I put that background information up front because one of the driving forces in selecting music servers is their ability to deliver accurately timed data streams. If you don’t at least intuitively “get” that timing can be critical, much of the discussion seems like technogeekery run amok.
Decision 1: Dedicated Music Server or Existing PC/Mac
One of the attractions of computer audio is that you have most of what you need already (assuming you have a PC). You can confine attempts to get better sound to simple steps like changing DACs or trying new headphones. Using your existing PC is a low cost approach and works quite well.
If you are interested in taking the next step toward high-quality audio, there can be advantages to using a dedicated music server. Primary among these is the fact that there is less competition for resources on a dedicated server than on you existing PC. If you are working on a photograph in Photoshop at the same time you’re listening to a music track, the PC may have to swap data from RAM to disc and back. Similarly, on you existing PC there is more likely to be competition for processor time from your various USB ports (USB, unlike some other ports, generally makes use of the processor). This resource competition is primarily an issue because of the timing sensitivity of the music data stream.
For this series of blogs, we’ll go down the dedicated server route to illustrate how that works.
Decision 2: Packaged Music Server or Custom-Built
There are a number of excellent packaged music servers from brands like Sooloos, Qsonix and Sound Science. These have several advantages. First, the company has done the work of putting the server together. Second, the company has, in most cases, created a user interface that you may prefer. And third, the company has figured out a combination of technologies that works well.
You may only appreciate how significant that last sentence is after you’ve read the rest of this series! That’s because we will be exploring ways to create a custom-built music server, something that can be more complicated than it first appears.
The advantages of a custom-built music server come down to price, flexibility and fun. You can probably create your own music server for less than one of the top-flight packaged servers (which only makes sense – they’re doing some of the work for you and they need to get paid). We’ll see how much you save, and I expect it may be less than we think. Building your own server is also likely to give you a more modular system in the end. In an age of rapid tech change, a modular approach should make upgrading easier (and potentially less expensive). Finally, and to me this is a big point, you probably should only create your own server if you can see doing so a being somewhat fun. It involves real work (and with computers inevitable frustrations), so there needs to be some compensation besides saving a little money.
Decision 3: PC or Mac
Like Brett Favre’s (a U.S. football star) retirement, this is a subject that gets tiring pretty quickly. That’s because differences between Macs and PCs are often distinctions without a difference (that, and the fact that people who like to argue about those distinctions are so charming).
I would suggest that you will want to use a Mac or a PC largely based on which operating system you are familiar with. There will be enough complexity here for most mortals without having the added effort of learning the conventions of a new OS.
I’ll actually be building both Mac-based and PC-based servers. Not because I imagine the fundamental differences to be earth-shattering, but because of differences I see in the way Apple and PC makers go to market.
Specifically, I’ll start on the Mac side of things because it is simpler. That simplicity lends itself to building a basic dedicated music server. By contrast, I think the choices on the PC side of things mean that we may be able to construct a pretty mean machine, but that effort naturally is more arcane and thus comes later in the series (if I live and the bosses don’t shoot me).
Even though this first group of blogs is about a Mac-based server, I hope the logic applies pretty well if you wanted to build a basic PC-based server.
Note: in the remainder of the blog I mention specific products that I selected. The point is to illustrate the real decisions you have to make, not to endorse specific products (which may be out of date mere seconds after this is posted). I also display, particularly in this first installment, a bias toward readily available off the shelf items that are more or less plug and play. I have a lot of work to do (probably like you) and I'm having enough trouble trying to learn the basics, much less learn everything there is to know about non-mainstream computing.