The audiophile’s guide to streaming music
- — 24 October, 2008 15:16
The introduction of the MP3 player enabled people to play their music anywhere, but it has had an unfortunate side effect: Folks have sacrificed the awesome audio quality that the compact disc delivered in exchange for ever tinier music players, simpler room-to-room streaming, and the flexibility to buy songs instead of entire albums. So while the convenience of digital media just keeps getting better, the sound quality itself has suffered.
It doesn't have to be that way. You can get sublime audio quality from compressed music files--files that you can store on a central server and listen to in any room in your house, and transfer to an MP3 player for enjoying just about anywhere.
I'll show you how to rip tracks from CD and encode them to FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), which will deliver compressed but bit-by-bit accurate copies of your music (much in the way that zipping a text file with a compression algorithm can reduce the size of the file without losing any of the text). All you need is a PC with an optical drive, some free software, and your collection of audio CDs.
I'll also discuss several hardware products that can stream music from your PC or network-attached storage (NAS) device to your home stereo system, even though they may be in separate parts of your home. And as a bonus, I'll teach you how to calibrate your speakers to your listening environment to achieve the absolute best sound possible.
If you buy music online because you're interested in acquiring specific songs, consider that most online music merchants--including Apple's iTunes store--don't offer high-quality music. They use lossy codecs such as MP3 and AAC with bit rates that max out at 256 kilobits per second. They want you to cram as much music as possible on your PC or portable device with little regard for audio fidelity. When you listen to music encoded this way, you're not hearing everything that the recording artist created.
Buying and ripping CDs is old-fashioned, but in doing so you enjoy much higher audio quality (and you have a factory-made copy of your music in case your hard drive ever fails). If you can't bring yourself to buy an entire CD to acquire one track, you can find a handful of online retailers selling music encoded in lossless formats. Music Giants, the biggest fish in this small pond, offers a broad range of pop, classic rock, jazz, and world music encoded in the WMA Lossless format. Linn Records presents a fine collection of classical, jazz, and Celtic music encoded in the FLAC, WMA Lossless, and MP3 formats. Much of the Music Giants catalog is free from DRM restrictions; none of Linn Records' offerings is saddled with the annoying technology.
Music Streaming Systems
The Sonos Digital Music System and Slim Devices' Squeezebox Classic and Squeezebox Duet are some of the best audio-streaming products on the market. All three enable a do-it-yourselfer to assemble a sophisticated multiroom audio setup for a fraction of the price of a custom-installed system.
Plenty of other alternatives are on the market--including Media Center Extenders that can stream both audio and video from a host PC, NAS box, or central server to your entertainment system--but if you're looking for high-quality audio, these three products deliver tremendous price/performance ratios.
These devices can operate on either wireless or wired ethernet networks; the Sonos can create its own proprietary wireless network so that streaming music won't consume your other Wi-Fi network's bandwidth.
The Sonos music streaming system and the Logitech Silm Devices Squeezebox both support FLAC, but neither supports WMA Lossless. The Squeezebox does come with PC software that can transcode WMA Lossless files on the fly, but that requires storing your WMA Lossless files on a PC as opposed to a NAS box (since that kind of device can't run the software). You'll have to transcode DRM-free WMA Lossless files yourself in order to stream that music on a Sonos system (a tedious process that's impossible with encrypted files).