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The Raspberry PI model 3 is an ultra-capable miniature sized computer that I still use to this day for my audio applications. At the time of this publication (February 2019), I probably went through a dozen Linux distributions, using the PI as a source for my DAC. It has worked wonderfully ever since. And I have been emulating Squeezeboxes, making the PI act as my Roon endpoint, receiving AirPlay audio streams and also fulfilling duties as an integrated DAC / music server.
For the most part I have my PI running 24/7 with the occasional reboot. And because I love experimenting with various distros, I also own a stack of SD cards. If anything goes wrong, I’ll be up and running in minutes by inserting the original memory card.
I never bothered modding the PI because I think it is good enough on its own. For peace of mind I purchased an ifi Audio 5V DC power supply which supposedly has better ripple specs than typical outboard wallwarts. To be honest, I cannot really hear much of a difference between a linear power supply, the ifi or any run off the mill supply from Amazon. That is if you’re just using the PI as a USB audio source of course. However, power supply quality does have an impact on sonics if you’re using the Raspberry as an integrated streamer/DAC.
3 Common Audiophile Raspberry PI Setups
Although everyone is using their own Raspberry PI in a different way, I believe you’d find the following scenarios helpful in deciding your preferred audio setup:
Ok, you already own an external DAC and just need a USB audio source. Raspberry PI is among the least expensive solutions for an audiophile setup. Just download and install DietPI, a lightweight and user-friendly LINUX distribution for ARM processors. It comes with a command-line GUI installer for multiple applications. Choose “Roon Bridge” which fully supports Roon Labs own proprietary RAAT protocol for streaming. My Singxer SU-1 shows up as the DAC in the audio settings since I have that connected via USB. DietPI is very user-friendly and will walk you through all the steps. DietPI is my favorite distribution hands down when it comes to setting up media streaming solutions such as this one.
Click here to read my article on how to get the most out of Roon.
UPnP Client / Airplay Receiver
Some of you may want to manage your music streams in applications like Audirvana, BubbleUPN or even stream wireless from an iPad. In the past, I wasted too much time (and money) getting expensive adapters just to make my Macbook and iPad work with the stereo. Running a little Raspberry PI is a smarter choice and a great relief for cable-ridden households. Heck, the PI costs less than Apple’s adapters ;) And I prefer using my laptop for real computing tasks. Don’t have a tablet computer yet? Get a cheap Amazon Kindle Fire for under 100 Euros, install BubbleUPnP on it and voila – you’ve got a great remote control for your entire music collection.
Click here to read my article on how to use your PI as a digital source using SP/DIF or USB outputs
All-In-One Integrated Music Server with DAC
Strapped for cash? Raspberry PI DACs are a fantastic and inexpensive way to build a dedicated device for all your digital streaming needs. A number of third-party manufacturers such as IQAudio offer HAT (Hardware Attached On Top) modules. Essentially these are complete digital-to-analog converters that get stacked on top of your PI. And because there’s no need for extra power supplies in most cases, manufacturers can offer these at very attractive prices.
Raspberry PI DACs go from anywhere between 30 Euros to couple of hundreds depending on the converter chip used and overall component quality. Some even have built-in Class D amplifiers. Make no mistake, Raspberry PI DAC modules are serious high-end contenders often rivaling very expensive standalone DACs. In many cases you’ll find they utilize the same DAC chips by Texas Instruments or ESS Technology that are being used in reference level gear.
Digital volume control is also possible so your PI can double as a digital preamp, too. In my personal opinion, there’s very little audible difference between a well set up PI DAC versus a 2000 Euro DAC. So if you want to maximize value for money, start here.
Raspberry PI DACs aren’t perfect though. Lack of external digital inputs can be an issue here. So forget about being able to hook up your TV to your PI DAC or any other source for that matter. In most cases a PI DAC can only be used within the confines of its own ecosystem. Some notable exceptions exist but they are not the norm. Last but not least, your overall sonic experience largely depends on your Raspberry PI power supply. And then there are factors you cannot control such as electrical noise generated by the Raspberry PI board itself. Although most boards are engineered to be isolated from interferences, external digital-to-analog converters do have a slight edge here. Upgrade ability might also be an issue since you cannot run the DAC daughter board separately from the Raspberry PI. Thus, if a newer PI board is released and you plan on upgrading, no compatibility can be limited.
Click here to read my review of current Raspberry PI DACs, especially which HATs are best suited for your needs.
How To Stream Tidal, Qobuz or Spotify
Many users are not interested in streaming local content these days. Instead, they want internet radio or access to audiophile streaming services like Tidal or Qobuz. My favorite Raspberry PI distro that can help you accomplish just that out of the box is Moode Audio (http://moodeaudio.org). Once you have an active subscription with either service, simply log in to your service from the backend.
Using the PI as a NAS?
Before I bought my Synology DS218j, I fiddled around with OpenMediaVault and various Debian distributions. I ended up with a painfully slow data storage solution that would unexpectedly unmount my external USB disks so I gave up on it. I also wanted my storage to be accessible externally but I found that too troublesome. As long as you’re planning to use it as a local storage solution within your LAN, you should be fine. For anything else get a NAS – plain and simple.
How I Personally Use My Raspberry PI
My Raspberry PI runs DietPI and acts as a Roon Bridge. For experimental purposes I have also configured a secondary SD card running Moode. Unfortunately, Moode isn’t a ready-to-use download as it used to be. It’s now become a distro that requires you to run a build-script during installation. Moode is the brainchild of Tim Curtis. Tim has published a great guide on his website on how you get this up and running. I’m sure anyone with basic computer skills can run this installation script.