How do you keep musical pleasure topped up while also driving your audio costs down? In this article, find out how I attempted that by making the jump to computer audio. The cost factors considered include time and effort as well as cash for gear and music.
Not so long ago, my listening pleasure was near maximum but the cost was high. A Logitech Transporter network music server streamed music to my Prima Luna tube preamp and amplifier directly from the Internet or from a network hard drive. My system included an upgraded Ah Tjoeb 4000 CD player, modded by specialists in Holland, which up-sampled CDs to get around the standard filtration. It really captured a lot more musical data. The speakers included a stereo pair of reference grade Joseph Audio RM7si Signature studio monitors and a REL Q100E subwoofer that could simulate an earthquake effectively.
This beautifully balanced system was so optimized it outperformed many that cost three times as much, and more. It played natural sounding, realistic music. It performed well into the audiophile realm in any musical category, from Beethoven’s Violin Concerto to Miles Davis’ improvisations, to 50’s rock and roll. You’d swear Diana Krall or Mick Jagger were right there in the room. Andrea Bocelli sounded orgasmic. I had achieved a pinnacle and joined an exclusive club. I had followed a no-compromise path like many of my peers who accomplished similar results at even higher costs.
Online streaming sources worthy of the system were either not much available then, or I hadn’t found them yet. Low-fi MP3s were the best I had online. Digital studio masters were nowhere within reach. So I was spending many hours ripping music to a network drive using Exact Audio Copy software, with great results. During this time I amassed over 500 CDs. The average number rose and fell as I ripped and sold CDs, and then bought more CDs and ripped some more.
Then a game-changing development forced a major re-thinking of my audio hobby. An irresistibly attractive opportunity to go live in a paradise opened up. However exciting, this move’s cost realities were like hitting a concrete wall. I had spent 40 years learning about audio and reconfiguring my audio systems continually to reach a pinnacle where my music sounded fabulous. Now I had to choose: I simply could not face paying for my system all over again in the form of transport fees and customs duties. If I moved the long distance required, I wouldn’t be able to take my music system along.
Great music. . . or paradise. I really did not relish being compelled to choose.
With heavy heart, I considered whether I could downsize without losing too much fidelity. New developments were opening up a whole new world in streaming digital audio. Some HD download services had come online offering higher fidelity files. I decided to reboot my approach and find a new musical reality.
Soon I sold my entire existing system down to the last spare tube. Of course, the used audio market forced me to accept a fraction of the original costs. I boldly set a goal to achieve equal performance using only cash I recovered from the sale. I felt like Don Quixote chasing windmills but forged ahead.
After some fruitful research, I made a cautious purchase that allowed 30-day in-home speaker auditions. My new music system comprises only three powered speakers (a stereo pair and a subwoofer) and a USB DAC (digital-to-analog converter.) A MacBook Pro laptop computer provides a digital stream. That’s all there is to it. I had arrived in the realm of computer audio. The images in this post depict the gear I chose from Audioengine and AudioQuest.
In its simplicity, the new system is far more compact -- a fraction of the size and weight and cost of my previous rig. There’s no physical media. Now it’s all digital files. No music player boxes. Now sourcing music is up to the laptop and USB DAC No preamp is needed. Gone are the four-shelf rack, network music server, network hard drive, and CD players. Gone is the dedicated computer for ripping CDs. I gave away the 500-some CDs to friends.
The new powered speakers are about half the size of their passive predecessors. The new DAC is the size of a USB flash drive. The whole system can fit into a single large suitcase. The music resides on my laptop’s hard drive and in The Cloud.
And the sound?
Performance is better than expected and so close to the previous system I don’t notice a gap. It’s quite satisfying to even my spoiled ears, especially when I play higher resolution lossless files. The sound is natural and realistic, with crystal clarity, great spaciousness and excellent articulation, presence and accuracy. The bass is tight and punchy without booming.
Andrea Bocelli’s soaring arias still bring tears to my eyes. Breathy and sweet, Norah Jones is right there in the room when I turn down the lights. Mick Jagger still has his swagger and sounds as decadent and heartless as ever.
The system erects a wide and deep soundstage across the front wall with a large “sweet area” that’s more of a zone than a spot. I’m still re-listening to much of my reference music but the early reports are both thumbs up.
The key is great digital music sources driving a simple configuration of excellent gear. The manufacturers are to be thanked and congratulated. Despite the currently popular term for this is playback approach -- “computer audio” – it’s a very far cry from the horrid little plastic desktop computer speakers of yore. Yet I only paid out less than 15% of the cash I recovered from selling the former exotic tube audio system.
Now I can simply rent from a selection of tens of millions of tracks online instead of ripping CD’s or downloading purchased music files and then managing and storing it all somewhere. I now play a stream of music data from The Cloud more than a local music database. WhenI want to listen to selections from my older ripped collection, those files are all on hard drive and can be played any time.
A human lifespan is not long enough to listen to all this wonderful streaming music. The cost is under $50 USD per month for two streaming services. At that rate, I will literally be 100 years old by the time I re-spend (in gear and streaming costs) what I had invested in the previous hi-fi system. Today’s computer audio revolution has created a whole new world of musical listening.
Rescued by technology, I am. Digital sourcing and Hi-Fi grade powered speakers not only enabled downsizing without ruining my audio hobby, I’m also finding wonderful new artists almost every day and still accessing the music I already loved.
In the end, I found two kinds of paradise -- one an exotic new place to live, the other a re-created and refreshed musical bliss. Will I still be listening when I do reach 100? I’ll assume so and crash ahead.