AudioFiles: The Terror of Terabytes

High-resolution audio consumes a colossal amount of storage. Here’s how to manage it.

Anyone old enough to remember Miles’ comeback is old enough to remember when the only sounds personal computers could play were the primitive bloops and bleeps of early video games. Thirty-seven years later, personal computers still aren’t really optimized for audio. Even the very latest laptops, fitted with relatively large hard drives, can’t hold a sizable collection of digital music unless the music is data-compressed (and sonically distorted) using MP3 or some other digital technology.

The growing popularity of high-resolution audio among audiophiles has only made the problem worse. For example, bassist/vocalist Casey Abrams’ version of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” from his album Put a Spell on You, clocks in at just three minutes, 34 seconds, but in its 24-bit/192-kilohertz high-resolution version, in the AIFF format, it occupies 243 megabytes of hard drive space. That’s 5.5 times the space required for the CD-quality,16-bit/44.1-kilohertz AIFF version of the tune. In its 24/192 AIFF form, the full album chews up 3.31 gigabytes of hard drive space. Fifty such albums could easily fill the hard drives on most laptops.

Yes, there are ways to reduce audio file sizes—using the lossless FLAC format, for example, reduces file sizes by about one half without compromising sound quality. Still, high-res download services sell their files in all sorts of formats, and who wants to spend their time converting those files to more space-efficient ones? Or worry about the possibility of damaging or losing files in the process?

Fortunately, there are affordable and convenient ways to offload your music storage, yet still access it easily.

The WD My Cloud Home NAS drive
The WD My Cloud Home NAS drive

 

The Importance of Networking
At home, the best solution for music storage is a network-attached storage (NAS) drive. An NAS drive connects to your home network router; this means you can stream your stored audio on any device that’s connected to your network—either through a wired Ethernet connection or WiFi—and in any room of your home. NAS drives can be accessed by networked computers, audio-focused streaming devices such as the Bluesound Node 2 and Sonos Connect, smart TVs, Blu-ray disc players, and even tablets and smartphones. The drive can be tucked away into the same place as your router (such as a closet, home office, or garage), so any noise it creates won’t be audible in your listening room.

NAS drives are, for the most part, generic components, and there’s nothing that makes one better or worse for audio. High-resolution audio doesn’t even come close to the performance demands of typical video programming, so any drive will be fast enough. Hard drives and networks include robust error correction, and the audio data is stored and transmitted in packetized form, making the concerns many audiophiles have with jitter—or timing errors—in some digital audio systems irrelevant here. You may find claims on the Internet that one drive “sounds better” than another, but those making such claims tend to disagree on which drive is best, and none of these claims have been supported with scientific testing or blind listening tests.

Basic NAS drives can be quite affordable. For example, the four-terabyte (4TB) version of the WD My Cloud Home typically costs $169, and it holds about 1,200 albums in 24/192 resolution—or 2,400 albums in the more common 24/96 resolution, or 6,600 albums in CD-quality resolution. That’s enough not only for Miles’ complete catalog, but also the complete catalog of everyone who ever played with Miles. And if you do need more storage, the My Cloud Home is also available in 6TB and 8TB versions.

If you need more storage—or if you want to be extra-sure that a hard-drive crash won’t destroy your music collection—consider a multi-disk NAS server, such as the Synology Disk Station DS216j. The $169 DS216j doesn’t include any drives; you install your own, a process that requires only a screwdriver and some fairly simple software configuration. (A pair of 4TB drives will typically run you about $250.) With a multi-disk NAS server, you can set up a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) system, so that if one drive crashes, you won’t lose any of your music files.

A selection of Seagate BackUp Slim drives
A selection of Seagate BackUp Plus Slim drives

 

Storage to Go
The only problem with NAS drives is that when you leave home, they can’t really come with you. That doesn’t mean you have to go without high-quality music files, though, because portable hard drives are available at low cost: just $59 for Seagate’s Backup Plus Slim in its 1TB version. (It also comes in 2TB, 4TB, and 5TB versions.) At 4.5 by 3 by 0.5 inches, the Backup Plus Slim slips easily into a pocket, and it plugs directly into the USB port of a PC or Mac laptop. A portable doesn’t offer the versatility and security of a RAID-configured NAS drive, but it will let you carry thousands of albums everywhere you go—definitely enough albums to last you through a month-long business trip without repeating a single one of them.

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.