Sunday, November 9, 2008

Build An Audiophile Music Server (CA04)


The Microsoft contingent of Computer Audiophile readers has been very vocal about the lack of Windows content around here. Well, it never hurts to ask. The CA04 music server is a Windows only machine that uses Apple's iTunes. Before all the Windows "diehards" get up in arms about using iTunes instead of something like Foobar2000, I suggest you all give this system a chance. The CA04 offers bit perfect output in a tiny package and allows audiophiles to use the best music server interface available today, iTunes.


Ask and You Shall Receive

Windows users around here finally have a system to discuss with everyone. Granted this is not the top of the line music server to beat all other music servers, but for Windows users this is a very good option. In addition, with new products coming out that reclock data this system is upgradeable and will only get better. I designed the CA04 to be a great sounding system and a very easy system to piece together and configure. I've said it before and I'll repeat it here, "Getting bit perfect output from a Windows music server can be a challenge for some and impossible for many audiophiles without computer savvy." In fact, if high performance audio is going to thrive in the world of music servers the applications must be simple and provide superior sound. Whether you believe it or not, iTunes will save high end audio. If you're a fan of Foobar2000, MediaMonkey, JRiver, WinAmp, Windows Media Player and others that is totally cool with me. But, to take full advantage of this system you'll have to use iTunes.

CA04 Specs

1. Stealth Computing LPC-350W ($1095)
2. Apple Airport Express (N) ($99)
3. PS Audio Digital Link III DAC ($995)
4. Thecus N2100 ($279, plus hard drives)
4. Apple iTunes (Free)

Total Cost = ~$2500 (plus hard drives)


Stealth Computing LPC-350W Front

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Stealth Computing LPC-350W Back

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Apple Airport Express (N)


PS Audio Digital Link III DAC


Thecus N2100 NAS


Apple iTunes.

The System

The heart of this system is the Stealth Computing LPC-350W. I've been a fan of Stealth's products for several years now and I know this is not a fly by night company. Stealth produces very good products. The 350W offers built-in wireless, Gigabit LAN, USB 2.0 and 1394a FireWire. This tiny package has a built-in slot loading disc drive and is compatible with Vista, XP, and even Linux. A very cool but expensive option is a solid state drive (SSD). Stealth offers SSDs as an option as you customize this tiny PC. (If you want to go without any moving parts you can opt for the stealth PC without any fans and an SSD. That model doesn't have built-in wireless but you could always hard wire it to an Airport Express.)

Earlier I mentioned bit perfect output on this Windows PC. Accomplishing this is not something I find convenient or enjoyable in most circumstances. By far the easiest way to get bit perfect output on a PC is to use Apple's Airport Express. Using the AE, music is sent out the Ethernet/WLAN card bypassing the KMixer (XP) or any other audio manipulation Windows may attempt. Another option here is to use a Squeezebox, but I am not a fan of the SB software one bit. The AE allows/requires you to use iTunes. This is good in my opinion. I haven't seen a better interface for a music server yet. Sure some are better here and others better there, but all around nobody beats Apple at design and functionality. Some audiophiles are concerned about the CD ripping capability of applications other than Exact Audio Copy. In my opinion using anything other than iTunes is a waste of time and will not benefit you enough to justify the extra step. If you want to adjust your drive offset and comb over output log files to make sure your rips are perfect, you are certainly welcome to do that with this solution.

I do suggest using the Airport Express in this system, but definitely not for the internal DAC. The AE has high enough jitter and using the internal DAC would only degrade the sound even more. So, use a TOSlink to mini-optical cable to go from your AE to your DAC. In this system the DAC I recommend is the PS Audio Digital Link III. I won't go into too much detail here because I have a very thorough review coming shortly. The DLIII offers SPDIF and USB input options. This DAC is certainly a great option by itself, and soon PS Audio will offer its Digital Lens reclocker to accompany the DAC. The Digital Lens will go perfect between the Airport Express and the DLIII DAC to reduce the high jitter coming from the AE. You'll have to trust me for now that the DLIII is well worth the purchase price. My full review will be completed shortly and I'll be very hesitant to send this unit back to PS.

The Thecus N2100 storage solution is a NAS disk that offers RAID 0 & 1. In addition to RAID the N2100 has a built-in music sharing server for iTunes, and supports UPnP. Just like the stellar 5200B Pro that I reviewed recently this smaller Thecus unit has the one touch USB copy function. To transfer your existing music collection over to the N2100 you attach it via USB and select Copy. Boom, your music is all ready to go on the disks and if you use RAID 1 it is mirrored. The nice thing about all the Thecus units is that they don't force you into any specific disk size. You can start small or large and when a newer larger drive is available you can easily upgrade. For example, when the new 1.25 TB drives come out all you'll have to do is pop one drive in at a time and the mirroring function will take over. When the first drive is mirrored, you replace the other one and soon your capacity is increased without any reconfiguration* or manual data copying.

*You just need to select the expand disk button and the Thecus units take over from there.

Wrap Up

The CA04 is the first Microsoft based music server I've published on Computer Audiophile. Fortunately for all the readers it is far from the first Microsoft based music server I've built. Long before I opted for OS X as my music server platform of choice I was building Windows music and media servers from scratch. When it comes to Windows there is no shortage of configuration options or different ways to accomplish something. My music server components above are only suggestions. You can mix and match some of your components or some of the components from previous music server articles (CA01, CA02, CA03). If this system is not up to your level you will certainly want to stick around for the other server configurations I have waiting in the wings. Want to run Windows Vista and OS X on one box, and output bit perfect 24/176.4 music via AES/EBU? If you don't yet, you will when Reference Recordings releases their HRx format. When that happens you'll know where to find a complete music server system that will reproduce the RR albums in all their glory. Stay tuned for the higher performance & higher priced music servers that will bring on the upgrade itch.