A Music Playback System, and not a Squeezebox in sight

Posted by trig on July 8, 2014

Mark Waldrep of iTrax.com and AIC records has assembled a fine high-definition music playback system, built around a Benchmark DAC and a Mac Mini. No quibbles at all with those choices.

The Benchmark DAC is terrific - I've had one in my stereo system for years. What is surprising is that Mark has been a strong advocate of multi-channel music for years, and this project is just a stereo system. Building a high quality stereo system is probably not such a big challenge nowadays. What would have been fun and interesting would have been to hear Mark's take on the problems and pitfalls involved in building an equally high quality multi-channel system that could play back the great recordings available for download on iTrax.com. Maybe that's next; I hope so.

If you're going to use a Mac, then a Mini is a great choice for a player: small, quiet and reliable. But it turns out that if you're going to use a Mac as a play-back unit for a high-end system, you need to by-pass Core Audio, and this is why Amarra (from Sonic Studio for playback is also a good choice. However I have a soft spot for the minimalistic and lean Decibel, and think that deserves a mention. 

In an A/B comparison (using my Benchmark DAC) and a MacBook Pro, I really couldn't hear much difference in audio quality between Amarra and Decibel, and when I heard a difference, I somewhat preferred Decibel: at least, through my system with my ears. Your system and ears are different, so your results may differ too. Both of these apps offer free trials, with Decibel's being very generous. Decibel is also somewhat less expensive. Other Mac apps that get round the limitations of Core Audio include BitPerfect and PureAudio.

Mark's system is, strictly speaking, a player and storage system, not a "server". Why quibble? For people new to digital audio this could be misleading. A server-client architecture not only provides the ability to send music from one place (the server) to multiple destinations (the players) it also makes remote control of music selection and playback very straightforward. Moreover a true client-server setup makes it easier to keep acoustically and electrically noisy components such as fans and hard drives out of the listening room. 

The Squeezebox environment is a client-server environment. However ... (and, at last, here's the real reason for this blog entry) ... If I use a Mac Mini to build a playback device that works with Squeezebox, I can't confidently expect the audio quality to be as good as that in Mark Waldrep's system, despite the intrinsic playback superiority of a client-server arrangement. This is because of the Core Audio problem mentioned above. There is simply not a Squeezebox player for Mac that can seize control of Core Audio in the way that Decibel and similar apps do.

So ... This is an invitation to someone to build such an App - essentially a hybrid of Decibel and Squeezeplay (or Squeezelite). I would pay for a copy, if it was priced at the same level as Decibel. Maybe I'd pay more, but let's keep it below the price of Amarra. To the developer who takes this on: Please let us know when it's ready and we'll give it a road-test. Thank you.