High End Audio is one of those domains which has witnessed and greatly benefitted from, the revolutionary changes in the engineering domain over decades, be it in electronics, mechanical, electrical, material science and nowadays even in software. Over time, the way audiophiles listen to and enjoy music has seen a huge change and the case with the recording side of music, is not any different. The journey starting from vinyl records to the high bit rate and high resolution audio formats of today, is a clear evidence of that. With evolving technology, there have been a bunch of cool gadgets around the corner which would fascinate the DIY-er audiophile and make him think how he could include them into his audio setup. This article is focused on such an audiophile, talking about the various possibilities that these new gadgets bring to the table, to help enhance the music listening experience.
Any technological upgrade always catches the attention of the DIY-er first, well before the rest of the world even hears about it. As of today, the world of electronics and software is changing at a tremendous pace and is a lot more accessible to the layman than it ever had been before. There are tools and products out there which encourage people to reverse engineer devices and ‘hack’ into things to make them work the way they want them to. (The term ‘Hacking’ has been given a very negative connotation over the years, mainly by the media. As Dr. Richard M. Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Movement and the GNU project puts it, the term ‘Hacker’ refers to anyone who is exploring the limits of what is possible, in a spirit of playful cleverness. And he does not limit the usage of the word to just computer professionals. If you are exploring the limits of what music can do, you can be a ‘music hacker’. If you have been fiddling around a lot with carpentry to make something cool out of wood, you are a ‘carpentry hacker’ and so on. To refer to all the illegal and negative stuff which the word ‘hacking’ is being used for, as of today, use the word ‘cracking’ instead and to refer to the one who does that, use the word ‘cracker’.)
Open Source Movement
This was something which really changed the world for the DIY-ers. This movement granted them absolute freedom into exploring things. This was a movement by the DIY-ers, of the DIY-ers and for the DIY-ers. Earlier, people used to spend hours together reverse engineering a proprietary device’s PCB (Printed Circuit Board) copper track print to figure out the circuit schematic so that they could either modify the device itself to do fun stuff or to replicate the whole device themselves with some minor modifications on them or sometimes just for the sake of using a small part of the design in some other hobby project of theirs. This used to happen in most other domains of engineering too. That’s when a group of DIY-ers, some of whom were industry experts, came out with the idea of Open Sourcing their work. This movement started off mainly in the software domain where the developer would openly share his code with fellow developers who had complete freedom of modification and reuse, without the fear of any copyright infringement. This philosophy later extended to most other disciplines like electronics, mechanical engineering, etc. and even into growing home gardens. How cool is that!
People started open sourcing their printed circuit board designs, mechanical CAD drawings of machine parts, etc. and this gave rise to a lot of new entrepreneurial ventures coming out with interesting and innovative products which the bigger brands of the world would never even have thought of.
Single Board Computers (SBC)
All the changes happening within the DIY world sparked the beginning of a new era of computing. Desktop and laptop computers started looking too old school for the DIY community. Compact yet powerful computing devices were the order of the day. More and more processors came out in the market with a very small form factor, with very low power requirements, that they could be used within battery operated devices. Due to the competition in the semiconductor industry, the prices of these processor chips went down drastically that even a layman DIY-er could easily afford one of them and use them in his/her designs. Now, this had a huge impact on how people saw computing. Soon there was an increase in the number of ‘homebrew’ computers, most of whose designs were open-sourced by the creators and soon there were communities and online discussion forums forming around these designs. Later different communities would merge to come out with a new design. There was this ‘computing’ madness everywhere.
These computers got tinier and tinier over time that they would end up being just as big as a credit card (sometimes even smaller). They were fully functional computers with all of the required hardware on a ‘single board’. Hence the name, “Single Board Computer”.
Inspired by Acorn Computers’ BBC Micro of 1981, Eben Christopher Upton, the founder and former trustee of the Raspberry Pi Foundation (now CEO of the Raspberry Pi Trading Company), assembled a group of academics, teachers and computer enthusiasts to devise a computer for children. The early versions of his computer, in 2006, were based on the Atmel Atmega644 microcontroller. Later he moved to an ARM (Advanced RISC Machines) based design which was the size of a USB memory stick with a HDMI port on one end and a USB port on the other.
Iterations over iterations later led to the Raspberry Pi as we see today which has already taken the world by storm. The kind of applications it has been put into use for is simply overwhelming. The latest model is called the “Raspberry Pi 2” which is on sale across the world for US$ 35. It is a magical piece of hardware (not to mention the software running on it). The huge community support that the RPi has is enough reason to go grab one and start tinkering with.
For more information on the RPi kindly click on this—LINK.
There is this new single board computer around the corner from the Next Thing Co. It boasts about itself as the World’s First $9 Computer and they say it’s “built for work, play and everything in between”. It has enough features on it to make a DIY-er drool over. No doubt it got an overwhelming backing on the crowd funding platform Kickstarter. It has a 1 GHz processor from Allwinner Technology, 512 MB of RAM, 4GB of on-board storage, on-board WIFI (802.11 B/G/N) and Bluetooth 4.0. Most importantly CHIP works with any kind of screen. They also provide CHIP in a portable package which they call the PocketC.H.I.P. which is absolutely fabulous. For all these features, I feel $9 is pretty much a throw-away price.
For more information on the C.H.I.P. kindly click on this—LINK.
There are a plenty of other devices in the market like the Samsung Artik, HummingBoard SBC Family, UDOO, Odroid-U3, Parallella, CubieTruck, BeagleBone Black, Cubieboard, Hackberry, APC Rock, etc. The list just goes on. There are just too many options out there and it all boils down to what exactly we need for our application and then picking the one matching our criteria and our budget.
SBCs In High End Audio
Now comes the most important part. We understand that the aforementioned devices come with great advantage and great computational power. Using that power to enhance the audio experience or perhaps even transform the experience into something completely new is what interests an audiophile the most. Well. There are a plenty of use cases to these devices in HiFi Audio. Let us have a look at a few of them.
Hi-Res Music Player
This is one of the most basic uses of these devices, nevertheless the greatest use too. There are a plenty of reasons as to why this setup will simply rock! Let us take the Raspberry Pi as an example. The Raspberry Pi, just like any other computer, needs some software to be run on top of it, to make it do the necessary tasks/functions. There are a whole lot of operating systems and software packages available for the Raspberry Pi for doing various things. There are great music player software packages too, like Kodi (My favorite), Volumio, the XiX Music Player, RuneOS (a complete operating system for music playback; also available for multiple other single board computers), Pi MusicBox (a headless streaming audio player), RaspyFi, mpd (Music Player Daemon), etc. The list just goes on and on. Each of them is great and meant for a unique purpose. The choice of the player is totally up to the listener based on his/her tastes and preferences. Going back to Kodi, it is a very extensive software application which can handle video playback too. It provides us with a great user interface and tons of other options. It is more of a complete entertainment system than being just a music player. If you intend to plug your Raspberry Pi to the TV in your living room or listening room and want to sit back on the couch and browse the list of songs at ease, then this setup would be the best of all. Music can even be streamed to the Raspberry Pi from a music server running on some other device somewhere in your house. Kodi can playback music stored in a network location too.
Else, if you are just looking for a headless player type setup, with the Raspberry Pi not taking much of the center stage, applications like the Pi MusicBox, mpd, etc. would be the right way to go.
Most importantly, for any of the setups mentioned above, where the Raspberry Pi is the playback device, it is always advised to go for a dedicated high quality audio DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) since the on-board DAC of the Pi is not really up to the mark. It just does not fare well with the job of reproducing music. PERIOD.
If you own multiple networked HiFi audio setups in different rooms, throughout your house, connected with a good Ethernet/WiFi network and want to make your entire music collection available on every device that you own, then you must be seriously considering the Network Audio Streaming option. These tiny, low-power computers are way too good for the job of streaming music to all your network music players over your home network, simultaneously. This has been dealt with in great detail in our earlier blog posts titled “HiFi Music Streaming: What Is It All About?” (Parts 1 – 3). If the Raspberry Pi is the hardware being used, then it shall be coupled with any one of the software applications like Kodi, Subsonic, MusicBox, etc. to achieve the task of setting up a music server. Plug in the hard drive or an SD card which contains all of your digital music collection into the Raspberry Pi and with some adjustments to the configuration settings of the software application, you should be good to go.
If you are an audiophile looking forward to adding a new music source to your existing setup, then you might consider the option of using the Raspberry Pi as a music renderer which plays back music data received over the network from a music server, over protocols like UPnP. Software applications like Pi MusicBox, RuneAudio and mpd shall be coupled with the Raspberry Pi to function like a headless music player unit which can be controlled by way of a web interface or through mobile applications running on Android smartphones/tablets or iPhones.
The journey of an audiophile has always been a very interesting one. It is an exhilarating experience. Being an audiophile involves constant tweaking of the system at hand and looking forward to new additions and modifications that can be made to the HiFi setup to juice out more from the system. The options available today for such tweakers and tech enthusiast audiophiles are enormous. This article was an attempt to introduce some of those options available for DIY-er audiophiles.
Looking forward to coming back with yet another interesting article. Until then, so long!
This post is prepared by Vinay.