HiFi – Serious or casual listening

My thirty year old amplifier has been having a few issues over this last year, so I have been looking at replacements.

An Audiolab or Music Fidelity was top of my list. Long term I would love a pair of class A mono block power amps, but for now an integrated amplifier was on the list.sea moss pills

At first the Audiolab was top of my list, but they discontinued the model I wanted before I could place an order, the offers were very good. So I was looking at Music Fidelity; the M3 was available at a good price but I wanted better, The M6 was fantastic but I could not find any offers. The M5 is a good solid class D amp that would drive anything and got good reviews. So I waited and the deal came, so I pulled the trigger. Yep a stunning amp, and the build in DAC is not too bad as well.

So that was my Hifi purchases for the year, or so I thought.

I was on holiday in Walberswick talking photographs of the Suffolk when the Black Friday deals started come through. I have been looking at the Cambridge Audio Streamer for a couple of years. I can plug in the TV, it can act as a Roon end point and it has internet radio, so lots of options. Guess what, a great offer came up. Up to now I have been either using an old iPhone 6 or my iPad as the streamer solution, now I had this option.

I was in the Walkerswick local bar having a meal with Caroline and Ted when the email came through. It was a no brainer. So I now have, a record deck, CD player also thirty years old and starting to fail and a brand new streamer.

So what’s for the future. Well in the main listening room, a new record deck, a new CD player and new speakers, but my amplifier and streamer are now sorted.

So back to the title of this post: Serious or casual listening; well casual its streaming either from my own server with Flac rips of my cd’s or on line streaming services, to either my main system, the Sonos in the kitchen or my system on in my office.

For serious listening I either put on a CD or a record, sit back with a nice whiskey and relax.

Too many hobbies – Music

I like many people have too many hobbies. Not only that but they all some to want all my free cash. If I had one hobby life would be much easier. My main daybjob is an IT Engineer; that’s my main income, but messing around with computers is also a hobby. My second job and second income is that of a Photographer; Portraits, Portfolios, Weddings and commercial business portraits but its also a hobby.

I love travelling to lovely areas to take landscape photographs, using a mix of equipment including film, small, medium and large format.

I also have a small watch collection, mid tier pieces like SINN, unique pieces like British watchmaker FEARs; with my love of tech there is also an Apple Watch.

Watch Macro with Profoto A10

I have a fountain pen collection from low end Kaweco and TWSBI to higher end Pelikan and Montblanc and my love of coffee could also be called a hobby, I have brewers from Kalita, Chemex and Aeropress and a mid range espresso machine, and believe me once you get into espresso at home it really does become a crazy hobby, and you start buying custom, distribution tools, porta filters etc.

Lastly my love of music, I used to play the guitar, and now play banjo and piano (badly), but enjoy it. I also love listening to music. From popular opera, Beethoven, and Mozart, to pop like the recent Taylor Swift like her Evermore Album, Lana Del Rey, and most 1980’s pop, like the Communards, Duran Duran, Eurythmics and country and folk like Edwina Hayes, Ashley McBryde and even Sheryl Crow.

How do I listen to my music. Well when on the go, its an iPhone and Apple EarPods, its not hifi but its good enough. Sat at my desk in the company office, I may use a higher in ear sennheiser headphones, sometimes with an external battery DAC like the Cord Mojo. I have detailed how I listen in my office at home, A usb out of my desktop Mac, to a Schiit DAC and pre-amp then either to a pair of higher end Meze over ear headphones or my Ruark active speakers.

In the lounge I have may main hifi.

Its a low-end system I have had since my student days, with for now a days a basic Denon amp and a pair of Celestion DL4 stand mount speakers.

Its now fronted by a decent CD player, and a DAC being fed by an old iPad acting as a Roon Ready end point to stream to.

At some point I want to upgrade all of this starting with a dedicated streamer/dac and new speakers. If I was being sensible I should get something like a pair of Kev LS50 Meta’s, but part of me wants a nice set of floor standers but would they be too much for that room.

As always things will have to wait, I have a new studio flash to buy but I keep looking and investigating. As I said at the start – too many hobbies and they all seem to cost too much money.

Ripping CD’s

If you are like me and still have a large vinyl and cd collection you may sometimes want to stream them. A lot of my older stuff is not on the major streaming services. So you will want to rip those CD’s to a hard drive so you can still stream around your home or to what ever device you want. Welcome to the world of music formats or shall we say containers.

Now the majority of music is all encoded to PCM 16-bit/44.1kHz audio. While there is a growing library of high resolution music, few music services offer it or broadcast/stream it.

So for the majority of listeners things like 24-bit/192kHz, MQA, DSD can all be safely ignored.

Lets get back onto the subject; you have a CD, your a Mac user with iTunes or Music as its now called and you want to simply rip it but preserve the quality.

In Music, select file, preferences and then Files, and Import Settings. From the drop down list select Apple Lossless Encoder. Its a compressed format, lossless, and can easily be converted to other open standards if necessary but just about all hardware supports apple lossless.

You might want to copy those rips to a spare hard drive, Apple products can occasionally do odd things, like delete your music files and then stream lossy versions from the cloud.

You have a computer in your office and want decent Music?

Modern sound equipment in the last ten years has come a long way.

My first job was working for a music shop, working in the workshop weekdays building speaker, crossover circuits, repairing amps and mixers. We also did special affects, so I learn’t to repair lighting controllers. On Saturdays I would work in the shop selling audio.

I went to all the big shows in London, and was privileged to be able to listen to high end audio from vinyl and cd on systems costing hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Now it does not cost a lot to get quality a quality music sound, but with people using low quality MP3’s, bluetooth headphones many have not heard how good music can sound.

Now let me state, most of my casual listening is done through a set of wireless Apple Earbuds from streamed lossy format music on my phone. In fact let me state now, it is not worth listening to lossless format music using Bluetooth, but you can get high end audio at a budget price, and also not all lossy format music is the same; you can get quality lossy format MP3’s; that combined with a good CODEC over Bluetooth can give quality sound when combined with good noise cancelling headphones, but todays chat is not about mobile audio, its about audio in your home office.

An old laptop or desktop computer as your music source with some ripped CD’s lossless format, or a high quality streaming service, a £100 DAC and £100 wired headphones can go along way. Do try and go wired where you can for better quality.

So how do I get quality music in my office. Well I have seem some users with high end vinyl record decks and thousand pound desktop speakers, but whose office generally gives good acoustics?

In my office I keep things simple. In summary its a music library of losses ripped cd’s in my iTunes (now Apple Music Library), streaming from online music services and some quality budget active speakers on the desk.

First the source part of the system.

I have Roon software on my MacPro pulling all my music together and acting as a Roon end point. From the MacPro I have a high quality audio USB cable feeding into a DAC stage of the preamp on my desk. I used to go straight into my speakers from the line out feed on the Mac, but the digital to analogue converter in computers are decidedly average. Even adding a £65 DAC such as a AudioQuest DragonFly Black can add a great improvement to the sound of your system.

My preamp is a Schiit Asgard 3. This has the optional USB multi-bit DAC. Purists who complain that the multi-bit military spec DAC cannot touch a high end audio Delta-Sigma DAC, really need to give multiunit DACs a listen, on paper its certainly not as good, but its sounds nice and would certainly rival may £500 DACs available.

Asgard 3 with optional built in multi-bit USB DAC

Amplification and Speakers.

Its not a good idea going to high end on the speaker front for your home office. Over eighty percent of how it sounds is down to the room. You have some big floor standing speakers in a large empty room with a wooden floor? You can greatly improve the sound quality with a £50 rug from Ikea! Also the amp and speaks are a very important pair, if your going separate speakers and amp then remember to audition them together.

Speakers are either active or passive, all that means is that active speakers have the amp built in them. People used to look down on active speakers; they used to be the cheap low-end of the market, but this is now not so true.

The Asgard 3 has RCA phono output and single ended headphone jack. the RCA feeds the built in amp inside my Ruark Audio MR1 Mk1 speakers, these also accept bluetooth should I wish.

This system gives me great music in my office and with the headphone socket in a quality preamp I can also get even better sound out with a pair of quality open backed headphones.

This is a nice system and comes in under a £1K but would rival many above that. Its also easily upgradable. Adding a higher end DAC such as a Schiit BIFROST 2, or even going up to a Chord Electronics Hugo with some headphones gives sound that would be hard to beat, on the speaker front you could upgrade to KEF LS50 speakers or add a power amp and some nice Wharfedale’s but you need to remember that the room has a big impact on the sound of your speakers and going to high end may not be worthwhile in your office. Keeping it simple like I have and when you want higher end listening go to headphones, or if your lucky like us and have a room you can dedicate to music then build you dream system there.

Web Services – a Rant

This is less about web services and more about functionality that does not need web services but uses it anyway.

I have a large amount of video media, photographic tutorials, the family favourite movies and TV shows etc.

They are sat on an external hard drive and a copy in Dropbox. We use the Plex app to service these to the TV, and the AppleTV app to our computers and tablet devices; much easier then finding physical media.

It used to be simple, the app on the TV talked to my main computer that had the Plex server app on it and access to the media. Simple and it worked.

But like many companies they have now web offerings and offer other functionality. So now the TV app has to authenticate to their servers out there on the web before it will connect to my server and play my media.

This means now that if Plex have a service outage or my internet is not working I cannot play my media on my TV, very frustrating. Over the last few days we have seen major outages with AWS, Azure etc, causing many online services to fail. Not sure where Plex host there servers but they were out too. So no watching Plex for me last night.

Yes I get it that many people like the extra functionality but the basic stuff, streaming media from a drive in my home to my TV in my home all on the same network should still work!

At least I have coffee.

Music Streaming – Part 2 of 2: Streaming music round your home


So you have a large music collection in iTunes, Media Monkey, etc, sat on you laptop, server, NAS – choose your poison.

How do you steam that round your home and integrate you Spotify into it.

Well, I had a bit of a mess, a mix of iTunes using Airplay to stream to old Apple Express units connected to systems via the 3.5 mm audio jack. Sonos in the kitchen and Sonos in the Lounge. Decent active speakers connected into the line out connection of my MacPro in the office.

So music all round the home and different apps to manage it.

My music library was iTunes, then moved to the Apple Music app. Not bad but not brilliant when you have various sources and different end points.

So is there a simple solution. Well if your starting from scratch you could just buy active speakers to place round you home that support Apple Airplay. Most hifi active speakers now support airplay and often their own proprietary solution. The Sonos system is hard to beat and there are many others.

But what if you are like me and have a mix of systems. I have three high quality budget hifi systems in the dinning room, my office and the music room, plus Sonos in the kitchen and the lounge. They were networked via my apple wireless network through the house but this was getting old and need replacing. I needed to bring it all together with something better that would work as a whole.

The Music Library

The music system starts with your library; according to a recent search of the internet the top budget players are:

Library software:

  1. MusicBee
  2. AIMP
  3. MediaMonkey
  4. foobar2000
  5. VLC Media Player

Many of these will work with iTunes or the inbuilt Windows alternative. The ones most often used are foobar, VLC and Media Monkey.

Systems like Sonos you can just point at your music library location and manage through the Sonos application. So manage the library in one app and play it through another.


Apple’s Airport Express, with a USB port for storage and a 3.5 mm audio socket were brilliant. AirPlay was lossy but they were convenient and gave you the ability to manage it all through iTunes and network your none streaming devices. They were also cheap.

Some wireless access points offer this but now if your a bit of a geek and want a cheap solution you can give high quality results with a Raspbery Pi, but how to manage it.

Bringing it all together

So far all this has been very bitty. The new Sonos devices now support airplay as do most speakers but we need a better solution.

So what is the answer: well there are two ways that come to mind. Standardise on a common system, Airplay, Sonos, Bluesound etc, or a software solution that supports the different types of hardware?

If your buying new then standardising is the way, but if your like me then finding a software server solution seemed the best option and one that supported the latest losses codecs.

The solution I picked was Roon. Many hardware devices are Roon ready, it supports Sonos, Bluesound, Airplay and can bring everything together. You can even make your own Raspberry Pi endpoints that are Roon capable to connect to your hifi midi systems and separate systems.

Currently I have the Roon core software on my MacPro but may later move it together with my video Plex server software to a new NAS, it pulls my media from my iTunes library and any other library and hard disk/storage device I have and my Tidal streaming service to present it as one logical view. The endpoint software I have on the MacPro and (MacBook Pro); for listening in the office, it supports the Sonos devices and I have the software on my phone, tablet and laptop so can listen where ever I am.

My Photo editing workstation (yes my office is still not decorated and the curtains are going), MacPro, G-Tech Storage, Epson Scanner, powered Ruark Audio MR1 speakers and a Schiit Preamp with Multibit USB import DAC

I intend to add the midi system and separates systems in soon as well as building a high end hifi headphone listening station into the mix.

There are other solutions but this works out the best for me with what I currently have.

Music Streaming – Part 1 of 2: Streaming Services


I love music.

We have music available all around most of our house. A nice midi hifi system in the dining room. A decent separates system in the music room with all our books and the piano. Quality budget active speakers in my office and a Sonos One in the kitchen diner and Sonos sound bar for the lounge, with the TV.

Most of my music is on Vinyl and CD, but the CD’s have all been ripped to a lossless format at redbook standard. With a collection of old Apple Airport Expresses and Extremes we have networked the various music devices that do not already support streaming.

So using a mix of the Sonos app, and iTunes (now Apple Music App) we can listen to any of our none vinyl music around the house. Its not perfect and I’ll be addressing that in part 2 but for now lets talk about Music Services.

Music Streaming Services

Streaming music services is not something I got into. I like hifi and will admit I was picky; in fact you could call be a hifi snob (as well as a coffee snop), but streaming round the house is convenient and the Sonos and Airplay 2 is something that is not too bad for general listening. Low quality streaming services is not something I was interested in.

The big player in streaming is of course Spotify; but I first tried streaming services thanks to the Sonos Play One I was bought for my birthday. We got it as a solution for music in the kitchen, a small standalone speaker to sit on the windowsill was ideal. When we bought it, it came with the Deezer Streaming service for free for one year.

This was a bit of a wake call. The quality was not bad for general listening, and the convenience was something I loved.

Through it I came to find more music and buy more CD’s and vinyl from artists that the streaming services had helped me discover. The services learn from what you listen too and then suggest other things you might like.

After my Deezer subscription ran out, I looked for other free offers. You generally find that broadband/mobile phone company may have a deal on offer. It was via this I managed to switch to Apple Music, and more recently I have moved to Tidal.

If your into hifi the issue with most streaming services, and most home streaming tech like Apples Airplay is that in general they are a lossy 256 kbps / 320 kbps service. For listening on bluetooth headphones and when out and about using your mobile phone as your music device this is generally fine, but for sitting down at home and actively listening, you want something better.

There are now several companies like Tidal that offer Redbook standard losses or above audio quality and if your equipment supports tech like MQA then you have a hifi streaming solution available to you.

So what streaming services is best. Well that is a difficult question. On quality its Tidal and Qobuz, for price its Spotify. The bigger issue is track availability. Some tracks are only available on some services and some tracks not at all. If you’re interested in classical music most of the main companies are poor and you better off looking at services like Primephonic.

I enjoyed Deezer and Apple Music, but have not yet used Tidal enough to be sure if its better, it is missing some music that Apple have, but the quality with the right hardware is certainly better.

New Years resolutions and projects

I did not make any real new year resolutions but there are a few things I am intending to do.

I want to get more studio photography done and I want to try and make sure that I get out to Hartsholme Park and Whisby Nature reserve a bit more often for some wildlife photograph.

This year will be spent trying to figure out what are the main types of photography I want to do and which focal length lens I prefer to do those types of photographs.  Then next year i’ll be undertaking a bit of a photographic prune of equipment and setting my self up with just what I really want.

When and and about with the Leica I have proven to myself how few focal lengths you actually need.

On a more personal note I want to continue with my diet and weight loss, I am just about there now despite Christmas but want to ensure  I do not slip back into old ways.

Lastly I want to get my music a lot better this year.  I found last year with everything that happened it was far too easy to let a couple of months slip past and I had not picked up a banjo or sat and played at our piano.  So January will be a month where I start gently but ensure I get down at least a couple of practice sessions each week.

Learn to Play Day 2016

Learn to Play Day

I am not a brilliant musician, whilst I used to be in the choir as a child, I am now limited to poor banjo and piano playing.

Not enough people play an instrument in the UK, which is a shame.  To help encourage people this weekend is learntoplayday.  As with many of these things its just not advertised enough.

Sonos add Apple Music Support

Music Man

I love music, and used to play the guitar and currently play the banjo and piano.  I now have my Hifi setup in the end room which has been turned in a music/library/studio room.

I also have some decent powered speakers in my office linked to my MacPro and my iTunes library which mostly consists of ripped CD’s.  Where we listen to the most music is in the kitchen which with our love of cooking and baking we both spend a lot our time.

For my birthday last year we have had a Sonos One in here, its pricey for what it is but does perform very well and needs little else to make it work.  It came with one years free Deezer subscription which is now coming to an end, and so I was pleased to see that Apple music in beta has now arrived for the Sonos.  Once my Deezer subscription expires i’ll give the Apple music a trial and see how that goes.

The think to remember with most of these streaming systems is you need to invest in the time and energy to let the service learn about your musical tastes.  Of course once a service is setup how you like its hard to move and go through that again which is what most of them are hoping.