A music server typically consists of a data back-end which is where you store your actual music files. This can be simple external USB hard drive connected to a computer running some sort of server software (filesharing protocol etc.). If you want a more sophisticated solution, you could put your music on a NAS (Network Attached Storage). But the core principle is that you need ample hard disk space for your entire music library. Most people forget that they need a solid backup strategy in place. So you would either need to duplicate your primary hard drive manually or add additional disks to your NAS. Regardless of the approach, I’d recommend planning for the worst. Better safe than sorry.
A cheap alternative is to utilize your wireless router’s USB port. For example, my Apple Airport Extreme comes with a USB port that can be used to hook up practically any external USB harddrive.
Once you’ve got the data back-end sorted out, you need a digital “front-end” for your stereo system that will produce actual sounds.
For this, you basically need a receiving device that can read from your music collection on the network. This could be a power-efficient small computer or laptop located next to your amplifier. Using a USB to SP/DIF converter which can be purchased on Amazon, you would hook up the computer to any AV receiver with a set of digital inputs in the SP/DIF format (look out for coaxial or optical Toslink inputs on the back of your amplifier or receiver). Your receiver would then translate the incoming digital signal into an audible analog music stream. If you don’t have digital inputs on your receiver, you are going to need a DAC (digital to analog converter). Check out my recommendation of a cheap Chinese DAC with the Wolfson WM8740 chipset for under $50.
Fortunately, some manufacturers have started adding network protocol support into their products making it even easier
If all of the above makes your head spin and you just want a simpler solution, look out for streaming media clients. These don’t need a computer near your audio system. Instead, they can talk directly to your network infrastructure and offer a more pleasing user experience with remote control etc. similar to traditional hi-fi components. On top of that, they come with high-quality DAC chips for exquisite audio quality. Manufacturers like Denon, Marants and Pioneer already offer a wide range of music streaming products and you might want to check them out.
Audiophile listeners probably want to go with a dedicated external digital-to-analogue converter (also known as “DAC”) which can be connected to virtually any preamp or integrated amplifier. Many external DACs already come with USB or Firewire inputs which comes in handy if you want to use your Laptop as the music source.
Here are some music server setups:
Network Music Players
A great example and my recommended choice (if you do not want to fiddle too much with tech) is the fantastic Pioneer Elite N-50 network music player. It comes with audiophile ESS Sabre DAC chips and supports virtually any file format. On top of that, it can be remote controller by iOS or Android Apps for your smartphone. You would need to store your music either on a NAS drive connected to your wireless home network. I believe you can even hot-plug an external USB drive to the Pioneer player for instant playback.
Other Music Streaming Devices
For a long time, the Logitech Squeezebox has been my first choice. Unfortunately, it has been discontinued for unknown reasons. I believe the audiophile market wasn’t large or proditable enough to sustain production. God knows what made them stop making these fantastic little devices. If you find a pre-owned unit on eBay – don’t miss it. The Squeezebox could basically handle virtually any audio format up to 24 bit / 96 kHz lossless. It has a very nice sounding DAC chip from Texas Instruments and decent digital outputs for an outboard DAC of cour choice. However, many audiophiles were just fine with the standard. For less than $300, the Squeezebox was a damned fine deal for sure. You can also pick up other great streaming clients on Amazon such as the well known Sonos system.
Using Apple Products
Many people have mixed opinions about Apple but these guys make some really great products for streaming music and/or video. And I personally love the simplicity of just having a laptop with all my tracks ready to play. Let’s take an Airport Express or their Apple TV as an example. Both come with an optical Toslink SP/DIF output that you can just plug into your receiver or outboard DAC for musical enjoyment. Then just force iTunes to send your music to those devices and you are done! I was frankly astounded by the audio quality coming out of my speakers. And no, these solutions are not about MP3 quality. I was transmitting high-resolution uncompressed audio to my DAC.
Do It Yourself with PC Hardware or a Simple Laptop
This is the way to go for ambitious do-it-yourselfers like me :) I personally use my Macbook Pro for all my music but I also built an audio streaming PC with all the bells and whistles. Sure, those require a good chunk of your time in maintenance when compared to Apple’s ecosystem but you can save quite a bit of cash. I personally recommend an outboard USB DAC to transmit music to your stereo system. Onboard sound cards or internal sound cards are inferior solutions in terms of audio quality.
I have published a couple of articles on my blog to cover all of the above scenarios. Have fun checking them out :)