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.
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.
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
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.
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”.
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.