roon. Roon also supports TIDAL, so everything you add to your library in TIDAL shows up in Roon, and it will send it over the network, in MQA, to your Roon endpoint. Roon endpoints can be a small computer (Mac Mini in my case) running Roon software, there are also super small devices you can buy (HiFiBerry, for instance, a Raspberry Pi based system), and a ton of other systems support Roon as well. You can connect a USB DAC to your endpoint, which will then do the decoding of the files sent by Roon. Roon will recognize anything you have on your network it can work with, including airplay and similar systems. It will also show you what the quality of the output is when you play a file. Roon now even offers a FREE operating system you can use to create your own Music Server based on the Intel NUC systems!
    4. Network Streamers: Closely related to the Music Server, but this is the device you can plug into your network, and connect to your system. A lot of these will have a DAC built in, some have the option to connect an external DAC as well. PS Audio’s DirectSteam DAC with the “Bridge” module installed, is a great example of this. I just looked up the specs, and it seems it now even supports MQA for TIDAL, as well as Roon, Qobuz etc. ! Solutions exist with or without screens, self-built or dedicated hardware, and so on.

    What to look out for when deciding on what setup to use?

    As Paul said, a lot depends on wether you are OK having a computer in your listening room. If possible, avoid using WiFi, but run an ethernet cable, and disable the WiFi on that computer. There are kits available to remove crappy power supplies from Mac Mini and replace it with a Linear Power Supply (LPS). Otherwise, a dedicated hardware solution is a great option, such as the PSAudio DirectStream DAC with the Bridge module.
    Then, what music do you HAVE, and what music do you think you’d like to get. DSD (you may see DSD64, DSD128, DSD256 and DSD512) seems to be the new go-to. DSD is the standard used on the SACD discs. There are many sites now offering DSD downloads, even in multichannel surround. FLAC has been a long standing standard of course, and the new kid on the block is MQA. MQA is most known for its relation with TIDAL, but there are now also MQA downloads you can buy. There’s a lot of controversy around MQA being good or bad, but simply put, if you like TIDAL, get MQA support on your system.

    Hope this helps !

  8. Hi All,

    Level 1: Stereo out
    Every computer has nowadays a stereo jack for headphones or headset.
    Just connect the stereo out of the computer (usually the green “hole”) to the RCAs of an integrated amplifier (but NOT phono in). In order to be on the safe side just use AUX or CD input RCAs. The signal power (volume) on the “green hole” is controlled by your computer sound card.
    There is another posibility – the “blue hole” where the volume is constant and not controlled by your computer card.

    Level 2: USB DAC (or USB sound card)

    Level 3: Streaming on a cheap WiFi DLNA/Air Play receiver – for 30-50 USD/EUR you can find nice devices with acceptable DAC chips and probably very cheap analog output stages and power supplies (usually 5V micro USB).

    Level 4: Use a dedicated computer with USB DAC connected to a proper power supply. Or a raspberry pi solution (around 500 USD/EUR)

    Level 5: Streaming for advanced users (like Paul)

    At the end of the day all depends on your ears and your sound system.
    It is all about music and sound listening education – one you know how a piano sounds you will never be satisfied with a low value solution. Therefore you need also a system enough sensitive to allow you hearing the differences.

    I would use the level 1 solution for systems around 500-1000 USD/EUR (stereo loudspeakers and the stereo amplifier, including cables and power supplies)
    Level 2-3 for system up to 1500 USD/EUR
    Level 3-4 for systems up to 2500 USD/EUR

    Best regards from Munich, Germany

  9. You all are so above my pay grade !!!!!
    Here is what I would like to do,
    When building out my listening room I ran a HDMI cable from the stereo setup location to my tv on the other side of the room.

    1) I want to be able to plug the HDMI cable into said computer and send lyrics utilizing Genius/Spotify, and play DVD’s to the tv screen.

    2) I want the audio portion of the DVD’s while playing on the tv to run thru to my stereo.

    3) I want to use said machine to rip and store my cd’s, download hi res music, store it, and play it thru my stereo.

    I don’t know how to do this, or even if it can be done. Can I buy a machine off of the shelf? Will I need to make the machine? If I need to make the machine would you please be very specific as to what I need.

    HELP !!!!!

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