By Lam Seng Fatt
It is possible to make ripped files streamed from your laptop sound as good as – if not better than – music played from CD in a CD player.
But you have to do certain things to get the sound from the laptop competitive with that from the CD player. After spending much time fiddling around to get things right for the CAS vs CD shootout (read http://www.av2day.com/2014/09/cd-vs-cas-shootout-is-cas-better-than-cd/, I would like to share the few things I learnt.
Use only WAV files
For some strange reason WAV files sound the best. Do not use FLAC files. If you rip CD tracks into FLAC files and play them in a shootout with a CD player playing the same CD, the FLAC files will probably sound worse than the songs played on the CD player. If you have FLAC files, it is quite simple to use J River or other programmes to convert them to WAV.
WAV files sound much better especially when the music features lots of acoustic instruments such as guitar, cello, violins, piano, etc. WAV files are uncompressed and are larger, but memory is cheap these days.
Use the USB3 connector
The latest generation of laptops will offer one or two USB3 connectors and one or two USB2 connnectors. Use the USB3 connector since it is of much higher specifications. In my laptop, it is the one with the blue strip.
I could be imagining things, but the music sounded a bit cleaner and clearer when I used the USB3 connector.
Uninstall unnecessary apps
On Windows 8 you will find your laptop screen filled with icons. You will also see things being updated every now and then such as news and stock market reports.
Some audiophiles recommend stripping Windows 8 to bare minimum as all the unnecessary apps will require some computing power.
I uninstalled apps I did not need like the news updates, stock market and weather reports, and the calculator.
Turn off wi-fi when playing music
This is a must. Turn off the wi-fi when you are streaming music files to the DAC. In Windows 8, you can just turn on the ‘Airplane mode’.
When the wi-fi is on, the computer constantly searches for updates for apps like news, weather, stock markets and even newer versions of installed programmes like Java, iTunes, etc. The firewall will be up and the virus detection system will also be on.
Turn the Power Plan to maximum
There is a command to select the Power Plan. You can turn it to energy saving or to ‘High Performance’ mode. Obviously ‘High Performance’ is the preferred mode.
Turn off the screen saver
Once when I was doing the A-B testing of CAS vs CD, I had a rude shock when the ripped file being played started stuttering. The streaming was experiencing drop-outs. I checked all the settings on the J River V 19 and they looked okay to me, but the stuttering continued.
Then I noticed that the music started stuttering whenever the screen saver was activated. So I had to navigate to search for the command to turn off the screen saver. Once it was off, the stuttering stopped.
Play music with laptop on battery mode
Some years ago I heard a buzzing sound from my stereo system. I plugged and unplugged all the interconnects, but the buzzing sound was still present. It stopped when I unplugged the power cable from the laptop.
Thus it is advisable to unplug the laptop when streaming music. Just give the laptop a full charge before listening to music.
Tweaking J River
I can only make suggestions for fine tuning J River V 19 as I have no experience with other music players.
Maximise the prebuffer
I set the prebuffer to the maximum of 20 seconds (the recommended is 6 seconds). Whenever I see a command for buffer, I set it to maximum.
Play from memory
Select ‘Play files from memory instead of disk’.
Select ASIO, if available
The previous generation of DACs offered under ‘Audio Device’ modes like ‘Direct Sound’, ‘Kernel Streaming’ or ‘WASAPI’. Newer DACs offer ‘ASIO’ as well.
If your DAC offers ‘ASIO’, select it. I feel music sounds a bit better when streamed via ‘ASIO’ compared with ‘WASAPI’ even though the laptop’s soundcard is bypassed with either mode.
Select ‘Disabled volume’
Click on the speaker symbol and you will get a dropdown menu offering ‘Application volume’, ‘Internal volume’, ‘System volume’ and ‘Disabled volume’.
IIRC, ‘Internal Volume’ is the Window’s volume control which is bad. ‘System volume’ uses J River’s 64-bit volume control which is better. But ‘Disabled volume’ sounds the best. The music stream is not manipulated in any way and volume is controlled by the volume knob of the preamp/integrated amp.
Open device for exclusive access
There is a command under ‘Playback Options’ and under ‘Device Settings’ for ‘Open device for exclusive access’. Select this function which apparently enables the DAC to be in full control of the streaming of music files.
Finally, choose the right USB cable
I know, I know. This sounds crazy. The computer experts will label you ‘mad’ if you tell them you spent a few hundred ringgit on an audiophile USB cable. They will tell you a cheap RM30 USB cable will work just as well.
Okay…audiophiles are ‘mad’. So what? The fact is USB cables have different sonic signatures. To prepare for the CAS vs CD shootout, I used my Kimber Silver USB cable first but it was too dark sounding and did not match the sonic signature of the CD player used as transport. The CD player sounded brighter and more transparent. So I opened my box of tricks and found a Furutech GT2 USB cable. This matched the tonal balance of the CD player. If I were to use the Kimber for the shootout, I think most people would prefer the CD as source.
That’s the end of the to-do list to increase the performance of the laptop so that it can play music as well as – if not better than – the CD player.