Once you have a computer, music playback software, and storage for your music files, you need a way to move the digital music files so they can be played over your stereo system. If your computer is near your stereo you can connect the computer to your system by one of several methods.
Because there are so many ways to get from point A to B to C, creating a comprehensive and totally up-to-date guide that includes every permutation of hardware and software available is nearly impossible. Instead this primer will explain and describe categories of software and hardware needed to accomplish the job along with a smattering of market-leading products.
Just as with analog audiophilia, the world of computer-based audio can be as simple or as complicated as you choose to make it. For some folks computer audio is an all-consuming hobby, while for others it’s merely another, more convenient way, to access their music libraries.
In computer audio the first and most obvious component is a computer. Computers come in two primary varieties—PC and Mac. Despite what competing commercials would have you believe, both are fully capable of working equally well as part of a digital music-delivery system. Which one is a better choice comes down to your personal priorities and budget.
Mac-based systems are ideal for someone who wants to keep life simple. Mac’s iTunes software was designed for the Mac and works seamlessly with other Apple devices such as the Airport Express, Airport Extreme, and Apple TV. The primary advantage and disadvantage of a Mac is that you have fewer options in terms of software and hardware. As you‘ve probably learned from Microsoft’s attack commercials, Apple hardware is more expensive, but not prohibitively so—a Mac Mini, which works very nicely for computer audio, has a base price with a 120GB drive of $599.
PC-based music systems are available in a mind-numbing variety of configurations and prices. Both the least expensive and most expensive computer-based music systems use a PC chassis. The differences in price are due to both hardware and software options, as well as how much customer support and initial set-up help comes with the system. With skills and patience you can literally build a music-server PC piece by piece, carefully selecting every component, at substantial savings over a similarly featured turnkey system. But given the nature of computers, doing it yourself will involve far more time and effort and the end result may still be less user-friendly and potentially less reliable than a completely preassembled system. Some especially computer-savvy audiophiles have built music systems based on Unix or Linux operating systems, but this is only for those who really love working with computers.
The music playback software you choose will have a profound effect upon the quality of sound you’ll hear from your computer-based music system. It also has a major impact on the ergonomic elegance of the system. As I mentioned earlier, with a Mac your options are more limited than with a PC. Most Mac users opt for iTunes, but there are other options including MPE Player, VLC Player, Real Player, and Audacity (which is also a very good recording program). If you go with a PC the list of music playback programs goes on and on. Almost every week there’s a new piece of software for music playback available.
Regardless of what flavor of system you chose, you need a place to store your music files. Hard drives have become so inexpensive that storage space has become infinitely expandable. Most computer music systems employ at least a pair of 500GB drives so that one can serve as a backup for the other. Hard drives can be mounted inside the computer or externally via USB, Firewire, or Ethernet connections. Recently SSD (solid-state or silicon) drives, which can replace moving-part hard-drive discs with physically static memory chips, have come down in price to where they are also a viable storage option. Since SSDs have no moving parts and generate no physical vibrations or heat some computer audiophiles feel they offer a sonic advantage over hard drives.
Some music lovers have the money, but neither the time nor the inclination, to assemble their own computer-based music system. Fortunately quite a few companies offer complete “turnkey” systems. One of the better-known options is Olive (olive.us). Olive offers units with built-in CD trays for CD ripping, a built-in hard drive, and provisions for multi-room wireless or wired setups. Its base unit, the Melody N2, is priced at $1499. Another company, Qsonix (qsonix.com) offers several models of music servers that will support up to 192kHz music files. Its Q105 2-zone system’s base price is $4450. Moving up the price ladder, Soolos (meridian-audio.com/product-model/sooloos-media-system.aspx) offers an ergonomically elegant system that uses a touch-screen 17-inch LCD to select music from its library as well as a proprietary metadata database which permits users to do exacting searches of their music libraries. A basic Soolos system starts at $12,000.