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Positive Feedback ISSUE 49
may/june 2010


Building a Hard Drive Based System, Part One: The Alpha Phase
by Andy Schaub


About 25 years ago, my friends Cliff and John and I were hiking through Wunderlich Park, a local nature preserve. We were contemplating the future of the Internet (we're nerds). We predicted that someday it would consist of a large, interconnected network (or "web") that would allow individuals to broadcast to as many people as wanted to read stories, listen to music or look at photographs and videos/films.

In this mythical world of the future, when literally millions of "channels" would be available, people would need some way of filtering through them, so we contemplated the development of tools now known as search engines, like Google; and of course *recommendation* tools (I believe the first one came out of the MIT Media Lab during the .com era and was called "Firefly"). These would help people find things of interest to them and then subscribe to "streams" much like one now subscribes to RSS feeds or just signs up for mailing lists.

I'm NOT saying we were geniuses, as anyone involved in Silicon Valley software development back then, whether private (me), governmental (John) or academic (Cliff), would likely have come to the same conclusion. Specific words like "World Wide Web" might not have been anticipated, and dangerous practices such as referring to any Internet search as "Google" might not have been predicted; but, yes, now we have Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube, among others.

A significant limiting factor, which had to do with the existing infrastructure such as the number and type of phone/cable TV lines, etc. was bandwidth or speed. "The data transfer capacity of a network. It is measured in bits per second." – In fact, once Apple opened up the iTunes Store and sites like Amazon started offering music downloads, we had to rely on "lossy" compression, meaning that, "psychoacoustically irrelevant" information would be thrown out because it didn't matter; and the digital files that hold music could be made much smaller.

Sadly, it isn't psychoacoustically irrelevant, which is part of why vinyl is coming back because it sounds so much better than MP3's (or even Apple's admittedly better AAC/iTunes Plus); and we're only now getting to the place where large enough groups of people have truly fast Internet connections (at least 2Mbps I would say) suggesting that they could have full CD resolution files using Apple Lossless compression or FLAC files, a form of nonproprietary lossless compression ("lossless" meaning that nothing gets thrown out) because it's all psychoacoustically relevant.

So what happens when CD's go away because it just costs more to manufacture the shiny silver discs and their jewel boxes than it does to make at least 16 bit/44.1KHz sample rate files available? We need hard drive based systems, where computers control the hard drives that store the digital files—which get backed up—and working in conjunction with DAC's (Digital to Audio Converters) make music. The problem is that up until recently computers and audio, in the home environment, haven't really mixed. But when I sold a pair of Sennheiser HD800's to Lee Weiland at Cryo-Parts / Locus Design, we started talking about a hard drive based system and I started to think maybe it was time to build one. I'm lucky enough to have 20Mbps Internet and access to sites that offer full CD resolution or higher downloads; and of course I can always import CD's into iTunes using error correction and Apple Lossless compression for my "alpha" and "beta" tests. I am at the "alpha" level now.

I began experimenting with something that my friend Nick Gowan suggested. That was to take the USB out of a computer and convert the protocol from USB to S/PDIF. On the surface, this didn't make much sense to me since the USB protocol hypothetically allows you to buffer the data on both ends minimizing jitter as is done in products like the Wavelength Brick. Also, I couldn't find any high-quality USB to S/PDIF converters that weren't "DIY"—or "Do It Yourself"—and I really don't know how to solder. But I finally saw that Bel Canto had a "24/96" USB to S/PDIF converter that appeared to be built well, and when I connected my 15" MacBook Pro to my Audio Note DAC 3.1X using the Bel Canto 24/96 and a high-quality silver USB cable made by ALO Audio (and the Audio Note S/PDIF cable I was already using with my transport), I was very impressed with the sound and thought, "Huh, maybe there's hope for the future …".

Fast forward several months and many email exchanges with Lee Weiland at Locus Design and at least one failed effort with a PS Audio Digital Link III that appeared to be dead on arrival. I had Apogee Duet connected via a FireWire 800 to 400 cable on my office system using a 27" Quad Core iMac and a Triode Audio Corporation 45 watt per channel, KT88-based push-pull amplifier driving Micropure CZ310ES monitors modified with silver wire all of which sounded good. So I decided to trust Lee (not that that's hard to do; he ties for first place as the most anti-sham man I know) and put together a "real" hard drive system consisting of a 13" MacBook Pro with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD (Solid State Drive) as well as iTunes and Amarra MINI (the iLok version) along with Lee's amazing Axis USB cable, and Josh Heiner's awesome Sonicweld Diverter; a much better USB to S/PDIF converter than the Bel Canto 24/96 and the ultimate instantiation of my near-psychic friend Nick Gowan's idea of a device powered by the USB bus.

The package also included Lee's Core S/PDIF cable terminated on one end with a BNC connector and on the other with a locking carbon fiber RCA connector feeding the S/PDIF, or "Coaxial", input of my sleek black PS Audio PerfectWave DAC, set to "Native" (i.e., no over/upsampling) mode and Filter 4, normally reserved for greater than 44.1kHz signals because having everything in Apple Lossless Compression or AIFF and running through Amarra MINI. Lee and Josh's work presented such a clean signal it didn't need the "MP Soft" filter the PS Audio would normally want with Filter 2, which rolls off the treble a little.

I also had/have the music on a LaCie 2TB RAID drive (the 2TB LaCie 2big Quadra 7200RPM) in RAID1 mode so I only get 1TB of storage but all the information is double stored so I get backups that way rather than using a large internal drive and Time Machine, both of which can muck up the sound. And, for now, I am feeding the AUX in of my Audio Note Meishu Phono Silver 300B-based integrated amplifier from the PerfectWave via 20 feet of Lee's Cryo-Parts blue cable, also terminated with the locking carbon fiber RCA connectors. Plus I am using a Panamax M5300-EX for surge protection. Lastly, I am using a $12 App for my iPad so I get a virtual desktop of the 13" MacBook Pro from my listening position (Please note that the MacBook Pro is hardwired to the Internet via a Belkin network patch cable going directly to my Airport Extreme, Wi-Fi being a "no no" in a hard drive based system), resulting in the ultimate remote control and—drum roll please—it all sounds really good, very soft and musical—but detailed—not harsh and bright at all.

I called Nick to talk about what—from my perspective—was his brainchild, although there was multiple simultaneous discovery/creation going on, and he agreed to come by and listen. He actually refused my offer to fund an Axis USB cable, Sonicweld Diverter and Core S/PDIF cable for him to use with his 24" iMac or 15" MacBook Pro and heavily-modified Audio Note DAC 5 Signature/Ongaku because I just think he had it in his head that it was going to be bright and harsh sounding, and rather like an mp3 going through a Wavelength Brick, which is not to disparage the Brick, it's just in a different league. So when Nick and his associate Lee "non-Weiland" came by and I fired up some Jerry Garcia and David Grisman (Shady Grove) as well as Purcell: Odes & Funeral Music by the Taverner Consort, Choir & Players under Andrew Parrot and Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep (a masterpiece of content and form), I do believe that he and Lee "non-Weiland" were truly stunned, actually doing an internal shift of 180 degrees to see if there was any way of opening up the sound as opposed to making it softer.

Well, a few weeks later I am now waiting on a proper 4-shelf Quadraspire stand along with an Equi=Tech 2Q and JPS Labs Power AC+ 20 Amp cable with proper 20-amp connectors on both ends, and eventually some Locus Design Vision cables. Then I can only imagine how beautiful the sound will be. But in the interim, I did obtain 3 items that further improved the sound:

1. A full 8GB of RAM in my 13" MacBook Pro rather the 4GB, because iTunes and Amarra MINI appear to like RAM,

2. A 24/48 file of Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back, which sounds lovely and much closer to the vinyl, and

3. A 24/96 file of Getz/Gilberto from HDTracks, which really does sound about as good as my Transrotor and DaVinci Grandezza vinyl front end, and that's without the Equi=Tech, Quadraspire, JPS Labs, Vision, or just plain old fashioned break in/burn in period.

So, as the Monkees sang:

I thought love was only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else but not for me.
Love was out to get me
That's the way it seemed.
Disappointment haunted all my dreams.

Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind.
I'm in love, I'm a believer!
I couldn't leave her if I tried.