Wi-Fi Audio Frustrations
November 30, 2015 by Larry Grinnell
I’ve got a large music collection, much of which is stored on my media server in MP3 format. It comes from my collection of about 1,300 CDs, and a long-term membership with eMusic.com, which has served admirably as a great platform for identifying new and sometimes obscure jazz artists from around the world.
While I do have a treasured if elderly Apple iPod Classic (160 GB), that iPod is a mechanical device, with a hard disk drive that is sure to expire someday. I figured that I had this great media server with all these great tunes, how hard could it be to pump that music over Wi-Fi into my bedroom? Turns out that it was harder than I thought.
Bluetooth was no good because the source (my living room media server) was too far away from the master bedroom. There is a limit of about 15 meters from source to receiver for Bluetooth.
My media server, controlled by a recent-generation Mac mini with an Intel Core i5 processor is a pretty decent little box. It connects over a gigabit Ethernet network to an older Synology DS-509+ network attached storage device with 7.5 terabytes of RAID5 storage. There’s also a Synology slave unit, which backs up the DS-509+, which attaches with an eSATA cable, so the file transfer speed between the boxes is pretty good. The DS-509+ holds my movie collection, “backed up” from my DVD and BluRay media collection to a single device which itself is controlled by the popular Plex media server application.
Plex is a wonderful product, making it possible to play my music, movies, other videos, and lets me view photographs over my network, which, thanks to some terrific trickery by the fine folks at Plex, I can even view away from home. One of the standards Plex supports is DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), which normally means that with a compatible device, I can view and interact with media files on any number of devices.
Not only can I view my movies and videos and listen to my music through a Plex client built into my Samsung HDTV, but I can also use the Plex client built into my Roku, a video streaming device. Furthermore, I can connect to my Plex server via a really neat Web client, or a Plex app running on any number of other Macs, PCs, IOS, or Android devices, so I can access my media collection anywhere in the world where I can get an Internet connection. In other words, really flexible. I figured it would be a piece of cake to get a Wi-Fi signal so I could listen to random selections from my music collection on a speaker of some kind in my bedroom.
Experiment 1: AirPlay with an AirPort Extreme device
I was able to wrestle my old Advent Receiver (real hot stuff in the 70s!), and my pair of ADS 300 “mini monitors” onto my headboard. The AirPort Extreme has an analog audio output, which I connected to my Advent receiver, and voila! All was kinda OK. First, I had no way to control the music selections (at least to be able to skip a tune I don’t want to listen to), though I could control the volume with the receiver’s volume control. Unfortunately, the receiver is old, and Advent used some really, really cheap switches for speaker selection and other functions. They were annoyingly intermittent, and no amount of rapid switching them back and forth made much difference in the crackling sound that far too often came out of the speakers. By purchasing either a bunch of new (vintage) switches from a supplier that still services Advent products, I could resolve a lot of these issues. Alternately, I could purchase a decent quality, low-priced, Chinese-made integrated amplifier from Amazon for the incredible price of about $40.00, brand spanking new.
This, however, showed up another problem that continued to be a problem throughout my search for a better solution. That was that with the Mac connected to the NAS over Ethernet, whenever a power glitch occurred, the connection between the Mac and NAS would be broken until I discovered that the music had stopped playing in the master bedroom. That required me to switch my big Samsung TV video input to the Mac mini, so I could reboot everything and reconnect. Once everything was back up and running, I had to relaunch iTunes, and reconfigure the AirPlay to start playing in shuffle mode again.
Experiment 2: Hitachi W100 (not so) Smart Wireless Speakers
Everything on the box said it was the answer. The box lied—at least in the context of a user with a large music collection. I bought one of the so-called Hitachi Smart Wi-Fi speakers at my local WalMart, and set it up at home. As with most of these, as you will discover as you read through this tome, there are a couple of things that need to happen before music comes out of the wireless speaker.
First, you need to install a free app on your IOS or Android device to control it. This app helps you configure the Smart speaker for use on your network, and with connecting to one of a variety of music services. The connection to Internet Radio stations worked pretty well. I don’t have a paid subscription to any of the online service, and this was apparently required to play these services through the Smart speaker. It didn’t connect to my iTunes application, but it was able to use UPnP to locate the Audio Player app on my Synology NAS. That was about the last good thing it did, and it seems to be my fault. I have too much music, which made it difficult for the Hitachi device to manage it. For example, it would only shuffle the first few hundred tunes from my library, and would not seek further tunes. So, I packed it up and brought it back to my neighborhood Walmart.
Interestingly, the latest version of this product no longer touts the ability to play tunes from your own music library, except playing things from your mobile IOS or Android device, so I guess they learned its limitations in the real world.
Experiment 3: Bose SoundTouch 10 Wi-Fi Speaker
I really wanted to like the Bose SoundTouch 10 Wi-Fi speaker. First, it carried the well-known and well-respected Bose brand. Sadly, that didn’t help, and it again seemed that my large library was at least partially at fault. Like the Hitachi device, I needed to install an IOS app to do the basic configuration. It also came with a small remote control device that let you switch between up to six Internet Radio (or music services) presets, as well as your local library (if that’s working for you).
To connect to my iTunes application on my Mac mini, I had to locate and download a second application, which had to run through my music library and index it. That indexing process, called Syncing in Bose parlance, became a perpetual problem. With few exceptions, perpetually remained in Sync mode. This meant I could not access my music library through my iTunes application. But wait! I could also locate my library through the Synology apps. Problem is, they were as inconsistent as Bose’s iTunes connect app. My NAS also has a Squeezebox server, for which the Bose app was supposed to act as a client. It did so, but only partially, when it worked at all. At best, shuffle play only worked within an album—not on individual tracks, so at best, I could only shuffle a dozen or so tunes from the same album. No good. Back to BestBuy.
Oh, after poring through the user forums, I figured out that to use the iTunes player, the iTunes library had to be on the computer containing the iTunes application. So I did that, duplicating what was on the NAS. No difference.
Experiment 4: Samsung Radiant360 R1
I found the Samsung Radiant 360 R1 at my local Costco for half the price of the Bose device. Setup and operation were suspiciously like the Bose. There was an IOS (or Android) app, and a desktop iTunes app. It worked about as well (or as badly) as the Bose. It even sounded pretty decent. The only thing I could say in its favor was that at least it was cheaper… Back to Costco.
Experiment 5: Sonos PLAY:1
Sonos has been in this business for years. I don’t know why I didn’t go to them first. They have a new series of fine, lower-priced speakers in the new SONOS PLAY: family. I bought the most inexpensive one, the PLAY:1 ($199.99). Like the other devices, I needed to install a smartphone app to configure the device, and then I had to install an app on the computer running the iTunes application. Syncing took about 15 minutes, and it just worked. I could pick a genre or a playlist, and shuffle within either. Alternately, I could play an album with the greatest of ease. I have access to any number of Internet Radio stations, including my favorite Jazz Radio channels. Oh, did I say it just worked? Right out of the box? With no crashes or glitches? If I didn’t, I should have. And to put icing on the cake, it really sounds decent. The PLAY:1 is just right for a small room. The PLAY:5 can fill an average-sized living room with amazing fidelity. You can buy two of these devices and configure them as a stereo pair, or place each one in a different room and send wireless content to them independently. You can even control both devices from the same IOS (or Android) device. The smartphone software includes alarm clock and sleep timer functions that I didn’t see with the other devices. These really have it all.
Sonos is the granddaddy in this field, and I really wasted a lot of time and money experimenting with inferior solutions, when I could have been enjoying these lovely speakers.
I do have one beef with the Sonos desktop app, which is used to configure the device and to access my music collection. Even though I could see the app on my screen (as one would expect), it only played music through my Sonos speaker, so if I wanted music downstairs, I had to launch iTunes and shuffle my favorite playlist(s). Of course, this meant different tunes upstairs and down, which is more than a little distracting. After more research, I did come up with a partial solution, thanks to the fine folks at Rogue Amoeba, makers of some really interesting software-based audio accessories. One website recommended Rogue Amoeba’s Nicecast. This neat little app lets you use pretty much any audio-generating app, such as the aforementioned iTunes in shuffle mode, and turn it into an Internet radio station.
Setup between the Nicecast app, the Nicecast server app, and the Sonos app was fairly easy. It actually works pretty well, except that there’s about a 1-second delay going through my upstairs Sonos speaker, as opposed to what iTunes is playing downstairs. With a $200 investment in another Sonos PLAY:1, that problem goes away, too, though that does seem to be a silly (and expensive) solution. The only other challenge I’ve encountered is setting up the password protection, should I wish to broadcast my “radio station” on the Internet. For now, I’m keeping it local, which for security’s sake alone, is probably a better idea. Using Nicecast also means that I could set up other Internet-based devices (see the next paragraph) as radio station clients (providing their software supports user-configured radio stations). It would also have permitted me to use any of the devices described above (the Hitachi, the Samsung, and even the Bose). Guess I was too cheap to pay the additional $59 to add Nicecast.
For those of you who want to experiment a bit, there’s an interesting solution that uses the pint-sized Raspberry Pi Linux computer with a “Hi-Fi Berry” plug-in audio power amplifier that basically does the same thing. There are several software options available—basically your choice. You do, however, need to provide your own speakers.
I think you will find this market niche being populated with more solutions in the coming year. People who want to stream their own music libraries need to do their homework, or at least ensure that their retailer has liberal return policies if it doesn’t do the trick for you.