Why PCs are becoming the audiophile’s choice

Why PCs are becoming the audiophile's choice

In the past, audiophile music fans essentially had two options when deciding which source to use: a turntable or a CD player. Yes, there have been attempts to bring other formats into the audiophile fold – SACD, DVD-Audio – but nothing has come close to challenging the enduring popularity of the record and the CD.

Until now. Now a new challenger is here, and it’s one that, in theory, can provide superior audio quality to CD and a greater level of convenience than both CD and vinyl. This new audio source is the home computer, which is fast cementing a place in the hearts of lovers of high quality sound.

Why? Well, for starters, we’re not talking about using your PC to play highly compressed, “digital sounding” MP3 tracks. Lossless music files can offer a greater level of audio quality than CDs.

Then consider convenience: imagine storing your entire record collection on a tiny, affordable hard disk (or a few tiny, affordable hard disks if your collection is particularly large), and accessing any single track, album or playlist in seconds – there’s no need to dig through record crates or spend your weekends painstakingly alphabetising your records or CDs.  And your collection isn’t restricted to playback on a single computer: thanks to home networking, you can easily set up a multi-room system making it as easy to whack on your favourite LP in the bedroom as it is to do so in your living room.

Listening to music that is stored elsewhere – aka streaming it – is becoming an increasingly common practice. Audiophiles may be wary of the concept, particularly if wireless technology is relied upon, but if set up properly there’s no reason why it should be feared: lossless material will stream perfectly well over a wired network, and the convenience of having all your music stored in one place yet accessible from several places (a streaming hi-fi in each room of your house, for instance) is undeniable.

Record collection

Using your computer as an audio source is no longer a compromise – it’s actually offers an improvement in most cases – so it’s not hard to see why more and more fans of high quality sound are booting up their PCs instead of hitting the power switch on their CD players. Interested in doing the same? Here are some tips on “pimping” your PC to wring the very best sonic performance out of its unassuming beige shell.

Easy wins

Before we get into the more techie aspects of using your PC as an audiophile source, there are a couple of simple steps you can take to improving your listening experience.

1.  Get better headphones

P5 headphones

Listening to good quality digital music through a set of cheap cans is akin to watching a beautifully shot high definition movie through a pair of dirty sunglasses, so one of the first things you should do is invest in some decent ear goggles. Top notch headphones reveal subtle details in music that’ll go unnoticed with cheaper alternatives, and can also create the real sense of a spatial soundstage in your head, so it’s well worth the money if you’re planning on some solo home listening.

Bowers & Wilkins offer the P5 on-ear headphones, primarily designed for on-the-go use with MP3 players or mobile phones – but any number of other manufacturers produce brilliant headphones engineered for home use.

2.  Use high quality files

There’s little point in investing in a pair of top quality cans or connecting your PC to an incredible hi-fi setup if your source is substandard, so where possible you should also use better quality music files.

If you’re purchasing digital music you should always opt for the highest quality download available (hard disk storage space is so affordable these days that you can always add more of it as your digital collection grows). For MP3 files this is usually 320kbps, but some online music outlets offer lossless files that are as good or superior to CD. Bowers & Wilkins’ own Society of Sound, for instance, allows you to download music in the 24-bit 48KHz FLAC format, which is identical to the studio master in quality, or in CD quality 16-bit 44.1KHz FLAC and Apple Lossless (aka ALAC) formats.

You can also try 7digital which now offer a very limited collection of 24-bit and 16-bit FLAC files. Bandcamp also features a lot of FLAC material.

Alternatively, if you’re converting your CD or vinyl collection to digital, make sure you do so at high quality. CDs can be ripped in a number of lossless formats. Apple’s iTunes software, for example, offers no fewer than three: Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV. Other computer programs allow you to rip CDs in FLAC or even raw PCM.

Aside from selecting a high bit rate and lossless format, there are a few steps you can take to ensure the best quality when ripping CDs. If using iTunes, for example, you should select the “Use error correction when reading Audio CDs” option in the Import Settings tab to ensure that any scratches on your discs don’t cause glitches. It increases the time it takes to rip a CD, but that’s a price worth paying.

Ripping your vinyl music to your PC is a more complicated and lengthier process than with CDs, as you’ll need to do it at actual speed and run cables from your turntable to your computer, as well as be aware that any pop or crackle in the vinyl playback will be transferred to your digital copy (for this reason you should try to use clean, dust-free records, a high quality needle and a turntable with good stereo balance). Programs like Audacity allow you to cut your own digital tracks from vinyl, and you can do so in the uncompressed WAV format. WAV files can later be converted to compressed but lossless formats, should you want to reduce the size of the files without compromising sound quality.

“You can also buy USB turntables that let you ‘record’ vinyl on your computer via a purely digital connection; they start at as little as £70 ]. You’ll still need Audacity or something similar though, as the turntable will transfer each side of a record as a single track, and Audacity is needed to split this into the correct song files.

More technical stuff

1.  Using multiple libraries


We’ve already advised you to use the highest quality audio format available: with digital storage now so affordable (you can pick up a 1 terabyte internal hard drives for about £60 and 1TB external drives start at around £70), you’re unlikely to run out of space at home. If you have an iPod or other portable music player, however, storage space can be an issue – but there are a couple of solutions.

First, users of iTunes can select the “Convert higher bit rate songs to 128 kbps AAC” option (you’ll find it in iTunes’ sync Summary tab when you connect your iPod, iPhone or iPad to your computer). This converts the songs to lower quality during the syncing process, but maintains the high quality versions in your iTunes library.

Alternatively, you can create two libraries: one with MP3 player-friendly tracks ready to be transferred to your portable device, and the other with lossless or uncompressed tracks for home listening via your PC (yes, iTunes will play 24-bit tracks – but iPods won’t). If you’re using iTunes, you can create a second library by holding shift (or option on a Mac) when you open iTunes – this will prompt you to choose an existing library or create a new one.

2.  Using a server or NAS


You don’t have to store your music library on your home’s main computer – you can instead use a server or NAS (network attached storage). These are basically always-on storage methods that link up to your home network, and if your music is stashed on them you can access it in various ways: from a PC, a networked portable device (iPod, iPad etc.), a network-connected hi-fi and more. You may even be able to access your files from a completely different location, downloading them from your server at home via the Internet.

Alternatively, you can store all your music on one PC and access it from a number of network-connected hi-fis around your house. Both wired and wireless options are available – the former will appeal to audiophiles more, while the latter ups the convenience factor. On the wireless front, Apple’s Airplay is now being integrated into many AirPlay is a simplified form of streaming that works with any Apple iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) or any computer with iTunes software: just tap an icon, select the AirPlay-compatible speaker or hi-fi (such as the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air) from a drop-down menu and whatever you are listening to on your iPhone or iTunes player will be re-routed wirelessly to the speaker. It’s incredibly simple and incredibly easy – and the sound quality is excellent, despite the use of wireless tech.

3.  DACs, soundcards and speakers

 

You can play music from your PC in a number of ways, but achieving audiophile quality sound won’t be easy without a bit of effort and investment.

For starters, most off-the-shelf PCs don’t offer high quality audio outputs, so it’s likely you’re going to want to equip your computer with either a new sound card, which requires some tinkering with its innards, or an external DAC, which sits between your PC and hi-fi/headphones. DACs tend to be pricier than soundcards, but don’t require you to get out the screwdriver – you simply connect them up. Both will convert the digital audio signal to analogue and output it to your hi-fi or headphones, but if you want 24-bit audio you need to ensure the soundcard or DAC is compatible (some are limited to 16-bit).

You could also hook a pair of amplified speakers directly to your computer, bypassing the need for a hi-fi. It’s probably not the preferred audiophile solution, but there are good powered speakers out there – included Bowers & Wilkins’  MM-1 speakers, which offer full-range hi-fi sound for the desktop.

4.  Which software?


You have a wide range of choice in this area: iTunes, Windows Media Player, Winamp, Songbird and Sonos are just a few options available to the PC (and Mac in some cases) user.

Which is the best? That all depends on what you’re looking for out of a music player – not all, for instance, support uncompressed audio, or every digital music format under the sun, or feature EQs for pre-output audio adjustment. Some, like iTunes, feature a built-in music store and are pretty much a requirement if you want to put your music on an iPod or iPad. Downloading the Remote 2.0 app for iPhone or iPad also lets you use these devices to control iTunes music playback and volume from anywhere in your home”.

Conclusion

While listening to music through a computer might lack the charm of dropping a needle on a weighty 180g record, the sheer convenience of PCs and digital audio – not the mention their potential for excellent sound quality – mean that they’re almost definitely set to become the default tools for the audiophile in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully this overview has given you some insight into the process of building up and listening to a library of high quality digital music – if you have any comments or questions please let us know below.

16 Comments

  • Sam Inman says:

    “Hopefully this overview has given you some insight into the process of building up and listening to a library of high quality digital music.”

    Great article. Can’t wait to see where B&W takes it users in the future!

  • Volker says:

    For ripping CDs I would recommend dbpoweramp (see http://www.dbpoweramp.com) instead of Itunes, since dbpoweramp provides for bit true ripping (see the AcurateRip feature). For checking, correcting and adding meta tags (such as artist, album, title, composer and the like) and album art, Tag & Rename (see http://www.softpointer.com) is a very nice tool.

    Incidentally, why it is necessary to extensively add meta tags and album art to the tracks of the Society of Sound downloads? This could easily been done before on the side of Society of Sound before the download is released.

  • Volker says:

    One further comment:

    Consider the use of a streaming client such as Logitech SqueezeBox, Linn Streaming clients, the Sonos System and the like instead of using a PC. I started with a PC, but now I am very happy with a Squeezebox Transporter and a view further (cheaper) Squeezebox streaming clients in my house.

  • Jon Hereng says:

    I’m running my music from a Mac through USB to a Cambridge DAC Magic. The DAC is only capable of running 16-bit from USB the specification says. Are there other ways to be able to play 24-bits than via the USB? Or do I have to buy another DAC? Any recommendations?

  • SusannaGrant says:

    Hi Jon
    If the sound hardware on your Mac is capable of 24-bit sound reproduction, then Songbird will play the audio back at 24-bit depth. If you let us know the exact model of Mac, we will try to find out for you if it does support 24-bit.

    If it does not, then a new DAC or an external sound card are the other solutions. Have a look at our ‘How do you play your 24-bit files‘ post for more options.

    I hope this helps
    Susanna Grant
    Society of Sound

  • v says:

    Keeping two iTunes libraries seems unnecessary. Keep two playlists and set only one to sync to iPods.

    If you really want it to be easy, make the playlists smart playlists that automatically add based on format and other criteria.

    Additionally, iPods DO play lossless files, so I’m still not sure why you recommend two libraries.

    The whole point of iTunes is to make organizing the music and syncing easier, so you can enjoy the music. Doing as you say makes it harder.

  • whiskywheels says:

    I’m new to this, but I can hear the high quality of the 24 bit FLAC files through my DAW PC. (a quality soundcard outputs to external amp and speakers of reasonable quality). However, I want to listen to these files in my lounge on my fancy Hi-Fi system. Is there a way of burning 24bit to a CD, or indeed is there any point? Should I research HDD devices that I can plug into my Hi-Fi? Any recommendations??

  • Riccardo Andreoli says:

    I build PC for music lissening … i tink that i tunes is not the best way to lissen the fabulos file that the society of music give us ….

    i use, and prefer foobar 2000 with a ASIO profile or album player also with an asio profile…

  • SusannaGrant says:

    Hi,
    this is not (yet) a simple procedure. We cover some possibilities here: and you can read many different options from our members here.

    I hope this helps and we always welcome any information on this.
    Susanna
    Society of Sound

  • Erling says:

    For John: Most newer Macs has a optical toslink output build into the 3,5 mm jack (headphone), as with my MacMini. I connect it with optical cable to my Dacmagic. It was a little tricky to find the cable, but when once found I now have the digital 24/96 signal in to my Dac (alternatively 16/44,1 depending on the file)
    But there are more to it as you will have to change a few settings in order to have the digital stream reaching your Dac untouched. Without altering the settings your Mac/ iTunes will resample the signal before it leaves the Mac.

    As I have the Norwegian version of OSX/ iTunes I am not certain what the functions are called in English, but in short you will need to switch of all signal processing in iTunes settings found under Playback (?): like crossfading (?), sound improver (?), volum. Also disable the equalizer.

    Further more you will need to open Sound and Midi settings found in the folder “Tools” in your Programs folder. Here you will need to choose source “digital”. You will also have to set the right format – as if you do not, the Mac will resample the signal eg 16/44,1 or if you have some high definition Flac, 24/96.
    Now you should be able to enjoy a “cleaner” signal :)

    In my bedroom I have a B&W Zeppelin. I stream my music from the MacMini/ iTunes (Apple Lossless) over Wi-Fi with my Airport Express. Also this has a 3,5 mm optical tosling out :) What you might not be aware of is that also the Zeppelin has 3,5 mm optical toslink in! Meaning you are able to get your signal digitally all the way from file to Zeppelin “untouched”. But as far as I have learned the dac build into the Zeppelin only handles 16 bit…

    Then there is something I wonder: Can anybody tell me what dac is build into the Zeppelin? I assume it is better than the dac build into the airport express? As my main stereo is new, I did not have the time to explore my Zeppelin setup :)

    By the way – I find it very handy to have the files converted when synching to the iPod/iPhone. Even I have a 160GB iPod it will not room much of my music in lossless format… I was not aware of this, I only hope it is possible to have it with better quality than 128 kbps AAC!!!

  • DP says:

    “Both wired and wireless options are available – the former will appeal to audiophiles more, while the latter ups the convenience factor. On the wireless front, Apple’s Airplay is now being integrated into audio products, making it a piece of cake for iTunes users to listen to cable-free music around the home – but probably not at the sort of quality audiophiles crave.”

    @SusannaGrant – There is NO difference at all between the quality offered through wired and wireless networks. This is because the music is served in a digital format and NOT an analog format. The network is not serving sound waves so this time audiophiles can’t come up with crazy ideas about anything affecting wireless signals.

    What the network is serving is digital so it is just a bunch of 0s and 1s. Therefore, what ever is receiving the signal is either getting the signal or it is not. There cannot be a degradation in quality of the data. The only problem that could ever be encountered with a wireless network is having the sending and receiving equipment too far away from each other. And at that rate there still would not be any degradation in the sound quality but some data packets might not transfer over so the sound might cut in and out (think of it like a light switch: the sound is either ON or OFF and when OFF there is no sound and when ON the sound quality is consistent) but when there is sound it is still of the same quality as though it were sent over wires. And the specs of 802.11n allow for perfect wireless data transfer indoors of a range of approximately 230 ft (70 m) — even the oldest consumer standard of 802.11a has a range of 115 ft (35 m) indoors. So my point is, no one will ever experience a difference in quality between digital wired and wireless audio transmission and will not experience a difference in performance if they live in a house smaller than a football stadium.

    With that being explained, AirPlay and all other digital streamers/servers (wired and wireless) all offer 0s and 1s equally as well. They do not serve sound waves, they only serve 0s and 1s. So the quality of sound that comes out of your speakers when using AirPlay is solely dependent upon the quality of files (lossless vs lossy), the quality of the DAC in the receiver (I don’t necessarily mean receiver like AV receiver but whatever is receiving the 0s and 1s and turning them into an analog signal), the amplifier, and the speakers.

    If you’re happy with the highest quality iTunes/AirPlay can provide (which I know is AT LEAST lossless 16-bit, 48 Khz audio i.e. CD quality) then AirPlay might be the best thing since sliced bread for you. If you demand better then AirPlay might not be for you just yet. I’m sure more support will come in time since the technology is there already. But let’s be honest, what percentage of your music library is in a higher quality than CD quality? With that in mind, might AirPlay be a pretty good option until it is considerably easier to download ultra-high quality recordings? And when that time comes, don’t you think AirPlay will support those ultra-high quality recordings? What I’m saying is that AirPlay is probably great or good enough for most audiophiles (CD audiophiles) most of the time unless they’re those fringe SACD, DVD-A audiophiles.

    That being said: audiophiles please embrace technology! I know change is scary for a lot of audiophiles but having music stored as 0s and 1s is a lot easier and can save you a bunch of money since you need not worry about audio degrading in cables or getting interfered with if it is transmitted wirelessly. It is not like an analog signal where the quality of the signal depends on so many things. With digital you either have the signal or you don’t (there is never any change in quality; it is always perfect bit for bit). With a lossless digital file all you need to worry about is the quality of the DAC, the amp, and the speakers (and the cables to the speakers, i.e. where the signal is analog). Audiophiles embrace digital and quit wasting money on expensive sources and expensive cables from the source to the amp. Digital can make even an iPod into a hi-fi source!!

  • Paul Wiles says:

    I went to a PC based system a couple of months ago with iTunes as may source all my CD’s are ripped to Apple Lossless and sit on a 1TB Drive on the PC in the back room, I can feed this through to the front room initially I had an Airport Express recently I put in an Older 160GB apple TV (Both Bit perfect if fed from iTunes) they Feed my Marantz and B&W 805s setup, I can also feed the audio to the Kitchen and wirelessley to the Dining Room where the airport express now lies, Firstly it sounds great on the main system, back to back with CD as source there is little or no difference and having my whole collection available at the push of a button is fantastic, click random or one of the Genius mixes sit back any enjoy.

    I have not even switched the CD player on for weeks but We are listening to more music now than we have for a long long time and that at the end of the day is the most important bit.

  • Ola says:

    I have experimented with having my whole music collection on a PC based system since 2001 and I would like to give some additional advice.
    1. I use iTumes as my meda player, not only does it look good, but the extremely useful Remote 2.0 on your iPod or iPhone lets you control your whole music collection even from another room or floor.
    2. Make sure you have as bit perfect stream as possible, in Quick Time you should select “Windows Session API” for best results.
    3. I have ripped in EAC but I find iTunes giving better match and cover art with the gracenote database than EAC with freedb. At the moment I am ripping in Apple Lossless (ALAC) with error correction selected.
    Have fun!

  • Jose Casari says:

    Pardon my ignorance, but can you improve the quality of a file lets say that was compressed at 160 kbps if you convert it to 320 kbps or even Apple lossless???

  • DP says:

    @Jose Casari — Short answer: no. Once the data has been compressed there is nothing you can do to restore the data that was cut out during compression. I’m sure you could find something that would double the file to 320 kbps but that would not accomplish anything quality-wise — it would just take up twice the space.

    Think of it this way: pretend the original file is the sentence “The dog barked at the cat”. The way data compression works is that some “non-essential” parts of the data are removed to save hard drive space or enable easier playback etc. So suppose the sentence is compressed by removing all vowels to save space. What you’re left with is “Th dg brkd t th ct”.

    After compression there is nothing you can do to the compressed file that will improve the quality because the “non-essential” data was cut and tossed away. So it is like your computer just has “Th dg brked t the ct” with no record of what was cut or why it was cut and with no record of how to restore the missing data. If you did find some way to double the file size your computer would just put in meaningless data or more likely keep it at 160 kbps but say it was 320 kbps.

    To give you an idea about how much data is missing — Apple Lossless and other lossless formats like AIFF or FLAC tend to run around or over 1000 kbps. I like Apple Lossless because it is lossless and compressed. Just because something is compressed does not mean there is necessarily a loss in quality. The key is whether it is lossy or lossless. Apple just found a way to save hard drive space AND provide lossless audio.

    If you downloaded the files you’re trying to improve you’re probably out of luck but if you imported them to your computer from a music CD you bought you can import them again in a better format. If you use iTunes go to Preferences > General > Import Settings and pick whatever “Import Using” and “Setting” you want. I don’t know how technical you are but there are plenty of settings to choose from. I like using the Apple Lossless encoder on Automatic with the error correction box checked.

    The reason why I said “music CD you bought” instead of just any CD is that if somebody gave you a copy of a CD they burned they might have burned the CD with compressed files and in that case you’re out of luck as well. However, I know for a fact that all major record labels put lossless music on their CDs so then you’re good to go.

  • Peter says:

    Hi has anyone here listened to music played on the new xxhighend player? this player is truly amazing, the clarity of music played via this software has to be heard to be beleived when used on an optomised PC and via good quality equipment, well worth the purchase price.

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