Turn Your Computer into an Audiophile Music Server

Lately, many people have been asking how to get high quality audio off of their computers on into their stereo system. Turning your computer into a music server for your stereo is quite easy. If you have music on your computer, you're almost there.

Here's a list of things you'll need:

  • Computer: If you're reading this, I'm betting you already have one.
  • Software: Software application to help 'rip' your CDs into music files, organize and play them back for you.
  • Sound Card or Wireless Media Server: The hardware device that links your computer to your stereo, a very important link in the chain. Be sure to read this section.

PC Sound Cards

This is critical part of the chain for getting good sound out of your PC. Your PC is a terrible environment for a sensitive little audio signal. It is filled with electronic and mechanical noise and interference that can wreak all kinds of havoc on your music. The stock sound card that came with your PC does very little to eliminate this noise, and will pass it right along to your stereo. Good sound cards, however, will do their best to isolate the music from the noise. This is a big reason why audiophiles tend to prefer external USB or Firewire sound cards to internal cards. The signal is transferred via USB and where the interference is minimalised. Now you've got something you can work with.

One more thing to consider is whether you will use the analog or digital output of your soundcard. If you have a dolby digital equipped receiver, or a high end digital-to-analog converter, you'll want to use the digital output of the soundcard. Otherwise you'll be using the analog outputs. Look for a sound card that suits you best.

External Sound Cards

M-Audio Transit
This very basic external USB has a digital toslink input and output, as well as 1/8" analog line inputs/outputs. The digital I/O pass 24bit/96mhz digital audio. The line output can also be used as a headphone out. This is favorite amongst audiophiles which retails for only $99.95.

M-Audio Audiophile USB
A step above the transit, the Audiophile USB has similar features and quality but is more suited to recording. It boasts full size RCA jacks for Analog Line In/Out, RCA Digital SPDIF In/Out, Midi Ports, Volume control, headphone output with independent volume control. Could be the unit to get if you're looking to transcribe your vinyl to your computer. The Audiophile USB also adds an external power supply, separate from your computers' noisy power supply. $249.

ESI Waveterminal U24
Another small, portable external 24/96 USB sound card with all the features you need to get going: Digital and Analog I/O, Headphone output, internal digital mixer, sample rate converter, SPDIF or Optical digital connections, etc. Retails for $299.

Wireless Solutions

This is a convenient alternative to the sound card. Wireless media servers transmit audio signals via your wireless internet connection. You connect the device to your stereo with analog or digital cables and you have a quick, simple, good quality audio server. Prices are comparable to a good sound card, with advantages being that you don't need to wires running from computer to your stereo, and your computer doesn't need to be anywhere near your stereo. You need a home wireless network(aka 802.11b/g "Wi-Fi") in order to use these devices.

Apple Airport Express
Plug this guy into an electrical outlet near your stereo, and then connect to your stereo with either a digital toslink or analog cable. Then use iTunes to send music from your computer to your stereo. Can also be used as a wireless router/extender for you home wifi network, and a print server. Third party add ons such as remote control and display are available. Compatible with Mac and Windows.

Formats Supported: Mp3, AAC, AIFF, WAV, Apple Lossless.

$129 at www.apple.com.

Roku Labs M1000
Similar Concept to the Airport express, but adds a built in display, remote control, and supports more compression formats, as well as more playback software, including SlimDevices powerful open source SlimServer software. Roku Labs also has several other offering for varying prices.

Formats Supported: WMA, AAC*, MP3, AIFF, WAV, Rhapsody encoded files. *AAC DRM files purchased from the iTunes Music Store (a.k.a. "FairPlay") are not supported. Apple Lossless, FLAC and Ogg-Vorbis supported through third-party SlimServer software.

$249.99 at www.rokulabs.com.

Slim Devices Squeezebox

Similar in features and price to the Roku Labs M1000, including the display, analog and digital outputs, remote control, etc. but with better native format support. Companion SLimServer software is a powerful opensource tool, offers great flexibility for tweakers and hackers.

Formats Supported: MP3, WMA, AAC, Apple Lossless, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC or uncompressed audio (WAV and AIFF).

$199 at http://slimdevices.com.

Playback Software

This is the software that organizes and plays your music. You likely are already using on of these. This is just a sampling of the choices out there. Software is less a question of quality than compatibility with your own needs and preferences.

Tip: When your computer is connected to your stereo, disable the volume control on the computer, or turn it all the way up. This will disable some of the computer signal processing which can detrimentally affect sound quality.

Apple iTunes
Apple's iTunes music player is one of the most popular complete digital audio packages. It is the required companion to Apple's iPod music player, but you don't need to have an iPod to enjoy iTunes many benefits. Itunes offers many ripping and playback options, internet radio, and access to Apples' large iTunes music store. It is a very complete solution that works well on both Mac and Windows operating systems. The one thing missing from this iTunes is video playback.

Formats Supported MP3, AAC, AIFF/WAV, M4A.

Free Download at http://www.apple.com/itunes/

Real Player
Another universal solution. Real players biggest attraction seems is it is the de facto standard for internet radio. Just about any radio station you is available on Real Player. It also features ripping, burning, video, amnd premium content, such as television programming and sports, and access to their online music store.

Formats Supported: WMA, MP3, RA, M4a, WAV and various video formats.

Free Download at Real.com

Windows Media Player
Windows multi-media solution. Does just about everything - ripping, burning, video, radio, store access, but you're limited to compression formats (WMA and MP3). The big thing going for Windows Media Player is that you can use with just about every portable audio player out there, including those from Creative, Rio, iRiver, Dell, RCA, Samsung, Gateway, iRock, and more. Does not support the iPod.

Formats Supported: WMA and MP3, various video formats.

Free Download at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/mp10/

Foobar/Exact Audio Copy(EAC) This is the audiophile/hackers delight. These are two separate and unrelated but complimentary pieces of software very popular with audiophiles.

Exact Audio Copy is a ripper on steroids, with excellent error correction, providing absolutely perfect copies of your music. If EAC finds an error on your disc, it will re-read that portion of the disc until it has exactly the correct data.

Foobar2000 is a very flexible audio player which uses very little memory. You can customize all kinds of playback options and settings to help you optimize for best sound.

Formats Supported: WAV, AIFF, VOC, AU, SND, Ogg Vorbis, MPC, MP2, MP3, MPEG-4, AAC

Free Downloads at www.foobar2000.org and www.exactaudiocopy.de

Some other choices you might want to consider:

The Quick and Dirty Solution

If you're not concerned about quality, and just want to play music from your computer quickly and cheaply, then grab a Mini-to-RCA cable. Connect the RCAs to your stereo and the mini plug into the stock sound card on your PC and you are on your way.

Next: A primer on compression rates.

Discuss this article and other PC Audio issues here.