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So, a couple of the network players I am considering allow direct connect of USB HDD's for your catalog playback as well as an Ethernet NAS or HDD option. For ease of use I was going to try the USB HDD option first but I wonder if this offers better or worse sound quality. I realize that both options probably introduce added "noise" to the signal path but maybe one is less degrading than another.
I've read about some of the same issues re: how different NAS and different HDD's sound different. And this was only the beginning. It was enough to give me a headache. As far as "noise" is concerned, I was also interested in knowing if USB HDD's can add signal noise into the player. So far I am not a fan of USB/DAC connections and don't want to use them if there's a chance a USB connected HDD can inject unwanted signal noise. In re: to HDD noise itself, I plan on using 2.5" HDD's since they seem to generate far less external noise.
Because of my great experiences using a Alesis 9600, I am convinced that a one box player/server might have inherent qualities making it a better route to go. But one box units are few, Sony, Naim, Cocktail Audio.
While I haven't ruled out a separate NAS, I will probably go the route of a Melco N1A (used) vs. Synology or QNAP. A bit more $ but the Melco would allow me to go with an Ethernet connection and bypass a USB connection.
A quick answer is, yes, HDDs can add noise. In fact your choice of using a 2.5" drive is the worst solution as they are all powered via the 5v pin from the USB bus. Those USB power lines are usually very noisy electrically. I would also point out that my reference earlier to one of my HDDs being " inferior" for sound was in rlation to a Samsung 2.5" drive. BTW, that Samsung came with a really awful connecting wire which needed to be replaced with a better one( not an audiophile marvel, just a bog standard mini USB 3 to USB A). When I say awful even people using the drive for normal data handling purposes complained at the slow speeds using it.
As for electrical noise and the use of 3.5" external drives, these are powered via their own wall wart supply. These too are noisy and should be replaced with a low noise 12v PS. Note that some, like a Toshiba Canvio impose a greater load than some audiophile supplies are engineered for (2A rather than the usual 1.5A).
So there is a conflict here with a requirement for minimum mechanical noise as desktop HDDs do generate some such noise compared to 2.5" ones. I would add that they do quieten down after some use and I am mostly unaware of the noise from any of my Seagate HDDs when listening from a couple of metres away. But " mostly" is the caveat and for anyone for whom absolute silence at all times is neccesary this is not a good solution.
The Melco is interesting ( in fact I am considering one myself). Although it can be connected to an NAS source via ethernet I believe that they contain enough internal storage (1 or 2 Tb) to be used as stand alone devices for many people. That may be a simple solution with an HDD ( or HDDs) used for backup and/or as a library source to load the Melco's memory. There is , however, the question of a control application as I don't think that Melco offers one of its own ( which confuses matters - well, for me).
about the only way to know with any certainty is to try the various options for yourself.
With little or no evidence one way or the other, I currently use a Thunderbolt hard drive attached to a headless Mac Mini to store, play directly to a USB DAC and to stream music (LMS and SONOS) about the house via an in-wall Cat5E system.
Would a NAS drive in the garage, attached to the router sound better?
Maybe someday I'll try that instead.
An Ethernet connection to a NAS has the potential to be better than a spinning hard drive because of the lack of mechanical vibration, noise, and EMI. Ethernet runs over balanced twisted pair cabling terminated with transformers at both ends, so it doesn't conduct much noise. But a USB SSD might be better still. This is all theoretical though. There are so many variables that make it system dependent, so you'll get all kinds of different opinions.
I use a NAS and the main reason why is convenience. My music collection resides in one place. I am constantly adding to it and I have playback devices all over the house. Keeping multiple copies of my music up to date is not something I want to do.
I have a completely silent WD My Passport 2 TB portable hard drive. I hear nothing from it unless my ear is pressed directly to it, nor do I feel any vibration. Files played over that device through my Oppo 103 player sound exactly the same as files streamed over WiFi from a PC in the next room and input to Oppo via Ethernet.
I use USB flash drives in my Oppo BDP-105D. It has three USB ports and I have three 256-GB USB flash drives with hi-res digital from 16/44 to 24/192 PCM as well as DSD 2.8-MHz. There is no noise at all.
For DSD 5.6-MHz playback, I also use a USB flash drive in my TASCAM DA-3000. Again, no noise whatsoever! No noise and no need for a computer music server. Both of these components are autonomous digital playback systems.
Not possible to answer without knowing a lot more. For example which external HDDs? I have a variety of models and , I regret to say, they all sound different to each other (one being quite inferior IMO). Some are self powered, others from the USB bus. Unfortunately replacing the USB bus power with a quiet external PS does not seem to make more than a marginal difference. I have no idea why all of this is.
Of course where I have two samples of the same model HDD then they do sound identical.
Some NAS installations also seem to be more successful for SQ than others , for example wired v. fibre (see link).
The mechanical noise of the USB HDD is in the same room as the server while that of the NAS is remote. That makes a difference.
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