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Getting Started: Why You Should Build a Music Server

If you are an avid collector like me and have a fairly large music collection, you might want to consider setting up a music server in your home. I have converted all my CDs into lossless audio files. Unfortunately, spinning discs are a dying breed and I needed to save space in my living room. Thus having fewer Hifi components or CDs is always welcome 🙂

Initial thoughts

To get started, take any computer (PC or Mac) plus cheap hard-disk storage. Virtually any computer is powerful enough to act as a music server that can handle thousands of discs in loss-less uncompressed quality.

A key driver of the music server movement is cheap storage. But once you have accumulated a large collection of music or movies, you are going to need a solid strategy to manage your media content.

Granted, you can set up separate systems to manage your music, videos and storage. But I find that this can quickly become a nightmare – even for seasoned IT professionals. I have talked to folks spending hours every week just to keep their digital household running smoothly.

I definitely recommend sticking with uncompressed audio formats for a number of reasons. Even if you “don’t hear the difference”. One reason is that you have at least one “master copy” from which you can create MP3 versions for your mobile devices. In addition, you can always switch to newer formats without losing quality. If you have only MP3 quality files to begin with, you can never go back to the original without losing quality!

Complexity is a huge turn off if you just want to relax with your favorite tunes. After all, who wants to update a harddisk’s firmware, manage operating systems, drivers, backups and network infrastructure?

Fortunately, all of this can this be avoided. The solution is to consolidate all your devices into a single dedicated audiophile music server. No more separate solutions for audio and video, routers or wires. And only a single remote control.

Let’s look at some of the major benefits of having your own personal media server:

First of all, you are not limited to just music. You can store all your video content including your entire digital photo collection. And you can record live TV shows with a few clicks. As an audiophile, you are naturally concerned with audio quality. You should therefore generally avoid your media server’s onboard sound card. The smart approach is to simply use the media server as a digital transport which outputs a clean SP/DIF signal. The resulting digital signal is sent to a high-quality external DAC. For instance, the M2Tech Hiface is an excellent USB to SP/DIF converter and perfectly fits our requirements.

On top of that, imagine how cool it is to access your entire music collection using a single remote control, or browse album covers without even getting up from your chair. No more disc flipping. Look up your favorite tracks within seconds or create play lists across your entire music collection. Your precious discs reside in a safe place to prevent them from getting scratched.

You can archive your precious vinyl collection.

I also want my music server to be an intelligent hub in the home that can potentially make my preamplifier obsolete. Digital volume control has come a long way and it is getting better all the time.

Size and capacity are no longer an issue today. You can buy 1-2 TB of harddisk space for less than $100. This is easily enough for 2000 or more albums without compression. Even hardcore enthusiasts sometimes have fewer albums than that. You can either rip CDs and videos to internal storage – that is your laptop’s or desktop computer’s hard drive or keep the music files remotely on a NAS (Network Attached Storage).If you are concerned with complexity, internal hard disks are much easier to manage than any external NAS solution.

With that said, you should still have proper backup solutions in place. You probably don’t want to lose your precious media collection as a result of hardware failures. If you are running Windows, check out Acronis Trueimage. This fantastic piece of software will create automated backups of your entire system. Not only can you restore Trueimage backups with ease but you can also restore individual files. This comes in handy if you accidentally delete stuff from your media server. For the ultimate speed and comfort, consider a solid state drive (SSD) to hold your media server’s operating system plus frequently used applications. Although a SSD is going to cost a bit more while offering less space, you are going to experience a huge performance boost. On a properly configured system, Windows will boot in less than 15 seconds. Your actual media content can be stored on a traditional harddisk giving you the best of both worlds.

Finally, a music server is really inexpensive considering how many devices it can potentially replace. Even a high-quality server (that is only covering the computer side) just for music can be built for about $500. In addition, you can cheaply upgrade its internal hardware to add new features or to stay up to date with the latest technology. If you choose the internal components wisely, a decent media server can be a quiet, cool and eco-friendly machine. You can purchase HTPC parts at Newegg.com if you live in the United States. Amazon is also a great place to shop. They operate worldwide regional subsidiaries to give you the best deals on virtually any electronic product. Local computer storer are also an excellent source.

  • Dieter Janssen January 6, 2016, 03:18

    I’ve been looking at creating a dedicated Music Server and found your site – great information. So that said, some questions I hope you’ll be able to address (i’m not tech savvy, but have done some research).

    Here’s the target:
    1. It’s tiny
    2. It lives by the Stereo (connects to a DAC and Integrated Amp directly, no NAS)
    3. It holds all music, in all formats (m4a, mp3, flac, wav, ogg, etc)
    4. It plays 24bit/192kHz without any downsampling – HD Audio Codec (Realtek ALC269 or better)
    5. It syncs wirelessly with other machines (i.e. for running back-ups, managing additions, editing the library), preferably via WiFi rather than bluetooth. (802.11 b/g/n)
    6. DNLA compliant
    7. The operation is controlled via remote, from another machine, Android phone, etc. (PC, Mac or other) – WiFi (Bluetooth isn’t ideal – the construction of my place seems to limit the range)
    8. It uses an already existing free music app for management, play, remote control, etc – e.g. musicbee, foobar2000, vlc, etc so I can keep using what they like. Nothing bespoke.
    9. It offers 2+1 USB (two 3.1 type A and one type C) for connection to an external DVD/CD burner and whatever other device (USB key, external drive, phone, iPod, Android phone, etc)
    10. TosLink S/PDIF for connecting to a DAC (or DAC/Amp). Option for mini-TosLink/3.5 audio jack out.
    11. Coaxial option for connection to a DAC (or DAC/Amp).
    12. Low or no noise components, so SSD drives. Small fan, if any.
    13. Has capacity for 1Tb memory. These should be easy to swap out, so accessible.
    14. Includes LAN port for hardwired net connectivity – Network RJ-45 10/100/1000 Mbps ethernet
    15. Low power (it’ll be on all the time), at or below 25W/year
    16. Video port is an option, but not critical. HDMI?

    These are a few options that hit most or all of the above:
    Option 01 – Micro VortexBox
    http://shop.smallgreencomputer.com/Micro-VortexBox-vbMicro.htm

    Option 02 – Dedicated Laptop
    * Chromebook, Lenovo 100S – http://shop.lenovo.com/ca/en/laptops/lenovo/chromebook-series/100s-chromebook/#tab-tech_specs 32Gb/4Gb RAM $299
    * Lenovo Ideapad 100 – http://shop.lenovo.com/ca/en/laptops/ideapad/100-series/100-14-inch/ 500Gb 2Gb $399
    * Western Digital My Passport 1 TB USB 3.0 Portable Hard Drive – $120

    Option 03 – Custom Unit using Ultra-Compact PC Kit
    Gigabyte Brix, model: GB-BXCEH-2955 $170
    http://www.gigabyte.com/products/product-page.aspx?pid=4860#ov
    * Intel Celeron 2955u 1.4GHz
    * Supports 2.5” thickness 7.0/9.5mm Hard Drives (1 x 6Gbps SATA3)
    * Ultra compact PC design at only 0.52L
    * 1 x mSATA SSD Slot
    * 2 x SO-DIMM DDR3L Slots (1333/1600 MHz), 16GB max RAM
    * IEEE 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi/Bluetooth 4.0 Mini-PCIe card
    * HDMI Plus Mini DisplayPort Outputs (supports dual displays)
    * Intel® HD Graphics
    * 4 x USB 3.0
    * Gigabit LAN Realtek RTL8111G
    * Headphone jack with S/PDIF, Realtek ALC269 (All DACs supports 44.1/48/96/192kHz sample rate, SPDIF-OUT support 16/20/24-bit format and 32/44.1/48/88.2/96/192kHz rate)
    * VESA Mounting bracket
    * Dimensions: 42.8 mm x 107.6 mm x 114.4 mm (1.69″ x 4.24″ x 4.5″)

    Zotac ZBOX CI323 NANO-Plus Barebone Mini PC
    https://www.zotac.com/ca/product/mini_pcs/zbox-ci323-nano-windows-10-home#spec
    * Intel Processor Intel N3150 quad-core 1.6GHz, up to 2.08GHz (better chip than Gigabyte Brix Celeron 2955u )
    * 2GB DDR3L (two slots up to 8GB, one slot occupied)
    * Wireless 802.11ac + Bluetooth 4.0
    * Ethernet 2x 10/100/1000Mbps with antenna
    * Onboard 32GB M.2 SATA SSD
    * 1 x 2.5-inch SATA SSD/HDD (Samsung 850 Pro Series Internal SSD, 2.5-Inch, 1TB SATA III, 3-D Vertical)
    * CIR Infrared Port
    * Audio: Stereo output, Lossless Bitstream via HDMI, Combo mini-optical S/PDIF / analog stereo
    * USB: 1 x USB 3.0 type-C (front), 2 x USB 3.0 (1 front, 1 back), 2 x USB 2.0 (back)
    * Card Reader: 3-in-1 (SD/SDHC/SDXC)
    * 127mm x 127mm x 45mm

    Option 4 – Raspberry Pi 2 B + HiFiBerry Digi+
    https://www.hifiberry.com/digiplus/ $40 (HiFiBerry Digi+ transformer version)
    https://www.raspberrypi.org/products/raspberry-pi-2-model-b/ 4 USB ports, HDMI, Ethernet, 3.5mm Audio, Micro SD card slot, 1Gb Ram, $60
    https://www.raspberrypi.org/products/usb-wifi-dongle/, Edimax 150 Mbps Wireless 11n Nano Size USB Adapter (EW-7811UnR2), $17
    http://www.geeky-gadgets.com/raspberry-pi-western-digital-pidrive-1tb-hard-drive-kit-unveiled-10-09-2015/ Western Digital PiDrive Kit, $80
    Micro SD Card (32Gb minimum, SanDisk Ulta $16)
    Samsung 850 Pro Series Internal SSD, 2.5-Inch, 1TB SATA III, 3-D Vertical, $612

    Total: $40 + $60 + $17 + $80 + $16 = $213 + memory ($612) = $825CDN

    Software
    http://www.raspyfi.com/
    https://www.hifiberry.com/guides/hifiberry-installer/ (https://www.hifiberry.com/guides/setting-up-volumio-to-get-great-audio/)
    https://volumio.org (audio optimized alternative to Raspbian) https://volumio.org/get-started/ for set-up instructions
    http://moodeaudio.org/ Audio player for Raspberry Pi

    Alternate: Pine A64+ ($32, $19 + CDN) – http://pine64.com/
    * ARM Cortex-A53 1.2 GHz Quad-Core 64-Bit
    * 2GB SDRAM
    * MicroSD up to 246GB
    * Ethernet 10/100/1000Mb
    * 802.11b/g/n & Bluetooth 4.0 (Optional)
    * 2 x USB 2.0
    * 4K x 2K HDMI port
    * 5Mp Camera Port

    At the end of the day, if it works and can be there reliably, all is well. I’ll just add that the NAS option is out because audio-over-WiFi seems to be a problem in cities with all the competing devices both at home as well as neighbouring equipment. Controlling via WiFi is ok, just not streaming the music itself. For me, what’s happening is that music keeps cutting out, regardless the size of the buffer settings in any player app I’ve used.

    So that’s perhaps somewhat detailed, but perhaps you’ll have some opinions to share on how to narrow this down.

    I’ll add that I’m using a Schiit Modi Uber 2 DAC (http://schiit.com/products/bifrost) to an integrated amp.

    Cheers

    Reply
  • james May 19, 2016, 11:56

    Thanks for so many options. The Zotac Z box looks interesting. Since

    it runs on Windows, could Spotify and Pandora also be utilized ? I now

    use an old HP laptop with to store files with jriver and stream my music

    via usb to a Schiit Bifrost dac. Having a dedicated server/streamer would

    be ideal.

    thanks for you time,

    James

    Reply
  • Dieter May 19, 2016, 21:48

    The Zotac I’m using has Windows on it as it’s primary OS. Aside from running an app like MusicBee, it’s also running VLC, Foobar2000 and through Google Chrome it also runs SoundCloud. Given that, I’d guess it could handle Spotify and Pandora.

    The way this machine is built, the OS lives on a rather small drive (32Gb) so keeping it lean with respect to apps will be in your interest. Using SyncToy, the 1Tb drive the Zotac has for the library is backed-up to another machine. Any new music gets added via the sync routine and the music app scans either when it starts up or it’s told to. Because there’s no monitor attached to this little thing, I use an Android phone to control it. The music apps have a remote tool, otherwise you’re going to need an app like LogMeIn or whatever you prefer. I’ve had this set up for about 3 months and so far, so good. No clipping, drivers allow for 24/192 so no down-sampling from the DAC.

    cheers

    Reply
  • Nick June 3, 2016, 21:09

    My solution (which sounds FANTASTIC):

    Fujitsu Futro S550 thin client (fanless, HDDless = no moving parts). Has CF card inside instead of HDD. Bought 2nd hand for less than $20 on Ebay.

    Daphile software – is the whole operating system, therefore the only thing on the machine. I run it from a USB thumb drive. Daphile can handle 24bit/384kHz PCM and DSD512 but my current DAC only goes up to 24-192 and DSD128 but then again I have no 384kHz or Octa DSD files so I don’t worry about that. Free from Daphile.

    Music files sit on LaCie external hard drives. These can be any NAS or directly connected to the Futro.

    Controlled from my Android phone (or anything else with web access) via web interface.

    I also have an UpTone Audio USB REGEN device between the computer and the DAC. By far the most expensive new component at $175 but totally worth it.

    When I put the system together I also bought new USB cables which are ‘audiophile’ but relatively modest in price ($30 – $40). UpTone suggest that what the USB REGEN does drastically reduces any audible impact that ultra-expensive cabling might have.

    So you don’t have to spend a lot to get a fabulous sounding dedicated music system, especially if you already have things like external HDDs and a DAC. OK you will have to spend a bit more on a good DAC if you don’t have one already but hopefully I’ve made my point.

    Reply

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