My iPhone 4 went ‘honk honk.’ It was from my 13-year old daughter.
It read, “OMG where do I put the silver CD thing and how to choose? xxx.”
It was my daughter attempting to play a CD on my home system. Staring at the multiple boxes and various buttons, she could not understand why it was so complicated to play a silver disk and did not know where to start.
This really drove home how traditional two-channel audio has not kept pace with the music-loving general public who have embraced audio with open arms through the personal computer and an omnipresent music software platform called iTunes.
We are fortunate in that we are in the midst of a technological surge that makes Moore’s Law seem like it is in urgent need of a Windows Update. With the ‘technological arms race’ of e-tablets, e-books, smartphone et al, one advantage is that audio has been brought back into the mainstream consciousness.
Within the space of only a few short years, the iPod/smartphone has drawn the public in droves back into music on a global scale not seen since the Cliff Richard “Wired for Sound” days of the Sony Walkman; an achievement that has been nothing short of truly astonishing. The UK telecommunication watchdog OFCOM recently announced that over 30% of adults and over 60% of teenagers use a smartphone. Wherever we look, people everywhere are seen listening to music on headphones. Behind all of this is a computer on which all the music is centrally stored.
The driving force behind the iPod/smartphone is our pursuit of ever-greater convenience. In the 1950s there was the 12” vinyl record; in the eighties the 5” compact disk; and now the 2.5” hard disk drive. This latest format makes handling the music catalogue no longer a physical, but a virtual reality; in a computer-generated world that is uncannily reminiscent of “The Grid” in Tron: Classic and Tron: Legacy.
The two-channel audio generation in its pursuit of the highest quality of music playback is coming around to computer-audio. Even the most ardent technophobe will acknowledge that this is the future because high-definition music is accessed through this medium. High-Definition (HD) music being 24-Bit carries more information in comparison to Standard-Definition (SD) compact disk on 16-Bit. All things being equal, if properly executed, HD audio has the potential to deliver exquisite vocals, stunning dynamics and a canyon-wide soundstage. Surely your audio pulse is racing now!
Juxtaposed by a huge slice of serendipity is the unrivalled convenience of computer-based audio which rather than separating us further from our music, actually enables us to be more intimate with our music collection than ever before. How? The answer is finger touch control from the listening chair. With precise and immediate access to the whole of our music collection, vinyl and CD could never match such expediency.
The aim of this series of computer-audio papers is to introduce, outline and suggest approaches on the Apple (OS X) and Microsoft (Windows) platforms. Of course, one may also wish to take a different route and purchase a “plug and play” Network Audio Source. The choice is yours and the list is endless. One thing is for sure, the benefits are aplenty…
There are only two questions to answer:
Do you like higher-quality music?
Do you wish to be drawn into your music?
If the answer is a resounding “yes” to both, then read on…
There are three main approaches to a computer-audio source front-end:
1. Portable File Player (PFP): of the three approaches, the Portable File Player as portability is key, it has the most compromised sonic performance out of CAS/NAS or CD player. This is to be expected as the setup is comprised of a small, portable music player such as an iPod that docks into a station/base that takes the digital signal which is sent to a separate DAC component. Convenience is the advantage but a computer is still required behind the scenes to load/manage/store the music library. A typical iPod with a 16GB storage capacity can only store ~50 CD albums on a lossy compression format (i.e. lowest sound quality music file).
2. Network Attached Storage (NAS): a front-end interface that requires/connects to a Wi-Fi Router or Ethernet connection. The front-end such as a Logitech Squeezebox acts as the source as it receives the streamed music from the router. NAS systems are often at least partially ‘closed’ as the hardware and software comes pre-installed/fixed by the vendor. Network knowledge or specialist setup is required at the outset and the user is tied to the vendor’s default platform. Compared to CAS setups that use specialised software, the NAS sonic performance is not as impressive. NAS-based systems (such as Sonos) only play up to 24/96kHz and the playback chain may not be ‘Bit-Perfect’.