Saturday, October 16, 2010

Starting From Scratch: Home Audio System

It is time for me to build a completely new home audio system. There really is no 'upgrade' about it, as over time my previous audio system, purchased in 1979, has been dismantled. Yes you read right, 1979.

My first year in college, I absolutely had to have a high quality audio system. So I survived on Mac & Cheese for a semester and went out and bought a very nice Yamaha receiver and speakers, as well as a cassette deck and phonograph. This cost me quite a bit of money, but did indeed deliver a high quality sound.

At the time, Yamaha receivers in my area were not sold through electronics stores, they were sold through high end audio stores (remember those?). I felt a little out of my element there, since I was basically buying something at the low end of what the store sold, but I wouldn't have felt quite at home at an electronics store either. I ride the fence, apparently.

The 1979 Yamaha system was supposed to be my introductory system, to be upgraded regularly throughout the years. Well, that never happened.

I got married, had kids. You know, life happened and priorities changed. I had no time to listen to music anyway. So the 79 Yamaha components were moved from the living room to the bedroom (out of the reach of little hands) and the years eventually took their toll on the speakers. By the 1990s, the system was of limited usefulness. So one by one, the components were sold at garage sales with the receiver being sold in the last 3 years. My home audio system now consists of a boom box and a laptop with $100 speakers. Yeesh. That's embarrassing to say.

But it wasn't just my change in priorities that fueled this precipitous drop in equipment. No, the audio industry was changing. I can remember being frustrated with the scratchiness of records and the hissiness of cassettes. As with many fans of high-end audio (HEA), I was thrilled with the advent of CDs, the world's first move into digital music. All the scratches, the hisses, gone!! I began converting my collection to CDs in the 1990s.

And that is where I've been stuck for the last decade or more. CDs, boom box, and laptop.

Part of the reason is that the world then moved from CDs to MP3s, and I was not happy. The sound quality of MP3s is often quite poor, and I had no desire to take a step backwards. Apparently a lot of people felt the same way, as there are many of us that refused to make the jump (though not many of those refusing are from the under 30 crowd) to MP3s.

In my mind, MP3s and portable music players almost killed the high end audio market. HEA stores closed - I don't even know where one exists in San Diego anymore, while there used to be one 5 miles from my house as late as 1995.

But times they are a'changing again. Disk space has become so cheap that I can easily by a 2 TB hard drive for music storage. This would easily allow me to store up to 20,000 songs (about 2000 CDs worth) digitally, in a high-quality lossless format that far, far exceeds MP3 quality. Now we're talking!

Many of us psuedo audio freaks are coming out of hibernation and taking note.

So I'm in the midst of researching what my new system will look like, what the state-of-the-art is right now, and how much this is all going to cost me. I'm liking what I'm seeing.

Here's what I know so far: I want very high quality sound reproduction for my listening room. This will involve playing a lossless format (i.e., no compression) such as WAV or FLAC through a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) able to handle 24 bits per second, 192 kHz and sending the output to high quality speakers.

The music stored on disk should also be capable of going into our cars, so it needs to be downloadable to some sort of portable device. MP3 quality may be okay for the car environment, since road noise, engine noise, city noise, and wind noise are all interfering with the ability to hear pure music anyway.

I also want to really, really avoid as much as possible being forced into Vendor Lock. This is where the music is stored in a proprietary format and basically forces future upgrades to be from the same vendor. Since the HEA industry is just now coming back alive, I think there will be a lot of turbulence in the next decade and companies will come and go. I don't want to be locked into any particular vendor.

So here is my current prototype design. The music is stored in a NAS where I have full control of formats, access, etc. I'm okay with transferring it to a more proprietary format on it's way to the speakers, but I want full control of my library.

The research has just started on this topic (none of the components shown are written in stone, all are subject to change), so please drop me a note with any ideas you have for improving the architecture of this music system.

1 comment:

Louisa Hemstreet said...

I’m very pleased to meet you, J! Having a good audio system at home will truly satisfy your thirst if you’re the type of person who is fond of watching movies or listening to smooth and relaxing songs. Nowadays, player gadgets are fully compatible with all types of format, except for the .swf file.