Integrating computer-based audio with hi-fi

Back in the olden days I used to be quite a hi-fi ‘buff’, but a few years ago I started to listen to my MP3 collection more than my CD collection. I loved being able to have exactly the songs I liked in my collection without lots of ‘filler’ tracks that you often get on albums. Then iTunes came along and I made use of its Smart Playlists to create playlists based on genre that matched the kind of musical mood I was in, which I still make extensive use of. Next, the iTunes Store appeared, and I thought it was fantastic that you could buy precisely the individual songs that you wanted for a fixed price, so my collection expanded accordingly. And then there’s Last.fm with its excellent ability to recommend new music and gigs based on the music you listen to, which I would now sorely miss if I didn’t have it available.

Consequently I wouldn’t want to go back to CDs now, but at the same time I’m missing the decent sound of a good hi-fi system and therefore wondering how to integrate a computer-based music collection with a hi-fi in a way that can ensure sound quality on a par with CD. It seemed to me that connecting together the software and hardware shouldn’t be too much of a problem, so long as the music is transmitted digitally without any loss of information until it reaches the DAC (digital to analogue converter). So long as you had a decent DAC, the only other bits you’d need would be a decent amplifier and loudspeakers.

Having read through various hi-fi forums recently, it seems I am correct about this. Using computer-based audio, it’s perfectly possible to match or even exceed the sound quality of CD using a setup of this nature. In my case I’d probably have a Mac mini or Apple TV to use as a ‘multimedia hub’, and that would be connected to a good DAC (either a pro audio interface or a hi-fi DAC box), from which the signal would be fed to the amplifier. So far, so good.

The main problem arises, however, with the audio files on the computer. I originally used MP3 files in my library and then progressed onto AAC files with increasingly high bitrates, so now I have a mix of ‘lossy’ audio formats in use. The problem with these formats is that they compress data in such a way that audio information is lost and the sound quality is reduced as a result, hence the use of the term ‘lossy’.

Increasingly, however, ‘lossless’ compression formats are in use, in which the audio files are sonically as good as (or potentially even better than) CD. These files are significantly larger than their lossy equivalents, but this isn’t a huge issue for many people because disk space is pretty cheap. I would therefore be very happy to start using a lossless format, but there’s still another problem to overcome: FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) seems to be becoming the standard for lossless digital music distribution, probably because it’s a good ‘open’ format which anyone is free to use, but neither Apple nor Microsoft products support this format currently.

On the Mac, there is a format called Apple Lossless (otherwise known as ALAC) which is fairly similar to FLAC, but which is a ‘closed’ standard and is only really usable with Apple products. This format could, therefore, potentially be less flexible and less well-supported in the future due to the fact that it can’t work with non-Apple products without being reverse engineered. Whilst it’s possible to convert from one lossless format to another without any loss of audio quality, to convert a large library in such a manner might be quite a tiresome process and one I’m keen to avoid if possible.

So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Apple will soon give up on trying to push Apple Lossless so hard and instead realise that they need to start supporting FLAC. If that happens in the near future, I’ll be re-ripping my CD collection in FLAC format and using it for everything possible from then on. If Apple don’t start supporting FLAC soon, I guess I’ll have to just grit my teeth and start using Apple Lossless in preparation for my move to proper computer-based audio/hi-fi integration, then be prepared for a mass conversion at some point further down the line.

Edit: After discovering that it was possible to easily convert ALAC files to FLAC, including all their metadata, I’ve been happily using ALAC for some time now.