A trio of computing innovations (and tumbling prices for these innovations) has assembled, ladies and gentlemen, and desktops and laptops are poised to become a primary music source for discriminating listeners.

First, much more space for storage at much lower cost is now available on hard disks that run faster and quieter.

Second, that information can now be drawn into computer chips that: gobble up bigger chunks of audio information at higher speeds; get their directions from increasingly sophisticated, user-friendly software; and run in rigs that draw off considerable electronic heat without making a racket.

Third, affordable external “DACs” (digital-to-analogue converters), that can be plugged into computers without fiddling about and tearing of hair, are now available. This means victory over the electrical impulses and vibrations which take place within computer cases and create a poor environment to go about the task of converting discrete digital signals of 1 or 0 into analogue electrical waves that produce analogue physical waves for the human ear.

Let’s start with the storage challenge, which has been handily met. For under $150, we can now get a quiet 1 Tb external hard drive that spins at 7200 rpm, and cools itself without recourse to a noisy fan.

That’s what I paid after walking around the corner to a good local computer shop; choosing a fanless Vantec external hard drive case that had a fast Firewire 800 connection for my Mac, and an even faster eSata connection for my Windows machine. I then got whatever high quality drive was on sale that week, and popped the case open to insert the drive.

That 1 Tb capacity translates into roughly 1400 CDs in full fidelity sound contained in a gadget that’s smaller than the average hard cover book!  Make that 2800 albums if the files are stored in a format like Apple Lossless or FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec) that uses computational techniques to cut file size in half without sacrificing one bit of sound.  (For comparison, you could get more than 10,000 albums on that same hard disk if all you want is anti-hifi, highly compressed and sonically impoverished MP3s.)

But move over, iPod.  We’re in another world here. Who needs 10,000 MP3s? Even with “only” 2,800 albums on the drive, if you got a full-time job to listen to them all, 8 hours a day for seven days a week, and no vacation to boot, it would take you a year to get through all this music.  And by that time your employer would hand you a new hard disk with double the capacity for the same price, and tell you to report back in two years!

So what’s the value of having so much music to listen to, or a single hard disk that holds more music that most people can afford to buy in a lifetime?  One example that comes to mind is an aspiring opera singer, or a serious listener preparing to attend a live opera performance. One can invoke software options creating a playlist of the top recordings of a given aria, rather than finding and then loading and unloading ten CDs. Or one can rapidly compare how a Mozart concerto sounds when played on the pianos available to the composer in the later eighteenth century, vs. the sound of the metal-framed behemoths that were created during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.

The possibilities and pleasures are legion.

Since few people have the means to buy all the recordings that can fit on ever-larger hard disks, the eventual solution will probably be subscription services that put recordings on subscribers’ hard disks, but render the files unplayable if the subscription is dropped.

A final note on hard disk music libraries: for times out of the office, I also selected a smaller fanless hard drive case that uses 2.5” notebook drives as opposed to the 3.5’ drives used in desktops.  This time I used mail order to get an especially robust case from Other World Computing.

Moving now to the second dimension, decoding, there are ads in every weekend’s papers offering computers yielding ever more clout for fewer bucks. The threshhold for decoding full-fidelity audio files without splutters was reached a while ago. Now the challenge is playing HD video and high definition audio minus burps. That currently requires discrete graphics and audio cards, with their own chips and memory, to take over intensive AV work from the computer’s main chip.

The third dimension of audiophile computing, affordably converting digital signals to analogue electrical waves outside the computer case, has gained critical mass during the past two years. Headroom’s “Total Bithead,” one of the best bargains, period, in quality audio, is a solution that I’ve  tested over the last six months.  Roughly $200 gets you a combined external DAC and headphone amplifier.  When the Total Bithead is plugged into the USB port of a computer, it’s powered by the computer as well as bypassing the computer’s sound card to draw direct digital information  If you plug an iPod or other player into the Bithead, it runs on battery power. As you can see from the photo of the Total Bithead juxtaposed with the cover of the Virgin Classics DVD of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, the combination DAC/AMP is just about the same size as an iPod Classic.

I plugged a pair of Grado SR125 headphones into the Bithead. They cost about the same as the DAC/AMP. For equivalent quality sound from standard amps and speakers, you’d have to spend at least five times as much to get the same accurate, uncoloured sound suitable for reviewing CDs.  Plus the Total Bithead and SR125’s weigh in together at under one pound, and fit comfortably into a laptop case.

DAC processing seems, at first, to be a straightforward affair:  engineers move processing outside the computer’s electrically and mechanically noisy innards to an external box.

In fact, doing this right is the opposite of easy, especially if one is trying to come up with a product that mere mortals can afford.  You have hundreds of thousands of rapidly flowing on-and-off electrical signals that have to be decoded into continuous electrical waves.  On the receiving side, decoding must be tightly coordination with the signal source.

If that coordination is just slightly off kilter, you get, literally, the jitters: microscopic gaps in timing between source playback and DAC translation that are leveraged into larger disjuncts that muck up sound quality.

The Total Bithead does the basic digital translation amd signal coordination job very well indeed. It stays within standard “Redbook” parameters: 16 bits of sound information sampled at 44 Khz per second.  More advanced DACs impute greater depth (more bits in samples) or higher sampling rates to smooth out the sounds, or work directly with newer high definition recordings.

The Total Bithead, combined with quality headphones, has more than sufficient capacity to give a sonically accurate, transparent and pleasurable reading of standard CDs and DVDs.  I literally don’t leave home without it.

Opera has pushed hi-tech envelopes from the birth of this modern art form in 1600.  Seventeenth century Italian opera utilized all the early capitalist technology it could lay its hands on to create a multimedia experience.  It was a total art form two centuries before Wagner bragged about inventing the practice.

The marriage of opera and hi-tech marches ahead in our own time, and the Metropolitan Opera leads the parade, and has been doing so for over a century.  In 1901, the Met pulled off the first recordings of live opera performances via the new medium of wax cylinders. In 1931, its live Saturday afternoon international radio broadcasts kicked off and became a staple for music lovers across the globe.  The Met became the pioneer in live stereo radio broadcasting in 1973.

On the visual front, the Met organized its first live TV broadcasts in 1948 and then moved to the 1952 precursor of today’s HD satellite transmissions, a live cine-cast to 27 theatres. The live HD broadcasts kicked off in the autumn of 2006, and now reach 900 packed movie theatres across the globe.

The Met’s newest hi-tech venture is streaming high definition video and audio over the Internet.  Its Met Player subscription service will ultimately include all the HD Live performances within several months of playing in theatres; all the Met performances that appeared on PBS television since 1977; and the radio broadcasts from 1937 onwards.


The $64,000 question is whether today’s relatively high speed cable and DSL lines are fast enough. There’s little question they will, in the not too distant future. But, with respect to the operability of the Met Player now...? After test runs of the Met Player in HD mode, I’m very pleased to report that we are — provided one has a newer computer with capabilities that would have cost a bundle not too long ago, but are modestly priced today.

The price for the Met Player subscription itself is certainly right, and the service is available in Canada, or anywhere else in the world where government policy or private monopolies don’t interfere: US $14.99 per month, or $149.99 yearly (and you thought it wasn’t possible to buy anything from New York for $15).

With New York street prices for Blu-Ray opera disks ranging from US $21 to $38, and higher yet in Canada, it doesn’t take many viewings to make the Met subscription pay for itself.  One can also rent access to HD broadcasts for $4.99, or standard broadcasts for $3.99 (must be accessed within 30 days, with a 6 hours maximum viewing time). A monthly subscription is clearly a better deal, and a free 7-day trial, offered at www.metopera.org. A potential glitch, not the Met’s doing,  in this happy pricing situation: greedy Internet service providers tacking on extra charges, and not small charges at that, when the combined volume of monthly downloading and uploading files exceeds an imposed threshold. Check your provider’s policy in order to avoid a nasty surprise at the end of the month. And look for another provider if your present supplier is countering the logic of information technology via price gouging.

The audiovisual riches arrive via the Move Media Player plugin for one of three browsers: recent versions of Internet Explorer, the open source Firefox, or Apple’s Safari. For maximal performance of the Met Player, I recommend Safari with Windows or Mac. In civilian life, I use Firefox because the hundreds of software plugins written for it make it the Swiss Army Knife of browsers.  But when it’s a question of streaming video, I switch to Safari: it’s faster.

62 cenerentola screen shot 1Accessing the Met videos in HD performance requires a relatively new and sprightly computer.  That means Intel Dual Core chip,  minimum speed of 2 Ghz, and running on updated versions of Windows XP, or Vista, or Mac OS X 10.4 or 10.5. Most new desktop or notebook computers sold these days, even at modest prices, fit the bill.

Second, the computer needs a graphics processor  that uses at least 128 Mb of memory.  Preferably this should be a “discrete” stand-alone graphics card with its own memory chip, not a graphics chip on the mother board. In Windows this means desktops starting around $800 and laptops around $1200.  For Macs, you’re talking about an iMac or Macbook Pro, starting about $600 higher than minimal  Windows configurations, but worth the money if audiovisual performance is the name of the game.

I tested the Met Player in HD mode using a Macbook Pro, with sound fed through HeadRoom’s modestly priced Total Bithead combination DAC  (digital-to-analog converter ) and headphone amplifier ($CA 175).   I listened via Grado SR125 headphones, an audiophile bargain running less than $CA 200.

The HD video flowed with barely the odd, brief splutter --- and that’s at the end of a rural DSL line that’s more than four miles away from the relay station.

Net result? I had to tear myself away to write the piece! Sign me up!

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