The halls are alive with the sound of muuusic!
October 13, 2012 10:57 AM   Subscribe

I would like music in my home, and I'm gadget friendly and very geeky but not in the consumer audio space (more the computers and video gaming and mobile spaces). So I would like some advice on how to do this. Technical details and specific desires below.

This is in the medium term (6 months to a year) planning stages, but I would like some advice on overall approach and technique, how to design something suited to my needs and what kinds of things I should be considering. I speek geek extensively, am functional in audio geekery but am not by any stretch an audiophile, but I am a gadgeteer, so I can talk about various hookings up.

I already have a bunch of stuff that I think would contribute and make the overall household system strong and flexible, but I also know that I either don't have enough tech or am not using it right.

What I want:
I want to be able to quickly and easily manage a central spot for music and other audio programming (streaming would be a bonus!) where pre-placed speakers (and other audio devices that might make sense) operate near me when I want them to. I do cooking, home improvement and other medium to loud things as well as simply hanging out, petting cats, reading, so the dynamic range would have to be pretty high. As an example, I have an iPad Retina (with iTunes Match, so access to my full library of music), but I find that its speakers aren't really loud enough to overcome kitchen noises (sink, microwave and fry cooking stuff) nor is it really loud enough to be heard over operating a portable drill, but it can be quiet enough for the quieter moments.

Also I have no fear of wireless tech at this point, but find that Bluetooth audio is sometimes sketchy, connecting to devices I don't want it to, sounding staticky or failing for no apparent reason. Also Bluetooth's range does not always reach for me from one end of the house to the other.

I also do occasional entertaining, so it would be good if it were easy to set something up and let it go without constant tweaking and management.

What I have:
- A decent 47" LG HDTV with poor speakers (which I plan to replace with a bar speaker at least, if not a full Dolby 5.1 or 7.1 setup, but which can consume various media services)
- A new model XBox 360 (which can consume various media services)
- An older PS 3
- A Mac Mini from 2011 running OS X Mountain Lion
- An Apple TV that's maybe 2 years old
- An iPad Retina
- An iPhone 5
- An old iPod Touch (attached to an alarm clock built for old iPod Touches)
- A Creative D100 Bluetooth speaker (which works but is kind of a pain to keep track of and to move around with me)
- A new Netgear N900 Dual Band Gigabit network router and WiFi switch (which can provide Media services)
- Approx 20 Mbps/5 Mbps Internet service from Comcast
- A 5 room (plus bathroom) single-level California ranch-style house in Berkeley, CA which I am in the middle of upgrading/maintaining that is about 1800 square feet. It also has a very accessible basement/garage setup, so wiring, if any, can be done that way.

I'm also planning to have pretty extensive electrical upgrades done (there are 3 prong plugs in the house but none of them is grounded and the main board is at 100 Amps when it should probably be at 200 Amps) and I know that traditionally folks who do rewiring sometimes have electricians also do media or network cabling at the same time for the sake of efficiency.

I am not particularly interested in having my music follow me out of the home - or I know the answers I need for those possibilities, this set of questions focuses primarily on what I can do in the home to make my life be filled with music when I want it to be, and how best to make that happen and efficiently control it.

Finally, although I am not possessed of pants full of money, function is more important to me than cost right now, and I can save up if need be for something particularly sweet that will likely last a long time.
posted by kalessin to Technology (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Since you're already a mac person, the no-brainer answer would be a handful of Airport Expresses attached to mini speakers wherever you want music to be. Audio can be streamed from your mac or iDevices to any speakers in the house (or any combination of speakers) over wifi. Dead simple to set up and use (iTunes just gets an extra set of checkboxes to tell it which speakers to play through) and reasonably inexpensive.
posted by ook at 11:07 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

IMHO, centralized iTunes is a pain and Airplay isn't that great of a solution for home audio. You have to remember which device is playing audio and changing the volume is a hassle.

I would recommend Squeezeboxes, especially Squeezebox radios (you can get them for ~$80 occasionally). If you need better sound, hook them up to external speakers.

Logitech has remote clients for iOS or is browser accessible, you can sync playback across multiple devices, and you get Pandora, access to cloud MP3 services and a crapton of streaming radio.
posted by wongcorgi at 12:24 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Second the Squeezebox approach. I've been a big fan for years now.
posted by mikeand1 at 12:40 PM on October 13, 2012

Adding: If you have technical questions (or any questions) about the Squeezebox approach, be sure to visit the forums.

Squeezebox owners are especially techy/geeky people. It's kind of a cult following, and for good reason.
posted by mikeand1 at 12:42 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Love my Squeezebox (es).

Better act fast. Logitech has discontinued them.
posted by notyou at 12:59 PM on October 13, 2012

notyou: there's a problem with the link, if you're quick enough to use the spiffy new edit window...
posted by rmd1023 at 1:02 PM on October 13, 2012

Too slow.

Man it's hard copy-pasting links on a smartphone.

Try this.
posted by notyou at 1:06 PM on October 13, 2012

If you can deal with some the gnarly aspects of Linux I'd recommend mpd (Music Player Daemon). It's extremely versatile. You can use the same music store for streaming, jukebox, smb to Mac applications, and there's a wide range of clients. I use Music Player Minion on Firefox and mpod on iphone, android. I've experimented with streaming this to other rooms with a variety of devices but can't make a strong recommendation here but will mention that it's cheap and easy.

Oh, to underscore: go optical everywhere possible. It makes a huge difference.

This may be off point but I'll mention it anyhow. We have an Epson projector which displays a ~6x4 image. It takes HDMI from a BluRay and MacMini (via alternate video out). So a good deal of the films we view are .avi (and various) encoded. VLC is used to play. The MM runs audio (optical) to the amp. I've played with a 5 speaker placement but I almost always go back to 2 channel. It may make a difference with more recent film but much of the stuff we view is dated earlier than 1990. I have a pair of lower end BW speakers that I find beyond satisfactory.

More on track: I'd like to hear one of these and learn more. These are priced pretty high but may be worth it.
posted by uhom at 1:12 PM on October 13, 2012

In addition to the content I've licensed variously from Zune (via the XBox - which is so little as to be ignorable in this discussion) and iTunes (more significant), I also have something like 80 GB to 100 GB of non-DRM (ripped from commercial CDs long ago with WinAmp and maybe sometimes by iTunes, but as 128 kbps or 192 kbps MP3s) music I do like to listen to, so maybe I should have made that clear. That's the lion's share of what's in my various hard drives, loaded into iTunes on my Mac Mini server and is the content I have access to via iTunes Match.

So... my ultimate solution will have to encompass that. I'm unclear as to what the Squeezebox is or how it works. Would it work with that restriction?

Also, I do have a $5/month Spotify subscription for listening to on the Mac Mini only, which I should probably make higher so I can use it on my iOS devices (I don't like commercial interruptions if I can at all help it, which is why not Pandora, etc.)

Libratone looks sexy, but I am somewhat skeptical of single-source sound systems, knowing that while sound reflection is a maturing tech, it's also full of voodoo and psychology. Has anyone done a Mythbusters-like analysis of whether that technique actually works? The bouncing off of walls and being able to tune it so that sound is directional, etc. I know Bose is selling an all in one TV with wall-reflecting tech, and I remain... unconvinced.
posted by kalessin at 4:47 PM on October 13, 2012

changing the volume is a hassle.

You pick up whatever device the audio is playing from and you push the volume up or down button. I'm not sure how the squeezebox improves on that.

You do need to remember which device it's playing from, that's true.
posted by ook at 6:20 PM on October 13, 2012

My setup is simple: media server running Firefly/mt-daapd, a Roku Soundbridge (also NLA from Roku), and an old-school two-channel stereo that is good but no component is under drinking age. Roku was apparently the only licensee of Apple's DAAP and Apple has worked hard to keep it in the ecosystem so as the third link says only other instances of itunes can accept a stream from an Apple itunes 7+ server.

There is an Android app called Androku that perfectly controls the Soundbridge (which does streaming too) so I can sit on my butt anywhere in the house and make the stereo play what I want from the server.

There are other protocols and packages that work with the Soundbridge and I have experimented with xbmc but mt-daapd is quicker and easier to navigate IMO.

Soundbridges don't sound all that good unless you use their optical inputs and as mentioned if you want one you have to buy it used. They seem extremely robust except for the wall warts which die after five years.
posted by jet_silver at 9:14 PM on October 13, 2012

Do you want to be able to play from different sources at the same time? I find that when entertaining, we may have some people watching Youtube videos involving fiery crashes on the big screen (yes, we are eccentric) while others are listening to jazz and visiting in the kitchen and someone else is listening to a loud bagpipe playlist on the back patio in our quest for neighborhood domination. If you think this might be the case, then consider a multi-channel receiver. And if it is the case, I will obtain someone who actually knows how this works to weigh in. I speak merely as a beneficiary of a pretty great setup.
posted by bloggerwench at 5:41 PM on October 14, 2012

Followup: The AV consultant I checked with told me to check out the Sonos system, which looks like it's a precise fit for my needs, but is NOT cheap.
posted by kalessin at 8:53 AM on October 17, 2012

P.S. Spoke at length with a friend of mind who is a reviewer in this industry. There are ways to connect the home theater aspect (for me, video gaming consoles that double as video streamers or video players and the Apple TV) to Sonos, but that system isn't really designed to help with Home Theater at this time. I'm told it would be wise to wait until after CES in January and other major consumer electronics milestones if I can help it before making a purchase decision.

Anyway, I am looking at this possibility for HTIB (Home Theater In a Box) with respect to my video gaming and TV watching rig. The Logitech Speaker System Z906. Since it has an optical audio input port, I can take optical audio out of my TV with its crap speakers and feed it into this HTIB product and get part of the way to audio beauty while I save up for the Sonos system, which looks like it's right up my alley and which I can add on to modularly. And it's still in production (unlike the Squeezbox system). Later, if Sonos (or whatever form of that I end up using) ends up adding better support for home theater, I can make a decision at that time.

The HTIB sound system will likely be my first purchase and then I'll regroup the budget and see where I can go with the Sonos (or similar) system with respect to making my dreams of music all over my house a reality.

What appeals to me about the Sonos design is its flexibility (move and reassign components to different zones, play different audio in different zones), remote control (via iOS or Android, lots of easy to use controls and drag and drop operations) and overall aesthetic. The price is a little high but it also appeals that the system is modular - so I really can buy some smaller components and get a feel for it before I go all in.
posted by kalessin at 12:12 PM on October 17, 2012

The Squeezeboxes mentioned several times are cheap Sonoses.

Altogether Squeezebox is server software hosted on a PC or NAS (mine's on an Amahi Home Server) and one or more players, whether simple bridges to your existing stereo equipment or standalone devices.

The software manages your music (all your ripped CDs, most, but not all, of your DRMed stuff), and feeds it to the players. You can sync all your players or you can control each separately via remote, smartphone app, web browser, dedicated Squeezebox touch pad controller.

It's a terrific system and I'm really bummed Logitech has taken the decision to end it. The user community is active and robust and so we can expect software and apps to continue to be developed, at least DIY. But eventually the hardware's gonna begin to fall apart...
posted by notyou at 12:19 PM on October 17, 2012

With tax refund money and saved up mad money I ended up getting Sonos and going all-in. I have a Play:3 ($299) already and I love the sound of it. It lives in my bedroom which is where my cable modem and router are. The other components will work wirelessly from this station. Sonos uses a proprietary wireless protocol to connect with the other devices around the house.

I already like the Sonos app for all my iOS devices. And the way it works, the integration of the app is not dependent on Apple ID so I got my gf's iPhone on the system as a controller too. Cool!

I am very happy with the single Play:3 I have and the control system is a tiny bit clunky in the apps but really does give you the sense of having the world of music at your fingertips. Especially with a Spotify account, where you can usually specify exact tracks to listen to, instead of a streaming radio based on a track you like.

I have on order with Amazon Prime (used an affiliate code that a local AV consultant had handy so he'd get some kickback) the following:
- The Connect ($349 - this one seems a little expensive for essentially integrating and functioning as a line out, but it also means I don't "need" to replace the HTIB, so whatever) so I can integrate my HTIB system with the Sonos system and use the HTIB as additional speakers for Sonos for parties. That'll live with my entertainment/videogaming setup in the living room.
- The Play:5 ($399) so I can use an Apple Airport Express (~$100) to enable AirPlay for the few audio applications Sonos doesn't directly support. By this I mean particularly the Apple and other podcast app I have (Downcast), as well as more thorough access to my iTunes Match library. This will live in the dining room and can serve the living room and dining room when I don't feel like turning on the HTIB. It also requires an Apple Airport Express to provide the AirPlay services. I got the new instead of the old model there. I already have other APs but will report back if I can on whether the Airport Express is dedicated to AirPlay or if it can also do Access Point services at the same time.
- Another Play:3 ($299) for the kitchen.

What I really like about this solution, especially using the AirPlay integration from the Airport Express and the Play:5's line in is that it's a pretty tight integration with all my audio and video services and it's iOS centric, where I already have almost all of my digital assets and subscriptions. So I feel very well centrally taken care of.

Total spending outlay: $1,450.
posted by kalessin at 2:36 PM on March 24, 2013

Got the Apple Airport Express (newer edition) today and tested it with AirPlay on another external speaker. It works well enough, but the iOS music app seems to crash and need restarting sometimes. I'll try it with Downcast later and report back (if I still can).
posted by kalessin at 7:30 PM on March 26, 2013

The Apple Airport Express seems to lose audio so much that I think I'm just going to plug any iOS devices to Line-In on the Play:5 instead of going through AirPlay on the Airport Express. Perhaps a future firmware update/app update will fix that but for now I seem to only get about 2 or 3 contiguous minutes of audio on Airplay via the Airport Express before I lose audio completely via that route.

I'll just use the Airport Express as another WAP when my house gets wired in a couple weeks.
posted by kalessin at 6:26 PM on March 30, 2013

P.S. just to make it clear I didn't mark any answers as best answer because my ultimate solution is/was Sonos. A lot of folks mentioned Soundbridge which would have been awesome except for the discontinued part which I consider so totally non-awesome as to be not useful to me.
posted by kalessin at 6:27 PM on March 30, 2013

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