Network-free Music to another Room

Page is obsolete.  It’s a lot cheaper and better just to use a second PC (preferably a laptop) on the network with an inexpensive USB DAC attached to it.  The Berkeley Alpha USB purchase was big time audiofoolery on my part.  Well I got a lot more for it than its original purchase price when sold off so perhaps not?  A much better set-up is here.

Intro

This is a way of passing digital audio from a PC to a DAC in another room without relying on a computer network to stream it.  Everyone does that, but it’s a big hassle and requires a second PC or a Network Audio Player or other DLNA device at the receiving end.  There’s another page about my experience with that.

Most of this can be found at other web sites.  This is just a page showing what I put together for an existing sound system having a 24/192 DAC in the music room and a PC elsewhere in the house.

Update November 2016

This set-up has been disassembled in favour of the “big hassle” noted above and non-audiophile items!  A Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 audio interface instantly proved istelf to be sonically superior (by a country mile) to the Berkeley Alpha USB + W4S DAC-2 combination.  So a small PC and a network cable replaced the Alpha USB + AES/EBU cable.  An HP i7 mini PC + the 18i20 cost less brand new than what I got for the DAC-2 + Berkeley on the “silly market”. 🙂

.. back to 2012:

Aside

Apart from what follows generally, I’m about to install an “SoTM tX-USB” card in the PCI slot of the PC, so if anyone is interested in how that fares with the Berkeley α USB, my opinion will be at the foot of this page by around early-to-mid August 2012.  It seems that “certain people” (with a following for some strange reason) won’t opine due to apparent conflicts of interest – something with which I am not so burdened.

OK, for the past several years, my brother has been reading up on computer audio and meticulously learning everything he can about it.  It took a lot of sifting out of forum and “sponsor-generated” misinformation.  Anyway he saved me a lot of trouble in working out a way of getting the best possible sound quality from the upstairs hi-fi system without a dedicated “music server”, PC or laptop in the music room itself.

In a nutshell, he determined that the DAC should not take a USB or I²S input.  This is completely at odds with what the manufacturer of my particular DAC might have you believe.  They have a commercial agenda of hyperbole which is of no value to me as I’m interested only in the truth.  Despite what they say, for best sound quality the DAC must take only a S/PDIF or AES/EBU input from a computer-isolated, master-clocked source of the highest possible quality/lowest possible jitter.  Tests of my own actually confirmed the idea:  A CD played on a good CD transport fed to the DAC via the S/PDIF coax input sounded a lot better than the same CD ripped to FLAC and presented as packet data from a friend’s laptop PC via the USB interface.  With the USB input, the DAC must rely solely on its own clocking and at the price paid for mine, there’s simply “no way”.

In the system that I put together, FLAC files are stored on an ordinary desktop PC in the downstairs study where the USB2 output feeds a Berkeley α USB which is a USB-to-AES/EBU digital audio converter.  The converter sends the precision-clocked digital audio signal via a 110Ω balanced cable to the DAC which remains in the music room.  An Android tablet remotely controls the media player software on the PC via the home Wi-Fi network.

PC

Dedicated brand name music servers – “silent” or otherwise –  are compromised and unnecessary if you already have a desktop PC somewhere in the house.  An existing PC (noisy fan and all) can stay where it can’t be heard and used to better advantage.  Mine is just an ordinary HP/Compaq i5 “business” PC running 64 bit Windows 7.  A Western Digital “AV-GP” 2TB hard drive designed for continuous video surveillance and streaming was added to store/serve the music files.  The Windows “My Music” library was re-configured to access a folder on that drive.  The files are duplicated to an archive library on an external LaCie 2TB d2 Quadra drive.  A Robocopy batch file maintains the archive library as an identical mirror of the music folder with one click.  HD files are purchased online or ripped from DVD-Audio disks and stored the same way.

Network

Here is the basic set-up:

Audio Network

USB-to-Digital Converter

This was the only expensive bit.  There were many alternatives out there, but they set their own standards so to speak with proposterous advertising methods that I guess must appeal to some people.  The major competitor went so far as to publish so-called “technical papers” which read like fairytales – discussing such absurdities as cryogenic cable treatment and other fallacious disgraces.  Connected to the same DAC on a different system the sound of their latest model was dull at best no matter what the demonstrator swapped around to try and tweak it.  Worse again and tried on my own system (connected to a laptop) was a USB to S/PDIF in-cable converter made up from a plastic RCAflims-plug” and the cheapest junky USB cable that I have ever seen.  It probably had $2 worth of electronics crammed into the shell.  Anyway it sounded so poor that it couldn’t be compared seriously with a $19 CD player.  That there is a market for this garbage is a mystery to me.  Anyway I chose the only product that seemed remotely credible – the “Berkeley Alpha USB” and it’s guarded 24/7 by motion detectors and a fierce killer dog and with it’s serial number recorded – oh and it is rigged to explode and spray your eyes with acid if you lift it. 😆 It allegedly has super-duper master clocks and its proprietary USB drivers are installed on the PC for communicating asynchronously with it – data up to 24bit/192kHz.  The manufacturers claim that they went to great lengths to isolate the digital audio section from the noisy PC environment seen at the USB interface.  It doesn’t really matter as long as it sounds good.

Signal cabling

Apparently USB is only good for up to 5m and the route between the PC and the music system wanted about 10m of cable.   If the α USB were to be installed in the music room (which might seem the logical place) then a “USB over CAT5e extender” could have run upstairs from the PC, but the “extenders” looked a bit dodgy to me and I was not confident that the asynchronous data would pass across the dual conversions intact.  I’m probably wrong but it doesn’t matter.

What about putting the α USB downstairs with the PC and run a coax?  “They” say 10m is about the limit for S/PDIF over coax so with good cable that was a possibility, but I didn’t really want to push my luck.  In addition to the BNC digital output socket, the α USB has an AES/EBU XLR output.

DAC

The DAC is a W4S DAC2.  I would not recommend it!  It is IMO not well engineered.  It does not have turn-off muting and sends an almighty thump to the speakers a few seconds after being powered down unless the power amps are turned off first!  It has very annoying “we control you” firmware which cannot be user-upgraded (the whole thing must be sent to them), is incapable of remembering its volume setting after powering down and has a plethora of useless inputs (like 1²S) and a USB input that sounds terrible to me.  Also, it’s S/PDIF coaxial inputs are absurd RCAs instead of a proper 75Ω BNCs!  One redeeming feature is an AES/EBU digital input socket.  A Shielded Twisted Pair (STP) balanced digital cable can run up to 100m without problems.  10m of “Belden 1800F” was the obvious choice, so I fed it through the garage and straight through brush wall plates in both rooms:

Amphenol gold contact “Cannon” XLR plugs were soldered to the free ends after feeding the cable through.

(yes there are stupid “RCA hats” in the picture – they do nothing but ensure that I don’t plug cables into the wrong sockets)

“They” say that ideally the α USB should be on a power supply circuit other than the one used for the PC to further isolate the internal sections.  The Owner’s Manual recommended using the same power supply circuit as the hi-fi system rather than sharing the circuit with the PC.  So the upstairs power circuit was extended to a new power outlet in the study shown in red (4 pictures back).  The PC is on the downstairs circuit represented by the blue power outlet.

And just to be super extreme, I added a in-line mains filter to the PC power lead to arrest conducted emissions from its switching power supply.

Ripping and Media Player Software

dBPowerAmp software does the CD ripping and JRiver Media Centre accesses the FLAC files from the “My Music” folder to create a music library.  dBPowerAmp has some DSP settings including one to identify and process 20/24 bit HDCD encoded disks and this is set to “auto-detect”.  JRiver is configuring to remove unwanted functionality like photo and video cataloguing and anything else unrelated to music.  When ripping CDs with dBpowerAmp, one rip will do it if the data compares properly with that of at least one other person’s previously uploaded rip data code.  With new CDs this is usually the case.  If no one has ripped that title, it re-rips to match 2 rips.  If there is a mismatch then the software goes back and re-rips yet again on a frame-by-frame basis.  If it fixes it (after 3 rips in total) you’re right, but if it finally gives up and says “insecure” the FLAC file will still play but with skips at each dodgy frame.  So you remove the disk to notice a splotch of mould or something and clean the disc again with a moist lens cloth and a bit of isopropyl alcohol and it usually rips properly after that.  With thousands of CDs to rip, I developed a routine of cleaning older ones before even starting.  Also you get a feel for which ones will have decent meta data and cover art available online.  Self-scanned cover art is usually better than the art available online.  DVD-A disks are a bit more difficult to rip.  I’ve done a few with “DVD Audio Extractor” which is pretty basic compared with dBPowerAmp, but you can use the right click “Edit ID-tag” feature installed in Windows by dBPowerAmp to add the cover art and meta data after ripping.  Some of the 24/192 recordings on the old Everest label sound pretty good.

How to control the music from upstairs?

A base model Toshiba Android tablet has the JRiver “Gizmo” plug-in installed:

It controls the JRiver software on the PC via the home Wi-Fi network.  The PC is left running with the automatic sleep/hibernate settings disabled (you can still sleep or hibernate manually).  JRiver is set to act as a media server on Windows start-up:

It turns out that disabling hibernate is unneccessary since the PC can be brought out of hibernate just by starting the Gizmo application on the WiFi tablet.  It sends “magic packets” apparently – anyway it works.

The Sound!

Well it’s better than any CD or SACD player that I have heard.  The sound is simply astonishing – vivid and crisp.  The level of detail even on rips from regular 44.1kHz 16 bit CD is incredible.  DVD-Audio rips (24/96 and 24/192) sound better again.  I’d like to add that DSF rips from SACD using a custom firmware 3.55 early PS3 converted to 176.4/24 FLAC using Korg Audiogate with Aqua dither sound even better, but I don’t know anything about that. 😉  Acually I put none of this down to the bit rates involved.  It just seems that such recordings are very well produced/mastered and indeed the Redbook layers of the SACDs sound pretty much the same.

Addendum!

Well anybody contemplating a PC-based system take warning:  Ripping the CDs is a tedious bore!  Having just passed the 1500 CD mark let me tell you – it is not fun!  The meta data from the online databases like most things on the Internet is a load of misinformation.  For example whether it’s renasissance, baroque, classical or romantic, the databases call it “Classical”.  I give things my own genres and there are heaps. 🙂  The cover art is often wrong and if correct is usually of poor quality and mis-cropped at least.  I had to scan every single CD slip and type corrections to almost every title.  You can lose your mind!

Double-dendum:

On the insistence of someone who seems to believe what is written in stupid magazines, I downloaded and trialled a program called (something like) JPay for JRiver.  This is a basically a swindle – supposedly manipulating Windows memory management – alleging improved sound quality.  It is IMO a woeful clunky piece of garbage.  It crashes repeatedly, requires that you permanently hand over 2GB of RAM in case you want to play 24/192 tracks over 15 minutes in duration, doesn’t integrate cleanly with JRiver or the Android tablet Gizmo controller (showing paused playback when it’s actually playing) and makes no audible difference so long as the volume-levelling feature (and any “DSP Studio” feature) of JRiver is turned off.

The comic book in question had tabulated subjective (which means “subject” to how much Jay pays) sound quality scores comparing different playback software (which all sounds the same) concluding that the JPay-reproduced sound was superior to anything else.  Bull!  They are paid swindlers targeting a credulous audience.

Note: certain names have been changed to protect the innocent (that’s me). 😆

Special Audio USB PCI Card:

A SoTM tX-USB PCI-USB card has been installed in the PC:

A right pain with that IDE Molex power connector!  Who uses that any more?  Anyway instead of daisy-chaining the 12V and 5V DC off the end of the SATA HDD/optical drive loom, I decided to do a kind of half-baked “star grounding scheme” and take it right back as close to the motherboard header as possible like this:

It’s playing as I type.  Nothing too spectacular to report sound-wise, but I’ll give it a while for my headache to subside before deciding whether it improves anything.

Next day.  Well it sounds very good, but I really don’t know if there is a difference.  Last night I could have sworn it sounded better (I took an aspirin 😆 ), but today if anything there is just maybe the slightest hint of improvement.  Will have to let it play for a week or two and then switch back to the regular USB output and see if it sounds worse.  Maybe a downgrade will sound more obvious than an “upgrade”.  For now I’d say the money might have been better spent on CDs.  😆

Another few days and many A/B/A/B changeovers and the sound seems better with the tX-USB.  There is a slightly greater sharpness and it seems to raise the noise floor of the recordings which suggests that more low detail is being resolved.  Overall quality seems better.

Another couple of weeks and some “extra ears” were borrowed for a serious A/B/A/B run.  With me downstairs and “the ears” upstairs, I swapped the USB cable between a standard PC USB output and the tX-USB (not telling “the ears” which connection was present at any given time) and the conclusions were unvarying – the Tx-USB is a clear winner albeit a marginal one.

As another little experiment, I played the same discs on the Denon universal player which can now only really be described as a “music muffler”.  😆

One thought on “Network-free Music to another Room

  1. Any comments posted here containing product endorsements of any kind will be trashed! And that goes DOUBLE for “audiophile” products! 😡

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *