Using a computer as an audio server

Posted on December 13, 2011 by admin


Forget about fumbling through piles of old CDs. Phil Wright looks at how you can turn your computer into the heart of your music system.

First published in the Radio Listener's Guide 2011 edition


Portable music players such as iPods are great, but if you have a lot of music on your computer you’ll probably want to play it through your HiFi too.

Setting up a PC-based system is something of a minefield, particularly if you want high quality sound. Persevere though and you will be rewarded. I can now browse 1400 albums on my TV and am rediscovering long forgotten music. Being able to see all the album covers is a bonus in itself. This is a big topic so I’ve outlined a few options you might consider and highlighted some pros and cons.

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A basic system

A simple system could be a laptop with the music stored on the internal disk, an analogue cable from the PC’s headphone socket to the inputs on your stereo and iTunes to manage your music library.


This option is simple and low cost. If you have a laptop you need a £5 cable; plug it in and that’s it. Sound quality is limited by using the PC for digital to analogue conversion, but for many this won’t be a problem. And if you run out of disc space on the PC you can always add an external drive.


Improve the sound quality

To improve the sound quality ensure you copy/rip your CDs in a lossless format (FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV). Lossless formats take up more space so you may need a bigger hard drive, but even a 1TB disk is only £60 these days. The next step is to use a dedicated digital to analogue converter (DAC) - or a digital input on your home cinema amplifier. Sound quality should be significantly better, and you can also connect your TV or DVD player into it to improve their sound quality as well.


Wireless options

As above but using network hard drives that connect wirelessly and can be placed in another room. This makes for a quieter environment in the listening room, but the main advantage is that the music can be shared by networked devices, such as other PC’s. Network drives are more expensive than standard ones, with a 1TB model now selling for around £120.

Alternatively move the PC and discs to another room completely and stream the music via iTunes and Apple Airport Express (around £70). Airport Express connects via analogue or digital, the latter giving better sound but again requiring a separate DAC or home cinema amplifier with digital inputs. This is more complex to setup, but keeps the living room tidy and quiet.


The author’s setup

I use a dedicated Mac Mini computer, with a digital output into a high quality digital to analogue converter, and then to my amplifier. A 1TB external hard drive is directly connected to the Mac. I’ve a spare disk for backup – don’t forget this backup whichever option you take!

The PC uses my plasma TV as its screen, with everything controlled from the sofa via a wireless keyboard.

Apart from the first option, each of the above will require a bit of time and effort to get them working. My advice is to do your research first; it pays dividends when you get to the actual setting up. Alternatively go for the basic laptop / analogue lead option first and see how you get on with the new capabilities. I know of people who have done this and not felt the need to go further - iTunes and Spotify providing endless hours of music.

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