I’ve never been displeased with the price performance of the Creative/E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 [DAC] MIDI audio interface, but seeing as how I mostly use it for music listening I’m not super reliant on the latest and greatest drivers, it’s worked fine with OS X.
From past experience, I know configuring just about any USB audio interface in Windows XP was a headache, and I am told Vista/Win7 fixes some of the audio path issues. But I don’t run Windows 7. I have 10.6.8 on my systems now, the Mini is the main playback hub. The E-MU drivers for it were old, think Rosetta, possibly PowerPC binaries, as in old, but they worked. And despite being capable, Creative/E-MU has never enabled 24 bit 192KHz playback with the 0404 USB under OS X. I’m sure it’s possible. This is all to say, when I updated to the latest drivers for 32/64 bit Snow Leopard / Lion compatibility I just wanted to make sure it didn’t break anything, if it sounds better, great, so long as it doesn’t break functionality.
I can’t hear any difference but it didn’t seem to break anything. Still no 192KHz up-sampling option.
On a side note, C says it’s not worth it yet to sync all the songs to the cloud, too much lag, in which case I need to upgrade to a 1TB 9.5mm 2.5″ SATA drive in the Mini, as I’m running low on space. I like having most albums at 16bit/44.1KHz lossless audio, and I occasionally buy CD’s and rip it to such. For streaming over the cloud 320kbps .mp3/aac seems to be standard. At $5/mo Spotify doesn’t sound very good, comparatively, $10/mo apparently bumps the streaming quality. At home FLAC/Apple Lossless sounds better, for sure.
On my EMU 0404 USB DAC I’m forced to “balun” from the TRS output into the Denon PMA-850’s RCA line input (note: in this configuration I’m using the EMU 0404 as a pre-amp as well). Sadly the PMA-850 has been blowing fuses and has started to sound muddy and as much as I’d like to pull it apart it’s full of 1970s Japanese solid state circuit technology that I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing with. The LM1875/LM3886 & LM4780 [etc] packages (aka Gainclones or Chip Amps) have a really simple circuit topology and as a result have become really quite popular over the past decade in the DIY audio community.
So I’m excited to finally do some soldering and enclosure design for this kit. Also, I was able to breadboard a slightly better power supply circuit for the EMU 0404 using a LM317 chip; I have a decent 7.5V DC 2A wall wart that I could use to feed the LM317 and then down-regulate to 5V DC 1A for cleaner audio. In my tests, using a bank of D alkaline batteries, there was a definite increase in clarity. My one concern with the EMU 0404 is whether the USB is galvanically/transformer isolated from the line outputs, as I’m sure the USB out of the Mac Mini server is not great for noise. Again, in my limited tests, the external linear regulated LM317 power supply using both USB and Toslink SPDIF inputs improved bass and high-end clarity.
Also, I’ll probably be adding some speaker toe spikes to the old Advent Heritage tower speakers. I found some cheap ones @Parts-Express, $0.48 each. Not bad.
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it spend all weekend working out Ubuntu 8.04 command line shell commands to make a beautiful thing happen? Namely, mount an Apple Time Capsule share over ethernet via Samba/CIFS and and then serve the data via mt-daapd to iTunes and Airport Express. All from the command line baby. Yeah. Compile that package of Netatalk with libcrack2 and ssl. Talk to me dirty with inexplicable buffer writes in vi baby. And you’ll do a lot of apt-get. And if you’re lucky you’ll do a few apt-get purge(s) thrown in there for good measure.
What about mounting the Time Capsule in Ubuntu? Shouldn’t that be simple beans? You know, smbclient, smbfs, and GO right? It just works. Hah. Apple doesn’t exactly have a support page for this sort of thing. The crux of it for me was the domain=workgroup option, and figuring out that with Netatalk everything referenced .local addresses no the local IPs for some reason. Whatever. The FLAC flows now. OGG, wavpac, you name it, this little Linux machine can serve it to iTunes whole. No more dealing with that cursed iTunes XML library. Unless of course you want to put music on your iPod. I still don’t have that part completely figured out. My feeling is you copy and add music as you want it on your iPod.
Got the two Airport Express Base Stations working on the network with Airtunes & iTunes. I bought an older 802.11b/g one for wired usage and an 802.11n one for wireless audio in the kitchen. I had to do hard resets on both of them before they’d show up on the Airport Utility. I turned off wireless on the b/g one and told it to use Airtunes via ethernet. The newer 802.11n Express joins our existing Time Capsule 802.11n network. Optical SPDIF out from the wired b/g Express goes into the E-MU 0404 DAC, unbalanced RCA analog line into the old Denon amplifier. Works well. Pretty light, open and clear DAC on the high end. These old Bose speakers were never much for bass anyhow, and we don’t like to annoy the building.
Apparently Hulu’s content providers (which I believe includes FOX & NBC) decided to pull their support for Boxee. Now if you haven’t been following Boxee, they are one of the few companies actually making inroads into “set-top conversion” software, allowing people with computers to get the TV shows they want legally from their computers onto actual television screens. It’s sad really, that this should be an issue. Almost every show we watch online (legally, usually via the networks’ streaming sites) usually only has one commercial. So if you’re watching an hour of television at NBC.com and you’re hoping for a variety of commercials you’ll be disappointed, you’ll simply get the same commercial over and over again. How is it they can’t figure this out? I distinctly remember watching a Verizon LG Chocolate phone commercial approximately 30 times (with the Feist song as soundtrack) as multiple episodes of a show simply had the same commercial.
Anyhow, at some point I’m going to try and put together a small low power HTPC that can record and playback at least a 720p stream. Most of the Intel Atom motherboards simply have abysmal video performance and NVIDIA is supposed going to release something soon (and possibly a new Mac Mini). XMBC or Boxee, or even XP Media Center would work as far as a front end. My requirements are pretty minimal, I’d like to have a Firefly MT-DAAPD server running for music (transcoding .flac to .wav for iTunes/Airtunes) and possibly a second instance of it running for the rest of the mp3/aac/m4a’s. I’d probably record shows via the SiliconDust HDHomeRun, which would give two tuners for playback/recording. Mostly the challenge has been finding something that is close to silent and fanless (especially as the Atom could be fanless) but it really hasn’t been optimized for HTPC applications yet. OSX86 (search “Hackintosh”) with Boxee and Elgato EyeTV could potentially be an option as well. MythTV could work too. Who knows? Right now I’m pretty happy with the Airtunes and Firefly setup.
So I bit the bullet and ordered a couple of Airport Express base stations so that I can finally listen to music over both ethernet and 802.11n. A small miracle, the old Dell P3 is able to transcode the FLAC on a USB hard disk drive attached to the Time Capsule (a Samba share via Bonjour in Windows XP mind you) and serve it via Firefly to the iTunes (as uncompressed .WAV with track info) on our Mac laptops. So now, when I get the Airport Express base stations it should be a matter of selecting both “kitchen” and “living room” in the Airtunes settings and bingo bango, I’m done. Music everywhere. If I’m ever flush I could use an iPod touch or iPhone to remote control via the mobile interface, however, I’m holding out until they offer 802.11n 5 GHz as a feature. I don’t understand how Apple could push so hard for 802.11n and then not have it on the products that are supposed to integrate into the “home media system”. So I think this is it. It’s the end of the odyssey. If Z’s in the kitchen with her laptop she can select music from the MP3 library via her iTunes, or if I want to listen to FLAC I select the Firefly Share. Simple as that, really.
Oh the dream! You cannot just let it go. I swapped in C’s old 12GB (huge!) ATA 2.5″ laptop drive into the ‘ole Dell Inspiron 4000 and Windows 2000 booted up normally, ever so slightly faster than Windows XP SP3. This HD drive was from an even slower Dell that had died on me, something like 733 MHz. So now what?
Install Foobar 9.4.5 (last version that runs under Windows 2000)
Post installation disable all Quicktime and iTunes automatic updates
Configure Foobar2000 for your ASIO or Kernel Streaming sound card
Load iTunes library and listen to playback.
Thanks to Mr. Connock for the tip. I had never heard of this particular plugin to bypass the kmixer before, and there is some debate of course as to whether this really does anything. Honestly, Windows Vista does a much better job (so I hear, get it?) with not molesting audio streams so if you have the horsepower by all means upgrade to Vista. Don’t let me or Bill Gates or Jerry Seinfeld stop you.
I was surprised how easily this setup considering the lengths I gone through with XP to achieve similar results. So yeah, I’m happy to have iTunes to manage the music and Foobar2000 to send the ASIO stream out. The best of both worlds if you will. Of course if you use an actual iPod you’d need to either have a different user account with a newer version of iTunes or an entirely separate system for docking/syncing as iTunes 7.0.2 is woefully out of date. In theory an external drive could share or serve the music over your LAN, but I just want to listen to the music, man.
I’ve spent more time these past 6-8 months developing a functional web server/daemon/player for playing back lossless audio than I care to admit. If I were smarter I’d simply use iTunes like the other 5 billion people on the planet with iPods and call it day, except that the audio collection has spiraled out of control and just about everything with Apple and iTunes is proprietary. The idea started with putting Zoe’s old Dell Inspiron 4000 laptop in the closet (with a screaming Pentium III 900 MHz processor) and I figured “hey that’s more than enough power to act as an audio server/player, right?” Well, yes and no.
Part I: ripping the collection, which format? Again, if I had taken the easy road (iTunes) Apple recently added the Apple Lossless Format to the lineup for M4A files. It’s very similar to FLAC which stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. So why use something free and open source? Well when I’ve ripped 200 CD’s I don’t want to find out that Apple updated QuickTime to some incompatible version or even more likely is that I’ll need to convert my Apple Lossless files to another format, which as it turns out is not so easy (see proprietary). So to cover my bases I’ve been ripping CD’s to FLAC with Cue Sheets and 320 kbit/s MP3 using the LAME encoder. My preference is for the awesome Exact Audio Copy (precise German ripping) and have been playing around with MAREO to do multiple command line outputs.
Part II: how slow is that 900MHz Pentium III? Well, mostly it’s a RAM issue (currently 128MB) running Windows XP. The cost to upgrade the RAM to 512MB would be nearly $100 for an 8 year old laptop (it’s in the late Winter of its life). So then what? Run XP slowly. What audio player if not iTunes? (because iTunes is a resource hog). Well originally everyone loved Foobar2000 and it’s mostly free/open and sounded good until version 9.5.3 crapped out and stopped playing FLAC files with embedded cuesheets. Media Monkey (based on Winamp) is my new sweetheart. Reasonable overhead, works with ASIO and Kernel Streaming Output plug-ins, similar layout to iTunes and is way better at batch organization and embedding album cover images.
Many will ask why I didn’t simply use SlimServer and buy a Slim Devices Squeezebox 3? Well, I tried SlimServer and it brought the system to a crawl (likely 512MB is needed). Also, I have an old Edirol UA-5 (by Roland) external USB-DAC which doesn’t function as a stand alone DAC and the SqueezeBox 3 requires one for optimal sound reproduction.
Part III: Remote control via the iPhone, BlackBerry & Web Browser. Right now there are a few simple web servers for Winamp that create a text file for play list control and creates a basic HTML interface for BlackBerry http control. Signal from Alloy Software, supposedly is the best interface right now for iPhones and iPod Touch remote control. In theory the ~$200 iPod Touch is the ultimate media center remote. It’s 802.11g enabled and with Signal the native iPod music interface on the Touch becomes the remote (on a PC it can control iTunes, Winamp, or Windows Media Center). Slick. Worst case you turn on your other computer and run VNC or browse using a non-mobile browser. I expect with the upcoming iPhone 3G 2.0 (and Touch) release Apple has a few tricks up its sleeves similar to the AJAX and Google Code Telekinesis remote control of OS X. The safebets for a Winamp server are is the low overhead old version of WWWinamp Server (my favorite so far) and the new version currently being developed by Eric Nusbaum requires Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 to run (.NET was something of a pain).
Part IV: No end in sight? I think once all the CDs are ripped and all the MP3s are sorted and presuming the Dell Inspiron doesn’t die on us anytime soon, I’ll be satisfied. The system sounds good for what it is, thrown together somewhat piecemeal. The amp is a 1979 Denon PMA-850 and I’m sending the USB-DAC direct bypassing the preamp stage. The speakers are crazy old Bose 301 Series II of Z’s dad. It somehow works. How much of a difference is there between FLAC and 320 kbit/s MP3s? A little bit. A tad richer, a bit more textured, bass and highs seem to have “more” umpf and depth. This really isn’t the system to do a comparison on. The air conditioners in our courtyard are loud, it’s like 95 degrees out and we have three box window fans. It’s loud, so you see how it goes. God bless you if you read all this