Playing music in the 21st Century
August 20, 2010 6:19 AM   Subscribe

Playing music in the 21st Century - help me with mp3 players, HDD media players and internet radio.

In my house I currently play music through an amp from a CD player, a turntable and my iPod and, as time goes on, the proportion that comes from the iPod is getting ever bigger. Said iPod has just died and though the music is backed up I'm wondering if there is a better way of doing things, particularly since I'd also like to digitise my CD collection.

This is inspired by going home and finding my dad has got himself a mp3 player for a seperates system. A bit of googling suggests is actually called a HDD media player and is specifically one of these. This looked pretty nifty, the only obvious draw back seems to be the interface which is nowhere near as simple as that of an iPod.

I'm not sure how mature the market is for these and it isn't something I know much about. Are there any particular things to know about them? Or a good resource for researching them? I would usually use What HiFi (I'm in the UK) but looking at their website I can't see anything. I've seen a few other AskMeta questions but they seem to be about external computer harddrives rather than music specific ones with displays and CD players.

The Brennan also doesn't look like it has all the functionality I would want. I'm interested in whether they can do the sort of things a computer can do. Do they come with Wifi so you can network them or just transfer mp3s to them? Is it possible to stream internet radio through them? Is Spotify out of the question?
posted by ninebelow to Technology (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For the price, you can get a really small computer (is mini-ITX still the form factor these days) which can play MP3s and videos (which means your entire DVD collection can be ripped and you can stream netflix and hulu).

I just bought a Mac Mini and use Plex.
posted by Brian Puccio at 7:22 AM on August 20, 2010

Read this comment about the Squeezebox Touch and see if it suits your needs. Even if it doesn't, perhaps some other Squeezebox product will.
posted by Bangaioh at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2010

The Squeezebox Touch looks really interesting and does have all the functionality I was talking about. However, it doesn't seem to have its own hard drive, I would have to store everything seperately on a computer. This isn't insurmountable but it isn't ideal.

Does anyone have any experience of using Squeezeboxes?
posted by ninebelow at 7:43 AM on August 20, 2010

I don't, I first heard about the Touch at HydrogenAudio Forums and from what little information I could gather the Squeezebox products seem to be well regarded. Their official forum is here if you're interested in digging deeper.

Please leave a note here when/if you find an ideal solution.
posted by Bangaioh at 10:12 AM on August 21, 2010

From what I understand, you can plug a USB hard drive directly into the Squeezebox Touch and access all the music that's stored on it. If that works as described, it's as close to a one-box solution as I've heard. I don't know if you could access that hard drive over your network or if you'd have to plug it into a computer to manage your files.

What HiFi might mention the Olive system, for example, but it's more likely to talk about DACs than all-in-one systems, since those are so specialized. Every MP3 player, cheap to high-end, has a digital-to-analog converter, with features from buffers to oversampling and de-jittering and re-clocking. You may decide you don't want/need an external DAC, but there's plenty of info on them in AV magazines that would be informative.

For the time involved in ripping your entire CD collection, rip it to a lossless format. Programs like EAC (Windows) and XLD (Mac) make this easy once the initial set-up is complete. From FLAC/Apple Lossless you can always make MP3s at whatever bitrate you like, but if you decide that your initial 190kbps MP3s aren't quite as hi-fi as you want, you're stuck going back to your discs for another round. There's no good reason I know of to do that process more than once. Considering a 1TB drive can hold 2500 discs (extrapolated), a hard drive is cheaper storage than bookshelf space for that many plastic cases by a long shot.

Personally, I connect a computer to the stereo through an external DAC. I also use an Airport Express to stream audio to powered speakers through the network.
posted by fishpatrol at 6:29 PM on August 21, 2010

Thanks fishpatrol, that is really helpful. It looks like all the information was there on What Hi-Fi, I just didn't have the search terms I needed. I'll explore further now that I've got them.

It does look like there is nothing which does exactly what I was after though. And whilst the Olive looks better than the Brennan I'm not sure I would describe a device costing over two grand as a bargain! I've only got roughly ~300 albums and I'm not a proper audiophile, I just want a simple solution. It sounds like connecting a computer through a DAC might be it (but it would mean buying another computer).
posted by ninebelow at 1:42 AM on August 22, 2010

The Olive definitely isn't a budget solution. :) I very much prefer a computer interface over a set-top-box-style interface. Maybe that becomes more important as you have more albums to scroll through. The Smart Playlists in iTunes also has big possibilities. You haven't mentioned your setup. IF you have a networked computer with iTunes, and IF you have either easy access to it in your listening area or an iPod Touch or iPhone, the music streaming capabilities of an Airport Express (use its analog output or it's optical connection to a DAC). A 160GB iPod would easily hold your collection in lossless format--$209 as a refurb at the Apple Store. I think Cowon might make some hard drive-based players as well, but that's not a market I much keep up with.

You really don't have to be an audiophile to have music listening goals. If your goal is to listen to your collection in one room without switching discs, that's reasonable. If you want to take your music with you, or listen to it from several rooms, those can all be done without $1000 commitments. Recognizing where/how you listen now is a really helpful start. The solutions you find for your main listening goal may provide some new opportunities you'd really enjoy. They may also be more complicated or flashy or expensive than you want.

In other words, Plex is cool, and a Mac Mini might be fun. But don't buy a $600 computer if all you need is a $50 streaming device. Follow where your requirements lead, not magazines. (Spolier: they lead to $600 power cables.)
posted by fishpatrol at 7:42 PM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

they lead to $600 power cables

...which do nothing to objectively improve the listening experience. fishpatrol is right on the money, ignore irrational audiophile claims. Here's a couple of examples. Beware of self-deception.

FWIW, my current listening method is nothing more than a Rockboxed portable player with a 20 GB HDD containing lossy files (the lossless versions are kept in the PC and external HDD). It is perfect for what I want, barring the minor annoyance of needing to recharge its battery every week or so. Perhaps I'll look for something "better" when it kicks the bucket, and so far the Touch comes closest to filling the spot.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:12 AM on August 23, 2010

A related question has just been asked here. It sounds like I need a) something to store all my music on and b) something to interface with it. A Squeezebox sounds ideal for the latter. The problem with the former is that I don't have an always on computer so it sounds like I would need a standalone harddrive (the ReadyNAS Duo is recommended in that thread).
posted by ninebelow at 5:05 AM on August 24, 2010

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