After sticking staunchly to real CDs for home listening, I finally succumbed and expanded my terabyte house into the digital audio server domain. In the end, it was audiophile Mark Schlack from TechTarget who won me over – if digital audio is good enough for him, then it ought to be good enough for me!
Although both of my TiVos can browse and play mp3 files, they require the television to be on and a special server running on a PC (or so I thought, more on that later). It was critical that any digital music solution be directly browsable and searchable using a remote control, since the kids perk up whenever they hear the big tube on our Sony TV burp to life.
Although there are a good many home music players available, two immediately rose above the rest: the Slim Devices Squeezebox, and the Roku SoundBridge M1001. Both are somewhat similar in that they are designed to connect to a home network and browse and play digital music in a variety of formats to an audio receiver. I rejected out of hand all those devices that lacked their own display, sadly including Apple’s intriguing AirPort Express with Air Tunes.
My research quickly revealed that the Squeezebox was the audiophile-preferred solution with its fancy Burr-Brown digital audio converters, while the SoundBridge was the hackers choice with its open interfaces and wider server compatibility. It was widely claimed that only the Squeezebox supported lossless codecs, but I found that this was not the case – although FLAC must be transcoded, the SoundBridge does support ALAC and even WAV for high quality audio. The difference in DACs made no difference to me, since I would be using a digital (S/PDIF) connection to bypass the SoundBridge’s DAC in favor of the one in my Denon receiver.
In the end, the flexible SoundBridge won me over with its wide range of interfaces. It can browse and stream an iTunes library directly, since Roku licensed Apple’s DAAP API. There are a variety of other DAAP servers that can use, too, including Slim Devices Slimserver! But I settled on the open source Firefly (nee mt-daapd) server, since it was full featured, and lightweight enough to run on an embedded NAS server like the Linksys NSLU2, which I intended to add in short order. The SoundBridge also has an open API and telnet interface!
Making my choice even sweeter, at $127, the SoundBridge was half the price of the Squeezebox, too! I placed my order, and thenerds.net delivered it the very next day, even though I chose ground shipping!
The SoundBridge is amazing! It does exactly what I wanted, letting me listen to the tunes stored on my wife’s and my laptop as well as my home PC server without any configuration required. Once I discovered that you can quickly move from letter to letter with the right and left buttons, locating the right song from our 7800-tune collection could not be easier either.
The one major letdown that I had is that Apple will not allow any other hardware, even under license, to play the protected m4p files purchased from iTunes. Although most of my music is ripped from CD, I have got a few dozen iTunes purchased songs. There is a way to crack that DRM protection on these files, but it galls me to have to hack them open just to listen to them!
All in all, I’m very pleased with my new digital music solution at home. I’m seriously considering buying Roku’s SoundBridge Radio, which would let me wirelessly browse and play music anywhere within range of my access point. And I did add that home server – more on this next time.