Friday, 15 June 2012

A Dedicated Music Server Journey (Part 3)

Continuing on from my previous post one other component I have included (that I didn't mention previously) is a SOtM Fan Noise Filter. While the Motherboard I have used has  a low power fan-less Atom processor the case itself does include a small silent fan which I have opted to run as it's noise factor is 0 (at least at present). As I had purchased a SOtM Filter (in anticipation of having a CPU fan to deal with) I've inserted this into the case fan power feed - it may not be making a huge contribution but then again it might just be helping, and as I had it on hand it might as well do something!

Talking fan-less Atom CPU's & boards one thing to watch for is ventilation - while the Silverstone case I used (the LC19) has a decent amount of ventilation in the upper surface (about 50% of the case lid is perforated, including virtually all the area above the motherboard), it is reliant on a reasonable volume of air space above for dissipation. I initially had it with just 20mm or so of clearance above and this was inadequate - the core temperatures were usually around +65°C initially (max safe temp is +75°C) however once in the constrained rack space these rose to around +69°C, and once I started ripping a series of Music DVDs they rapidly rose to the limit (and even over, one of the cores sitting at +76°C for some time while ripping DVDs). The heat dissipation was very reluctant even after being idle for several hours, only dropping 2-3 degrees. However once I was able to rearrange my rack to increase the height of the air space above the server to about 7cm the temperatures rapidly plummeted back to their norm, and even while in use happily were sitting around +64°C to +66°C again within about 20 minutes - highlighting how the fan-less CPU's are reliant on the appropriate case ventilation with appropriate space above for their heat sinks to work efficiently.

Footnote: Ironically after writing the draft of the above the fan has just started making a noticeable noise - I have disconnected it as the ventilation is good enough to keep the temperature down without it, either that or I find a new higher-spec 'silent' fan!

Getting back to the music & the sound...

I can't get over how much this experience has added to the sound and the enjoyment; with a lot of audiophile experiments what you get is just different and not necessarily better or more enjoyable. Better of course is always pretty subjective, but there's some pretty basic things that are generally positive effects, air, headroom, detail, expansive soundstage, warmth (to a degree), clarity, full midrange, punchy clean bass, etc, while others that are generally detrimental (excessive brightness, muddy or smeary bass or midrange, lack of top end, slowed sense of tempo) - so better can be quantified to a degree...

Listening to Nickel Creek's self-titled sophomore album is a truly refreshing experience, that’s a little added oomph to the tempo, essential for banjo plucking bluegrass, along with an improved sense of detail and air, headroom is plentiful and the sound sits naturally in the air as it should... My copy is currently just the 16/44 "CD" layer off my SACD copy, so you don't quite reap the full benefits possible with 24bit 88kHz-192kHz sampled tracks, but it’s still a noticeable step up from my previous config with the music stream via Wi-Fi from PC to Logitech SqueezeBox Touch - and leaves conventional CD playback for dead...

Listening to "Ode To A Butterfly" & "In The House Of Tom Bombadill" the strings are clean and clearly defined, the tempo appropriately urgent, and the soundstage roomy and well defined. Moving into the slower tracks such as "A Lighthouse's Tale" & "Out Of The Woods", and relaxing back with your eyes closed you have an immediate sense of an intimate performance, that Sara & Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile are there in the room with you - something you can't ask much more of from a recording's playback... One of my favourite tracks, "The Fox", is wonderfully alive and more 'present' than I previously experienced...

Of course one of the issues with anything like this is your memory becomes selective - after all who wants to muck around A-B comparing a redundant and clearly inferior config once a new has been discovered?! The new experience quickly becomes the remembered norm, and rapidly displaces the memories of how the previous system sounded. However where this new set-up of mine, with the music server, really excels is the hi-res tracks. Putting on 'The Stones' "Beggars Banquet" (@ 24/176) highlights the improved experience - and also the quality of these (originally for the ABKO SACD releases) remasters... "Sympathy for the Devil" has a subtle sense of detail, there are layers of detail in the sound (or perhaps more accurately in the music/instruments/performers) - needless it’s present in all its detail but not lifeless, or sterile, or detached. On all the tracks one thing I notice is Mick Jagger no longer sounds like a drunk slurring his speech, his vocals are more distinct and clear, less muddy, yet still retaining their distinctive 'Jagger' accent. Tracks like "Jigsaw Puzzle" & "Salt Of The Earth" sound, to me, more complete and full, how much is specifically my music server & system config, and how much the hi-res sampled file I don't know, but it's certainly a case that a certain amount of the sound quality may not be possible without either...

My Eagles' "Hotel California" is a 24/192 version from my DVD-A copy (2001), and the rig really shines with this classic '70's guitar heavy sound, the sound stage is well developed, the guitars are full and complete, and with the right hint of a little warmth, while the drums are punchy, tight, but deep, and behind it all the bass provides depth and continuity with detail... Again the pace and tempo is just right, there isn't that sense of being a bit slow or fast that's sometimes a symptom of a poor or struggling set-up or configuration...

This has been a great experience - a positive step in the right direction... for me. I'm really enjoying the quality of the sound I now generate, I can become completely immersed in the music even more so than previously... Now it's been 2 years (almost) since I ditched optical discs as a source I can't conceive of ever going back to them, and as a recent thread here on the Audioenz forum recently reminded me, am somewhat surprised there are people still willing to sink money into audiophile quality CD Players, an anachronistic device that often costs more than my new DIY music server has!

Read More: More On A Dedicated Music Server (Part 4)

Footnote: I originally posted these 3 posts on the AudioEnz Blog.

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