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Introduction

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Music playback is undergoing a massive revolution at the moment. Not since the advent of digital when Compact Disc replaced vinyl has the music industry been in such turmoil, and the effect that illegal download websites and the device that brought it all to the masses – Apple’s iPod – have had is well documented. But it’s not just portable and PC-based music feeling the heat of change.

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The iPod made digital music compression mainstream.
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Music in the home is, slowly but surely, undergoing a transformation too. Media Center PCs and, more recently, wireless multi-room audio systems are beginning to creep into the mainstream, and people are replacing their old hi-fi systems with more modern, easier to use solutions.

Traditionalists will pooh-pooh such setups as not serious, never-capable of rivaling proper hi-fi 'seperates' for sound quality or musicality. After all, when you spend a couple of grand on a dedicated CD player, it’s bound to sound better than a load of music files streamed off your PC, isn’t it?

For years I’ve agreed with the audio snobs. I sneered at those listening to their music on PC-based audio systems. I thought that a do-it-all appliance such as a PC would never rival dedicated, carefully-designed and, most important, expensive hi-fi equipment. But a couple of reviews I’ve had the opportunity to write recently have got me thinking.

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Compressed digital music files can never sound as good as a high-end CD player right?
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The question I wanted answered was: is it possible to enjoy the best of both worlds, combining the convenience of music libraries with the high-end sound that audiophiles value so much? In theory, I thought, it was. So I set about finding out if it really was practical.

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