Over the years I’ve known lots of people -- past girlfriends, mainly -- who tended to grossly overstate certain things. Even my level-headed wife is prone to exaggerate when she wants me to do something around the house. Why do people act in so dramatic a fashion and say over-the-top things? Often, it’s to ensure their point gets heard.
Anyone reading the title of this article could accuse me of doing the same thing. Obviously, you’re not actually crazy if you don’t embrace the idea of setting up a computer-based audio system -- below, I cite a number of reasons someone might not want to, at least not right away. If you don’t, however, I think you’re missing out on an important advance in high-quality digital playback. A computer front-end and a high-quality external digital-to-analog converter can increase your listening pleasure in a number of ways, and ready your system for the music-delivery mechanism of today and the future: digital files downloaded via the Internet. And just so you know, I speak from recent experience -- as I write this, I’m finishing ripping more than 1000 CDs to a hard drive and getting ready to pretty much shelve (so to speak) the idea of using CDs -- or any optical discs.
But before I talk about some of the benefits you can reap from a computer-based solution, I want to put aside a couple of myths and rumors that get in the way of people getting started: that 1) a computer-based system, particularly one running Windows, is tough to set up; and 2) there are no real standards in computer audio, which makes everything so much like the Wild West that you shouldn’t dive in just yet. Those who perpetuate these myths do others a real disservice, and more than likely say such things simply because they don’t really know what’s going on.
Setting up a Windows- or Macintosh-based computer for digital music playback is quite simple -- in my opinion, it’s far less complicated than setting up and configuring a surround-sound receiver, particularly one with room-correction software. It might even be easier than biwiring a set of speakers -- I kid you not.
Most people will agree that Mac computers are the simplest to set up -- inherent in the hardware, the operating system (OS), and the music-playing software is the ability to play back anything from low-resolution MP3 to high-resolution files. What seems to be the biggest decision to make with a Mac-based system is which media-playing software to use. iTunes comes standard with the OS and is free, but many people find superior sound with commercial packages such as Amarra and Decibel. Whatever the case, many audiophiles contend that Mac-based setups are not only super-simple to set up, they can deliver the very best sound, which is why plenty of audiophiles are using them.
Windows-based computers, too, can deliver outstanding performance; however, setting them up right usually requires a touch more tweaking than do Macs -- but only a touch, not the horror stories you often hear that give rise to the rumors that setting up a Windows-based system is next to impossible. Also, a good Windows-based laptop can be had for a few hundred dollars -- far less than the cost of any Mac model. Second, despite the recent rise in Apple’s popularity, many more times the number of Windows-based laptops have been sold over the years than Macs, and many people have an extra one (or two) lying around. In fact, an extra laptop that I wasn’t using for much forms the heart of my current setup.
You can set up a Windows-based system that rivals the performance and ease of use of a Mac. J. River’s Media Center runs on Windows, installs in a snap, is rich in features, and can deliver bit-perfect playback via a variety of output options (J. River recommends first trying WASAPI Event Style). Media Center isn’t the only player out there, but I think it’s the easiest to use; it costs only $49.95, with a free 30-day trial -- there’s no risk up front.
People seem to get into trouble with Windows when they rely on one of the other free, less comprehensive software packages out there that are not so well supported. For example, people either love or hate foobar2000. If they love it, it’s because it works well for them and is free. (Our own Vade Forrester successfully uses foobar2000.) If they hate it, it’s usually because they can’t get something to work properly, which seems to happen often enough. iTunes runs on Windows, but most audiophiles agree that it sounds like crap. That’s why I stick with Media Center -- I’ve installed versions 14 and 15 on two separate laptops (one running Windows Vista, the other Windows 7), and have never had a hint of a problem with it.
I and others have described a number of options for playing your music, and that’s why many think that computer-based audio is like the Wild West, with way too much going on and way too many decisions to make. Most hope that, one day, the audio world will settle on a single hardware/software platform, meaning no choice whatsoever: things would be as standardized as the Compact Disc. But that will never happen. Computers are ever-evolving beasts -- there’s always something new being announced, which means the days of a single anything are over. An abundance of hardware and software engineers is continually dreaming up new things and putting them on the market. As a result, in the future there will be more hardware and software platforms, and more file formats to store your music in.
But there’s good news, too. Even if the hardware and software keep evolving and the number of file formats keeps growing, that shouldn’t keep you from diving into computer-based audio now. What matters most is that you rip your discs error-free with a popular lossless file format that will play with basically any system and will work for years to come. The most popular such formats are WAV, FLAC, and Apple Lossless, among others; they differ in the ways they store data and in the features they offer. You’ll hear some people say that one is better than the other, but in my opinion, which you choose doesn’t matter -- you can freely, without error, convert one format to another, and back again if you wish; in other words, you won’t be stuck with an obsolete file format. For what it’s worth, I use FLAC because it offers lossless compression -- I can fit more music into the same amount of space on my hard drive -- and it allows for standardized tagging.
What you don’t want to use is a lossy format such as MP3, which provides lower-than-CD-quality sound. No self-respecting audiophile would use it. You also want to ensure that you can make error-free rips. J. River’s Media Center has a Secure mode that provides the highest-quality ripping of discs: If an error occurs, Media Center will repeatedly reread the disc until the program can derive good data; if it can’t get a good read, it will give up and tell you so. Many people use iTunes or Exact Audio Copy to rip, and use similar settings in those programs to get bit-perfect copies of their CDs. But the most important thing is that a bit-perfect rip into a lossless file format sets you up right for now and the future.
To most, ripping a bunch of CDs might seem a chore, but believe it or not, I found it one of the benefits of moving to a computer-based system. I took a very relaxed approach to ripping: I just periodically strolled over to the computer I use for ripping and placed a new CD in the tray, then went about my other duties of the day. I ripped anywhere from one to 30 discs per day over a period of about two months. What I enjoyed about this process was that it made me look at every CD I’d bought since 1983 -- something I’d never done before. Many reviewers talk about "rediscovering" their music collections when they review a new, great component, but that’s nothing compared to looking at every disc in your collection, one by one. I rediscovered a lot of great music I’d forgotten I have.
Another benefit comes with the advanced cataloging systems included in programs like Media Center and iTunes, which makes finding music far easier than hunting through CDs placed on my Boltz rack. One reason I’d forgotten about many of those CDs is because it’s hard to read their spines when they’re crammed together on a shelf. But the programs mentioned, and others, list albums in various categories -- by title, artist, genre, etc. -- and they let you search. They also display the cover art.
The most important benefit of digital downloads to audiophiles is sound quality. Everyone I’ve asked who’s set up a good system, whether it be Windows- or Mac-based, has found that the sound quality has at least equaled that of their CD player, and has usually bettered it. No one has said that the sound is worse. So while I’ve talked about the conveniences of computer-based systems, their real selling point is performance. If you want to read about our writers’ recent experiences with computer-based setups with DACs at a variety of prices, I suggest reading Vade Forrester’s review of the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 and Howard Kneller’s review of the High Resolution Technologies Music Streamer II, as well as Colin Smith’s write-up of digital sources (which includes Ayre Acoustics’ QB-9), on GoodSound!. Each of these components received our Reviewers’ Choice award; in short, they’re very good. If you’re ready to make a purchase, you might consider one.
I, too, have heard an improvement over CD-player playback from my computer-based system. Most notable is the lack of harshness and crispness, a common complaint about digital sound, and an increase in low-level resolution that not only lets me hear more of a recording, but can also contribute to improved imaging and soundstage depth. I’ve heard no downside whatsoever. As a result, I feel I can confidently say that a state-of-the-art digital source of today is one whose front-end is based on a computer, not a spinning optical disc.
I’ve dwelled here mostly on ripping CDs to computers and the improvement over CD playback that can then be heard, but a computer-based system can make you future-proof for another reason: The world has gone beyond the 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution of the Compact Disc, into file formats recorded at resolutions of 24/88.2, 24/96, 24/176.4, and 24/192, among others. As well, discs are on the way out and downloads are in. What the future holds is music files at a variety of resolutions and available for download to your computer, but not available on optical disc. Disc lovers, you’re missing out.
I began this article by admitting that its title overstates my point in order to trigger some interest, and to ensure that it will be read and that my points are heard. Who says old girlfriends can’t teach you things? But after writing this and extolling the virtues of computer-based playback, I’m beginning to think that the title doesn’t embellish things too much. You still might not be crazy for not jumping into a computer-based setup right now -- not everyone is going to want to rip an enormous collection of discs -- but you may well be nuts if you invest big money in a new CD player when it’s pretty obvious that the present and future of digital playback are computer-based solutions.
. . . Doug Schneider