Music Server Mad(Sad)(Happy)ness

May 4, 2009

Well, this is way overdue.  I was asked several months ago by the VP of my local audio enthusisast club to write about my experience setting up a high resolution music server.  Compared to my previous posts, this is much more detailed and probably meant for a more ‘sophisticated’ audience.  Consider this my first draft –

My foray into music servers began in the fall of 2006- actually, as I think about it, it was the fall of 1999, though I did not realize it at the time.  You see, I had, at one time, been a very active audiophile and had been ‘in the biz’ back in the salad days of the 70’s and on into the 80’s.  But life called and priorities changed and soon enough I was completely out of date.  I’d had to sell my Linn table as a result of my divorce, leaving me with the first table I’d ever owned- a 1975 model Thorens TD-160.  I’d almost entirely missed the CD era, having used a string of cheap players, just so I’d have something on which to play the occasional CD.

In the fall of 1999, I stumbled on to the technical recruiting field and found myself working with a bunch of twenty something’s, helping find software developers and other assorted engineering types new jobs.  I befriended what turned out to be my first geek friend and he helped me upgrade my seriously outdated home PC into something that would at least allow me to obtain broadband internet in my home.  In the process of installing a new hard drive, he, noting that I had lots of records in a homemade cabinet I’d built 25 years before and had schlepped across country, said that he could put an image of his music folder onto my new hard drive.  I said “sure, but how much room will it take?”  He said “not much, really, each song’s about 3 megabytes or so”.  I really didn’t know if that was a lot or not.  (These were MP3’s.)  Anyway, he introduced me to Napster, Winamp a few other ‘applications’ and soon enough I was downloading music as fast as I could remember the name of an artist who’s record I’d lost over the years. Of course, Napster’s landmark case made it all illegal, and for awhile I tried some of the upcoming pay for applications, but my new music additions slowed to a snail’s pace again.

Meanwhile, my audio system had deteriorated and pieces had been sold off, leaving me with, along side the Thorens, a bedroom system consisting of a NAD integrated and a pair of slowly disintegrating Dahlquist Monitors (from their latter, or maybe I should say last days).  But, out of necessity, and thanks to the “not nearly as helpful as they used to be” folks at Radio Shack, I cobbled together a system for my ‘digital’ music.  Actually, all I did was connect my sound card’s output to the NAD’s Aux in via a long pair of RCA’s with the help of a thing called a Ground Loop Isolator (I had massive hum at first).  Now I had ‘hi-fi’ music coming from my computer.  I thought, “very cool”.

But, had it not been for a couple of unrelated incidents I might have never come back to my audiophile passion.  First, in the spring on 2006, I decided I wanted to learn piano.  I found a cheap upright on Craigslist and a guy to teach me in Kirkland, who used to be with the 80’s ‘new wave’ group, The Motels.  He’d written a couple of songs that became modest hits and between the royalties and teaching piano, he was getting along.  The interesting thing about those lessons is that somehow this reignited my passion for recorded music playback.  I think it was because after hearing myself stumble through the first few lines of “Let It Be” for 5 months or so with no improvement, there was no comparison between my version and my old record.  So, by September, I’d decided to take the lesson money and start applying it toward new gear.  Or, to be more accurate, new old gear.  Starting with a used pair of Vandersteen’s, also purchased on Craigslist, I began to resurrect my hobby.  The telling of this story is something for another time, but as I began telling friends about my renewed interest, one of them, who is not an audio buff at all, mentioned a device he’d read about called the Squeezebox.  For me, at the time, it was a no brainer to add this, since I already had files on my computer and had recently learned how to rip CD’s onto my hard drive, using WAV or FLAC.  I won’t go into this installation – it was full of difficulties, but it works now and I still use it for more casual listening and for streaming music from stations all over athe world!  Currently, I listen to Radio Svizerra (from Switzerland, of course) – when I’m not listening to anything specific.  Nice sound.  As for the Squeezebox, the thing that attracted me to it more than anything was its convenience – now I had a remote control with which I could access all my music from my ‘listening couch’.  But, alas, I also noticed that music played from it, while‘quite good’, was not great, and there was also beginning to be a lot of chatter about the higher resolution formats coming out.  I HAD installed an outboard DAC, from Promitheus Audio (this is the little Malaysian company that also makes the TVC preamp that Sam Tellig of Stereophile liked so much.  I still use the TVC, at least for now – best $340 I’ve ever spent). Nicholas Chua, of Promitheus, talked me into the DAC too– he’s pretty good at that- and for awhile, talked me out of hi rez music in general.  Bottom line is that now my digital music, coming from my Squeezebox with an upgraded power supply and outboard DAC, sounded pretty darn good, but…..  what of higher than cd resolution music, I wondered?  For example, I’d completely missed SACD.  Sorry!  I have no SACD’s, no SACD player.  Nothing.  This all bothered me, and I began to become more and more aware that my system was maxed out, resolution-wise, at Red Book 16/44.1.  The rest of my system was improving all the time, and it and my ears’ ability to resolve was getting better and returning to form.  I’d come so far with my system, and yet, in the summer of 2008, my digital had become passé.

This is probably where the Madness set in, as I almost overnight determined to resolve this issue.  I’d read about the Benchmark DAC 1, but in my ignorance and haste in catching back up with the rest of the world, had not even considered any resolution beyond CD, and, in my best hair-shirt audiophile manner, thought I’d save money with the Promitheus, a non-oversampler.  Now, it’s June 2008 and I’m attending my first PNWAS meeting, standing with and talking to an obviously very knowledgeable guy who I later find out is Gary Koh (of Genesis Advanced Technologies).  He says “well, you gotta get the Benchmark”.  (Later, our club had a shootout of DACs in which the Benchmark was easily unseated as King – see ‘comparing dacs’ later in this article, but back then it was and in some circles still is considerted something of a ‘benchark’.  Post Script – that Promitheus DAC, to my ears, now that I’ve had more prolonged listening experience, produces sound that is, quite possibly still superior to the Benchmark that replaced it, at CD resolution).  Anyway,  I began reading about music servers in more detail.  I read all about sound cards that I could install into my own music server (I forgot to mention earlier, that with a great deal of assistance from my son in law, over months and months, I’d -more like “we’d”- turned an old PC into a dedicated music server back in 2006 – it was sitting up in my record closet, connected wirelessly to the network and my Squeezebox.  I thought I was pretty cool!).  I had decided that homemade was the way to go for me.  I listened to other inbox servers – the Linn, the Sooloos (which used the RME Hammerfall sound card), but I’m way too cheap for that, and I wanted to control my own destiny, if you will.  By the way, one of the places that I turned to over and over again was the Computer Audiophile, http://computeraudiophile.com.  Oh, and Bruce Brown of Puget Sound Studios and VP of the PNWAS.   Bruce, owner of Puget Sound Mastering, is very knowledgable about both the Pro and consumer audiophile side of this equation.  His gentle suggestions proved extremely helpful.  I also was consulting Reference Recordings. Reference Recordings masters their hi- resoltuion HRx recordings – at 176.4 Khz/ 24 bit resolution, and they have a section in which they describe their “Reference System” that they use for playing back these files.  I was shooting, as I always tend to do, for a poor man’s HRx playback system.  So, instead of the Lynx AES 16 sound card and Berkley Audio DAC that they recommended, I thought I’d found a good facsimile with an M-Audio Audiophile 192 sound card and Benchmark DAC 1.  At the next PNWAS, I ran into Bruce.  I’d just received the M Audio card that day.  I showed it to him, rather proudly, and suggested that I’d found a way into hi-rez heaven for less money.  I had decided that I would be happy with a system that could resolve 24 bit/192kHz. I’d leave 352.8 and 384 for another time.  I’d read all I could about the card, talked to a dealer on the phone and everything pointed to it being able to do this level of resolution.  Well, this became my first setback.  It COULD do 24/192, through its analog outs.  However, through digital outs (which was S/PDIF), it was reduced to 24/96, meaning the highest resolution that I could send to an outboard DAC was 24/96.

Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrggggggggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!
At this point, I’d like to make a point about the level of mania that had gripped me.  I was, in all manner, Ralphie, from the move A Christmas Story, and his desire for “an official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time”, such was the level of my hi –rez music server mania!  If you’ve seen this movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  If not, I’m sorry your childhood was so bereft.  It comes on 12 times in a row every year at Christmas on TBS.  Watch it, for crying out loud!

So, I make a call to the place I purchased the sound card from.  This is also the place from which I purchased the DAC 1.  This is quite informative in learning who is knowledgeable in these diverse disciplines – pro versus consumer audio.  In general, what I found is that there are not many people who know both home and pro audio applications, and you may find yourself, as I did, educating my sales rep, at least, in this case, in the subject of (consumer) audiophile high resolution playback systems.  Fortunately, my contact there provides a very high level of customer service.  So, even though he was unaware of this shortcoming, he was more than willing to help me find a remedy.  In the end, he informed me that that he had a Lynx AES 16, used, that would save me a couple of hundred dollars.  By the way, Lynx has two versions of this card, one is PCIe bus based and the other is the older (and larger connector) PCI version.  My old computer’s motherboard is PCI.  Either one will work the same.  By the way, Lynx makes other cards that are very nice, but if you want 24/192 in digital to go out to an outboard DAC, this is the only one that will work at this time.  The L22, for example offers 24/192 through analog out, but if you want to make use of an outboard DAC, it’s gotta be the AES 16.  Meanwhile, I’d become somewhat smitten with the DAC1; so much so that I decided that I’d rather have the new DAC 1 Pre, as this would provide me, at the least, a backup preamp in the future if I ever needed it, even if I decide to just use it as a DAC for now.  So, he agrees to allow me to return the DAC1 for a full refund toward the DAC 1 Pre AND a full refund of the M-Audio card for the Lynx.  So, I send it all back in and wait.  I also decide that if I use it strictly as a preamp (instead of my Promitheus) I want to use the XLR outputs of the Benchmark to go to my main power amp (Conrad Johnson) and the unbalanced RCA outs to a secondary amp that I use to power speakers in my kitchen and deck.  However, Benchmark warns in their manual that their XLR grounding is different than most and, if not done properly, will damage my components.  I relay this to the sales rep, who verifies the pin assignments with Benchmark, and sets out to make XLR to RCA adapter cables.  This will not be the only time in which “unusually” spec’d adapter cables will come into play.  More on that later.

Eventually, the Lynx sound card arrives, with the DAC 1 Pre on order from Benchmark.  So, while waiting I install the AES 16 into my PC, and, while I’m at it, I upgrade my PC’s processor and memory.  It runs Windows XP and has an old AMD Thunderbird 1.3 Ghz processor in it.  (That’s AFTER I upgraded it!).  So, the AES 16 comes with a ‘medusa’ looking set of cables – 8 in and 8 out, XLR/balanced (CBL-AES1604).  Both my original DAC (the Promitheus) and, I quickly discover, Benchmark’s DAC 1 Pre, has unbalanced (S/PDIF) and optical (Toslink) inputs,  but no XLR/Balanced ones. (By the way, the DAC 1 DOES have balanced/XLR inputs, but with the additional analog input on the DAC 1 Pre, they just ran out of real estate on the back of the unit).  However, the AES 16 also comes with an XLR/RCA adapter cable.  I connect the PC with AES 16 to the Promitheus DAC and we’re off……..  well, not really.  No sound.  I mention this to my sales rep.  We decide to wait for the new Benchmark.  Finally it arrives.  I open the box, read a little of the manual and off we go!……  well, not exactly.  Still no sound, only this time, the Benchmark, which comes with status lights, shows a series of flashes that correspond to a problem.  Bottom line is that the Benchmark does not like the signal it’s receiving.  Now, I’m back on the phone with the rep.  He’s got nuthin’.  But he calls Benchmark and relays my setup to them.  He also talks to Lynx and gives me the name and phone number of a technical support rep there.  Several days go by.  I call Lynx and talk to this very knowledgeable tech support guy.  We go through all the software set ups- making sure that I have things right.  Another problem I’m having is getting the card to work with the preferred ASIO drivers – these audio drivers bypass all the bad windows voodoo – K mixer for example- which sullies our hoped for ‘bit for bit’ hi-rez sound.   I’m using Media Monkey for the media player software because this is what Reference Recording suggested.  We revisit all of this, the Lynx tech and I, and it slowly becomes clear that Reference Recordings is not using ASIO themselves(!).  They’re using standard Windows Media stuff and the reason they have recommended a specific revision of the Wave Out driver is because it is the older version that does the least harm.  For now, it’s the least of my problems.  There is sound in the mixer and sound in the media player (Media Monkey).  So, I try and retry different things, but still the Benchmark does not like the Lynx card.  NO SOUND from the speakers.  Finally I revisit the Benchmark owner’s manual again, and I have an idea.  The next day I call Paul, Lynx’s tech guy, again.  We verify that the software is happy and begin to explore hardware related issues.  I’ve just read in the Benchmark manual that it is looking for a 75 Ohm signal, but the Lynx is sending out 110 Ohms.  75 Ohms is the SPDIF standard, while 110 is considered standard for XLR.  At this point he verifies that the adapter cable that came with the card, while it does convert from XLR to SPDIF physically, it does NOT convert the signal from 110 to 75 Ohms.  Paul says that 75 ohms is not a standard spec, but I read him the info from the Benchmark manual and we immediately agree that what I need is a what I eventually learn is called an impedance transformer.  He finds a couple of somewhat expensive devices that look as though they would work, and I relay the information back to Eric – my rep at JRR Music Store.  By the way, I must stop here and say what a great help Eric Dahlberg at JRR Music shop was.  I have strings and strings of emails back and forth.  He answered them all and did everything humanly possible to figure out what the problem was.  Meanwhile, I keep looking and, eventually I find exactly what I need.  It’s a simple 2 inch long and 1 inch around device that is XLR 110 ohm on one end and 75 Ohm BNC on the other –    Female XLR to Female BNC.  Close enough.  The Benchmark comes with a BNC to SPDIF adapter, so it can take it from there.  It’s made by Canare.  It is called a Canare BCJ-XJ-TRB – an Impedance Transformer, Digital Audio, 110 to 75 Ohm, Female XLR to Female BNC.  Twenty-five bucks.  I ordered it myself, but Eric ordered me one as well.  Mine gets here first.  It came from Full Compass –  http://www.fullcompass.com/product/258528.html.   I connect the medusa like cable to the adapter, the adapter to the BNC to SPDIF adapter and finally to the Benchmark.  Voila!!!  Musica!!!!  Finally, it works.  By the way, a few days later the one ordered by Eric arrives but it’s the wrong gender.  I don’t have the heart to tell him.  It’s sitting here on my desk as I type this.

So, for about two months, I listen to my new high resolution music server.  It’s good, but I can’t help but think I’m still not getting everything I could out of it.  I keep trying to get the ASIO drivers to work.  (My audiophile friend Bruce still says they’re the best.)  Then one night I attend another PNWAS meeting.  (I don’t get to nearly as many of these as I’d like because Thursday’s, the day it meets, is also the same night that my recently married daughter and son in law come over for spaghetti and a couple of their favorite TV shows.  It’s a tradition that’s obviously important to me.)  Anyway, we’re comparing DAC’s.  And we’re listening through Gary Koh’s server that he’s brought from home.  During a break I approach the server.  And I notice that Gary is not using Media Monkey, but FooBar as his media player.  I ask him what audio driver he is using – ASIO, of course.  Anyway, like a light bulb that had been nearly blinding me only to just now be recognized for what it is, I go home, and immediately download FooBar.  I install the ASIO drivers, turn up the hi-fi and………… success!! By the time I go to bed that same night, I’m finally listening to my music server at its best, as it was meant to be heard.  Since then I’ve purchased some high resolution music from 2L, Linn Records and Reference Recordings.

This has been quite the project, spanning almost half a year!  There are a number of people who are responsible, whether they know it or not, for finally bringing this to fruition.  And now, I’m going to attempt to name them!

Eric Dahlberg, JRR Shop, Irvine California
PH: 949-553-1022
FX: 949-263-1818
http://www.jrrshop.com
Eric is the unsuspecting sales rep who showed truly unbelievable patience, humility and knowledge. There were times when I was sure he was thinking “Oh, man, it’s the crazy audiophile from Seattle again!”  Five Stars!!

Paul Erlandson, Lynx Studio Technology, Inc.
(714) 545-4700 X 206
Paul is the extremely knowledgeable technical support guy at Lynx.  He’s worked with the Pro audio folks, of course, but he’s also very knowledgeable about all things audiophile.  He worked with Reference Recordings in getting their set up going and, I’m sure he’s helped dozens of others as well.

Peter Bell
Peter’s my son in law, and a desktop/network administrator by trade, and real geek.  He’s also becoming quite knowledgeable about music server construction and setup.  He has handled any computer related situation I’ve had in building a dedicated music server from an old desktop that had been put out to pasture, and answered every question I’ve asked with tireless patience.  There were some things I could handle since I first started setting all this up, but a lot  was over my head, and without him, I’d most likely still be trying to get it all set up!

Bruce Brown, President, Owner, Engineer
Puget Sound Studios
http://pugetsoundstudios.com/

Bruce runs and owns the most advanced mastering and recording studio in Puget Sound.  He has some of the most coveted equipment, both pro and audiophile right in that studio.  It’s amazing!  PSS is the only purpose-built Mastering facility in the Pacific Northwest that can Record, Edit and Master multichannel DSD/DXD projects for SACD/DVD-A/Blu-ray for Stereo and Surround.  Among other work, I know he’s done some serious mastering for Chesky Records.  He’s also Vice President of the Pacific Northwest Audio Society.  He lent me cables, processors, motherboards, gave me a great tour of his amazing facility and was a source of an enormous amount of information and encouragement.

Gary Koh
CEO and Managing Director, Genesis Advanced Technologies

I’m not sure Gary’s aware of his influence, but he was the person who made the simple observation about the Benchmark and high resolution music, he answered several simple questions from time to time and, finally, HE WAS THE GUY RUNNING FOO BAR WITH ASIO!

Paul Edwards
Paul is that first geek friend who introduced me to computer hard drive based music.   I haven’t seen Paul since 2000.

Brent Willen
Brent is my non audiophile buddy who told me about the Squeezebox.  And the rest is history!

Katie Bell, my daughter.  She’s my biggest inspiration for everything I do, not to mention she has a good set of ears too!

I’m sure I’m leaving some people out, and for that I’m sorry, but I’m going to stop here and proof this thing and get it published!

Thanks for listening,

Daina

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One Response to “Music Server Mad(Sad)(Happy)ness”

  1. Steve Cooney Says:

    Your almost there. Foobar + ASIO4ALL and Lynx Soundcard is not a bad combination but to take it to the next level consider acquiring a sound card that will transfer digital data via I2S bus to a DAC that can accept an I2S connection. I use the Odeum sound card and the Zhaolu DAC v3 which has an I2S/Ethernet connection. I2S will significantly manage jitter and improve sound quality because it separates out the data from the clock and is the transport bus used by a DAC ASIC. In other words bypass optical/Coax/BNC etc and drive it directly with 12S. There are some other DACs with I2S connections but the Zhaolu DAC is as good as the Musical Fidelity X-DACV8 and it upsamples and accepts 192/24 data which is now becoming more and more available. For hardware see
    http://www.diykits.com.hk/


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