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Saturday, April 24, 2010

018 - From concrete CDs to abstract iTunes files. And now the old amp broke

This note is updated at my new blog space only, blog note Welcome there!

Latest (Aug.2010): This post is a discussion with myself, and has mostly been closed. Read 019 - Play (with) network-disk based iTunes library? as the next and more mature chapter.

My excuse for keeping this blog somewhat unorganized is that it is being written now, while I try to get organized. I am writing it to help me get organized. And, perhaps you could reckognise your situation?

Intro: how? to play my music

What can help, now that my LP vinyl collection has been stacked away for almost 20 years, and I have reached "9.5 days" of playing with CD import to iTunes, and still have a "day or two" left to import? In other words: I don't have to get more CD shelf space, it's opposite: I need less and less. In practice this also means that the the old Denon CD player DCD-680 will be out of use pretty soon. And it probably won't even be kept as a spare, as has been the old 33 rpm LP player. It was bought when I acquired the CD player, to make it possible to play LPs indefinitely. It still works. However, since CDs can be played (or imported) on any PC or Mac, I am uncertain about the short-term fate of the CD player.

And - for a some time now the old Denon DRA-335R radio and amplifier has been getting rusty in its voice, i.e. broken for any real world listening.

The times they are a'changin, sings Dylan on one of the CDs. Yes, they still are. But how do I cope?

The new backbone: a network disk with iTunes library

My new backbone is not the shelf with plastic, but a network disk with iTunes files, and a good backup scheme. See blogs [1] and [2]. It's available over wifi , but I have also wired all necessary spots. We use the wires most: it's faster, and we swim in less radio waves (set to 10% power).

But I have to move on with the blog. I'll start off with an example, and then perhaps later on try to set up a specification.


Sonos have a great box called ZonePlayer ZP120 [3]. What's in it for me?

When I say "me" I really mean "us": my wife and me, with no children in the house any more, but they come along visiting, some with grandchildren. How should our new "stereo" be like?

First, we're not talking about a home movie theatre, and no 5.1 surround sound. Not in our living room, and not in any other either. We go to the cinemas, watch tv, and we watch internet tv and DVDs using a Mac Mini and the tv as a screen. The central here is a multimedia rack I made a while ago [4].

However, we are talking about iPhones with playlists. They play home made movies and music in their iPod applications. Quite nice. There is a subtle integration here, with the living room. Even the car. Perhaps also with my workshop in the basement. But how should I do this?

Scenario 1: ZonePlayer ZP120?
This unit could easily replace the old amplifier. It's got a nice Class D amplifier [5] that I'd really like to own, and more than enough power. Power output for stereospeakers and a line subwoofer outputs. It connects to our home's wired network, which is nice - and reads files as well as radio stations out there. It also has wifi, but only over a proprietary SonosNet protocol.

There is a remote control for it, but it costs more than half of the unit. However, a free iPhone App also controls it, and that would help. Especially since we have a first generation iPod touch laying around.

Sonos would read iTunes playlists, once it's told by a Mac/Windows application called "Sonos Desktop Controller" where the iTunes library is located (where the file "iTunes Music Library.xml" is located). Even if it's on the home network disk. So, none of my machines need to run while Sonos streams music from the iTunes-loaded network disk. I like it. So, this software does set-up and it also is remote player client or control system for the ZonePlayer. They even say that it shows CD covers, also while playing iTunes [17]. The sw seems to have changed name since I first started this blog. Now (Aug.'10) it's called "Sonos Controller for Mac or PC".

However, it doesn't play DRM and WMA lossless files. So, some of my songs would not be seen. I have not studied the percentage I loose there.

On the other side Apple has this Airport Express that has the feature that it appears as an iTunes output channel [6]. Apple's protocol (AirTunes, in Sept. 2010 replaced by AirPlay, see note 19) is probably not any more standard than the SonosNet. The iTunes would stream to that unit, and I could connect the 3.5mm jack output to the ZonePlayer's input. The Airport Express also functions as a TOSLINK optical digital connector over the 3.5 mm jack [7]. This is beautiful to avoid hum - but the ZonePlayer only has RCA inputs, so I would need an optical PCM to analogue converter to use it [7]. This is a substantial extra cost. Also, a limitation with the Airport Express is that I can only stream from iTunes wirelessly, not via cable. However, the good thing is that Airport Express would be available from any machine that runs iTunes that sees the network disk.

So, how about connecting the output from the Mac Mini (which also has TOSLINK) to the ZonePlayer? With 10 m of analogue wire, I would rather not. I already have a little hum from not using the TOSLINK output to the little Logitec Z4 that replaces the sound from the Samsung tv. When I switch it to the Mac Mini, that's when the hum comes - since I have not used the supplied TOSLINK. The hum is small, but I may hear it on a bad day. But, as mentioned, I could use 10m of optical and an optical PCM to anlogue converter box [7] here. The cost is about 40% of the price of ZonePlayer ZP120.

I am confused. Buy a ZonePlayer just for the amp? Buy another little amp? Use two user interfaces, one for the ZonePlayer and one for iTunes? Drop iTunes? How big is the Sonos lock-in effect. Now that the iPhones already lock us in, I'd not want more!

(Any system would probably try to lock a user in, ref. Gödel and Russell - and the laws of capitalism. So, trying to be outside one could easily be locked out, which is just another kind of lock-in? Standards or lack of standards also cause lock-in.)

I would suggest you also read David Pogue's article in NYTimes [9].

Scenario 2: Just an amplifier: Denon DRA-F107
This unit costs half of the ZP120. But if I add 10m of optical cable and the optical PCM to analogue converter [7] the only gain is a little lower price and the simplicity. As you understand, there is no TOSLINK input here, no digital audio input. DRA-F107 has a phono input from my still kept record player, to play LPs. It also has an FM radio, and DAB+ may be ordered. It also has a remote controller, somewhat easier than the AppStore remote app. ZP120 has internet radio, but no phono input.

This unit is smaller than the two old Denon 43 cm width units, but a little wider than ZP120.

I want to keep the small speakers we have: Bang & Olufsen Beovox CX50 [8]. I bought new elements in them some years ago, and the play quite well. But I would like a subwoofer in addition, since the CX50 are only 2.5 liter internally.

How easy should it be to play a song?

A. Before
  1. Hmm, I'd like to play a record
  2. Where is it, I think I placed it here. Darn, it's too dark, I can't find the CD.
  3. There it is!
  4. Switch on the units
  5. Push in the CD
  6. Find the song and play!
B.1 iTunes with help from external amplifier (before Post 019)
  1. Hmm, I'd like to play a record
  2. Start the Mac and iTunes (I never switch it off, so I only need to wake it up)
  3. Switch TV to become Mac mini screen
  4. Since I played iTunes on another machine before, I must wait until iTunes library has been updated
  5. Select speakers: the local PC/TV speakers or the nicer across the 10m optical cable
  6. Switch that system on
  7. Play
B.2 iTunes when Post 019 is much easier (all already runs, machine and iTunes):

  1. Hmm, I'd like to play a record
  2. Start Apple's "Remote" app your own iPhone (or iPod)
  3. Or use the remote control that came with the Mac Mini to continue playing. Observe I haven't switched on the Mac Mini's tv screen
  4. Play (it may take some seconds before the network disk spins)

C. iTunes files only with ZP120
  1. Hmm, I'd like to play a record
  2. Switch on Sonos ZP120
  3. Find the iPod and start the remote control App
  4. Have it connect to the ZP120
  5. Wait until the network disk is seen by ZP120
  6. Find the song in the list
  7. Play
I don't know which is fastest, but I suspect A. So, why not keep the old CDs? Because I cannot and want not stop the world alone. I see that with a ZP120 I also have the choice between B and C. But with DRA-107 I only have B.

Longevity of living-room music playing instruments

So, how technical should it be? It is good that a two year old grandchild never would be able to start her favourite music alone (B and C, above). And I, being a computer programmer, in a way don't like B and C. They are not usage elegant! Just technically elegant!

But maybe they are, after all, two steps ahead and only one back. And I won't come to half way by going two ahead and one back, but I'll come to another place. In iTunes I will be able to see the full collection at once, with front covers. I can search and group and play across albums with playlists. I can easily move music to iPhones etc.

But is iTunes here in five or ten years? I do keep two networks disks: one connected and in the house, the other in another house, which carry over and mirror some times per year. I also have a copy on a machine in house. How do I know that my backup is a valid backup? Of the CDs there was no backup: lost is lost. Hmm.

And how is ZP120 updated? For how long?

Any system that needs backup and centralized storage needs an "adminstrator". That's me in this house! But will I survive my wife, and if so, admin myself? We're still only 60 young, but age is volatile. Hmm.

Ok, I need switch: Presonus Firestudio Mobile or Apogee Duet or iMic?
I want to play iTunes directly from the external disk without any machine. And I want the same speakers to play music from any (?) machine playing iTunes, or any sound from any machine! And I want no hum from them. And I don't want to stream the music over WiFi. Seems like I'm starting to understand what I need?

Here are some products that could help. I could place one of these units beside the Sonos player, and any one of them could be of great help. The Presonus (left in the picture) unit takes both FireWire and S/PDIF (TOSLINK) inputs. I don't think it shows up as an external speaker on my Mac, and that I need Presonus sw to be able to stream music out on that FireWire? However, the Apogee Duet will turn up as an external sound unit because it supports Mac OS X Core Audio. 

Thinking about excatly the last point. I have a very old now, iMic USB Audio Interface from Griffin Technology. I have enjoyd it for 8 years, sitting next to a Lamp Mac that I love. It connects to USB and has 3.5 mm stereo input and also output. So it also must support Core Audio, and has since Mac OS X 10.3 I think it was! The iMic is still a product! 

However, none of the products function as an USB, FireWire or optical switch. And I have to have wires from each machine up to the ZP120. Am I getting closer, or am I just learning?

Another thing: FireWire or USB from a remote machine, and analogue out into ZP120 - I have a feeling I would still get some hum! 

I probably either want an optical switch or to stream music from a sound "http driver" directly into ZP120? That would be nice! One url from each machine! I think I will continue my search. Maybe I'm only a driver away! No extra hw!

New knowledge: UPnP - Universal Plug and Play

Maybe the UPnP - Universal Plug and Play [11] (for Mac, for me) comes to the rescue?

A. C. Ryan has a box that seems to read UPnP servers [12]. There is a lot about iTunes and the like at the discussion thread [13], "iTunes streaming". There is pointed to Allegro [14] and Yazsoft [15] Media Servers for Mac.  

And I must find out if Sono ZP120 reads UPnP. 

More new knowledge: DLNA - Digital Living Network Alliance

This is an alliance that defines and looks after protocol usage(?) [16]. There is a connection between UPnP and DLNA that I'll have to find out about. More later, since "knowledge" in the headings is very exaggerated. I'll have to learn this!

Sonos Controller for Mac or PC

This is s client to control the ZonePlayer (see above). It is not a server that helps me stream music from an other machine, which is what I am discussing at this stage.

Jack Audio Connection Kit

Just for the record for myself, this is very interesting, and I will certainly look into this more in my next note. Here is a quote from [18]:
What is JACK?
Have you ever wanted to take the audio output of one piece of software and send it to another? How about taking the output of that same program and send it to two others, then record the result in the first program? Or maybe you're a programmer who writes real-time audio and music applications and who is looking for a cross-platform API that enables not only device sharing but also inter-application audio routing, and is incredibly easy to learn and use? If so, JACK may be what you've been looking for.
JACK is system for handling real-time, low latency audio (and MIDI). It runs on GNU/Linux, Solaris, FreeBSD, OS X and Windows (and can be ported to other POSIX-conformant platforms). It can connect a number of different applications to an audio device, as well as allowing them to share audio between themselves. Its clients can run in their own processes (ie. as normal applications), or can they can run within the JACK server (ie. as a "plugin"). JACK also has support for distributing audio processing across a network, both fast & reliable LANs as well as slower, less reliable WANs.
Logitech Squeezebox™ Touch

Closing this name throwing, here is the last piece I need for homework for my next note: the Logitech Squeezebox™ Touch. It takes physical connections as well as works as a streaming client. See [19]. There's also the Logitech Squeezebox Radio, which I will need to look more into.

An "on the fridge" type radio: Pinell Supersound II

I'll watch out for this in my next note. It's a Norwegian radio, but it looks interesting. See [20]. It also reads UPnP streams. It turns out that Pinell is using a "turnkey solution" from  Frontier Silicon [22] for their units.


I will try to connect all this in the next note 019 - Play (with) network-disk based iTunes library?


[1] - Blog post: 003 - Shared iTunes library on a network disk

[2] - Blog post: 004 - Living with a network disk in the house

[3] - Sonos:

[4] - Furniture design an building: Multimedia rack

[5] - Class D amplifier:

[6] - Apple Airport Express and AirTunes In Sept. 2010 replaced or expanded into the AirPlay protocol, see note 19

[7] - TOSLINK optical connection:
PCM decoding from Mac Mini: S/PDIF:
PCM adaptor:
Box to convert optical S/PDIF or TOSLINK digital audio to L/R analog audio:
Gefen Digital Audio Decoder DD D/A-converter:

[8] - Bang & Olufsen Beovox CX50

[9] - David Pogue (The New York Times), "No ‘System,’ but Music Housewide" -

[10] - Denon DRA-F107:

[11] - UPnP - Universal Plug and Play:

[12] - A.C. Ryan - PlayOn! Media player:

[13] - Thread "iTunes streaming" -

[14] - Allegro Media Server for Mac:

[15] - Yazsoft Media Server for Mac:

[16] - DLNA - Digital Living Network Alliance:

[17] - Sonos Controller for Mac or PC -

[18] - Jack Audio Connection Kit -

[19] - Logitech Squeezebox™ Touch -

[20] - Pinell Supersound II -

[21] - Comparison of streaming media systems:

[22] - Frontier Silicon: - used by "practically all major consumer electronics brands, including Bang & Olufsen, Bose, Bush, Cyrus, Denon, Goodmans, Grundig, Harman/Kardon, Hitachi, JVC, Magic Box, Ministry of Sound, Onkyo, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Pure, Revo, Roberts, Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony, TEAC and Yamaha".


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