Sunday, November 9, 2008

Music Servers: Canned or Custom (Part III)

Part III
Custom Music Servers: Desktop or Fully Integrated

Part II of this series was all about canned music servers. Purchase, plug, and play. In the final piece of this three part series I will discuss custom music servers and give some editorial comments about each. Let's start with the same premise that we began the Part II with, Most audiophiles just want to listen to great sounding music and possibly admire a great looking hi-end system. Custom high end music servers are not going to allow as much absenteeism in the area of configuration and upkeep, but they have the capability to provide features and options that canned system owners can only dream of. I separate custom systems into two categories, desktop, and fully integrated. The desktop custom music servers are mainly for users who listen to music while using their computers for other purposes. This area of hi end audio is only going to get bigger as manufacturers start to realize people are fed up with standard Altec Lansing and Logitech wafer thin desktop speakers and their internal laptop / desktop DACs. I will cover this later in the article. The other category of custom music servers is the fully integrated hi-end music server. These are starting to grow like wildfire for both audiophiles and home theater aficionados. The fully integrated custom music server is part of a users hi-end system 100% of the time. In most cases it will be connected to the other components in the rack with either an S/PDIF or USB cable.

For the past several years these fully integrated custom music servers were all hat and no cowboy. Fancy interfaces and software that worked in all the demos, but when you got home it was a whole different ball game. Hundreds of applications were out there to catalog your music and play it back with the click of a mouse. These applications were not user friendly and there were always a couple show-stoppers with each one. I won't even mention the utter lack of attention paid to sound quality. I have worked in information technology ever since I graduated from college, so I can eventually get pretty much anything to work. When I look at the usability of a product for Joe Sixpack I always ask myself, "Could my mom use this without calling me for help?" Now, I can honestly say hi-end custom music servers are easy to use and the sound quality can only be topped by the most expensive CD/transport combinations on the market.

Let's start by putting together the components of a really good music server, then going into a few details. Trust me this is not going to be an engineers guide to the 1's and 0's of audio.

Computer: Mac Mini, running OS X 10.5.x (Leopard)
Monitor: None (a monitor will be needed to setup the Mac when you get it home however)
Software: iTunes 7.5 (optional: Signal from Alloysoft, netTunes, VNC)
Disk: Drobo from Data Robotics (up to 4 terabytes), four 1terabyte drives from Seagate or Hitachi
Router: (optional, but highly recommended): Apple Airport Extreme Base Station
DAC: Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 USB
Remote: TuneView, iPod Touch, or TranzPort

Putting it together quickly for the sake of the article: The Mac Mini goes in your rack with your components, the disk connects via USB to the Apple router and is accessible over the built-in wireless of the Mini. The DAC connects via USB to the Mac Mini. The DAC connects to you hi-end system via XLR or RCA cables just like any other DAC. That's it. There are thousands of other options here that I am leaving out, but I will cover them in future articles.

What makes this appealing versus a canned music server? Most of the benefits center around cost and storage. The total cost for all this in a canned system is tens of thousands of dollars. The rough cost of this system is around than $4,500. If you have your own DAC the cost is closer to $3,000. When you run out of disk space the drobo allows you to replace the hard drives with larger units (one at a time so you don't lose data). The McIntosh music servers require you to purchase a completely separate music server to add disk space! The Drobo also stores all your music in a proprietary configuration that safeguards the data against a single drive failure. This is huge. The other canned units, with the exception of the Sooloos, require you to connect an external drive and follow on-screen instructions to backup the music. Based on personal experience I know I would get round to backing up my music very rarely if I had to connect an external drive and use a manual process. This custom music server allows you to download music from any online store and play it back almost immediately. Whereas the canned systems only allow a single online store such as Rhapsody, if they offer this capability at all. With the great quality 24/96 downloads available now and becoming more popular by the day, this is a very nice feature. In addition, the Mac Mini connected to the DAC1 USB supports bit perfect 24/96 music. This is not possible on the McIntosh with all your music coming from a redbook CD. Overall sound quality for this system will be equal or better than anything close in price and possibly better than units costing several thousand dollars more. In the December 2007 Abso!ute Sound there was an article that covered the reasons music played back from a computer sounds better than music from a standard disc player. Of course not in every situation, but this does validate the fact that hi-end custom music servers are an audiophile solution.

What about drawbacks to this custom music server? Administration and maintenance will have to be done. Software updates will need to be done and some configurations may need to be tweaked. The software updates are easy with Apple's Software Update function. If you are not very technical I suggest getting your local computer service guys to come out and set it up for you. This will probably cost a couple hundred bucks, but you'll get to relax as they do all the work. Remote controls have been the subject of three articles on this site and are on area that has prevented many people from going down this custom path. I don't consider this a drawback anymore. Using the iPod touch with the Signal application from Alloysoft is an awesome solution. Ripping new CDs without a monitor is also not a drawback because iTunes can be setup to automatically import and eject the disc upon insertion. The bottom line is that there are no real show-stoppers for those willing to learn a newer system that may be out of their comfort zone. Once this system is all setup and fully integrated into a hi-end system my mom could definitely use it without any trouble.

My second category is custom desktop music servers. As I said earlier, audiophiles have had enough distortion and roll-off from their old computer speakers to last them a life time. Finally some hi-end manufacturers are getting more into the market. My selection for a desktop system would be the Dynaudio MC 15 powered speakers. An excellent system could consist of a MacBook, the Benchmark DAC1 USB, and the Dynaudio speakers. The DAC1 has single ended analog outputs to run to the single ended analog inputs on the speakers. This is as audiophile as a desktop can get. Well, maybe not. In life there is always someone who knows more about any given subject and in hi-end audio there is always an upgrade that may make the system better. You could add the Salagar Symphony S210 powered speakers to your desktop system if you really wanted to. The $8,000 price tag would keep me away for now.The bottom line here is that desktop music servers can provide great sound that most audiophiles would be happy listening to while sitting at their computer.

Final Thoughts
If you have the cash to get all the functionality of a custom server in a canned system then a canned system is the way to go. If you don't fall into this income range I highly suggest a custom music server for all the reasons previously mentioned. Plus, if you're like me you will like the process of putting it together, tweaking it just right, and having the ability to upgrade piece by piece and maybe even add components like the Empirical Audio Pacecar.