As I write this, it is early October, right in between the last time I've had to do the lawn mowing and the first time I'll have to start raking leaves. All of the summer furniture has been carted in and all of my other warm weather outdoor activities have been completed. Thus, its time to get my system in order for those serious winter music listening sessions, by spending about a day cleaning both my media room and the audio-video system, something you should think of doing.
First on the list is dusting off both the outside and inside of each piece of equipment as dust is a superb heat insulator, and heat damages equipment. Circuit boards and fans are cleaned with a spray of compressed air from the air compressor used to pump up my Vibraplanes, but you can use those cans of gas spray sold in camera stores.
Next is the cleaning of all electrical contacts from wall AC to interconnects to speaker cables. Don't forget to clean the insides of all RCA and XLR connectors on the chassis, the tube pins and their chassis contacts and the fuses as they have as much gunk on them as the wires. If you're really anal, you may also want to clean every contact on the circuit boards, but be careful not to bend or break any. My favorite cleaner is Caig DeoxIT GOLD (formally called Pro Gold), a clear oily solution which removes oxidation from the contacts and leaves a thin film which slows further formation. Just make sure you wipe off as much as possible to leave a molecule thin coating.
Then the equipment is remounted in their cabinets, and before connecting any cords, the AC polarity is checked by running a voltmeter between the cabinet and ground, and measuring the voltage between the normal and reversed AC plug position. The lowest chassis voltage usually gives the best sound. If the AC cord uses a three prong plug use a cheater plug for testing. If, unhappily, the lowest voltage occurs with the plug reversed, you'll either need to keep the cheater in place, or cut off the ground prong, or listen to a less than perfect sound. Sorry.
The interconnects and speaker cables are reattached and run in such a way that they have the shortest routes between the cabinets, off the floor and hanging in mid-air if possible. If they need to cross over others, they should be as far away as possibly from each other and cross at right angles so as not to pick up stray fields from each other. This is especially important with AC cords crossing interconnects. The speaker cabinets are then cleaned and polished and the drivers are air sprayed, especially being careful not to damage the tweeters. The speaker terminals and internal connections are cleaned with the Pro Gold, and the speaker wires are attached firmly, being careful not to strip the connectors.
I've sold my turntable, so that chore is gone. (Editor Steven R. Rochlin's Note: i, too, have sold all three of my turntables, over 8000 vinyl records and have ripped all digital media to multiple NAS drives. Don't miss them at all and am enjoying the freedom of enjoying music that can easily be found via simply search on my network).
Next, I refurbish the server-computer used as my audio/video storage. The guts are cleaned with compressed air, especially the circuit boards and fans. All cards are reviewed to see if there are any software updates. Every year or two, the main hard drive is reformatted and Windows is reloaded to get rid of any viruses, worms and unnecessary programs. Then all necessary programs are reloaded. My 2 terabytes of music files are reloaded onto a new hard drive to prevent possible loss, and the new drive is stored in a bank vault, and the one in the bank vault is used with the computer. The old one is then reformatted and used for less than important information, or given to my wife. If you are throwing it out, make sure either that it is wiped with a cleaning program or smashed with a hammer. All contacts are cleaned and the cards are reseated. The several pounds of grime and dust that have accumulated in the room (since my wife won't clean it for me) are vacuumed away and any excess buildup of equipment, CD's, etc. are removed.
Once the system is back together again, I'll sit down and pray that everything works. Usually, something is amiss, and several loud utterances can be heard of some vile words before the problem is solved. But once everything is running properly, the sound will be superior to what the system was putting out prior to the cleaning. I guarantee it.
Finally, all CD's, DVD's, records which are deemed not to be worth keeping are donated to either the local library or school, both of which are under-funded and are happy to receive them. This is something you may think of doing, especially since it is considered to be a tax deductible donation.
In past articles like AA Chapter 119 I've discussed my predilection for using a computer for storage and playback of all digital recordings, and the ease with which one can put together a music server-computer record-playback system, versus what some companies are charging for their servers (see AA Chapter 122). I can guarantee you that for less than $2000 even you can build a music-video server that can record, store and play back your music and video recordings at a superior level. In addition, the system can be built such that it can be upgraded at any time with ease to the latest standards.
The system I built a year ago consists of a Core i7 Hewlett Packard computer with two 2 terabyte hard drives, high definition video and 7.1 audio card, and a Blu-ray recorder-player attached to a Hewlett Packard EX 490 Media Smart Server with eight 2 terabyte hard drives. The system runs Windows Vista, soon to be updated to Win 7, and uses several free programs to record from CD's DVD's, and the web, and three programs that cost less than $100 each for recording from my FM tuner, playing Blu-ray titles and play back using DSP. It's so up to date that by a simple program change it could do 3D Blu-rays. Total cost for all of this was somewhat less than $1800. Remember that number. (Editor Steven R. Rochlin's Note: Am using the Dell XPS 8000 with i7 and 6GB of memory plus the M2Tech USB to S/PDIF device.)
So why have I brought this discussion up again? Because I've read two articles in the past month in audio and video magazines touting the so-called virtues of two audio/video server systems.
The first is from Kaleidoscape which is their 1U Server and M-500 Disc Player. The server consists of a cabinet with its programming and four 2 terabyte hard drives in a Raid array. This means that all of the recordings are backed up on two drives rather than one, which decreases the chances of loss of information, but halves the amount of space for storage. One can also purchase their 3U server which holds 14 drives. The player has a Blu-Ray drive and when attached to the server and through Ethernet to your home system, you can play back anything stored in the server or on the player to any room in your house with a computer.
It does have one advantage over anything you can build in that it can download from the player disc content to the server just by putting a disc in the drawer, compared to having to open a program on your computer to do it with my self-built system, but has the disadvantage that its already out of date since the units are only HDMI 1.3a compatible, which probably cannot be updated, so cannot play back or record 3D video content. Also, the sound and audio cards are at best mid-fi, and not able to do justice to your stored CDs, never mind high bit rate recordings. The added value seems to be in the ease-of-use software, and not the record and playback components.
Now for the big difference! Hold your breath. The 1U costs $12,470, the 3U $33,000, and the M500 player $3995, for a total system cost of between $16000 and $36000.
So what are the differences between this and my setup? First, I have to admit that the Kaleidescape sounds far easier to use, so that Granny or the kids can play with it (Do you really want that with your precious audio files?). Second, it is more compact and prettier. Third, it is about 12 times more expensive. Fourth, I'd bet my sound and video cards do a much better job at recording and playback. Fifth, my unit is much more easily upgraded to the latest standards.
The second unit is from S1 Digital, the ES400 Entertainment Server and the P 250 Media Center Client. This unit will store 4 terabytes of programming, and in addition to being able to playback and store Blu-ray discs, can also store live TV and cable programs. A Media Center Client is needed for each room where playback is needed. Total cost for one of each plus keyboard is $6199, with $1999 for each additional Client. While the cost is somewhat more reasonable compared to the previous unit, the reviewer did mention that there were many glitches that required reboots, calls to tech support, and much frustration. Reminds me of my previous computer systems running older Windows programs. Also whether the unit can be updated or not to newer standards is not mentioned, nor the quality of the audio output when it was working properly.
I do admit though that my computer, like most Windows systems, is a little finicky at times. The main problem occurs when I'm trying to run two monitors at the same time or try to move between my overhead projector and the small 720P 20” monitor next to my listening chair, usually when I want to record music from my FM tuner while watching a program either from the computer or DirecTV receiver. Other than that, I'd put my system up against either of the above any day.
So there you have it. Get out there and build yourself a computer server system that will record, store and play back all of your digital music files, and your analog recordings transposed to digital by the system. No more getting up to change discs, wondering where you misplaced one, no more worry about disc rot, plus the ability to do digital signal processing on those less than great sounding recordings.
Now On To Something Completely
Different. A Question!
First, I highly recommend the series, as the discussions by Maestro Thomas are superb. They remind me of my youth, listening on television to Leonard Bernstein, who happened to be one of his mentors. For that alone, they are worth the asking price for anyone interested in musicology. After reading a couple of reviews, I picked up two of them, one of Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique recorded in Davies Hall, San Francisco on regular low definition DVD in Dolby Digital 5.0 and the other of Shostakovich's Symphony # 5 recorded in London on high definition Blu-ray in Dolby True HD 5.0.
Note: Both items above are the DVD and not the lackluster Blu-ray version
Guess which one sounds wonderful, and which one like crap! The standard DVD of the Berlioz, recorded in their home hall, sounds very good even though it is only 600 kBit Dolby Digital 5.0, while the Blu-ray, recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in London as part of the Proms series, is in megabit Dolby HD. Unhappily, it has absolutely no bass, the midrange sounds like early digital and there is almost no hall sound. I know it's not the hall as I've heard some Proms recordings in the past off of satellite in Dolby Digital which had excellent tonality and bass to shake the room. Thus it was either the recording or mastering engineer, or the pressing plant that screwed up. Either way, I do recommend the Berlioz wholeheartedly but can only give the Shostakovich a lukewarm rating for its excellent discussion by MTT about the composer and the piece.