08 January, 2009

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (1) Background (2) iTunes/ iPod

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (1) Background (2) First Impressions of iPod/Wadia iTransport

This is the start of likely a long series on digital playback other than conventional playback by CD or DVD/SACD/Multi players, focusing on hard disc playback, including iPod. As some of this has appeared in R33 before, I am putting Part 2 before Part 1 (scroll down). Read accordingly.

Part 2:
One thing is for sure, when I surf the net there is a mighty amount of info on technical matters, but relatively little useful material (to me) on actual use examined in detail from a balanced music/hifi viewpoint that I deem trustworthy. Much of the writing seemed to me quite biased and not rigorously tested. Hyperboles by young mavericks and outrageous predictions are everywhere. Recently, that has started to change, as major music magazines start to seriously examine this area (best is HiFi News IMHO, followed by Stereophile and TAS).

In recent years, I have encountered quite a bit of Music Servers. As someone who has a special interest in CD playback of all sorts (by equipment spanning decades), and as a person who still think "archaic" technology, like NO-oversampling and 14/16 bit chips, still have a place in the modern pantheon, I have naturally been curious. I keep an open mind. What I have heard of Music Servers ranged from pretty bad to pretty good, and it's time to investigate as more and more CDs become harder to get. Very few older people like me actually bother with digital files, and I hope I can look at this from a somewhat different angle.

Ripping Files/Interface/iTunes
The very first thing I did was to use iTunes to rip some files, just because it was already installed in my computer. I find ripping files painless and the interface pretty intuitive, good for a starter. Mind you, I started doing this BEFORE I even have an iPod or know what to do with my files. I simply said to myself there's no point anymore in making CD-Rs.

As a preview, let me say I have already downloaded and started to use EAC. I shall compare it to iTunes, but that's for later...

Apple Lossless
As I am not really interested in compressed files, I first ripped my files using Apple Lossless (I know, more later). Using this, there is nothing that you have to set. I registered my e-credit card with the iTunes store and to my dismay found that for the rather esoteric classical CDs that I rip failure to locate cover art is the norm rather than the exception! Hey, sorry, I don't rip Oasis, Radiohead (though I like them and they may or may not be fahsionable anymore) or, for that matter, Bob Dylan or Lou Reed or Madonna (I like them too). That said, I found importing artwork easy, even for those esoteric Japanese CDs, especially if you have the CD on hand and import the catalogue number. The other good thing about this is you can convert to WAV easily, but there's the nagging doubt of whether conversion is as good as ripping using WAV in the first place.

Many people do not know one can load music onto the iPod in a lossless fashion, be it apple or WAV. Well, with the help of whlee, I was able to borrow a blank 30 GB iPod video from whlee's wife. I don't know how much time he used in clearing the contents, and much thanks here. Wow, the syncing was great! Through the, uhhhh, USB I instantly (over-) filled his iPod with what's on my iTunes. However, it's kinda dictatorial. It's not easy to be selective, kinda all or none. And it seems importing what's on the iPod but not on iTunes to iTunes is impossible without downloading some software (cheap but you have to pay).

Digital Out/iPod/Waidia iTransport
With the help of sokps, I acquired an iTransport. I was/am probably the only owner who does not have an ipod yet!!!!! The reason I am interested in this is because of its UNIQUE (so far) S/PDIF digital out. If not for an agreement with Apple, Wadia would not be selling this thing for the reasonable price. I know, in loading the file onto the iPod via USB, the signal is still most likely compromised, but that's likely no different from feeding the USB signal into newer, and not necessarily better USB-equipped DAC, like Benchmark or Bel Canto or whatever. Let's leave that out for the moment. Suffice to say, I can now use the digital out with any of my DACs, and that should be fun, and it surely did turn out to be so!

iTunes Import settings/Apple vs Wav/44.1 vs 48kHz
I said to myself, now I should compare the so-called Apple "lossless"with WAV. With the iTunes, I could easily rip with WAV. However, doing this directly frustrated me as it was not possible to import artwork, and that is a feature I'd like to keep! Sneaky! So I settled for CONVERSION to WAV files from Apple Lossless. Mind you, there's a way to get around this. You just add any short Apple Lossless file within the album and import the relevant artwork, which shall show for the whole album. Incidentally, I only keep artwork for the first track of an album, to save space.

With WAV files, I noticed you can choose settings. I decided to compare the sampling rates of 44.1 (CD) and 48kHz. Many people have said long ago that 48 sounds better under the right circumstances, and in the old days you can convert 44.1 to 48 through a DAT or professioanl CD-R(W) machine. Now, I am not really a "die-hard" fan of re(over)-sampling, but I do believe there are instances (few as it may be) where it can shine, and it's all in the implementation. Let's not be dogmatic about this. Can the very minimal difference between 44.1 and 48 make a difference? I included some audiophile tracks. I have conducted brief tests using the Wadia iTransport, and I have to say the results are very promising indeed. Read on...

Part 1 (Updated from what was posted December 4, 2008 in R33)

1. As a 老餅 who has >20,000 LPs/CDs and who likes the physical act of browsing at cover art and reading liner notes, I am absolutely sure I shall keep my CDs till the end of time and never rip the majority of my software onto a music server (impossible and self-defeating task). Of course, it can be fun to rip some "audiophile" tracks just for testing convenience.

2. Neither would I find downloading music (especially paying ones) very useful in general. The classical music sector is notorious for not keeping what can be argued as the MAJORITY of old recorded performances in print. This is not something well understood by pop listeners who likes to download a "song" or two (funny a symphony is just a "song" in lesser downloading language). Paying for music recorded with older technologies but have been "re/up/sampled" I'd not bother with (and that covers almost all of the greatest performers), but I shall keep an open mind on music that had been recorded in high-bit formats originally, like those from recent true 24/96 and DSD masters.

3. However, I have always been an avid copier of out-of-print CDs, many borrowed from the library, and some from friends. Before, I have just used NERO to burn them onto CD-Rs. Sound quality is acceptable to me, but I don't like the degradable nature of most CD-Rs. Note that I HARDLY ever playback these CD-Rs, though I'd like to have them in my library for archival purposes. Since I also spend much time in the USA, portability is also an issue.

4. Since I rarely play them back, from now on I'd rather rip these CDs onto a hard disc (including iPod) to save space and trouble.

5. I don't think I need a Music Server in my study, where I do all my computerization for the moment. A device in the living room's main system (which has many DACs, though none with USB in) would be nice for occasional use.

6. Though occasional use, I still want the usual (or close-to usual) quality. That rules out many "life-style" products, including most of Apple's own, I think.

1. I do have a spare hard disc which I can use in setting up a full PC system, but it's kinda overkill for occasional use.

2. Buy an iPod, copy files lossless onto iPod (sufficient storage for ocassioanl use) and use something like WADIA iTransport to feed into my own DAC's which I prefer to many of the current ones. The only problem is the user-interface is less convenient, but no more so than something like Squeezebox. I am leaning towards this.

Opinions and suggestions would be welcome. Please keep in mind I am an OCCASIONAL USER.

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