Audiophile Linux music server operating system

[Audiophile Linux music server operating system screen]

and building a budget music server

[Italian version]

Product name: Audiophile Linux music server operating system.
Manufacturer: Audiophile Linux
Cost - Free (donations welcomed)

Reviewer: Nick Whetstone - TNT UK
Reviewed: February, 2015

I recently reviewed a piece of software called Fidelizer, that works with Windows operating systems to enhance the sound quality from computers used as music servers. For those that baulk at the prospect of paying for Windows and Fidelizer, here is the poor man's audiophile operating system, or at least one of them.

I first looked at Audiophile Linux in it's second version in this review (November 2013). I was impressed then, but Marko Lerota who produces Audiophile Linux wasn't content, and looked to make improvements. The approach that he took was to ditch Linux Mint altogether, and use something called Arch Linux. Arch Linux is a very basic operating system where the developer has to add in the services that are required. If you think of it, it is the opposite strategy to starting with a fully featured system such as Windows, and then closing down all the services that you don't want with something such as Fidelizer. Audiophile Linux starts with almost nothing and adds in the services necessary to play the music.

With Audiophile Linux v3.0, Marko Lerota also adopted a new way of installing it by essentially restoring an image. For those of you are not computer buffs, an image is a kind of snapshot of what your hard drive contains when the image is created. Many people use these images to back up their system in case something goes wrong. Then, instead of having to install the whole system, the drivers, and the individual software applications again, everything is restored in one go. In theory this makes installing Audiophile Linux v3.0 easier. Now, at this point, it is only fair to warn anybody not familiar with Linux operating systems, that they are a lot more demanding than something like Windows. You will need to make certain settings yourself, rather than relying on a program doing that for you. For those not familiar with Linux, even simple settings can be a mystery (at least at first). So although Audiophile Linux is free, it will require some time and effort on your part to get it up and running successfully (unless you are already familiar with Linux). The tricky part is not so much getting Audiophile Linux 3.0 installed, but getting your music library set up correctly. In my opinion, and I did have some problems getting it set up, the effort is worthwhile.

When I first saw Audiophile Linux 3.0 was released I wanted to try it straight away but I there was a problem. I was using a computer which was dual booting (running with two different operating systems) with Audiophile Linux 2.0 and Windows 8. The way that Audiophile Linux 3.0 is installed makes it very difficult to dual boot it with Windows. So I left Audiophile Linux 3.0 alone, very happy with what I was getting from Audiophile Linux 2.0. Then fellow TNT reviewer, Mike Cox, contacted me to tell me that he had got Audiophile Linux 3.0 up and running, and in his opinion, it was the best sound quality that he had got out of a computer. I resolved to get another computer on which to install Audiophile Linux 3.0, and after selling a few items on Ebay, I had the funds for my new music server. I had already identified what I wanted. The remit was for something small, quiet, and powerful enough to run Audiophile Linux 3.0. That meant something with a Core 2 Duo processor (or better), and at least 2 GB of RAM. And it had to be cheap! What I settled on was a used HP Compaq Ultraslim DC7900.

[HP Compaq Ultraslim DC7900 APL desktop computer]
The compact Ultraslim PCs are perfect for a hi-fi shelf.

These machines are little larger than a laptop, but unlike laptops, they are very easy to mess around with inside. Originally designed mainly for office use, they can also be carried around like a laptop. The Ultraslim models have an external power supply, something that I thought may be an advantage if I wanted to build a 'better' one later. Small enough to fit on a standard hi-fi shelf, the Ultraslim is also quite attractive, and unlikely to have some cohabitant complaining, as they may well do in the case of a 'normal' sized computer. Yes, these days we can buy even smaller machines based on Atom processors, but they cost considerably more. The model that I purchased has a fast 3.00 GHz processor, and 4 GB of RAM. The only downside was that I wanted to place the operating system on one hard drive, and the music on another internal hard drive, and the Ultraslim computers only have room for a single 2.5 inch drive. The solution was to remove the DVD player, buy a caddy to hold the second 2.5 inch hard drive, and insert that in place of the DVD player. Taking advice from Marko Lerota, I purchased an SSD drive for the operating system. Prices have dropped significantly, and SSD drives are no longer a luxury. A 60 GB drive is sufficient to install Audiophile Linux 3.0, and (at the time of writing) can be picked up for a little over 30 UK pounds. For my music library, I purchased a 500 GB spinning drive (500 GB apparently is the largest that you can put in the caddy) at another 33 UK pounds. Altogether, the computer, drives, and caddy, cost me 135 UK pounds (the Ultraslim DC7900 having cost me just 65 UK pounds from pcefficientltd, who I would strongly recommend for price and service, if you wish to go along the same route. These computers should be widely available in other countries. The only other hardware that I needed were two USB flash drives, one of 2 GB capacity, and one of 1 GB

[a DVD caddy used to hold the second hard drive.]
The caddy that holds a second hard drive, and goes in place of the optical drive.

It took very little work to get the computer set up, and anybody should be able to do that work regardless of their level of skill. The lid comes off the Ultraslim case after removing a single screw at the rear (you don't even need a spanner) the DVD player slides out after disconnecting a single cable, and the internal hard drive is removed in a cradle, and is easily swapped with a new drive, the only tool required being a Philips screwdriver. With the new drive in the cradle, it is simply lowered back into place, and as you pull a lever, the drive is automatically aligned, and mated to the connector. The second hard drive is simply placed into the caddy with two small screws, and the caddy slid into the slot previously occupied by the DVD drive (after swapping over the green release lever). It all takes less than 30 minutes even if you take your time (as you should).

[HP Compaq Ultraslim DC7900 APL desktop computer internals]
The DVD (bottom right) is removed by pressing the green lever. The hard drive is located underneath.

If you want to go this route for a dedicated music server, there are plenty of online instructions to help you carry out the above modifications. This HP guide, and this You Tube video making it all very clear.

With the computer hardware set up, it was time install Audiophile Linux 3.0. There are fairly comprehensive instructions on the Audiophile Linux site but I'll add a few extra tips here. The first job is to download two files. One contains the image of Audiophile Linux 3.0, and the other is the software that will put that image on the hard drive of your music computer. When you have downloaded the two files, they should be checked to make sure that they have downloaded intact, and with no errors. The following assumes that you will be using a Windows computer to do all this preparation work. If you currently use a Linux system you will probably be familiar with the following procedure.

First download a piece of software called WinMD5Sum. Download it (it is a tiny file), extract it, and run it by double clicking on the file (as you won't find it in your programs list on the start menu). In the first box you need to enter the MD5 checksum. Go back to the "Audiophile Linux downloads page and click on the 'Md5' link. Copy and paste the alpha-numeric string that appears after the '=' into the top box in MD5 checksum. Now click on the browse button at the right of the second box. Navigate to the downloaded 'AP-Linux-v3' file that you downloaded, and select that. You will then be told if the two match each other. If they do, you are good to go, if not you must download the 'AP Linux-3' file again, and repeat the checking process. Do the same for the 'REDO' download.

The next task to is burn the ISO image to a USB stick. I used a program called IMGBURN for that job, and it is quite easy to use. Simply connect your USB flash drive to you computer, run IMGBURN, select 'Write Image File to disk' choose where you want the 'AP-Linux-v3' file to go (to your USB flash drive) and click OK. The file size on the USB flash drive is 1.24 GB so a 2 GB USB flash drive will be adequate.

The next job is to get the REDO software on to another USB flash drive. (You could also put it onto a CD/DVD if your music computer has an optical drive). Download and install another piece of software called Unetbootin Run Unetbootin by double clicking on the file, click on the button with the dotted line, select the 'RedoBackup-APLinux-mod-1' file that you downloaded, choose the USB flash drive that you want it installed on, and click OK. (You do not need to restart your PC after you burn REDObackup to the USB flash drive). REDO takes up only 381 MB on the USB flash drive.

[The two USB flash drives containing the software required to isntall Audiophile Linux 3.0]
The two USB flash drives connected to the music computer.

The preparation work for installing Audiophile Linux 3.0 is now completed. To make it quite clear, installing Audiophile Linux 3.0 will over-write everything on your hard drive, so don't try installing it on a computer that you already use for something else.

Boot up your music computer, and if it isn't already set to boot from USB then set it to do so. The means of changing the boot order varies from computer to computer, but on HP computers such as the Ultraslim, the procedure is to press the F9 function key as the computer starts up, and then change the boot order from that screen. Shut the music computer down.

Connect the USB flash drives containing the REDO software, and the Audiophile Linux 3.0 image to the music computer, and start it again. After a few seconds the computer should boot into the REDO screen. From here, carefully follow the instructions on the Audiophile Linux site.

It's important to remember that if you are using a used drive on which to install Audiophile Linux 3.0, then it must be wiped clean (formatted) first.

When setting up where you are going to store your music, make a note of where that is, eg sda3, sdb1 etc, and the name of the drive/directory where the music is to be held.

Installing Audiophile Linux 3.0 is not much of a problem. What can be tricky is to get your drives set up so that your music can be played. Windows users know that drives are quite easy to use. Drives are identified by letters from C to Z (if we exclude the now almost extinct floppy drives). To use a drive, you locate it in Windows Explorer, and click on it to use it. Linux is a lot more fussy about such issues, and even dictates who can use a particular drive, and how they may use it. In Linux, drives are identified as sda, sdb, etc. (The 's' standing for serial drive, with older computers using hda, hdb etc). The partition number of a drive is shown after the letter, eg sda1, sda2, sdb1 etc.

In Windows, if we want to play our music from drive D for example, we direct the program playing the music to that drive (and the directory on that drive containing the music files). In Audiophile Linux the drive is mounted to a specified point, and the music playing program 'looks' to that point for the music. In Audiophile Linux 3.0 the mount point is /storage. So when you are telling Audiophile Linux 3.0 which drive your music is stored on, you must also specify that the mount point is /storage. And that applies whether the drive is the same one that contains the operating system, is a second hard drive inside the computer, an external USB flash drive, or a networked drive.

One problem that I encountered when I came to copy my music to the internal drive was that I did not have permission to write to that disk. I had to change the permissions for that disk in order to allow me to write to it. If you encounter the same problem, this is how to fix it.

Right click on the APL desktop, and select X-Terminal. A window opens with a black background, and this is where you can give direct instructions to the operating system. Don't be frightened by this, but do be very careful. If you don't enter everything perfectly correctly, it won't work, and you could cause the operating system to stop working.

Let's assume that the directory (or drive) that your music is stored in is named Music. Type in:

chown -R muser Music

and hit enter, and that should give you permission to write to your music drive/directory. 'chown' stands for change ownership, 'muser' is your user name, and 'Music' is the drive/directory that you want to change permission for, and -R stands for recursive, which applies the change of ownership or permission to all sub directories in the 'Music' directory.

Once you have your music available to Audiophile Linux, connect your USB DAC (or converter) to the computer, and then right click on the APL desktop and follow the "directions for playing music with MPD. The main problem that new users are likely to encounter is that when the settings in Cantata and the mpd.conf file are not the same, and/or when the fstab file is not showing the music drive mounted at /storage. It can be very confusing, but don't give up, help is at hand on many Linux forums, and on the Audiophile Linux forums. Open Cantata, click on preferences, and select your music source (/storage). Close that window, left click on the cog wheel icon at the top right of the screen, and then click on Refresh Database. After a delay (depending on the size of your music collection) you will see a list of music files in the left hand pain. Move the files that you want to play to the right hand pane, and you are ready to select something to play.

Cantata is a great way to manage, select, and play your music through MPD. I've found Foobar and JRiver media center to be very good but Cantata trumps them as far as features are concerned, and with a very attractive user interface. I love the ability to search for a track, as well as more usual features such as playlists, repeat and random play, and artwork display. Cantata will display a thumbnail of the album cover next to the name of the album and also a much larger version of it behind the track list (with the user able to choose the transparency level), but the display can be customized. It will also go on-line to find artwork, and even lyrics, and stream music from the likes of Spotify.

[Cantata screen shot.]
If you wish to change the appearance of Cantata, right click on the APL desktop,
and click on 'Appearance' and then 'Theme + Font', and select one of the many options.

It's a good idea when you have Audiophile Linux 3.0 set up and working as you wish, to rerun the 'REDO' facility and make a backup of the system. You could replace the version that you downloaded and copied to the USB flash drive that you installed it from. So if anything goes wrong, you simply restore the image, and everything is back to how it was, without the need to do all the setting up of file permissions etc again.

If you are not familiar with using Linux, and have read the above, and wonder if it is all worth the effort, then I can only say that depends on what else that you have to do with your time. I had one or two problems, and spent a lot of time Googling to try and solve them. I admit that at times I did wonder if sticking with W8 wasn't the sensible option, but having finally got Audiophile Linux 3.0 up and running, I can say that it was worth all the time and frustration. Plying through the M2Tech hiFace DAC powered by a Paul Hynes SR3-05 PSU, the sound quality was as good as any source that I've heard.Audiophile Linux 3.0 is significantly better than 2.0.

I am yet to decide if I like 3.0 more than Windows 8 with Fidelizer. They do sound slightly different, W8/Fidelizer (on a laptop) sounding very slightly darker, with Audiophile Linux 3.0 slightly more open (but that could also be due to the different hardware). The main difference of course is the cost: in the UK Windows 8 currently costs over 73 UK pounds, with Fidelizer Pro at another 46, making a total of 119 pounds compared to Audiophile Linux 3.0 being free. Even with the small (voluntary) donation to Marko Lerota, the whole project cost me under 150 UK pounds. It wasn't that long ago that all that we could have purchased for that money would be a very basic CD player. Other than the extra effort required in getting Audiophile Linux 3.0 running, there is no reason not to give it the highest recommendation. Audiophile Linux 3.0 may be free but it is in no way inferior to the paid-for alternatives. Many thanks to Marko Lerota for Audiophile Linux, and his patience with me while helping me get it set up and working.

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