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Digital Audio - Rip It Up! (Part 1)

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Last month’s Bristol Sound and Vision Show saw the second annual Hi-Fi Choice high-resolution digital audio demo. Lord of the files we reveal all...

Right now, the way people buy, play and use music is going through a period of transition the like of which hasn’t been seen since the advent of CD back in the early eighties. Many people are migrating to streamed music sources, and/or digital downloading, while many are seriously contemplating it.

With this in mind, we decided to stage a follow up to last year’s hi-res demo at the Bristol Sound and Vision show, this time focusing on streamed music via a home network rather than the ‘Mac and DAC’ approach. The object of the demo was to introduce a streamer and its associated components to readers, many of whom had little idea of how it worked, and demonstrate the sonic differences possible between standard CD-quality music and hi-res. The event proved a rip-roaring success; that raised as many questions as it answered!

Other options are available, but for DP the streamer of choice is the Chord DSX 1000

Other options are available, but for DP the streamer of choice is the Chord DSX 1000

The odyssey

The first question many people asked was, “why move to streamed music?” and the answer is: no-one’s going to force you. CD is now in the twilight of its years, but it’s still going to be around for a while and if you’re a network music player Refusenik, you’ll not suffer too much by sticking with it. Moving to a networked music player should be seen as a positive thing offering you a wealth of extra choice over the quality of the music you can play – rather than a chore. But the general level of confusion as to how to actually do it means that many see it as an onerous thing. One of the purposes of the demo was to show it can be done easily and inexpensively. 

Another common query was, “if I decide to go ahead, how do I do it?” The joy of networked music is that it’s largely format agnostic with CD you’re stuck in 1983 with 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution, but with a streamer you can download hi-res files or rip 16/44.1kHz copies of your existing CDs, or both.

As it transpired, many were tempted by the hi-res side of things, but had practical worries about migrating their silver disc collections to computer hard drive (s). Many people I spoke to said they owned 100s of CDs and that it would take several days or even weeks to do so.

There are CD ripping services such as Ripcaster or Podserve – but these are expensive (between 50p and $1.5 a disc) and people don’t want to send their CDs away. The good news about ripping is that once you’ve done it, you don’t need to do it again. Or rather – you shouldn’t if you back your data up! This is of course essential. Should you wish to do it manually, the choice of the cognoscenti is dBpoweramp, which can be found online at: www.dbpoweramp.com.

File formats

As for the best format to rip music into there was some disagreement. The purest format is WAV as it needs the least amount of processing, but FLAC is easier to handle as it provides metadata (artist, album name, artwork etc.). It also offers a reduction in the amount of disc space taken, without removing any data from the file itself; it compact the data rather than compressing it. Some claim that FLAC sounds identical to WAV, but in my experience there’s a slight loosening of focus to the sound. Just as Apple’s Lossless codec loses that last half a percent of sweetness and openness, so does FLAC.

The streaming system

Now you need a streamer. For our demo we chose the new Chord DSX 1000 – a beautifully built, brilliant-sounding design that sells for $10,500. It’s worth pointing out that the Chord is based on the Stream Unlimited platform. This is a very stable streaming engine that gives great results and boasts an easy to see color screen display. There are other more affordable products based on the same platform, such as the $2,100 Musical Fidelity M1CLiC, which works in just the same way.

The new Chord DSX 1000

The new Chord DSX 1000

This is connected to your router; for almost everyone this isn’t an additional cost, as we’ve almost all got broadband internet anyway. Interestingly, you don’t need to connect your router to the internet. So even if you’re not online, you can still run a network-based music system. The router simply acts as a connecting ‘node’ for the third bit of kit you’ll need – your network attached storage (NAS) device. This is simply a hard drive in a box; it plugs into the router and your streamer plugs into the router.

For the purposes of the demo, we used a WD My Book Live ($148 for 2TB), which is a great ‘plug and play’ device with media server software built in. All you need to do is to copy your music files to it, and the streamer will see them and be able to play them. One nice thing is that you don’t need to keep this, or indeed the router, anywhere near your hi-fi system; only the streamer needs to be close (as you’ll need to plug it in with RCA or XLR interconnects). The NAS drive can sit in a cupboard or under the stairs, connected to the router by Ethernet cable. We’d also recommend the router is wired to the streamer too; the Chord only works this way but cheaper streamers oft en come with Wi-Fi. This is convenient, but doesn’t sound quite as good.

WD My Book Live

WD My Book Live

The Chord comes with a swanky remote, and has front panel transport controls just like a regular disc spinner, so no other controllers are needed. However, if you have an Apple iPod touch, iPhone or iPad or equivalent Android devices – you can use it to control the system even more easily. The app that we used is 8player (http://08soft ware.com), which is a $6 download at the iTunes store. It gave very stable, easy control of the Chord streamer, and should work with most other network players.

For me, this is where a streaming system really begins to romp ahead of a conventional CD. True, the CD player is easier to unbox, switch on and get going, but a streamer offers the ability to play pretty much any file you want at any resolution (including CD of course), and to access it via a Smartphone or Tablet – so you can scroll through thousands of tracks and call up the one you want to play without leaving your chair. Last but not least, there’s the enjoyment of hearing high-resolution versions of recordings you’ve only previously been able to hear at CD-quality before and this was the heart of our hi-res demo.

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