Carrying on from his article about storing music on computer hard-drives, Andrew Everard looks into playback options
No apologies for returning so soon to the theme of alternatives to the conventional player/amplifier/speakers set-up we’ve almost all been using for decades: the music playback landscape is changing, and with that change the way we all think about systems is likely to be altered for ever.
For example, Linn’s Majik DS-I is a complete “just add speakers” system designed to stream music over a wired network, as you can see above in the system picture.
And Naim’s revolutionary Uniti system continues to grow into a family of products, each of them with music streaming at the core of its capabilities. As I’ve mentioned in the past, there’s a wide range of such “client” devices on the market, from the likes of the DS-I and Uniti down to simple portable internet radios, almost all of which have a stereo output and can thus be used to pipe music into a hi-fi system or amplifier.
Of course, not all of these radios deliver the best audio quality, and the sockets are mainly designed to feed a pair of simple headphones, not a hi-fi system. But a few models also have a digital audio output, and that’s where things begin to get really interesting.
You could, for example, connect such a unit into a spare digital input on an AV receiver, or use it with a separate digital-to-analogue converter into a conventional stereo amplifier.
There’s no shortage of such DACs on the market, at prices starting from around £100, and you could even use your home computer as a streaming client for a network music collection – most have a digital audio output these days – or even more simply just store your music on it for a very simple desktop system, such as that suggested by Klipsch opposite.
The next step in this rationalisation of the home hi-fi system? The advocates of such things suggest you can go even further, and replace your amplifier and speakers with active speakers, in which crossover, amplification and drive units are combined.
Active speakers have been popular in the “pro audio” field for a good while and as a result there’s no shortage of designs to choose from: some have multiple audio inputs, some remote control of level and source selection, and a few even have that digital-to-analogue conversion onboard, too, making them simple to connect up to a computer or other digital source.
All this will come as a culture shock to those brought up on the conventional system layout I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, but it could be a way ahead. Not the only future for home audio, mind – just one way hi-fi may go.
Wired or wireless?
The most effective way of making your music available to multiple clients on a home network is to store it on a Network Attached Storage device – basically a hard drive attached to your network router – then access it remotely using a client device such as those discussed this month. But how do you connect one to the other?
The thinking from Linn is emphatically that a wired Ethernet connection is the way to go: it even suggests you set up a subnetwork for your music system, keeping it away from the network you probably use to surf the internet and so on. If you need to make a “wireless” jump from one room to another, Linn suggests, you should use powerline transmission devices, which piggyback data on your mains wiring.
Others, however, seem quite happy with a wireless solution, which after all has more than enough capacity to stream music around the home. And of course it has the advantage that you can have music wherever you want it without the need to run cables all over the place.
I have tried both network systems over the past few months and can honestly say there is no quality difference; you can choose merely on convenience.
However, if you have a busy wireless environment in the home, with computers, printers and so on jockeying for bandwidth, you may just find a wired connection for music is the most reliable strategy.