I was asked to write an article on my decision process for choosing the TCP/IP network method for music server connection over USB. I am not inferring my way is correct, only that the following is my justification. In the three years I have been using computer audio the equipment has evolved a tremendous amount. I have not tried everything. I do think that there are now two distinct server transmission methods, USB and TCP/IP network (wired and wireless). Please keep flames to yourself. My way is not “THE” way. I am going to be long winded so get some coffee.
I blame this whole audio thing on my father. He was one of the folks in the late 50’s that purchased the Fisher Stereo products, built his own speakers, and truly enjoyed his music. He even got into Quadrophonic, then Dolby 5.1. He made sure the rooms were well constructed. He was not afraid to experiment. Thus I grew up in an Audio environment that tried new things. He was a fine example on how to do things right in audio.
My long suffering wife, is receptive to my fiddling. Think smile, nod, ignore. What a wonderful wife. We have a smaller, older two story brick home and the rooms are not large. Tearing into a wall ends up a mess. Our electrician calls our place “the Indian Burial Ground.” We have three audio systems of varying quality with the best in the basement, a nice system is in the 1st floor living room, and 2nd floor bedroom has a very acceptable system. I work in the IS department at a contract manufacturer that makes electronics. I have approximately 30 years experience in large computers and networking.
In late March of 2008 I decided to join the 21st century. I wanted to make sure the 21st century “took” before diving in. I had been reading about computer audio for some time in the audio press and thought the convenience would fit our house. No more chasing the CD we wanted to play from two floors away. The press indicated that the sound quality in many cases was as good or better than CD.
I prefer a full frontal assault so an Apple Mac Mini found its way into the house. The Mini is a laptop in a cube. Network gear was installed, in particular an Apple Airport Extreme, an Apple Airport Express to use as a wireless network bridge, and the Gigabit network stuff that supports it. The Extreme gave me four ports of 1 GB wired connections with modern wireless connectivity. A commercial quality Thecus NAS server arrived a couple months later. I fear consumer computer equipment so tried to get best of class when I purchased.
The decision to use TCP/IP networking for a server based audio system evolved from this initial decision. Throughout this exercise only the basement system could use wired TCP/IP or USB without major expense and/or construction.
I tried the iTunes route first to evaluate if I wanted to even go to computer audio. The data resided on the Mini’s hard drive at this time. Connection was via USB. This combination did make the decision to use computer audio as the primary listening medium. I also wanted to install the computer audio on all floors of the house, but the iTunes method did not appeal to my audio standards. I thought that iTunes was not giving me flexibility for data formats and locked me into a proprietary system from top to bottom. There were other issues that I consider large, but other people can live with. At the time, the basement DAC had a USB connection but it was only fair sound quality and limited to 16/44.
My problem/prejudice with USB stems from research I was involved in when USB first was becoming available. You can still faintly see the scars. Our company needed to produce products that worked on the new USB connection type. It had many problems from slow transfer rates, to cable distance problems, to poor data integrity. The transfer rate and integrity issues have been addressed, but the distance problem continues. There is a reason that short cabling is provided with USB devices. Finally, the world of computer connection types is littered with the carcasses of the next best connection.
If I went with USB on all floors I would need three computers. That seemed a problem for expense, maintenance, and audio infrastructure. Most computers are noisy electrically. I did not want a computer near the audio equipment. Two of the computers would need wireless and its attendant problems.
USB has had problems with high bit rate audio files. My feeling about USB is that it is the computer audio version of the cassette tape. Over the years cassettes got to sounding pretty good (Nakamichi worked wonders), but the medium was never intended for excellent sound. Many vendors use USB and they are working around the limitations with good results. For me, USB is still like cassette tape.
The TCP/IP decision was firmly made when I decided to emulate a friends Logitech Squeezebox Duet (LSD) system. LSD uses TCP/IP wired or wireless connection. His house is wired for TCP/IP networking. Mine would need wireless on the two main floors. My buddy showed me how to rip music for proper FLAC files and setup the Logitech’s. I did have DAC’s for each system, with the best in the basement. To my ears, the computer audio sounded considerably better than through a CD or phonograph. There is room for analog and digital in this world. Peace.
Over the ensuing two years I wrestled with the LSD and finally gave up. I now had over 13,000 individual tracks on the NAS. The wired networking was considerably more reliable than the wireless. When the LSD went on vacation it did not like to give a valid return date. In short, it got replaced. Computers are not a hobby for me. I am not interested in determining the new reason it is not working.
For the upper floors this meant the only viable alternative was Sonos. Both LSD and Sonos have their strengths and weaknesses. Both have analog, Toslink, and S/PDIF, but no USB. The Sonos is rock solid network wise, but will not play high bit rate files. I can only speculate why. I now have Sonos on the upper two floors and bet that half the LSD trouble would be resolved by a wired connection.
By summer of 2010 music servers were becoming hot stuff in audio. Despite the LSD and Sonos being fine pieces of gear I thought there was a lot more to extract from the bits. The search for the right front end piece FOR ME started. My objection to USB meant that many of the choices were immediately of no interest. I demanded reliability after the LSD experience.
Other variables determined my choice of hardware. Any server system with an onboard hard drive limited me to space. 500 gigabytes seems like a lot until you need 2 terabytes. I did not want anything proprietary in the music server. The server software could reside either on the MacMini or the NAS server. Cost was not my primary gating factor, but some choices are more money than I will spend. Computer equipment has a way of becoming obsolete and unusable after a few years.
At this point I had the blueprint of what I wanted. It was not simple and without some expense. Like separates in audio no piece made the rest obsolete. To future proof my decision I was using the NAS for music storage. The network gear was typical. Apple MacMini’s are not a rare thing.
The term music renderer, I believe, was first coined by Linn. So now I needed to find the music renderer that used TCP/IP networking and would not restrict me to a proprietary system. I considered the Logitech Transporter briefly, but it still had that Logitech problem that I continued to bump into. I started looking into the Linn products settling on the Akurate because of the balanced outputs. It had pretty good reviews, but the software and infrastructure never got high marks.
During the Linn research I ran across a forum for Linn users. It mentioned the PS Audio PerfectWave with Bridge (PWD) and several of the members had actually purchased a PWD and also owned the Linn product(s). They found the PWD to be sonically superior to the considerably more expensive Linn. Sonically superior and less expensive? Bonus points!
I ultimately ordered a PS Audio Perfect Wave with Bridge and installed the PWD in my best system. My browser found the PWD upon first power up. I hard set the IP and the PWD was available for use. I installed PS Audio eLyric Controller for control software for iPod/iPad and Twonky on the NAS as server software. This eliminated the need for a computer to run the server software. I can use any control and server software if it is UPnP and DLNA compliant. A surprising amount is not.
The PWD Bridge, I thought, sounded better than my modded LSD before it broke in. Clearer, with more detail. The PWD will play any high bit rate file I have. MP3’s sound good. FLAC sounds excellent. The other connections (AES, toslink) also sound excellent through the DAC. My opinion is that the PWD is world class. I have limited time with DCS or MBL gear, but I feel the PWD is on par if the DCS or MBL was connected to my basement equipment.
Not everything is perfect with the PWD and it comes down to the software. The same basic software that Linn uses. Twonky Media is not even close to the standards of the LSD server. Twonky presents and plays tunes out of order and most artwork is not presented. I do not like my iPod touch, but it does work. In the end I purchased an iPad and that was a significant extra cost. The iPad is a much better interface except Twonky has limitations so it hobbles eLyric Controller. In comparing the software for either the Linn products, or PWD, against the Logitech, the Logitech wins hands down. The Sonos is better than the Twonky experience, but not up to the Logitech standard. I have not tried anything with a USB connection since my iTunes experiment so can not offer an opinion on current USB equipment.
PS Audio is working on eLyric as music server software. It is in beta at this time. It seems to work well, but is obviously not finished. This will need to run on my Mac, but that is ok. When eLyric is running as a music server it works well with eLyric Controller, the artwork almost always displays, and I think eLyric will become my music server software of choice.
In conclusion I found the PS Audio PerfectWave DAC with Bridge to meet my expectations in providing a best fit with the TCP/IP connection. The sound is wonderful. I like the ease of use.