It's great a time to be a music lover. We have a ton of options for where we can get music and what format that music is in. I personally use Spotify for most of my listening, particularly when I'm not home. When I really like an album, I buy it in a high resolution digital format or vinyl.
The ideal hi-fi system in my mind has two sources:
- A turntable
- Something that plays digital audio.
Unfortunately there isn't an established, affordable equivalent of the turntable for "new" digital hi-fi audio. I can't just walk down to BestBuy and get a hi-fi component that:
- Plays high resolution audio (24 bit/96 kHz or higher)
- Connects to my favorite streaming audio providers (Spotify, Google Music, Soundcloud)
- Has a decent UI
- Sounds great
The Sonos Connect, at $350, is affordable and almost does it, except it can't play high resolution audio..so close, yet so far away.
So, as far as I can tell, the only solution for less than $500 is to build your own source.
So what are we talking about?
Usually these things are called music servers, computer audio sources, streaming media devices, networked dacs, or embedded hifi players. For simplicity I'll just call it a music server, but what we're really talking is this:
A computer + server software + DAC
And yes, I think you should make one. And yes it isn't so hard. Here's is my tried and true basic hardware setup:
|A Good USB Cable||$3||Monoprice|
|Schiit Modi DAC||$99||SchiTt|
For the computer I prefer a BeagleBone Black, but a Raspberry Pi or even a old netbook will work fine. Small ARM SoCs like the beaglebone are now powerful enough to play high resolution music without breaking a sweat, and they have the benefit of having no moving parts.
The Schiit Modi DAC is a fantastic bargain. It sounds great and works out of the box with Linux and OSX. If 100 bucks for a DAC is too much for you, see if you have a USB sound card laying around. I've actually had pretty decent results with a $30 HiFiMan HM-101.
For the server software, I've mostly been using MPD, but also had good results with Mopidy. Both of these are headless servers that require clients. I prefer the phone or web app clients, but there are desktop and commandline clients too. Neither MPD nor Mopidy are the easiest to install and configure. Luckily there some great Audio-Music-Servers-in-a-Can Linux distros that make the whole process as simple as flashing an SD card.
Rune Audio: Rune audio and Volumio both spawned from the weird break up of RaspyFi. Rune is based on Arch, and looks really nice..but hasn't been updated since January. Rune has a lot of promise, hopefully they'll release the 0.3 version soon!
Volumio: Volumio is Debian based and appears to more directly evolved from the RaspyFi codebase (for better or worse). It works and has a big community on the forums.
Archphile: Archphile bills itself as "Yet Another Archlinux Based Audiophile Distribution for Raspberry Pi and Udoo Quad". It's simple. It works well. I like it. Though getting more advanced features like streaming services to work will take some linux knowhow.
Voyage MPD: This distro is one of the more older ones. Unlike the other distros mentioned so far, it specifically targets intel chipsets. Probably a great choice for your netbook.
Voyage MuBox: Mubox is Voyage MPD ported to ARM devices. I don't have first hand experience with either Voyage distro, but they seem to work well from what I've read on the forums.
Pi MusicBox: This is the only Mopidy based distro I know of. It has probably the best out of the box integration with streaming services. The web client is responsive and works well on a phone. If all you are doing is hooking up your server to spotify, this is the distro I recommend, though you are limited to using a Raspberry Pi.
For most of these distros, installation is as straight forward as writing the image to a SD card, plopping it in the computer and turning it on. I recommend reading the distro specific instructions thoroughly before installing, and don't be afraid to hop on the forums and ask questions if you run into trouble.
Why not just use a laptop with iTunes?
Hardware quality and performance
A dedicated digital hifi source will produce better audio and perform better than a computer with a consumer grade soundcard, including macs. The DAC that comes with your computer is meant to be multipurpose, small, and sound just good enough. Our goal is simply great sounding stereo hi-fi.
Simplicity and efficiency
Dedicated digital hifi source means just that. We want something that just plays digital audio. If you build your own music server using a small ARM computer like a BeagleBone Black or Raspberry Pi as the server as I have, your server will cost you just few dollars a year in electricity.
A singular interface for all of your digital music
With a dedicated digital hifi source you can access audio on your hard drive, a NAS, your streaming music services, and Internet radio streams all through one UI interface. There is a lot of variability in interfaces, so make sure you're okay with your options before making a big hardware purchase.
Why make your own music server?
Building your own music server allows you take advantage of the best sounding digital audio file formats. High resolution 24 bit audio encoded in lossless compressed audio formats, like FLAC and ALAC, provide uncompromising quality, and will sound much better than a mp3 of the same recording. High resolution audio files are larger than mp3s but luckily it isn't 1998 anymore. Storage is cheap, and all of our digital music devices have a lot more than 64 MB of storage.
Better Sampling Control
Many consumer audio devices downsample or upsample audio to ensure compatibility with a wide range of sound devices. You music server has the potential of being "bit perfect", playing audio without manipulation. From the Computer Audiophile FAQ:
Bit perfect and bit transparent are synonymous terms. Bit perfect simply means the audio sent out of the computer has not been altered in any way. Ideally the audio signal should reach the digital to analog converter unaltered whether the converter is within the computer or external to the computer. Once the audio signal has been altered there is no way to regain bit transparency within the computer or in the audio system. The two most common ways audio is altered before exiting the computer are sample rate conversion and volume controls
Component Costs and Quality
Your music server can provide you with fantastic audio for under $200 USD. For once you'll able tell your spouse how much you really spent on your stereo. Your homemade music server is also modular. You can easily upgrade the DAC or other components as you wish.
Seriously, making one is fun.
On the Shoulders of Giant Forum Discussions
Next post I'll show you how you can roll your own music server, forgoing the canned distro method. In the meantime take some time and read up. There is a rabbit hole of great resources and discussions related to DIY digital music servers and computer audio sources. These are the ones that I found particularly interesting and helpful.
This is a great blog from someone whole truly enjoys tinkering with computers for the sake of better hi-fi.
- Low Cost Audiophile Music Servers
- Beaglebone Black for Audio
- Beaglebone Black: Base Operating System
- Beaglebone Black: Accessing uSD and USB storage
- Beaglebone Black: Accessing Network Share
La Cocina de la Información
La Cocina has some great blog posts about configuring linux based music serverz. I relied heavily on his mpd-configure for the music server solution I use. He even helped me out with it.
This is a great starting point for anyone just graduating from iTunes, and looking to apply to Digital Audio Obsession University.
- Sources of Great High Res Music on the Internet
- Setup MPD (Music Player Daemon) with Ubuntu-Linux for Bitperfect Audio
- Glossary and Terms of Digital Audio
The Xiph.org Foundation is the group behind maintaining all of your favorite open media formats and technology, including FLAC, Vorbis, Theora, and Icecast. Not a blog, but they have some great articles about digital audio.
Forums and Wikis
Always in the top Google results, Computer Audiophile's members are not very ideological about methods, rather they appreciate results over everything.
This is for serious DIY Audio enthusiasts. I can't recommend a specific post to read, but I do suggest you wander through the posts, stopping occasionally to reflect on what it must be like to have this much free time :)
This a good general Hi-Fi forum that has some nice reviews. Not usually my top forum destination, but occasionally I've found some good knowledge nuggets there.
ArchLinux is the Linus distro of choice for several Audiophile-Distros-In-A-Can. I'm more of a Debian guy myself. Debian feels like home, whereas I feel a bit helpless when I use Arch. Need to make your computer use a static IP go to
/etc/network right? Nope. In Arch you go to
/etc/netctcl. Up is down, apt is pacman, less is more. Crazy Town. Despite my unfamiliarity with Arch, I do love the ArchLinux Community's Wiki. I think it's by far the some of the best community documentation in *nix land.