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Very beginner type questions about music servers, especially DIY


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I kept playing CDs through around 2017, when I finally ripped my CD collection to disk and got a USB DAC. At the time, I was in touch with a guy from the New Jersey Audiophile Society who said he was using a NUC running Windows 10 and Foobar2000 to play music through his USB DAC, physically modified a bit (adding grounding and ERS paper inside the chassis and around the USB connectors). He said he would do the same thing for me if I wanted to use a NUC, so ended up with the exact same setup. I also powered the NUC by a 19V linear power supply I got from a Chinese company called GZLOZONE, also slightly modified with ERS paper.

 

My NUC has always been fairly low powered. 2 Cores, just 4 GB RAM and 128 GB SSD drive. I wanted to see if upgrading to a more recent model with more power would improve sound quality. I bought a 32 GB/ 1TB i7 11th-generation NUC running Windows 11 and got that running with my LPS. The sound has become more exciting and dynamic, for sure. I'm still exploring whether it has a higher noise floor. Not obviously so.

 

But I started researching other options (maybe should have done that before buying a new NUC, LOL [it's returnable]) and my understanding is that I need some kind of music server... i.e. that's the concept I'm looking for, and it could be a NUC, a Raspberry Pi, or something branded and self-contained. I'm not very interested in streaming, so I want to play my ripped CDs which I already have on a hard drive and backed up to the cloud. I want to use my existing DAC with this server.

 

My budget is around $1000 for hardware and any software I need.

 

I'm very new to this whole area, as I've just been doing things the same way for the last seven years with no exploration until now.

 

Can someone enlighten me as to the overall types of options I have? For example, DIY versus branded/self-contained? Or something like that? 

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Thanks! I'll give some background.

 

The highest priority for sound quality is local content on a hard drive. I also have an Amazon Music subscription, but I only use it to discover new music. If I like something, I buy the CD and rip it. I also purchase hi-res files from time to time including DSD.

 

My USB DAC is a Gustard X20 that has been highly modified by this guy in New Jersey. He added bypass capacitors, damping, shielding, and ERS (ERS is a kind of cloth that absorbs RFI).

 

My server should, above all else, be the highest quality possible USB source for the DAC.

 

Since 2017 I've been using a 2-core, 4 GB RAM, 128 GB SDD NUC, also modified by the same guy to clean up the USB power, more shielding and ERS, etc. The reason I want to upgrade is that my old NUC was pretty underpowered and I suspect having plenty of extra power will improve the sound, Or perhaps I want to get something that's more appropriate for the job of server: maybe a Raspberry PI with stripped down OS and software?

 

I have a 19V linear power supply, 100W, from a Chinese company, to power the NUC.

 

I have both speakers and headphones. The speakers are a pair of Spendor S3/5. They are driven by a B&K ST120 (an amp that was popular in the 70's). But my room doesn't have good acoustics (it's tiny) and my main emphasis for quality is headphone listening. I have a Hifiman EF5 headphone amp (12AU7/FET) also modified by the same guy, and Audeze LCD-2 (pre-fazor) headphones.

 

Thanks.

 

 

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Hi dericchan1, 

 

A few questions:

 

- I'm not located near my router and can't run Ethernet cable to it. I use the WiFi on my NUC to connect to the internet. I also turn off WiFi for doing critical listening, as it generates RFI inside the computer case. So, what I'm wondering is whether there's another way to use a low-noise connection to the Raspberry PI. 

 

- Using a RPi as a NAA, how does that affect what software is available to browse and select files? I have some features I need in that regard, such as a 4-column browser provided by Foobar2000 (Genre, Artist, Composer, and Album). I may want to add control by a remote or by my iPad... what options are available there?

 

- Even separating the server from the NAA, I would still want a low-noise power supply for the NAA as well as high-quality hardware such as the USB output, and keep the USB output low noise. Can I do those things with a Raspberry Pi 4.

 

- In my old NUC, playing music (just 44/16 files) took 30% CPU. In my new NUC (which I'm not committed to keeping) playing files takes 3% CPU. I do believe that for whatever reason, the sound quality is more immediate, transients are faster, and there's more high-end extension. Anyway I'm not committed to keeping this setup if something better is out there.

 

- Isn't upsampling controversial? I tried upsampling with JRiver to higher PCM rates, never tried DSD, but it worsened the quality. My DAC does very well with 44/16 files. In any case, I'm willing to try it.

 

Note that I'm a programmer and have use Linux before, so I'm not afraid of command lines.

 

 

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Well the NAA provides benefit aside from whether I use upsampling, right? 

 

I looked at the website you linked and I'm not sure whether I need the desktop version of hqplayer, or the embedded version. I also noticed the desktop version said it needed an nvidia graphics card.

 

What is a WUI?

 

Thanks!

 

 

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25 minutes ago, krass said:

can you find/ buy a second-hand Aurender for $1000 where you are ?

 

 

I found an N100H for $1100 online. 

 

I was also looking into the iFi Zen Stream. I don't know if these are essentially the same type of device... something that takes audio over the LAN (in my case, WiFi) and sends it via USB to the DAC. 

 

I'm looking into what software I need on the "server" computer (not sure if that's the right term) that will let me browse my collection and start streaming music to the Zen or Aurender. I think HQPlayer can do it. How about JRiver? I already have a license for JRiver on my MacBook.

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3 hours ago, Iving said:

The OP is like me in that his priority is playing CD rips, he values tags, he knows the usefulness of foobar2000, he's not convinced at this time about upsampling and his instinct tells him that his "server should, above all else, be the highest quality possible ... source for the DAC."

 

After years of developing a great sounding system I am yet to venture into serious upsampling. If and when I do it will be either PGGB or intra-DAC. I tried HQPlayer and loathe it ergonomically. I don't use my HQPlayer license: it's been a total waste of money for me. foobar2000 is much more useful. The OP knows how to - and wants to - browse and select files for play in foobar2000 based on columns i.e. tags ... this is my first prerogative. OP you don't have to limit yourself to 4 columns! You can have as many as you want including bespoke. HQPlayer is a total infant in comparison and will never be any substitute for foobar2000. My ears are quite happy with Sox x4 in foobar2000.

 

The OP is unlike me in that he's willing to use a phone/tablet at the listening position.

 

All in all my advice would be to do a lot more research, discovering what he really wants. Yes this Forum is a truly great resource. Trial and error is unavoidable and, so, due diligence is wise.

 

He's happy with the new NUC on LPS. Be patient. Buy some CDs instead. It's all about music, right? He will still have the CDs in years to come.

 

Most of us agree about clean power.

 

Thank, Iving. I downloaded HQPlayer on my NUC and cannot figure out the interface. Some software designers believe that if you can't learn how to operate the software just from poking around (given that I understand technically what I'm expecting it to do) then it's badly designed software.

 

I'm going to spend some time tonight listening to the NUC both for enjoyment and to get the sound in my ear. I'm willing to try one other approach at this time and that's the max time I'll put into this. For instance I could try the iFi Zen Stream as another approach.

 

EDIT: I have a super high quality 12V LPS that I could use to power the iFi.

 

 

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44 minutes ago, krass said:

 

I had an Aurender X100L & was exceptionally pleased with it. The N100H is not delivered standard with SSD for music storage but it can be fitted - definitely worth having & checking to see if the advertised one has “user SSD”.

 

The Aurender is a really great music source, but it has a couple of potential drawbacks:

- my X100L did not have WiFi so a WIRED ethernet connection is mandatory to the local network (needed to talk to the Conductor App, transfer music source files and internet streaming services)

- Conductor App has to be hosted on an iPad, so you need an iPad on your WiFi network.

- my X100L audio output was USB, so you need a USB DAC.

*) I’m not sure if the above applies to all Aurender models, but worth checking….

 

If it works for you it’s a great solution….

 

 

I do have a USB DAC that I'm happy with (a custom modified Gustard X20). 

 

I don't have a way to reach the router with Ethernet but I think I could use one of those Wi-Fi range extenders that has an ethernet output. Not sure how that would affect the sound. EDIT: I did find some N100H models online that have a HDD installed, around 2 to 4 TB, for an average price of $1300. One of them comes with "1 GB of Jazz preloaded."

 

It probably comes down to whether I would be happy with the Conductor app. I can't stand grids of album covers... too hard to find anything that way. I need multiple filters and textual lists, like the macOS Music app in the Song mode. If I'm searching for albums, I need a list of album titles, not a list of tracks (too many tracks to deal with when they are all listed separately). JRiver, Apple Music (the replacement for ITunes) and Foobar2000 all provide column filtering. 

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15 hours ago, Iving said:

 

Sure

 

OP should be aware that - whilst his long term strategy develops - USB is not the only way to feed a DAC ...

 

True, and I have a good quality S/PDIF cable. I've only had a really good S/PDIF output with a highly modified PS Audio Lambda Two CD transport. It took a lot of modification to get a really high-quality S/PDIF source. Via USB? The Gustard has the XMOS chip set and seems to run very well from a USB source, even my current NUC/LPS with no modification to the NUC itself.

 

I ended up ordering an Intona USB isolator to try it. I also decided to get a Raspberry Pi 4 and an iFi Zen Stream. I'm going to have a lot to play with over the next month. I'll have to sell or return anything I'm not using to stay within my approx $1000 budget.

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So, now that I've decided to get a RPi 4, where should I buy one? Where should I get the case? How about other accessories? How about a 5 V LPS for the RPi? There seem to be a lot of choices where to get all this and I'm not sure what I really need.

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I know I'm trying a lot of stuff at once, but I'm trying to evaluate a lot of this before the Amazon return window closes. It's okay, I'm taking my time with it once it arrives. So I received an iFi Zen Stream today. (By the way, it can function as an NAA, so I guess that means it will work with HQPlayer. )

 

There are some hardware advantages the Zen might have over a Raspberry Pi:

 

- I've powering the Zen Stream by a super-hq 12V linear power supply (that I had custom built for me). I don't know where I can get a LPS of equivalent quality to use with a RPi.

 

- The Zen is built with iFi technology such as Active Noise Cancellation on the USB lines, probably other iFi technologies. 

 

I got the Zen working as a DLNA device. But it sounds the best by far when I plug a USB drive directly into the Zen and use the Zen's Web UI to navigate folders and play tracks. 

 

It doesn't sound anywhere near as good when I use it as a network streamer (with my MacBook as the library and player). It makes me wonder how well a RPi as network streamer will work.

 

The Aurender would be more like the situation in which the hard drive is plugged into the Zen, as the Aurender plays off internal hard drives. 

 

 

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I'm starting to draw some conclusions for my situation. I don't have time to try every possibility so I'm trying to narrow them down a bit.

 

I think I'm going to look for a solution in which the library is on a disk physically attached to a computer/SBC/RPi that is running the player software and is also providing the USB output. I can't see how any network connection is going to outperform that. 

 

The NUC was doing that for me, but the Zen Stream sounds way better. Why does the Zen Stream sound better? Perhaps it's because it's running light-weight software inside (compared to Win 11 on the NUC). Perhaps it's because it's built with Active Noise Cancellation (iFi's technology) in the USB ports as well as other iFi technology to reduce jitter, tame noise, etc. And I was powering it with a very expensive custom-built 12V power supply (I was using that for something else but didn't need it any more).

 

Am I going to stick with the Zen Stream then? Well there's one other request I have now, which I would really like, and that's remote control software on my iPad. I want to be listening in positions other than sitting at my desk, operating a computer. The Zen can be controlled by a Web UI but it's terrible. No question it won't work. Plus the Zen is buggy. It randomly stops playing and once I had to reboot it to get it to play again. 

 

Next possibility is the RPi, if software exists that satisfies all these conditions: #1 library is attached vis USB disk to the RPi, #2 player resides in the RPi OS and can be controlled from mouse and keyboard, #3 player can be remotely controlled from a phone or tablet (preferably tablet to make it possible to read long track names) Anyone know if software like this exists?
 

 

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