The last wired solution to connect your computer to your audio system is Ethernet or CAT-5 cabling. Ethernet wiring is designed to support long runs without signal loss so you can have your computer in one room, your hard drive with your music library in another, and your music system in a third room. Ethernet DACs start for as little as $99 for the Apple Airport Express (apple.com), which can be used either wired or wireless and has both analog and TosLink digital outputs. Microsoft X-Box 360 (xbox.com:80/en--US) or Sony PlayStation (us.playstation.com) game machines can also serve as Ethernet DACs since they both have two-channel analog outputs. Higher-end options include the $4200 Linn Majik DS Ethernet DAC (linn.co.uk), the $1995 Logitech Squeeze Box Transporter (logitech.com), and the $2876 Koetsu Blacknote DSS 30, $7200 DSS 50, and $12,800 DSS 50 Tube (koetsuusa.com). These higher-end Ethernet DACs also support higher bit rates, and some like the Linn will even work with 192kHz files.
If you can’t or don’t wish to use Ethernet cables to connect your computer to your music system, wireless Wi-Fi offers almost all of Ethernet’s capabilities. Wireless systems do have drawbacks when compared to a wired system, however. A wireless system will not be able to span as long a distance as easily as wired system and can’t support as much data. Computer cognoscenti refer to this as “having a smaller pipe.” Especially if you intend to listen to a lot of high-definition music files or HD video, a wired system will have fewer issues with possible dropouts and data transmission errors.
Still, for many music lovers a wireless-connected computer-based music system offers the easiest installation, setup, and day-to-day ease of use. This is especially true for the less technically sophisticated users in a household. The two market-leaders in wireless computer audio are the Logitech Squeezebox and the Sonos system. The Logitech Squeezebox product line (logitech.com/index.cfm/speakers_audio/wireless_music_systems) has five different versions, the $299 Squeezebox Classic, $399 Duet, $149 Squeezebox Receiver, the $1999 Transporter, and $299 Squeezebox Boom. All models require “Squeeze Center” software to be installed on your computer to access your computer’s music library, but they can access the Internet and utilize Internet-based music content even when your computer is turned off. The Sonos system (sonos.com) comprises four components: the $99 ZoneBridge, which connects the system to the Internet via an Ethernet connection; the $349 ZonePlayer 90, which streams music to a home stereo via its analog or S/PDIF outputs; the $499 ZonePlayer 120, which has a built-in 55W RMS two-channel amplifier so it can directly drive speakers; and the $399 Controller, which can run any and all Zone-players in your home. The Sonos system does not require your computer to be on to access your music library, but it does need one of its components to be hard-wired to your Internet modem. It is also a “closed” Wi-Fi system, meaning that it operates on its own Wi-Fi network that’s independent of other Wi-Fi networks you may have in your home.
Yamaha recently unveiled its own wireless music system dubbed the MusicCAST2. The MusicCAST2 system consists of the $499 Network Music Commander model MCX-RC100, which is a remote control with a full-color LCD screen, and two Network Music Players, the MCX-A300 and MCX-P200 ($399 each). The A300 has a built-in amplifier so it can drive speakers while the A200 is made to hook up to an existing system via line-level or digital outputs.
At a substantially higher price point (price TBA) Thiel (thielzoet.com) debuted its Zöet multi-room, multichannel music system. It supports 5.1 channels and uses a central unit called the dB1 to process and distribute audio via a closed Wi-Fi network to powered Thiel SCS4D speakers and SS1D subwoofers in various rooms. A single Zöet remote controls source, volume, and music mode for any and all other Zöet components.
Of course, most of your music doesn’t start off as downloaded digital files on your computer. There are two principal methods for importing digital music—ripping CDs (I’ve always hated this phrase as it implies that you’re doing something illegal by copying your own CDs) . To “rip” a CD you need CD-ripping software and a CD/DVD drive that can read your CDs. The iTunes software has a CD ripper built in. But some enthusiasts feel that dedicated stand-alone CD ripping software does a better job, despite the lack of any conclusive data proving that third party ripping software has fewer data errors. Many PC owners use Exact Audio Copy (exactaudiocopy.de/en/index.php/overview/features/introduction) to do their CD ripping or Foobar2000 (foobar2000.org), which is a freeware audio player for the windows platform that also has a built-in ripper.