More than a decade ago Apple revolutionized the music industry and how the public consumes audio with its iPod and companion iTunes software. Today through iTunes, as well as many other software programs, music lovers can manage and play their digital music files via electronics that range from iPads, iPhones and computers, to traditional two-channel systems with networked enabled source components, and whole-house audio systems with access to local drives.
One method of digital music playback that gets overlooked by some, but is growing among enthusiasts, is the use of audio files stored on a network via networked attached storage (NAS). The use of NAS-based digital audio systems provides homeowners with a proven way to store, protect and access their content for playback on any system in their home, and with the prices of hardware and software coming down, this method could soon replace disc players as the primary means of playback of non-streaming music.
Building a Backbone
Back in 2000 the research group Pew Research Center recalls that just three percent of Americans were subscribing to high-speed Internet services, and by 2013 that number had increased to 70 percent. A year later the U.S. Census Bureau reports that approximately 78 percent of the country was utilizing high-speed Internet services. In all likelihood, with the economy doing well and the continuing adoption of streaming video services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant video, the capabilities to support networked audio are in place for most homeowners.
Ensuring these high-speed services are maximized to their full potential to support streaming video, networked audio and traditional data usages, Steve Crabb, user experience manager at Luxul, says that home networks should include quality switches, routers, wireless access points (WAPs) and cabling designed to handle these high-bandwidth applications. Just as important as the hardware, Crabb points out, is the manufacturer of these components. Crabb says that dealers should align themselves with companies that offer network design and educational resources, technical support and products with reasonable profit margins.
Currently the best way to deliver the service homeowners require, Crabb notes, is for dealers to specify gigabit components.
“A high-performance gigabit switch and Cat-6 cabling are indeed key elements to a network that will serve high-definition streaming media, but it doesn’t stop there,” says Crabb. “As an example, if an integrator is installing a Sonos system, he will want to consider a managed switch to ensure the best support for the method Sonos uses to route network traffic between its devices [called Spanning Tree]. Also, since people often listen to music or watch video on phones and tablets, roaming mobile devices should also connect to a high-quality wireless router or a high-performance wireless access point with support for the latest standards such as 802.11ac. For installations with multiple access points, use a wireless controller to help clients roam better. But be sure to ask your vendor if the controller actually does help with roaming—and how as several controllers are really nothing more than configurators.”
Download: Ultimate Guide to High-Performance Audio
Ideally, every system should use wires because of the reliability that Ethernet cables offer, but realistically a vast majority of systems employ wired and wireless technologies. Facilitating the best possible performance from components such as servers and NAS drives, Crabb says these products should be connected to wired gigabit switches. Products such as laptop computers, tablets and phones, he say,s are best utilized when they are leveraging the flexibility that wireless connectivity offers. Certain situations, he also points out, may also dictate the use of alternative solutions such as powerline and MoCA (multimedia over coax). In these cases, Crabb recommends using MoCA for the streaming of high-resolution A/V content, but the first choice for retrofit-friendly networking solutions should be Wi-Fi.
Advanced Storage Supports Today’s World
Coinciding with the growth of iTunes, iPods, iPhones, Android products and other devices that manage and play digital music has been the increasing availability of affordable hard drives.
Taking the next step from external hard drives is the use of NAS products. James Wu, marketing director of QNAP, Inc., says some of the advantages of using NAS devices over a standard external drive for digital audio file storage include:
- Higher storage capacities. QNAP for example offers products that range from single bay to 24-bay products, and its products support drives up to 8TBs.
- NAS devices, including the products from QNAP support a choice of RAID (redundant array of independent disks) configurations. By employing RAID options Wu says that dealers and their clients can benefit from the high levels of data protection RAID technologies offer.
- With NAS devices sitting on the network users get access to their music whether they are at home or at some remote location.
- One other key point that dealers will find attractive about using NAS products are the devices’ versatility. Wu says NAS units are not just storage devices, and dealers can deploy the products in their clients’ homes to run as servers via their DLNA options. Using DLNA and Plex he points out that NAS devices can serve products such as Roku boxes, Amazon Fire TVs, Apple TVs, Xboxes, PlayStations, smart TVs and mobile products, including cell phones.
Elaborating on his point of using NAS devices as servers, Wu suggests that if an application calls for a NAS to host videos in addition to storing music files, dealers should choose products that are Intel based. He says Intel-based NAS products typically offer better performance and many of these products come with transcoding capabilities to support on-the-fly transcoding.
Wu also recommends three other points to consider when choosing a NAS device.
“Capacity. We have a simple NAS selector [on the QNAP website]. Performance. If the NAS is mainly used for data storage and music files our Home NAS series should be quite enough. If you would also like to have the ability to transcode and stream, our Prosumer/SMB series would be a better choice. Home Automation. QNAP is the only NAS device that supports home automation systems like Control4 and Crestron. Be aware this only applies to the Intel-based NAS [with direct HDMI output so the NAS can be used as an HD media player].”
Choosing Digital Audio Components
For the past several years the enthusiast crowd have driven sales of digital-to-analog converters (DACs), active loudspeakers, headphones and software products that are designed to facilitate and enhance the playback of digital audio files.
Dealers approaching the digital audio category that are interested in delivering performance and reliability may want to bypass the traditional audiophile method of auditioning various hardware and software components by opting for integrated solutions from companies such as Meridian Audio.
Ken Forsythe, vice president of Meridian America, says Meridian and its system approach provides dealers with predictable and repeatable audio systems that deliver the highest levels of performance.
“This focus has led us to design system solutions rather than individual components. This enables us to offer products that are very easy to install, and in some cases as simple as, ‘plug-and-play,’” he says. “With this approach, our music servers can be installed into existing networks with basic networking expertise.”
Discussing Meridian’s system approach, Forsythe points out that dealers can utilize one of the company’s Meridian Sooloos products, along with a NAS device from companies such as QNAP, and a choice of interface solutions, including touch PCs and its Apple iOS app.
“This means the only purchase needed to complete a Meridian Sooloos server system is one of our end points [a MS200, MS600 or Reference 818],” he says. “In many cases the client already owns these components, which significantly reduces price of entry without compromising audio performance. This allows our dealer, and in turn their customer to focus their investment on what Meridian does better than anyone else—the sound and user experience.
“We offer a complete range of price/performance endpoints from $999 to $22,000. We can add quality and value to a dealer’s proposition with this range, and the assurance that our infrastructure will support upwards of 40 zones. Additional rooms lead to additional sales that include [Meridian] DSP loudspeakers or analog components, passive loudspeakers, and local control system options for these rooms.”
Supporting dealers in their efforts to sell and install these systems, Meridian offers dealer training, technical support and its new Design and Specification Service that provides dealers with documentation on systems’ design, component choices, configuration and wiring diagrams. Forsythe recommends that dealers looking to strengthen their networking skills to participate in CEDIA’s networking courses. For more complex networking needs he also recommends the use of third-party companies such as Access Networks.
Comparing a solution such as the Meridian Sooloos platform to traditional analog solutions and CD/DVD/Blu-ray disc players, Forsysthe emphasizes, a networked audio solution offers several advantages. Some of those advantages, he says, include solutions at a range of price points, cost effective, third-party hardware control and storage options, and streaming audio options.
“All Meridian Sooloos systems offer a variety of connectivity options for Meridian and non-Meridian branded audio systems … in addition to ripping CDs, high-resolution albums and files can be downloaded directly into a Meridian Sooloos system. This music can be complement by streaming music from Rhapsody and Tidal. Content from both of these services can be merged into the CD/high-resolution ‘local’ collection so they appear as one curated collection,” he says. “The Sooloos interface can be integrated into both iOS devices, as well as PCs. The TouchPC software is available at no cost from Meridian [iOS app is also a free download], and it allows users the freedom to choose what type and size of interface, including home automation systems for multiroom systems they are comfortable in.”
Further supporting installers, integrated solutions such as the Meridian Sooloos line also provide provisions for third-party automation system integration. Forsythe adds that all of the major automation companies—Crestron, Control4, Savant and RTI—support Meridian Sooloos systems in their integration interfaces.
Simplifying the Distribution of Content
Taking whole-house audio into the networked audio equation could add more complications to the distribution of content. Helping dealers to streamline the distribution of networked audio is the audio manufacturer Autonomic Controls.
Providing dealers with a cloud-based, whole-house audio platform that offers streaming audio, along with networked audio, Autonomic says its products are designed maximize the digital audio experience.
“The MMS [Mirage Media Server] has the capacity to seamlessly integrate a locally stored digital music collection with programming from all of the top-rated streaming service providers. The MMS also aggregates music file formats of all types to be enjoyed throughout the home—from compressed MP3 files to high-resolution digital music, making it easy to access and enjoy your entire collection,” the N.Y.-based company tells CE Pro.
“Since digital music files and streaming content have replaced the CD for most consumers, the expectations for whole-house entertainment systems have escalated. The resurgence of vinyl LP records and the emergence of high-resolution digital music have consumers seeking out superior sound quality. Autonomic delivers sparkling clarity with support of high-resolution playback. Users want access to their music in any room or even outdoors, control of programming, volume up/down and custom playlists. The Autonomic MMS and Mirage Audio Systems (MAS) have set the standard for delivering digital content to any zone with easy control from decora keypads and/or Apple or Android phones and tablets.”
Stepping back and looking at the big picture and how the consumer audio market is evolving, Autonomic adds that its products have been developed to support whatever application dealers encounter.
“Custom integrators know that whole-house entertainment is one of the most sought after amenities in the new home marketplace,” the company points out. “Autonomic’s award-winning Mirage Music Systems offer the features and ease-of-use that consumers desire, as well as the elegance to help differentiate integrators from a sea of inferior products. Mirage Music Systems are a premium multi-room entertainment solution that will enhance the value of any home, and Autonomic products can be installed as a standalone solution or seamlessly integrate as part of a complete smart home platform.”
Maximizing the World’s Most Popular Audio Software: iTunes
There will be cases in which customers don’t want any sort of audio solution beyond what’s readily available to them. In many of these cases this means squeezing the most out of Apple’s widely used iTunes software.
Getting the most out of this popular software, James Tanner and Gary Dayton from Bryston, Ltd., recommend these steps:
- When downloading from iTunes, maximum allowed resolution is AAC 256K, which is O.K., for headphone playback at the gym or on the train ride to work, but for higher fidelity, the best option is to rip CDs at either Apple Lossless or AIFF resolutions in iTunes.
- A computer’s sound car is much like a cell phone camera—resolution specifications don’t tell it all about performance. Sound cards are available today with 192/24 and/or DSD capability, however an external drive such as our Bryston BUC-1 is the best way to achieve bit-perfect digital resolution.
- Users who prefer the iTunes experience might want to look at some of the core audio applications available for Mac and PC such as Amarra, Pure Music and JRiver. These interfaces provide an iTunes experience (or similar music management interface) with high-resolution playback capabilities.
- Once a digital music source has been established, install a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) with a USB input. These DACs will give users the outputs they need to feed the music into one or more zones and enjoy the high performance of bit-perfect digital music.
The Bottom Line
Emphasizing what is not only the most important component of any digital audio system, but any state-of-the-art home or even commercial system in general, Crabb says, performance starts with the network.
“The network is the foundation on which modern entertainment, control and automation systems are built,” Crabb reiterates. “To create a great experience for customers installers should use high-quality switches, routers and wireless access points designed specifically for high-performance residential applications like streaming and HD over IP. NAS and streaming media servers should be connected to gigabit switches, and wireless networks should offers excellent coverage and roaming capabilities. Also, since every homeowner loves a great-looking rack, they can show off to their friends. Installers should also choose network equipment that doesn’t just work well, but equipment that also looks great.”