A DIY digital music streamer with exceptional performance

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Post by lejonklou » 2018-08-11 20:05

HAKAI is a digital network music player with exceptional performance that you can build yourself.

As many of you know, I spent a year working on a commercial digital music player. The resulting product was never released. The reason why it wasn't released was not its musical performance, which is fantastic. The reasons were three:
1. Performance is not consistent with computer parts. As a result, every unit will sound a little different and performance also varies over time, with temperature, etc. Many of the reasons why are unknown. Most companies are fine with this situation, but I'm not.
2. The interface has bugs. Even though releasing buggy firmware has become standard practice in the software industry, it's just not something I would be comfortable with. Bug fighting while maintaining perfect musical performance is a nightmare that would prevent me from spending time on other projects.
3. It's impossible to keep up with the speed at which computer parts are being replaced on today's market. When vital parts, found through endless trial and error, are suddenly discontinued, most companies solve this problem by releasing a new model of their streamer. I don't work this way and don't have the resources to do so. I gradually improve and develop upgrades for my designs, over which I have full knowledge and control down to the last detail. This approach becomes impossible when building a product using commercial computer parts.

HAKAI is a streamer built entirely from commercial off-the-shelf parts. I have omitted all the parts which I worked on myself, such as power supply, DAC and various electrical modifications.

Parts and skills
While some parts for HAKAI are easy to find, others are not. I strongly advise you to use the EXACT parts listed below, as they have all been carefully selected and most of them are crucial to the final performance.
The skills required for building a Hakai are essentially the same as for building a PC and installing an operating system.

SUPPORT on hardware, assembly, software installation and how to use your HAKAI: My time is limited and I need to spend it on other projects. I will rarely answer questions posted in here (and never by email or phone). But you can help eachother! Some have already built a HAKAI and might pop in with help. Others have built a PC or two and know the basics. The recommended software has its own support forum, where I suggest you register and ask questions. They are a friendly bunch of enthusiasts.

What does HAKAI do?
HAKAI will play music in almost any format from the NAS attached to your local network. There is also a Spotify plugin, which I have not tested and can't say if or how good it works. I strongly recommend that your NAS and HAKAI are connected to a Netgear GS-108T switch, which in turn is connected to the local network router (for best results, connect HAKAI to port 8, NAS to port 7 and router to port 6). I also recommend that you power your HAKAI from the same power strip as the rest of your system, but keep the NAS and switch on a separate strip, which is connected to a different but nearby wall outlet.

HAKAI is controlled with your phone, tablet or computer by a web interface. Use a browser of your choice and enter the IP adress of HAKAI (which you will need to surf to your router to find). The user interface will appear in your browser window.

How good is it?
HAKAI is one of the most musical streamers in the world and incredibly fun to listen to.

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Post by lejonklou » 2018-08-11 20:09

STEP ONE - The parts of HAKAI

Streacom F1CWS Evo
This is a good looking and sounding case for HAKAI, but it's not the only option. The case affects the musicality of HAKAI, but the only way to find out how good a case sounds is by trial and error. Sometimes minor physical differences, such as the shape and position of the feet on the bottom of the case, have a bigger impact than major physical differences.

Power Supply:
Streacom Nano160 fanless power supply
This power supply consists of a small DC-DC board that plugs into your motherboard. It powers your motherboard with the 24 pin ATX connector and the 4 pin ATX connector. It also powers your SSD. The small board is in turn powered by an external AC-DC adapter, similar to the ones you get with a laptop.
There are at least a dozen similar designs with a plugin DC-DC board and an AC-DC adapter. There might be an even better sounding model than Nano160, so if you want you can compare them. But as Nano160 is really good, I recommend you to start with that.

Gigabyte GA-N3050N-D3H, Intel Celeron mini-ITX motherboard (discontinued model, very difficult to find but likely the best), or
Gigabyte GA-N3150N-D3V (also discontinued but perhaps less difficult to find).
The above two have been tested with great results. The following may also perform well, but have not yet been tested:
Please note that the motherboard determines the musical performance to a very high degree. Some sound like rubbish, others fantastic. The Celeron-equipped mini-ITX boards with passive cooling from Gigabyte's Ultra Durable series have proven very good if not the best. If you can't find any of these models, look for a different board from Gigabyte with similar specification.

Kingston ValueRAM 4GB or 8GB 1600MHz SO-DIMM
Some motherboards accept DDR3, others the lower voltage DDR3L and some both - please make sure you get the right model! Some motherboards use the bigger UDIMM modules.

Intel 320
Best sounding sizes of Intel 320 is 300 and 600 GB, while 160 GB appears to be a little worse and the smaller ones a tiny bit worse still. These differences are not crucial.
Many alternatives to Intel 320 have been tried, but 320 is in a class of its own. In general, SSD's don't sound any better than HDD's, but they're dead quiet and faster. Among the alternative SSD's, a few (most of them discontiued like 320) stand out as more decent sounding than the latest popular models. But none provide the effortless musical flow of 320.

SSD Cable:
Deltaco SATA-1000
(On the Swedish computer store webhallen, this cable is called Deltaco Serial ATA-600 0.3 m).
This plugs into the SATA0 connector of your motherboard and your SSD. Please note that the cable is slightly directional in its sound quality, meaning that it sounds a little better connected one way than the other. To identify the best sounding direction, trial and error is required. As this is a minor difference, I suggest you save this test until last - if you can pull yourself from the music long enough to perform the test.

ESI Gigaport+
Don't use any other DAC than this, you'll ruin the performance and waste your money. Gigaport HD+ is an 8-channel 24 bit powered-by-USB DAC. Used with HAKAI, only two channels will be active: RCA 1 is left channel and RCA 2 is right channel. These two deliver the music and should be connected to your preamp.

Streamer software:
This Italian company has made a streamer software that sounds exceptionally good. To download Volumio, choose their PC (X86/X64) version and follow their instructions:
https://volumio.org/forum/volumio-x86-i ... t5058.html
Beware that you might run into difficulties, such as the installation getting stuck and having to be redone. But as soon as it's installed and ready on your Intel 320 and HAKAI has booted on it, you will be amazed how good it sounds.
Please be aware that there are some bugs in the interface, which you'll probably get used to.
Please be aware that the musical performance of Volumio varies between the firmware versions, just like with other HiFi streamers. The current version 2.411 from June 2018 is really good, but I don't know if it's the best as I haven't tried them all.

Volumio settings:
Use the lowest cache setting, 128k.
Disabling the digital volume control doesn't work properly on some firmware versions (it becomes fixed at a lower volume than max), so instead you can choose 'Hardware Mixer' and set the preset volume to 100.
Note that some ways of starting and stopping the music can cause Volumio to lag. I add albums and songs from the left menu to a playlist and then play the playlist. Some have experienced odd bugs that others have never come across.

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Post by lejonklou » 2018-08-11 20:15

STEP TWO - Enhancing the performance of HAKAI

Ethernet cable:
Blue Jeans Cable CAT6a in length 250 cm or 8,5 feet.
The way they manufacture these cables, the exact length of each cable they make varies. Usually you will get a slightly longer one than your ordered. The best sounding length is around 250 cm (interestingly close to the optimal length of Linn K400) and slightly longer is better than shorter (for instance 3 m is clearly better than 2 m).
Buy two of this cable and use one between your HAKAI and your switch (I recommend Netgear GS-108T, where port 8 sounds best, port 7 second best and port 6 third best, etc) and the other between your switch and NAS.

USB cable to DAC:

Supra USB A - USB Mini-B, 1 m USB cable
The USB cable that is supplied with your ESI Gigaport HD+ DAC is decent, neither great nor the worst. There might be even better sounding USB cables available - my experience is so far that the good ones have been rather inexpensive, often short, sometimes with a ferrite and occasionally "noname" (which makes them difficult to source). Feel free to experiment and share your findings!
Please note that each of the USB ports on your motherboard sound a little different. It's easy to compare them as you can often simply unplug the USB cable from one and plug it into the next. Occasionally Volumio can loose the connection with the DAC, in which case you go to the Settings menu and reselect your output device (Gigaport HD+ is often labeled as "HD+" in the menu). And then you continue comparing until you've found the best sounding USB port of your motherboard.

Power cord:
It appears that the mains adapter supplied with Streacom Nano160 uses a regular inlet of the same type as is used on many HiFi units (such as Boazu, Sagatun and Tundra). A good sounding standard power cord will then be what you need.
If your adapter has a small laptop-style inlet (called C6 or "Mickey Mouse"), however, you can gain a little performance by purchasing one of the following cords:
European Mickey Mouse power cord:
Volex X-3076386A. Can be found at Farnell as item number 112-4392. Sounds best with the text on the cable running from the mains block towards HAKAI. The brand of the cable varies (Tongyuan, Baohing, Ta Hsing) and they each sound a little different. The ranking among these three is however not constant but has varied over time. Please note that European power cords can be plugged in two ways, by rotating the plug 180 degrees. One way will sound a little better than the other and to find out which you need to compare.
North American Mickey Mouse power cord:
Volex 17036. Can be found at Farnell as item number 183-8788.
UK Mickey Mouse power cord:
Volex X-3076374A. Can be found at Farnell as item number 112-4391.
Australian Mickey Mouse power cord:
Volex VC-1434-21-180. Can be found at Farnell as item number 257-6028.

Positioning of your HAKAI affects performance. Ideally the Streacom case, the power supply adapter and the DAC should be positioned slightly apart from one another. If you can place them each on a separate shelf, they will be most happy (although your aestetic sense or lack of shelves might not).

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Post by lejonklou » 2018-08-11 20:28

STEP THREE- Build a HAKAI NAS (optional)

Using the same hardware as HAKAI, optionally with a bigger HDD for storage, you can also potentially build a killer NAS.

[Clarification: This would be a second unit, serving as a NAS, while the first unit acts as your streamer.]

I don't have precise instructions for this step, as I'm not a programmer and there are many parameters that can be tuned. Minimserver running on Linux works well. Volumio supports NFS, which some claim can sound even better.

This third step is entirely optional and subject to future developments. HAKAI from STEP ONE with an ordinary NAS is already so good that you will have trouble believing your ears.

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Post by FairPlayMotty » 2020-08-08 00:16

After building a few players and servers my conclusion so far is this order of components in order of contribution to audio quality:

1. Motherboard.
2. NAS.
3. SSD.
4. DAC.
5. RAM.
6. Cables.
7. Case.

The PSU is so far for me so tied in with the motherboard type it's difficult for me to determine its influence.

So Fredrik pretty much gets it right. Anyone surprised? :-)

Anyone with a Hakai ought to be very grateful to Fredrik!
Everything is a remix: Copy, Transform, Combine.

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