Streaming Audio, Music Servers and Network Audio Players

An overview of streaming

Streaming is basically how you play digital files. Many people are familiar with pairing to bluetooth devices from mobile phones such as headphones, car stereo(audio) systems and powered bluetooth speakers. Bluetooth is a type of wireless connection that most find easy to use because a network is not involved. For low resolution recordings it does a fine job and in a mobile situations that often involves noisy environments, compressed MP3 recordings are enjoyable enough. Playing music on a home audio system with low background noise will however make excessively compressed recordings tiring to listen to and reveal artifacts that come along with recordings processed for low bandwidth wireless systems. AptX helps but only goes so far.

Real time streaming services are available on the internet that offer CD resolution or beyond. Just as with Youtube video, volume of internet traffic affects quality and companies providing these services have to continually add more powerful servers to meet the increasing demand. Packets of information sent through the internet arrive at their destination by a variety of routes. Sometimes packets are held up and arrive in the wrong order or may be duplicated. Or they may never arrive - the internet is not a guaranteed delivery service particularly when congested - and on the receiver end a decision has to made to abort or create an extrapolated substitute. For the most part it works quite well most of the time and currently, for very low cost. The job of a network player/streamer is to assemble these packets of information into a continuous digital stream that can be converted by a DAC into a analog sound signal. This can be implemented by software on a general computer or by hardware and software on a component dedicated to this task. No suprises here on which gives the better result.

Some continue to use laptops or dedicated music server PCs running music media programs using a USB connection to a USB DAC. It is still a viable method but is now superceded as audio companies have caught up with the IT community and brought to market specialized audio components engineered to overcome the limitations and surpass the sound quality of general purpose computers and laptops running software music programs. Specialized Music Library storage systems use redesigned hard drives that spin at slower speeds with non-spiking well-behaved low noise power supplies. They do a better job of handling retrieved data and preparing it for USB or ethernet-based transmission protocols. Network Audio Players for high resolution streaming use better quality DACs and far exceed the performance of consumer grade mass market products.

Streaming and Network Audio systems

Almost all audio companies offer streaming and network audio products. They vary in in how storage, streaming and DAC elements are distributed between products, compatibility with existing products, the on-line streaming services provided, frequency and ease of firmware updates, and robustness, capability and ease of use of controlling apps.
Examples of Streaming and Network Audio components

Switching from physical media to digital music files

The hurdle, in making the transition from tradition physical media such as CD or vinyl LP to these digital media and storage technologies, has been confusion over file formats, ease of use, incorporation into existing stereo system, and dependency and quality of support. While some aspects of digital music are in a state of flux, the hurdle of entry has now been overcome and the prices of digital music players compete with mid-level CD players. The total cost of ownership over time is less than maintaining a high end moving coil cartridge. Generally playing digital files is controlled from apps installed on portable devices such as tablets and smart phones although some network players can be used with a conventional remote control. Screens with touch interfaces allow faster navigation, album cover art and the ability to search for music. Perhaps we will be able to say "play dark side of the moon" at some point.

Longevity

Physical media don't get deleted but they can get misplaced and are vunerable to physical damage and aging. One price to be paid for the convenience of digital music files however is the responsibility of the user to maintain back-up copies. Maunfactures have made this push button easy - so long as you get into the habit of pushing the button regularly! But backing up means you can preserve the data indefinitely. The field of digital rights management continues to find its way as the cost of music has come down but independent open systems usually have less strict licensing than closed systems. Real time streaming removes concerns of copying music for free or even the need to own music. At the moment the monthly costs are low. High resolution digital files and new vinyl records are realistically priced - about the same as when CDs were introduced.

Advice and support

kemela provides great support to get you up and running and build your confidence in being able to manage digital files. When things don't work, most of the time - but not always, operator error or bad cable connections are the source of the problem.

With streaming products, having access to support should not be traded-off for a low price.


 
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