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Integrated Music Server
The common understanding is that a „music server“ is a computer platform
running some kind of large operating system, a music playback application, and
a remote control, mostly in the form of a state-of-the-art tablet. In fact, many
customers took the same definition quite literal, bought a standard computer
(laptop or desktop), downloaded any of the many available music playback
applications and installed all the necessary software on their tablet - voilà, done.
Yes, it can work that way and provide a great deal of enjoyment. So can a DAC
for $500. In other words, it is relatively easy to build a music server based on
standard hardware and software, but it can be quite a project to optimize it for
sonic performance and features that are sometimes desirable for audiophiles,
much more than for more common iTunes customers.
Playback Designs spent the same amount of care and diligence in creating and
developing its Syrah server as it does for any other audio product. Here is a
selection of key elements that are used in Syrah:
The criteria for the mobo are quite tricky. While for general computers you want
as much CPU speed, RAM, bus bandwidths and connectivity as possible, for
dedicated music servers this can be a disadvantage resulting in compromised
audio performance. Playing back audio files is not a heavy load on today‘s CPU‘s
and it is not necessary to aim for the fastest version. In fact our own research and
long experience have shown that certain slower CPU‘s perform better in audio
Rather than maximizing connectivity for general purpose computers, this is a
feature that needs to be minimized, because most communication protocols
require asynchronous clocks - at Playback Designs we understand very well what
that means for audio quality (PBD products belong to a very small selection in the
market that use completely synchronous clock designs, from power supply all the
way to front panel displays).
After many long and grueling tests with many different mobo‘s we found one
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based on Intel‘s NUC designs, that has enough CPU power for our application,
does not require a fan to cool and provides the right connectivity for the intended
PLAYBACK SOFTWARE APPLICATION
There is no value in re-inventing the wheel for this. There
are many software packages available that have been
perfected over many years already, offer the right features,
and are „audiophile worthy“. Over the last several years we
have used and analyzed most software packages and have
come to the conclusion that JRiver‘s Media Center offers
the most comprehensive and versatile solution for our
application. But like with everything in life, there are also
disadvantages, and with Media Center that can be a steep
learning curve for many customers.
We addressed that concern by using the server version of Media Center and
making it somewhat hidden to the user by remote controlling it with a very easyto-
use application running on your tablet. This app was created specifically for
Playback Designs in collaboration with a 3rd party vendor. The result indeed
makes it very easy to start using the Syrah server right away.
A requirement that we felt would be important for our customers
is easy ripping and automatic retrieval of meta data (album
title, cover art etc.). For this we have also worked with a 3rd
party vendor on a customized version of dbPoweramp that
uses 5 different data bases to locate the meta data. Among
those is Sonata that is one of the most comprehensive lists
for audiophile music.
Syrah is shipped standard with an external DVD-ROM drive that can be used to
rip CD‘s fully automatically: just insert your CD and Syrah ejects it again when it
is ripped, the music files are placed on the server and the meta data is retrieved
from the internet - no user interaction required at all.
When the Syrah project was started the Windows operating system was the only
one that could easily support quad DSD. However, Windows is a very large
software package designed for many applications, most of them much more
demanding than playing audio. Over the course of many months we have
minimized, configured and eliminated unnecessary features from Windows in
order to optimize the sonic performance. The resulting system is excellent in
playing audio, but would hardly be capable of performing other functions that you
normally would expect from a Windows computer.
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MEMORY AND STORAGE SYSTEM
There are many opinions on this topic. Some insist on SSD (solid state drive) vs.
HDD (hard disk drive) and others prefer playback via large amounts of RAM.
While there is some truth to such opinions the optimal architecture has to be
analyzed and understood in the context of other elements and optimizations in
the system, such as described above, but also in the context of the DAC being
used in conjunction with Syrah.
Of course, the Syrah has been designed to be used
with any of Playback Designs‘ DACs, which all use
extensive and proprietary technology to isolate the
sensitive analog audio circuitry from interferences
from digital circuits in general, asynchronous
computers in particular. For this reason we also feel
that a DAC does not belong inside the same chassis
as a computer.
Nevertheless, the Syrah server uses extensive RAM buffering and caching on
various levels before sending any audio data to the external DAC. But since this
is also a very subjective and often very subtle criterion we also offer the Syrah
server with an internal SSD drive instead of the standard HDD.