Getting started

Like so many, I knew that you could download a couple of MP3’s on your PC and play them over a pair of fancy desktop speakers.
Nothing wrong with that but it is not the best possible sound quality.
It took a while before I grasped it, when done right computer audio playback is a perfect replacement for a CD player.
You could even use it to digitize your vinyl.
What are the advantages?

Comfort

Your whole collection well-structured and tagged on a hard disk.

A very flexible way to deal with your collection.

Resolution

By design, a CD is 16 bits at a 44.1 kHz sample rate (Redbook audio).
Recording in general is done using 24 bits and sample rates ranging from 44.1 to 192 kHz.
Nice, but a 24-bit/96 kHz recording cannot be played on a CD player. It is simply not according to the Redbook standard.
It has to be down-sampled to 16 bits/ 44.1 kHz and dithered in the process.


You can play high-resolution audio using your PC if your audio device supports it.
If not, you can often play them but they will be automatically down sampled to a rate supported by your hardware.
If you are looking for new hardware, support of 24/96 is a minimum if you want to go the highres way.

The highres catalogue is not big now but it is growing.

Backup

A substantial audio collection is a substantial investment. Beside the financial part, the emotional value is high too.

Often you have those recordings long out of print but you love them.

 

For us it is audio but for a computer it is just a file.

You can make a backup.
You can make another one and store it outside your home.
They might burn your house, they might even step on your blue suede shoes but your collection is safely stored elsewhere.

Sound quality

That is the big issue.
A laptop is not exactly built with high quality audio in mind.
If you want to know, get yourself a Y-cable. Connect the headphone out to your pre-amp and press play. Probably decent mid-fi will be the result.

As computer audio is getting momentum, today you can get decent sound cards, USB to SPDIF converters to drive your existing DAC or USB-DAC’s of excellent quality.
I do think that sound quality wise there is no limitation anymore.
Your PC can sing as good as your CDP.

 

Computer audio is like everything in ICT, easy, logical and you only need a weekend to find out why it is not working.

Luckily, we have internet. There are all kind of forums you can use for information or to post your questions. Tons of information are available. The only thing you have to do is to pick the right one.

Choices, choices, choices

You can go for an audio PC, a music server  or for a streaming solution

Music server

You want the convenience of computer audio but you do not want a PC or anything else computer like in your listening room.
Have a look at music servers.
These boxes have the look and feel of audio equipment. In fact, some manufacturers stress that it is NOT a computer.
Well, good marketing is not telling a lie. Indeed, you cannot e-mail, surf or do anything else but playing audio.
Inside there is invariably a computer with a sound card and an operating system. You cannot do digital audio without.

 

If you go this -in general a bit expensive- way, there are a couple of things you better check.
The music server is your tool to store and maintain your collection.
Beside sound quality, you should also check the ease of use.

 

Streaming

An alternative to a PC is a streaming audio player.
In essence a striped down PC connected to the home network.
One of the big advantages is that they do not contain any moving part, no fan, no HD. Quiet by design.
Most of them come with analogue out (RCA) and digital out (Toslink/coax) so connecting them to your audio is not a problem.
Most of them are UPnP/DLNA compliant. This is the industry standard.
A couple of pros and cons can be found here.

 

Probably you have already a couple of streaming devices in your home.
Vista/Win7 is UPnP compliant.
Often a NAS has an UPnP compliant server on board.
Your new TV is probably networked and UPnP compliant.
They are all able to stream.

You can try streaming between these devices, it will give you a taste what streaming is about.

If you want to try Squeezebox, go to the Logitech website, download Squeezecenter and Softsqueeze and you can try it for free.

PC

You might use a PC for direct playback.

You might go the streaming audio way.

You need a PC to maintain your collection anyway.

 

Simply start by using your current PC.
Do not worry too much about sound quality.
There are many things to learn, to discover, to master and many of  these aspects are not directly related to sound quality.

A complicated start

Use EAC to rip your CD’s and Foobar as a media player, this is what often is recommended in audiophile style forums.

Please Help a Novice With EAC/FOOBAR. PLEASE.
I have become frustrated trying to put it all together through searching forum archives.
I hope that someone will kindly put me out of my misery here and kindly offer a simple step by step instruction how to properly utilize EAC to rip/record and then Foobar to open and play my WAV files/music.
I have been trying, with no success, to be able to (in FOOBAR) open 1 folder and display all of my music Titles on the right side of the screen, ready to play.
I don't know anything about adding or combining ripped WAV files/albums with Cue's if this is something that needs to be done.
A simple STEP BY STEP description of the procedure from EAC through FOOBAR is much needed and will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Audio Asylum

A posting like the above is quite common.
You have done your homework, and read tons of postings in all kind of audio forums.
You have established the best practice and when you try to put it in practice, you’re stuck.
Don’t understand me wrong; this is not about busting these applications.
The guys who developed these apps did an excellent job.
However, if computers and/or digital audio are a bit of a mystery to you, this is not the way to go.


I know there are a lot of people struggling with Foobar.
I wonder why because you can do very complicated things with Foobar but a basic setup is not very complicated.
But I admit, I like computing.

The world of OS

The three major operating systems on the desktop are Windows, OSX and Linux.
Getting familiar with computer audio and learning a new OS at the same time is probably only for masochists. Stick to the OS you are used to.


You will find many hot debates, most of all between Mac and Win (the Linux guys are too busy with hacking to be able to join) but there isn't any hard evidence that one is superior to the other as far as sound quality is concerned.
All are able (if configured rightly) to deliver bit perfect output.
They all run on more or less the same hardware.
Not to be mistaken for running on all hardware, that’s the stronghold of Windows.

Music collection

Start by creating a collection of moderate volume, 30-40 CDs will do.

If you have downloads in MP3 or FLAC, add a couple of them.


If the collection is too big, everything slows down, no fun when experimenting with different players or taggers. Besides, if you make errors, you can easily correct them.
This allows you to familiarize yourself with the tasks and therefore the software needed.
These tasks are covered in the software section.

 

Rip a couple of CD’s to a lossless format
Check the information supplied by the internet database.
Add a sampler to check how your media player copes with multiple artists.
Rip a multi volume set.

If you have classical music;

Media player

If you have your audio files stored on a hard disk, you need software to manage and play your collection.

If you go the streaming way, you need at least software to rip and to tag.

The major media players Windows Media Player and iTunes both cover the basic functionality well and offer a straight forward interface.

Ripping

Most media players do a good job ripping your CDs.

There are dedicated ripping programs like dBpoweramp or EAC.

Iím a dBpoweramp fanboy as it is fast, supports AccurateRip, offers excellent Meta data and has a very reliable format converter.

Do media players have a sound?

This is covered here.

My experiences is that the players themselves often matters less than the driver you choose.

Players like JRiver or Foobar allows you to choose different drivers.

This enables you to fine tune the sound quality of your system.

Recommendations

I recommend a media player:

iTunes and WMP don’t fulfil all these criteria.
Have a look at JRiver Media Center (paid, my personal preference), Foobar or a very elegant piece of freeware like MusicBee.
If you are into classical music, have a good look at MusiCHI.

Connecting to the audio

You can only connect two devices if they do have a “protocol” in common.
A simple one to connect your PC to the audio is using a Y-cable (headphone out to RCA in).
This is a dirt cheap way to get started but don’t expect much sound quality wise.


Desktops with a discrete sound card can be connected using the line out.
DACs and a lot of receivers have a digital in (SPDIF). This might be electrical (coax) or optical but a lot of PCs don’t have a SPDIF out.
In this case a USB to SPDIF converter is an option.

 

Today there is a plethora †of USB DACs
The new generation supports sample rates up to 24/192 and uses asynchronous synchronization.

They have USB in and analog out. †

As there is no PC without USB and almost all amplifiers have analog in, this is the ideal bridge between the PC and the audio.

Some models combine this with a volume control and a headphone out, a DAC and pre-amp in one.

More details on how to connect the PC to the audio can be found here.

Configuring

Today you can get a decent sound right out of the box.
However, changing a couple of settings using the sound panel of your PC can make a difference.
In general any kind of DSP will alter the bits.
This is considered bad, there is a strong purist tendency among audiophiles and bit perfect is one of the holy grails.
However, DSP can have benefits like active crossover, room- and placements corrections, etc.

 

All operating systems are capable of sample rate conversion. This in general won’t improve the sound, as it is not a trivial job to write a good one.
The K-mixer in XP is an infamous example.

Here you will find a couple of tips and links to configure XP, Vista, Win7 and OSX.

If you use a USB DAC there are some simple settings you should check.

Ripping

Ripping is transferring the content of a CD to a hard disk.

In general ripping requires 2 stages:

Ripping is a bit different form making a straight copy.
The content is not only read but also transformed at the same time to an audio file format a PC can understand.

Often this is combined with tagging as the ripper looks up the CD in an online database.

Audio Format

When you rip, you have to choose an audio format.

As a hundred buys you a terabyte of storage today, I wouldn't settle for anything less than a lossless format.

I don’t think file format itself is very important as long as it is lossless.
Observe as lossless is lossless; there is plenty of software enabling you to convert from one lossless format to another lossless format without loss.

Choosing a specific lossless format won’t tie your hands.

 

Proprietary formats are often tied to a specific operating system.
As your PC runs Win, your NAS runs Linux and your smartphone Android, a format that runs on all popular OS is an asset.

Media players are using the tags to display information like album title, artist, cover art, etc.
You need a format with excellent tagging support.
This rules out WAV.

 

The format should allow for storing custom tags in the file too.
If not, you run the risk of losing a substantial amount of information the moment you migrate.

 

Media players store the Meta data in a library (a database with Meta info) and write them to the audio file if the format supports this.
If writing tags to the audio file is not supported you won’t notice the difference as what you see on the screen is the content of the library. The moment you move your audio files to another device you will notice that all information is gone.
A typical case of What You See Is Not What You Get.
This often happens with WAV and with custom tags when using proprietary formats.

Tagging

Rippers often combine the ripping with tagging, retrieving Meta data from an internet database.
How this works can be found here.
Popular sources are FreeDB and Amazon.
If you are into classical you might need a more structured database e.g. AMG.
Rippers like dBpoweramp extract information from AMG, SonataDB, Music Brains and FreeDB.

You can inspect the results and choose the one you prefer before you start to rip.

AccurateRip

The typical audiophile worry: “Is my rip bit perfect”?

Most of the time your rip will be fine but you don’t know for sure.
Rippers supporting AccurateRip allow you to compare your results with those of others.
This allows you to verify your results

You have to choose your ripping software.

EAC and dBpoweramp are the big names and do support AccurateRip but popular players like WMP or iTunes can do the job too (set them to secure mode).


More details about ripping can be found in the reference section.

Audio format

There is a lot of talk about differences in sound quality between audio formats.
Typical claims are:

You can simply try it yourself by ripping a couple of tracks to various formats and do a blindfold listening test. As lossy codecs are pretty good today, you might have a look at samples putting them really to test.

 

If you start to rip, you have to decide what format you are going to use.
You have done your homework, only the purest format will do: WAV.
You might be in for a nasty surprise some day.

 

I suggest ripping to a lossless format, storage is cheap today.
Choose one that:

Observe lossless is lossless. There is plenty of software enabling you to convert from one lossless format to another. Choosing a specific lossless format won’t tie your hands.

Synchronizing

You have your music on your PC but you also want it on a portable.
Often people do so by maintaining two libraries say one in lossless e.g. FLAC and a copy in MP3 for the portable.

You better look for a media player supporting transcoding.
Transcoding is converting on the fly to a format supported by the portable.
Transcoding relieves you of the burden to maintain duplicate libraries.

 

Your audio collection probably won’t fit on your portable.
The trick is to make a play list and use this for the synchronization.
Well-designed media players allow you to do so.

Experiments

Once you are familiar with the concept of computer based audio, you can start experimenting a little. This is one of the assets of computer based audio, you can download a lot of stuff for free and try it. Try different media players, fool around with different drivers, try bit perfect, etc. etc.