Getting started

When the CD hit the market, I was really impressed.
650 Mb, an hour of music, laser technology, scratch resistant, very low noise level, etc.
Compared with vinyl it is certainly an improvement.
Compared with computer based audio the CD is very much like the first cars, a carriage without a horse. You need a turntable (transport), what’s on it you will find in a booklet, you must shelve them, etc.

 

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.
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.

Often you hear users on the audio forums stating that they listen more and discover all kind of gems in their collection after switching to computer based playback simply because a good media player gives you a better overview of 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 or even higher. Today the DSD format has become popular.


Whatever the resolution of the original recording, it won’t play on a CD player unless it is converted to the Redbook standard. (The standard for audio CDs was published in a book with a red cover).

The recording must be resampled 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.

Multi-room

Once you have your audio on a computer in your home network, you can do multi-room.
Streaming audio players can connect to the network and play the contents on the server.
Remote controlling them using your smartphone is possible too.

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;

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.