Product name: Audiophile Linux
Manufacturer: Marko Lerota
Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: November, 2013
There are, of course, many hi-fi systems that still don't use a computer audio source but many of the new products coming on to the market are aimed at computer audio, and with CD players a dying breed, more and more audiophiles are turning to a computer to supply the ones and zeros for their DACs to turn into music. The vast majority of us are now familiar with using a computer, usually one with a Windows operating system (OS) but rather like driving a car, many are not familiar with the actual workings of that OS. So when it comes to playing music through a computer they simply install some software such as Foobar2000, Winamp or Media Center, and accept the sound that they get from that set-up. The more adventurous (and capable) may install ASIO drivers, and for those willing to pay, there is the excellent JPlay software that I have reviewed here on TNT. However, JPlay isn't free, and it also works better, with a higher specification of computer, so it can work out quite expensive if you aren't careful. Here at TNT-Audio, we are always looking to bring you the best deals, the best sound per pound, so in this article I'll be taking a look at something that can't be any cheaper: Audiophile Linux.
As I stated above, many people are now familiar with using a computer with a Windows OS. So long as it starts up, and they can use the installed software, connect a printer and/or scanner to it, and connect it to the Internet, they are happy. Some of course use Macintosh computers in the same way. The other main OS is Linux, except that it isn't one OS, there are hundreds of different varieties. Linux is still seen as the geeks operating system, the dark side of computing, and understandably many people don't want to go near it. In the early days of Linux you really did need to be familiar with working in the terminal (similar to controlling Windows through DOS), and needing to know all sorts of mysterious code to make the computer do anything. Linux comes in various flavours or distributions and distributions. These days you can download and install systems like Ubuntu and Linux Mint (to name just two that I am familiar with), and then use the computer with as little input as you would with your Windows OS. But that still leaves us with an OS that isn't optimised for music playback. There are of course modifications that you can make to a Linux system to improve it's music playback but most of them involve heading into geek territory, ie opening up the terminal, and typing in some weird commands. If you get one character wrong, or miss out a space, you will get an error message that you have no understanding of, and the whole process comes to an abrupt end with you swearing to yourself that you will never waste time on Linux ever again.
Well, before you dismiss Linux completely, here's the good news. Somebody, well a guy called Marko Lerota to be precise, has modified a version of Linux Mint to play music back optimally, and then saved the modified version of this OS so that we can download it, and use the modified version 'out of he box'. Marko is a system administrator with many years experience of Linux, and he's also a keen audiophile. Sounds good doesn't it? But I know some of you are thinking that downloading and installing a complete operating system is a whole lot more daunting than simply installing some software. The truth is that installing an OS of any sort is a bit more long-winded than installing an application on an OS that is already up and running. But it doesn't involve much more than simple steps that most compuetr users will be familiar with, including downloading and running programs. Marko provides some comprehensive instructions on his web site for getting Audiophile Linux (AP-L) up and running, and I will expand on those instructions.
The first worry that I had when it came to trying a Linux system was putting it on the same computer as my Windows OS. What if something went wrong and I couldn't access my Windows? It's not difficult to safely dual boot a computer. That's where you have two operating systems on the same computer, and simply select which one you want to use when you power it up. Even so, I think that we all feel a little safer if we are messing around with a new OS on another computer, and there is zero danger to the computer that we use for our day to day computing. So, how about a second computer for our music playback? "Hang on", says somebody at the back of the room, "I thought this was meant to be a cheap way to a good playback system!". Well, I'm not talking about going out and buying an i7 based PC with 64 Gb of RAM. All we need for AP-L is something with a dual-core CPU (or better), and ideally 2 Gb of RAM. A quick look on Ebay and you will find any number of suitable candidates, used of course, but plenty good enough for our music server.
I actually bought a new PC to use for my music server in my 'reviewing' room. It's an HP DC7800 SFF with a Core Duo 2.33 CPU and 4 Gb of RAM. It's got the suffix SFF that stands for Small Form Factor, and fits on a hi-fi shelf albeit with its back end sticking out at the rear. The DC7800 cost me under 100 UK pounds. I didn't really intend this to be a buying guide but if you want something more compact, there are the Intel Atom CPU based machines like the Revo range from Acer. Another option would be a laptop so that you don't need a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. As you are not going to use the existing OS, you should look for machines running XP or Vista as they tend to be cheaper than those running Windows 7.
The main risk when buying a second-hand computer is the condition of the hard drive. We have no way of knowing how much use it has had. Although the manufacturing date may be printed somewhere on it's casing, it still doesn't tell us what state that drive is in. I think that it is sensible to buy a new hard drive and install that. That way you know that you have a hard drive that will work well and give many years of service. What size you choose will depend on whether you want to store your music collection on it as well as the OS, or whether you are happy to keep the music on a separate USB hard drive, or even a network drive. Even with the cost of a new drive, the computer I bought still cost about a third of what I paid for my first CD player (and that was only an entry level model).
At this stage, just a few words about quiet computers. Some strive to achieve a silent computer but I find that a quiet computer is good enough, and the difference in cost between the two can be huge. If you have a particularly noisy PC, it will probably be the CPU fan, and in that case I would suggest buying a quieter cooler, but spending no more than 20-30 pounds. I won't suggest anything specific here as models come and go but a quick Google should help you find some recommendations.
It's not difficult to change hard drives and CPU coolers but if you don't feel that you are up to it, ask friends or family if they are. It may surprise you how many people are capable of doing that sort of job.
So with a suitable computer (or your main one if you are happy to try dual booting), it's time to get AP-L installed. Go to the documentation page at the Audiophile Linux site, and click on the link Install Instructions. You are going to start off working on your main computer (but not making any changes to it other than downloading and using a couple of items of software). Follow the instructions given at the AP-L site, and here are some extra tips and links that should help you:
Download the ISO file from the link on the instructions page (make sure that you download it to somewhere that you can find it later such as your Desktop, or Downloads folder).
Go to the link for the checksum and copy and paste that into Notepad or whatever software that you use to edit and save text files. Save it in the same place as the ISO file as a file called 'checksum'.
Download the MD5Sum software from here, and install it.
Run the program called MD5Sum and when it starts up show it which file name that you want to check, ie the ISO file that you downloaded from AP-L. Next copy the checksum into the MD5SUM box, and click on COMPARE You will then be told if the two match each other. If they do you most probably (but not certainly) have a good download of the ISO file. If they do not match then you will have to delete the ISO file, download it again, and go through the checksum routine again.
Once you have a good copy of the ISO you need to get that onto a blank DVD. That is not the same as simply burning it as a file so you will need some more software if you don't already have something that will burn image files. I suggest using ImgBurn but there are several more good free ISO image burning utilities. Here is a guide to using ImgBurn to burn an image file to a DVD disk.
Now you have the AP-L image burned to a DVD you will move to work on your music server computer.
Make sure that the computer will boot from the optical drive. You may need to go into BIOS to do that. Don't be scared if you haven't ventured there before. There are different methods for getting into BIOS on different makes of computer. On some you press the DELETE key while powering up, on others it is the F8 key, and on some the key is shown on the splash screen as you power up. If you can't find the correct method for your computer, the best thing is to Google for an answer. Once in BIOS, you should find the section where you change the BOOT PRIORITY or BOOT ORDER, and then make the change so that the optical drive is the first device in that list. In most BIOS you then save the new BIOS settings by pressing the F10 key to confirm the settings and exit the BIOS. It may be slightly different on your BIOS but there will almost certainly be instructions on how to SAVE & EXIT. Before exiting the BIOS, make sure that the DVD containing the AP-L ISO image is in the optical drive.
When the computer restarts you should see the DVD drive start spinning, and you should then go instruction number 3 on the AP-L site and follow Marko's instructions. Don't get frustrated, you are not going to harm anything if you make a mistake, and basically if you simply follow the instructions, AP-L will install itself on that computer. At the end of the installation you are prompted to remove the DVD, and then you can go and play with the new operating system.
Marko supplies instructions for using Fluxbox (an alternative interface for Linux Mint), and setting up QuickJack (the 'engine' that plays the music) and DeafBeef (the software that helps you choose and play music). This is all fairly straightforward but like anything else in life, it is a lot less strange the second or third time that you do it.
Once it is all set up, you should be able to turn on the computer and go straight into Flux box, open QuickJack and DeafBeef, and select and play your music. There are one or two things to do to achieve that state, ie automating your login process, and setting Fluxbox as your preferred desktop. You do the latter by clicking on the middle icon of the three beneath the log in box, clicking the Fluxbox option, and then clicking YES when you are asked if you want this to be your default Window. In case you are wondering why we use Fluxbox instead of another user interface such as Cinnamon, it's because it uses less of the CPU's resources, and so (in theory at least) makes for better playback.
And that's about it. You will need to configure QuickJack to use the DAC that you have connected (as described in the instructions on playing music). Make sure that you have configured Quick Jack to start automatically. And you should be able to play music. Is AP-L as good as JPlay? I would say on a good system that JPlay just has the edge but not so much that I listen to AP-L and find myself wanting to switch to JPlay. Given that AP-L is free, and works on a more basic computer, I think that it is a great gift to the audiophile community. My only concern, and this isn't a fault with AP-L, is that when playing music I am using a second computer (in addition to my main computer that I tend to have running all day). For that reason I am currently investigating ways of using something that consumes only a few watts of power, and hope to report back here when I have a working solution.
© Copyright 2013 Nick Whetstone - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com