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Music Servers - finding the way with the Roku SoundBridge
I often read comments and questions from audio enthusiasts about digital music storage. We all know about MP3 players, illegal downloads, and Apple's iPod. The question is: Does digital music storage offer benefits to the audiophile? I set out to learn the answer!
This was to be my second foray into the matter. About two years ago, I built a computer specifically for digital music storage and playback. While it worked, it had many problems. The computer was entirely too noisy to use in a listening room. The only software available at the time was Windows Media Player, which required a display and a keyboard. Also, computer hard drives were still fairly small and expensive. I tried moving the computer to another room and using a high-quality sound card with a long cable to my preamp, but several things made this impracticable. First, there was no way to select or control what music was playing. Second, the long analog cable introduced noise and hum. I could probably have cured this, but the lack of control was the big obstacle.
Technology has changed considerably since then, so I figured I would have more chance of success. The most interesting development has been the introduction of Digital Media Servers, which offer a way to get the noisy computer out of the listening room. Digital Media Servers "stream" music and/or video from your PC to your home entertainment or music system via wired or wireless networking. My system would consist of a Digital Music Server (PC and software) and a Digital Media Player. My goal was to have the best quality playback possible. The idea was to see if I could produce sound quality equivalent to that of my Musical Fidelity NuVista CD player. I felt that the only format to use to store the digital files would be the wav format. In researching the subject, I found that every other scheme compresses the files to some extent, and the Redbook format is already under enough stress.
Using the wav format meant fairly large file sizes. A typical five-minute song can easily consume 30 megabytes of storage space, which translates to roughly 33 songs (or tracks) per gigabyte. To have a useable system, I felt that a storage capability of 250 gigabytes was about right. Considering the operating system and other demands, I would end up with around 200 gigs, which would allow me to store somewhere around 6600 tracks or 450 albums. You can see that this would have great potential to organize a music collection. I settled on an Intel Pentium 4 with 512 megabytes of ram and a 250-gigabyte hard drive. Also necessary was a CD burner and a network card. Luckily, one can be had for less than $800 these days, from Dell for example.
At this point, the CD must be converted into a form that can be stored on the hard drive. This is called ripping, and many software programs exist to accomplish it. Most are designed to convert (and compress) to MP3, but wav options usually exist. Windows Media Player, which is built into Windows or can be downloaded for free, is the easiest to use. You just put a CD in the drive and it retrieves the artist, title, and track information automatically and starts copying! The problem is that I couldn't get it to use the wav format. Microsoft seems to have restricted users to their proprietary wma format, which compresses too much for me (about half the size of wav). I tried all of the available options, but the program still compressed the music to some degree.
EAC, or Exact Audio Copy, is often mentioned as the best audio copying program. It is free, so I downloaded a copy, at www.exactaudiocopy.de. While the software is very comprehensive, it seems overly complicated. There are way too many options, and I had a very difficult time getting it to organize things the way I wanted. It kept putting all the songs into one folder, and was balky about artist, title, and track information from feeedb, a free music database. For a while, I used Windows Media Player to get the info, organize my folders, and copy the music, then I would delete all the wma files that Windows created and use EAC to copy uncompressed files into the folders! This was both time consuming and stupid. Then I found AudioGrabber at www.audiograbber.com-us.net. This was the answer to my prayers! It is free, it is simple, and it works like a champ! It finds the track data automatically, it organizes my music exactly the way I want, and it rips very quickly. I compared the finished file sizes between EAC and AudioGrabber and they appeared to be the same, so it doesn't compress needlessly.
The next hurdle was the hardware to allow the music to be streamed from the computer to the listening room. This keeps the hardware out of the music environment and lets you use your existing PC to save money. For this project, I simply added a 250-gigabyte hard drive to my existing PC for less than $120. For reasons I shall go into later, it is advantageous to have an internet connection to the PC you are using for the music server, so this is another reason to use your existing PC, which probably already has an internet connection. This is the 21st century, you know!
Research into music streaming devices first lead me to Turtle Beach's Audiotron. I had read many rave reviews of this unit, so I tried to purchase one, but no one seemed to have it in stock. I called Turtle Beach and left several messages, but never got a call. I finally did reach someone by pretending to be a distributor, and was told after being on hold for an hour that the unit was no longer being made. Interesting! Technology is racing along faster than legal and technical issues can keep up. I also surmise that the Audiotron died because it only uses a hardwired Ethernet connection between itself and the server. Other units use Wi-Fi or wireless networks. Unfortunately, the other units had terrible reviews, and were not made for the audiophile. Many could handle only MP3, not wav. Others had no digital output, only analog. I felt that a digital output was mandatory in order to use a high-quality DAC. Another issue was that most of the other units also stream video, which I don't need and thought would needlessly complicate the project.
I wanted a hardwired Ethernet connection for my system because this has more bandwidth and higher throughput (100 megabytes a second), but many of you will have to use wireless due to the construction of your homes. The current state of the art in wireless is 802.11g, which can transmit up to 54 megabytes under ideal conditions. Don't settle for anything less. I still prefer hardwired, so if you can, by all means run the cable. Otherwise you may need to compromise with wireless.
Many hours of Googling finally lead me to Roku and their M1000 SoundBridge. This has hardwired Ethernet, and also includes a wireless card. It also has both optical and coaxial digital outputs and a display. Finally, it includes a cool remote control that you can use to select and play your songs. At $250, it seemed the best bet, so I ordered one. When it arrived, I was very disappointed to read in the installation manual that it required the use of Apple iTunes! I do not subscribe to iTunes, and did not want to start. Further reading lead me to Slim Devices' Slim Server free software (www.slimdevices.com). Roku says the M1000 will work with Slim Server, but they do not support it.
I downloaded a copy and installed it, and immediately ran into problems. The SoundBridge and the Slim Server did not seem to communicate well. After many frustrating hours, I was able to get the SoundBridge display to indicate that a song was playing, but I heard nothing. I checked my equipment, changed cables, and still no sound. I began to suspect the SoundBridge was bad because the same song kept displaying. I could manually switch to another track, but then that one just displayed for hours.
I was about to return the M1000 when I decided to check Apple's website. I saw that the iTunes software was a free download, and apparently did not require you to use the iTunes service. Within seconds, I had it downloaded and installed. I pointed it to my new hard drive and it found all my music. Unfortunately, iTunes insists on throwing every song into one massive Library. You can sort songs by artist, title, or track, but it is still just one big continuous list. This Library is really just a list of locations of files. ITunes wants you to organize the songs into play lists, which are other lists of files. You can easily create a play list of all 1950s jazz, for example, by dragging song titles into a play list called 50s Jazz. I ended up doing this for all my artists and my albums. It works, but it seems to me to be a waste of time since I already have all my music organized this way. ITunes just refuses to recognize them!
That minor irritant aside, the Roku immediately sensed that iTunes was running and asked, through its display, if I wanted to play music. I used the remote to select my service (you can have several), the play list I wanted, and the song, and presto, music! Now I could sit back in my quiet listening room, select the song or album I wanted, and play it back through my stereo system. There was only one small, final problem—it sounded really bad! It was the DAC in the SoundBridge, of course. I had suspected this would be the case, so I had a Musical Fidelity A324 DAC ready to jump in and help. I selected the A324 for several reasons. I have a Musical Fidelity NuVista and I love its sound. The A 324 is relatively inexpensive, and it has a great reputation. It locked onto the SoundBridge with no problem, and it sounds great.
The system has worked without any hitches so far. I am still copying music to my hard drive, but each album only takes a few minutes. I found out that iTunes will do this for you. Just tell it that you want to use the wav encoder, then simply drag the CD into iTunes. Within minutes, the songs appear in your library. By the way, this is why you need the internet connection. ITunes, or whatever software you use, needs to be able to access a database of the album information. It looks up the album, gets the track info, and uses it to organize the music. How does it all sound? I have been listening very hard for the past few days, and still can't really hear much difference between the NuVista and the SoundBridge. There may be a tiny amount of graininess in the digital setup, but that could be the A324 DAC, since it doesn't have the NuVista's tube. A TriVista DAC may be the ultimate solution.
I am very pleased with the digital server. I can instantly select any music I like without having to search for CDs, or even get out of my chair! As time goes on and I learn the iTunes tricks, I will catalog and organize my music collection with more and more varied play lists, but for now I am one happy music lover! Ed Morawski