Wednesday, December 7, 2011

PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC- A User's Experience of Creating "The" Music Server

The diabolical and extraordinary Melbourne writer, Paul Haines, is also a digital closet audiophile. He's just "come out" and published his experiences with the brilliant and expensive PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC and the PS Audio Perfect Wave Bridge which allows the DAC to work as a music server. Paul Haines, being the great dude he is, has given me permission to republish his experiences on "Adventures in HiFi". So here we go.

Paul writes:

For those who know me well, you will know that I am heavily into music. Can't play an instrument to save myself, although I used to be very good at playing the penis. There are some who know me that may equate 'heavily' with 'obsessed'. It's probably true, it is my biggest passion in life.

Several months ago I became interested in the concept of the Music Server as several audiophile technologies started to hit the home market. Now this whole area is still in fledgling days, as the audiophile geek now has to shake hands with the computer/network geek and normally these two geeks haven't been seen in the same shop, most damningly behind the counter trying to sell you Music Server technology. My experience with it all so far is the audio retailer really doesn't have much of a fucking clue about what all the music geeks are doing with MP3/FLAC and other compressed/lossless formats on their pcs.

Though the sales pitches delivered promise this is no longer the case. But it is.

So I started ripping my cd collection on the 14 June 2011. I have now offically, as of right now, finished ripping my collection on the 2 November 2011. Four and a half months. A labour of love. An incredibly boring task, though a task that I have been able to do as I am home every day, and even as debilitated as I have been over the last few months, a task I can actually perform successfully.

On the 26 June 2011 I purchased an 8TB RAID-enabled USB 3.0 external harddrive and a fancy router that could support it and make it look like a NAS-drive. Oh, the technical glitterati! Don't worry, I hate all that shit as much as you do. And then found out that Windows XP can't read that big a volume on a drive, so I had to remove two of the drives, then I eventually managed to format and configure a 4TB RAID-enabled drive. What that means is I have 2TB of storage, while the other 2TB is automatically used to back up the data. I'd hate to have to spend another 4.5 months ripping the collection in case of drive failure.

I originally started ripping as WAV (the format of a CD) but found I couldn't tag them (assign band, album, year of release etc like MP3 files can) so I converted them to FLAC instead (a file lossless audio codec) which is a compressed version of the cd, but if you have the right software or hardware, it can played decompressed at runtime and is exactly the same quality as the WAV. And FLACs are roughly a 1/3 of the size of a WAV so my 2TB of storage would now comfortably fit my collection ripped to FLAC. (WAV would have been to big). Why did I not go MP3 as I could fit heaps more on? Because MP3 is the death of music, folks. Avoid if you like music, avoid if you want to be kind to your ears.

So my Music Server consists of a massive external hardrive hooked up to my network (ie router/modem/internet) and a piece of black stereo equipment called a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter). The DAC spends its time trying to make the sound of your music as fantastic as possible and is often a piece of equipment installed between a cd player and an amplifier. Basically, it's trying to make the cd sound as deep and warm and smooth as vinyl. I'm using a PS Audio Perfect Wave, which acts as a normal DAC, until you put the Bridge inside it and hook that up to your network so it can see your external harddrive. The Bridge is really a glorified sound card for a pc/mac, but that's probably doing it a huge disservice. Together the DAC/Bridge combination sounds magical.

So why a Music Server? Plenty of reasons.

1) It Sounds Better
A CD spins in a CD player, and the majority of magic inside a CD player is trying to correct any errors that arise from this spin - it's called jitter. Take away the jitter, it sounds better. Stick it on a harddrive, no spin, read the file, and spend the majority of the magic in making the file sound like magic, instead of trying to remove the shit that jitter introduces.

2) It Sounds Even Better
Now that the limitation of CD has been removed, in particular how much info a CD can hold (about 700MB right?) you can have much more depth of information delivered in the sound file. A CD, for example, uses 44.1khz as its sampling rate, so often there is a loss of dynamic range on a cd (ie the loud bits vs the quiet bits - and these days most CDs just try to be loud, and if it is all loud? Well, there is no loud or quiet, is there?). But the sound files can come in higher resolutions, so instead of 44.1 you can have it as 192. What does this mean? You can hear heaps more in the music you couldn't before. Files get pretty large though. CD file size now equates to DVD file size.

3) My wife is extremely happy that I don't have wobbling stacks of CDs littering the lounge anymore. And I had stacks. And stacks. Our house appears to be neater without my mess. This was the major selling point for my wife to allow me to pursue this. She can now hear Reasons (1) and (2) now though.

The solution is not without its fair share of frustrations though.
1) I had to buy an iPod touch to use as my remote control because PS Audio don't ship the DAC with one to access your music collection with. That pissed me off. It should come free with the DAC as it costs enough.

2) You also have to buy an app for the iPod - PS Audio's version of iTunes. It's as buggy and unstable as all fuck. That pissed me off. It should also be free.

3) The Apple device (iPod) and the non-Apple device (my pc-networked harddrive) often have synchronisation issues, particulalry if I start copying files to the harddrive and still want to listen to my music. The iPod app drops out all the time when this happens and you can no longer access your music collection. It is more than a little frustrating as it can be out of action for an hour or two. It pisses me off still. Though now that I have finished ripping the collection, this will largely be an issue of the past. And my CD player is a backup to that problem (and it is also hooked up to the DAC too).

4) It doesn't play Gapless. Gapless? What the fuck is that? Yes, Mr Retail Audiophile man, who laughed at me when I asked him whether said gear could do this, and then blustered his way through the "it just does it" because he had no fucking idea of what I was talking about. Think of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon". Side One is pretty much a continuous piece of music, though it is made up of several songs. When you play the album you hear each song, but you hear it all in one big track. The Perfect Wave loads each song as it goes and cannot do it fast enough so there is a discernable break in the sound, sometimes up to several seconds between each song. It's very jarring. It pisses me off. The solution was sold to me after being stated that it could do gapless. It can't. So for those who like electronic music, or progressive rock, or classical, or, fuck, you name it, as half of my collection NEEDS gapless playback due to the sequencing and transitions required of the music on said fucking album, it can be rather annoying.

5) On those big lovely 192khz high resolution files, the Bridge can't always handle them, so microskips are introduced. On my system it's not so bad as it doesn't sound like a CD skipping, rather the beat has, for just a microsecond, skipped and change.

Points (4) and (5) are currently being addressed by having a PC/MAC hooked into the solution and running some software to do it. Though you don't really want a computer to hooked in as well, as it really needs to be standalone. And in another room so you can't hear it. And on. And chewing through more power than you'd like. PS Audio are also building a Silent Server/Magic Box which is a little black box that will fix those problems and it will plug inbetween the DAC/Bridge and the network. It should come free, but it won't. And that pisses me off.

Now, I normally avoid bleeding edge technology, but I am in a situation where I may not live long enough to see it mature and become stable, so I had to plunge in now and accept all the drawbacks and frustrations.

Apart from all that whinging, the system has me sitting back sometimes on the sofa, eyes closing, smile on lips, and sounds amazing. It makes you want to sit there and listen to music.

Well, who'd a thought I was also such a music/tech geek and an audiophile snob to boot? I'm not much of one really, as any real techie could probably tear apart half of my explanations but I've tried to make it simple enough so that it can be understood by people who just don't care about any of this. Those same people who didn't read past the first paragraph.

Paul Haines blog is at Paul Haines Live Journal.

Paul Haines's brilliant collection of short stories "Slice of Life" can be purchased internationally from Morrigan Books, and in Australia from the Mayne Press.


  1. I, too, am so old (screw political correctness!!...yes, OLD!!) that I may not live long enough to see this technology mature.

    So, I took a chance and bought a unit today (Mk I, Bridge and Mk II kit)!!!! All I can say is that after owning and operating the Company for 35 years (?)as well as having his wife and son integral in it's operation, I am entrusting Paul McGowan with my money and I will not go quietly if he let's me (and others) down......Call me naive, but,I just don't think he will. ......We shall see.

  2. I have had the privilege of hearing Paul Haines's system and I found the PS Audio Wave to be exceptional. I haven't heard any other digital system that has so much detail and wonderful sound-staging. I own a PS Audio DAC (Digital Link III); it's also very good but not in the same league as the Wave.