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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 49
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Building a Digital Music Server (Formerly a "Hard Drive Based System"): The Beta Phase
by Andy Schaub

 

First, I have to thank my friend Nick Gowan of True Sound in Campbell, CA for coming up with the name or title "Digital Music Server" rather than "Hard Drive Based System" which has an awkward quality to it. I personally came up with the name "Streaming Server System", because I am in a sense streaming music from the Internet or from the CD's that I own; they're just heavily (actually fully) buffered on my 1TB RAID 1 drive by LaCie. But Nick felt that "Streaming Music Server", while somewhat accurate, sounded too much like "SCREAMING Music Server", and he just wanted to emphasize how much the system sounds like music and doesn't have any of the digital artifacts associated with even some of the best CD players or transport/DAC combinations.

So, speaking on the phone, throwing out words and phrases, we came up with, "digital music server"; and that emphasizes that this IS digital—there's no 1/2", 15 ips Scully tube tape deck hidden in the back room—but that it does play music, not data. And it is a server, meaning that it can hold a tremendous amount of music, even uncompressed (I can buy a 4TB LaCie RAID 1 drive if I want) and that it can play all this music continuously if I want or in shuffle mode (which I actually hate). I can also control the whole thing from a virtual, touch screen image of my 13" MacBook Pro as it appears in landscape orientation on my 64GB 3G + Wi-Fi iPad using an inexpensive iPad App called Desktop Connect; so I really do have a client for my server.

So thanks Nick for the better name of this complex device I've put together and, just so everyone knows I'm real, I'm writing this review in an iPad App called Pages because my 17" MacBook Pro is in the shop for some minor service (switching over from a 500GB magnetic hard drive to 256GB SSD, or Solid State Drive, because it runs cooler and requires less power as well as responds faster and, quite honestly, sounds better when I connect my high end headphones directly to the computer). But enough of this long introduction!

You are probably curious about what equipment I have now, right? Some of it is the same but some is new and it now has its own rack. I regard as rather ironic that I had originally intended to use my 17" MacBook Pro as a music server which is part of why I originally bought a 500GB—or 1/2 TB—hard drive; but after speaking with Lee Weiland of Locus Design and Cryo-Parts and, of course, Nick, things expanded. Now I have a completely dedicated digital music server:

(1) 13" MacBook Pro with 128GB SSD (Solid State Drive) and 8GB of RAM; Amarra likes lots of memory.

(2) LaCie 2 TB RAID drive which, in RAID 1 or the "Safer" configuration, nets 1TB of storage from the computer's perspective.

(3) The amazing and magical Sonicweld Diverter developed and built by Josh Heiner, which converts the USB output of the computer to the S/PDIF input of a standard DAC (though with certain limitations).

(4) A jet black PSAudio PerfectWave DAC which is really very good sounding and which I use in "native" mode, meaning no upsampling. The filter is set to "Auto" so it sets it based on the input resolution (I used to leave it on Filter 4 but now that I have better analog interconnects I use "Auto" per PS Audio's recommendation) and the phase set to "In" which basically means normal or non-inverting—Note: I am leaving this in place but making an annotation that since Nick came over with Lee "non-Weiland" and we did some listening to the then ‘much more burned in Vision interconnects', we have re-standardized on Filter 4.

(5) A Locus Design Axis USB cable and Core S/PDIF cable designed specifically for the Diverter, with a top of the line Locus Cynosure USB cable sitting in my office, waiting to be plugged in.

(6) A jet black Equi=Tech 2Q that's been slightly enhanced and is connected to a 20 amp wall socket via a 3.5 meter 20 amp JPS Labs Power AC+ power cable with 20 amp connectors that provide greater connectivity.

(7) A 4 shelf Quadraspire Q4EVO component stand with carpet spikes and the tallest columns per shelf possible, again all in black.

(8) 17 feet of beautiful, outstanding Locus Design Vision interconnects, which have been burning in 24/7 for the past 7 days and which still need another 100 hours but have kind of "leveled out" to show their true colors. The rest of which will be subtle, and fortunately they are excellent colors. I don't mean to imply that the Visions have a colored sound; as they have burned in they have gotten to be quite neutral in so much as any cable can. I'm never going to fall into the trap of saying, "It sounded like the cables just weren't there." However, I am hearing things through the Visions that I didn't hear through the blue Cryo-Parts cables and the music is very beautiful; so I genuinely do believe they're up there with better if not best Audio Note cables. They just need a very long time to burn in, playing music, not white noise, for about 250-300 hours.

That's about it (enough, huh?). You can assume the rest of the cables are stock but DO remember that the 13" MacBook Pro is connected to the Internet by a patch cable going into my Airport Extreme. No Wi-Fi with a music server. And also please remember that the music is on the RAID 1 mode drive, which is why it's in RAID 1 or "Safer" mode and that the SSD just stores basic programs like iTunes and Amarra (this is the full version now for a whopping $1K as I have graduated from my previous version of Amarra Mini) and with Spotlight's privacy settings set to ignore the RAID drive. And per both Lee's and Amarra's suggestions, Time Machine is turned off.

As I mentioned, I have a Cynosure USB sitting in my office, but I'm not inserting it into my system because I want that to be part of the third/"gamma" article on building a digital music server; however, I should mention that I also have a Locus Design Herald FireWire 400 cable connected to my 27" Quad Core iMac with a 2TB fixed drive and 16GB of RAM, and even though it's going through a FireWire 800 adapter into an 8 port powered hub which is connected to my iMac by a generic FireWire 800 cable (but a sturdy one), having the other end plugged into my Apogee Duet has brought me substantially more music with better dynamics, bass definition, and treble detail than I ever got from the Apogee FireWire 800 to 400 cable. Although the Herald costs considerably more than the Duet - and I'm still using Apogee's rather hideous "breakout cable" with all sorts of adapters—the combination of the two using 16/44.1 Apple Lossless files and having a machine-locked version of Amarra Mini inserted between iTunes and my processor really sings. This set-up implies a very cost effective solution to having a miniature digital music server given that I have a computer with a FireWire port (although you would think that if Apple is going to offer a 27" Quad Core iMac that one can use in lieu of a Mac Pro with a 30" Apple Cinema Monitor they could include a second FireWire port so I could have a dedicated music port and use the other FireWire port with my hub); but I digress.

To return to the main thread, Nick and Lee "non-Weiland" came over this evening to listen to music via the digital music server; and, for the most part, they were very impressed, but they did have a couple of comments:

(1) The Vision interconnects have opened up enough, that at 170 hours, I really need to go back to Filter 4 on the PerfectWave (mentioned above). Why? Because using Filter 2 on 16/44.1 material really rolls off the treble a bit too much; and in a lesser system, that could be good because it would eliminate harshness. But having the data come from a hard drive rather than a CD transport and be processed by the full iLok version of Amarra and go through the lovely Locus Axis USB cable, Sonicweld Diverter, and Locus Core S/PDIF cable, you're getting really good bits, so it actually makes sense to open things up and use the most minimal/musical filter (Filter 4). This allows the music to come through without being muffled. It's no fault of the PerfectWave. It's making reasonable assumptions. It just wasn't designed—I would guess—with this particular application in mind so you have to resort to "manual" and set things on how they best sound to you: thus Filter 4.

(2) When playing the 24/96 files of River: The Joni Letters by Herbie Hancock, certain things sound hauntingly realistic and almost like vinyl; especially so the midrange definition of Norah Jones' voice on "Court 'n Spark". It was like listening to a pair of Quads; on the other hand, and this is NOT to disparage the PerfectWave in any way, it was like it was trying a little too hard, almost as if the digital filtering—even using Filter 4—was trying to keep up with the piano a little too aggressively and in the process creating a kind of "Pong" effect (Pong being the first video game where a square bounces back and forth across your television screen) and making you follow the transients back and forth from the left and right channel. When we put on the vinyl version of River, the haunting midrange was still there, but it was as if something had dropped away and the piano presentation was now normal. No "Pong".

So is Amarra, the Axis USB cable, the Sonicweld Diverter (very unlikely), or the Core S/PDIF cable at fault here? It's really impossible to know without some testing, but I spoke with my friends Nick and Lee "non-Weiland" and we guess that it is more likely the DAC; the PerfectWave and its digital filters. So after I finish this review, I am going to (a) replace the Axis USB cable with the top of the line Cynosure which according to Dave Clark is supposed to be a near religious experience and (b) at least temporarily replace the PerfectWave with my Audio Note DAC 3.1X, because, like the PerfectWave, it doesn't do any up sampling (at least that's how I have the PerfectWave set). But, unlike the PerfectWave, it has no filtering, analog or digital; and I do think it sounds better than most DAC's because of that. Plus, it has tubes. That way I will know ‘which' is doing to ‘what'.

Sadly, the results of that test will be in the third "gamma" article. However I need to emphasize that for all the critical listening my friends and I did, and for Nick, Lee "non-Weiland" and my hypothesis regarding the PerfectWave's filters, by any objective standard it sounded really excellent, much better than the average CD player. So things are definitely moving in the right direction. Now let's shift the focus of the article a bit and talk about obtaining high-resolution music!

The good news is that Cowboy Junkies' latest album, Renmin Park, is available on their site either as an actual CD, a set of MP3 files (blah), and as a set of files that includes full CD resolution 16/44.1 data. So you can download a full CD resolution set of files from a site whose artists are committed to sound quality but aren't really known for releasing audiophile quality material (The Trinity Session excluded) rather than having to go to an "HD" only site and get a special recording of two guitar students at UC Santa Cruz recorded on a 24/96 PCM deck with a minimalist miking arrangement playing covers of the Beatles early hits.

I have, in fact, downloaded a number of lovely recording from http://www.hdtracks.com like John Abercrombie's Marsh / Graves / Upon a Time (which sounds wonderful) at 16/44.1 resolution and Herbie Hancock's River and Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive and Thank You Mr. Churchill in 24/96 resolution, all regular, plain old mainstream albums, unlike "Guitar Noir" which I got at http://www.itrax.com which is very well recorded and performed but does in fact feature a guitar-only performance of "Strawberry Fields Forever"; however, the main problem I have found is the poor quality of the various download managers for the files you buy, one of which has failed and required that I repurchase the album, one of which automatically inserted the files into iTunes, which was nice, but put both the MP3 and Apple Lossless files under the same albums in no particular order, so I had to "Get Info" on each file and delete the MP3's and one of which required that I download each file separately, including the cover art, and insert them into iTunes and went back to the website to set the files in the correct order and manually insert the cover art, all for $20 because it was "high resolution". And of course 90% of the downloads are FLAC files which I need to convert to AIFF using a Mac free program called Max (http://sbooth.org/Max/). And here is a list, courtesy of Weiss, of many high-res download sites:

http://www.weiss-highend.ch/computerplayback/ComputerPlayback.html

But I would say the overall user experience I've had, and the most economical source of music, would be the B&W Society of Sound:

http://www.bowers-wilkins.com/display.aspx?infid=3550&t=APItrigger-subs6mo-Thanks_US

I should confess that I am now working in Word on my 17" MacBook Pro which I originally purchased as a music server but repurposed when I decided to setup a dedicated 13" MacBook Pro and the RAID 1 drive. Working on the iPad in Pages is a little tedious, but it's certainly better than trying to write a review on your iPhone, if such an App existed. The reason I switched to my MacBook Pro is because it returned from the shop where I had the 500GB magnetic drive—originally intended to store music—replaced by 256GB SSD (Solid State Drive) because it makes the experience of computing, regardless of what task it is, so much more pleasurable and fast; if I had an older machine I would have just donated it to Nick or Lee (Weiland) and ordered a new MacBook Pro with a 512GB SSD; but I just bought this machine in February of 2010 and I would lose too much money; so $900 later I have half the storage capacity but a lot more speed and a more linear, or consistent, response time to bringing up applications, and, when I do travel and listen to music on the computer, where I can drive my Moon Audio Silver Dragon modified Ultrasone Edition 8's directly from the 17" MacBook Pro's headphone socket effortlessly, Apple Lossless files sound better coming off of the SSD; so, yet again, it is a musical offering.

Over the past few weeks, I have listened to my digital music server break in and I have seen the Quadraspire Q4EVO stand, the Equi=Tech 2Q with real 20 amp connectors, the JPS Labs Power AC+ and the 17 feet of Locus Design Vision analog interconnects all add to the beauty of the music steaming (not screaming) off of my RAID 1 drive. And I have been extremely pleased. Burning in the Vision cables as a sub-project has been fascinating because they need 250-300 hours of burn in to really sound right, so I have had my 13" MacBook Pro in "repeat" with various albums at various resolution—because we all agreed the cables needed to be broken in with music and not white noise even if it takes longer. Hearing them open and close, sound bright and sound rolled off, and finally sound lovely and neutral and do some pretty amazing things for 17 feet of really beautiful LOOKING analog interconnects. I guess sometimes you can have looks and personality. But what really captures my imagination is thinking back to that walk in the park with my friends Cliff and John, and seeing the world actually do what we predicted to the point of having groups like Cowboy Junkies offer full 16/44.1 CD resolution downloads at their site. Not because they're trying to make an audiophile statement, but because people want that, and it makes more sense economically (i. e., costs less than stamping a CD with a jewel box and a label/insert). So who knows? Maybe 5 years from now your choices will be vinyl or 24/96 nay 24/192 downloads and the shiny silver discs that offered "perfect sound forever" will have become designer martini glass coasters. Just remember, you read about it first here.

So what's next? Well, as I mentioned the substitution of the Audio Note DAC 3.1X preceded by the insertion of the Locus Design top of the line Cynosure USB cable and maybe a bit of experimentation with power cables preceding that. I'm curious about what the Shunyata Diamondback Platinum will do for the PerfectWave. I have to confess that I got curious enough about what the Cynosure would do for the system that I inserted it, changing nothing else, and without giving too much away, I was listening to the 24/96 version of River by Herbie Hancock and there was such a natural, musical, analog flow that the following lines from T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland came to mind, although he actually stole them from Edmund Spenser:

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud [n]or long.

More to come ….


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