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Tasso

Building the ideal(ish) Music Server

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Following on from our escapades with Mac Mini, Windows laptop, Rasperry and Banana Pi, I was still looking for something better to match the output from my Accuphase DP-700 feeding the DC-37 DAC via HS-Link ( Accuphase i2s style implementation). The Pi machines actually came close in terms of noise levels and tonality but there was still something missing in terms of resolution, imaging etc so I thought I would do some research.

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Theory

I first decided to hitch a ride with those that have done the research and then put their findings out in the market place for the world to examine. These are the commercial manufacturers of music servers and they all had the following common ground:

1. They all use modest CPU's ( e.g. Intel Atom) to minimise EMI/RFI. EMI generation is linked to power dissipation amongst other things

2. The "better" models used linear power supplies

3. Antipodes and others use Sotm or equivalent PCI/PCie USB output card. PCI/PCie cards have a degree of isolation from the main board and the potentially noisy mainboard USB bus. They also reclock the signal to be sent to the DAC and have on board filtration, but can be powered directly by an external clean linear power feed

4. SSD seems to be the pick for better SQ

5. Antipodes also claim there are different types of memory

6. They mostly use light weight, headless Linux O/S with no GUI, specifically tailored to the application

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There are also those that claim the most powerful CPU is the way to go. But since I did not need extra capability for DSP , a GUI or a heavy operating system, I decided to first build a server based on the above formula.

Findings

Each of the following may be a subtle point of difference but combined makes a significant difference

1. Motherboard- I have tried a couple- of different makes - Jetway and intel using Intel atom 2800 CPU. Surprisingly, there were differences using different Linux players with each tending to sound better with different distro's and players- (subtle differences however)

2. The motherboards have hard wired CPU with 12V inputs which made things easy. An HD PLEX linear power supply outperformed a standard laptop linear PSU in terms of tonality , depth and perceived dynamics, (at much greater cost however). With Linear PSU, tonality was a few steps closer to the Accuphase player reference

3. Testing from motherboard USB vs SOTm output produced interesting results. The Sotm card improved things further in a number of ways. Im not sure if t was the lower noise, reclocking or a combination of those things.

4. On my system SSD sounded better although it was harder for me to pick differences when using a 2.5"spinning HDD with Rock music. I also tried SATA power filter and thought they took away more than they gave back.

5. Memory. This is one that I did not expect. Mark Jenkins did not specify which memory sounded better but since he also uses lower power boards I figured it could have something to do with single rank vs dual rank memory. I understand that single rank memory (1R) is configured to allow the CPU to access all the memory chips on the board at once ( even if spread over two sides) whereas with reguar or dual rank memory, only once side of the memory stick can be accessed at a time by the CPU.

I ordered 1Rx8 micron memory sticks and to my surprise they did sound better than the memory I bought from the local computer parts store. The difference was not as subtle as you would think.

Software

A friend who is also a Linux guru custom built a real time Linux kernel for me with a number of players, including MpD and Jriver. I also had downloaded configurations for Vortexbox and Daphile. They are all bit perfect players but can sound different nevertheless. I can say that the "best" one is dependant on individual taste as well as the the rest of the system. If you like things crisp and accurate and perhaps with a bit more edge than others, then Daphile may suit. If you like a more expansive, large scale sound with very good tonality, Vortexbox may suit and if you like fast, crisp clean sound with rock solid imaging, then Mpd could be the one.

Result

I am still running a couple of variations of software but I can say that the performance level is such that I can now happily listen to CA as a alternative to the CD player through the same DAC

Edited by Tasso

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Could you post links to the motherboard and the memory you ordered ?

 

Cheers

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I  bought mine on ebay but this is the memory - I used 2 sticks 

 

http://www.amazon.com/Micron-2GB-1RX8-PC3-12800S-11-11-B2/dp/B00DU1BS7A

 

For motherboard, best to decider if you will use a Sotm or equivalent card first. If so you will need a board with a PCIe slot - My jetway board is PCI only and Sotm no longer supply PCI cards although they might crop up on Ebay   The 2800 Atom has a total power dissipation of 7.5 watts and I think you can choose a number of boards which have similar specs. A quad core  Celeron 1900 for example  looks interesting with only 8.3 watts TPD.

 

but these are the boards I used so far.

 

http://www.mini-box.com.au/Intel%20DN2800MT%20Mini-ITX%20Motherboard.html

 

http://www.mini-box.com.au/Jetway%20JNF9C-2600%20Mini-ITX%20Motherboard.html

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How can one establish an Antipodes clone business when all are transparently published?!? :D

Edited by Chanh

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Very interesting, especially the bit abt the software. Thanks for sharing Tasso.

Looks like I have to drop by your place soon to check it out.

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Looks good Tasso, i have been running a similar setup for a few years now.

I also use the hdplex lps and sotm pcie audio card.

Have you tried windows server in core mode without the gui?

Would be interested to hear your opinion :thumb:

cheers

Liam

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I think I have been very lucky. I vaguely realised most of the points Tasso made in the opening post and my local computer store just happened to have an Intel Atom DN2800MT mounted  in a double height case . No fan and internal SSD. I don't have a separate USB card but  I'm using a powered USB hub (powered by the 5V output of a HDPLEX LPS). The same LPS powers the MB from its 12V output.

 

I'm running Windows Server 2012 and JRiver.

 

Interesting about the memory. I have  a 4GB DDR3 Kingston memory stick. I might get my tech to replace this with the 1Rx8 micron memory sticks.

 

A couple of guys who are anti computer audio have listened to my system and have said it was the best they heard from computer audio.

 

I'm yet to try JPLAY6 which according to folks who have done this takes SQ to a whole new level.

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When people talk about a server, I always imagine a NAS where the music is stored, or a DLNA server which streams content into TV's, radios, and the likes. I'm guessing this is more a music dedicated HTPC build, or I have to get used to the jargon. I do have a dedicated server where I store and stream data, but it's hidden in the bowels of my office room.

 

I just received a 2010 Dell laptop, i5 with a few gigs RAM on it. I'll change the HDD into an SSD and install Xubuntu 14 with all the goodies, MPD, Kodi (XBMC), but I'll run it for the time being through the integrated audio outputs (please don't throw anything at me!). I'll upgrade later, say Xmas time to the Marantz HD-DAC using the USB output.

 

I'm always curious about the use of a linear PSU as opposed to the standard SMPS. I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but don't PC's have switched power supplies internally anyways? Somehow they must generate the 3.3V, 5V and 12V for distribution.

 

All in all, a dedicated PC in that case looks heaps better, I'll have to hide the laptop somewhere. Luckily there are ways to control it with the phones or remote keyboards.

 

Cheers,

 

Alberto

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There are switch mode type "buck" voltage step downs on various points on the motherboard on these 12V boards. But linear PSU still makes an audible improvement - it wouldn't be to the same level as say on a preamp or phono stage but an improvement nevertheless. For ITX boards, Teradak make a comprehensive linear power supply which provides different voltages to each section of the board.

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Looks good Tasso, i have been running a similar setup for a few years now.

I also use the hdplex lps and sotm pcie audio card.

Have you tried windows server in core mode without the gui?

Would be interested to hear your opinion :thumb:

cheers

Liam

At all times I was conscious of building a music server, not a PC. With that in mind, windows comes with a lot of baggage which is fine for a PC, but for a music server it needs fidalizer and a 2 PC setup to get the best out of it. These Linux distros have been built without the same " baggage" for audio only.

Having said that, I am mindful of how different software can sound and it is not as predictable as I first thought , so I would like to try the windows setup to see what the final result sounds like.

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I think I have been very lucky. I vaguely realised most of the points Tasso made in the opening post and my local computer store just happened to have an Intel Atom DN2800MT mounted in a double height case . No fan and internal SSD. I don't have a separate USB card but I'm using a powered USB hub (powered by the 5V output of a HDPLEX LPS). The same LPS powers the MB from its 12V output.

I'm running Windows Server 2012 and JRiver.

Interesting about the memory. I have a 4GB DDR3 Kingston memory stick. I might get my tech to replace this with the 1Rx8 micron memory sticks.

A couple of guys who are anti computer audio have listened to my system and have said it was the best they heard from computer audio.

I'm yet to try JPLAY6 which according to folks who have done this takes SQ to a whole new level.

Well done Peter. I think you would like what the SOTM Card does for the sound . HDplex has a 9V rail specifically for the SOTM PCIE card

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@@Tasso, I notice you mention the Teradak power supplies, have you had experience with Teradak products and was a good experience? I am using a stripped down 2009 Mac Mini and the only linear PSU that I can find that outputs the required 18.5 volts AND comes with the appropriate cable to ensure the Isense wire is connected AND is significantly less than $1000 is the Teradak, but I cannot find anyone who has actually used one.

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That said, I am sorely tempted by an Intel DN2820FYKH Celeron NUC with a 2GB SSD as a music only player ................... and it is 12 volts ............ much more choice for linear PSU ............. :)

Edited by Ancientflatulence

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My experience with Teradak is limited but from those I know who have them, they seem quite satisfied. They seem to be well designed PSU's. I don't think is worth spending megabucks on PSU in this application so I wouldn't be inclined to spend more than the Teradak price for the Macmini .

No problem with NUC except that it probably doesn't have a PCIe slot. I wish I could tell you the SOTM card makes no difference , but it does add a level of refinement and naturalness to the sound.

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Hi guys, what sort of current is required to drive these mini pc's?

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The Atom and equivalent boards  don't need a lot. Total power consumed in full flight would be  20- 22W, possibly less with SSD.  

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I have been using the SR50 shunt regulator in a number of my projects and it seems to do a good job.

http://www.ebay.com/itm/SR50-Variable-Shunt-Voltage-Regulator-5-50V-8A-DIY-Kit-for-Amplifier-/221233153412

post-131373-0-55132800-1432024517_thumb.

Cost is $30 and you can get all the other parts to build a cased unit from Jaycar.

I swapped out the supplied electrolytic caps for Nichicon Gold tune/ Muse as I had them in my parts bin.

Audio-Gd will supply you with a good quality R-core with 10v and 15v taps for $35 plus postage if you want .

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Thanks for the answer on the Teradak, @@Tasso, it now comes down to whether to continue with the Mac (and a new power supply) or have a go at building another machine using a Linux based player. I see the point with the NUC and the SOTM Card and I can also see that the compactness and "complete unit" concept of the NUC means that very few changes can be made to the hardware, whereas with a small mother board in a capacious case, modifications over time would be less of a challenge.

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whether to continue with the Mac (and a new power supply) or have a go at building another machine using a Linux based player

 

I said 'why not both!?' and ran Linux on the macmini...  but right now I am using Windows the most.

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I was determined to run the server headless - ie it will automatically boot into the player software without keyboard, screen etc and can be accessed by iPad. Some packages require their own HDD for convenient installation but those with software skills may find an easier way. I am not one of those so to compare how each sounded, I was swapping boot drives.

The Linux drive had several Linux players installed but Vbox and Daphile needed their own ( Daphile can be run from a USB stick to try it out )

a5655150b9aad8778b5c6fc4ff857a10.jpg

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk

Edited by Tasso

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Thanks Tasso for a concise write up on your progress to computer audio. Very informative, and yet, I feel there is more to come!!

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It is very hard to generalise about digital transport tuning .... as it is so inextricably linked to what the receiver does with respect to electrical isolation and/or jitter immunity ---- devices out there are designed very differently on these front.

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It is very hard to generalise about digital transport tuning .... as it is so inextricably linked to what the receiver does with respect to electrical isolation and/or jitter immunity ---- devices out there are designed very differently on these front.

 

Quite right Dave...what works for the goose will not work for the gander.

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Guest myrantz

Quite right Dave...what works for the goose will not work for the gander.

Poor choice of words/idiom... Coz reading very quickly (as I always do) - you just called Tasso a goose.. :ph34r:  :ph34r:  :ph34r:  :ph34r:  :ph34r: 

Also... Shouldn't it be "What's good for the goose is good for the gander"? 

 

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It is very hard to generalise about digital transport tuning .... as it is so inextricably linked to what the receiver does with respect to electrical isolation and/or jitter immunity ---- devices out there are designed very differently on these front.

My decision to build the server was not for any cost saving considerations but to investigate and understand the machinations of CA beyond the the theories. I also have a couple of other hardware and software configurations I am testing at the same time. I have only reported on one.

Server streamer performance differences are often pinned to the way DACs handle the incoming signal and while this is relevant, my objective is to focus on what, if anything at all,a better server can bring. I would also be very keen to discover through actual trials, whether any specific DAC or Chipset is 100% immune to electrical noise.

The only possible way to test any hypothesis Is through experimentation which is the process I have embarked upon. Work done by John Swensen and others do prove that galvanic isolation can be breached but beyond that, it's time to test theories.

I am keen to find out more about the impact of my approach ( and that of 100% of streamer manufacturers) on different devices. So if anyone would like to be part of the experiments with their gear please let me know ( would need to be local for obvious reasons) .

Also, I would be grateful if anyone could point out what they consider to be state of the art DACs or chipsets that are immune to the issues commonly associated with CA. I will endeavor to experiment with those as well.

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