If someone had told me a computer would be part of my music set-up just two years ago, I’d probably have laughed out loud, told the person he was nuts and politely showed him the door.
For far too long, using a computer for music has meant putting up with the god-awful and lifeless sound of MP3s, a lossy compression format that just sucks the life out of music. Here’s the thing – I have a whole bunch of MP3s on my smartphone to listen to when I’m on the move, and they sound just fine through my headphones.
But play those MP3s through an amplifier and bigger speakers, and they sound like total and unadulterated crap. The treble sizzles, the midrange has no life and the sound just tires my ears after a while.
The change occurred when I got my new laptop (a HP ProBook 4530s), which has an HDMI output, loaded some FLAC files on the hard disc (a mixture of 16-bit/44.1KHz tracks ripped from CDs and high-resolution 24-bit/96KHz tracks) and then hooked up the computer to my Denon A/V receiver. All of a sudden, the laptop has become my favourite platform for playing back music.
The next few weeks were spent trawling through various forums and websites to acquaint myself with the best way of getting the music from my computer to the speakers – or as the technically minded would put it, bit perfect playback.
I finally settled on Foobar as my music player for several reasons. Foobar isn’t exactly user-friendly but it’s eminently suitable for tweaking and it’s available for free. (There are other highly recommended music players out there but I’m really not keen on spending a whole bunch of money on them till I’ve figured out how I intend to integrate a computer into my music set-up.)
Foobar tweaked to my satisfaction
The sound? I’m not going to get into a lot of gobbledygook about soundstages and rhapsodise about dynamics but I do know when I hear a good set-up. For some unfathomable reason, some albums ripped to FLACs sound better played back through the computer than the original CDs (though my main CD player is a rather long-in-the-tooth Pioneer DV-S757A universal player) while the 24/96 high-resolution tracks are as good or better than the best vinyl albums in my collection.
And I can use my smartphone as a remote control with the “foobar2000 controller” app (available for free with pesky advertisements or you could buy the pro version for less than $2 on Google Play). Keep in mind that the app uses your home wireless network to interface with your computer but it’s darned cool to be able to browse through all the music on your computer by categories such as album, artists or genre while bringing up the artwork of the album or track that’s currently playing on your smartphone.
Foobar controller on my phone
As with using a computer for other tasks, some fundamental rules apply. If you couldn’t be bothered about sound quality and just like the convenience of using your computer to play music, go ahead and fill your hard disc with MP3s and don’t bother to read any further. If you want the finest possible sound, remember the basic rule: Garbage in, garbage out.
Start by ripping your CDs or vinyl LPs to FLAC files, which take up more space but offer better sound as they’re lossless files. Then download software like MP3Tag (it’s free) so that you can properly tag your files and add album art work – this is important if you want speedy and accurate access to your music library.
If you want the best possible sound, think about investing in a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to squeeze the most out of those 1s and 0s. There’s a wide range of DACs out there, with prices ranging from less than $100 to several thousand dollars. Read the reviews available on the internet and choose according to your budget. However, it’s would help to get a DAC that accepts at least 24/96 through its USB input (even better if it can accept 24-bit/192KHz files – there are several websites that now offer 24/192 downloads).
Most important of all – backup, backup, backup. Computer files can get corrupted and believe me it’s no fun when that happens. I’m currently backing up all my music files on to blank DVDs and an external hard drive.
That’s brings us to the end of this first blog on integrating a computer into your music system but there will be more in the days to come.