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How to enjoy true Hifi sound from your PC Gordon Laing , October 2009
   
  Ultimate PC audio:
The convenience of a digital collection with serious hifi quality

Here’s the thing: I want to rip my entire CD collection for easy access, then play the music either direct from a PC or streamed to a network player. Easy right? Well it would be apart from one small extra: it has to sound as good as the best Hifi system. It’s a tall order, but one I finally cracked.

PCs have the potential to make great audio jukeboxes with their vast storage capacities and support for multiple formats, but if you’re a dedicated audiophile, the sound quality can often disappoint. As Hifi fanatics understand all too well, high performance and convenience rarely go hand in hand. If you demand the best of one, there’ll inevitably be compromise with the other, and sadly if you want the convenience of a PC-based collection, you’ll normally have to accept a hit in quality.

I’ll come clean right now – I’m what fellow enthusiasts would call an audiophile, although to most folk I’m just plain crazy. I’m the guy with the huge loudspeakers, hefty amplifiers and esoteric cabling occupying a large portion of the living room.

 

 

 


Thing is though, I’ve always been very envious of PC-based digital music collections. The ability to clear shelves of media and hide shiny discs from infant’s sticky fingers. Having instant access to your entire collection, complete with track and artist details. Streaming music to multiple devices throughout the home. It’s impossibly irresistible, even for a self-confessed audiophile. The challenge is achieving it without compromising sound quality.

My goal is to have the convenience of a PC-based digital library, but with the audio quality of my existing Meridian 500 CD reference transport. This has proven much more difficult than I originally thought. Over several years I’ve tried modified streaming devices, esoteric sound cards and software plug-ins with various degrees of success. Some have been good and a handful could be described as excellent, but none have matched the output from my Meridian transport.  

They’ve all lacked a certain something, be it detail, pace, imaging or just sheer involvement. I realise such descriptions involve a certain degree of Hifi voodoo for the non-believers out there, but anyone can hear if one source sounds better than another, and in my experience, PCs normally come second best.

Considering my search actually began several years ago with an initial evaluation of compression formats, you can imagine my relief when I finally struck gold. The search is over: I’ve found PC audio nirvana and in this article I’ll reveal all, along with highlighting the best of the other solutions which came pretty close.

Rip the right way for the best source quality

Before even considering the audio hardware though, you have to ensure you have the best source material, and that rules out most of the heavily compressed audio in common use. Commercially downloaded tracks also rarely cut the mustard. Instead you should start with the original CDs as these contain uncompressed audio. The purist approach would then be to rip this raw PCM data to an uncompressed WAV file, but they don’t natively support the tagging of tracks, albums and artists. There are some utilities which will tag WAV files, but you could end up creating proprietary files with restricted compatibility.

Making more sense are lossless audio formats which apply mild compression, without actually throwing anything away for good, while additionally supporting tags. The choice between them essentially boils down to compatibility with your chosen hardware player and either brand loyalty or a preference to avoid certain companies.

I personally sided with FLAC, a popular and broadly supported open standard for lossless audio. Windows Media Audio Lossless also sounded fine, but few devices natively supported it (placing greater demands on the server to first transcode or decompress it), and besides, I preferred an open solution. Further details can be found here. Alternatives include Monkey’s Audio Encoder and Ogg Vorbis.

Deciding on a format is only one half of a quality source though, as some tools do a better job of ripping the data from CDs than others. One of the best tools for handling errors is Exact Audio Copy, or EAC for short. If you use EAC to rip CDs to FLAC, you’ll end up with excellent source material. This applies to anyone building a PC-based music collection, although if you intend to stream the files to a networked appliance or also play them on a portable, it’s best to check for native compatibility.

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Now check out the three hardware solutions I found delivered great sound quality!

1: The sound card: an M-Audio AP 2496 running the right software.

2: The streaming appliance: a Logitech Squeezebox with some neat modifications.

3: The ultimate solution: the small but perfectly-formed Benchmark DAC1 PRE.


All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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