How to play downloads on your computer
Using your computer to play back your music collection is often a convenient option. However it is not going to provide the highest quality experience and there are a few technical downsides to playing music on computers to be aware of:
1. Computers can be noisy, with cooling fans and disc drives making them incompatible with most living rooms and therefore can be a distraction from your musical enjoyment. Positioning the hard drive some distance from where you listen is advisable, but not always possible.
2. A PC is much more complex than a music system - they often take minutes to power up, they consume significant electrical power when running and they are generally less reliable than a standalone hi-fi.
3. Finally there’s the problem of hard drive failure. This is not something most people want to think about but it is best to be prepared for this to happen at any point. If you have your music stored only on a hard disc in your PC you run the risk of losing it. Of course we can always reissue your Linn music for you if this happens, but you might have a lot of other music stored on your computer without this back-up. It is always wise to consider a reliable method of backing up your purchased music.
On the up side, computers can be a convenient way to listen to your music if you are already using your PC for other things, or if your music is on your laptop so you can play it as you travel around. This can make using your PC to play your music quite attractive.
Media playing software packages
There are many media player software packages readily available. The most common are Apple iTunes and Microsoft Windows Media Player.
Most PCs have others installed that you may not even be aware of. Some of these find your music collection and convert it to another, lesser, format. Be especially careful of media players which come with MP3 players. Their goal is to get as much of your music collection in to the MP3 player as possible, regardless of quality. Some do this by compressing your music collection and replacing the original files. This means you will lose the high quality files you will have downloaded from this site. Please do make sure that if you have media players like this they cannot gain access to your high quality files.
It is essential to turn off all the audio processing features in the media player, if you want to experience the full quality of the downloaded music. Popular 'enhancements' are tone controls, graphic equalisers, room effects, volume levelling, pitch changing, dynamic range compression, equalisation and multiple volume controls.
A brief over view on how to use your media player to get the best possible music experience.
1. Choose your media player software. If you use Windows Media Player (WMP) as your media player, downloads from Linn Records will play immediately the download completes and the licence is acquired. WMP is not the only media player with the WM DRM plug-in. If you use another media player you can convert your download to a format your player can handle. If you use iTunes, probably the simplest way to do this is to burn a red book CD, and rip it losslessly into iTunes.
2. Choose your 'sound card'. Sound cards which fit inside the PC and connect to the PCI bus are best avoided as they inevitably result in electrical noise from the PC getting into your music system. The best type of sound card connects to the PC through a USB or Firewire (IEEE1394) interface. USB has very much displaced Firewire as the means of connecting peripherals to a computer. You can pay from about £20 upwards for a USB soundcard but expect a good one to cost a lot more. A bit of research will lead you to what's available.
Tip: If you get hums, noises and crackles when you touch a connector, you should get some better cables to connect your sound card to your amplifier.
3. Configure your system. A soundcard can be connected to a music system through either its analogue outputs or its digital output, if your amplifier has a digital input. If you use the analogue outputs from a soundcard the audio quality will be largely determined by the quality of the D/A converters (DACs) on the sound card. If you use the digital (SPDIF) output, the DACs in your amplifier will set the quality. If you have a good amplifier, like a Linn one, you're best to use the digital output from your soundcard.
Tip: Be sure to disable all the sound processing features of the soundcard, for more accurate sound.
4. The volume controls
The next thing you should do is find how all the volume controls in your PC work, disable as many as possible and set the others to 'unity gain'. When you install the software for your chosen soundcard be careful not to install accidentally yet another media player. The software will almost certainly include a 'mixer' with several volume controls. For the highest quality you need to find where to set, and leave, these for unity gain.
Here's an easy way to test your findings: from the test page, select and download for free the 'full scale 16b44k 440Hz test tone'. Now turn down the volume control on your music system to a low value and be sure not to play this tone too loud. We accept no responsibility for your system or your ears if you have the volume up high! This test tone is generated digitally and has a peak to peak value of exactly the full 16 bit digital value range. Any digital gain on this signal results in extremely audible distortion.
Select the test tone through your media player and play it. Adjust your amplifier volume control for a comfortable sound level. Now adjust the volume controls on your media player and on your sound card software. Find the ones which change the sound level. As you increase the PC volume setting you'll probably find that the sound quite suddenly becomes very distorted. Experiment with the volume controls to find the maximum value at which they can be set just before the distortion starts. This is the 'unity gain' setting. If you set the PC volume controls above this level, music approaching maximum digital level will be distorted. If you set the volume below this level you are losing resolution (bits). You may find that the volume setting for unity gain is the default value, or 50% or similar.
On some sound cards the volume control changes the SPDIF digital audio output level in addition to the analogue output level. Check this if you have chosen to connect your system digitally.
There is one more check related to volume controls. There is a convention in the audio world that most CD players put out about 2V maximum and that the CD input on amplifiers can handle somewhat over 2V. It's possible that this could overload the input of some amplifiers. If when you play a downloaded track through your PC and soundcard it sounds much louder than when you play a CD through your CD player, you may be overloading your amplifier. On a modern amplifier this is not likely but if it happens you need to fit a pair of attenuators between the soundcard analogue outputs and the amplifier inputs at about 6dB. Only older amplifiers, where the 'standard' input level was closer to 0.2V are likely to have this problem. If you have an amplifier with 0.2V input sensitivity it's probably already overloading on the CD input. You'll need closer to a 20dB attenuator if this is the case.
Assuming you've managed to switch off all the additional tricks on your sound card, you're now ready to enjoy your downloaded music.
In some instances it is quite possible that the data sent out over the USB interface is being processed before the soundcard gets it. This is still an area of experimentation. As computer audio technology improves we will keep this section updated to help you get the best sound possible from your PC based music system.