Music streaming versus high-end CD

Adrian CowderoyLinn Majik DSThe cost and risks of music streaming technology deterred me, compared to CD. I was convinved there must be a way. Digital is the way forward.

Lifestyle | Fears | Catalyst | Why stream? | Which streamer? | The result

The lifestyle lure

I’m house proud. My collection of over 1500 CDs was taking a huge amount of wall space. I want the space for books. (Some books are too special to be only digital.)

Laptop sound. I hated playing MP3’s on my laptop with its little speakers, the sound of streamed radio was a million miles from the HiFi sound, and video with thin sound was unappetising.

Stacked CDs. In multi-CD sets, I wanted to be able to listen the CDs end-to-end without unscheduled interruptions half way through an opera or rock concert. For other music I wanted a random and repeat buttons that would work over several CDs.

Sound fidelity. And most of all, I dreamed of taking my music to a new level of fidelity. But I feared quality music streaming was impossible without unbelievable sums of money.

Risks of music streaming

Total cost. The promotions of companies like Naim scared me. You need £2000 for a streamer and £850 for a player, but they recommend the £3k streamer plus £3k power supply. Ayy! This is crazy money.

Lost quality. The principles of streaming is that it’s better to rip the CD with 100% accuracy, and use computer memory to deliver the music with greater timing reliability than a rotating disc can achieve. Snag is, I’ve been bitten before by wild exaggerations in the HiFi industry: interconnect cables that make no difference, CDs which initially failed to outperform LPs. I feared a loss of quality.

Complexity. The technobabbel in the promos worried me. And the emphasis on iPad and iPhone made me worry about whether I would have problems using my trusted PC.

The catalyst for change

For me, the decision was forced by the impending death of my CD player. Damage to the main drive meant that it could only play half of my CD collection, and the problem was getting worse. Often when I played CDs it jumped from one place to another – very distracting, especially when the music is loud.

The faulty CD was an old Naim CD5. It’s powered by a magically effective Avondale TPX2 power supply and supported by a stack of Mana tables.

Why stream music?

I had a choice. There are excellent CD players available, and some of the high-end equipment is available in good second-hand condition. I also toyed with the idea of a cheaper CD player feeding digitally into a high-end DAC. But it still meant that much of one wall of the study would be covered in CDs, which is a valuable waste of space. And a few of the CDs are deteriorating and will one day have to be replaced – CDs are not forever but, with attention, digital could be.

Streaming from a NAS is the right way forward. The question was whether I could get sufficient quality for my money.

Which NAS drive?

There was a simple and cheap solution for this – see http://www.adriancowderoy.com/index.php/posts/nas-drives-for-home-use/

Which music streamer?

I auditioned 3½ streamers. All were heard with Naim pre and power amps and speakers costing collectively £60k – massively over-the-top compared to the price of the streamers, but I wanted to make sure they introduced nothing impure into the music chain.

  • Linn Sneaky DS. Amazingly good for the price. I could have lived with the sound of this, except that the others delivered more and the Sneaky has a utilitarian cost-saving style reminiscent of kit made 20 years ago.
  • Linn Magik DS. Very musical, with deep sound stage, amazing dynamics and crystal sharp voices.
  • Naim ND5 XS. A similar level of quality to the Linn. Some things sounded slightly better on one and some on the other.
  • Naim ND5 XS with the external XPS power supply. There was a clear improvement, but at triple the price the improvement did not seem to justify the money.

The choice between Linn and Naim could not be made on music quality, so I chose on price and the ease of use of the software.

Linn Majik DS

The result

Overwhelming sound. Music streaming has worked better than I dreamed, opening new depths of detail so that recordings I thought dull have now come to life. The dynamics of pop are overwhelming, pressing against my chest and surrounding me; and similarly for the rhythmic power of strings and percussion. For the best CD recordings, there is so much to listen to, that it’s entirely about enjoying the music rather than worrying about the supposed limits of the technologies.

Recording limits. The change has also exposed the full glory and horrors of microphone technique, mixing and compression. For the very best, go for recent digital downloads of 24-bit recordings at 96 kbps (or 192 kbps) – more precision, and more detail.

Flexibility. Once I was through the cataloguing problem and had mastered Kinsky, it was easy, and more flexible and convenient than CDs had ever been.

7 comments to Music streaming versus high-end CD

  • Malcolm Robertson

    Adrian

    Like your site and it seems that we have similar tastes in life. I moved to streaming staying with same brand as most of my HiFi eqpt, Cyrus. For a month the X2 streamer (with WAV and FLACC) from Cyrus was not delivering the same level of detail as the CDXT SE2. Now I can’t tell the difference. My one question is which ripping program is the best for Apple computers to ensure that 100% of the data is really captured and transferred to the Nas drive? What are you now using to transfer the highest quality files?

  • Thanks for the feedback.

    I use DBPowerAmp < http://www.dbpoweramp.com/cd-ripper.htm > for ripping, but it’s only available on PC.
    There must surely be similar services for Mac.

    DBPowerAmp rereads the disc repeatedly to ensure it is consistent, and it checks on a central database with all the previous people who have ripped the disc to see if the filesize and checksum match. For about 95% of tracks, I have a perfect copy that does not miss a bit. But there are some where the CD was damaged, and a few where the mastering seems to be flawed and it can never get a perfect copy. However it still does well. Out of over 1000 CDs I own, only 2-3 have audible problems on the ripped product – and they were much worse when played direct from the CD.

  • Nikki Bevan

    Look I totally agree with ripping cds and streaming music but let’s not get to excited , there’s a big difference from being 20 yrs old and + 50 yrs old ( understand what I’m staying even if you can’t here me ) with age hearing deteriorates , you are very hard pressed to hear the difference between a top CD player and ripped cds so all this talk about hearing a massive improvement is utter rubbish , ( unless your system is crap , all the blab about listening to music from your computer speakers please , what do you expect , yes it is nice to have 2,000 tracks all stored ready to go , but let’s keep it all in prospective .

  • Well, I am 57 years old and I can hear so much improvement that I am resent recordings that are only available on CD.

    When using 24-bit instead of 16-bit, the mid-tones come out clearer giving more detail to accoustic instruments and to the human voice.
    The jump from 44.1 khz data rate to 88.2 or 96 is dramatic in the extra detail/precision – so much that I often avoid FLAC downloads that are just 24-bit. Other people listening to my system also hear a difference, including my mother.

    I can’t hear anything extra when it goes to 192 khz, but that may be a limit from my system. Sorry to break the £ news, but it is critical to get quality from every component in the HiFi system. Without that, there is no improvement beyond a well-recorded CD.

  • Just found your blog because I was worried about my (also 57 year old) ears – I’ve just bought a Naim ND5XS and cannot believe how good it sounds compared to my (previously utterly brilliant) Naim CDX. Even some 128k MP3 files are totally listenable and engaging, so my only worry is that you chose a Linn in preference (I still have an LP12). Since I’m otherwise a Naim only household and all the local Linn dealers have vanished the ND5XS was an obvious and so far totally satisfactory choice. Although it did force me to buy an iPad.

    So far my only aggravation is getting a cheap 1TB Freecom NAS Drive to expose its contents to the network, but the CDs are being ripped like there’s no tomorrow!

    Surprised that you notice much difference in higher bitrates and sampling frequencies – I haven’t, so far – and as a fellow CITP you might find https://xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html edifying; it certainly gave me a rational explanantion of my enjoyment of 320kbps mp3 files, which my hi-fi brain told me couldn’t possibly sound any good. However, no Cd will be ripped at less than flac quality!

    And Mr/Ms Bevan really does need to learn a few manners along with a spot of spelling.

  • Yes, it’s amazing how good streaming can be compared with CD. Reborn.

    I auditioned both the Linn and Naim – in the price range they were both great, with one slightly better in some areas and the other in other areas. So I went for the Linn because it was £100 cheaper. Having fought the software, I often wonder whether I made a mistake.

    At the time I wrote the article, I had a lovely system which showed everything – the good, and the bad. Unfortunately it showed there were a lot of CDs that were very badly recorded. My memory was that 24 bit 96bps created a sound stage that stretched to the far side of the house and beyond. (Whether this is good idea is unsure, when 20% of your CD collection is now unplayable.) Anyway, I burnt out my speakers and they burnt out my amps, and I didn’t have the money to sort them out. Although my luck is changing.

    You really do need top end systems to hear the difference, and you will need a period while your ears adapt to the difference.

    As for MP3. It depends on the compression when it’s created. The top end of MP3 can be staggering, and the bottom end truely horrendous. Compare it to JPG images for your camera – anything is possible.

  • Jonathan Tafler

    Love your enthusiasm. I am the same age as you but have a small child and possibly less disposable – I spent a longbtime today auditioning a Bluesound Vault (also high res audio) to integrate into my set up – it was terrific to my ears and I think this is the way to go.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

  

  

  

All categories