Last issue I wrote about finally figuring out how to break through the seemingly impenetrable barriers of the SACD format in order to rip the DSD layer, to enable relatively effortless digital streaming over my home stereo system. My piece ran a little on the long side with all the technical details discussing the ripping process, which left very little room for one of the most important questions – why even bother? This time, I’ll talk a bit about my rationale for putting myself through the head-banging and serious wrangling required to figure the process out and make it workable. My current embracing of digital music playback involves a fairly complex equipment chain, with individual equipment providing high-level performance of specific functions within the process – but it wasn’t always like that. First, a little background…
I had almost zero involvement with computers until the late nineties; I worked for years in commercial art as both a graphic artist and typographer, where all work was done conventionally and manually. I often worked on typesetting equipment, which was indeed computerized, but this was before the current “what you see is what you get” operating systems of Mac and Windows. Typesetting was mostly mathematics; you sat and figured out how to write the necessary code to achieve the desired result, and often hundreds of keystrokes were involved just to get a properly formatted and kerned five-word headline output to film. Eventually the Fortune 500 company I worked for transitioned to all Macs in the work environment, and I later had a couple of early Mac models at home, but the cost was prohibitive and their capabilities were limited. You couldn’t run Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop simultaneously because the machines didn’t have the necessary amount of RAM or the needed processing power. It was almost impossible to get any actual work done from home using such a significantly hamstrung computer setup.
Things changed when my brother called around 2000 and offered to build a custom Windows-based PC from spare parts he had around the house; he had become something of a computer early-adopter and had an insatiable bug to keep upgrading his system. And he had two kids (my nephews) who were both students studying computer science at Georgia Tech. Even today, he has a room in his house that looks like a scaled-down version of a Micro Center; there are computer parts of every make and model, along with boxes and boxes of cables, RAM, motherboards, hard drives, computer cases – you get the picture. Anyway, at that point, his offer – while incredibly generous – seemed tantamount to blasphemy to me; I was a Mac guy, and he was offering me a PC, or piece of crap, as we guys in the Mac world called them. And while it was to be an incredibly jacked-up PC, with a super-fast processor, loaded to the gills with RAM, and a relatively huge HDD, the fact remained that it was “Windoze” — I’d be the laughing stock at my day job if anybody found out I was using a PC at home. I’d have to think about it.
I didn’t think too long, and within a week he’d brought the new box down and gave me something of a primer on how the OS worked; he even included PC-based versions of Adobe programs like Illustrator and Photoshop among the complement of software included with the machine. It even had a built-in optical disc drive! And strangely enough, things changed at the day job, where suddenly tons of designers and the like were working from home offices, and sending jobs created on PCs for commercial print. Interestingly, expenditures had to be made to acquire PCs to process these new jobs, and I became the “PC” guy at work, handling much of the new overflow. In a matter of just a couple of years, I’d come from having virtually zero experience with computers to being fairly adept with both Macs and PCs – although it took a significant effort on my part to get the PC experience to be as relatively streamlined as it was working with Macs.
From 2000 and on, I already had an SACD player in my system, and I considered SACD playback to be the gold standard in digital audio. I had at one point earlier in the nineties had a digital to analog converter (DAC) made by Forte (an offshoot of Threshold), but it was intended (at the time) to only improve the quality of CD playback. Which was marginally better, but I wasn’t completely sold on the idea. Still, SACD to me was clearly, obviously much better than Red Book CD.
My first exposure to digital file streaming came during my concurrent tenures at Audiophile Audition and Positive Feedback; I wrote for both sites simultaneously over a multi-year period during the first part of the 2000s. I had just received a review opportunity from PF in 2010 for the HRT Music Streamer II, which was my second experience with a DAC; the HRT unit was a simplistic (but reasonably capable) 24/96 DAC. And it also handled the streaming aspect – although at the time, I didn’t really know what “streaming” really meant. I accepted the review offer, even though I wasn’t quite sure how to actually make the process happen. About the same time, John Sunier from Audiophile Audition offered me a review of the new Auralic Aries streamer – I declined, because I didn’t have a clue what it was supposed to do (I should have jumped at the chance!). I got the same impression from him; he didn’t want to turn down the review offer, but he wasn’t exactly sure what function the unit actually served.
Again, my brother stepped into the picture, and started talking about ripping CDs to FLAC for playback over the stereo system. Whaaaat? I was already onboard the MP3 train (mostly for use in my car), but ripping CDs at full resolution for playback – why not just pop a CD in the disc tray? What was the purpose? He explained that I could just run a USB cable from the computer to the HRT Music Streamer, and it would play FLAC files on the stereo that would sound just as good – possibly even better – than CDs. Most CD players were built to a certain price point, and an outboard box like the HRT had the potential to lift the playback experience exponentially. I bit, and of course (as usual) he was correct.
Also, at about that time, I was beginning to see high-resolution digital downloads appearing online, and was fortunate enough to obtain a number of them from quite a few record companies (like 2L, Channel Classics, and even HDTracks) – though most were of classical music. There was a range of available downloads, anywhere from 24/96 and higher PCM to even DSD downloads. Of course, I didn’t have any way to play back anything higher than 24/96 with the HRT unit, so that was the level of resolution I chose when files were offered to me. Also, playback was anything but effortless with the HRT; you had to have a special driver to get it to work with Windows, and there’d be the occasional pop or click when changing between files of differing resolutions.
And, of course, you had to have some sort of library management and music player software for getting your digital files across to the DAC and eventually to your stereo. I had begun to hear about JRiver Media Center; I reached out to them and got a review copy, and again, I didn’t know anything about how it was supposed to work. Fortunately, during this entire period of the dawn of SACD and into early digital file streaming, I had been transferred at my day job to an on site position at Delta Air Lines. They were one of our biggest clients, and they wanted a graphics person on site to act as a liaison between the two companies. This went on for almost ten years. Throughout the experience, I found myself with copious amounts of downtime that were perfect for trolling the internet in an attempt to get up to speed on the latest advances in digital audio technology. So I had plenty of time to figure out how to make JRiver Media Center and the HRT unit work, and how to optimize my PC for music playback.
This entire chain of experiences ultimately led me through a number of DAC reviews over the next few years, including coverage more advanced equipment from HRT, Centrance, Fiio, and eventually, PS Audio, with DSD support from the last three manufacturers. Soon came review offers for advanced streaming equipment, from Sonore and Euphony Audio (both still currently reside in my home system). It took a lot of explanations from both Adrian (of Sonore) and Dalibor (of Euphony) to get through to me the ultimate wisdom of separating the streaming function from the DAC function. Also, the importance of incorporating a bare-bones, Linux-based OS controlling the streaming and (in the case of Euphony) music library organization.
And in no time at all, Roon had supplanted JRiver as my library organizer and music player. Roon isn’t perfect, but at the time, I felt it provided superior library organization, and better overall sound quality than JRiver was capable of. Over about a five-year period, I’ve had a reviewer subscription (free) to Roon for about four of those years, and actually paid for one of the years (the most recent). It’s not particularly inexpensive, at about $12/month or a lifetime subscription of about $700 – and I have gone round and round in my head about the value Roon provides. I used both the Sonore microRendu and then the ultraRendu with Roon with great success, but fearing that I’d soon have to pay for Roon, started playing around with both DLNA- and UPnP-based freeware programs for library organization and music playback. Both worked well with the Rendu units, but were also relatively glitchy during playback; I probably got the best results from a program called minimServer. Ultimately, it proved to be a mostly hair-pulling experience, and I finally caved and started paying for the consistency of Roon in January of last year.
But when the Euphony Summus arrived last year, it came with a bonus – not only did it provide superb streaming, but it also included library organization and a really great music player with a Roon core internal within the machine. And just recently, a new box has arrived from Euphony, the Summus Endpoint, which further separates the player/server function of the Summus and complements it with the streaming function of the Endpoint. In years gone by, all my music was internal to, or connected to, my Windows PC, but now everything is connected to my home network. The only function my PC now serves is to cue up albums or playlists from either Roon or Euphony’s remote desktop clients. And I can just as easily do that from a tablet, or even my smartphone. The convenience is off the chain!
I know this has been a really meandering discussion of digital music playback, but there are a few things I’d like to hammer home about streaming in a fairly high-end setup. Several items are a must here:
1) A Streamer of some sort is an absolute necessity; it is connected to your network via an ethernet cable, and also connects via USB to your DAC. The Sonore microRendu was one of the first that used what is essentially a Raspberry Pi-based setup that runs using a barebones Linux OS on a micro-SD card. The UltraRendu was a significant improvement over the microRendu, and there’s even an optical version now available. The streamer serves to attach your digital music playback to your home network, and removes the direct connection (via USB) to your computer that would otherwise be necessary. And the bare-bones, music-optimized OS eliminates a lot of potential distractions (such as continually running normal computer background processes) for music playback that are typically present with both Mac and PCs.
The difference in sound quality between a streamer and a directly connected computer is staggeringly good. There are a lot of choices out there over a broad range of prices, and there’s a whole community of DIY builders out there using the Raspberry Pi as the basis for a really good streaming setup. I currently use the Euphony Summus Endpoint as my streamer – it’s a highly customized Intel NUC running Linux with a 256 GB SSD and 16 GB of RAM in a custom case.
2) A Server setup is also de rigueur. It can be as simple as a network-connected laptop that contains your music files, but there are a lot of systems that incorporate Network Attached Storage (NAS) setups with multiple drives for music storage. In a simplified system, your laptop or computer is directly connected to either the DAC or streamer, but a network-connected system will provide much better overall sound quality in the big picture. Your server needs to include library organization software, and also needs to provide high-quality music playback. Of course, Roon is pretty much considered the gold standard here. Your server should preferably be built from a fairly uncomplicated computer setup; the Roon Nucleus ($1,400 and up, depending on included storage options), for example, uses an Intel-based NUC (Next Unit of Computing) setup in a fancy case, but you can build your own NUC for significantly less money. Intel NUCs sell from $300 and up, but only include the case and motherboard, so you have to include your own hard drive and RAM. I’d strongly recommend using solid-state drives and as much RAM as you can afford. The Euphony Summus server I currently use is a highly customized Intel NUC running Linux with a 1TB SSD and 16 GB of RAM in a custom case.
As a footnote, your server setup must include a music player, and I previously mentioned my experiences with JRiver Media Center. There are countless music players out there that are customized for either Mac (like Amarra) or PC, and you can get free trials of most of them to help you make a decision. While I liked JRiver, I felt that Roon was a definite step up, and the Euphony OS is even better sounding, while providing very good library organization. Don’t skimp on storage; I personally prefer solid-state drives for music storage, and it’s vitally important to include some kind of backup and redundancy capability to avoid file loss from a drive failure.
3) A great Digital to Analog Converter is probably the most important element in the chain; if you don’t have a lights-out great DAC, you can’t expect to achieve truly magnificent music playback. You’ll need a DAC that’s capable of providing playback from a wide range of resolutions from both PCM and DSD (if it’s your particular poison); buy the best one you can afford that offers the best range of features for your setup or preferences. I currently use a PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC; it has fully balanced output and offers a plentiful taste of their Direct Stream DAC lineage at a price point I can live with ($1,700).
4) Consider getting upgraded Linear Power Supplies for your streamer and server equipment. The NUC-based equipment (even the expensive stuff) typically only includes a standard switching computer power supply, and you’ll want to go the linear route to achieve ultimate playback fidelity. I’m currently using a stacked, dual-supply unit from PliXiR that’s optimized for use with Intel NUC equipment, and trust me, it makes all the difference in the world in the overall sound quality and in the stable operation of the NUC equipment. Expensive, but worth every penny!
Computer audio is exactly that – audio with computers involved, and as someone who’s spent a significant portion of my working adult lifetime around them – they don’t always behave as expected. And they often require extensive expenditures of time and resources to get them back on track – I had an issue with the Euphony setup after a recent software system update where no music would play. It took almost a week’s worth of phone calls, e-mails and online chats with their tech guys to get to the root of the problem – and they’re located in Zagreb, Croatia. Having moved over a five-plus year period through multiple iterations of streaming systems, I’m now convinced of two things specifically: one, having all your equipment and music storage network-connected is definitely the correct path to improved system sound and fewer hiccups during playback, and two, utilizing highly customized barebones streaming and server systems (like Intel NUCs running Linux) is also key to great audio performance.
My home system is far from being the most expensive audio stack out there, and there are plenty of cost-no-object systems where the entire cost of my setup (about $40K) would only cover the MSRP of a single component. At most audio sites I’ve written for in the past, I’ve generally been considered one of the “good sound on a budget” type guys. And I’m at the point where I can no longer really justify or afford to drop huge bucks on a spinning disc player that will provide audiophile-quality playback of CDs, and especially, SACDs. We’re at the point where the choices of well-made, good-sounding disc players are becoming vanishingly few and farther between. And finding an audiophile-quality SACD player compounds the situation, especially with the cost consideration involved. When my Oppo universal player died a couple of years ago, they’d stopped manufacturing optical disc units, which made my possible choices very slim indeed. And having lived through the deaths of three Sony SACD players and an Oppo, I wasn’t too keen on buying from the used market. The $500 Yamaha BD-A1060 seemed like my only reasonable choice, but I still worry that the unit really offers the best-resolution playback.
Having a relatively high-end, great-sounding digital playback system for everything except SACD made me really want to find a way to replay the DSD content of my SACDs through this system. Being able to rip SACDs to DSD has completely solved that conundrum for me. SACD was created to offer what would perhaps be the closest available digital equivalent to analog, and I wholeheartedly believe they have accomplished that goal. At least, listening to all the newly-ripped DSD files over my current system now, that’s what my ears tell me! And I don’t want you to get the idea that I spend all my time only listening to the relative handful of DSD files I’ve currently converted (about 225) – the vast majority of my music library consists of rips from my CD collection, and presently numbers close to about 3,000 albums. Most of my listening involves music that I love, and more often than not, it’s a rip of a CD – and CD rips have never sounded better to me than on this system. But I do love finally being able to hear the collection of high-resolution DSD music I’ve amassed, streamed through the finest digital playback system I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.
Header image: JRiver Media Center, from the JRiver website.