Ayre Acoustics QB-9 USB DAC Getting Those Last Few Drops

Sidebar 3: Hitting It On The One: Getting Those Last Few Drops Out Of Digital Files

John Atkinson's "Music Served: Extracting Music from Your PC" is a must-read; start there. While you don't need the latest or most powerful computer to use as a server, you do, as JA observed, want a quiet one. My iBook did yeoman duty in this regard—from my listening position, I was never aware of its fan even turning on.

In future, however, I believe I'll take JA's suggestion to use a Mac mini; I discovered how much better my iBook sounds when I maxed out its RAM at 2GB. I can jam 6GB into the latest Mac mini, and I'm salivating at the improvements that might make.

The first rule: Always get music in the highest resolution possible. Hard drives are so cheap these days that any lossy file just isn't worth the candle. Of course, you can sample music as MP3s to see if you like it, but what's the point of hanging on to bad-sounding music you don't like that much?

If you think that 24-bit/96kHz albums are expensive at about $30 a pop, consider this: Back in the day, audiophiles would pay up to $500 for open-reel dubs of studio masters. This is the first time in audio history that regular consumers can access true master-quality music without having to jump through hoops or spend big bucks. While it means that I do have to consider every hi-rez purchase carefully, the price isn't a huge barrier for me.

Equally obvious, choose an external hard drive that's quiet—some of them wheeze like racehorses. And you do need an external drive, because hi-rez files are huge. Memory is now cheap enough that 500GB hard drives can be had for around a hundred bucks. Buy two—you'll invest a lot of time in ripping files, so backing them up only makes sense. Apple users can program Time Machine to do regular backups, while PC users have a choice of freeware aps to do the same.

Another, albeit more time-consuming option is to burn hi-rez files to DVD-A. This gives you the option of sneaker-netting them to any hi-rez optical player. I haven't used it myself, but I've heard good things from JA about Discwelder's inexpensive Bronze Edition.

Then there's the big question: Mac or PC? On the basis of quality, there's no reason to choose one over the other—both can deliver hi-rez digital to an outboard DAC, so long as you're willing to put in some sweat equity. I use Macs because that's what I own and that's what I'm comfortable with, but that means I have to convert hi-rez FLAC downloads to AIF with a third-party program (in my case, Max). I also have to exit iTunes, change the output in Audio MIDI Set-Up, and reboot iTunes every time I change sample rates—a minor inconvenience (although one I hope will soon disappear).

Windows users don't have to deal with that, but tweaking Windows up to its maximum digital quality can be an involved process. Ayre's Windows setup tutorial will walk you through it, no matter whose DAC you're using: www.ayre.com/usb-windows.htm.

And if your system relies on Creston or AMX controllers, Windows is the way to go. A good ap for that can be found here.

No matter what label is on the box, the hi-rez files inside a computer can now deliver stunningly good, definitively high-end sound—perhaps some of the best ever. That's a goal worth working toward.—Wes Phillips

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Ayre Acoustics
2300-B Central Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
(303) 442-7300
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