Our household is Wi-Fi allergic. Exposure creates ‘mushy brain’ and eventual headaches. It can make hanging out in a busy inner city uncomfortable wherever multiple WiFi networks overlap to intensify the radiation. Turning on an iPad’s Wi-Fi in immediate proximity creates instant brain leach, soon migraines. It’s not Better Call Saul’s brother barricaded in a house sans electricity whilst wearing tinfoil suits extreme; but bad enough to have us hardwire our computers back to the fibre-optic modem and leave the cell phone in the car for emergencies only to run an old-fashioned landline indoors. Given modern server/streamers with their reliance on wireless signal and tablet/smartphone remotes, our household had to find hardwired alternatives. Today’s article is a mini primer on just how simple that can be.
It’s nothing more than using a big iMac retrofitted with extra RAM; an external 4TB SanDisk Thunderbolt 3 SSD; Audirvana Origin; a $579 ‘audiophile’ network switch; and a €699 USB bridge with super-cap power supply. Let’s break down these components and what their job descriptions entail. Essentially these four pieces of kit do what headless audiophile server/streamers typically bundle in a single enclosure accessed via smartphone/tablet app. Let’s start with the iMac. Mine is a new-old-stock year 2020 27” version which I bought last week new and sealed. I went for the smallest built-in SSD and RAM. €2’050 bought 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM. Apple charges extortionist extra coin for more storage/memory when one can readily buy aftermarket RAM for far less. Likewise for a bigger outboard SSD. What’s more, loading a local music library onto external SSD makes an eventual replacement easier; and the drive can unplug to front another system. The 27” iMacs with Intel processors all had a small rear hatch to gain access to four RAM slots. Amazon last week sold 2 x 16GB drop-in cards for €100. With 2 x 4GB installed, that now gives me 40GB total. My old iMac had 32GB so I know that to be more than enough for my pure music needs.
My now retired +9-year-old 27” iMac still ran a latter-day version of iTunes and my local library lived on its built-in 3TB FusionDrive. The French music player Audirvana up to its latest legacy 3.2xx version which my aging OS supported operated behind the iTunes GUI. That bypassed the macOS sound engine, disabled all non-essential computing threads, loaded music into RAM then spun down the FusionDrive. My new iMac came pre-installed with Apple Music since iTunes is now officially dead. Apple Music only handles cloud files. My new iMac also came with macOS Monterey which I overwrote with Ventura 13.3 to be current. Then I downloaded the Mac version of Audirvana Origin to expand my existing Origin license from the Win10/64 work PC. As long as one doesn’t attempt to run the same license on multiple computers simultaneously, this is perfectly legit. Now Audirvana Origin runs its own library-view skin or GUI without piggybacking on iTunes, again handles all signal routing, RAM buffering and disabling of non-playback background threads. By sitting right next to my listening seat, its big 5K Retina display with Origin’s dark mode really looks the business. It’s far bigger than any Wi-Fi tablet remote would ever be; and more importantly, is hardwired via 20m CAT8a Ethernet cable. That runs from the fiber-optic router/modem in my office along its floorboard across the entry hall into my music room where it sees a LHY Audio SW-8 from China’s Jay’s Audio. This Ethernet switch runs a linear power supply, top-quality voltage regulators and a high-quality temperature-controlled crystal oscillator. It also acts as a noise barrier to the WorldWildWest. A short 50cm CAT8 leash connects it to the iMac’s network port. Without unplugging a cable or turning off our fiber-optic router/modem, I can disable network access with the LHY’s mains switch.
99%+ of all my music-room listening is to local files on the 4TB SSD. It’s why I didn’t buy the Audirvana Studio license. Like Roon, that would integrate local files with my Qobuz Sublime subscription (and/or Tidal et al). But whenever I fire up the LHY to be online, I have instant access to Qobuz, Spotify, YouTube, Bandcamp & Bros. With the Origin license specific to local files, I can offline to evade the evil eye in the sky that’s always watching. That also cuts any potential ultrasonic LAN noise that might still pass the LHY switch. At its USB output, the iMac sees a Singxer SU-6 bridge which inserts another buffer and temperature-controlled crystal oscillator before it hands still digital but now noise-stripped and reclocked signal off to my DAC via AES/EBU. If my current DAC did I²S over HDMI, I’d use that interface instead.
All the things which so-called audiophile server/streamers do to optimize their operation for music playback my 4-piece assembly does as well. My CPU load on the macOS is as low as 0.2% when music plays. It’ll temporarily increase to ~1% as Audirvana Origin reads new files to RAM. That goes extremely fast. Then it drops again to virtually nothing. Ultra-low CPU activity means lower noise and less heat so better performance. Plus, only the macOS and Audirvana Origin reside on the built-in 256GB SSD. My music library lives on its own external drive while the extra RAM I bought builds in headroom and allows for a larger buffer size.
Yeah-buttniks now cry murder most foul. They point their pitchforks at the iMac’s nefarious switching power supply. Hold the fire. When I reviewed a Greek power conditioner with lab-type line diagnostics, I made it a point to check what kind of noise it measured when various SMPS went live. All of the class D amps I had on hand caused instant spikes on the line. Yet with the iMac, nothing happened. Whether on or off, streaming music or sitting idle, the conditioner’s line diagnostics couldn’t see it. By selling globally and because of its sheer size, Apple are under intense and constant scrutiny relative to emissions compliance under various jurisdictions. They certainly know how to engineer a switching power supply that allows hospitals to install an iMac right next to sensitive medical equipment without causing any issues.
The yeah-buttniks cry wolf again, this time insisting that proper audiophile streamers destroy my numbskull attempts at using a commercial computer for fine hifi. All I’ll say on the subject is that I’ve hosted such machines up to €20K. When it came time to redo my main system’s server/streamer last week, I opted for an iMac instead. Again. You do the math. If there are sonic differences, I find them far too insignificant to bother with only to pay a lot more whilst struggling to execute the no-Wi-Fi brief. But I do find a quality software player like Audirvana, HQPlayer et al mandatory to optimize a stock computing platform; and a quality USB bridge necessary to bring sonics up to par with a high-quality CD transport. I happen to love the big iMac hardware. In my price range I’m not aware of a Windows equivalent I’d rather have. Using an iMac is simply no prerequisite. Nor is using Audirvana if you fancy Lumin’s app more; or Euphony, HQPlayer or Roon. And whilst the NOS stock of 27”iMacs will shortly expire, a current 24” version could easily stand in. By bundling RAM on their own M-range processors, Apple now simply control the pricing of extra RAM. One can no longer slide in 3rd-party cards on the sly. I in fact was all set to go down that 16GB 24” road when I spotted a lone 27” display iMac at a local Big Box store. It had me ask their better competitor whether any such inventory remained. It did. In stock. Ready to go. Priced like a current 24” no less. It took only a few minutes to decide on the bigger display and welcome option to install more random-access memory. So there you have it: my excuse for still not owning a ’proper’ audiophile music server/streamer. In fact, my second system currently runs Shanling’s €469 M3 Ultra player as a USB-C microSD server; into another super-cap powered USB bridge this time from Soundaware.
The Shanling is the very model John and I recently podcast reviewed. My extracurricular use of what’s primarily marketed as a ported head-fi player even inspired John to produce a video on using Sony’s NW-A306 in a similar albeit Wi-Fi fashion. For us, it’s simply gotta be hardwired. We be dogs on a leash. iMac downstairs, Shanling upstairs, that’s how we bark and roll. If you want to know more about what Audirvana Origin looks like installed on Venture 13.3 across sundry windows, go here.
Over and out.