HiFi Music Streaming: What Is It All About? – Part 2
It has been a month now, after the first part in the series on hifi music streaming came out, on Audiopolitan and I guess, audiophiles following this blog are eagerly waiting to set up a music streaming system in their listening rooms. Now that the second part of the series is here, the time has finally come to go hands-on.
In the earlier part of this series, an attempt was made to explain most of the jargon associated with streaming and the technologies involved. That might come in handy, while following through this article during the course of setting up your system.
As mentioned in the previous part, the media server, the renderer and the control point constitute the chief components of any music streaming system. There is also one other thing apart from these which plays a pivotal role in bringing your system to life and that on which, the sonic quality and performance largely depend on and the one that serves as the backbone of your entire streaming setup; the “Network”. Network setup is very crucial in being able to juice out the best out of your streaming setup. Choice of the network components goes a long way in deciding the quality of audio playback.
In this part of the series, we shall explore the network part as well as the media server part of the streaming system in detail. Let’s save the renderer and the control point for the next and the final part of this series.
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of network set up, let’s take a look at a very simple analogy. Consider a network of roads connecting various cities and towns. These roads serve as a medium for the transport of people and goods from one point to the other. In other words, they carry all the traffic and provide a safe and easy way to get from one point to the other. Similarly, the network (in the context of this article) is that component of the streaming system which carries all the music data traffic from the source (in our case, the media server) to the destination (the renderer). The control point also sends its control data over the same network. There might also be a lot of other data shuttling back and forth on the network, pertaining to the communications happening between different devices on the network. The duty of the network is to diligently and faithfully carry all of the data traffic from point A to point B without any data corruption and loss.
A Home Network can be set up in a variety of configurations. It can be a very humble setup connecting just the most essential components or devices, within a single room or it might be one that connects all the rooms of your house, knitting together a multitude of devices of different types. The latter type typically has several feet of network cable running throughout the house and a bunch of Wi-Fi access points/hotspots, in multiple spots within the house. This setup is indeed cool and provides you with a lot of flexibility and great functionality. But you might want to hire a networking expert to get the network setup done or if you are lucky enough to have one network-savvy friend, you can always pull him/her in to get the job done over a weekend. That might just cost you a can of beer! If you happen to be a geeky audiophile who knows exactly how to set up a home network, then nothing could ever get better than that!
Just because there are innumerable ways (or ‘topologies’, as they might be called technically) to setting up a network, there is an almost equal number of ways to setting up music streaming over the network. But the basics remain pretty much the same over all types. To enable even the rookie of rookies in network setup, to try their hands on a basic demonstrative setup, I shall adopt the most basic and minimal network configuration for the sake of this article. Perhaps once you try the basic setup out, you might gain enough confidence to go for the more advanced network configurations.
The following components/devices constitute most of the networks: the Router/switch, network cable and a Modem. A Modem is required to connect to the internet. In our streaming setup, this might be required only if you are using online music streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, etc. (Only in countries, where those services are available). Hence for the sake of this article, the Modem component can be eliminated. Now let’s dig deeper into the other two components of a network.
A Router/switch forms the heart of any network. This acts like the traffic controller for the network.
A network switch is a hardware device which connects multiple computers/other networking devices together within a LAN (Local Area Network). The one in the picture above is a 5-port Ethernet (name of the networking standard) switch.
A router is a hardware device which joins multiple networks together. Routers available in the domestic market today have Ethernet switches built into them and most of the latest ones are Wi-Fi enabled too. These routers connect the home LAN (Local Area Network) with the WAN (Wide Area Network) of the internet.
This is the most crucial part of any network; the real physical medium for carrying all network traffic.
Cables used for networking come in 2 main types: the Category 5 Enhanced (Cat5e) and the Category 6. They differ mainly in the bandwidth, i.e. the maximum amount of data that they can carry. The Cat5e is capable of handling upto 1000Mbps (Gigabit Ethernet) at 100 MHz, while the Cat6 can handle upto 10 Gigabit Ethernet at 250 MHz. While Cat6 might seem like overkill for audio, it might be worth considering going for Cat6 if there are too many devices on the network sending and receiving a lot of data. The price of Cat6 cables is pretty much comparable with that of the Cat5e types. It is just a difference of approximately 10-20%. However, Cat5e would indeed do a perfectly fine job for our audio streaming setup even while streaming multiple channel, highest bit rate, highest resolution tracks.
These cables are terminated with 8-pin RJ45 connectors. These connectors help in interfacing the cable with different network devices.
Putting them all together
Now that we know the components constituting the network, let’s have a look at how to put them all together to arrive at our desired streaming setup. Following are the steps to achieve the same:
- We will be using a Wi-Fi Router with 4 LAN ports, in this setup.
- Connect a computer (for use in configuring the router) to one of the 4 LAN ports of the router, with a network cable.
- Configuring the router. (Take expert help if you are not confident about doing this. You may even follow the manual which comes with the router or some tutorial available online.)
- Power up the router.
- Access the router setup web page from a browser running on your computer by entering the URL or the IP address of the router.
- Ensure the DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) mode is enabled within your router. (This is enabled by default. If not, enable it.). This makes sure the IP addresses for devices connected to the network managed by the router, are assigned automatically. You are saved from the pain of manually assigning IP addresses to each of your devices.
At this point, your network part of the streaming setup is ready. All that you need to do, to be able to stream music is to connect your media server and renderer to this network, by connecting them using network cables to the free LAN ports of the router. The Control Point, which is normally, a software application running on a smartphone, can be brought into the system, by connecting your smartphone to the same network over Wi-Fi.
The media server is the single source of all music data in a network streaming setup. It is normally a device with a huge amount of memory available in it, to store a large number of files, running some software application which serves the data over the network to the appropriate renderers on request. Most of the time, it is a regular computer (a Linux box or an Apple Macintosh or a Windows PC) running a UPnP server software application on it. Most NAS units available today have UPnP/DLNA server applications built into them too.
NAS stands for “Network Attached Storage”. It is a device which provides file storage, accessible over the network. These are typically found in office spaces to provide for a common storage place for shared data and files. The units available in the market for domestic use are equipped with AV media server applications which can be used to stream AV media data over the network. But these applications might be limited to a particular set of media file formats. These devices have an Ethernet interface to facilitate connection to a network.
Computer + Media Server Software
This is a very interesting and also a very powerful combination in that there is absolutely no limitation to the file formats supported and the configurability is tremendous. There are a plenty of software applications available like the JRiver Media Center, Twonky Media Server, Linn Songbox, etc. which can be run on a Windows PC or an Apple Macintosh.
Being an open source enthusiast myself and a big fan of the “Kodi Media Center” (earlier called the “XBMC Media Center”. Does that ring a bell, open source AV enthusiasts?!), I would prefer going the Kodi way for this demonstration. Trust me folks, Kodi is awesome and beautiful! You WILL LOVE IT!
Kodi is a complete media center application which has UPnP server capabilities built into it. Kodi is available for Mac, Linux and Windows. (If you happen to be a Raspberry Pi enthusiast, it is available for the Raspberry Pi too! How awesome! Isn’t it?) You may download it from their website.
After installing Kodi on your computer, you might want to first scan your personal music collection, available on your computer, to the Kodi music library. That can be done by following the steps that are also listed on their website.
Once you are done scanning music files to the library, the UPnP server is to be setup to serve the files in the library to a renderer, over the network. This is very simple too. Just a matter of a few easy steps as listed down on this official Kodi Wiki site. You may use this—LINK.
The computer with the above set up is to be connected to the network router with a network cable too. At this stage, we are ready with our network and the media server.
We have come to the end of the second part of the music streaming blog series. This article was all about setting up the network and the media server components of the music streaming system. This is by no means the only way of going about setting up streaming. This is just one of the ways of doing it. And remember, we are only half done with our setup. We will get back to completing our setup by touching upon the Media Renderer and the Control Point parts in the final part of this series. Until then, so long!
This post is prepared by Vinay.