What are the highest-performance drive options?
SSD drives (Solid State Drive) have the fastest speed, lowest noise, and lowest data corruption. This is because there are no motors or moving parts to cause electrical and mechanical noise like in a magnetic spinning hard drive (HDD).
SSDs are highly recommended for any internal drives used in high-performance media server. If you have the budget, using internal or external SSDs for your entire media library storage is also recommended.
AV drives (Audio Video optimized HDDs) have the next best-performance because the are engineered for continuous play never pausing for read/write head self-calibration. An AV drive will give consistantly smoother playback than a standard HDD and is almost as good as an SSD.
We consider AV drives to be the best value as an external media library drive.
Note that AV drives give no advantage in mirrored RAID since a RAID will play from one drive while checking the calibration of its mirrored twin.
External drive performance does not come from the type of drive used alone. The power supply, data buss, drive controller, case, data cable, and anti-resonant devices all make sigificant contributions to external drive performance.
What about a local area network (LAN) or network attached storage (NAS)?
There is no performance advantage connecting a drive to a LAN or NAS. The advantages of LAN and NAS drives are increased storage capacity, automatic back up (RAID), and convenience. For media library storage a large internal SSD has the best performance.
There is a performance advantage using a drive that connects through an Ethernet port which has no buss power vs a plug-and-play buss powered port, such as USB, Firewire, eSATA, or Thunderbolt.
Warning: Ethernet peripherals are not plug-and-play like USB, Firewire, and Thunderbolt, and they require a good bit of technical expertise to configure.
Are there any other advantages when using Wi-Fi enabled NAS or LAN?
The Wi-Fi from the router used to connect your LAN or NAS can be used to control your media server. This allows you to turn off all the noisy internal wireless control interfaces, such as WiFi, Bluetooth, and infrared, and to control your media server “headless” with a mobile device, such as an iPad.
Another performance advantage of the Ethernet port would be to connect it directly to your internet service provider's (ISP) modem for streaming audio and video. If your ISP modem has WiFi this would allow you to turn off your computer's internal WiFi lowering noise floor and improving performance.
What is the highest-performance type of plug-and-play external storage drive?
Thunderbolt, eSATA, and USB 3 drives have among the highest data transfer rates of any plug-and-play buss-powered external storage drives. The drawbacks are that the controllers and cables are complex and there are few if any choices in a powerless audiophile data cable.
In comparison, Firewire and USB 2 controllers and cables are far less complex and many audiophile Firewire and USB 2 cables are available without power. Powerless data cables significantly reduces bit read errors and are highly recommended. Note that before switching to a powerless data cable to interface with an external drive or DAC you would need to make certain that no ICs in the interface require buss power.
Though technically slower than Thunderbolt, eSATA, and USB 3 drives, a high-quality Firewire drive that has a dedicated power supply and a powerless data cable is considered by many AV professionals to perform better. Of course fewer and fewer computers today still come with Firewire ports.
For more information on computer-based audio refer to our Audiofiles blog.