Silverstone's Music Box Bridges the PC to Home Audio System Gap
By Jim Bray
Now that music downloading and audio streaming over the home network and the Internet are becoming popular, self respecting audio snobs on a budget may want to find a way to get those tunes from their computers to their expensive stereo systems without a lot of hassle.
Fortunately, there are easy and affordable solutions to this problem, one of which uses a device that's basically a kind of external sound card to bridge the digital PC to analog stereo system gap.
Take Silverstone Technology's EB01 "Premium USB digital to analog converter," for example. For about a hundred bucks, you can get this cute little box (available in black or silver and displaying pretty blue lights when it's working) and place it in your stereo stand, where it'll take the sound output from your PC and pipe it directly to your audio system.
I don't store a lot of music on my network, and I have comparatively high end disc players to handle CD and DVD-Audio disc playback (rather than playing them in my PC's disc drive), so I wouldn't have thought I'd have much use for such a device. But when I was on vacation a few months ago, I discovered a classic rock FM radio station that I really liked and which quickly became my favorite station. The problem is that it's located in Michigan and I'm based in Alberta, Canada, so I can't get it over the air.
Thank Heaven and Al Gore for the Internet! Fortunately, this station (like many others) streams its programming over the World Wide Web, so anyone can listen to it wherever they may be as long as they have a computer and an Internet connection.
Problem solved, except for the ugly reality of those little notebook PC speakers. Music deserves to be heard under the best possible conditions, and I wanted to listen to the streaming audio feed on my big, Rotel-powered home audio system, for obvious reasons.
This is where the Silverstone rode to my rescue. I sat the EB01 on top of my audio stack, plugged it into my notebook computer's USB port on one end, and to my stereo on the other (via regular RCA jacks) and fired up the system, ready to rock.
Patching the EB01 between the components is about all the installation you need, too. My notebook runs Windows XP and when I booted up the computer it "saw" the EB01 and automatically installed it as USB speakers; at the other end, I chose a vacant set of stereo analog inputs. From then on all I had to do was select that input with the remote control and Bob was, indeed, my uncle.
Here's a tip: make sure you hook everything up before you power up the equipment lest you risk overpowering your USB port. That happened to me once and my notebook PC had conniptions.
You can also use the included Y connector to hook in a set of stereo headphones, but I didn't try that.
The EB01comes with its own gold plated USB cable (though it's a tad short for optimal use in my system), through which it also gets its power. This means you don't need to plug it into a wall socket, which is handy. Silverstone says it offers a signal to noise ratio and dynamic range of 100 decibels or more, which is pretty good and, at about the size of two DVD's stacked up and about 700 grams in weight, it should be pretty easy to find a nook or cranny in which to mount it in the audio rack.
Silverstone says the EB01’s internal circuitry ensures that sound from your CD, DVD, MP3 files or games will be reproduced in the quality "the artist and content creator originally envisioned." I didn't pry the thing open to examine the circuitry (lest it never work again!), but when I played audio CD's on my PC, the sound quality through the EB01 was fine. It can't compete with my reference DVD Audio player's output via six channel analog connection, but not much can. And for the price, I wouldn't expect it to.
The EB01 only works in stereo, or mono, so if you're looking to play back movies or surround sound audio discs you'll have to rely on your receiver's "digital fudging capabilities", but I'm willing to bet that if you like such programming sources you'll be using your regular DVD Audio/Video player anyway, which makes the point moot.
You could also use the EB01 to send the audio from a PC-based game to your stereo and really rock your playtime. Couple this with a PC-to-Big Screen TV video connection and you may never get any work done!
One thing I noticed about the EB01 was that I had to crank the volume a bit to reach the listening levels I prefer, probably about 10 per cent higher than if I were using the dedicated disc player.
On the other hand, playing the FM radio station's streaming audio on my big home theater system was an ear opening experience: the sound was comparatively thin and compressed-sounding, something I hadn't been able to notice through the "low fi" speakers of the computer.
This isn't the Silverstone's fault, of course. It's the nature of the streaming beast right now, but this should improve over time with additional bandwidth and compression methods. Eventually, you should be able to get the same or better audio quality from a streaming source as you can from your local radio stations.
It's just more proof that, thanks to the Internet, location is becoming increasingly irrelevant. This is good.
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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