Category Archives: Flac

High Resolution Blu-ray The Easy Way

Computer AudiophileChris Connaker of Computer Audiophile just published an extremely interesting article on ripping Blue-ray audio discs for streaming on HD capable players. Mildly put the task of ripping HD audio has hitherto been a daunting one and rarely successful. German MSM Studios have conjured up a method that involves special software on the disc allowing networked Blue-ray players or computer based drives to copy the tracks off the disc in HD. But ‘nuff paraphrasing. Get yourself over to Computer Audiophile and have the best read so far this year…

Olive O6HD

o6hd_silver_front_angleOlive has been on the media streamer market for the better part of the market’s existence, yet hasn’t made much noise. Their latest initiative could be here to change that: The world’s first HD Audiophile Server. That is what they call it and looking at the specs, it’s definitely the world’s first something, even if others have touched on this before. The Linn DS is definitely up there (with a slightly more rabid price tag) and so is the NaimUniti Serve. The latter being a really attractive setup in its family configuration of server, players and mini players.

The device itself is cool if not exactly novel. The design is like other Olives, slightly unusual and definitely not very shelf-friendly.  The slanted cabinet has a touch screen on top and a handful of heavy duty connectors on the back. The front has a slot for ripping CDs. To get you going, the O6HD comes pre-installed with 12 HD tracks from Chesky records. Hand-built in America and all, it will look good on a serving table or something.

The power supply is split into two, to feed analog and digital circuits with each their own chill filtered juice. The DACs are 24-bit Burr-Brown PCM1792 supporting high resolution conversion of 24-bit/192KHz. It comes with 2TB of storage, letting you rip quite a bit of CDs, at least in 16-bit resolution. At full resolution it is not one byte too much. Unfortunately the CD transport is just that. A CD drive. It doesn’t support DVD or SACD so the only option for actually getting any HD content is to rip it elsewhere or download HD tracks.

A rather cool feature is genre specific tags. Only information pertaining to the specific type of music is shown in the genre navigation. That is really good news for classical music connoisseurs. Add to that a bit of color coding and a bloody nice glass touch screen, and you have a pretty nifty dashboard. The ever present iPhone / iPod Touch remote isn’t missing either.

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*.

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.

Naim UnitiServe

UnitiServeWith the UnitiServe, British Naim completes their Unity system. The UnitiServe is a Windows XP Embedded based media server with a built in Red Book CD drive. The server supports a multitude of audio formats, including Flac at a resolution of up to 24bit/192KHz. The innards include parts from equally cool British lads, Digital Fidelity.

The main idea, of course, is for the UnitiServe to act as a server for multitude of NaimUniti and UnitiQute clients already casually spread across your house. It supports streaming unique content to 6 simultaneous receivers. But being a full fledged DLNA server, it will do the biddings of any compliant device on your home network.

The UnitiServe comes with 1TB of disk space or, if you so prefer, with only a 16GB SSD disk, requiring a NAS for its data.

UnitiSystem

Naim UnitiQute

NaimQute The people who gave us the NaimUnity last year have gone and done it again. This time with a cute little device aptly and cleverly named The UnitiQute. The main difference from the NaimUnity is the absence of a CD transport. In other words, the UnitiQute is for those who don’t care about perloid plastic discs or those who have a plenty of sound elsewhere and needs an extension.

The front is sleek and minimalistic and very Naim.  The back panel abundant with connectors for all things digital and a few analogue for good measure. The UnitiQute streams from internet radio stations and from network storage devices, be it a regular NAS or that equally sleek Naim HDX in the living room. In addition to networked music, the UnitiQute plays music from attached devices, such as iPods and USB harddrives.

Flac support of up to 24bit/96KHz puts it well in the clear with the competition. With a built-in amplifier yielding 30W of smooth niceness it is fairly self contained and should fit any small living area. Put an HDX in the study with your Focals, a Unity in the living room and a Qute in the bed room and your retirement is pretty much secured.

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.

Linn Majik DS-I

Linn Majik DS-I I may be pushing the icons above a bit on this one, since Linn has not yet disclosed anything specific on their new compact. Following in the footsteps of Naim and their Uniti, Linn has gone and committed a similar product. A complete unit, albeit sans the radio and the transport. Okay, so it isn’t a complete system. It does, however, appear that the Linn Majik DS-I has everything in the realm of in- and output. Even a phono input. All you need is a tuner for the BBC must-haves, a CD transport for the not-yet-ripped CDs and a pair of speakers that can receive the angel dust from the DS and sprinkle your abode with magic.

Sonos ZonePlayer S5

sonoss5 Sonos have ruled the streaming kingdom seemingly for eternities now but have been subjected to more and more frequent bashings for stubbornly sticking to less than standalone-friendly ZonePlayers. In others words: Why don’t they make a real standalone player for the kitchen (or wherever this makes sense)? Now they have… The ZonePlayer S5 is one such thing. A monolithic heat fan from appearance; a well spec’ed transistor radio beneath.

Each driven by a D-class amplifier of unknown grandeur 5 drivers form the bessel. One of these is a 3½” center positioned subwoofer [remember 3½” floppy disks? Woof!]. Otherwise it appears to be spec’ed like its brethren ZonePlayers. Like these the S5 can be controlled by the dedicated CR100 or Cr200 controllers, or from a PC or an iPhone.

RipNAS

RipNASThe RipNAS is not an audio streamer per this blog’s usual definition but a uPnP compatible server based on Microsoft Windows Home Server. Devices that are compatible with the uPnP standard can then connect to the RipNAS and use it for storage. What makes the device stand out is its built-in optical drive that lets you rip automatically to a number of audio formats, including Flac. Just insert a CD and rip away. The device comes preconfigured with 320GB, 640GB or 1TB harddrives and can be extended with a matching external drive to up to 7TB. That should suffice for all but the most extreme of needs.

For streaming the device supports Logitech SqueezeCenter, Sonos , iTunes and uPnP. Also it connects automatically to such services as freedb and MusicBrainz for tagging music. Needless to say; since it is a Windows Home Server you can install just about any piece of software you can think of, such as automated backup of music or online purchases. Indeed, the server can be used simply as a Windows file server.

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