How to play downloads through your hi-fi
There are three general methods of getting the music out of your computer and into your hi-fi:
- Using media player software on your computer to play the music, and connecting the computer’s sound card directly to your hi-fi
- Using a high quality external USB sound card that has a good digital to analogue converter (DAC) on board, and connecting this between the computer and the hi-fi
- Using a dedicated stand-alone digital stream player (sometimes referred to as ‘media receiver’ or ‘digital media player’)
If you want to use the media player software already on your computer to organise, choose and play music directly from your computer, you need to make a connection between your computer and your hifi system. The simplest way to do this is with a cable from the analogue output of your computer sound card to a pair of auxiliary line level inputs on the back of your amplifier. Unless you have upgraded the sound card in your computer this often sounds awful and is usually accompanied by buzzes, whistles and other noises!
A much better option is to connect your computer to your hifi using a digital connection. This can easily be done if your computer has a digital audio output and your amplifier has a digital audio input. It will be either a phono (RCA) shielded cable or a fibre optic cable. Either will give much better results than the analogue output from most sound cards. However not all hifi amplifiers have a digital input, and not all digital inputs are equal. Check what connections you have, your computer supplier will be able to help select the correct cables and connections.
If your hi-fi amplifier does not have a digital input, the best solution to connect your computer to your hifi is to use the highest quality of external USB sound card with onboard DAC you can afford. Connect the analogue outputs of the USB sound card to your hifi amplifier auxiliary inputs.
Whichever way you connect your computer to your hifi, always set the volume level on the media player software to "unity gain" and use the volume control on your amplifier to adjust to your desired level. This is because digital volume controls used in a computer (and elsewhere) often reduce sound quality very rapidly at any setting below maximum.
Using a computer to play your music directly is convenient if you also use the computer for other things, like Internet access. However, most computers are noisy enough to distract from the listening experience and don’t provide the best quality of music playback.
The best method of playing back music files stored in a computer is through a standalone digital stream player or 'media receiver'. There are many types of solution now available and their sound quality varies from poor to outstanding. The highest quality player of this type is Linn’s own ‘Klimax DS’ but there are many alternatives both from Linn and other companies that can get you going.
The best sounding media receivers are made by companies like Linn who are focussed on good quality audio rather than simply on functional computer accessories. Some internet research will soon guide you to what is available. You can read more about Linn’s digital stream (DS) players here.
A DS player or media receiver has several advantages over using a computer to play your music; they are silent, with no discs or fans, simple to use and by accessing the stored music files directly can bypass some of the terrible things that are done to music when being played through a computer operating system and software! They do however still require a computer or 'Network Attached Storage' device to be running, on which the music is stored. This needs to be out of audible range. They also depend on a reliable network. It is best to get some advice on the network requirements either from a Linn retailer (in the case of setting up a Linn DS player) or a knowledgeable computer supplier who can help with general networking questions.