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The New Frontier: High End Computer Audio, and USB DACs Print E-mail
Wednesday, 02 March 2011
Article Index
The New Frontier: High End Computer Audio, and USB DACs
Page 2
ImageWhat a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago downloading an MP3 file of an average length pop song would hog up tons of bandwidth and test the patience of a saint. Fast forward and today downloading  or streaming uncompressed, feature length films, full CDs, and huge graphic files are as common place as sending emails. Modern Internet bandwidth has created a new culture, one where massive file transfers, real time video, and wireless hot spots are part of daily life.

But there have been other developments that have also changed the way we go about managing our media. Data storage has become affordable, and shockingly so. A 1TB USB external hard drive can be found at most electronics stores and e-tailers like Amazon for under a $100, with prices continuing to drop due to fierce competition and innovation. Not only has storage become more affordable, but  large capacity drives are now not much bigger than a deck of cards. My first 80 GB USB external hard drive was larger than a hard cover book! Computer processors have also leaped light years ahead, and so has RAM, allowing for a much more sophisticated control center for media and communications.

What, above all else, could not be imagined ten years ago is the acceptance of the personal computer by the audiophile community as a legitimate, high end source for music.  Especially when put into the context of the recent vinyl resurgence and  the introduction of high resolution formats like DVD-A and SACD.  In digital, the optical disc was the format, and “storage” meant a  media rack on your wall.  Lastly, years ago, Ethernet and WiFi networks were confined to those with means, and businesses. Today home networks are as common as digital set top cable boxes.

I won’t go into the history of desktop computer audio, with the advent of file compression formats like WMA and mp3, as this article will focus on computers in the context of the  audiophile world. But briefly, the introduction of file sharing services like Napster and LimeWire, media players like WinAmp, Foobar, Windows Media Player, iTunes, and others, along with the coming of the iPod allowed the home computer to become a hub for acquiring music, listening to music at work, and loading up portable devices. The personal computer as media hub is also blamed for the general decline in sales and importance of physical media.

computer audio 1Audiophiles have been slower to warm up to the personal computer as an audio source for a number of reasons. First, audiophiles generally consider convenience secondary, and purity of the audio chain and sound quality paramount.  Many considered the computer ill equipped to interface with expensive, hand made components and speakers. But the introduction several years ago of hard disk based music servers aimed at audiophiles from companies like Sooloos, Qsonix, and even McIntosh and Naim, opened the doors.

As a slight detour, I must point out that computers have been used in recording studios and in pro audio for decades for live sound, recording, editing, and mastering. Comprehensive software packages and custom hardware like Pro Tools have been a reality since the demise of analog tape. So the use of computers for high fidelity playback in the home was probably inevitable, and not unprecedented. Many professional sound devices like reel to reel tape recorders, DAT machines, and even XLR cables found their way into audiophiles dens after  being used in professional environments first.

Computer Audio: The Basics:

Music files can be ripped or downloaded on to  your hard drive in a multitude of formats. WAV and AIFF are uncompressed files. FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), ALAC (Apple Lossles Audio Codec), and others are considered lossless compression formats that can save a bundle of hard drive space without a decline in sound quality.  Files can be converted back and forth between formats easily with free software packages like Traders Little Helper, iTunes, MAX, xACT, and Foobar. It should be noted that iTunes does not on it’s own handle FLAC files. But some experts say it is best to rip an error free  uncompressed file to the hard drive, then convert your desired format. You can use iTunes to rip, or another software like EAC for PC, or XLD for Mac.  An internet connection is required for albums not recognized by your ripper.  With FLAC, you can save up to 50% of your storage space, with no loss of fidelity. Some claim they can hear a difference, but I find that hard to believe when considering my own comparisons.  Those who insist WAV or AIFF sounds better attribute it to the fact that there is less processor power used when decoding files. So in theory, there is a basis for this view.  


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