Last November’s newsletter, Death of CD, described modern digital media formats that supercede “shiny disks,” like CDs and DVDs. This month’s newsletter will discuss digital audio streaming products and logical reasons for replacing shiny disks with today's impressive new technology.
Digital audio streaming products have been around for several years. The most common streaming device is an IPod, IPhone, or portable MP3 player. With software such as Itunes or Windows Media Player, CDs are inserted into a computer’s CD/DVD drive, and music is “ripped” to files playable on portable devices. When discussing quality audio playback, an IPod or other portable player is extremely low in audio fidelity. Yes, music may sound fine with a small set of ear buds while power walking, but compared to quality digital audio streaming devices, portable players are much like old-fashioned transistor radios.
What Makes the Difference?
Not all digital formats are the same. Don’t assume that if the audio is “digital," it’s perfect. Cramming a music library into a small portable device, the ripping process usually involves a codec. “Codec” is combined words “code” and “decode.” A codec analyzes the digital data that is being ripped and “compresses” the music file size to fit within a smaller storage space. When the music file is played back, the digital data is unpackaged and converted to analog music. Unfortunately, many codecs, such as Itunes, MP3, and MP4 completely remove substantial digital data when encoding the music file. The end result is a “lossy” format, where important musical information is gone forever, never to be regained in the future.
Yes, you can hear the difference. If you have a distributed audio system with speakers in various locations around the house, music can sound much like a doctor’s office. Spending time alone or with family and friends, quality music should fill your living environment. Recordings archived at a higher fidelity standard provide more realistic sound, with noticeable instruments and subtle nuances that simply can’t be explained in words alone. Frankly, your home should not sound like a supermarket or department store.
Attain Quality Music
On the flip side of the lossy codecs like MP3, ripped CDs can actually sound excellent when ripped with a quality "lossless" codec and digital audio streaming device, even better than through a CD player. Instead of connecting a cheap portable player, such as an IPod into your home audio system, attach a quality digital audio streaming device with higher-end technology and playback compatibility with “uncompressed” codecs. Antithetical to the “lossy” codec, “uncompressed” codecs do not discard vital data. In essence, the digital information is packaged tightly during the ripping process, and it is expanded back out during playback streaming without any data loss. Both Microsoft and Apple have their own proprietary formats, but the universally accepted uncompressed codec is "FLAC."
FLAC stands for “Free Lossless Audio Codec.” Digital audio streaming players normally accept a variety of formats, and whether the product aligns itself with either Microsoft or Apple dictates whether it will play proprietary lossless formats from either corporation. Unfortunately, these two formats are not cross-compatible. If you purchase an Apple player and rip all of your music in the Apple lossless format, then decide to purchase a different product manufactured by a company who supports Microsoft, you are out-of-luck. FLAC, on the other hand, is universally accepted by almost every digital streaming device manufacturer, since FLAC requires no license fees for its use. In short, FLAC is the best format for sound quality and universal acceptance.
Additionally, the internet has a plethora of free FLAC ripping software downloads. One such product is Exact Audio Copy. You can download the free software by clicking here. Save the file to a convenient folder on your computer system, then install. Once installed, Exact Audio Copy will check your disk drive and use a product called AccurateRip, which recognizes the computer’s disk drive and adjusts for minor imperfections. When a CD is placed into the drive and the ripping process commences, Exact Audio Copy first scans each track before ripping the disk. Upon completing the rip, the software compares the original scan with the actual ripped data. Exact Audio Copy then provides a final report to verify whether it has experienced any errors in the ripping process. If errors were detected from scratches or other imperfections on the disk, Exact Audio Copy renders an algorithm to fix the defect. Exact Audio Copy is extremely thorough in extracting every possible bit and byte from your CD collection.
When ripping CDs to Exact Audio Copy, make sure to have a soft, lint-free towel handy for cleaning finger prints. Ripping CDs with this software archives your CD collection to its highest potential, so get the most from your disk by prepping it prior to ripping. Furthermore, we have saved a software setup profile to make the ripping process simple. After installing Exact Audio Copy, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will send the latest program ripping profile. Load the profile within Exact Audio Copy by clicking on the top left EAC/Profiles/Load Profiles. Locate where you saved the downloaded profile on your computer system and click “Open.” This preset profile will then be applied for all future rips.
Additionally, if you decide to purchase music online, do yourself a favor and select FLAC as the preferred format. At roughly one to five dollars per-song, it makes sense to get the highest-quality music for your investment. If you take time to properly rip your CDs to FLAC, you can enjoy sound that is better than CD. If you consider all of the functions that Exact Audio Copy performs, ripping a CD takes several minutes with a computer processor many times superior to that of a CD player. Even the highest-quality CD player can not provide the same calibration, error correction, and clean bit stream within the split-second time required to spin and play a CD. Since all of the analytics and extraction have been performed during the ripping process, a digital audio streaming device excludes much of this complexity to focus solely on converting digital data to analog music. The result is superior audio.
NAS Drives and Digital Audio Streaming Players
With your new collection of ripped CDs in the FLAC format, you are now ready to play them back on your home audio system. The most basic method of quality playback is streaming directly from a high-quality audio sound card. Most PCs and Macs include acceptable sound cards, but you can also improve upon the norm by purchasing an upgraded sound card. A simple audio connector from your computer to the sound system will provide an excellent source of digital audio.
A superior method of streaming quality digital audio is via a separate "Black Box," a digital streaming player and graphical interface, such as a control system, touch panel, IPad, or IPhone, to play the player's music content. Adding the ability to select your entire library by searching artist, title, and genre, a dynamic user interface provides album cover art and biographical information to the streaming player. Listening quality is now further enhanced by adding ease-of-use. Digital streaming devices normally run best when attached to a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive, which is a large hard disk drive chassis accessed through a standard network connection.
Here is a list of digital audio streaming devices that all run via Control4, IPod, IPhone, or IPad, connected to a NAS drive.
This device is a simple digital audio streaming device that reads FLAC files directly from a NAS drive without the need for a computer. There is a server software that loads onto the NAS drive, called “slimserver” and an IPad app, “Ipeng,” which displays artwork and plays FLAC files fairly well. The Squeezebox has a 24-bit digital decoder, which is slightly better than that of a CD player. This is a budget-minded player for those who want to discover digital audio streaming at an affordable price.
Control4’s 1.8 operating system allows for the playback of FLAC files. This is a great improvement over the previous 1.7 system that was limited to MP3 only. Control4’s various touch screens, onscreen displays, and IPad/IPhone integration supply rich graphics of album cover art and artist/title information. Control4’s HC300 and HC200 controllers have several audio outputs that connect to your audio system. In the case of the HC300, two simultaneous streams can be played in various locations, and controllers link with each other to play multiple zones from a single stream. Now with FLAC compatibility, Control4 owners should seriously consider upgrading to the 1.8 system.
Sonos Zone Player ($349)
Sonos makes the Zone Player, which is accessible from the Zone Player’s wireless remote. Zone Players can also play via Control4, IPhone, or IPod Touch. If you currently own a Control4 system, Extra Vegetables has a 2-way IP driver that allows for the artist, album, and track information to be viewed on a Control4 system. In most homes, we suggest the Control4 instead of Sonos, since Control4 controls all sources within home theater system and multi-room audio system. Sonos is more of a dedicated music system on its own and has little ability to control products like cable boxes, satellites, and televisions. Control4 is a broader-based system that can play FLAC and control AV Systems, Lighting, HVAC, Security, and Pool/Spa. Since prices are similar between Sonos and Control4, Control4 provides a more flexible and expandable option for the price.
Logitech, the manufacturer of Squeezebox, has a higher-end product, called “Transporter.” This product will handle FLAC with full 24-bit resolution, and 44.1, 48, and 96 kHz sample rates. This product pushes beyond the boundaries of CD audio, sounding better than a CD player, by feeding the Transporter 24-Bit FLAC files downloaded from music sites like www.linnrecords.com. The previously described entry-level players are limited to standard resolution FLAC files, whereas the Transporter and other high-end players can play 24-bit studio reference recordings. The control interface is the same between the Squeezebox and the Transporter, so if you own an IPhone or Ipod Touch, the Ipeng app allows for artist, title, and track selection via Apple interface. The Transporter is simply a better-built version of the Squeezebox with an improved processor and analog section, making it fall well within the “musical” category. I have several friends who own Transporters, and they enjoy the Transporter's sound quality.
Linn DS ($2450 - $18,500)
The Linn DS product line is much like the Transporter, whereas DS players stream FLAC files extremely well and playback reference 24-bit recordings for the ultimate in listening experience. Linn’s DS products, the Sneaky, Majik, Akurate, and Klimax, offer improved steps into the sound-quality hierarchy, redefining digital music playback altogether.
Linn’s entry-level player, the Sneaky DS ($2450), is an extremely well-performing player, providing accurate musical reproduction, music that can be appreciated in both modest and high-end systems. The Majik DS ($3500) takes this a step further to offer a true audiophile experience from digital media. The Akurate DS ($6850) unveils musical nuances previously unattainable by any digital playback device. Lastly, the Klimax DS ($18,500) is the finest digital audio streaming device on the planet.
Within the entire DS line, Linn uses an open-source server software by TwonkyMedia. Many NAS drive manufacturers include TwonkyMedia preloaded, so chances are, a new NAS Drive may already include the core software required to play a Linn DS. Since Linn is open source UPnP, there are a number of IPod/IPhone/IPad apps that control the DS. "Plug Player" ($5 http://www.plugplayer.com) is the most popular app. "Songbook" ($50) provides more frills and richer graphics, and "Konduktor" ($50) offers additional feature sets.
Accessing your ripped CD collection in FLAC format, along with the ability to download high-resolution 24-Bit recordings, provides a listening experience that is far superior to that of a CD player. The added convenience of a control interface, such as Control4, IPhone, IPod, and IPad makes digital audio streaming even more enticing. Furthermore, all of these streaming devices offer access to internet radio or shared music content sites like Rhapsody, Pandora, and ShoutCast through the same graphical control interface.
Now is the time to get current with modern digital audio. Let’s put those shiny disks a rest and move into the modern era. Once you have taken the time to archive your music collection, you can now duplicate your library and make it accessible on the road, or perhaps at your vacation place with cloned NAS drives in each location. The benefits go on and on....
We look forward to
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Copyright 2009, All Rights Reserved, Sight And Sounds
"Rip" Your CDs with Quality Software
Once properly configured, ripping your CDs to FLAC format is a quick and easy process (click image to view EAC Website)
Verify Ripping Quality
Exact Audio Copy scans the disk, then compares the resulting rip to ensure the rip matches the original disk data. (click image to view EAC Website)
NAS Drives and Digital Stream Players
Ripping music to a lossless FLAC format allows for high-quality streaming players to provide excellent performance along with an easily-accessible library of your favorite music. (click image to view Linn's DS web page)
Squeezebox Player ($299)
The Logitech Squeezebox is an inexpensive starter-level digital streaming device. (click image to view product information)
Control4 HC 300 ($699)
With the recent 1.8 upgrade, Control4's HC300 plays FLAC files in addition to MP3 and Rhapsody online music. Control4 is a superior choice in the sub $1K range, since it provides full home automation. (click image to view product information)
Sonos Player ($349)
The Sonos Player is a good starter choice, and it also has the ability to be controlled by Control4's 2-way IP driver. (click image to view product information)
Logitech Transporter ($1999)
Logitech takes the Squeezebox concept and moves the performance bar higher with the Transporter. (click image to view product information)
Linn Sneaky DS ($2450)
Linn's Sneaky DS is an extremely well-performing player, providing accurate musical reproduction, music that can be appreciated in both modest and high-end systems. (click image to view product information)
Linn Majik DS ($3500)
The Majik DS pushes technology a step further, providing a true audiophile experience from digital media. (click image to view product information)
Each of these systems has the ability to be controlled via Apple interface, such as Control4, IPod, Iphone, or IPad. (click image to view product information)