Best solution for Audio-only, iTunes / m4a - compatible Hi-Fi system

I've decided to enter the digital age, and have ripped my 700 CD's to m4a (using iTunes).  I now want to listen to this music through my mid-to-high-end component HiFi system.  The audio m4a files are on my home network's NAS (Windows Storage Serve), and I have two PC's which run iTunes (I actually like the iTunes interface).  The PCs are nowhere near the HiFi.  I have the ability to run a wireless (g) network, but prefer to run wires for reliability and security.

I'm confused with the plethora of choices out there - non of which seem 'complete', and would welcome any advice as to the best set up for an audio-only system.  Things I'm considering include:

1) Buying an AppleTV, and a TV to go with it, and putting up with a lousy, menu-driven interface to naviagte my 12,000 songs.  Seems overkill for audio only.
2) Using an old laptop running iTunes, with a DAC such as the Xitel HiFi Link, or something slightly higher-end such as  Problem with this is that I really didn't want a mouse-driven system, would love a touchscreen - and another thing - how much should I pay for the DAC - they range from $50 to $500 ??
3) Buying a TouchScreen monitor, and running a Jukebox application  (either in conjunction with the laptop or with a new 'media' machine - see below).  This would be high on 'Cool' but I would miss the iTunes browse features ( I presume iTunes won't work with a touch screen?).
4) Buy (or have built?) a new 'media' computer (are these available off the shelf???) - needs to be able to run iTunes/other jukebox software, have a good DAC soundcard, internet connection, but not much else I guess....
5) Buying something like a SONOS system (a bit expensive, and I think I'll loose my favorite iTunes feature of browsing by genre and Artist(?) ).  Also, would be overkill as I only really have one HiFi i want to stream to (at the moment!), and prefer wired to wireless.

Another major consideration for the software is that I've spent hours getting album artwork into iTunes.  I don't want to have to redo this work if I use a non-iTunes interface, and the few I've tried don't seem to be able to read the iTunes Album library.

Any suggestions welcome....!
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I was able to place a computer near my stereo system and just use the line out from my internal sound card. I have been looking at external sound cards and I am thinking about M-AUDIO AUDIOPHILE USB MIDI INTERFACE. If I can find a used one for a relatively cheap price I may try it. It is hard finding  a decent review on these things. The HiFI Link I have looked into and decided it would be OK for my laptop when I am out in the garage working and can hook up a some Altec Lansing powered speakers to it but from the information I have gathered it seems that hooking it to a decent audio system is iffy.
The nice thing about having everything on a computer is the networking and control you can get. I can sit in my office and have the stereo cranked, the phone can ring and the stereo either mutes or pauses because the computer attached to the stereo monitors the phone, I can then use the office computer to restart the tunes when my call is done. I can change the tune as well. Once i get a wireless access point for the laptop the whole house is my oyster. (I have a small house though so it will be more like a cherry clam.)
The Sonos system is a nice setup and the wireless control makes for a convenient control system. It appears that it does have iTunes support. You might want to join the forums at Sonos and post your questions concerning iTunes there. There might even be some sort of plug-in developed by a third party that is available for this feature.
You certainly do not want to run a line level output any great distance so unless you can move the NAS closer you will want to keep things digital. The link you posted looks interesting. If you can I would go towards a higher end product as the weak link shows through on a good system. I am running my input into an Adcom preamp and an Adcom power amp which drives a pair of Klipsh towers in the living room and some Bose 301 speakers in the kitchen. I do hear a difference in fidelity. I am looking to improve my fidelity by going to an external sound conversion and I think you are on the right track. Start checking out audiophile websites for reviews on these types of components.  I do not know  if this was much help to you.
PaultheBrokerAuthor Commented:
Hi fullandby - thnx for your reply.

1) I assume you are a gamer or garage musician, hence your MIDI requirements??  Or is there something I'm missing here???

2) What software are you using to mute out the sound when the telephone rings??

3) Are you just using remoting software (RDC etc.) to control the HiFi PC from your office, or have you got something else going on?

4) Here is a nice (slightly technical) article reinforcing what I think we already know - FYI, the NAS is in the basement - wired through CAT5 so distance isn't an issue.  My preferred solution at the moment is a Latop for the living room, with external USB sound card going into my Cyrus Integrated amp (measured in inches, not feet (!)

5) Pretty sure that SONOS iTunes support is limited to playing m4a files, and importing playlists.  Also checked out AppleTV over the weekend - apple seem to have missed the point, as if I wanted to use iPod type navigation for song selection, I would continue using my current setup - an 80Gig iPod connected directly to the hiFi.  So now, I am firmly on the idea of using a computer - your added examples have helped tipped the balance - THNX !!!

6) So...I agree on the 'weakest link' theory.  So now all attention must be towards getting a suitable, cost-effective USB DAC....Continuing research has also dug up Creative Labs Audigy line of products.  Seem more orientated towards DVD/surround-sound and gaming, but presumably would also work for HiFi?  Regardless, I'm beginning to think that about $200 is a reasonable price point for what we are looking for....let me know if you have any other thoughts.
I am not really a gamer anymore and am an occasional wannabe musician. The midi inputs of the M-Audio equipment is a nice added feature but not a requirement. I am interested in better fidelity,

I am using Mediamonkey as my media player or sometimes Winamp. I ripped all my CDs in ogg format but have decided to redo it in flac as that is considered an archival format. The telephone software is a plug-in I found at the Winamp web page. It would not work at first but I ended up trying a different modem and now it works great. I can choose between "stop" "pause" or "lower volume". It works for both the Mediamonkey and Winamp players. I like to crank it up and I have missed phone calls but not anymore. I also have a network plug-in for Winamp/Mediamonkey that I can control them via my web browser. I am also using TightVNC which allows me to view the desktop of the media computer and accesses it from my home network. Just depends on what is going on which one I use. I can fire up the stereo and boot the computer and go into the office and by the time my office computer fires up I  can launch TightVNC and then start up Mediamonkey from there. No more standing around waiting on a boot up. I don't leave stuff on and connected when I am not here so I do not access it via the web but it is possible with the Tight VNC. I am thinking of trying a Yahoo widgit for "Talking Caller ID". I just find this stuff neat and fun to play with and get a kick out of finding ways take advantage of technology.
I looked at the Sonos equipment and I think it is real neat but with the pair of speakers in the livingroom and in the kitchen I am pretty well covered for sound around the house. In the summer I put the Bose 301s in the kitchen windows and I then have music while I work in the garden. The Sonos would be nice in a bigger house and also where you have more than 1 person since you can listen to jazz in the rec room and someone else can listen to rock upstairs in their bedroom. That is a great feature.
The link you just posted looks interesting and will read it soon. I know that digital signals in computers generate noise and so if you can get the audio conversion out of the computer you are better off. It is hard finding up to date reviews on this equipment. Here is one page with some reviews- At present, I don't have a lot of scoots for expensive equipment so I am trying to find something used on ebay. I will probably pick up a Xitel HiFi Link for my laptop so I can get my blues radio via the internet out in my garage as that area is not covered by my sound system but I have seen some conflicting reviews on this device but I guess that is to be expected. I would be interested to know what you settle on for a USB DAC. There is information out there on this stuff, it just takes some digging to get at a decent review or guide.

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Do you own a I-Pod, If so you can just plug it in and play Video\Audio through your system.

The docking station along with the remote works fine. I also got the AV connection kit, Airport Express base station with air tunes for the other room for it.

PaultheBrokerAuthor Commented:
Hi Comply - yes, first thing I tried was a docking station (the one from kensington) for my 80Gig iPod.  However, navigating 15,000 songs through the menu is completely beyond me!!  Also, the fidelity isn't so good that it can compare with CD I'm pretty much abandoning the $50 that cost me as a lost cause!

Anyway, to update y'all - I splashed out on the "stereo-link 1200" DAC which arrived today ($189 + $10 shipping).  When I first plugged it in, I noticed that although very 'clean', the music wasn't nearly so 'bright' as compared to my CD player.  This was especially noticeable on the classical music.  I phoned stereo-link to complain (they give you 2 weeks to return it if you don't like it), and they pointed out that the 128kps I had ripped my whole collection at (all 15,000 songs!!!), just wasn't good enough to compare vs. a CD.  Playing the CD from my laptop through the DAC confirmed the problem - so I re-ripped one CD at Apples' Loss-Less format - turned a 4 Meg file into a 20 Meg file, but sounded GREAT - also tried ripping MP3 at 320kps (the highest iTunes will go).  This also was almost undistinquishable from the CD.  So bottom line is I'll need to back over my Opera and Classical collection re-ripping it.  I don't think Britney Spears is going to improve at ANY resolution, so will probably leave my pop stuff at 128k!!!

FLAC sounds interesting, verus Apple's proprietary LossLess format.  So I suppose my next project will be to buy a bigger NAS (I covet an 2T-Byte Infrant ReadyNAS) and archive my CDs properly in FLAC or something.  I notice that iTunes has a neat feature to resample to 128k when syncing with the iPod, so that seems a reasonable course of action -

Hmmm - I wish I had paid more attention to the sampling issue at the BEGINNING of this project, instead of worrying first about the hardware....oh well !!!!  Bottom line, is I think I'll close out this question, and then go pester someone else about using FLAC in iTunes..... :)
PaultheBrokerAuthor Commented:
(From my original question, I went with setup (2) - the laptop next to the HiFi)
Just so you know "Apples lossless" or I-Tunes for that matter is made by Musicmatch
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