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Rediscover Your 

Music!

Streaming music to your hi-fi doesn’t have to be difficult – and it helps you rediscover your collection. Jon Myles guides you through the practicalities and explains why it could be the best move you’ve ever made.

 

 

Ever fancied having your own personal jukebox? One that contains thousands of your favourite tracks all available at the touch of a button – and better still doesn’t demand feeding with coins every time you want to hear them?

   Welcome to the wonderful world of home music streaming. No more flicking through racks of CDs to find just what to play next, no more searching your memory to try to recall the name of a particular track.
   Instead you enter a wonderful world of discovery, suddenly coming across long-forgotten favourites – alongside some long-forgotten stinkers too! – rediscovering tracks and albums you hadn’t played in an age, but now wish you had.
   Instantly your entire music collection is simply a click away – enabling you to browse through all your CDs from the comfort of an armchair and play any track you fancy. And you can then pack away the original CDs in a cupboard or loft to free up valuable shelfspace.
   It’s relatively easy to do and once the system is up and running you’ll be enjoying it for years to come.
So here’s the Hi-Fi World guide to setting up a home streaming system, one dedicated to playing music and nothing else. We’ve deliberately made this as simple as possible and stripped out all the jargon that can sometimes deter people from taking the plunge into streaming – but see the box-outs for further details of some of the areas involved.

 

THE BASICS

If you’ve been tempted to dip your toes into streaming music but have been put off by some of the jargon and seeming complexity – then don’t be. Essentially, it’s a simple task.
You’ll need four things to start with: an existing hi-fi system, a network, a streamer and a network-attached storage device (NAS).

 

NETWORK: Not sure what a network is or how it works? Well, if you’ve got e-mails and the internet then you’ve got a network and that’s all you need to know.

NAS: The NAS drive is a slim box that acts as the storage device for your music collection. Some are no bigger than a paperback book and they range in price from around £80 to many hundreds depending on make and storage capacity.
   I use a Western Digital model with 2 terabytes of storage, enough for thousands of CDs. Cost? Less than £100. All NAS drives have software built-in that allow them to communicate with your streamer.

STREAMER: The streamer is the source component for your hi-fi. Think of it as the same as a CD player, record deck or tuner. Connected to your existing set-up, it retrieves music from the NAS drive.
   Here again prices vary, decent models starting at around the £200 mark, while high-end companies such as Linn, Chord and Naim have models costing thousands of pounds. That might seem expensive, but if you view the streamer as a source component on the same level as a CD player or record deck, then it begins to make sense.

 


 

 XLD is a free Mac programme that rips CDs, maintaining – even improving – their sound quality.

 

SET-UP

Once you’ve selected your streamer and NAS they need to be installed – and this is where things get slightly more involved.
   First of all do you want to go wired or wireless? Most people have a wireless network at home nowadays. If you are with Sky, Virgin or BT broadband then the chances are you have wireless capability which means your NAS drive and streamer can communicate with each other without the need for a physical connection. Here, merely connect your NAS to your internet provider’s router via the supplied ethernet cable and turn it on.
   Next plug in the streamer and connect it to your amplifier or preamp just as you would a CD player or tuner. The streamer will probably require you to enter the security code for your network (if you have one) but should then be up and running.
   Alternatively you can go down the wired road, where both the NAS drive and streamer are wired into the network router. This obviously means more cabling, but does have advantages and some manufacturers’ streamers, including those from Linn and Chord, will only work this way (see box out for more details).

 


Network? You probably have one without knowing it, within a BT Homehub, used by most UK homes. It connects to the internet via a telephone line, through the ADSL socket at left. Your computer will be connected to one of the yellow Ethernet sockets, so you can get the internet. Just hook up the NAS drive to any other Ethernet socket for a fast, stable and reliable wired connection. But if you want to put the NAS drive under the stairs or in the loft, use wi-fi instead.

 

SO WHERE’S MY MUSIC?

Now it’s a matter of getting your CDs onto the NAS drive, which means copying (ripping) them onto a computer first. Any computer with a CD drive can do this, making bit-perfect copies of your music collection.
   But to get best quality you’ll need to download a dedicated CD ripping programme. The good news is there are free ones that do an excellent job. 
For Mac I’d recommend XLD, while Windows users need look no further than Exact Audio Copy – although some people prefer the paid-for dbpoweramp utility. 

 

 

dbpoweramp is a popular CD ripping programme for PCs and does a good job of maintaining quality.

 

Crucially, all three will attach what’s called metadata to the music. These are tags that include the name of the artist, album and each individual track, as well as other information such as year of release, genre and the CD artwork – all needed for your NAS drive to organise the music so it can be found easily. 
   Once ripping software has been installed, insert the CD into your computer, open the programme and then decide whether you want to rip the disc in WAV or FLAC format (see box out) before pressing go. An average CD will take around five minutes to convert and save onto your computer, but this varies according to how much music is on the disc and its condition. Damaged CDs can take longer or, occasionally, fail to rip entirely, although this is unusual.
   Once done it’s best to save the ripped FLAC or WAV files in a folder on your desktop labelled with the artist and album name before moving onto the next CD.
After that it’s merely a matter of copying the saved folders onto your storage device. Almost all NAS drives come with software that enables your Mac or PC to connect to them – wired or wirelessly – and moving files is a simple drag and drop operation.
   After that the files can be safely deleted from your main computer as they are safely stored on the NAS drive.

 


PLAYBACK!

With your music transferred to the NAS drive, streamer in situ and hi-fi switched on, it’s time to sit back and enjoy.
Almost all streamers are supplied with a remote control but they really come into their own when used with an individual manufacturer’s purpose-built app for smartphones or tablets.
   These will enable you to play, pause and skip tracks, view album artwork and search music by artist, album and even genre. Many also boast other features such as compiling playlists of your favourite tracks which can be saved for future use. Many connect to on-line databases with artist discographies, biographical details and suggestions of similar albums which may interest you. It makes it possible to discover a whole new world of music while listening to your favourite artist.
   All this without leaving your seat to eject a CD or search for another one. It’s all there on the screen in front of you.
And as you flick through album covers or search artist names you’ll be amazed how many forgotten gems you comes across – especially if you have a particularly large music collection.
   I set-up my streaming system two years ago and have never listened to as much music as I do now, mainly due to the convenience. In fact, I haven’t slotted a CD into my player for the past 12 months. Instead new ones are ripped to the NAS immediately and then stored away in the loft.

 

Synology DS214se NAS drive with DNLA media file compatibility. It can hold up to 12TB - 60,000 hi-res songs, no less! But it costs less then £150 in basic form.

 

GOING FORWARD
By necessity, this is a basic guide to setting up a home music streaming network, but hopefully you may be encouraged to give it a go.
   Obviously, if you’ve a large number of CDs then transferring them all to a NAS drive can seem a daunting prospect. But you don’t have to do them all at once. Just a few a week will suffice to gradually build up your NAS-based collection and a streaming solution can happily sit alongside a CD player in the system while you go along.
   And once set-up other options become available. With a NAS drive you have the option of downloading and playing back high-resolution albums, be they 24bit/96kHz or 24/192.
Most streamers also come equipped with internet radio, giving access to thousands of stations around the world. The sound quality of many of these may not be the highest but they are a wonderful way of listening to new music and finding new artists.
   Not only rediscovering your own music, then, but discovering new music too!

 

 

 


 

WHAT FORMAT?
You’ll hear lots of talk about which format to rip your CDs into but essentially there are two main choices: WAV or FLAC.    

                                                                                                                                                                                       

 

There’s still no end of debate about which sounds best and both have their adherents. Having regularly used both, however, I’ve yet to be able to discern any noticeable difference in sound quality between them even using some of the costliest streamers on the market at the moment.

 

Both are lossless formats – meaning that unlike MP3 files, none of the sonic information from the CD is thrown away. Instead you get a perfect copy of the original.
                                                        

 

WAVuses more storage space on your NAS drive, but if you’ve anything over 1 terabyte available that really shouldn’t be a problem. It lacks metadata and cover artwork, unlike FLAC. 

It’s entirely your choice which you use. FLAC is probably the most popular. But the best advice is to pick one format or the other from the start and stick to it from then on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WIRED OR WIRELESS?
A majority of streamers will support both wired or wireless operation. There are exceptions, though. All Linn’s products, for example, are wired only. The company says it prefers this as it gives greater stability and is more robust when transmitting high-resolution files.
The downside is it will mean running cables either under carpets, along skirting boards or even through walls.Wireless connection is more convenient and in most cases is easily capable of handling even high-resolution files, up to 24bit/192kHz.
However do remember that the greater the distance between your NAS drive and the streamer the weaker the signal becomes – and obstacles such as walls and windows can also affect signal strength. Also, the more traffic a wireless network is carrying the shakier it becomes.
So if you have a whole family toting iPhones and laptops or logging into an on-line Xbox game then you might find your music occasionally stalling.
Some people go as far as establishing their own dedicated wireless network purely for music to avoid this and you can also do the same on a wired network. But that’s an article for another day.

 

Naim's Unitilite supports both wired and wireless streaming. Most hi-fi manufacturers recommend wired connection for greater stability – but wireless networks are easily capable of handling 24bit/192kHz files.  

                     

                                                                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EASIER STILL
If you want to make ripping and streaming even easier there’s a number of products out there that can help.
   Companies such as RipNAS, Vortexbox, Computer Audio Design and Naim among others make combined ripper/storaqge devices that will both copy your CDs and store them onto an internal hard disk automatically. There’s no need to bring your computer into play as the units take over all the functions – simply slot your CD in, wait for it to be copied and then take it out. 
   These substantially simplify the task but inevitably cost a bit more as they also include a CD drive. The Vortexbox Essential, for example, equipped with 500Gb worth of storage – enough for approximately 1200 CDs – costs £310 while a 1 terabyte ripNAS will set you back around £1000.
   In comparison, a 3 terabyte Western Digital NAS drive can be had for a £115 but doesn’t have the same in-built convenience.

 

 

Devices like the RipNAS will both rip and then store CDs to a hard disk - meaning there's no need for a computer when digitising your music collection. It'll cost you more than a standard NAS drive but the convenience is useful.


 

 

 

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