How To Build A Budget Music Server and Streamer
Posted by Gary Gesellchen
Streaming seems the be the hot trend in the music business right now. Apple has finally unveiled their offering, Apple Music, which joins a crowded field. Spotify is the market leader, with companies like Pandora, Rdio, Slacker, Tidal, Rhapsody (my family's choice, which I find underappreciated), and a host of others also vying for listeners ears. The "any music, any time" convenience of these sites is truly addicting, and the sound quality can be decent if you pay attention to the details.
Of course "streaming" does not always have to mean sourcing music from the internet. It can also mean moving music around your house, which most of us think as "serving". Many people are familiar with Apple's Airplay system, which can be used to remotely control playback of an iTunes library with an iOS device. Most of us have music collections that we've assembled over the years, and many of us have "ripped" or otherwise recorded and stored them somewhere on our computer or network. But how do you get this music where you want it to go? And how do you control it?
Sonos is the current king of semi-affordable wireless music distribution around the home. Sonos has a very slick user interface, has apps for iOS and Android control, allows playback in multiple rooms or zones at once, and usually has very good wireless range and stability. If you can afford it at around $400 a node, it's a great system. But not everyone needs mulitzone ability, or has that much to spend. What do you do if you are on a budget? I've been looking for the "ideal" serving/streaming client for a few years. In my mind this means a system that can playback any file format, plays lossless and hi-res files, streams music from the web, plays back from a local network location, and can be remotely controlled by a hand-held device. Oh, and it should be affordable, like maybe $100?
So far I have not found this perfect device. However, I did put together something for the Axpona audio show this spring that got very close. It was based on one of the latest generation of very affordable Windows tablets. Microsoft, Intel, and players like HP are nearly giving these things away in an attempt to win market share. A $100 Windows tablet is not as slick of device as a $350 iPad mini, but it is no joke either. We're talking a full copy of Windows 8.1, a quad-core Intel processor, and a touch screen interface for $100. We used this system for 3 straight days at Axpona, remotely controlling playback of lossless and hi-res music files via JRiver Media Center, and never had a hitch. It interfaces really well with our Transparent One speakers, but can easily talk to any stereo system with a USB input, or any system via an outboard USB DAC (the on-board analog output is not recommended!). And when it has all processors blazing, it still sips around 10 watts. Pretty amazing...
Download the pdf describing the system and see what you think. The only real downsides I experienced were that the touch screen is small and not very sensitive, so that controlling web-based streaming with the touch screen is not that easy, and there's no practical way I've found to remotely control all apps that you might want to run on the PC. But for about $100, it gets you off to a really good start. And when you're not playing music, you have a cheap tablet to play with as well!