Positive Feedback ISSUE 65
january/february 2013

 

The following submissions are for the 'Readers Who Want to be Writers' Contest. The authors are not Staff members of Positive Feedback. 

 

My Quest for the Quality Music I Remember from the 70s
by Russell D. Francis

When CDs came along, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread. My 1st CD player cost $700 and only played one CD at a time. Quality was great, but the sound seemed "sharp", and something (smoothness?) was missing. Eventually over several years, my enthusiasm for music waned.

Then in 2003, I purchase an iPod. I thought it was amazing, and those little ear buds produced awesome sound for their size. For a short while, I got back into listening to music. But again, even though my hearing is not as acute as it was 40 years ago, something was definitely missing.

I had kept many of my old record albums through the years. They've just been boxed up, or sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Finally I decided I'd had enough silence and decided to try to revive my interest in music and rebuild a stereo system that could play the music I remember.

I didn't want to spend thousands of dollars and I don't need the best of everything but I wanted to put together something at least as good as I had in my youth (and maybe a little nicer since I have more money now).

I have a low-end AV system connected to my TV that I could have upgraded, but I really didn't want to by a high-end AV receiver. They're not made for music, good ones are expensive, and I didn't really need 6 speakers to listen to music.

So I started off with just a basic sound bar for the television. I was great for TV and movies. It sounded much better than the TV speakers, and was nicely contained in one unit. And it was all (TV and sound bar) controlled by one remote. It also resolved an annoying issue of losing the sound when changing channels and having to turn the TV on/off to get it back. I was told it is a common handshake issue between the TV and AV unit.

Then I started shopping for decent a "stereo" receiver and speakers. After a little research and stopping at a few stores, I didn't find a lot to choose from. I was looking for a receiver under $700. I was willing to go a little higher for speakers as I know they are the most important part of a decent sound system.

I finally went to Chelsea Audio/video in Beaverton, OR. We spend a fair amount of time with Adam our salesperson. He was the one that explained the handshake problem with our television and I was thoroughly impressed by that. He also knew exactly what I was looking for in a sound system. After showing us the sound bars, he showed me the Integra DTM-40.4 stereo receiver. Integra is the high-end version of Onkyo products. Kind of like Lexus is to Toyota... better quality, better looking. This receiver is digitally ready, which didn't impress me at the time since I was trying to get away from the digital domain as much as possible. This receiver was only $500 which seemed every reasonable for an 80 watt per channel Lexus.

Then he took my into the sound demo room and told me there were a lot of speakers in my price range, but that I really should go with a pair of B&W 683s for $1500. I just thought he was trying to upsell me. I listened to several types of music on them and I was thoroughly impressed. He then said he would give me the speakers for $1350 if I bought the receiver. It was definitely more than I wanted to spend, especially just before Christmas, but I gave in and bought the whole package, along with a $400 sound bar for the TV.

I got home and set it up with an old Sony turntable I've been hanging onto for years. I played a few of my old albums and my ears felt like they were reborn. The sound bar worked well too, but that's not what this story is about.

I remembered the Integra was a digital ready receiver and I could hook it up to play iTunes and streaming music over the internet. I hooked up to Pandora through our Roku box and it sounded pretty good for streaming music. I also hooked up my iPod and it worked fine.

For a couple of months I was enjoying my records and music through Pandora. Then I caught a glimpse in the newspaper about a portable music player that played "HD audio". I had never heard of HD audio. It was an expensive device and I forgot about it. A few weeks late, out of curiosity, I did a Google search for HD audio and learned a lot about various uncompressed and lossless HD music formats such as FLAC, AIFF, and Ogg Vorbis.

Wow, I was blown away, thinking maybe I could get music digitally and still recreate the quality I remember! But the real beauty of this type of system is that you can store all of your music digitally and access it as needed.

I also did some research on music servers and the components needed to play these HD music files. It all seemed a little overwhelming. The PC running the music server had to be fanless to eliminate background noise, and you needed a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) to feed in the digital HD music and convert to audio. Fanless PCs are bulky and expensive. But why not just use a laptop? And the DACs run from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

Having a fairly extensive computer and electronics background, I decided that I would figure out how to put together my own music server capable of playing at least FLAC quality digital audio, which is 96Khz/24 bits. As a comparison, CD quality files are only 44khz/16 bits.

To begin my quest, I figured I had better read the Integra DTM-40.4 receiver manual to access its capabilities. I knew it could access internet radio and streaming services such as Pandora. I also knew it had a USB port from which I could play songs from my iPod or a USB stick. But I was delighted to learn that 1) it worked with Windows Media Player, 2) it could connect to an Ethernet network, 3) it could play digital music files stored on a computer or media server that was DLNA-certified (whatever that is) and, 4) it supported the FLAC audio format. Maybe this was going to be easier than I thought.

I had an extra 7" Gateway laptop I had won in a drawing at a conference I attended last year. It was small, quiet, and was loaded with Windows 7 and Windows Media Player 12. I thought that would be perfect.

Next, I need some HD music files. I went online to www.hdtracks.com and signed up for a free hi-res sample download. I tried to download the files but it immediately got stuck. First, it required an update of Java; then it wouldn't work with the Chrome browser. Finally, I used Internet Explorer and was able to download 3 of the 5 songs sample songs it was offering using 96/24 FLAC.

I also loaded 3 sample MP3 music files on the laptop. The Integra manual was very cryptic on how to use a computer as a media server and how to connect it all to the receiver. I first connected a CAT5 Ethernet cable between the laptop and receiver. I then followed the directions to access the network features of the receiver. NET->DLNA->Select a Server->Music Files. I was excited to be able to see the computer connection on the receiver and select the music files I wanted to play. But when I tried to play the songs I just got the error message "cannot play".

I tried to just play the songs using Windows Media Player (WMP) and found I could play the MP3 songs but not the FLAC songs. I did some internet research and found I had to install a special codec to play FLAC files. I installed the codec and the recommended tag support plugin to see the files. After installing the FLAC codec and plugin, I was able to see and play the FLAC files on WMP. Using WMP, I could see and share the DTM-40.4 device. I made sure all the music files were shared on the network. I turned on WMP Media Streaming and tried to stream the music files to the receiver (Integra calls it "Remote Playback"), but got another error message.

Next, I loaded up the songs on a USB stick and plugged it into the receiver USB port to test. The mp3 songs played, but the FLAC songs did not.

The Integra instruction manual made it sound like I could just plug in a PC, and using DLNA, it would find the music folders and play music. It wasn't that easy. I did some research on DLNA. It stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, and it is a collaborative industry standard for wired and wireless networks where digital content such as photos, music and videos can be shared through personal computer, game consoles, mobile devices and other consumer electronics. It was still Greek to me.

I called the Integra support line to see if they could help. They insisted that the receiver be plugged into a router with internet access. That was a problem for me. First, the receiver is not wireless and I had no way to run a cable from my router upstairs to the receiver downstairs. Second, it just didn't make sense to me because I could see the music files in the receiver menu…they just wouldn't play. I hung up in frustration. Just for fun, and to eliminate the possibility, I brought the router downstairs and hooked it up to receiver. Viola! I was able to see and play mp3 songs through the receiver, but not the FLAC songs. So I guess I was only partly wrong. I also tested accessing Pandora through the Integra receiver while connected to the router, and Pandora worked.

I continued to research the issue. I read a review of the Integra DTM-40.4 on the www.audiostream.com website where the author, Michael Lavorgna, indicated "it was easy to navigate my NAS-based music library of uncompressed FLAC files. All I had to do was connect an Ethernet cable and use the remote to select "NET" and then scroll down to "DLNA", and scroll again until I saw my NAS (2TB Western Digital My Book Live), select it, which then displayed its submenus including Albums, Artists, etc. The Network setup was truly plug in, navigate and play".

It sounded like what I was doing, except that I wasn't using a DLNA compatible Network Attached Server (NAS) drive. So, I ran down to Best Buy and purchased a $149 3TB Western Digital My Book "Essential" to use as file server.

I loaded the music files on the drive, which only came with a USB port, and plugged it into the USB port of the receiver. The receiver was unable to identify the drive. I re-read the audiostream.com review and realized he used a 2TB Western Digital My Book "Live" NAS DLNA compliant drive as his music server. There are several distinct differences in the Western Digital My Book "Essential" model and the "Live" model. The Live model is a true NAS drive with an Ethernet port, is DLNA compliant, and has a built-in Twonky media server whereas the "Essential" is just a large backup drive with a USB port.

I went back to Best Buy and traded in the WD My Book Essential Drive for a 2TB My Book Live. I proceeded to install the Live on the network and the first thing it said was I need to update the firmware. I proceeded to do so following the directions and on completion, the drive restarted, but then it never worked again. I contacted WD My Book support and they told me to take it back to Best Buy, get another one, and don't update it even if it says so. I was becoming a familiar face at Best Buy, but they were very accommodating.

I installed the second 2TD NAS drive, connecting it to my router, setting it up on the network, and transferring my music to it. The drive settings can be easily accessed through the browser by using the assigned NAS IP address. The Twonky media server can be easily accessed by entering http://<NAS IP address>:9000/ in your browser. Twonky was enabled by default, but can be turned on/off by going to the Settings/Media tab. The same works for enabling your iTunes library.

The NAS drive is preloaded with publicly shared media folders, documentation, setup software, Twonky media server software, and utilities for mobile access and cloud storage.

I got the impression from the audiostream.com review that the author hooked the NAS drive up directly to the receiver, but it wasn't clear. I tried to do that and the receiver was able to see the drive, but indicated it did not have the proper permissions to access the drive.

So I now had a DNLA compliant NAS drive that is purported to work with the Integra receiver loaded with a music server and some MP3 and FLAC files. It seems I have to connect the NAS through my router, and I also have to connect the receiver through my router, but how do I get a network connection from the router upstairs to my receiver downstairs?

I did some more research on how to connect the Integra receiver to a wireless network. The audiostream.com review mentioned an optional wireless receiver (Onkyo UWF-1 Wi-Fi® USB Adapter, $39.99), and there are several other wireless bridges available from under $100, but the reviews were full of complaints of disconnects and other issues. I had the Gateway laptop with a network adapter and a wireless adapter sitting next to the receiver. Could that work as a wireless bridge?

Sure enough, after a little more online research, there were two possibilities. The first was to go into the wireless network adapter settings Share tab and check the box that reads "Allow other network users to connect through this computer's internet connection". Unfortunately, that didn't work. The second option was to select both available network adapters (wireless and wired), right click and select "Bridge Connections". This creates a third Network Bridge that passes through wireless traffic to the wired network port.

I restarted the laptop and plugged the bridged laptop network cable directly into the Intergra receiver. I then tried "see" the NAT drive on the receiver using the DLNA functions. To my surprise, I not only could see the NAT music files through Twonky, but I could see my iTunes music, and my Pandora connections! Now would they play? Absolutely! I played MP3 music, iTunes music, Pandora music, and most importantly FLAC for the first time.

My conclusion after all this was that everything had to be connected through my router for DLNA to work and music files to play properly. No getting around that. Eventually, I'll run a network cable from my router to the receiver and bypass the wireless bridge, but for now I'm satisfied. I have a 2GB music server, I can download and play HD music, and I'm getting the sound quality I was searching for. Oh, and I still don't understand DLNA.

Is there room for improvement? Sure… I'll be ordering a ST-120 tube stereo amplifier kit from Bob Latino at www.tubes4hifi.com. Yes, the Intergra DTM-40.4 has pre-amp outputs. I'll keep you posted on my progress.

 

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