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The New Music Box

by Drew Dunn
2001/10/24

Is it news to anyone that you can listen to music on your computer? Besides listening to a compact disc in your CD-ROM drive, there are a plethora of compressed media formats, from the ubiquitous MP3 to Ogg Vorbis. Why, even my dear old dad has figured out that he can copy CDs on his burner (I’ll let him wrestle with his conscience on his own).

So it’s no news. I have a slew of MP3-compressed songs on a ton of CDs (made from my own fully purchased discs, thank you) at work, just to ease the trauma of working in a windowless office. But what I hadn’t considered up until a few weeks ago was just how easy it might be to enjoy a virtually unlimited stream of music at home. And not just through a pair of computer speakers, but through a real, live stereo system.

I really like messing around with computers. I guess that has to be obvious, since I write for and help maintain freepctech.com. But I have another hobby. It’s music. No, not playing (although every now and then I blow the dust out of my saxophone), but listening. Over the years I’ve accumulated a fairly decent stereo system. I know that it’s reasonably good because every time my wife looks in my office, she sees it and shakes her head in either amazement or disgust…it’s hard to tell.

So I listen to music that I’ve ripped from CDs onto my computer. But, to be honest, even though MP3 fanatics keep telling me that they can make “CD quality” sounding copies of their music, what I’ve heard from my Brujo MP3 player through my stereo didn’t really cut the mustard. Sure, it was fine for background music, but one thing that I really enjoy is sitting in my recliner in front of the speakers, turning up the volume and just sort of losing myself in the music. Unfortuately, MP3s never did that for me.

A few weeks ago, though, something happened that changed that. The first thing is that I bought a Sound Blaster Audigy card. The second is that I discovered a program called Exact Audio Copy.

Now, to be honest, I bought the Sound Blaster card because I really wanted to take advantage of the surround sound features and the built-in Firewire port. But what I discovered was that the card can upsample digital data to 24bit/96KHz. And it also sounds really good…and I mean that in a hi fidelity sort of way. So, I built a computer around that card to hook up to the stereo.

What about Exact Audio Copy? This program, EAC for short, along with a DOS-based utility called Lame, makes MP3 files that are astonishingly close to the original. That’s quite an accomplishment because the MP3 format is a “lossy” method of compressing audio – you lose some of the information during the compression. The idea, of course, is that the amount of loss is designed to be as unnoticeable as possible. Now, the regular, garden variety MP3s that I’ve listened to in the past don’t meet the unnoticeable loss measure. I can most definitely tell that something is wrong. And I still can with the files that I’ve made with EAC and Lame, but the “wrongness” is so subtle that it doesn’t bother me at all.

Now, there are lossless formats as well, with Monkey’s Audio being one of the most popular, but my concern is twofold: I want to use as little space on my hard drive or CDs and I’d like to use the software and hardware playback tools that I already have.

So here’s the deal…Chris Myden’s web page has a great Tutorial on how to install and configure EAC and Lame to use variable bit rate encoding to achieve the best fidelity with the least consumption of space. It’s a tricky balancing act…you can make small files that don’t sound so great or you can basically copy the entire CD onto your hard drive, obviating the need for MP3 (but filling even the largest drives up pretty quickly).

Obviously the equipment you use on the playback end matters. That’s why I was so impressed when I heard the Audigy card and my stereo system. Previously, the Sound Blaster Live card that I had just wasn’t up to the standards that I held for high quality audio. It’s a great sound card for games and for listening to music on the computer (through the Microsoft Sound System speakers), but it didn’t have the kind of dynamic range or detail that I felt was necessary to make it a truly high fidelity piece of equipment. The Audigy is a much superior piece of equipment. Without turning this into a review of the Audigy, let me just suggest that if you have been considering building a PC to act as a high end audio server for your stereo, use this card. It’s substantially less expensive than other high end audio cards and definitely delivers the goods.

And for those interested in what I used to audition this great sound, here’s a list of the audio equipment:

Carver C3 preamplifier
3 Carver TFM-15CB amplifers (280 watts mono each, one for each speaker)
Acoustat 1+1 electrostatic speakers
Adire Shiva 88 liter sealed subwoofer
Transparent Audio cable throughout

All together, what I heard using MusicMatch’s Jukebox through a PIII-866 based system was astonishingly close to the original CD recording…but much more convenient than even a multidisc changer because the MP3 software allows for compiling playlists and other conveniences that changers just can’t even touch.

 

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