Category Archives: Causeries

Audio Stream Offers Extensive Computer Audio 101

Digital audio specialists Audio Stream are offering an easy to grasp insight into computer audio with their new article series Computer Audio 101. The articles span most issues one might have without getting overly detailed or nerdy.

Squeezebox vs Sonos vs Simpleaudio

Multiroom streamers, depending on multiroom definition, are few and far between. One thing is the ability to stream music from one central location and play it in more than one room, another is to actually play in sync if playing the same track in more than one location. Following the latter definition seriously narrows the field of contestants, leaving only Logitech Squeezebox and Sonos, at least within our financial limits. Scottish Simpleaudio does not yet have audio synchronisation but is promised to get it. But how do they compare? They all have their little quirks and shortcomings. Do these matter or are they basically just three flavors of the same thing?

I will refrain from trying to put words on subjective listening impressions; sound stages and vibrant timbres and whatnot. It is bound to fail not having a common reference. Sound quality is either god or bad, perhaps with an added adverb if quality is really good or really bad. All from the point of view of standard hifi. Not high-end audiophile extravaganza nor the iPod dock in your kid’s room. We want good sound but don’t get nerdy about it. Certainly not in determining differences in oxidization levels of copper in cables affecting capacitance or any other such controversy.

Logitech Squeezebox

SqueezeboxtouchThe Squeezebox family began as a simple media server in 2000 and today spans from the audiophile Transporter to self-contained semi-portables Boom and Radio. Central to Squeezebox is a server which collates music libraries and serves them on the network, converting files on the fly if necessary; transcoding. This server software is not absolutely necessary but required to get the fullest from the media players. The software is open source and there is a small but highly enthusiastic community surrounding it. Even the player software is open source, letting you turn any old Linux or Windows PC into a remote-controllable media player fully equal to any other Squeezebox player on our network. Incidentally; after Logitech bought Ultimate Ears, the Squeezebox products are now rebranded UE Squeezebox.

Our setup consists of Duets connected to regular hifi systems in living room and study, and a Boom for the library, software players covering the rest. Remote controls is a combination of Duets, software players, web pages and apps on Android and iPod. And talking of the latter; the iPeng app we use there is a fully functional media player itself [at an extra small cost].
All Squeezeboxes can be connected wirelessly or via ethernet. This is where stability comes into play. The wireless receiver in the Squeezeboxes appears to be rather intolerant, causing them to drop out on occasion or losing network connectivity altogether. This never happens when wired. But wiring a portable player is rather daft. When wiring is possible, however, it is definitely the way to go.

The Boom comes with built-in stereo speakers and a control panel nicely centered between them with a big, friendly knob and a miniscule remote with a magnet on it, letting it stick ever so neatly onto the top of the player [or indeed on your fridge, if you need it to]. It does, however, require a constant power supply. The Radio can be equipped with an optional battery making it truly portable. This has only one speaker but instead boasts a nice color display and can be easily set up as a clock radio in the bedroom with snooze button and all. On a note aside, the server software can be set up to transcode files per player. So to save on network bandwidth and reduce the risk of drop-outs, you can have the server transmit MP3s or some other compressed format, e.g. Ogg Vorbis, to Boom or Radio, and even set the level of compression per device.
The Transporter, the Touch and the Duet are all unamplified players. They must be attached to a hifi system via either a line-out or digitally via a separate DAC or connected to a digital input on an amplifier that has its own DAC. The difference between the Transporter and the other two players is primarily in the use of high grade components in the Transporter and balanced analogue connections. The DAC in the Transporter can cleverly be used for other digital devices as well, turning it into a DAC itself.

The Duet comes with a special remote control that itself can be used as a player, hence the name. Quite clever but not exactly mindboggingly useful. As a remote, however, the controller is rather good. It bears some resemblance with the now discontinued CR100 from Sonos, with touch-wheel and color display, albeit in a slightly more compact form for one-hand operation. The controller communicates wirelessly and can control not just the Duet but also other players on the network – also the software players.

Both Boom and Radio sound nice but certainly nothing more. Neither is capable of being more than what they are, a clever transistor radio, nor do they pretend to be. The Duet, however, is outstanding. The internal DAC is not very impressive but using an external DAC, the tiny box shines, capable of playing 24bit/48KHz files without transcoding. The Transporter can play 24bit/192KHz and the Touch 24bit/96KHz. My advice is to use a wired connection for all three when feeding them high definition files. The files can be rather hefty and require high bandwidth.
The server software that drives Squeezebox, is its Achilles’ heel – and its strength. It is not simple to set up and can be a nightmare to move to another server once it is installed, should that be needed [at least if you want to keep your settings intact]. Once installed, however, it can do magic. It serves music and transcodes as needed, all without hiccups. Sprinkled with a few plugins it can then be set up to filter music to keep Christmas songs in December and Neofolk off the Heavy Metal playlists but keep it on the Folk list. The Boom and Radio both have programmable preset buttons that we have programmed for a handful of favorite genres. Button one plays Rock, two plays Electronica etc. Search is active across all meta data and blindingly fast even with our massive music library. We use filters mostly to keep things apart that semantically belong together but for any number of reasons must be kept apart nonetheless. Sounds spooky but consider the Christmas songs for a second. Nat King Cole and King Diamond both have Christmas songs and they are tagged as such. Their names are even slightly alike. But they are also tagged with other characteristics, such as croon (not King Diamond, I might add), jazz, easy listening, heavy metal, Danish and cover to name the predominant ones. The only shared genres are Christmas and male vocal. The server can be set up to filter out certain tags; in December we allow Christmas songs, so if I select heavy metal in December, I may just hear King Diamond sing No Presents for Christmas. If I choose to play anything Christmas, chances are I might hear Nat King Cole roasting chestnuts immediately after the former. Perhaps not completely unheard of; the opposite situation might be, though. Another common scenario is audiobooks. Everything tagged with speech is filtered out unless specifically chosen. That means that when randomly playing songs from any genre, we don’t suddenly get a 20 minute recital of The Emperor’s New Clothes between Kaki King and Andy McKee.

One interesting feature on Squeezebox is manual network sync adjustments. Normally the players sync automatically but if you want to, you can change lag and delay per device. One situation where this can be really useful, is if you have two zones so far apart that sonic delay becomes annoying [rather than network latency] and one of these zones always plays louder than the other. Then you can tweak the delay so that when heard close to the low zone, the loud zone is in sync, while the low zones is drowned by the loud zone when heard from the other end. Difficult to explain but extremely practical for us. It can also be used to counter any lag in an external DAC, should that be necessary.

Sonos

ConnectAngle_LargeSonos entered the playing ground in 2005 and from the beginning showed excellence in one point in particular: Simplicity – pure and simple. Everything that can be done automatically is kept away from the user. The players recognise each other on the network and configuration is extremely simple. There are a few options that could have used a tooltip of explanation but they are few and really, if you don’t know what they mean, chances are you don’t need them. If you need them, you probably know what to look for. This is something Sonos have always been good at and keep getting better at. This, however, means you can’t tweak Sonos. Everything works as they have set it out to. Special requirements – buy something else or live without them.

Our replacement system is one of 5 players. Two stationary and three portables. The stationary players come in two flavors, one with a built-in 50W amplifier and one without, requiring a hifi system hook-up. The portables come in two flavors as well, Play:5 with a 5-way speaker and Play:3 with a 3-way speaker. As with Squeezebox Boom and Radio, sound quality is on par with a good transistor radio or iPod dock. The Sonos sales department is slightly less realistic in their appraisal of these players than Logitech’s ditto but still it is never touted as a hifi system per se and can never replace one. The Connect and Connect:AMP, however, are full fledged hifi components. The Connect attaches to an existing hifi-system via line-out or digital and the Connect:AMP just needs a pair of speakers for its 50W internal D-class amplifier.

The amplifier in the Connect:AMP is adequate at low volumes but falls short when pushed. We thus opted for the Connect sans-amp and wired it to our power-DAC. In that constellation, the Sonos Connect sounds brilliant and indistinguishable from the Squeezebox Duet [given the same 16bit/44.1KHz files].

All Sonos devices can be wired or will communicate with each other over its own wireless network. At least one unit needs to be wired to form the hub of Sonos’ proprietary wireless mesh. The idea is that using this mesh of devices, they extend the network autonomously instead of relying on regular wifi coverage. This is probably the single most important factor in Sonos’ inherent stability. If there is no wired network connection available near any of the Sonos players, you can buy [at a very low cost, in fact] the aptly named Bridge, which is basically just the network part of a Sonos player. It doesn’t do anything other than form a bridge between your wired network and the Sonos mesh.

Unlike the Squeezebox players, none of the Sonos devices come with a control panel, save barely adequate mute and volume control buttons. There is an optional remote control with a touch screen that pretty much behaves like a bulky but [granted] very responsive PDA. Luckily there is also an app for iPhone/iPod/iPad and Android, and a desktop application for Windows and Mac [none yet for Linux, though]. As with everything else, these controller apps are extremely simple to use and share a common UI. Install it… Connect to the Sonos system… Play music… Unfortunately the simplistic approach also opens up a few ensuing flaws: It will recognise [a very limited selection of] uPnP servers but not allow them to be named. If there are more servers, you cannot remove those you don’t want. This may sound slightly nitpicking but is in fact rather annoying, since using a uPnP server is the only way to get around one of the system’s 2 foremost restrictions, namely that of a max of 65,000 tracks in the music library (a mere 5,000 discs) and missing support for multiple genre tags! And this is where Sonos becomes a pain to live with. There is absolutely no way we can shoehorn our music library into single categories. If you don’t listen to classical or folk or rock or blues or dance or whatever, one genre category might be enough for said “genres”, since not listening to classical music may cause anything with a violin in it to be tagged classical. If, however, you do enjoy specific genres of music, there is no such thing as classical for instance. A piece of music then takes on such categories as romance, etude, theoboer, lute, variation etc. The same goes for rock to a rock listener. There are at least as many sub categories of rock as there are in classical. There are live recordings and studio outtakes and tributes and covers and and and… No, without multiple genres, we have a hard time using the system at all. Squeezebox not only supports practically limitless amounts, it even lets you use them in filters and queries as [hopefully] explained above.

It is possible to stream an external source connected to a computer in Squeezebox, given a fair amount of tenacity. Sonos can do it out of the box on the Connect and Play:5. Simply connect something and choose the source in the controller app. Voila. It can even be set up to automatically switch to that external source when you connect something. This cannot be done any simpler. There’s a fly in the ointment as always, in that Sonos appear to broadcast the stream across the entire mesh indiscriminately requiring a very solid connection. Where we live there are more than 20 neighboring wireless networks making this feature effectively unusable without wired devices due to radio interference. The ability, however, to have external sources on all players and name them appropriately for all to play, is simply too good to miss and may usher me into cabling the lot however much that may defeat the purpose of the Sonos Mesh.

Simpleaudio

Unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity we hoped, to put the Simpleaudio through rigorous testing. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a short rundown of features. An actual test will have to wait.

simpleaudioSimpleaudio is the baby in the school yard, so to speak. They were formed in 2008 by former Linn MD Peter Murphy and fellow audiophile engineers that trickled over with him. Unlike Linn, Simpleaudio is actually a viable alternative to Sonos and Squeezebox. They have two players, one with an amplifier and one without. Both players have a wired ethernet connection or can be fed via a built-in powerline receiver. No wifi support. What appears a bit technically incoherent at first, is really quite interesting. If one player is set up with a wired connection or you use an external powerline adapter, all other players get their data from the power grid. Every bit as robust as the Sonos mesh and still without wrapping your house in twisted pair cables. In terms of media compatibility the Simpleaudio players is in par with the Squeezebox players, supporting up to 24bit/96KHz media with promised support for 192KHz in the future. If you are concerned with aliasing at these frequencies, however, you may be willing to mortgage your house to buy a Linn anyway.

Like the Squeezebox, Simpleaudio requires a computer running either a uPnP compatible media server or their own proprietary music library service. The former can be a NAS with built in media sharing, although compatibility may vary. Simpleaudio has no dedicated remote control at all. Everything is done from a Windows or Mac application, or from your telephone. Apps are available for iPhone/iPod/iPad and Android.

The controller application for Simpleaudio has one unique feature setting it far apart from the competition. It can separate music libraries between users. Your children can have their own libraries, so they don’t have to listen to Miles Davis but can settle for Teddy Bear’s Picnic instead. Similarly you can separate classical works from your contemporary collection. The Simpleaudio can handle 32 separate libraries, should you have the fantasy to name that many.

A Note on Sample Rates

High sample rates are often dismissed as voodoo due to our limited human hearing. Frequencies above 20KHz are simply not considered important. Sample rates, however, have nothing to do with sonic frequencies per se, but are a product of how conversion between analogue and digital works, or more precisely the mathematics of transformation between continuous and discrete information. Formulated in the so-called Nyquist-Shannon theorem, noise above half the maximum sampling frequency will fold back into the range below and create ghost audio that is indistinguishable from an intended signal. A compact disc is recorded at 44.1KHz. If the sample rate were set at 20KHz, which is the maximum frequency of a perfect ear, sound above 10KHz (half the sample rate) would fold back and cause distortion in the audible spectrum. By going above 40KHz this will no longer happen. Choosing 44.1KHz leaves room for a low pass filter to reduce noise above 20KHz, as well, I am sure, as fitting market-available crystals when the standard of Red Book was inked, and indeed put the data size of a full LP within the limits of a CD. However; making a filter with such steep cut-off slopes (high order) is difficult and will itself degrade sound quality. Increasing sample rates will help making filters cheaper and less impairing. One filter quirk which is rather disturbing is ripple; a response fluctuation both before and after the cut-off. Particularly the ripple before the cut-off is the cause of annoyance among audiophiles because it actually impairs the audio signal within the audible range.

When converting from digital to analogue the filter problems reemerge and we start all over again.

Audiophile extraordinaire, Michael Lavorgna, has written an extremely detailed yet easily understandable essay on filters which is definitely worth a read, available on Audiostream…

Conclusion

The setup that we have settled upon is one of two systems. We use Sonos in our daily life because it is easy to work with and sounds great. For in-depth listening the Squeezeboxes serve a purpose that could have been lifted by Simpleaudio but for which Sonos does not deliver. So, in fact, we have reached an equilibrium we hadn’t anticipated. They live together in perfect harmony.

The problem with multiple genres has been solved in two ways. All tracks have been fitted with a custom tag denominating the preferred genre [on Sonos]. When files change, they are automatically converted from their highest resolution to Red Book and in the process the genre tag set to this sonos-tag from the metadata database. First problem solved. All tracks now have just one genre as viewed from the point of view of the Sonos system but retain their multiple genres when seen from Squeezebox and other media players. The problem with sub genres must then be solved via playlists. To make playlists semi-dynamic we have mashed up a method where we can create .PLS files using the same system, so that each track is added to a set of playlists named from the genres it belongs to. It is not blindingly elegant but it solves the problem until that day when Sonos recognise the need for multiple genre tags. Second problem solved [sort of].

By the way; I omitted the relatively new Raumfeld system from the ‘test’ as it apparently isn’t available in Denmark where I live. It is a system to look out for, though.

I should kick, being kick’d; and, being at that pass…

— you would keep from my heels and beware of an ass

It has been a long time since my last update but following a hiatus often comes a time of exhilarated mania manifesting itself in this oddly named blogging kickstart.

We have used a combination of iTunes, Squeezebox and Foobar2000 for quite a few years now. Moving to a new house in 2012 caused a slight shift towards true multiroom and the Squeezeboxes became the centre of our musical universe. This, however, also accentuated a couple of shortcomings with Squeezebox and thus instigated a possible change of system.

Given its outrageous price tag, Linn is out of the equation for us. The next system in line was the Naim Uniti which is more within reach albeit still too expensive in a multiroom setting. The choice ended up being between keeping the Squeezebox, solving the problems we have, moving to Sonos or jumping to the relatively new Simple Audio lead by former Linn MD Peter Murphy. So far I have tested a 5 room Sonos setup against Squeezebox. The plan is to have a go at Simple Audio next and then post a detailed account of my experience with all three and where they excel and, conversely, fall short. So stick around for brand new spark of life following this virtual defibrillator.

Apple iTunes 10–or how nothing is ever a problem, part 2

Apple iTunesWhen Apple released iTunes 10 DAAP servers across the world went into silence. Many third party vendors started changing firmware but from Apple only silence. Now 2 weeks later Apple releases a n update for iTunes, solving the problem. The update will be automatically installed, if you have Apple Update activated.

Software rundown–part 2

In an earlier article, I had a quick run through of 4 media player applications. Apple iTunes, Foobar2000, WinAmp and J. River Media Center. This time I will go another set of players; a triplet that are not that much unlike the previous batch – at least not on the surface.

This week’s selection are: Microsoft Zune, Clementine and Logitech SqueezePlay.

Microsoft Zune

zuneMicrosoft Zune is not only a portable MP3 player. It is also the name of a piece of companion software specifically made for said player. It is, however, a quite capable software player in it’s own right.

Installing it can be a bit of a challenge. If the version downloadable from the official home page will not install, try and download the complete package from Microsoft’s download center – download.microsoft.com. It is quite large but less prone to installation hick-ups. Unlike most of its cousins, Zune comes in both 32 bit and 64 bit versions, letting you take advantage of those RAM blocks above 4GB on your 64 bit Windows. Not sure that it makes much difference with this particular piece of software, though, but there you are.

Zune sports a minimalistic and classy user interface. Everything scrolls smoothly and has a high-key prettiness not often seen. Surely not your average Microsoft application look. On the UX side of things, this is not always a good thing – in fact, Zune is exactly as unintuitive as the majority of media players out there. Barebones and adequate. Not much more to say about this one, except for one thing: It doesn’t support Flac.

3 out of 5 for slick operation but few supported formats and no multi room.

Clementine

clementineAmarok is a renowned media player for Linux and the antecessor of Clementine. It cannot deny its roots but at the same time it is curiously sleek and sports a fluent navigation many players could learn from. If you want a snappy interface that reacts promptly to your every command and a UI with no bells or whistles whatsoever, this one is for you. Add to that a thriving community and a promising future is ahead. It doesn’t do much in terms of remote control or multi room playing – but when it comes down to it, not many do. Needless to say, Clementine plays both Flac and Ogg Vorbis.

3 out of 5 for uncomplicated and slick operation but no multi room.

Logitech SqueezePlay

squeezeplaySqueezePlay is a PC version of Logitech’s (formerly Slimdevices) SqueezeBox media streamer family. The software version of the player ties seamlessly into the SqueezeBox universe and the SqueezeBox Server. The latter is responsible for managing your music library and streaming to your devices.  The wonderful part about SqueezePlay is not its tidy UI or abundant features but the fact that it can remote control other SqueezePlay’ers as well as any SqueezeBox you may have on your network.

If you don’t already own a Squeezebox thingy, installing this piece of software makes it very difficult not to want a Duet or a Transporter too. Previously the server (once known as SqueezeCenter) was overly complicated to set up and operate. This is all history. The server UI is clean and to the point. If you want to tweak advanced settings, you can get to them through little inconspicuous dropdown boxes – and quite frankly; you shouldn’t need to. There are some pretty nifty things hidden in the advanced settings, though. Among other things, you can make the server transcode certain file formats to save bandwidth or improve compatibility.

Sonos could learn a bit from Logitech here. Sonos have a desktop controller that runs on Windows and OS X. Logitech’s adds Linux and Solaris to the mix. The Sonos controller is exactly that; a controller. It doesn’t play music by itself – it just controls your hardware. The reason is fairly straight forward. Sonos don’t want computer savvy would-be customers create their own media players from scrapped PCs undermining their business model. Quite an understandable position, inarguably. Logitech’s approach, however, is equally understandable. They let you build your own stuff and as you do that you are left to wonder: Can I do this cheaper and more energy efficient? Yep! I can buy one already finished. I can get a kitchen radio, a kid’s room boom box and a Transporter for my Electrocompaniet in the living room. And they communicate. Not only among themselves but with my DIY media player. How cool is that? This is why I am prone to going the Logitech way instead of the Sonos ditto or indeed any third way. It is extremely modular. I can live with the fact that they are hoodwinking me into buying more stuff. I can live with that – ‘sure. One selling point that gives Sonos an edge over the SqueezeBox family, is their analog input stream. Logitech need to do that. They do. They do.

4 out of 5 for extremely well done inter-communication and cleverly hidden subliminal messages saying: *buy* *buy* *buy*.

Apple iTunes 10–or how nothing is ever a problem

Apple iTunesApple released version 10 of their iTunes recently and immediately media sharing devices all over the world stopped serving sound bites to yearning ears. Not that Apple broke iTunes. Of course not. Don’t be daft! NAS drives across the globe committed collective suicide and stopped working. That’s what happened. Apple’s response to an immediate flooding of the support forums: complete silence.

The culprit is the daap protocol being used to communicate tracks from NAS drives to the iTunes players. The playlists show up like they always did but they contain no tracks. The bigger problem is, of course, that flashing a NAS drive with new firmware requires the drive to be in production or at least not very old, and that you are actually enough computer apt to actually perform the operation, let alone recognise the need. Apple scores pretty low on this one. Not for optimising the protocol or whatever they did to it, but for leaving a large group of users behind by not being backwards compatible. The very users they cater to with their zero administration products. A disappointed user at Apple’s support forum put it this way: “Yeah. Nothing ever appears to be their problem”.

This could be a good time for media player vendors to release a new cool player and push iTunes off the ledge. Most people would be more inclined to switch software solution than replacing their hardware, I’d wager. I know, I would.

Software rundown

There are several software media centers available that run on ordinary computers. Depending on your operating system, the choice is more or less broad, in terms of sound quality and features. This is an attempt to describe a four such solutions, all catering to different audiences.

There are a number of features that I have a hard time living without, but few are met by all four solutions:

  1. Lossless audio
  2. Remote control
  3. Remote playback
  4. Automated library management

The applications tested are these: Apple iTunes, Foobar2000, WinAmp and J. River Media Center. I will have a go at four other media players in a later article.

Apple iTunes 9

itunesIf you have an Apple product in your house, chances are you have iTunes installed as well. Products such as the iPod Touch, Apple TV and indeed the iPhone, pretty much need iTunes to stay in sync. Apple iTunes has many neat features and equally many annoying dittos.

One often foreseen feature of iTunes, is Airtunes. Airtunes is a communication protocol supported by Apple’s wireless access points, Airports, and by Apple TV. Airtunes lets iTunes detect devices through the Apple Bonjour service and stream music to these devices. Simply put, you can view Airtunes capable devices as remote speakers and select them instead of (or in addition to) your local PC speaker. It even lets you play a song on multiple locations simultaneously and, let’s not forget, in sync. It does not let you play different songs on different devices, at least not from one computer, and there is no way you can forcibly take over an Airport if it is already servicing another iTunes client. But at a very low cost, you can actually have a functional multi room system.

The user interface is sleek, as you would expect from Apple. It does, however, have some serious short comings. Having no tooltips whatsoever, you are forced to click everything to learn what it does. More importantly, you have to read a lengthy document, to learn the keyboard shortcuts.

In terms of recognised file formats, iTunes does not impress much but does support lossless audio through the Apple Lossless codec, which by the way, is also the format used to communicate with the Airtunes clients.

Remote control support in iTunes is excellent and terrible at the same time. The excellent part is the Remote App for the iPod Touch and iPhone. It is an App that looks exactly like the iTunes App but lets you connect to any running iTunes on your network and use it as it was on your phone, only playing the tracks on the computer or through Airtunes. That is pretty darn nifty. It works brilliantly and looks awesome. Remote controlling an iTunes client from another computer, however, is an entirely different matter. There are a few third party attempts but they are cumbersome and unintuitive.

ITunes maintains its own library of metadata and offers to maintain your actual files as well, if you so choose. There is not much to say about the library itself. If, for instance, you use smart playlists, it is rather responsive and works as it is supposed to. When running multiple clients, however, iTunes fails miserably. It is not possible to share your metadata on the network. All clients must import all files to their own libraries and maintaining metadata suddenly becomes tedious at best. Add to this that iTunes does not watch folders for changes, and you have a regular nightmare. A third party product called Itunes Folder Watch does wonders at doing exactly this – watching folders. The man behind this product, by the way, has a new thing brewing called Muso. Muso is a media database that first and foremost acts as a manager. It can stream music directly to Logitech Squeezebox, and play locally through WinAmp or iTunes.

To play music off the network, iTunes supports their DAAP protocol. This protocol lets an iTunes client share its media with other iTunes clients. In other words, you can have one iTunes have control of the media library and all the other clients simply get their information from there. One would imagine that the sharing issues mentioned above were eliminated then, but that is not the case. When iTunes connects to a peer or any other DAAP provider, such as a NAS drive, it shows the library as a list. You no longer have access to the user interface gems, such as cover flow and album grouping. With a DAAP client such as the open source initiative Firefly, it is possible to have some very smart playlists, though. But that is an entirely different discussion.

Score

3 out of 5 for good effort, albeit lacking in remote control and library management.

Foobar2000 v1.1

foobar2000This program has been around since 2002 but only recently went out of beta. It is the brain child of Peter Pawlowski, and sports some rather impressive specs.

Foobar2000 supports all major audio formats, including Flac. Due to a well documented SDK and its long existance, Foobar2000 has an impressive backlog of third party plugins adding to its modularity. It is this modular architecture that is the strength of Foobar2000 but it also its biggest shortcoming.

Like iTunes, Foobar2000 can be remote controlled through plugins. The program itself cannot remote control another instance and the plugins are rudimentary at best. As for remote playback there is no support at all. German Rogue Amoeba has a product called Airfoil, which allows well behaved audio applications to route their sound to Airtunes. A short delay makes the experience a little cumbersome, but it works quite well.

Foobar2000 has no library management per se. It scans the media files it is told to and caches the information locally. If you change metadata, the changes are committed at once and the relevant files are updated. Nonetheless, navigation is responsive and filtering occurs immediately. And then it watches… Foobar2000 can monitor an arbitrary number of music folders and updates its cache as soon as a file is touched. It is, in other words, definitely possible to have multiple Foobar2000 clients running, watching the same folders and have them update each other with no user interference. Add to this, a brilliant properties editor and you have not only an excellent media player but also one of the best ID3 tag editors on the market.

As I mentioned, modularity is not all good. In all its configurability, Foobar2000 can break the neck of most users through its options alone. Sifting through its Preferences dialog, can make most people sweat, and as if that was not all, the user interface can be configured in minute details through a Live Edit mode. If you have the tennacity Foobar2000 is a wonderful product, though, and definitely a recommended try.

Score

3 out of 5 for excellent library management and a gorgeous tag editor, but lacking in remoting.

WinAmp 5.58

winampWith almost 1½ decades on its bones WinAmp is the grand old man of media players. It wasn’t until 2007 and version 5.5 that the program became a true media center with album artwork and integrated library management. In its current incarnation, WinAmp is a potent player in its genre. It supports a multitude of audio formats, either generically or through plugins, including lossless audio in the form of Flac. Like Foobar2000, however, WinAmp suffers from too much going on and some visual setups that may be fitting a computer mainly used for programming rather than a dedicated media center.

The library manager included with WinAmp is good but not brilliant. You can manage your media inside the player and have it watch for folder changes, and that is that. Somewhat tucked away, however, is a library toolbox of sorts that lets you import libraries from iTunes, export the database or force a rescan of the files being monitored. That is nice.

There are a few remote control plugins for WinAmp but no indigenous support. As with Foobar2000 the plugins offer only rudimentary control. What you can get, however, is a plugin that adds support for Apple Airtunes. Once activated, you get access to your Airports from within WinAmp and can route your music there with only very little delay.

There is something called WinAmp Remote but that is not a remote control per se, but a system that allows you to play your own media files from a remote location, specifically a location outside your own, private network.

Score

4 out of 5 for Eric Milles Remote Speaker plugin and a robust player, lacking mostly in actual remote control.

J.River Media Center 15

jriverLike WinAmp J.River Media Center is a mature product that induces confidence. And like WinAmp it plays all sorts of media.

The user interface is well thought out and works equally well on a big ass touch screen or a small, discrete Mimo. And now to the big one: J.River Media Center can be remote controlled. It can remote control. It can serve. It can do stuff!

Set up a small, passively cooled PC near your stereo and give it good USB DAC to work with and a Mimo touch screen to operate it. Then multiply this with the number of stereos in your house. J.River Media Center comes with a server which runs on Windows. This you install on your Windows Home Server and on all your desktop computers you install the J.River Media Center client. You can now play music from your server at your desktop computers and/or your DIY media centers – and control it from anyone of them. Is that neat or what?

Unfortunately you cannot stream to Apple Airports unless you use Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil. One day, perhaps, someone will write a plugin that lets you do it.

The library manager is complete. The properties editor matches that of Foobar2000 and in addition, J.River Media Center has a trick up its sleeve. If you edit a tag from a client, it can propagate those changes back to the server. Letting the server do all the managing means you don’t have to have more or less out of sync libraries scattered across your clients and you only send the information across your network you really need and thus save some bandwidth.

There are a few usability issues when connecting to other clients/servers that could do with a bit of polish. But that aside, J.River Media Center is a pretty nice product.

Score

4 out of 5 for a near perfect media player really lacking only Airtunes support.

Shoe horning a Sooloos

joesixsooloosSince hardware vendors seem reluctant to put new stuff on the street at the moment, it is refreshing to see how audiophiles can help themselves. Chris Connaker of Computer Audiophile saw a parallel between the stunning Sooloos media controller and a humble Dell multi touch computer monitor. In his blog he explains how tweaking and poking, he fused a computer, the J. River Media Center and a Dell monitor into a home grown and very shiny Sooloos clone. As he himself readily admits, the Sooloos is of another world and not quite replicable. The idea, however, of having an easily navigable media center composed of off-the-shelf parts, is just plain wonderful in all its simplicity.

We have tried something similar ourselves, using an earlier generation resistive single touch monitor and Foobar2000. The problem with this setup was mostly lack of screen real estate, making an on-screen keyboard hard to use, and lack of slide response; it was just not easy to scroll. A better touch monitor, such as the Dell SX2210T used here, would have helped quite a bit. Another issue we had was lack of multi room support. This issue is present with the Sooloos clone too. With iTunes you can use Airports and have real time control of other rooms. The rigid implementation and lack of HD support makes iTunes an unattractive solution, though.

While we stuck with a good-quality-but-no-thrills soundcard, there are some high-end solutions that can make such a setup sound incredible.

Zzzzzzz…

Snail look at youWhat is happening!? Did all the hardware vendors go belly up in an obscure global depression or is the R&D world focusing on 3D television and scantily clad ladies to help sell the buggers? For several months nothing has happened in the land of the audio streamer. Yes! I want a NaimUnity. Yes! I think Sonos is cool. No, I don’t exactly have an ass full of dough to spend. But I do crave my weekly dose of hardware and these past 6 months have been a cold turkey. So, dear vendors: Please do get your guys out of those 3D labs and focus on some real value. We want nice sound… Okay?!

Lossless audio explained

My favourite company and defacto curators of good sound, Bower & Wilkins, just published an article on their Society of Sound web site, explaining lossless audio in general and Flac in particular in what can only be described as kid’s stuff. One can argue whether digital sound distribution is difficult material, but I find it indisputable that the topic is notoriously hard to convey. It is this last bit I think B&W did better than anyone before them.

If you don’t know Flac, read it to get a non-technical explanation. If you do know the technicalities, read it anyway… if for nothing else, then to get an example of how to explain it yourself.

Copyright © 2017. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.