Sound Advice – What source is best for me?

What format is going to deliver the goods?

by Ed Selley Jul 29, 2016 at 7:28 AM


  • A Hi-Fi system has the potential to use a considerable variety of sources to create music and we have already covered what existing equipment you can make use of to get a system up and running.
    What this piece intends to discuss is what format is the best option for you in setting up a hifi system. It is worth pointing out that most amplifiers and preamplifiers are perfectly capable of handling more than one source and you can often have several if you so desire.

    If you do decide to spread your efforts across many sources though, you will need to accept that your budget has to be divided, equally or otherwise, across these different sources and you will also have to choose which media type you want to buy a particular album on. If you're flush with cash, this can actually be rather enjoyable but for those of us of more normal means, it is something of a distraction. As such, it makes sense to choose your 'main' source and focus attention on that. This being the case, what is the best option for you?

    Compact Disc
    CD is a long standing part of stereo audio. It is an optical disc format that holds up to 80 minutes of audio that is read via laser. As originally designed, it stores media encoded in 16 bits and at a sampling rate of 44.1kHz. It is a mark of how influential CD has been that this measurement is still the 'baseline' we use in the industry to describe the idea of 'lossless' audio in other digital formats.

    This specification is a reflection of the relative age of the format. When it was designed, CD was very much state-of-the-art and represented the maximum of what could be achieved at the time. This being said, the bandwidth that a compact disc has is comfortably able to reproduce the full range of human hearing. A well recorded CD is capable of sensational audio performance.

    Advantages

    CDs are incredibly common. Since the launch of the format, conservative estimates are that over 200 billion audio discs have been sold. With more modern rivals now mounting a serious challenge to the dominance of the format, the price of CDs has plummeted. New discs are rarely over £10 when purchased online but it is the price of used material where serious bargains are available. Used albums in good condition rarely cost more than £2-3 and it is possible to build up a huge library of material very quickly.

    CD playing hardware is also very cost effective. As has been noted already in this series, if you have a Blu-ray player, you also have a CD player and this can be partnered with a DAC or other digital input to bolster performance. Dedicated CD players can also be purchased new and used for commendably low prices. The price of well looked after used CD players that often cost many thousands of pounds has also declined markedly of late. It is possible to get an extremely good CD fronted system together for a very reasonable price.

    CD is also extremely simple to use. Stick a disc in the player, wait for the table of contents to appear and press play. Connection to an amp is via a single interconnect and no software or indeed any degree of computer literacy is required. Generally speaking, even now a CD fronted system is the one that will enjoy the smallest amount of downtime due to failure, bugs or other types of error.
    Disadvantages

    CDs are cheap to buy but if you are playing them directly, they need to be stored in a such a way that you can reach them easily. This can rapidly become a very space consuming issue. The surface area of a CD case isn't too large but in thickness terms they rapidly build up. You can shed the packaging and use wallets but this can hinder the means of searching for the discs. The discs themselves are not as resilient as their original marketing might once have suggested and if scratched, can cease to play correctly.

    While, CD is capable of great sonic results, it no longer represents the cutting edge of what is possible in technical terms with hi-res audio. This is still not a big part of the audio market but it is increasing in scale. Efforts to increase the bandwidth and sample rate that CD offered have been tried in the form of HDCD and SACD and while both can offer high performance, the choices in hardware and software terms are fairly limited.

    The future of CD in the longer term is also a little uncertain. It would be ridiculous to say it is in danger of extinction but it would not be unfair to say that its best days are behind it. This may affect the availability of less mainstream releases and the choices you have in hardware going forward.

    Computer Audio
    In this context, 'Computer Audio' is defined separately from 'Streaming Audio' which we will cover in due course. As we have already mentioned, almost any Windows or OSX machine from the last decade can be used as the source for a very capable digital system. By installing music playback software on a computer and outputting the signal via USB into a suitably equipped DAC, you can build a high resolution storage and playback system at a very reasonable price.

    USB as a format can handle CD sized lossless files without any form of driver using fairly old tech and modern implementations are now capable of sending very high resolution material indeed. Technical developments have improved the speed and stability of the format and there is a wide variety of playback software available.

    Advantages

    On the assumption that many of you reading this will be doing so on a computer, you already have a fine piece of hardware available for the task. Software like Foobar or even iTunes is capable of handling a variety of formats and costs nothing while paid options like jRiver and Audivarna are seriously capable pieces of software.

    The decoding hardware is also readily available too. More and more devices have a USB audio input and even if you don't have one to hand, you can buy USB equipped DAC's from as little as £50. Furthermore, USB is no longer seen simply as a convenience feature and even very high-end audio products now make use of it.

    Using a computer as your audio source also solves the issue of storage as it generally possible to store a great deal of music on a computer hard drive (don't forget to back it up though!). A computer/DAC combination therefore can be very space efficient as well as cost effective.
    It can also be capable of seriously impressive performance. A good USB DAC, fed high quality files is capable of challenging any other piece of source equipment on even terms. A great deal of decoding and hardware and software is now being designed with USB in mind and this is reflected in the performance of many pieces of equipment.

    A system of this nature is also not solely reliant on music you physically own. Streaming services like Tidal and Qobuz offer lossless streaming and your computer is one of the easiest ways to gain access to them. For a flat subscription fee, your music library can be vast while at the same time, require no storage on the computer itself.

    Disadvantages

    To extract the highest levels of performance from a system of this nature will require at least a smattering of knowledge about the hardware and the software. You will need to choose your playback software and then know what (if any) drivers are required for it to function with your hardware. You also need to be prepared for software updates and other small changes having a potentially large effect on the way it operates (or indeed ceases to).

    Using a computer you are also using for work and other general tasks can be an annoyance as moving between the playback software and whatever else you are doing can be just slow enough to be irritating. Storing large amounts of audio on the hard drive can make it hard to use the computer for other tasks and in some (admittedly rare) instances, the use of specialist USB drivers can affect the use of other generic USB devices. The best results are obtained by using a different computer for this task but this adds to the expense of the process.

    While you can use streaming services and buy lossless and high res downloads, a considerable amount of music you use is still likely to come from CD rips. Ripping audio isn't difficult but it does require a CD drive on a computer- something which is increasingly hard to find built in.

    Streaming Audio
    As differentiated from computer audio, network audio streams material from a server over a network to a dedicated audio player. There are many similarities to computer audio in terms of the ability to handle files but the difference is that a streamer does not store the files it plays and there is no need for the storage it uses to be anywhere near the player.

    Streaming has come on a long way in a very short space of time. It used to be a fairly involved business to set up a wired or wireless streaming system but now the common availability of Network Attached Storage (NAS) drives and streamers that adhere to the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) or the looser Universal Plug 'n' Play (UPnP) standard is large and getting larger.

    Advantages

    Network streamers have no moving parts or storage on board. This means that they tend to run cool and silent as the hot and potentially noisy part of the process can be stored a long way from your system. They also tend to look and behave like standard pieces of hifi equipment. Some of them are capable of truly stunning performance.

    Most streamers make use of app control which ensures that they can be controlled from a smartphone or tablet. If you go for a one make system, many also tie in volume and other amplifier settings into the same app for convenience. A good control app can make going back to a remote control seem awfully archaic. To be clear, some computer music software also has this functionality but it is less common and frequently less flexible.
    It is perfectly possible for multiple network audio products to share the same server which makes multiroom configurations simple and effective to create if you need to. Equally, a NAS drive can be used to backup other household files as well as acting as your music library. Again though (and this really can't be stressed enough) don't forget to back up the contents.

    Many streamers now also have direct integration with services like Tidal, Spotify and Qobuz meaning you still have access to additional content like you do with computer audio. Almost all also have excellent internet radio integration too.

    Disadvantages

    Setting up a streaming audio system is the most potentially complex of all the sources described here. Problems can arise from multiple areas during setup and unless you are conversant with the technology, they can be very hard to fix. Some systems are easier than others to get up and running and the stability of the hardware continues to improve but improperly set up systems can be very troublesome.

    The initial costs of setting up a streaming system are generally higher than the other candidates on this list. Some streamers don't cost significantly more than the other sources here but the additional costs of storage and control need to be taken into account.
    Effective streaming systems are hugely reliant on the material they play being ripped and tagged correctly. If your music isn't clearly defined, it can be a thankless task locating and playing them. The more consistent your tagging and metadata, the better the process will be.

    Vinyl
    The last candidate for a hi-fi source is the oldest of the lot but very much of the moment. Vinyl replay involves playing a 7, 10 or 12 inch disc by rotating it at either 33 or 45 revolutions per minute and extracting the signal buried in the grooves by dragging a tiny diamond through them. The movement of the stylus that the diamond is attached to generates an electrical signal that is converted to audio. In some regards, it is a miracle that the medium works at all and even more extraordinary that it can actually sound pretty good.

    At one point, vinyl had been rendered almost completely extinct. CD (and to an extent, cassette) had pretty much eliminated it from the market. It's return to near mainstream availability has been down to a collection of unusual circumstances but the long and the short of it is that at the time of writing (June 2016), the choice of hardware and software is extremely large – in fact it is still usually easier to buy new releases on vinyl than it is on lossless download. There is no reason why you couldn't choose vinyl as the primary format for a system if you were minded to do so.

    Advantages

    At present, the choice of hardware available to someone at the 'starter' point (under £500) is large and getting larger. There is also a wide variety of designs and features available too. There is also a considerable supply of used models for sale as well.

    The selection of media is equally as wide, with almost all major new albums at the moment getting a vinyl release and older material can be available at very competitive prices if the album sold strongly. There are still boxes and boxes of records up and down the UK for £1-3 a time that have some surprisingly good material.

    If you do spend out on more expensive records, there is a strong chance that unless you damage them, if you wanted to sell them, they'd be worth what you paid for them or more.
    Turntables are tweakable, upgradeable and generally entertaining to play about with. Models from Rega and Pro-Ject in particular have factory sanctioned upgrade paths that can squeeze more performance out of your existing model.

    Disadvantages

    Viewed dispassionately, there is no sane reason to choose vinyl as your principle format in 2016. While the format is capable of great results, there is little escaping from the reality that given anything decent in terms of format quality, a Chord Mojo and an Android Phone can achieve a higher level of measured performance. Unless you are in a position to drop something in the region of £1,000 on your vinyl source, similarly priced digital equipment will generally comfortably outperform it.

    While most new albums get a vinyl release, it doesn't follow that album will be easy or cheap to buy. Most are pressed in strictly limited quantities and snapped up quickly.

    Turntables depend on being carefully and correctly setup to work correctly. If you are not in a position to do this, they can sound poor and in extreme cases, damage themselves and the records they are playing.

    While LPs are thinner than CDs, they are still bulky objects to store in quantity and even more so than CDs can take up a truly enormous amount of space. Furthermore, careless storage of records can damage them and make them play badly.

    Even a well built turntable is rarely a match for a small child and damage can wind up being heartbreakingly expensive.

    Conclusion
    As such, you have a wide selection of choices available to you as your main source and to decide which one ultimately works best for you, it is wise to consider your budget, an honest appraisal of your technical expertise and whether you are looking for fit and forget or something that supports a bit more hands-on involvement. Ultimately, there are no wrong choices but it is important to make the one that best suits your needs and avoids any expensive corrections before you can really enjoy your music.

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