What Is “Computer Audio” and Why Should I Care?

We have entered the golden age of high-end audio.  Recorded music has never been higher quality or more accessible in previous history.  In almost any living room, in any typical neighborhood anywhere, a privileged listening session no longer requires a $15,000 turntable spinning a priceless and rare collectible LP and driving a $150,000 stereo system. 

It’s really no contest any more.  For around $1000 one can configure their personal computer to stream HD (high definition) digital masters recorded from that same rare piece of vinyl to drive a set of high quality powered speakers through an excellent USB DAC (digital-to-analog converter.)  Blind listening tests will show he resulting experience of music rivals the listening produced by that high-end system costing over 15 times more.

I know this to be true because I’m listening to the computer that I’m also using to write this article.  The crummy, horrid-sounding computer speakers of a few years ago are no longer an option.  As Anne Queffélec plays a selection of Eric Satie tunes that are being played back by a streaming service located in France, this computer is captures the music from the internet.  A high quality USB DAC converts the stream of 1’s and 0’s back into an analog sound signal and sends it to the speakers. Playback sounds perfect. There’s no audible noises or artifacts.  The piano sounds like it’s right in this room.

This is computer audio.  Simply using a computer and digital-to-analog-converter (DAC) as described to handle and play back digital recorded music files through a set of headphones, a stereo system, or an audio-visual system.

What once required an LP record, a turntable, a preamp, an amplifier, and a pair of speakers can now be accomplished with a computer, a DAC, and a set of quality powered speakers. Or you can connect the DAC output directly to your existing stereo’s AUX input jack and continue listening on the system you already own with a new digital source.

You can accomplish this with almost no knowledge of technology and very little fiddling.  It’s plug and play except for a few easy settings to configure your computer.   If you can follow a few clear instructions, the interconnection is dead simple.  If you can make toast and tea, this feat is within your reach.

The term ”high-end” no longer indicates extreme expense and exclusivity as it did even five years ago.  So much natural-sounding and realistic recorded music has not previously been available in such great volume, to so many listeners, for such low costs, and so conveniently, as it is right now. We have to thank that lowly information workhorse, the personal computer, for all these wondrous adjustments in our collective musical reality.  And, of course, its larger digital brothers and some electronic cousins within the music distribution industry.  And all the humans whose work make this technical revolution possible.

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While giving credit and being grateful, I'll include the continuing advances in audio technology.  Amplifiers have improved greatly and grown smaller and less costly.  Speakers are improving steadily.  Not long ago you could not even buy a separate DAC for under many thousands of dollars.  Now great DACs are commonplace and some will fit into a shirt pocket and leave room for your sunglasses. 

We don’t need complicated  mechanisms with exotic transducers any more to play back a musical recording.  Recording is another area where digital technology has shown up extremely empowering.  With nothing but a few microphones and a couple electronic boxes, performances can be captured, mixed, mastered, and even manufactured and distributed, all in digital mode. 

Physical media is no longer required.  Gone are the LP record-cutting and pressing processes and machinery, the optical disc foundries that followed them, and the tape recorders that assisted all that.  Some of this archaic gear survives in small niches here and there but the mainstream of musical distribution is free of them.

Now we buy our music mainly online in the form of digital downloads.  CD’s are fading away, though they still have a place as sources for HD (high definition) music files.  The music industry has gone through an upheaval similar to the ones experienced by publishing and photography and we, the consumers of information, have been beneficiaries.  Now we read and listen on our various digital devices using files directly without killing trees or encoding plastic discs.

There are many variations on the computer audio theme, and in some cases it can get fairly complex or more costly depending on one’s preferences, circumstances, and choices.  In each case, three elements are always at play.  Somewhere in the mix there are digital music files being streamed and a computer, no matter how small, that is moving the data and controlling the process.  Then there’s a DAC to feed analog amplification to power speakers and re-create the sound.

Even in the case of mobile devices like phones and portable players these same three common elements are involved.  From an iPod Mini with a few hundred songs, to a networked system with a dedicated, purpose-built music server and mass storage holding terabytes of music – it’s all “computer audio.”  Actually, “digital audio” is more accurate but “computer audio” is the term that has caught on.

There is enough complexity in this new world of digital music that it takes some decision making and planning to manage it well.  One has several choices for sources, from streaming online services to files stored either on a device or on a home networked computer or storage drive.  You can “rip” music from a CD collection or have a vinyl LP library digitized.  Then make smaller, portable versions of all your music for your phone or mobile player.

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There are decisions to make about sources, file formats, quality, and size, where and how the music files are to be bought, stored, transported, played, and experienced.  There are choices about what gear you want to acquire and use. How you will determine and spend your music budget. Whether and how you’ll share the listening experience with others. And how you will secure and back up a growing investment in digital music files.  And quite importantly, what the quality level of your listening experience will be.

 Just read, ask and learn.  Any effort you put into understanding this digital music landscape will be repaid a hundredfold in beautiful experiences of music.  Answers are available for every question that arises.  A few articles and guides will help you get through the maze if you are the studious type and good at using the web for research.

You can create the strategy that makes digital audio work best for you.  Pick a music format to use for all your master files and one for your portable music.  They might both be the same, or not.  Decide if you want to upgrade your stereo gear or if you’ll keep listening to what you have, or both.  What about in the car?  Maybe that’s where the CD’s should go after you “rip” your music from them.  

The many decisions you must make can come gradually at a pace that you find comfortable.  You can start small, and build up from there.  A beginning is possible for $149 (with the Audioengine W3 16-bit Wireless Audio Adapter) if you have some hi-fi headphones and a computer with USB 2.0 or better.  Even better, the astounding Audioengine A2+ Powered Speakers ($249) have a great DAC built in, so it's plug-in audio-lover's instant gratification and a great way to hear actual Hi-Fi music for the first time.  Many earbud listeners have never heard true high fidelity music.  So be sure you are playing true CD quality files or better.

This web site (iHi-Fi.com) has been developed to ease your journey, speed you on your way, and upgrade your enjoyment of music at affordable costs.  Please make full use of the resources -- 

The Blog. This page is where you’ll find frequent postings of highly relevant and useful information, news, and how-to info.

Contact. This page is available from the Navigation Menu, is where you can seek answers to all your burning questions about computer audio.  You're invited to post questions in blog comments.

Computer Audio Guides. In this post there are links to two extremely helpful, relevant primers to get newcomers started and help old hands to sharpen their skills –

Valuable Free Computer Audio Orientation Documents

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In summary, I’m glad you stopped by.  Please take a look around.  Read a post or two.  Leave some comments.  Ask a question.  Most of all, enjoy yourself, learn some new skills, and enrich your life with the Niagara of digital music that’s now available to everyone through computers.