For some reason I always feel as if I’m behind the curve. I didn’t get a personal computer until 1987, a CD player until ’91, no DVD until ’99, no cell phone until 2001. For perspective, PCs came out in 1981, CDs 1982, DVDs 1995, digital cellular 1990. Now, I’ve finally set up a computer music server to hold, organize, and pull up on demand a collection of about 1500 CDs. While computer based music servers are nothing new, they’re still getting a foothold for primary, high quality, home playback use. This technology seems to be taking longer for the majority of the population to adopt. Yet while CD sales are shrinking, down by over 13% to under 200 million units last year, downloads are up by 14% to near 120 million. It’s clear where the market is headed and that means there will come a day when some releases may not be available on CD. Computer based servers are the way of the future. Generally, I’m not an early adopter, yet it depends upon the usefulness of the technology to me. I remember reading about PCs soon after their announcement and imagining how powerful a tool it could be. Moving into a PC was important and immediately applicable for my needs. CDs were less critical. DVDs were a logical and very welcomed move from VCR tape. Cellular coverage needed to be expanded before it became practical. The convenience and usefulness of hard drive storage, downloads, and computer controlled playback was obvious, and attractive, but not critical or necessary, yet. And there are trade-offs. I still want a hard copy in my possession with the full liner notes and artwork. I’ve been through data loss and crashes, and although hardware and software have become more reliable. . , once bitten, twice shy. And the Cloud, with its mysterious nature and questionable security, doesn’t exactly nurture confidence. But my delay was more about thinking through how to set it up than any other reason.
I had tossed about many different ways of approaching it. Mac Mini? Requires a keyboard, a monitor, and an external hard drive. Use my current laptop? Only needs an external HD, but means moving the computer in and out of the media room, connecting, disconnecting—not convenient. Is an external DAC a must? I didn’t want to deal with all the paraphernalia, the keyboard, the monitor, the mouse—too much clutter, or an external DAC—another expense, another box, another set of wires. I wanted an unobtrusive, low cost, simple solution. From what I’ve read, it can get complicated. Lots of people have lots of issues. So, I was prepared for a few hitches.
When a retired MacBook Pro became available. Bingo! That’s the ticket—built-in monitor and keyboard—slim, one piece and compact. All I needed was an external HD. The cost of a one terabyte HD has dropped to under a hundred bucks. They’re about the size of a cell phone, can hold over 3000 hours of music in Apple Lossless format, has enough capacity to hold every CD in the collection and still have room to double it. The optical out from the computer provides a clean, quiet, non-electrical feed to the AVR. It’s just the solution I was looking for—small footprint, low cost—and talk about easy.
But, it’s all about the sound. Apple Lossless is supposed to sound 100% equivalent to the original CD. Initial listening surprised me. I sampled a few CDs playing simultaneously from the Oppo, connected via HDMI, and the computer, via optical, switching inputs on the AVR to make immediate A/B comparisons. Two different sources, realtime CD or compressed audio file; two different types of connection, electrical/copper wire or light/fiber optic. I was expecting a possible level difference; heard none. I listened for other changes; heard none. Okay, so far it sounds equivalent, and I trust my ears.
And I don’t trust my ears. Ripped a wide band pink noise signal on the computer and got my calibrated microphone hooked up to compare the computer file to the CD feed. Checked levels first. They read exactly the same; not even a tenth of decibel difference between direct from the CD and Apple Lossless. Looked at the RTA spectrograph to see if there could be some small linear deviations—once again none, exactly the same. The lossless file data from the computer is equivalent. I was allowing for the possibility of some variation, after all, there’s so much talk about it. I’ve heard and read many comments from audiophiles who hear differences. Some prefer their CD playback, some prefer the computer. In most cases, though, they are feeding their signals through different DACs. Many a’philes send the computer output to an standalone DAC and compare that to the internal DAC from their CD player or yet another DAC fed by the CD player’s digital output. This could easily explain the variance. But for me, whether the bitstream is coming from the disc or the computer, it’s being processed by the same DAC and goes through the same chain all the way down the line to the speakers. There should be no difference. There is none.
Now I wonder, what’s the BFD? My only guess is that the process is being over complicated. It’s really too easy when it’s streamlined down to the essentials.
Now, on to the fun part—getting another 1500 hours of music.