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Some general advice for a starter from the UK please!


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Hi,

 

I am based in the UK and in recent months have become very interested in the whole computer audio idea. I have had some e-mail conversations with Chris directly and he has been most helpful.

 

I am probably the same as a lot of you were to begin with - can a computer as a source really better conventional CDPs etc? At the moment I have a conventional CDP, turntable, etc. But my lifestyle with a young family is such that I don't really get time to sit down and listen intently to music so my £1000 record deck, etc, hardly gets used. What I really need is a flexible excellent quality sound home based system that can gel with a portable ipod system so I can also have music on the move. I have a DAC and everything else, so presumably all I need to get started is a Mac (the general concencus seems to be Macs are preferable to PCs for this application)?

 

My key question is this. The fact is that unlike conventional hi fi sources, it is not possible to get a demo of a computer based system (or not in the UK anyway). I would love to hear from you folks who were also hesitent about making the leap and how you have got on. Please tell me how your current computer based system completely outclasses your old conventional CD player which cost x times more, etc. Win me over to your cause!

 

Thanks

 

Phil

 

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Hi Phil and welcome to C/A. Boy, now that's a question that could go on and on! I'll share a few of my observations -

 

Regarding the CD player - one should reasonable expect to get whatever is on a CD processed and sent to the amplifier(s) correctly, i.e., as intended. On a single CD basis, if a CD player is doing that, then what more could you want? Ditto for a computer solution. If it's correct then they would seem equal. I'm ignoring all the stuff that actually happens and taking a rather simplistic view. Hypothetically, either one can deliver the goods, so to speak.

 

Now, one advantage to the computer, I think, in actually delivering said goods, is altering the probability of consistently performing the above task, because it doesn't have to deal with as many error issues on the fly (during playback). You did that when you ripped the CD.

 

That being said, the player you use may interject a bit of confusion at times because ripped songs tend to store as individual islands (songs) in a chain (the album). One can compensate and correct for the poor geography that ripping periodically imparts. But, it does take time/attention. So, the computer gives you song titles, band names, access to your entire collection at the push of a button, redundancy, streaming a signal all over the place via wire or wireless. It just totally smokes having to hunt for a CD to play. Playlists are a snap and you can load your iPod with ease. You can do things like listen to iTunes radio stations if you want to. One playlist for cocktails, one list for soft music, one for shagging, and on and on. Try that with any CD player. Even a 200 disk Sony can't easily do much of a playlist. Try downloading a hi resolution album on ye ole CD player! Isn’t going to happen.

 

Now, the computer can give you minor fits when it doesn't get the titles right, or it thinks 10 songs on a CD are 10 cds, things like that. For me, I don't mind taking the time to sort those issues out, but they do periodically occur.

 

Most folks don't need convincing as to why a computer offers a lot more in terms of features or flexibility, but they wonder how for about 1-3 thousand dollars you can get comparable sound and more utility versus their beloved CDP. Well, if both the CD player and computer are doing their job playing back what the CD offers, you get what the original CD brought to the party so to speak. Then it's the DAC. Can a standard CD player have a better DAC than a computer? Yup. Can a computer have a better internal DAC than another CD player? Yup. Can a computer have a better external DAC than a players internal DAC. There's the most common solution. Point being, it's about the choices you make in moving the data and converting the digital to analog. I'd bet a new low-end DAC is probably as good as a high end DAC of year's long gone. That's just a general statement about chips and there's probably some exception out there.

 

So, I don't think I'd say a computer by definition totally outclasses a conventional player at playing a given song. In fact, if it equals it isn't that pretty cool? But, it offers one zillion times the flexibility in playback, and when done correctly rivals the "old conventional CD player which cost x times more". And if the old CD player was marginal in any respects the computer based system with a good DAC would probably be superior.

 

I think everyone would agree you can do it with Mac or PC, it's just that the Mac/iTunes/iPod work together well with little fiddling as a good basic package. Same for the Airport Extreme Base station. Having your entire CD collection at fingertip control using a remote is pretty ... nifty. Now there's a technical audiophile term - nifty. I’d suggest you start with whatever you have and develop your opinions, needs and wants. I use both Mac (iTunes) and PC (iTunes and WinAmp). The Mac hands down is easier, of course not everyone will agree.

 

When I bought new for storing music, I went with Mac. I do tend to prefer Windows for business applications, maybe just because I’m comfortable there historically. Point is, I have no axe to grind, I just like Mac better for music, having and still using both. Our marketing folks use Macs for printed artwork rather than PCs. They use PCs for business apps and mail. They like the Mac better is all, at least for Artwork stuff.

 

Windows music systems from my perspective take more fiddling/potential hardware changes to reach that same state of niftiness. Lord help you when the folder art gets screwed up, that can be a pain to fix. I say that to remind you that for all the cool stuff a computer can do, they all hickup on organization at times. Moreso with obscure CDs.

 

Don't forget you can also rip your vinyl and store it with your CD collection! A bonus.

 

Take the plunge - everyone here helps. I’m a terrible salesman, thank God my customers need me.

 

Regards

 

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The most important thing Innertuber said above is this:

 

"So, I don't think I'd say a computer by definition totally outclasses a conventional player at playing a given song. In fact, if it equals it isn't that pretty cool? But, it offers one zillion times the flexibility in playback, and when done correctly rivals the "old conventional CD player which cost x times more". And if the old CD player was marginal in any respects the computer based system with a good DAC would probably be superior."

 

Innertuber - You did say many other important things, but I thought I would save space and just copy the one above! Thanks for that very well thought-out opinion.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Thanks so much for all your comments.

 

I heard rumours that computers actually are better at accurately reading CDs and storing the digital info because ripping CDs is a more accurate process - the computer can go back and read info as much as it likes to get it right. Is this correct?

 

I will go the external DAC route, so I guess I will just be comparing computer as transport to conventional CDP? I have heard rumours that digital coaxial cables, such as the type used to connect CD transport to DAC are better than optical - any truth in this?

 

The computer I am using right now to type this is quite noisy - fan, etc. Are Macs fairly quiet? Does electronic noise on Macs interfere with sound quality at all?

 

Finally, I will probably only use computer as a dedicated audio system. Macs sound best, but any advice on which one may suit best?

 

Thanks so much all.

 

Phil

 

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Hi Phil - Computers are certainly better at reading/ripping CDs than anything else I've seen. error correction and multi-pass really beat the realtime disc reading of a standard transport. Sure some newer players are "memory" players that rip the CD to memory first, but these are just intermediate products that will move people all the way to music servers.

 

With the external DAC your computer does just the transport work as you suggested above. You may be able to use your conventional CDP as a transport as well if you want to compare them. Most people I talk to agree that coax sounds much better than optical, but it is not the case in 100% of circumstances. You'll need to try it for yourself. I think USB has the potential of beating both of them when it is well implemented.

 

Macs are pretty quiet in my opinion. I have a MacBook Pro that barely breathes heavy when I am listening to music through it. I haven't experienced or even heard of anyone with trouble because of electronic noise. The topic has come up before and I know of one manufacturer who is developing products to fight this "issue."

 

Each Mac has pros and cons for use as a music server. You could use a Mini as a headless system or you can of course use a MacBook is you want the convenience of a monitor whenever you need it. In my opinion all of them have the horsepower to serve up any music you throw at them. With one exception, the MacBook Air will not make a good music server for several reasons that I won't go into. The MacBook Air makes a fabulous remote control however :-)

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Thanks again Chris, most helpful. Just a couple of queries on this:

 

1. Do you have a coax output on a Mac? What outputs do you have - I thought it was optical, USB and firewire?

2. When you refer to a "headless" system for a Mini, what do you mean? No monitor? I assume one would need some sort of monitor as otherwise how do you control it?

 

Just anxious that I don't spend over the odds on an all singing, all dancing Mac when all I am really interested in is using it as a music source.

 

Phil

 

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Hey Phil - I don't have a coax output on my Mac. You would need an external card to get coax. You are right about a headless system. It's just a snazzy name for no monitor. You can control a headless system many ways, but not all of them are equal or liked by everyone.

 

The MacBook is a really good music server and can be updated with additional RAM and a solid state drive if needed.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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A solid state drive, in layman's terms, is like a flash drive because it has no moving parts. They are silent and very fast. Gordon from Wavelength Audio just put one in is MacBook and he loves it. There is a post around here somewhere from him about it. Cost is a big issue for SSDs right now. expect to pay at least $500 for around 32 to 64 GB. It will only get cheaper though.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Thanks Chris - so I can cost up a Macbook in the UK, can you give me the spec you use or recommend. I think in a previous discussion you were recommending additional RAM, etc. I guess to start with I won't have to bother with external drives as initially I will just be ripping a few CDs and playing around, learning, etc.

 

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I use a MacBook Pro, but I highly recommend the regular MacBook. I would pick up the middle model because it has the super drive and is cheaper than the black one. It comes with two GB of memory so you can always upgrade later. RAM from other sources is much cheaper than from Apple. Once convenient thing about Macs is they don't offer many options and are all spec'd out pretty well.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Chris,

 

I had a very quick look at a Macbook today - very quick passing look! I noted 2 USB outputs, a firewire and also what was probably an optical toslink? Got me thinking, if you use toslink to DAC, how does internet connect? My internet connection on my current PC is an ethernet port/connection? Sorry for the dumb question!

 

Also, as regards MiniMacs, I have monitor, keyboard, etc with my current PC set up so assume I could rip CDs etc using this set up to a MiniMac. However, I would then use the MiniMac in my system in another room to playback. On the Apple website, there is a remote control offered. Could the mini mac be effectively controlled from this, rather like my current CDP set up?

 

Just exploring all the options. Bought a "Rough Guide" book on Macs today, so will get a bit more informed.

 

You guys have been so helpful. Thanks again.

 

Phil

 

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Hi Phil - You are correct that you saw an optical port on the MacBook. This port takes a mini-toslink cable and most likely your DAC will accept a standard toslink. Not a huge issue because you can get mini-toslink to toslink cables. I have one and I can point you in the right direction if you need. If you don't have wireless Internet at home then you will need to run an Ethernet cable to the MacBook's Gb Ethernet port just like your other PC. I would just buy a wireless router and cal it a day. Let me know if you need help on that. Either myself or the others around here can talk you through just abut anything.

 

You can most likely use your current monitor, keyboard, and mouse with the Mac Mini. You might need a display adapter depending on the type of monitor you have. The Mini has a DVI connection. The Apple remote works great for some people, even a few on the site here use it with much success. I personally don't like it because it is so limited. I use an iPod Touch or a MacBook Air to control my music server. Call it overkill, but it works fabulous. The Apple remotes are only around $20 so you could try one without too much financial pain. Who knows you may find one on eBay for almost nothing.

 

Nice to see you got a rough guide to Macs book. Be sure to ask us any questions that come up from reading the book. Whatever I can do to move this hobby into the next phase of great sound I will certainly do.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Absolutely right! I have a MacBook sitting right in front of me and I am looking at the mini toslink and Ethernet ports. Don't let the mini toslink fool you. The headphone jack is actually a two for one output. The mini toslink is deeper inside the port. This is why the mini toslink cables have a little longer end on them.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Chris,

 

Thanks. So just so I have got it straight, the standard outputs that come with any new Mac that can potentially be used with a DAC are (mini) toslink (optical), USB and firewire? My existing DAC has optical so I should be OK?

 

Checking out the outputs on a Macbook on my UK Apple website I came up with this http://www.apple.com/uk/macbook/features.html

 

Can you point me in the ditection of the optical (toslink) out?

 

A question traditional Audiophiles are bound to ask. Standard USB, etc cables (not sure about toslink) are very thin compared to your usual high quality hi fi interconnects. Does this matter? I guess as long as they are sending all the "0"s and "1"s accurately that is all that matters!

 

Thanks for all your help again!

 

Phil

 

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Hey Phil - You are correct about the prts on the Macs and since your existing DAC has optical it will work just fine. Not the most ideal connection compared to USB, but certainly not a bad way to go.

 

The optical port on Macs is kind of sneaky. The headphone output port is also the optical output port. The way it works is headphone plugs only go in to the port about 1/2" (guessing on the length), but the port is 1" deep. The mini toslink cable is longer and goes into the port 1" thus you get two for one. Kind of a really cool design if you ask me. You'll just need a cable with Mini optical on one end and standard optical on the other. I stay away from the adapters that convert standard to mini optical.

 

USB cables are a very touchy subject amongst the audio skeptics right now. I wrote this article and received a lot of flak for it. But, I stand by my word that USB cables do have an effect on sound. I prefer the Kimber USB cable.

 

 

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Thanks Chris, so in terms of optical, USB and firewire is there any concencus which is best? As an "old school" hi fi guy, I have been brought up to think the thicker the cable the better and USBs look so thin! But maybe this is daft thinking, after all signals are transmitted within components via thin connecting pathways, etc. Maybe thickness/conductivity is less of an issue transmitting a purely digital signal? Phil.

 

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USB and FireWire have the greatest potential according to everyone I talk to. Some are USB fans and others are FIreWire fans. There is another group that prefers AES/EBU output using a card like the Lynx AES 16e.

 

Don't worry about the thickness of a USB cable (yet). But there are certain things that can effect the sound. On the Kimber some people remove the ferrites around the end and they say the sound gets better.

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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Thanks Chris. Is AES/EBU the same as the traditional coaxial digital output used to connect standard CD transports and DACs?

 

By the way, been meaning to ask - your phrase "turn down the silence" - what does it mean? Two guesses. Either it refers to the "black" silence I have heard some refer to behind well reproduced digital music - just the music, nothing else. Or it refers to people being silent about the new technology - audiophiles being set in their ways - computers can never give audiophile sound, etc? Just curious (probably on your web site somewhere - just being lazy!). Phil.

 

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Hey Phil - AES/EBU is not totally the same as traditional coax. Here is a pretty easy description from Wikipedia

 

 

 

"The digital audio standard frequently called AES/EBU, officially known as AES3, is used for carrying digital audio signals between various devices. It was developed by the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and first published in 1985, later revised in 1992 and 2003. Both AES and EBU versions of the standard exist. Several different physical connectors are also defined as part of the overall group of standards. A related system, S/PDIF, was developed essentially as a consumer version of AES/EBU, using connectors more commonly found in the consumer market."

 

 

 

Ah yes, my phrase turn down the silence. I like the phrase because it can be used in a ton of different ways and can mean different things to different people. When I originally came up with it, I googled and checked the US PTO & Copyright office to make sure nobody had claimed the phrase, I was thinking about how deafening silence can be. You know if you are in a totally silent place it does really seem deafening! Then I thought the only way to "Turn Down The Silence" is to turn up the volume. Of course to me that meant the volume of music etc... I know it is kind of different, but only dead fish swim with the current :-)

 

Founder of Audiophile Style

UPDATED: My Audio Systems -> https://audiophile.style/system

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"Only dead fish swim with the current" - I really like that - have never heard it before. I have two daughters and am forever trying to get them to be individual rather than just dress/do as their friends/peers do - I will have to use that phrase - boy, they are going to thank you!

 

BTW - one is a big Hannah Montanah/Miley Cyrus/Ashley Tysdale fan - she was playing some on my system earlier - now you see what I have to contend with!

 

If you think I am bugging you with questions now, wait 'till I get a Mac! Hoping to get a demo from an aquaintance in the UK sometime soon.

 

Phil

 

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