A new music server standard from leftover parts

You would think that only the latest and greatest parts would be found in a music server, but Chris Connaker at the Computer Audiophile has knitted together a server he swears blows away most everything else out there. His new reference system uses older sound cards, dated drivers and a budget Dell desktop. The end result came in with a price tag right around $1,000. That is cheap money for a high-end server.

However, before you all go rushing out to your local discount computer shop, there are a few things to consider. Is it really smart to build a server out of parts and software that will not be supported for too long? The budget server runs on Windows XP, which Microsoft is in the process of phasing out, and a PCI based sound card. Using XP carries the bonus risk that in some cases, when you make changes to the data while listening to your music, the system can push out a tone that is known to blow tweeters. This also happens with Vista so Windows users need to be aware. 

If you go through the blog you will also note the amount of tinkering that was done. The bios was modified, the operating system install was done in custom mode and the startup programs were all trimmed down. These are all good things to do if you are into massaging your system, but this is definitely not an easy out-of-the-box solution like a pre-made server. 

On the flip side, we are talking about a music server that is supposed to sound outstanding for right around a grand. The bottom line alone makes this an attractive option. For those who like to go deep into their hardware and software, this could be a fun project. For those of us who just want the music and not the nuts and bolts, there are other options. Connaker himself covers all these liabilities and more, and mentions that solutions from Apple and others might be the best choice for many. It all comes down to expectations, as always.

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Data transfer heads to the autobahn

You are only as fast as your slowest link, and if your data sits at the other end of a USB 1.0 cable, we are talking very slow. USB 3.0 is already on the horizon. This new standard in data transfer will multiply USB 2.0’s speed limit by 10 and 1.0 by 400. That means faster backups, faster downloads and an improved mindset for us ADD types. It is not here yet, but by the end of 2009 we should start seeing it showing up in our gear. Wired’s blog has a lot of details on the new specification.

If you are keeping your music on an external drive, this new specification may help in more ways than just speed. In the past we have also had to deal with choices on what type of connectors to use. There is USB 1.0, Firewire 400, USB 2.0 and Firewire 800. The quickest of the group is Firewire 800, but USB 3.0 will be six-times faster than that. With the improved speed and signs that Apple, a major proponent of Firewire, may be pulling back its support for Firewire, we might be blessed with a unified wiring solution. Hallelujah! Now we can toss those boxes of cables in the closet.

Another bonus of the new specification is more voltage transfer through the ports. This means you can charge up to four devices off one port. Road warriors rejoice; you can start leaving your power supplies at home. USB 3.0 is also designed to be more energy conscious, a boon for laptops batteries. 

So the future is looking hyper-fast, the only problem now is the long wait for it to arrive.

Before the music stops, back it up

The greatest stereo in the world doesn’t sound like much if there is no music to play. Sure its got a great sound floor, but…. It also sucks to spend long weekends burning all your discs to a drive only to have a disc crash make you do it all over again. This is why you have to back up your data. If you have a copy of all your tunes to a physically separate storage medium you can always revive your library. Raising the dead can be good.

There are several paths to data security. The most common route is to back up your tunes to an external drive. This is ideal, but if you also need to store your music library on an external unit the associated wires for data and power could start getting scary. Data Robotics Inc. has a slick all-in-one answer: Drobo. Yes, I know I just said use a physically separate device, you don’t want to lose both data and backup in the same failure, and the Drobo meets that requirement. 

The Drobo is called a “data robot,” but it is more a really smart storage locker. This unit can hold up to four discrete internal drives. It does not come with the drives, unless you buy the top-of-the-line model, so you will have to shell out for them as well as the $499 for the Drobo itself. It can get expensive, but here is where it gets trick. You not only get storage, Drobo backs up all your information so that if one drives goes, all the data is recoverable from the remaining drives; storage and backup in one box – very nice. Terry White has a review of the unit on his blog that is worth reading. 

Keeping it safe and simple is a wonderful thing. Now, if they could only make it cheap.

Computer speakers get serious

If all computer speakers were as slick as JM Focal Labs new XS 2.1 multimedia package my desk would be a lot less cluttered. This new foray into computer audio is a wonderfully integrated package that on the surface looks like an ideal speaker solution for any but the must ardent computer audiophile.

If you know this French company’s reputation as one of the premier speaker manufacturers, then you can guess that this is no ordinary budget speaker package. At $599, you will dig much deeper into your wallet for this outfit than the run-of-the-mill speaker sets that populate Best Buy. At the same time, you will be setting up a system designed by a company that produces speakers with mortgage-sized price tags. Audiophiles spend more than $599 for the speaker cables to connect Focal speakers. This is not to say that price makes right is a law in audio, and here is where the XS system becomes a bargain. If you compare that $599 to the price of a reasonable integrated amplifier, speaker set, DAC and iPod dock, the XS system comes out a steal.

The system comes with two speakers with built in stands, one of which incorporates an iPod dock, a subwoofer and magnetic remote. I love the idea of the built in dock. You can source your music from an iPod if you need to, while syncing and charging the player at the same time. This will also let you remove one more cluttering accessory from your desk. It is also a pretty system that was designed to look great with a Macintosh rig. 

As for the sound, there is some debate. The Computer Audiophile was happy with the final product but Ilounge was more on the fence. As with any speaker system, you have to hear it yourself to decide if it is right for your ears. If nothing else, it sure is a nice piece of electronic eye candy.

Sonos wireless audio adds iPhones to the mix

I am seeing a trend in remote controls and that trend is the iPhone. Sonos is the latest wireless audio distribution provider to snuggle up to Apple and its two touch screen music players, the iPhone and iTouch. The company has now released software so that you can use either one of these Apple units as a controller for their audio receivers. Brier Dudley at the Seattle Times has a good interview with Sonos CEO John MacFarlane about why the company has hooked up with Apple. 

This concept is not new, Apple rolled out a Remote application for the iPone and iTouch a few months back, that allows the units to control iTunes using WiFi.  Zooloos music servers have that option as well. This is one bandwagon that makes sense to jump on. People carry their phones everywhere they go. By using the phone as a controller, it means you will seldom have to spend 20 minutes looking for a lost remote. Since wireless audio systems allow you can wander the house listening to tunes, the advantage is even more obvious. 

The interesting part to me is that by using an Apple product you can conceivably reduce the cost of buy in for a Sonos system. You may already have one of these pieces. If you don’t, you can buy an iTouch for half the price of the Sonos controller. It is a curious business strategy but I suspect it might be a wise move in the end. Sonos is very much into integration. The well-received decco line of integrated amplifiers even has an access port built in that allows the complete internal installation of a Sonos receiver. 

So often all these companies fight for control; it is so nice to see them play well together.

Look Ma, no wires

The Logitech Squeezebox Duet has me convinced that all music will eventually be on storage drives. The Duet looks too easy to use, and that is the secret. Lets face it; most changes in the world of music were not made in the name of greater audio, but greater ease. CDs never needed a needle delicately lowered on to them to play, and MP3 players do not need to change discs. This same mentality will eventually make your hard drive into your music library. 

While several roadblocks have stood in the way, two of the biggest have been wiring and control. Logitech looks to have dealt with both of these. The Duet is a wireless interface between your computer and stereo. The system uses your Wi-Fi network to transfer music from your computer to the Duet receiver attached to your stereo. Don’t worry audiophiles, the data stays digital until a 24-bit Wolfson DAC interprets it back into music. Wolfson DACs have long been considered among the best of breed. The music can be stored as MP3, Apple Lossless or any of half-a-dozen popular compression schemes. 

The other roadblock is access. The Duet slaps that down with a color remote that gives you full control of your library, be it on a PC or Macintosh. The 2.4-inch color screen displays song titles, artists, cover art and more. Selections are done via an iPod style remote.  

As a bonus, you can now stream music from online sources such Pandora and Rhapsody. This is what gave Wired Magazine such a big smile. I played with the original version several months back and loved the concept but was only OK with the remote. The new version looks like a big improvement and the streaming is a sweet option. 

If you want to expand your music network you can add more receivers to other music systems throughout your house. At $399.99 for the initial rig and another $150 per additional receiver, this is not cheap, but it is nowhere near those $10 grand music servers that high-end audio loves.

DRM means just say no

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is about as popular as venereal disease. DRM is a combination of software and hardware that tries to prevent unauthorized copying of material. This doesn’t sound so bad on the surface, unless you are a black market pirate in China, as the goal is to protect the rights of creative folks that have tons of time on a project and would like to get paid for their work. The problem is that the system becomes a problem in itself.

A good example is iTunes. If you buy a song from the iTunes store, you can download it to an iPod, burn it to a disc, but you cannot transfer it to another computer. You bought it but you can’t do what you want with it. If you have both a desktop and laptop, DRM says never the twain shall meet. 

DRM is more than inconvenient, it restricts creativity. How can you remix a tune if you cannot copy it? It can also stop the music. I have seen DRM encoded discs refuse to play on older CD players. 

While I am a full supporter of intellectual rights, there needs to be a better way to deal with the issue. The DRM Blog has a nice summary and commentary on the problem. The original source for his diatribe is a recent Wall Street Journal article. Both agree that we need an update. 

In the meantime, there have been some changes in the music industry. A trend toward DRM free music has been growing. If you like to download the occasional song and use it as you like, check out Amazon.com’s music store. The collection is good, the DRM is gone and all the files are compressed at 256k. While 256k is not lossless, it is a much more palatable compression rate than iTunes usual 128k. Unchained music is a good thing.