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Music Servers - The right way to digital

Music Servers - The right way to digital

To those who read our blog post "Make Your Streams Come True" this is a bit of a continuation on the theme.  For those who have not read that post, I highly recommend you do before proceeding.

Digital audio is all about managing noise. Your brother/cousin/neighbour who works in IT will tell you how digital is digital and the bits always arrive at their destination intact.  That’s why cables don’t matter, switches don’t matter, power supplies don’t matter.  Of course we know this to only be half true.  Yes the data will always arrive from point A to point B, completely intact, containing all the intended bits/bytes.  However, if we fail to consider the effects that noise has on our digital playback system, we will be left with underwhelming results.  There have been dozens of white papers written on how noise negatively affects sound quality so I won’t go into the rather lengthy details but suffice it to say that if noise is the enemy, we need the right weapons to fight it.

Everything counts.  When we work with a digital signal, every part, every cable, every engineering decision will have an effect.  The better these are, the better job they do at managing noise.  Let’s start with the power supply.  If you open up the power supply that runs your laptop or iPad, or home computer, you will find what’s known as a “switching power supply.”  With very few exceptions, (some high end manufacturers have figured out how to make low noise switching power supplies but they are VERY expensive and only exist in high end gear) switching power supplies are extremely noisy.  This noise contaminates everything inside the component but then in an iPad, Laptop, desktop PC, who cares, it doesn’t matter at all.  However, if you use that device to playback music, it matters a lot.  This is why the dedicated high performance music server was born and is the subject of today’s post.  

Let’s look at an example of a high performance music server – Innuos. If you were to open up an Innuos the first thing you’d see is a toroidal transformer that’s about the size of the one found in a good integrated amplifier.  From a power supply point of view this is complete overkill as a server doesn’t require nearly the same amount of current that an amplifier does.  However, these transformers are extremely low noise and help to supply the Innuos with a very steady stream of current and that’s why they are selected.  A good toroid costs 10 to 100 times that of a cheap switching supply but it’s absolutely worth it.  On the top model Statement, the power supply is so big that it requires its own separate case!  Next you will see a custom made mother board, no off the shelf parts here.  Why bother?  There are so many motherboards available, couldn’t they just pick one?  They could but those motherboards were designed for laptops, home PC’s, etc. they were not designed to manage noise and, therefore, not designed for audio.  Then you will see a high quality Teac drive which is used to import CD’s into the internal storage of the Innuos.  Finally, depending on the model, you will see either a 3.5” HDD (Hard Disk Drive) or an SSD (Solid State Drive).  Seriously?  The type of hard disk matters?  Believe it or not, YES!  A while ago I read a long forum post where a hobbyist set up a special test rig to evaluate the sound quality of various hard drives and SSD drives.  What was interesting is just how much of a difference he heard among different manufacturers of drives and SSD’s.  Bless his heart for putting in the effort because most of us certainly wouldn’t have the time or patience for that type of evaluation.  Good thing is companies like Innuos do have the time and patience and this is a standard part of their R&D.

So let’s recap what we’ve learned.  In order to make a good sounding music server you need a low noise power supply, a high quality motherboard, a good drive to import CD’s and a place to store the imported music.  Of course there are other small bits like network cards, USB interfaces, displays (or lack thereof) that also contribute to (or detract from) the sound quality of a server but we only have so much time here.  And, of course, we cannot forget the software that’s used to make all this hardware work, but most of us use Roon so let’s not even get into the software debate.  As you can see, building a high performance music server is really no different than building a good sounding amplifier or DAC or preamp.  The parts may be different but the approach is incredibly similar.  Music servers come in all sorts of varieties from very affordable to “Whoa Nelly.”  Don’t worry, choosing one isn’t complicated at all.  Give us a call or drop us an email and we will be happy to discuss your system and which brand/model will make the most sense.

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