Introducing "The Digital Domain"
My name is Colin Smith, and I haven't played a CD
in three years.
In the early 1980s, when digital audio recordings
and the personal computer were the next big things, I dont recall anyone suggesting
that these two technologies would one day converge. Audio manufacturers were then
concentrating on designing players for the new digital music format, while startups like
Microsoft and Apple were far more interested in creating software applications than
anything else. Of course, there was also the small problem of getting a CD into a
computer. Forget the non-existence of CD-ROM drives; there wasnt a hard drive in the
world that could absorb the data -- 660 megabytes worth -- held on a single CD.
To state the blatantly obvious, times have
changed. To ensure that we continue to catch the next big things in audio, SoundStage! is
introducing "The Digital Domain," where we will discuss products that lead the
way into the new digital-music revolution. The field of potential subjects is so wide open
that even we dont know what will be discussed in these pages as time moves forward.
But for starters, allow me to share the journey that led me to computer audio and pass on
a few things Ive learned along the way.
My journey into PC audio (or music servers,
whichever you prefer) began about four years ago when I discovered that a device from
Hagerman Technology, the HagUSB, had quite a following on an online audio forum. Before
Id found the forum it had never occurred to me to replace my CD player with a
computer. The HagUSB and its enthusiastic fans changed my mind. I already had the
requisite supporting equipment -- a D/A converter and a laptop -- so I ordered a HagUSB
(currently $129) and, while waiting for delivery, I set myself the task of putting my CD
collection onto my laptops hard drive.
There are many ways to rip (or grab) CDs using
popular commercial software like Nero, or the free music players from Microsoft (Windows
Media Player), Apple (iTunes), Winamp, J. River and many, many others. After a lot of
research, though, I became convinced that none of the above would be good enough to meet
my high audiophile standards. However, there was a program that had the stamp of approval
from the audiophile masses: Exact Audio Copy (EAC), then and now the gold standard
of ripping software.
EAC was written by German audiophile and
programmer Andre Weithoff, who introduces his program on the EAC website by saying:
"This program is really quite slow in secure mode in comparison with other grabbers,
but the program checks every sector over and over to get the correct data with high
certainty." In practice, this means that EAC works doggedly to extract every last bit
of accurate information from the source disc. It does this, in part, by taking its time
with the disc and focusing the computers resources on the task at hand. Expect that
EAC will take 15 to 20 minutes to read an undamaged CD and verify the data it finds.
Thats far slower than iTunes, for example, but thats the price we pay for
being finicky listeners.
Although EAC is widely considered to be the only
audiophile CD ripper, it is unfortunately as user friendly as MS-DOS. OK, its not that
bad, but it does take some time to comprehend EACs idiosyncrasies. That doesnt
mean any special skill is required to get EAC ripping bit-perfect copies of your CDs --
EACs setup wizard takes all the guesswork out of that. But there are a number of
interface and file-naming parameters that will probably need tweaking to meet your
personal preferences. For instance, even though Ive used EAC for years, I still
dont know how to get it to rip tracks in the correct numerical order. At some point
I did something to upset EAC (I have no idea what that was) and since then all my rips are
in reverse order. Ive never spent the time to figure out the problem because I use
my server as a personal radio station, with my player set on "random" playback
to keep everything interesting. That said, my recommendation is to read the many excellent
EAC setup tutorials that experienced users have written for the benefit of all before
engaging EACs services.
Theres a slim possibility that you
dont own any CDs and will exclusively download your music from Internet-based music
services. More likely, though, is that youll want to expand your collection by
downloading new releases and old favorites as they become available online. Unfortunately,
not all download services are created equal. Though its the most popular by far,
Apple's iTunes sells heavily compressed music files that offer bit rates of only 256 kbps
(kilobits per second) at most. Thats great if you want 25,000 songs on your iPod and
you dont care about sound quality.
Contrast that miserly bit rate with the 1411 kbps
that EAC extracts from 16-bit/44.1kHz CDs. But wait -- theres more. High-resolution
download sites such as that for Linn Records even offer 24/96 files in the Free Lossless
Audio Codec (FLAC) format, which churns out 2834 kbps of beautiful music. The implication
here is to be aware that a computer, great software and a USB DAC can only do so much with
low-resolution files. Remember that old expression: garbage in, garbage out.
Colin's system. From left to right are the Blue
Circle USB Thingee, a Western Digital 1TB external drive, a low-end Sony laptop showing
Foobar2000, a Synergistic Research Tesla Tricon USB cable, the Benchmark DAC1 Pre and
Wadia's 170iTransport. That laptop doesn't normally sit atop the integrated amplifier.
Now we have a hard drive bursting
with high-resolution audio files, but we lack playback software. There are quite a number
of free playback programs available, and it should be easy to find one that's to your
liking. The only caveat with some players is that the lossless file formats that EAC can
create (FLAC, for example) wont play in iTunes or Windows Media Player. For maximum
compatibility, I do all my ripping in the uncompressed .WAV format. In my experience these
files can be played by all player software, including iTunes. Of course, such files do
take up more hard-drive real estate than lossless files (which are more efficiently
organized and suffer no known performance penalty), but hard drives are cheap -- a
terabyte can be had for around $100 -- so why not go with .WAV?
If youre interested in trying players that
arent as visually polished as iTunes for Windows Media Player, Benchmark Media
Systems has conducted an extensive look into the pros and cons of a number of playback
programs, and though they dont come right out and say its the best
("There are no known problems with regards to Foobar's sonic quality"), I will:
Ive tried every player I have come across, and I always go back to Foobar2000.
Its not as pretty or as funky or as configurable as some, but thats just fine
by me. It seems that Foobars programmers put audio performance above all else, and
thats just the way it should be. All that said, I also use iTunes for background
listening in conjunction with my iPod Touchs Remote application. This dandy program,
which is free, allows an iPod Touch or iPhone to control iTunes remotely through a home
network, turning the handheld device into the coolest audio remote ever. However, when I
want to get lost in the music, or when Im forming opinions for a review, Foobar2000
is my tool of choice.
We now have the ripper and playback software set
up, so we must be done. Not by a long shot. In fact, we have to jump right back to the
beginning and talk about the operating systems that underlie whichever audio software
finds favor with you. Believe it or not, the operating system has a huge effect
on the quality of sound that your computer can stream. It would be easy to write a book on
the subject, but, briefly, Windows XP forces all audio through an application called the
K-Mixer, which distorts the heck out of anything it touches. There is a program, ASIO4ALL,
that can supposedly bypass the K-Mixer, but Ive never had any success using it with
a USB converter. Ubuntu, that popular and fun-loving variant of Linux, sounds just awful
and should be avoided.
Now, brace yourself for some positive words about
Windows Vista. The newest version of Windows has done away with the K-Mixer, and its audio
code was rewritten from scratch with high performance in mind. Vista is capable of
streaming 24-bit/96kHz high-definition audio files, but even with 16-bit /44.1kHz files
(aka Red Book CD) Vista is easily the best-sounding operating system available for the PC
platform. Heres hoping Microsoft doesnt mess with success in the upcoming
Windows 7. In short, if you want to get the best out of your audio server, use Windows
Vista. (I plead ignorance when it comes to Apples operating system.)
Unfortunately, no one seems to be offering free
computer audio hardware, but some of it is so good that its makers certainly
deserve to benefit from their hard work. Before going on, I should clarify that a USB
converter and a USB DAC are not necessarily the same thing. I use converter to mean
a USB device that converts the USB data stream to the S/PDIF output required by most
digital-to-analog converters. A USB DAC is a device that first converts the USB
signal into S/PDIF or, in some cases, I2S, and then performs the digital-to-analog conversion
internally. An example of a USB converter is the HagUSB. An example of a USB DAC is the
Benchmark DAC1 USB ($1295). A hybrid of these two would be the Blue Circle USB Thingee,
which can output via S/PDIF or use its internal DAC to output line-level analog signals.
The pioneering HagUSB has long since been
replaced in my system by a succession of USB audio converters, each of which plugged into
a USB port and was recognized by Windows but not always as a USB converter. Even Vista
sometimes sees the things as headphones or speakers, but whatever label the operating
system imposes there doesnt seem to be any performance problems associated with its
misclassification. Setting up these devices is usually no more complicated than plugging
them in and, if you use Foobar2000, selecting the USB converter/DAC as the output device
the program should use. This is plug'n'play the way it was meant to be.
Comparing the Benchmark and the Blue Circle
units, we can see that each company has taken a very different path in designing its USB
products. The Blue Circle Thingee takes its power from the computers USB bus, which
provides a very low-current 5-volt output. One of the Thingees most interesting
features is its internal power filter, which does an excellent job of cleaning up the
notoriously noisy USB bus supply. By removing that grunge, the Thingee is able to portray
music on a very black background. The Benchmark DAC1 USB is what we might call an active
USB DAC; it has its own power supply and doesnt use the power coming through the USB
cable. Benchmark has also developed its own proprietary USB interface, which it says makes
digital jitter a non-issue. Because the Blue Circle Thingee uses USB-bus power, its analog
output is on the low side, meaning the volume has to be turned up when using its analog
outputs. The Benchmark DAC1 USB faces no such limitation. There also seems to be no limit
to the proliferation of dedicated USB DACs or DACs that have sprouted USB inputs. There
are many choices to consider, but for experimental purposes -- and to get a very clear
idea of the potential your computer has as a digital source -- it would be very difficult
to go wrong with the Blue Circle USB Thingee.
The sum of all these parts is a digital audio
source that, based on the reactions of every single person who has heard my system, should
be a revelation. Many trends come and go in audio, often because there is little or no
substance to them. The audio server is a different animal altogether. The best part is
that youve got 90% of the equipment you need staring you in the face right now.
So goodbye and farewell, CD. Its been nice