January 6, 2017 // by // 0 Comments

Computer Audio 101: What You Need to Get Started

Computer audio, done right, makes your entire music library accessible all throughout your house. It turns your tablet and smartphone into a sophisticated remote. It lets you compile all of your ripped CDs and  downloaded files in a central place. It lets you copy your music to your smartphone or portable music player and take it with you on the go.

All of this magic, however, comes at a price. To make your computer-audio setup sound as good as an average-sounding CD player is no small feat. It takes patience, dedication, and dollar bills but when it’s all said and done….man it’s worth it.

Computer Audio done right requires four key components:

  1. a modern working computer,  
  2. playback software,
  3. some digital music files,
  4. and a place to safely and securely store them (we’ll talk more about this below).

With a little bit of elbow grease, software setup, and ethernet cable, you will be able control your music library and listen to great sounding, hi-res audio files from the comfort of your couch, all controlled with an iPad! It doesn’t get much better than that, now does it?

To create a legit computer audio setup, first ask yourself these 5 questions:

  1. What is the playback software that I will use?
  2. What Format will I standardize on?
  3. How will I be storing and backing up the data?
  4. Where will I be converting the digital data to analog audio?
  5. Where do I download high res music from?

1) PLAYBACK SOFTWARE

A big piece of the computer audio experience lies in the software that you are interacting with. Choose software that you like working with, and that supports your playback needs and preferred file formats. The different packages all offer different feature sets, so spend some time poking around before you decide! They all offer trial versions, so download and test them all out to pick your favorite!

Controlling remote Playback

Gone are the days of the good ol’ remote control. In this day and age, your remote can’t do ‘nuthin unless it can search across your giant music library, let you tag your files, and display all of those stunning album covers. In this day and age, the tablet with its corresponding app is the best approach, but a smartphone will also do in a pinch. Before standardizing on a particular playback software,check out the remote app and make sure it meets your needs. Each of the 4 software packages listed provide remote apps, but they will differ in what functions they offer.

Name Description Platform Bit-Perfect Playback Cost
itunes Installed on all Mac computers. Does not support FLAC or DSD formats. Heavy reliance on the iTunes store and native Mac infrastructure. Not designed with high-end audio interests in mind. Performance issues with large libraries. Mac

Windows

Requires 3rd party add-on for bit-perfect playback FREE
JRiver Media Center Very Powerful software, supporting all the formats, supports large media libraries. Customizable user interface. Strong library management capabilities. Mac

Windows

Yes $49.99 per OS or

$79.98 Master license

Roon Labs Newer software from the founders of Sooloos. Modern and streamlined user interface, supports hi-res formats. Recent Stereophile review claims this is the top software available at present. Mac

Windows

Yes $119 per year
Audirvana Plus High quality software for the Mac platform only that was built with audiophile interests in mind. Supports hi-res formats. Similar ‘iTunes’ style interface, though with more functionality, better library management, and higher sound quality. Mac only Yes $74

2) WHAT FORMAT WILL I STANDARDIZE ON?

At one point or another in your digital music journey, you are going to have to stop and think about the different audio formats that are available. After all, the format dictates the rules around the bits and bytes that make up your precious music files. Important questions arise such as:

  1. Does my format throw away a bunch of the music source data?
  2. Does my format support audio file tagging?
  3. Does my format work on my computer or portable music player?

Lossy vs Lossless

If you are newer to digital audio, you may have heard these terms, but maybe don’t have a complete understanding yet. Thankfully this is a simple topic. Lossy compression is when parts of the music file are thrown out the window in order to keep file sizes down.

Lossless files are those that do not throw away even a single bit of the original music data stream.

Format Description Lossy or Lossless Compressed? Sound Quality
mp3 The original. Remember Napster? Very common format. Higher bitrate files (256-320kbps) can sound pretty good. Lossy Yes 1-3
FLAC One of the 2 most common lossless formats. Great for Windows platforms. Lossless Yes 4
Apple Lossless (ALAC) The other common lossless format, with native support in iTunes. Lossless Yes 4
aac Apple’s common lossy file format.  Probably on your iPhone as we speak. Sound quality depends on bitrate. 256kpbs or higher is recommended. Lossy Yes 1-3
vbr (variable bitrate) The bitrate on these files will be variable based on music complexity.  This is a good option when pressed for storage space. Use higher quality settings for best results. Lossy Yes 3
AIFF Apple’s uncompressed format. When space is not an issue, this is the best option. Lossless No 5
WAV Microsoft’s uncompressed format. No limitations with regards to sound quality, but  limited tagging capabilities make it hard to recommend. Lossless No 5

3) STORING AND BACKING UP AUDIO FILES

As you rip and collect more and more music, and you start downloading more sweet high resolution downloads from places like HDTracks, your hard drive is going to start filling up fast. Additionally, you will want to be able to access your music library from all of the different connected devices in your home. For these reasons, you are going to want to setup some dedicated, network connected hard disk space.

After spending countless hours ripping your CD collection and accumulating tracks downloaded from the Internet, the worst possible thing that could happen is a hard-drive failure with no backup. You will want to backup your library via one of the methods in the table below to prevent total catastrophe in the all-too-common case of a hard drive failure!

Type Description Pros Cons
External Hard Disk Get an external drive, Plug it in, copy files. – Easy

– Cheap

You will need to automate the backup process so it stays in sync

Though unlikely, a power surge could wipe out both drives

Library only available to specific computer it is plugged into

NAS (Network Storage) with RAID NAS devices are great options for library storage. They plug into your network so all devices can access. RAID stands for “Redundant array of independent discs”, and basically means that backup is “built in.” Strong flexibility

If 1 drive fails, can hot-swap a fresh one with no data loss

– It is possible, though fairly unlikely, that the NAS could have a complete failure, causing data failure on all drives.
Cloud backup Offsite storage for media on the cloud – Safest option – No power surge can bring the cloud down! – Automation will need to be setup to continuously keep it updated

Can be expensive

Can be slow to copy large libraries since it will go over the Internet

4) CONVERTING DIGITAL DATA TO ANALOG AUDIO

In a nutshell, there are two ways to get music out of a computer: via a digital output, or via an analog output. For the best audio quality, you will want to use a digital output, so that your high-quality DAC can do the digital-to-analog conversion instead of the low quality one built into your computer.

Check the below table for the different kinds of ports you will encounter.

Computer Output Digital/Analog Our Take
USB Digital The original USB DACs didn’t sound great, but now they are a top choice for getting a high-quality, digital stream from your computer.
Optical Port (toslink) Digital Apple computers along with some others have an optical port. It is a good choice to get digital out of your computer without needing a DAC that supports USB.
S/PDIF Port Digital These ports are not as common, unless using specialized sound cards. They are another solid method of getting digital audio out of a computer.
Headphone jack Analog Not recommended other than for a temporary solution. Low quality DAC in the computer will reduce the potential of the audio quality.
RCA Jacks Analog You will only see these on certain sound card add-ons. They can sound just fine, assuming the DAC in the sound card is high quality!

5) Digital Downloads

If your new to the hifi digital music scene, or have been around a while, having a source to find your music is key. There is no shortage of great sites out there where you can download amazing-sounding, audiophile-quality masterings of your favorite albums in high-resolution digital files. Listed below are our current top 4 sites to find hifi digital music. Have a favorite of your own? Comment below and share the wealth!

  1. HDTracks – The original high-resolution digital music download site. The selection is fantastic, and they let you choose the format that you want to download. HDtracks is the only music store founded, funded, and operated by musicians, artists, and audiophiles. Searching is easy with a type-ahead search bar and left nav with diverse categories. Check them out: www.hdtracks.com
  2. ProStudioMasters – High resolution downloads site, with a growing collection of albums offered in AIFF and FLAC formats. Browse by top sellers, recently added or by genre. While they don’t have as user friendly search capabilities as HDTracks, they still make our top 4 list! www.prostudiomasters.com
  3. AcousticSounds – More known for selling vinyl and audio gear online, Acoustic Sounds now offers a library of downloadable, high resolution music. Selection is still a bit limited, but definitely worth checking out. www.acousticsounds.com
  4. Pono – Note: The Pono music site is currently under construction. With the backing of none other than Neil Young, Pono is a combination of a portable music player, a community, and a hi-res audio download site. www.ponomusic.com
After being exposed to the magic and nuance of Barbara Streisand's voice on a great hifi system, Carolyn fell off the deep end and got hooked on hifi. She's on a mission to help expose newbies to the game and provide helpful tips and insight as they transition out of the dark and into the light. Contact Carolyn at carolyn@audioflea.com!