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Computers

My sentiments entirely

Very interested to read on Amarra’s website and I paraphrase ‘it’s easy to make music sound good on a computer but hard to make it sound fabulous’.  I think they have been listening to my conversations.

Next week I’m in Munich for the High End show and by coincidence will be sharing a booth (or to be more exact one of my clients Thorens is sharing a booth) themed Sources of the Future – as it’s vinyl and streaming – with Higoto who are Germany’s streaming experts.

The demos will be of Thoren’s new Tri-Balance turntable, the Logitech Transporter and a Macbook running iTunes with the Amarra software into a Weiss DAC.

Should be very interesting.  It’ll bring out all the digits is digits posts again, especially as Amarra is around $1500.  That means the price of Mac Book Pro , Amarra and DAC will be around £5-6k.  Cheaper than my CD player. But will it deliver as much?

Will it be fabulous hi-fi or fabulous music?

ASIO v K Mixer v Kernel Streaming

Computer audio seems to generate emotions when discussing what products to use that really are odd. Why do people get  so wound up?  I’d be interested in your comments. Ideally one would take a computer, connect a good DAC and play one’s favourite music using one’s favourite app.

If only it were that simple to get a great sound from CA.  The more I experiment the more I realise that CA is absolutely similar to analog audio or indeed any audio when taken seriously.  Every change is audible. Assuming one has a good enough system.

Of course, just because a change is audible doesn’t mean it matters.

The expression bandied about on forums about Computer Audio is bit transparent.  The theory is simple: it’s getting the bits from the Hard Drive out of the computer without them being manipulated/changed in any way.

I’ve tried many music playing apps and they all seem to sound subtly different.  Even different releases of iTunes are reported to sort different.  Life is far to short to bother to try different releases.  As they say, I tried it once and didn’t like it.

For convenience for quick playback I tend to use VLC www.videolan.org.  It seems to play almost everything audio and video and can even stream stuff over  my network.  It works well for Radio Paradise too.

If I want to get serious say when I’m comparing DACs I tend to use Foobar.  It’s not my favourite user experience but it is easily configurable. For use under Win XP it’s possible to use the ASIO add in to bypass the K Mixer (assuming you have a suitable sound card). I use the M-Audio Transit. For Vista the WASAPI add in also bypasses the Windows (Kernel Mixer aka K Mixer) mixer.  With volumes set at 100% one should be achieving bit transparency and the sound should be just that little bit cleaner, less splashy and the space between notes will be greater somehow.

CA still never gets truly close to good CD playback.  Not yet for me anyway.  And it’s not ’cause I haven’t tried hard.

It’s a bit simpler with a Mac (the classic Mac and a DAC route) assuming you remember to set the right bit depth and bit rate in the Midi settings but I can’t say it sounds any better.

Ripping and Computer Audio

These two subjects seem to be the most contentious around in the world of audio now. Both centre around sound quality and both somehow seem to bring out the most passionate views, often different to mine.

Theory one, is that it’s possible to get good sound from a computer feeding a DAC.  The debate tends to be as much around whether a Mac is better than a PC as a source as which DAC is ideal.  The general feeling seems to be that a Mac Book with a DAC costing around a £1k is cable of delivering better sound that a serious or very serious CD Player.  I agree a Mac and a DAC is cable of delivering a very good sound – but not a great one.  The Mac/DAC to my ears delivers a polished performance with poor dynamics downwards and little soul.  A great CD player adds back the soul, and reaches down into the quiet to somehow increase the space between the notes.  I’m sure it is possible to get a great sound from a ‘puter but it am sure it’s going to take a bit more effort than just plugging a DAC on to the output of a Mac.

Theory two, is that if a rip is perfect it should sound the same as another perfect rip of the same CD.  Seems pretty logical to me but somehow it doesn’t seem to be the case.  Listening blind and sighted to different rips which are identical, according to CRC and EAC’s file compare, they seem to sound different.  Consistency of results leads me to believe I’m not fooling myself.  Now, don’t expect these differences to be huge and obvious.  And don’t expect these to hear differences unless you have a revealing system and time.  If you have both and are willing to try a few rips then relax and let the tracks play through and observe your reaction to each track from an emotional level.  You need to be relaxed and not trying too hard – tension and stress are great ways of hearing less. When last trying this blind Malcolm Steward and I found differences in the rhythm of the track.

My conclusions are the same as usual with serious hi-fi.  The more I understand the more I realise I don’t know.

HDMI cable silences my listening room

Having a PC in my listening room was convenient as I have often been experimenting with different audio playback apps, sound cards, and all the various drivers like ASIO and Kernel Streaming.
The problem though was the noise of the PC. All that investment in a great hi-fi system and a signal to noise ratio destroyed by computer fans.
The solution came to me last week and it was simple.
OK, I have an advantage: a cable company as a client. Nigel at Chord was kind enough to send me a 5m HDMI Silver Plus cable and two DVI to HDMI adapters.
The experiment was to move the PC outside my listening room and then to use a 5m Chord HDMI and 5m USB cables to monitor and control the PC.
The worry was running a good monitor at 1920 by 1200 over a 5m HDMI cable. Would the image quality be reduced? The image was absolutely fine and so much so that I temporarily tried a 10 m cable which worked just as well.
Definitely a result. Noise removed from my listening room, the hi-fi sounds significantly better. The computer is no harder to use. I’ll use a USB DVD drive near the monitor for normal stuff but walk the few metres to use the Plextor Premium CD drive for serious ripping.

Is it Sad?

I was one of the couple of million who downloaded a beta of Windows 7 at the weekend.  Is it sad that I felt so compelled to try it out so long before it will be commercially available?
Suppose it shows I am more interested in computers than I thought I was.  I thought that computers had stopped being interesting and fun and had become boring.  I find all three major operating systems to be as bad as each other.  OS X Leopard somehow isn’t as good as Tiger. Windows XP is fine but it just looks and feels old.  Vista is great in parts but a dog in others.

So I’m hoping Windows 7 will be as stable and quick as XP but look good, feel good and not lock up as Vista does.

I have a HP 2133 Netbook on order on which to install Win 7.  More when DABS deliver.

The New Year and Computers

What is it about the new year and computers? The two weeks over the Christmas holidays is the time when I tend to try to stay away from computers as much as possible.

Somehow, however, they seem to feel that they are being unloved and one always fails over during this time.

This year it was a hard drive initially causing constant rebooting and then pulling down the power supply enough to kill it.
Even a new PS was stopped dead by the offending drive. At least the new PS survived the ordeal.

This was then followed by a Vista machine refusing to update itself. A problem I’ve yet to fix.

There are times I absolutely hate computers.