Oh dear, its the audio media server question again!
July 7, 2008 8:32 PM   Subscribe

So, I have about 1400 CDs and I'd like to be able to listen to them at any time from a server at several locations through out the house. Whats new in the world of media servers?

Ideally I'd like a storage box that I can rip CDs to that connects to some kind of base unit that transmits wirelessly to receivers connected to my various stereos. Whether this is a full computer or just a NAS is not a concern (although I'd like to avoid having to have a full machine powered on every time i want to listen to music)

Would be great if it could do DVDs as well, but thats not essential.

Is it still Windows Media Center and Soundbridge/Roku/Squeezebox in terms of solutions? Is there an out-of-the-box way to do this at this point?

The thought of ripping 1400 CDs is painful enough without dealing with any additional thoughts of complicated configuring, spotty wireless, etc.
posted by softlord to Technology (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I absolutely love my Squeezebox. And they've made great strides with the software interface recently. Also, there's a hand-held controller with a screen now.

True, it is a real pain to rip that many CDs, but once you do it, you're golden (and BACK IT UP!) Alternatively, the company used to have a service where they'd rip them for you, for a fee. Not sure if they still do.
posted by mikeand1 at 9:18 PM on July 7, 2008

The short answer is: "It depends". The long answer is: there is no 'right' answer, but there are plenty of options.

First up, the magnitude of your collection raises a few points. Assuming you're going to convert to MP3 at a minimum of 192kbs, that's 1400 x ~85Mb/album (approx) = ~120GB. If you wanted to go for lossless encoding eg FLAC, that would jump to 1400 x 400Mb/album (again, approx) = ~560GB. If you start adding DVD storage to that, at 4.5-9GB per movie, that will grow your HDD space requirement very quickly.

Personally, I use a Soundbridge player connected to a server running Slimserver (which I can't find on slimdevices.com anymore, I assume it's morphed into their Squeezecenter product). My server is a full-blown PC (runs Kubuntu Linux) which does a bunch of other tasks as well, but Slimserver (used to be) light enough to run on small NAS boxes. Slimserver also interfaces with the various Squeezebox products, which tend to be a little more expensive than the Roku/Pinnacle Soundbridges.

That said, the Soundbridge apparently still comes with 801.1b wifi, vs 801.1g on the Squeezebox - my Soundbridge's 801.1b card couldn't support WPA encryption, only WEP, which would have left my wifi network wide open - I use it as a wired player only. They may have fixed that by now, I suggest you check that if you want to go for the Soundbridge route - if not, you can use them wired, or maybe buy wifi-wired bridges and use the ethernet ports - although the latter will reduce the price advantage over the Squeezebox, obviously. The more expensive Soundbridge Radio would appear to overcome this, but it comes with it's own built-in amp and speakers, and hence may not be what you're looking for.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 9:20 PM on July 7, 2008

I know you just said you don't want to rip 1400 CD's, but before you go buy a jukebox, consider that some mp3 ripping software suites are beginning to support automatic CD loading.

The above thread also has some good links to other batch ripping tools, and includes the names of several manufacturers of autmatic CD loaders.
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 9:23 PM on July 7, 2008

The Apple-centric solution:

Get a Mac Mini (with a wireless card), a couple of external Firewire 1TB drives. Use iTunes to rip the CDs, into Apple Lossless (if you are a stickler for quality) or AAC at 256Kb/sec (if you'd like a good space/sound quality tradeoff). The mini can be at your main entertainment center. It's got DVI out, so it works well with most HD sets.

If you don't mind configuring from the Mini which stereos get the single stream from iTunes, and you don't anticipate the need to have more than one audio stream going to the different endpoints, get a few Apple Airport Expresses. They have both headphone-style analog out and digital optical out. You can stream from (any) iTunes (on your subnet) to multiple Airport Expresses at the same time. Configuration for this purpose is simple and wizard-based.

If you require more than one stream (different music being listened to at different endpoints) get an AppleTV for each of these locations. Naturally, you'll need some sort of monitor or TV for these locations. The AppleTV can then be wirelessly linked to an iTunes installation and you can browse and play the content there at your whim.

While 1400 CDs sounds hard, iTunes can be configured to eject the disk when complete, so you could easily have a to-do stack and a completed stack and just switch them out as you go. While it doesn't look like you can connect more than one CD drive to iTunes with the intent of ripping them at the same time, you can do that with a program called Max.

Finally, this solution will handle ripped, re-encoded DVDs (and other movies, such as those rented or purchased from iTunes). I use Handbrake for one-step rip/re-encode to MPEG4 of my DVDs. Then I import them into my iTunes and can watch them from any iTunes-bearing machine in the house, or the AppleTV in the bedroom.
posted by tomierna at 9:28 PM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Posted on Slashdot, twice...


Hope that helps!
posted by mhuckaba at 9:31 PM on July 7, 2008

No specific advice on gadgets. A lot of NAS devices will support one or two media server standards (Slingserver, UPnP or Bonjour).

If you are going to go to the trouble of ripping all those CDs, you might as well do it into a lossless format so you never need to do that again, then into MP3 or AAC for use on portable media devices. It'll be under $200 worth of storage.
posted by Good Brain at 10:14 PM on July 7, 2008

I have two Roku SoundBridges (no eponymous relation) and indeed they're only 802.11b. But I use them on hard-wired Ethernet so it doesn't really hurt.
posted by rokusan at 11:20 PM on July 7, 2008

At the risk of offending the Mefi Mac zealots faithful, I'd have to say that the "Apple-centric" solution outlined above is rather stupid - definitely not cost-effective (let's see; cheapest Mac Mini is $600, 1TB FW Drive is $250, Airport Express is $90-100 each). Apple TVs are even more expensive ($330) and would require a TV/monitor at each location.

The Airport Express based system will not provide different-room, different-audio, and wouldn't they also require the OP to go back to the server-computer to change tracks etc?

While there's a fair point made about having the Mac Mini as an entertainment-centre computer, it's still massive overkill unless the OP wants to expand the purpose of the central computer far beyond the parameters laid out above. Far more cost-effective would be the second-hand (relatively low-end) hardware + Linux if the OP wants a full-blown server.

As an aside, there's also a recommendation to use a proprietary lossless codec - why on earth would anyone choose to do that, when FLAC is available and just as good, plus completely open and not going to lock you in? What would the reaction have been if Lossless WMA had been advised as part of the solution, instead?

The Apple response does, however, raise a good point - if you want a small-scale, single-ish purpose system (i.e. one specifically for music), then I think NAS + Slimserver + Soundbridge/Squeezebox players is your best bet. If you want to expand the purpose of the network for other things (video and/or more server-based functions) then something more along the lines of a full-blown computer for a server, and replacing players with XBMC-capable original XBox units would be even more cost effective, as by definition you'd need monitors/TVs in each location anyway.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 5:16 AM on July 8, 2008

SoundBridge software version 2.7 or later adds support for WPA to the Roku SoundBridge M1001

Next weekend I'm upgrading my main home desktop machine to Ubuntu 8.04, and then later this year I'm going to finally start ripping my CD collection to hard drive, and get a Soundbridge for living room playback. I already have an old Soundbridge in use at a music performance venue that I help run and I love it (we use it to play internet radio for background music).

RokuLabs is awesome. Their recent claim to fame is bringing the first Netflix STB to market.
posted by intermod at 5:38 AM on July 8, 2008

Actually, what I need is video in on location and audio in three others, while minimizing the hardware footprint.

Simultaneous streams would be nice but not essential.

It sounds like regardless of the situation there will need to be a computer + storage + some kind of transmitter. Mac mini + Airport has wireless built-in, but it could also be Mac Mini + Squeezebox or + soundbridge.

At this point I'm thinking Mac Mini + Time Capsule + Squeezebox since I like the Rhapsody support.

Anyone have thoughts on what format to encode audio to? Just noticed Squeezebox supports FLAC which is good. Is there a reason I should use FLAC or Apple Lossless or WAV over each other?
posted by softlord at 6:02 AM on July 8, 2008

One of the benefits of lossless is you can easily batch transcode a billion times over and over and not lose any quality. (I used to have a pretty small Monkey's Audio collection when I was on Windows (and foobar2k was my audio player) but then I moved over to Linux, so I transcoded everything to FLAC and all was well. Now I'm a Mac user, so I transcoded again to Apple Lossless. All metadata (artist, album, track, etc) carried over so I had no problems. The last transcoding project went relatively fast since I did the bulk of it on a Mac Pro.

In short, use whatever lossless format works best for the device/OS you have now, keeping in mind that you should be able to just convert it to another format with no loss of quality in a relatively short amount of time in a very automated (read: not labor intensive at all) way.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:29 AM on July 8, 2008

Flac will make you seem like a jamband loving hippy. That is all. If you can stand the stigma, then go for it. Apple AAC is very nice (and has a smaller footprint, since it's adaptive), but it's not free-as-in-liberty, so you might have to transcode to flac at some point in the future. As Brian Puccio mentions, not a big deal, but why bother.
posted by zpousman at 7:22 AM on July 8, 2008

For the love of all that is good and holy, DO NOT buy a Time Capsule. At $300 for 500 gigs and $500 for 1 terabyte, it is massively overpriced for what it does. At Newegg, you can get a 1 terabyte external hard drive for as little as $170. A decent N router won't cost you more than $100. Essentially, that gives you the functionality of the 1 terabyte Time Capsule for less than the price of the 500 gig version.

To be honest, I'm suspicious of the Mac Mini for this purpose as well. It's certainly cute, but again, it's overpriced for what it gives you. If you just need this box to stream audio around the house, you don't need a lot in the way of computing power. If you happen to have an old laptop lying around, it would almost certainly be up to what you need, at no additional cost. If you don't, I'm sure you could hunt down a computer capable of doing the task for much less money, particularly if it's going to be tucked out of sight somewhere.
posted by sinfony at 10:19 AM on July 8, 2008

I suggested the Mac Mini for the main entertainment center machine because of the video aspect of it. MPEG4, in general, requires a hair more than 1GHz on any proc to decode 720p HD. The Mini is a quiet box, excellent for use at an entertainment center. Also, if you're going to be encoding on this box, you'll want it to be a reasonably fast, complete computer. Plus, the Front Row interface is cool.

And, of course, the primary reason why I crafted an Apple-centric solution was because the OP asked for low-configuration.

Myself, I'm comfortable setting up a FreeBSD or Linux fire-breather for this type of thing, but in the case of my entertainment system, I wanted something with a very low administrative footprint, so what I've outlined above is what I chose for most of my system. Not only is it a load off of my time, but it's easy for my non-technical wife and kids to use.

Nice Guy Mike, I'm curious as to why you'd say that the Apple solution I've offered up isn't cost effective, especially when you over-state the prices. AppleTV is $229, not $330. Airport Express, the older non-N version is $70, newer version $99 - only useful if you are planning on using them as extensions to your wireless network, but certainly not necessary for just a streaming station. External Firewire 1TB drives $250? You are on the crack. Get a $35 Firewire to SATA case, and any $180 1TB drive. Or, use USB enclosures and save maybe $10.

In any case, being called "zealot faithful" by someone who is simultaneously suggesting with zeal hardware which costs a comparable amount for each endpoint doesn't really help the questioner.

As far as encoders go, FLAC==Apple Lossless==APE where audio quality is concerned. They are all lossless compression (think playable .zip). WAV is a container, but doesn't have support for any good codecs for music. It's either uncompressed WAV (using raw PCM) or one of a handful of very lossy voice codecs. AIFF is also a (mostly) uncompressed container.

Apple Lossless is the codec of choice if you plan on accessing this library with a Mac via iTunes without transcoding.

FLAC doesn't play well with the Apple-based solution, and given Brian Puccio's advice (which is absolutely correct; transcoding between lossless formats is trivial and will remain so), Apple Lossless is the best lossless compression scheme to use in an iTunes/Airport Express/AppleTV environment. You could certainly encode to FLAC for archival purposes (as people above have said) and encode to high-VBR MP3 or AAC for your listening files.

It looks like both Squeezebox and Soundbridge have iTunes support, so there's nothing to say there couldn't be selection of one or more of these devices as endpoints, though I think that they may have issues playing back the DRM files from iTunes Music Store, a limitation not shared by the Airport Express or AppleTV. (Please note: I despise DRM.)
posted by tomierna at 11:10 AM on July 8, 2008

So when I said you could probably find something with a better price/performance ratio than a Mac Mini? Turns out I was right. Pics here.
posted by sinfony at 1:15 PM on July 8, 2008

I'm a bit surprised no one has mentioned Sonos yet.
It fits your description of your needs perfectly: A base that connects to your NAS or PC and transmits wirelessly to other remote units. The remote units come in two flavours: amplified for connection to speakers or non-amplified for connection to receivers. The system can synchronize its output so you listen to the same song everywhere and can also play different stuff in every room. It has a mega-nifty remote control to handle the whole thing. Joel Spolsky got one a couple of years ago and wrote about it here.
posted by Cobalt at 1:52 PM on July 8, 2008

Just in case you have an iPhone, you should know that the version two software upgrade coming on July 11 supports using the iPhone as a remote control for iTunes. I assume that means if you are using iTunes as a media server streaming music through an Airport Express, then you can control it from another room using the iPhone.
posted by conrad53 at 4:56 PM on July 8, 2008

I forgot to vote on your question of which format to rip to. You are fortunate to be starting now, when hard drive space is so cheap. 1 terabyte Western Digital drives in their mybook external firewire enclosure were $229 at Costco a few weeks ago. Which means you would have to be crazy to rip to any format but lossless. Buy two drives to have one for backup.
posted by conrad53 at 5:06 PM on July 8, 2008

This question came up recently I believe, and a couple of people had recommended the chumby.

I was thinking of getting one myself, but I'm not to sure if the 5 w speakers will sound any good.
posted by brandnew at 5:07 PM on July 8, 2008

Tomierna: Prices were from a very fast scan at newegg.com, as I was late for work already this morning. :-)

I see that the 40GB AppleTV is significantly cheaper than the 160GB version (that is all that newegg have listed), hence the over-statement there. Likewise only the $90+ version of the Airport Express is listed on the Apple Store and Newegg. You're right about the external enclosure + internal HDD, again, from newegg you're looking at $20 + $180.

The end point players for the Soundbridge solution would actually be more expensive than your suggestion, at closer to $200 each - but provide full, independent playback and complete control in-the-room, unlike the Apple solution. But a QNAP TS-101 + 1TB drive would have cost $140 + $180, vs $800 for the Mac Mini + External drive, so you'd need 4 end points before the two solutions would be roughly equal in price.

Based on the original question and parameters from the OP, I still think the Apple solution would be overkill and provide an inferior experience - but since the additional information re adding video at one location and audio at the others, and that simultaneous streams aren't essential, it does look a little more sensible. Your comment about minimal configuration is also well made, something I did overlook from the original post.

I still question the control issue, though, as well as the proprietary codec.

PS The Apple zealot comment - and my question about WMA - was aimed at more than just yourself. Oh, and I run a Mac mini myself - mostly as a media player. :-)
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 7:19 PM on July 8, 2008

I was in a similar situation a couple years ago and decided on the following solution:
I built my own NAS with an old Motherboard/CPU/RAM/Boot Drive that I had laying around (I bought a new case and 5 250GB hard drives which I'm running in RAID-5 for about a Terabyte of usable space) - it's on all the time, but it's headless and sits in the back of a closet - I do all management of the box remotely.

Openfiler is my NAS software of choice. It makes management of the server pretty painless (aside from having to build software on a separate VM on my main machine as the install is very stripped down and doesn't include a compiler).

SqueezeCenter runs on the same box and feeds audio to my Squeezebox (though if I were buying now, I'd go with the Squeezebox Duet - it's cheaper to add additional units and the remote/controller is much nicer). Not only does this allow me to listen to music in my living room (via 802.11G), away from the PC (which is in a closet in another room), but also remotely using Softsqueeze (a Java emulation of the Squeezebox hardware, which is included with SqueezeCenter).

As for how I got there, I ripped my (now 1600) CD collection into FLAC format on my PC using EAC. Altogether, my lossless (FLAC) rips take up about 560GB. It took me about a year (there were a few periods of a month or two at a time that went by with out me ripping a CD and other times I was ripping several dozen a day). It was painful, but now that it's done, I'm glad I saved the $1500 or so that it would have cost me to have someone else do it (your time/$ threshold may be different from mine, in which case you may want to investigate a CD ripping service).

Regardless of your decision to DIY or have a company do it for you, I would STRONGLY suggest that you rip to a lossless format, and would suggest that you go with one that's open source (so that you can easily transcode to a different format - one of the key reasons for using a lossless format). While you may not be able to hear the difference between a high bit-rate and the original, you won't want to re-rip if you need the files in a different format and you won't want to transcode from one lossy format to another - you probably will be able to hear artifacts if you do that.

Once you have your music ripped in a lossless format, make sure that you back it up. Keep in mind that RAID isn't backup - if something goes horribly wrong with your controller or your PSU spikes and takes out a few drives, you're back to square one and will have to re-rip (which again, is a long or costly undertaking). I have a couple of external drives that I have the data on my NAS backed up onto.

I've had a few issues, but generally have been very happy. Since this is already too long, I'll cross-post this on my blog and expand on the challenges I'm currently facing, which are related to automated transcoding and running out of space.
posted by SubFuze at 5:46 PM on July 9, 2008

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