My Adventures in Computer Audio
By: John Makela

Disclaimer- This article is by no means an everything-there-is-to-know about computer audio. It is strictly how I got into computer audio and what I currently use to get the best sound I ever have had in my system. There are a million ways to skin this cat. I chose one that was easy, would present few technical issues that worked for me. I like the KISS method (keep it simple stupid).

My objective was how to get my music played thru a computer to my two channel audio system; I had no interest in whole house audio. The longer I do this the more I realize I know next to nothing when it comes to all the options in computer audio playback; BUT I do have very good sound and a setup that does exactly what I want. I am happy. I hope this guide will help you get great sound too.

The Beginning:

Years ago Gordon Rankin at a CES told me that CD's ripped to a hard drive sound better than CD's played thru a CD player using the same DAC. I knew then that I would eventually get into computer audio.

In late 2103 I decided to start my adventure. Here's a list of the beginning items:

Computer- my 2013 MacBook Air i5 based laptop (my everyday computer)
Music playback- iTunes
External Hard Drive- LaCie 2TB Porsche P'9233 external USB 3.0
USB Cable- Wire World Starlight 2 meter
CD Burner: LG read write 8X DVD USB 2.0
Ripping Software- XLD (mac only, free but donations accepted)
Back up Software- Super Duper (mac only) $29 mirror image copying
Back up hard drive- Western Digital 3 TB myBook USB 3.0

That is all that was needed. I moved my iTunes library from my laptop's solid-state hard drive to the LaCie external drive. I started ripping my CD's using the LG DVD burner and the XLD ripping software to the LaCie HDD. I selected aiff format (totally uncompressed) since HDD's are pretty reasonably priced and I wanted no compression. Ripping is a long and tedious process; it takes approx. 1/3 the total length of a CD to rip it to the HDD. I would back up my music HDD to my backup Western Digital HDD using Super Duper after every ripping session was over. You do not want to lose all that work to a HDD failure.

Like all things audiophile, we ask how can we make it better so I tried this highly reviewed Mac playback software/up sampling program; Audirvana Plus 1.5x. It integrated seamlessly with iTunes and took control of audio playback from the computers internal sound processing with its superior audio processing engine. I was now able to up sample my music to maximum resolution (24/192 in the case of the NAD, but up to DSD 128 is supported if your DAC will handle it) or multiples of the original format (I usually choose 4x, so 16/44.1 would play back at 24/176.4). You also have some variable filter settings you could adjust to tailor the sound to your liking. This program was free for 14 days then I think it was $79 for the 1.5x license and a smaller amount to go to the 2.x version from the 1.x version, when it came out. It made my computer audio sound better, much better than straight iTunes. It was also pretty easy to set up and understand. Things are looking up.

Then in 2015 I added an Audioquest Jitterbug. This plugs into an open USB hub on your computer and the USB cable to your DAC plugs into it. It was nice and removed a layer of digititus, moving my sound a touch closer to analog. Then in late spring of 15 Tidal streaming service came to the US and offered full 16/44 resolution of over 20 million tracks for just $20 a month. I signed up for the 30-day trial and fell in love with the ability to have access to almost all of the music out there, not everything, but an awful lot of it. The biggest downfall was that there was no app to remotely control music playback, I actually had to get up and go to my laptop to select a new album or track, but it was worth it (kind of like vinyl). So I converted to a full membership.

In the fall of 2015 Apple released the newest operating system El Captain (I was still on Mavericks) and I started reading a few articles/blogs about a few persons iTunes libraries suddenly converting to lower resolutions (ACC/MP3) from full aiff files! and rumors of Apple possibly enforcing digital copy rights more strictly. This made me nervous enough that I was determined to divorce myself from iTunes and any possibility of this happening, no matter how remote it may be, that and a desire to have a dedicated audio only PC cinched the deal.

To divorce from iTunes I needed a music player that could play my extensive aiff library in both Mac OS and Windows OS. Then early Fall Stereophile magazine ran an article on Roon software, a huge metadata/playback software program that was developed by the same guys that created the Sooloos software that was eventually sold to Meridian; a buddy in MN had this almost from day 1. I always liked the interface and Stereophile gushed about it. They offered a free trial, I like that, so I did. I had finally figured out how to untie my music HDD from iTunes and it seemed to work. (You can find anything on the Internet). I downloaded the Roon software on my Mac and it was as easy as pointing Roon at the location of my music library (external HDD), it scanned the files (took a while, I had over 1000 albums on my HDD) and when done I had a library that I could organize pretty much anyway I wanted and it had great metadata with great artwork, reviewer type notes on most albums, and links within those notes to other artists or band members. I bought a small iPad mini 2 for $200 from Walmart that now became the remote to control Roon from my listening seat. This connected to my MacBook Air via wifi. I loved this, and the best part was it worked perfectly. Another big plus is that Tidal integrated with Roon seamlessly and now my iPad could control everything, sweet!!

Then several other things caught my eye. Roon announced integration with HQPlayer, itself a music player that has lots of abilities but most important it is considered the gold standard for up sampling all music signals to higher levels of PCM or even up to DSD512, provided your DAC could handle such signals. I signed up for a trial of HQplayer, my NAD DAC would only up sample to 24/192 PCM (its limits), HQplayer also has a lot of filters and dithers to play around with and I experimented with that too, I was very impressed with HQPlayer and bought a dual license for mac and PC. Chatter on the forums kept talking about the amazing sound you could get up sampling PCM to 128DSD or even 256DSD, I couldn't do that YET, so I set my sights on a good DSD capable DAC.

About the same time I began to hear and read a lot of chatter on a USB re-clocker called the Uptone Regen. Reading forums it appeared like every one who tried this unit noted a nice improvement. The Regen was $175 plus $8 shipping so I ordered one. The Regen showed up in mid- December (there was a back log of orders) I put it in my system and my jaw dropped, wow. My first thought was bass, tighter, more impact and much better definition. Further listening revealed better image focus and a wider and deeper stage with more of an analog type sound, this was really nice. Side note- in early January my computer stopped seeing the Regen, Alex from Uptone called me and we found my unit was defective, he said send it back and we'll turn it around in 1 day. When I pulled it out and listened, I was shocked how thin and uninvolving the sound was, I had forgot how much the Regen improved things. Sometimes the best way to evaluate something is to listen to it for a long time then remove it and see how that sounds afterward. I did not enjoy the Regen-less sound.

By this time I was seriously ready to build my own windows based PC whose only duties would be music playback. Forums hinted to windows superior sound quality (I can't say its better but certainly no worse) and Jussi, the developer of HQplayer, and even the Roon developers said their programs perform better and faster under windows. So I started research on how to build a PC. I had also discovered that the iPad could control a Windows Roon PC so I would not have to get a Windows based notepad, yay.

Now there are a million options to build your PC and every item has a lot of choices and options from computer cases, to motherboards, to RAM to hard drives to power supplies etc. etc. Reading way too much I knew I wanted a small footprint case that had easy access to work on and would accommodate a full size computer PSU. I knew I needed a powerful CPU that down the road could up sample music to DSD512. I knew I needed fast RAM but found out more RAM is not necessarily better, I wanted a good well rated modular power supply (this allows you to attaché only the connections you need, saving space in tight places). Next I searched the Internet for these parts to further narrow my list. I really like the Newegg website, they had a million options, great pictures and information and customer reviews. I was also price conscious so I searched Amazon (I am a prime member), Microcenter, Fry's and even EBay. I ended purchasing most of my equipment from either Amazon or New Egg and most of my processors have come from Microcenter, in order to get the best price (on CPU's) you need to buy in store. Luckily for me, my son lives in Atlanta and not to far from one.

My list of items I purchased is located in another spot on this site and I also have pictures with captions to explain what is hard in words. I thought I would expand a bit on assembly of computer. Again I am not an expert, just someone who has read just enough to get the job done and be very satisfied with my results.

Computer assembly tips

If you went with my suggested motherboard, it has a very good manual (most probably do as well) with clear and concise diagrams to assist you. Read it to get familiar with assembly and location of connectors on the motherboard. First thing to do is mount the power supply in the case with the cables you will need for the accessories. At minimum you will need the 24 pin ATX power connector, the 4 pin 12V ATX connector (this is the CPU's power supply). A cable to power the HDD or SSD drives, one cable usually has multiple connectors to power more than 1 HDD or SSD. Also make sure the PSU fan is facing down. That's all I needed for my build.

Next install the half size wifi card in its slot (mini_PCIE) and screw the top to the bracket, do this before CPU installation. You might as well attach the wifi antenna cables to the card and route it to the antenna bracket.

Next Install the CPU; I suggest wearing nitrile or latex gloves, no fingerprints allowed!! Release the CPU bracket, note which side has the 2 notches and drop the CPU in place so the notches on the chip and board align, then re-attach the CPU bracket. The included CPU fan should already have heat sink compound on it, mount it so the fan power connector is near the fan header on the motherboard. Push the 4 connectors down (in each corner of fan) until they click and lock into place, you can verify by flipping the MB over to confirm they are in place. This motherboard has a LGA 1150 CPU socket, and the processor I selected also had the same. It is very important that the motherboard and CPU have compatible sockets, make sure before you order!

Next I usually install the RAM, for me 2 sticks of 4 GB ram (8 GB total); they are directional so align the slot accordingly, as you press down on the ram. The side lock piece will close down on the ram holding it securely in place.

The next step is to mount the SSD or HDD or both, as you face the front of the case the HDD/SSD mounts are on the right side, the bracket comes out of the case easily (2 screws hold it in place) and the SSD screws directly onto this holder no bracket needed, make sure you mount it so the SSD/HDD connectors are facing upwards. Put the brackets back in the computer.