Revisiting the Squeezebox and other nerd audio stuff

I’m trying to price this thing out…. on the one hand an iPod touch and a used 802.11g Airport Express base station with SPDIF optical out is about $250.  This requires a laptop running iTunes to be on and feeding it the music which is in turn controlled by the iPod Touch “Apple Remote” app.  So this is one relatively cheap option, really.  

Another option is the Squeezebox Classic which also can be found for about $200 plus $200 for the Touch running iPeng Squeezebox Remote Control app ($10), so for ~$410 you have perhaps a slightly more robust playback system that is open source and can play FLAC or any other file format for that matter and doesn’t require iTunes, but still requires a server/laptop running SlimServer.  Sonos sells a similar setup and they also have a free iTunes app.  The one cool thing about the Sonos is that no laptop is required, it seems it can pull directly from the TC as a NAS but that would be $350 + $200 iTouch.  

Maybe the cheapest, and I think I might try this route first since I already bought the damn Time Capsule which functions as a pretty good NAS / Backup server… For $25 Rogue Amoeba sells AirFoil which allows you to send your iTunes stream to either an Airport Express unit or any other computer on network (AirFoil Speakers is a free download) which means I could simply stream directly from one of our newer Mac laptops to the old thing in the closet which is plugged into the Edirol UA-5.  It’s a free download with 10 minute tests.  All the data would be on TC or a USB drive.  This might be the solution I was looking for.

Okay.  I tested it.  It works.  So that’s an option.  The final option is just the $50 Airport Express, no iPod Touch remote, and simply stream from the laptop to the base station SPDIF > DAC > Analog Out and control on the laptop as a remote.  The fan on the old laptop is really loud.  If can figure out a way to quiet it down.

Okay. Weirdly the stream from 89.9 WKCR doesn’t work in Winamp under Win2k on the old laptop.  So I’m back to the iTunes Foobar2000 plugin scenario and that seems to work fine, it’ll play any internet stream I give it.  Oh well.

You undoubtedly care nothing about Lossless Audio Servers

I’ve spent more time these past 6-8 months developing a functional web server/daemon/player for playing back lossless audio than I care to admit.  If I were smarter I’d simply use iTunes like the other 5 billion people on the planet with iPods and call it day, except that the audio collection has spiraled out of control and just about everything with Apple and iTunes is proprietary.  The idea started with putting Zoe’s old Dell Inspiron 4000 laptop in the closet (with a screaming Pentium III 900 MHz processor) and I figured “hey that’s more than enough power to act as an audio server/player, right?”  Well, yes and no.

Part I: ripping the collection, which format?  Again, if I had taken the easy road (iTunes) Apple recently added the Apple Lossless Format to the lineup for M4A files.  It’s very similar to FLAC which stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec.  So why use something free and open source?  Well when I’ve ripped 200 CD’s I don’t want to find out that Apple updated QuickTime to some incompatible version or even more likely is that I’ll need to convert my Apple Lossless files to another format, which as it turns out is not so easy (see proprietary).  So to cover my bases I’ve been ripping CD’s to FLAC with Cue Sheets and 320 kbit/s MP3 using the LAME encoder.  My preference is for the awesome Exact Audio Copy (precise German ripping) and have been playing around with MAREO to do multiple command line outputs.

Part II: how slow is that 900MHz Pentium III?  Well, mostly it’s a RAM issue (currently 128MB) running Windows XP.  The cost to upgrade the RAM to 512MB would be nearly $100 for an 8 year old laptop (it’s in the late Winter of its life).  So then what?  Run XP slowly.  What audio player if not iTunes? (because iTunes is a resource hog).  Well originally everyone loved Foobar2000 and it’s mostly free/open and sounded good until version 9.5.3 crapped out and stopped playing FLAC files with embedded cuesheets.  Media Monkey (based on Winamp) is my new sweetheart.  Reasonable overhead, works with ASIO and Kernel Streaming Output plug-ins, similar layout to iTunes and is way better at batch organization and embedding album cover images.

Many will ask why I didn’t simply use SlimServer and buy a Slim Devices Squeezebox 3?  Well, I tried SlimServer and it brought the system to a crawl (likely 512MB is needed).  Also, I have an old Edirol UA-5 (by Roland) external USB-DAC which doesn’t function as a stand alone DAC and the SqueezeBox 3 requires one for optimal sound reproduction.

 Part III: Remote control via the iPhone, BlackBerry & Web Browser.  Right now there are a few simple web servers for Winamp that create a text file for play list control and creates a basic HTML interface for BlackBerry http control.  Signal from Alloy Software, supposedly is the best interface right now for iPhones and iPod Touch remote control.  In theory the ~$200  iPod Touch is the ultimate media center remote.  It’s 802.11g enabled and with Signal the native iPod music interface on the Touch becomes the remote (on a PC it can control iTunes, Winamp, or Windows Media Center).  Slick.  Worst case you turn on your other computer and run VNC or browse using a non-mobile browser.  I expect with the upcoming iPhone 3G 2.0 (and Touch) release Apple has a few tricks up its sleeves similar to the AJAX and Google Code Telekinesis remote control of OS X.  The safebets for a Winamp server are is the low overhead old version of WWWinamp Server (my favorite so far) and the new version currently being developed by Eric Nusbaum requires Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 to run (.NET was something of a pain).

Part IV: No end in sight? I think once all the CDs are ripped and all the MP3s are sorted and presuming the Dell Inspiron doesn’t die on us anytime soon, I’ll be satisfied.  The system sounds good for what it is, thrown together somewhat piecemeal.  The amp is a 1979 Denon PMA-850 and I’m sending the USB-DAC direct bypassing the preamp stage.  The speakers are crazy old Bose 301 Series II of Z’s dad.  It somehow works.  How much of a difference is there between FLAC and 320 kbit/s MP3s?  A little bit.  A tad richer, a bit more textured, bass and highs seem to have “more” umpf and depth.  This really isn’t the system to do a comparison on.  The air conditioners in our courtyard are loud, it’s like 95 degrees out and we have three box window fans.  It’s loud, so you see how it goes.  God bless you if you read all this

FLAC LogoMedia Monkey Media PlayerEdirol UA-5 USB Audio InterfaceDell Inspiron 4000 LaptopLAME MP3 encoderASIO Official Logo