Musings on Building a
Digital Music Server: The Berkeley Audio Design
Alpha DAC Series 2 Upgrade and Mountain Lion
"Welcome my son, welcome
to the machine.
I'll admit. I had my doubts. The whole method of performing the upgrade—though seemingly cost effective—remained less than completely user friendly. I had hoped to drop off my Alpha (Series 1) at Music Lover's Audio and come back 3-4 weeks later to pick it up, putting the whole thing on my credit card. No such luck. I had to find the original box (which was easy enough) remove any unnecessary contents, wrap my precious Alpha DAC in the supplied plastic and pack it carefully back with the foam inserts, include a letter with my home address and a check for $390.00. I also had to get an RMA number from Berkeley Audio Design, which took a while, and then get around to packing the whole thing up and taking it to UPS, which took me forever. This doesn't include removing the custom-threaded Strange Attractors, and putting the tiny, original feet back on with one of the screwdrivers from the world's largest screwdriver collection, given to me by my father. All that being said, I got it done. About three weeks later, I got a Fed Ex door tag saying something from "BADA" had arrived and I had to sign for it. Well, I couldn't really just let them leave it at the door. So I arranged to have it shipped to the nearest Fed Ex Office. Sadly, on the first try, they accidentally left it off the truck; and the second try, Lori—the world's most patient and forgiving girlfriend—told me it was OK to blow off our date and wait for the call saying that the package had arrived, and that I could pick it up. Around 6PM on a Saturday, that happened.
My excitement got very high as I bounded for the door and took the venerable Millennium Prius to the nearest Fed Ex Office. After showing them the door tag and my state-issued ID, they let me have the now well-worn box. I got it home, put all the parts that I had saved back in the box after removing the BADA Series 2, and carefully installed the custom-threaded Strange Attractors. I then put the BADA Series 2 (which is cosmetically identical to the Series 1 except for a small sticker on the back) into the system and fired up the Lee Weiland Memorial Mac mini. I honestly don't remember the first thing I played, but I'm 98% sure it was the 24/192 download of Norah Jones' Feels Like Home from hdtracks.com. My worst fears did not come true; it did not sound thinner and more Spectral-like. In fact, if anything, it sounded warmer and more tube-like, with a nice sense of rhythm and drive, and great articulation on her voice. Now bear in mind I've got everything maxed out; I'm using the Strange Attractors, a Sonicweld Diverter HR, an Audio Note Pallas S/PDIF cable, and the shockingly inexpensive Blue Dragon USB cable by Moon Audio, all running headless. Because of the age of the computer, I'm still running Snow Leopard, but have Pure Music version 1.86, and iTunes version 10.6.3, with Pure Music configured to run in "Memory Play" mode (among many other things). After an evening of auditioning many downloads with two good friends and coming to the conclusion that—despite the substantial improvement brought on by the Series 2 upgrade, the digital music server still lacked something—I decided to upgrade to Mountain Lion; and that, in conjunction with the BADA Series 2 upgrade, is when I started to get really excellent sound. I also had to make sure that all traces of Amarra got uninstalled, as it seemed to want to hang around. I am pleased to say that I am now playing the Linn 24/192 download of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's interpretation of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, and the sound remains quite liquid and analog-like.
The strings in the opening movement held together while each maintained a distinctive separateness, and the music seemed to sweep through the orchestra from side to side. Playing the 24/88.2 download of Reference Recordings' Brasileiro Soul by Reinaldo Brahn revealed layers of detail I had not thought possible from my digital music server, while maintaining a holistic quality and putting out just slamming bass. I did notice that the current version of Pure Music and Mountain Lion don't play well together, something I had found on my work machine, and when switching albums I had to go in and select the first track of each album manually, sometimes having to select the second track then switch back to the first to get the album to play continuously. Still, Reinaldo Brahn's voice dripped with 300B lushness (my current amp, a Tri TRV-300SER, uses a pair of Western Electric 300B's). Switching over to the 24/96 download of Tigerlily by Natalie Merchant from HDtracks.com, I found touches of detail I had never heard in that album before, again, holding together in a musical and homogeneous way. Pulling out my 45RPM double LP of the same title on Mobile Fidelity, I would say that the vinyl sounded more open but not better in an objective way, just different. Some of the lushness was lost, some detail gained.
Playing "Once in a Lifetime" from Talking Heads' Remain in Light at 24/96 from HDtracks.com, I regained some of the openness I had heard on the vinyl version of Tigerlily. I think the mastering of different downloads varies greatly, and as with all things, you can't generalize from a single sample. I know that when I played the 16/44.1 import of Ali & Toumani with Snow Leopard, the sound was very good using the BADA Series 2. So I returned to that import using Mountain Lion. I felt that some lushness had been lost, but some detail had been gained and that, overall, listening to this disc through the digital music server was a very moving experience. While the original CD had greater depth and richness, it almost seemed bloated by comparison and I think the digital music server may have been closer to the studio master; without having been there during the recording, it was hard to know. In both cases, I found the music very enjoyable, just different. If anything, I have to say that Snow Leopard may have come closer to the sound of my Audio Note CD 3.1x/II; but time and OS X march on. It is true that the CD player naturally played a bit louder than the digital music server, so returning to the now Mountain Lion-equipped DMS, I was able to make up for much of the perceived leanness by simply cranking the volume; and I definitely heard more detail overall.
Realizing that so many factors affect the sound, I decided to queue up Afterglow by Bob Holroyd from the B&W Society of Sound at 24/48. Again, I was taken by the combined ability of the digital music server to draw out lines of tiny detail and still remain musically coherent. This lovely ambient recording returned to a quality of fleshiness that I did not heard in Ali & Toumani until I cranked the volume. I heard a rich and deep soundscape, a tapestry of piano, and faint cricket noises like a warm summer night. I will confess that the 24/96 download of Duo Sonatas from Channel Classics sounded remarkable and remained one of the best examples of downloaded music that I heard after the Series 2 upgrade to the Alpha, and the installation of Mountain Lion. So what is all this telling me? It's telling me that the digital music server has gotten good enough that I can rely on it to help me distinguish between the sound quality of different downloads and different imports, and perhaps even different file formats, not just 16/44.1 versus 24/176.4 but .AIFF versus Apple Lossless Compression. Up until now, file format was largely a matter of convenience. Now I'm beginning to wonder if I shouldn't go ahead and leave things in the .FLAC format and play from that using Pure Music rather than converting everything into an iTunes-compatible format. I have a feeling that, in the future, these musings will lean more in the direction of software and less in the direction of hardware.