Sound Advice – How to setup a network system
Networking needn't be complicated, here's what you should know
From a slightly shaky start, network audio has grown to be a huge part of how we consume music.
Network audio refers to any system where the music is stored in such a way as to be accessed using either Ethernet or wireless connectivity and standard network protocols as used in most computer applications. As such, this piece covers what your storage options are, the software used to make the music available and the hardware used to transfer this to your streaming device.
First up, it is important to stress that there is nothing intrinsically mystical about the business of transferring audio over a network that requires a radically different approach to the requirements of pulling a large document from a server to a computer. Even high res audio formats are not in any way overly demanding when judged by the standards of what networks handling video or gaming might be asked to perform. Rather than blazing speed, you are looking for total stability and long term reliability as the benefits of streaming are totally nullified if the network and supporting hardware isn't reliable.
A key characteristic of a network audio system is that the material you play on it is not contained within the streamer itself but is instead stored in a location that can be accessed by multiple devices. To do this, you need a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive. NAS drives are, in effect, very cut down computers that can manage the material stored on them and allow access to compatible devices.
NAS drives vary hugely in price and capability. The simplest units are barely more complex than a USB drive and come as a fixed unit with a hard drive of a given volume. More flexibility is available from 'bay' NAS type designs that are supplied without hard drives but have the ability to be fitted with one or more drives of the size and type that you choose. This offers the potential of having vastly more capacity than might be the case from a self contained NAS drive but also gives you rather more options in terms of backup.
Backup is one of those things that seems like a pain in the proverbial and a consumer of time, money and drive space right up until the point where you lose a drive. If your collection still exists on CD, you can technically rip them all again but that noise you've just heard is the sound of your soul dying a little inside. If you have been buying downloads though, they will effectively be lost forever. As such, you will want to have everything stored in a secondary location.
With a bay type NAS, it is tempting to take the option of fitting a second drive to it and using those drives in a RAID arrangement where the second drive is a mirror of the first. RAID was developed to allow for high availability but it is vitally important to point out though that while RAID will save your content in some situations, it is not a true backup. If you corrupt one drive, it is highly likely that corruption will affect the other drive too. Similarly, if you damage the NAS enclosure itself, this can potentially put both drives out of action. There is no substitute for a completely separate drive that can be backed up to at routine intervals. It is worth noting that the cost of some cloud storage options has dropped to the extent that this might be a viable option too.
In some circles, there exists a lively debate over whether solid state drives sound better than conventional disc ones. As this article is concerned with the basics rather than the minutiae of networking, I'll simply say that data to support this notion is neither extensive nor remotely concrete so would be something to reach a decision on your own. There are creditable arguments that the lower noise and faster access of solid state drives can be beneficial but the costs of using them will be correspondingly higher too.
It is also worth pointing out that the device you use for storage does not need to be a dedicated NAS drive. It is perfectly possible to use an old PC or MAC as a server if you install software like Twonky or Asset on it. The behaviour will be the same and the streamer itself is not going to tell the difference. You will want to avoid using a computer in regular use for this purpose though as a reasonable music library will eat into the drive capacity for doing anything else.
A final storage option that might warrant consideration is the RipNAS. This is a NAS drive that also contains a CD mechanism for a self-contained means of ripping CDs directly to the drive. In the event you have moved to computers with no drive of their own, this can be a very effective option indeed and removes a great deal of hassle when adding CD based material to a library.
Most bay NAS drives come with their own management software and for the most part, these all work in such a way as to be much of a muchness. Companies like Synology and QNAP have evolved their software to be very powerful and flexible for a variety of applications. Some drives will allow you to modify the supplied software and use more bespoke options but it is worth trying the default before you try anything of this nature.
One reason you might have to consider specialist software is if you can't get the NAS to stream the formats you need. As you might expect, MP3 and AAC, FLAC and WAV support is pretty much universal but some cheaper NAS drives will struggle with high res files and DSD support (while pretty esoteric) is not a given. There's nothing in the hardware that will limit the devices so the only stumbling block will be software.
Network HardwareAt the most basic level, if you have a NAS drive or any other form of server and streamer you own has WiFi, the only piece of infrastructure required in an absolute sense is a router that can send material wirelessly. There is nothing to say that this won't sound good as well. Wireless transmission does have some limitations though. Some properties are built in such a way as to make stable wireless transmission impossible. On a more basic level, if you live in a busy household with plenty of other people using the network, the performance and stability of a wireless signal might suffer.
This means that for fit and forget stability a wired connection will perform better. High res audio is of sufficient bandwidth that if the network is also handling another task of similar size, you may find that both actions suffer whereas if at least the streamer is on a wired connection this is unlikely to be the case. If you can in any way do it, straight runs of ethernet cable will offer the best possible means of making this sort of connection. While varying grades of ethernet cable exist (and as you might expect, cable manufacturers have got in on the act too), pretty much any grade of Ethernet cable will do the job although shielded cables can help avoid picking up interference from other places along the way.
If the layout of your house doesn't really lend itself to continuous runs of Ethernet, you can look at Ethernet over mains as a possible solution. Our very own Greg Hook has tested a number of these devices and it is highly likely that any of them that have been reviewed well are going to be up to the job of streaming audio. There are some caveats to the use of these devices that are worth pointing out however. They are only as good as the quality of mains wiring that you house has – some older properties can be problematic in this regard. They can also have a noticeable effect on the performance of some other audio devices – notably devices with basket type transformers but this is variable and can be alleviated with a bit of thought.
One of the most effective options – especially if you don't want to use on demand streaming services – is to install a simple closed network that your NAS and streamer belong to. If you only have a single streamer to supply music to, the demands this will place on a router will be sufficiently limited that pretty much any router at any price will be up to the task. Connection between devices can be wired with wireless access for control apps – or even a secondary listening location if needed. As a closed network, the impact it will have on your main network is nil while providing pretty much unconditional stability for you. Router brands are pretty numerous these days and largely competent but I've had consistently good results from Netgear (although others swear at them rather than by them).
If you want access to online streaming services, a closed network is going to throw up some greater challenges and will require some slightly more sophisticated network setups – where your streamer router is a sub network of the main one – but these are all possible. In terms of the bandwidth required to access these services, it is minimal – the compressed ones should work on all but the most feeble of broadband services while even lossless ones like Tidal and Qobuz are roughly on a par with 1080 Netflix.
The requirements of setting up a streaming system are more onerous than attaching a CD player to an amplifier ever was and if done in a half hearted way, the instability of the process can be enough to put you off for life. Budget for the right supporting hardware and take a little time to get the basics right though and it can show you what a seriously capable, convenient and flexible option it truly can be.
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