I would like to write about a newer segment in the home audio industry, DACS's and media servers. I speak with people about the subject on a daily basis. Home media servers are becoming more popular than ever. Music is a big part of most people's life. I am seeing people becoming more interested in the quality of their music experience again. Media servers have been around for a while but there is a bigger evolution taking place with servers, DACs, and streaming audio.
One of the most frequent questions I get is how to listen to all the music you have on your computer, iPod, etc, the best way possible? Add to that the massive CD library you have collected over time and want access to without trying to find discs that have spread through the house.
The best part for me is people want to listen to their music. They want access and they are starting to want quality to go along with their stereo or surround systems. A music server simply takes information from your CD and stores it on a hard drive. You can then connect the server to your theater system or home stereo. The user interface of each server varies greatly and should always be a big consideration of what server you might choose.
The quality of sound coming out of the server depends on several things. For simplicity lets keep it to a couple of primary factors. The rate at which you store your music on a server has a huge impact on the final sound quality. This is simply the type of file quality you select when you take the music from the CD and put it on the hard drive. Some will allow you to make an exact duplicate of the disc. This is the best sounding but does use a lot of space. MP3's tend to sound like something is missing because there is. There are several loss less formats available that maximize file size and quality as well.
The second is how the information coming off of the server is taken from digital to analog. Most devices have the ability to send the sound out to your home stereo system using typical RCA style connectors. Your sound will be dependent upon the quality of conversion that takes place in your media server. The other option is a DAC.
DAC's for home audio aren't necessarily new but they are finally available in entry level to high end system for amazing playback quality. Many of the newer more useful DAC's have a USB connection so you can stream right form your PC or Mac to the DAC using a USB cable. I have listened to a lot of these and really prefer them. It allows you to use your existing PC or Mac as your server with whatever player you choose.
I have owned several high end media servers and as time has progressed I have moved into the most available platform, itunes. iTunes offers a great interface and excellent quality playback if you encode your CD's at a higher rate such as Apple Lossless.
I will post some opinions of external DAC's in the future. In the meantime, feel free to send questions.