The digital music revolution freed our tape-based, CD-locked, vinyl-etched tracks, so thousands of songs could travel with us. The revolution had its setbacks though, as DRM attempted to trap tunes in systems and devices you had no control over. Thankfully the world saw sense and turned away from the precipice, and music remained largely DRM-free.
The question is, what's the best way to enjoy your music? Whether you're sitting at your gaming PC, relaxing in the living room or out and about, the key is having easy access to your entire collection and being able to enjoy it to its fullest. To that end, let's take a look at how we can enable server-based, multi-room, multi-speaker, multi-user streaming audio around your home and beyond.
Enjoying your music shouldn't lock you in to any one company's products, so we'll us your own network, PCs, phones and tablets (with a few apps and downloads) to build the most flexible system we can.
The ubiquity of MP3 audio is a real strength, but the downside is that it's so widely supported it can be hard to narrow down a solution that will cover all your requirements. We had real trouble finding a one-size-fits-all system, so we ended up with two. The good news is that the split is entirely straightforward - one solution for home enjoyment and another for when you're on the move, both of which work together seamlessly.
The other element is flexibility. If you want to create a home-straddling, multi-room audio environment then you can. If you just want to create a standalone high-end audio digital hi-fi system then we can take care of that too - and this is where we're going to start.
Were we just praising digital music? I hope not, because we're going to bad-mouth it now. It's a sad fact that in the rush to digital, many people lost sight of what should be most important: audio quality. It's understandable, though - you're given a state-of-the-art gadget and you want as many tunes on there as possible, so you crank up the compression and end up with music tracks that sound fine on tiny headphones, but utterly lacking on capable speakers.
MP3 is almost two decades old, and was only originally intended to store modest-quality audio. One issue is that encoders can be very inconsistent, so even high bit-rate MP3s created by a poor encoder will lose quality. If you're sticking with MP3, make sure you use a LAME-based encoder, as it has been shown to offer the best results.
If you're encoding, it's important to understand where your audio is coming from. You might be using the best quality encoder, but it's all for nought if the original source was a single-channel 8-bit 22kHz YouTube source. Typically most people will be getting audio from a CD rip, which is 16-bit two-channel audio at 44kHz. DVD audio never really took off, but does support 24-bit, six-channel audio at 96kHz, or two channels at 192kHz, which is the best source.
Most people say they can't tell the difference between a CD and a good 192kbps MP3. This depends on your ears and the kit you're using to enjoy the track, but there's a strong argument against using anything bigger. Even professional DJs tend to be happy with 320kbps MP3 files for pro rigs. All we can say is that for archival quality, you're best using a lossless format. If you need to save space on portable devices, convert to AAC at 192kbps.
If you're looking for a flexible CD ripper/audio converter, we'd suggest fre:ac. It supports all of the mentioned formats, supports CDDB/freedb with ID3v2 tagging, and is open source, so you can get ripping to your heart's content.
At the heart of our home audio system is a server. This is where we'll store the tunes, and it will serve them out to anyone who wants to stream from it. PC Format has covered home servers a lot in previous issues, so we're not going to go over that side of the hardware. What we're interested in is the audio side of things, so let's cast a quick eye over how to improve your listening experience.
First, ensure your audio track's stored somewhere on the server at a quality that you're happy with. If you simply want to enjoy music at home, a better amplifier and speakers will result in a superior experience.
We're going to start with the idea of using a separate AV amplifier with full-range speakers - perhaps in your living room, your man-den or even an old-school study. The best scenario here is to keep the digital audio in digital form all the way through to the dedicated AV amplifier, inside which are all the expensive digital-to-analog converters, with their solid grounds and low-noise, high-quality power converters.
The most direct solution is to use a laptop or mini PC with a digital coaxial or SP/DIF output. All decent amps will accept both of these as input, enabling you to pipe the digital audio bit stream direct to the amp.
Many people seem to prefer SP/DIF. Perhaps the fact that it's optical makes it seem all space-aged and futuristic, but the truth is that SP/DIF can actually be far worse than coaxial. Poor alignment of the connectors can cause increased error rates, and that's besides the higher price for the cables themselves, especially for long runs.
Ultimately, both connectors are doing the same job and carrying the same data. I'm sure an audiophile would say one creates warmer sound than the other, but they live in their own special world.
If your system doesn't offer either output, take a good look at your laptop, desktop or your custom audio card to see if one of its mini jacks doubles as a digital coaxial output. It will usually have to be enabled as such from an audio control panel and you may need a bespoke cable too.
Similarly on desktops and mini-PC systems internally there can be risers or digital audio headers, from which you can pipe a suitable digital output. Again, you may need to either make or buy a specialist cable for these.
An alternative way to get digital audio is to use any HDMI output offered by the PC. HDMI is capable of carrying up to eight channels of PCM audio, in up to 24 bits and at up to 192kHz, which covers pretty much every eventuality.
If your AV amp supports HDMI inputs then you're golden, but if it doesn't, all is not lost. If your HDTV offers coaxial or SP/DIF output then it's often possible to route the HDMI signal to your TV, then stream the audio from the TV to an amp. From there onwards it's down to the amplifier and speakers to do the heavy lifting of making the audio sound as beautiful as possible.
There's also ensuring that you've configured and positioned your speakers correctly, but that's really not our problem!
Serving the goods
The big question hanging over us is which program we'll use to dish out our audio. We're going to enrage a good section of the population by saying Apple iTunes, but stick with us - we have our reasons.
We don't much like iTunes. It's clunky, it's slow, it's updated too often, its store is shoved down your throat and it's bloated. However, it also has AirPlay - a fantastic multi-room streaming protocol that's widely supported, and which we can use to our advantage.
Besides that, it has a flexible remote control system, it enables multi-user access to a shared library, it supports multiple streams, and it's perfectly possible to set it up and then never touch it again. It's also a decent media manager, and frankly it's possible to have multiple media managers working side-by-side. So bite the bullet, head to the dark side, download it and install it on your server.
The important thing with iTunes is not to give it any power. Open its diminutive new top-left menu, select 'Preferences > Advanced' and clear 'Keep iTunes Media folder organised'. If you then want to use other media mangers, streamers and so on, you can do so easily.
We're assuming that you want to organise your music yourself - if not, you can ignore this step.
Share and share
Before driving onwards, you need to share this newly installed iTunes music library. It's best to enable the Apple Home Sharing system first. It's one of the beautiful zero-click things Apple does so well, in that devices will just find each other and work without any prompting.
Open the menu and select 'Library > Turn on home sharing'. You will need an Apple ID for this, and you'll need to log in to activate it, but if this sounds hideous, it's possible to get by with PIN codes.
To start sharing, select the menu icon, then click 'Preferences > Sharing' and tick 'Share my library on my local network'. To simplify people's options, select 'Share selected playlists > Music'. Now click 'OK' and you're good to go.
Sharing to different types of systems and devices is, well, different. On a desktop or laptop PC or Mac, using iTunes is a breeze. Just open the pull-down menu that offers the local music, films and so on, and at the bottom there will be a new option under Home Shares. On Apple iOS devices, open the standard Music app, select 'More > Shared' and again choose the shared library. This gives you access to the entire music library as if it was stored locally.
Android devices can't access the iTunes library directly with any app we know of. If you already have Plex and are using its server and app, there's a Channel option that enables you to browse the iTunes library easily, but the app costs £3.21.
Another Android option is the free TuneSync HomeStream server and the associated free Android app. This ties in effortlessly with your existing iTunes library for shared streaming fun. The player itself needs a little work, but it's the best iTunes-based option we're aware of for Android.
Once iTunes is encamped, with its hefty behind on your server, we can start doing some clever things. First on the cards is a little bit of remote control. This applies whether you're playing the audio directly from the server or streaming it to another box via your shared library. All the copies of iTunes running on a network computer can be remote-controlled. The only thing to remember is that the iTunes library on each system needs its own unique name, adjusted via the 'Preferences > General > Library name' setting.
For iOS devices, Apple offers its free Remote app. If you're using Home Sharing it'll automatically spot and list these devices in its list of available remote libraries.
For devices not using Home Sharing you need to access the iTunes library list screen, tap the settings icon on the top right and select 'Add an iTunes library'. This provides a PIN and a new Remote icon, which will appear at the top right in the iTunes interface on your system running iTunes. Click this and enter the PIN to pair the devices.
Oddly, one thing that's poorly implemented is remote access from another computer. For Mac OS X users, there's Tune Connect - a well designed control tool that fits with the iTunes design. For PC users the choice is somewhat less impressive, but the excellent Tunesremote-SE offers a full iTunes interface.
Android has a range of iTunes remote apps, many of which come with free and paid-for options. Our preference is Retune. It's free (though a donation is recommended), and offers a more fully-featured interface than many alternatives. All these remote options offer support for the Apple remote speaker protocol AirPlay, which is one of the key reasons we're using iTunes.
AirPlay is a networked speaker standard, so anything that supports it will appear in iTunes as a potential speaker output. AirPlay stays hidden until an AirPlay device appears on the network. Add one and an icon appears next to the volume control in iTunes. Click this and a list of all available AirPlay devices appears. You have individual control over which devices output sound and at what volume, or you can have sound output from all of them.
Apple would like you to buy dedicated AirPlay speakers, which you can do, but one alternative that we like is to install AirBubble for Android and use the device as a AirPlay extender connected to a hi-fi or speakers. If you have older Android devices at home, this is a good use for the lazy green things.
For PCs, you can use the horribly named Shairport4w. This is an open source project that turns any PC into an AirPlay target. It's just a 1.3MB executable, so can happily be left running on any system that could be used as a speaker output.
In Apple's usual idiotic way, iOS devices can't be made AirPlay targets, and it removes any apps that enable this, but if you own a jailbroken device we understand AirFloat will do the job.
Finally we'll mention AirFoil which costs $25. Installed on a Mac or Windows system, it enables you to direct the audio from any programs to almost any device, including AirPlay compatible speakers, Apple iOS devices and Android devices running its free app, so you can enjoy the delights of iPlayer or Spotify anywhere in your home.
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