The Digital Music Server – Should we use Software Speaker Crossovers or go back to Passives


analog sources, passive crossovers, the LP record? (And a lot more)

The following article is a set of questions submitted by one of our readers regarding the Digital Music Server and its viability in the marketplace; in italics are Dave’s comments and questions.

In lettered sections below are my responses. This is more than just digital Music Servers, Dave asks some excellent questions about the industry, LP playback systems, music servers, digital audio processing and more…

“Hi, I’m Dave Ru from Palatine, IL; got a couple questions for you regarding HTPC playback, J River Media Center and digital software crossovers.”

Thanks for the new pages… they provided answers and raised questions…. and here’s some older unanswered questions I’ve thought of….

1. Can the HTPC and J River digital music server software simply play an external audio source, such as, mp3 player, CD/DVD player, SAT/CABLE box ? Does video pass through the HTPC also, and what about audio sync?

a. Yes this can be done, but I don’t think you will need to use J River in this process. There are a number of ways to get audio from an outside source into a PC. J River may be capable of taking an outside input, I’ve just never tried. But if you want to bring an outside source into a PC it’s easy enough to do. Just plug into the digital inputs on your soundcard and make sure your sample rates match up.

If you want to use a software speaker crossover like Thuneau, you just tell Thuneau Allocator to take its input from the digital ‘ins’ that you connected your outside source to initially. You can do this with analog inputs too, such as from your LP preamp, you’ll just have an additional A to D conversion taking place.

Thuneau will read the signal and then send the crossover legs to the analog outputs that you assign. (you do need a multichannel soundcard for each ‘way’ of the speaker system)

b. The only thing missing in this example is a volume control. (Easy to correct if using a receiver to power the speakers from “multi channel ins” (more on this in a bit)

In the above example, you would have no way to control the volume by remote. You would have to use the sliders on the Thuneau control panel. It works, but it’s a bit clumsy in my experience. If playing back via J River, J River itself can control the volume using up to 64 bit math. (if on a 64bit system)

c. It’s easier to play the file or DVD, or Blu Ray from the J River software straight into Thuneua using Reaper as the conduit, (once its setup) its cleaner too and keeps jitter to a minimum by not sending audio over cables any more than necessary.

d. You would send video straight to the HDTV set. There’s no need to send it to the HTPC or digital music server. If using J River and playing through the software audio sync issues can be fixed using the included FFdshow component, which lets you adjust either way for lag. If you are bringing audio into the PC only, there are only 64 cycles of lag, which cannot be seen by the naked eye, this lag is added by the ASIO software soundcard of an Echo Audiofire 8 or 12 for example. Other soundcards may add more or less lag than this, but most pro cards will be 64 cycles.

2. Assuming a positive answer to question 1 above, if playing an external source, can the system also serve as a digital music server and multi-way speaker crossover simultaneously.

how the active crossover splite signal

a. Yes, answered on (a.) above. Essentially, Thuneau or any other speaker crossover software can do this. I know for a fact that Thuneau can do it, as I’ve done so myself. Like I said though, the volume control is a bit clumsy when running the signal this way. (bringing signal into the PC from an outside source)

3. I noticed you store your audio files as uncompressed WAV to the digital music server. I too do that when ripping an audio cd.

Regardless of any future considerations of higher res AD/DAs, why not store the files at 192 kbps since a higher resolution file would be converted anyway?

a. Sure, but I always do the up sampling as a component of the playback. I’ve not heard if there is a difference between storing as up sampled or storing as WAV and playing back up sampled. That would be an interesting experiment. My guess is it would make no difference, but I don’t really know.

I store my Red Book CD’s as WAV, then up sample them on playback within J River on the digital music server. That’s just the way I do it, I’m not saying it’s a better way. If someone would run an experiment on this that would be interesting.

4. To use Reaper software to its best advantage (eliminating the signal loop, yielding a straight through path) must the files be 192 kbps or will Reaper handle the above and pass them to the DA component for a digital crossover?

a. Reaper will handle whatever signal it is fed. There are additional plugins that can be used to up sample or down sample the signal, but Reaper is just a DAW (digital audio workstation) It’s basically a patch framework where you can use all your recording and editing tools. In our uses of it; we just use it to patch one program or software to the other so we can keep the digital loops and connections within the PC for high quality playback. I don’t really use it much for recording purposes, although Reaper can do this too.

5. I just started reading the new Reaper material… whoa… ! 48K sampling? how does that relate to the sampling rates mentioned above? Also, I thought Reaper could be used instead of Thuneau Allocator… however you mention they are used in conjunction…. Does Reaper not divide the audio spectrum?

a. Reaper doesn’t care about the sampling rate. You set it coming in, and going out from Reaper, it will accommodate what ever sampling rate you are working at. By default Reaper is going to output whatever sample rate it sees coming in.

6. Regardless of file sizes as impacted by the answer to question 3 above and cost, what are your views on using solid state disk drives rather than hard disk drives for audio file storage. My problem here is that hard drives need to be replace so often vs I still have about 1000 LPs.

a. There should be an advantage for solid state storage drives, namely speed of access. In the real world, I’m not sure anyone would ever be able to tell the difference between the two, but all things being equal any time you can access something faster, it can play back with less timing errors. This is where you would need instruments to time the jitter introduced by the recorded system at playback.

A gross example of this is listening to music on a very slow PC. If you are doing other tasks, you can get drop outs and clicks. A faster PC will eliminate this. The faster drives make drop outs even less of an issue. Even if you cannot audibly hear the dropouts, that does not mean that timing errors cannot occur, this gets in the way of the music. Basically, it all comes down to math. A computer with a higher ability to crunch numbers in a shorter amount of time should be able to play back audio and video with less error.

7. If a AV/HT receiver is used with multichannel analog inputs for amping multi-way front speakers w/digital crossover, will it still function somehow as volume control, external source connection/switching (mp3 player, CD/DVD player, SAT/CABLE box, and let’s not forget the internal radio tuner ), audio processor (for surrounds, centers, subwoofer, rears, wides, heights) via preamp out signals?

a. It would still function as a volume control. But it could not function as a switcher, tuner, etc. as it would want to output the signal straight to the main front L+R stereo speakers which would only go into whichever driver was plugged into the amp outs on that pair.

b. You would need some sort of source for these devices (like a TV tuner installed in the PC). My inclusion of using a receiver to amplify the signal from a sound card was only so enthusiasts could see a way to use existing equipment without having to buy separate amps for a 3 way stereo speaker set. (meaning 6 amp channels) The rest of the receiver is essentially useless in this application. In my case, when I first started experimenting I didn’t care about the receiver anyway as I was no longer using it. So it was a cheap way to find out if this was worth a further look. Which, turns out – it was.

c. The receiver would only be able to drive the speaker drivers it was connected to, so depending on the signal you brought into the receiver you could also damage your drivers. Example; if you played a signal from a DVD player into the receiver, it would output to the tweeters whatever signal was played for the center channel or whatever. Not good.

d. Using a receiver via the multichannel inputs will only work for material played back through the digital music server “software crossover” and out to the soundcard from the PC. If you also play back material from other sources without going through the PC crossover you could damage the speakers.

8. Now for the fun stuff…. regarding your statement ” and HTPC software is quickly becoming known to be sonically superior to all but the analog record of which there is no clear winner between the two”. Have you ever recorded an LP onto an audio CD and done blindfolded listening tests?

a. I have not personally tried this. I have heard of others doing this with very high end gear and got excellent results.

There was an article of a Boulder phono preamp component a few years ago that “they say sounded so good they were able to record an LP onto CD and the outcome sounded far superior to the mass market CD’s of the same album”. So I know some have done it and with excellent results, even if it seems strange to me… recording onto a hard drive would only make those improvements even greater as the format itself has fewer flaws than the optical medium of a CD. A stored file of a CD typically sounds far better than the CD itself because of the way it is read from the differing discs.

b. If you read some of the latest issues of the “Absolute Sound” you will find a lot of articles that are delving into using the digital music server and high resolution albums for playback, all stored on a hard disc of some sort. They are claiming that these sources are superior to even high end DAC and CD player combinations. This certainly confirms my results.

c. I will make no such claims that playing music via a hard drive and HTPC or Media Center is superior to a good LP system. Although, I think they can be just as good too…

The fact is LP’s are still very good. On a high end system, LP’s sound awesome. I don’t dispute that… But, I also don’t think this is the way of the future for most new audiophiles and listeners. The PC solution offers near, or the same quality of audio as these systems in my opinion. And, this is not even taking into account the superiority of using the HTPC to implement digital software crossovers for the speakers. Which is a huge factor in my opinion, and throws favor to the digital side.

Personally, I think the battle between which is better, LP’s or the digital music server, is a moot point and not worth arguing over.

Both formats are very good; and they serve different listeners, usually in a different demographic. I love both LP’s and stored files; but I use digital because I feel it is the better way to go long term, and the technology is now to the point where the difference to me is very small or even negligible.

And that’s before we even start talking about the major advantage to using an HTPC, or digital music server, which also ads the ability to use digital crossovers on the speakers.

I think the quality is already competitive to high end LP and only moving up from where we are now. The strides made in this area, just the last 5 years are staggering if you look into it.

To Summarize about the digital media server

If not, and you intend to try it, beware the needle drop sound. Either record it on the CD or eliminate it from the LP via volume control in real time. My own few efforts reveal that the CD now sounds like an LP.

My contention is that strong audio cues such as cracks, pops, and hiss are what turntable fanatics crave, particularly hiss which easily translates into extended high end! Try it first on family and friends, then when you’re confident, invite a diehard turntabler…. one who listens to solid state rather than bottles to level the playing field. There’s a historic aspect to this also.

You make an interesting point. The nice thing about the Media storage center or digital music server solution is that almost any source can be stored digitally on a hard drive.

And now the playback equipment is excellent as well. I do feel that stored music is and will be the way to go over the coming 10-20 years. As the technology improves we will have higher and higher quality options at our fingertips especially for the digital music server.

Hopefully, the audiophile community will wake up to what the PC is capable of because right now, they are still pretty clueless. Sadly, I think there is a lot of misinformation out there. Even the high end magazines don’t really do a very good job of informing the public about what these systems can do. And much of their advice is just outright false.

I can only assume that they just don’t know, or it is not in their best interest to push products that are not being heavily advertised in the industry, which to me is a bit sad. There are products available in the pro industry that can far exceed the quality and sound that is being pushed on audiophiles for many times the price.

I’m not sure what the truth is here. But either way; this approach right now is an enthusiast’s approach that involves one getting their hands a bit dirty. Such as described here on the pages of this site.
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