Examining Your Playback Options

Jason Victor Serinus on May 15, 2012

Today you can easily enjoy music with a clarity and immediacy unknown only a few decades ago. The question is how to make smart decisions about the equipment you need to play music from downloaded or physical media. Affordable means one thing to an executive of Wells Fargo Bank and another to a student, freelance journalist, or senior on a fixed income.

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But for those whose budget allows, two all-in-one players from Bay Area companies, the Oppo BDP-95 ($999) and slightly less expensive Oppo BDP-93 NuForce Edition allow you to play music files stored on a Hard Drive or computer (WAV and FLAC) as well as CD, SACD, HDCD-encoded discs, DVD Audio and Video, Blu-ray, and CD-R. Equally adept with two-channel and surround sources, the Oppo BDP-95 even plays 3D video with a picture and sound quality unbeatable for the price.

For those able to invest in a music server that will access both CDs and digital audio files, and display metadata and album art in ways that other appliances have yet to equal, let alone surpass, the Meridian Digital Media System, formerly known as Meridian-Sooloos, receives a strong endorsement from both Michael Lavorgna of Audiostream.com and composer/musician Jon Iverson of Stereophile.

“If you don’t have the finances for a Meridian, but you have a computer, and want to play the music you’ve been downloading and ripping through your hi-fi, the easiest and simplest first step is to buy a Logitech Squeezebox,” says Lavorgna. “Or, if your computer is close to your sound system, you can use a USB DAC [Digital Audio Converter]. You can use a Mac Mini, rather than a dedicated music server, for storing your music.” (See my 2009 article for more information. Note that a host of new USB DACs and computer-to-DAC interfaces (for DACs that lack USB inputs) have been released since this article was published. I currently use the SOtM dX-USB HD as an interface between my computer and DAC.)

While an iTunes/iPad interface can also access metadata and album art, its method of organization (which I use) looks Neanderthal compared to the ease of Meridian. As for Apple’s Cloud music service, its low mp3 resolution suggests a rather dark cloud.

PC users who play music files through their computers can easily get better sound than iTunes provides. Both Lavorgna and Iverson recommend dbpoweramp for ripping audio CDs with bit-perfect accuracy, converting file formats, and burning your own CDs.

Mac users would be wise to use XLD for bit-perfect ripping and file conversion (e.g., for converting FLAC, which Macs cannot play, to aiff, wav, or apple lossless). For superior quality playback, Amarra, Pure Music, Audirvana, and BitPerfect are just some of the programs available that yield far better sound than iTunes. Personally, I use Amarra 2.4, whose price has just dropped significantly.

For music lovers on a budget who wish to extract better sound from their LPs, Michael Fremer of Stereophile recommends the Pro-Ject Carbon turtable. “If you set it up correctly, it can demonstrate what you can get from vinyl that you can’t get from CD, and it won’t ruin your records. It comes with a decent cartridge, and there’s a wonderful DVD [by Fremer] about setting it up properly. If you can spend more, get a Rega P3; its Exact cartridge is pretty good.”

For bargain LP playback option, Stephen Mejias of Audiophile recommends the Music Hall USB-1 turntable. This all-in-one unit can play vinyl directly through powered loudspeakers, a hi-fi-set, or a computer. You can even use it to digitize your LPs into audio files playable on your computer or iPod.