Musings on Building a Digital Music Server: The
Audio Note Pallas Digital Interconnect and the Pure Music Audio Engine
(including a brief treatise on scaling down the system and my headphone fetish)
"The taste of love is sweet
Oh, but the fire ran wild."
–"Ring of Fire", June Carter Cash
OK, I admit it. I have been biased towards Amarra. When Lee Weiland originally helped me setup a digital music server so many years ago, it's what he suggested I use and I happily paid the $1000 price of entry because I trusted Lee and, well, it sounded really good. But times have changed. Amarra has become unstable and quite honestly there's been some pressure to give Pure Music a fairer chance. So when I found out that I couldn't play 24/192 files through Amarra without getting clicking sounds, I had to say enough was enough and I loaded up Pure Music. I have to confess, it is a much more professionally written software application and it appears to be much more stable and just plays with my Macintosh better. It has some limitations and I miss certain features of Amarra, like the ability to automatically convert FLAC folders to AIFF and enter the songs and artwork into the iTunes database; but Pure Music has similar capabilities and at a certain point one has to admit that the point of an audio engine is to make your music sound better and not to fry your bacon. Plus, when my 27" Quad Core iMac runs clean with Pure Music but crashes with Amarra, even I have to admit that it just gets silly.
I am listening to The Whole Love now by Wilco at 24/96, and with Pure Music in its default settings, including leaving the volume at -20dB, it sounds lovely, open and clean; and my Mac mini hasn't needed a reboot in over 24 hours, which is quite a remarkable thing. So I guess my allegiances are changing; I'm developing the same level of enthusiasm for Pure Music that I once held for Amarra. And much as it pains me to say it, I'm really happy because the software isn't getting in the way of listening to the music. Plus—and I hesitate to say this without doing a lot more listening—but I think Pure Music sounds better than Amarra; at least I hear more in the top-end (in a positive way) and that's with both the Sonicweld Diverter HR/Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC combination and the Audiophilleo 1/Rega DAC pair (which despite what Michael Fremer says—and I paraphrase—doesn't warm and fuzzy, it sounds really open and clean). So maybe at the time I was right to gush over Amarra but times have changed and now I'm officially signing up for the Pure Music fan club. It (a) sounds better (b) is more stable and (c) doesn't break my machines; so what's not to like? With that in mind, I offer a profound thank you to the folks who make Pure Music for creating such a fine product and a profound apology to the folks who make Amarra for abandoning ship.
Now to get to another point, for personal reasons I'm scaling down the big system and merging it with components of the office system. That gives me a chance to try a few things in new positions before they go out the door. So I took the Audio Note Pallas digital interconnect I was using between my CEC TL-0 and my Audio Note DAC 4.1x Balanced and—using BNC to RCA adapters—connected my Sonicweld Diverter HR to my Berkeley Audio Design Alpha with the Pallas; my immediate impression was that the sound was more open and musical, software with a better sense of definition. I listened to many hours of music using Pure Music and the Pallas digital interconnect and I have to say I was very happy. I ultimately choose to sell the Pallas as part of the TL-0/DAC 4.1x Balanced package and return to Lee Weiland's miraculous Core, pre-terminated with BNC's; but I have to say that compared to the Pallas it sounds a little thick, a little congested, not so much that I would replace it and it does evoke a familiar sound, but there was an, "Aw, shucks", moment when I disconnected the Pallas and restored the Core to its rightful place.
The system that I've been using while I listen to the digital music server is essentially the same as it was before. I still have the Khambatta/Gowan music stands. I still have the Audio Note AN-E's with hemp woofers and muRata super tweeters. I still have all silver wiring by various manufacturers including Audio Note and Kondo Sounds labs; but for the amplifier I've used both the venerable Meishu Phono Silver and also the Tri TRV-A300SER, a lovely 300B integrated amplifier with a phonostage, a headphone amp and a remote control and a sound approaching that of my Meishu with Western Electric 300B's, all NOS tubes and at least 16 Black Gate capacitors. I have to confess, the Tri sounds really good, and the remote control is really handy, all in a package about 1/3 the size and weight of the Meishu. After extended listening, I would not say that the TRV-A300SER sounds the same or as good as my Meishu; however, there is a synergy when using all Tri components that lifts the system up to a loftier level that it should. One afternoon, while waiting to head up to my girlfriend's place in San Francisco, I put in the Analogue Productions gold CD of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section and was quite taken by the fleshiness and depth of the instruments. Of course, I am still using piano lacquer finish Audio Note AN-E Silver speakers with silver-wired tweeters, Alnico magnets and hemp woofers; so any 300B-based amp is going to sound pretty good. It's just that Tri synergy that I'm talking about as I was using the Tri TRV-CD4SE 24bit/192kHz upsampling tube CD player as well.
I should also mention that despite the AN-E's in the main system and the Micropure's in the office system, I often listen to music via headphones. I have three favored combinations, the Tri TRV-84HD with AKG K701's modified to use about 15 feet of Audio Note AN-SPx speaker cable and a Furutech FP-704 (G) stereo phone plug, then in the office two combinations: A Woo WA22 balanced headphone amp with the tube upgrades that Woo offers driving a pair of Moon Audio Silver Dragon Sennheiser HD-800's using Neutrik 3-pin XLR connectors and, lastly, a Blossom Blo-0299 balanced headphone amp with a Welborne Labs power supply driving a Moon Audio Black Dragon pair of Ultrasone Edition 10's with Neutrik 3-pin XLR's using Stealth silver pins for maximum connectivity. They all sound very good and each is suited to different moods. I have other headphones as well: Black Dragon Beyerdynamic Tesla T1's and Blue Dragon Sennheiser HD650's, not to mention my portable cans. Some people don't understand my headphone fetish; but when you live in an apartment complex and you listen to the 24/96 download of Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss at midnight, you've got to have something besides speakers.
I invited a friend who's always been dubious about my digital music server over for a listen using the Tri TRV-A300SER and Pure Music. It was the first time that this friend ever asked me what music I was playing and kind of "fell" into the sound rather complaining about the digital music server. It involved us in a vinyl-like way. We were listening to the 24/88.2 download of Byron James playing Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 on Mercury Living Presence and were just entranced by the music. To clarify, this is the chain we used for this very enlightening experience:
All downloads came from http://www.hdtracks.com.
Finally he said that he had to go because business awaited him; but that he wished he could stay and listen to music. It could have been the day, the moment, the weather, the synergy brought about by the Tri equipment; but I think it had a lot to do with Pure Music. For that, I am extremely thankful. We could have listened for hours.
P. S. Since originally writing this article, I have written to Channel D, the makers of Pure Music; and they informed me that I should have the volume set to 0, not -20dB. It is nice to have the additional gain and there does seem to be more "energy" to the sound, plus I am able to listen to music on my home office computer and still run VMware Fusion 4 or Photoshop CS 5. That, alone, is quite an accomplishment.