I went to see my finance guy a few months ago. I’ve got a nest egg started and we have plans for more financal manoeuvres early next year. In addition, each month I save the money I previously used to pay down my debt. When I asked him what I should do with what I’ve saved so far, he suggested I take a vacation.
Rather than a vacation, I’ve been updating my hi-fi.
When I was younger, the term hi-fi had long since fallen out of use. One called their home music system their stereo. That term still lingers, but my stereo isn’t really stereo any more. My receiver is capable of many more than just two channels! That said, I have only two speakers so I guess it is a stereo. I’m looking at a pair of speakers to serve as surround channels so it will only be a stereo for a short while.
My main task lately has been to find a way to play my iTunes library through my stereo. It hasn’t been nearly as simple as I expected. I have an Apple TV, which I bought partly for this task. The Mac can push the music in my iTunes library to the Apple TV by using it as an AirPlay client, or the Apple TV can pull music from the Mac using HomeShare.
The problem, and I didn’t see this coming, is that the Apple TV resamples all music to 48 kHz sampling rate with a 16 bit word depth. Yes, that is upsampling of CD quality music, but it’s not good upsampling. Upsampling works best when the result is an exact multiple of the original. If you want to upsample the CD standard of 44.1 kHz, 16 bit, you take it to 88.2 kHz or 176.4 kHz. Go ahead and pad eight extra empty bits to get 24, if you like. Sure, there are ways to convert 44.1 kHz to 48 kHz with good results, but the Apple TV costs $119 and I don’t expect much.
So CD quality reproduction isn’t ideal. Things get worse with higher sampling rates. I’ve just discovered a number of sites on-line that sell music recorded at higher sampling rates and bit depths. They offer a mix of 48 kHz, 88.1 kHz, 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz, and 192 kHz sampling rates, all at 24 bit depths. I can add them to iTunes with no problem, but the Apple TV insists on offering my receiver a 48 kHz, 16 bit data stream, regardless of the sampling rate and bit depth of the incoming data stream. Clearly, this isn’t good enough.
My DVD player will happily reproduce these sampling frequencies from files, but it can only read the files from a USB flash drive, a USB hard drive, or an e-SATA hard drive. I don’t want to maintain two music libraries.
I then cast my gaze upon an entirely new type of product: the network music player. These devices read music files on a server or computer, and play them through your stereo. The Sonos and Squeezebox players are standalone units that have their own amplification and speakers, but they stand at the lower end of the quality scale. Linn makes a line of DS players that designed as a component of your stereo system. That’s just what I want, and Linn is distinctly high-end. Their Majik DS is very highly regarded despite being the most inexpensive model in the DS line. One of my issues with Linn’s DS models is they support DLNA and not AirPlay, which would again require that I manage multiple music libraries. There’s also the problem in that a component priced at over $3000 is far out of my price range!
Next came the Marantz NA7004. It’s far more reasonably priced at $900, though that’s still steep. It turns out not to matter, though. While it supports AirPlay, it does so only at 48 kHz, 24 bits. DLNA and USB supports decoding files up to 96 kHz, 24 bits. Only a digital data stream being delivered to the unit’s inputs are supported up to 192 kHz, 24 bits. Further, the person I talked to at Marantz told me that while the AirPlay architecture and hardware has no problems with 96 kHz, 24 bit data, it’s the current implementation of the standard that’s limited to 48 kHz, 24 bits.
So there’s no device I can buy that will make this happen the way I want it to, but there are other ways.
It’s not nearly as tidy and pretty, but there are digital USB interfaces available. Plug one and into the USB port, install and configure the drivers, connect the other end to your receiver, and presto, a digital data feed of up to 192 kHz, 24 bit audio. This is good, but it seems that the product category is not nearly mature yet. There’s talk of quality issues and driver problems. It seems a good option except the best option I can find is $500. That’s an expensive ‘try and see!’
My short-term plan is far more modest. I was surprised to learn that my iMac’s headphone output is actually a multi-purpose output. In addition to an analogue headphone output, it’s also a S/PDIF coaxial digital output, and a mini-TOSLINK digital output. It is limited to no greater than 96 kHz, 24 bit audio output in the two latter modes, but my current receiver has the same limitation so it’ll be fine. The other downside is that if I use the output to drive my receiver, I can no longer use it to power my external speakers. Also, the system sounds will also go out over the digital output.
Regardless, with an inexpensive cable, I can connect my iMac to my receiver and feed 96 kHz, 24 bit music. It’s certainly worth it as a ‘proof of concept’ experiment. I suspect that if it works, I’ll use it until I replace the receiver with a pre-pro.
I suspect this will all get a lot easier in the not-so-distant future. There are rumours that Apple will offer higher resolution audio via the iTunes store. Personally, I think it’s a bit crazy to pay more for higher resolution audio that’s compressed, but that’s just me. Even if I’m not interested in what they will sell, the fact that they’re selling it may get them to allow the Apple TV hardware and other AirPlay devices to pass higher sampling frequencies and bit depths.
In the perfect world, the Apple TV would accept the data stream from the Mac and pass it to my receiver, unchanged. In that scenario, the quality of the DAC in the Apple TV would be immaterial because it’s not being used. The Apple TV would merely be an AirPlay client passing the data stream unchanged.
We’ll see. Next week Apple is announcing what is expected to be the next iteration to their MobileMe service. Speculation is that there will be some sort of cloud-based music storage. While that’s not of huge interest to me, news about high-res music from iTunes would be most welcome because of the effects that would follow.
All images courtesy of the equipment manufacturers.