The Audiophile's Guide to Streaming Music
The introduction of the MP3 player enabled people to play their music anywhere, but it has had an unfortunate side effect: Folks have sacrificed the awesome audio quality that the compact disc delivered in exchange for ever tinier music players, simpler room-to-room streaming, and the flexibility to buy songs instead of entire albums. So while the convenience of digital media just keeps getting better, the sound quality itself has suffered.
It doesn't have to be that way. You can get sublime audio quality from compressed music files--files that you can store on a central server and listen to in any room in your house, and transfer to an MP3 player for enjoying just about anywhere.
I'll show you how to rip tracks from CD and encode them to FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), which will deliver compressed but bit-by-bit accurate copies of your music (much in the way that zipping a text file with a compression algorithm can reduce the size of the file without losing any of the text). All you need is a PC with an optical drive, some free software, and your collection of audio CDs.
I'll also discuss several hardware products that can stream music from your PC or network-attached storage (NAS) device to your home stereo system, even though they may be in separate parts of your home. And as a bonus, I'll teach you how to calibrate your speakers to your listening environment to achieve the absolute best sound possible.
If you buy music online because you're interested in acquiring specific songs, consider that most online music merchants--including Apple's iTunes store--don't offer high-quality music. They use lossy codecs such as MP3 and AAC with bit rates that max out at 256 kilobits per second. They want you to cram as much music as possible on your PC or portable device with little regard for audio fidelity. When you listen to music encoded this way, you're not hearing everything that the recording artist created.
Buying and ripping CDs is old-fashioned, but in doing so you enjoy much higher audio quality (and you have a factory-made copy of your music in case your hard drive ever fails). If you can't bring yourself to buy an entire CD to acquire one track, you can find a handful of online retailers selling music encoded in lossless formats. Music Giants, the biggest fish in this small pond, offers a broad range of pop, classic rock, jazz, and world music encoded in the WMA Lossless format. Linn Records presents a fine collection of classical, jazz, and Celtic music encoded in the FLAC, WMA Lossless, and MP3 formats. Much of the Music Giants catalog is free from DRM restrictions; none of Linn Records' offerings is saddled with the annoying technology.
Music Streaming Systems
The Sonos Digital Music System and Slim Devices' Squeezebox Classic and Squeezebox Duet are some of the best audio-streaming products on the market. All three enable a do-it-yourselfer to assemble a sophisticated multiroom audio setup for a fraction of the price of a custom-installed system.
Plenty of other alternatives are on the market--including Media Center Extenders that can stream both audio and video from a host PC, NAS box, or central server to your entertainment system--but if you're looking for high-quality audio, these three products deliver tremendous price/performance ratios.
These devices can operate on either wireless or wired ethernet networks; the Sonos can create its own proprietary wireless network so that streaming music won't consume your other Wi-Fi network's bandwidth.
The Sonos music streaming system and the Logitech Silm Devices Squeezebox both support FLAC, but neither supports WMA Lossless. The Squeezebox does come with PC software that can transcode WMA Lossless files on the fly, but that requires storing your WMA Lossless files on a PC as opposed to a NAS box (since that kind of device can't run the software). You'll have to transcode DRM-free WMA Lossless files yourself in order to stream that music on a Sonos system (a tedious process that's impossible with encrypted files).
Set Up a Music Streaming System
Sonos and Slim Devices both use very good analog-to-digital converters in their products, which means you can connect their analog outputs to a high-quality self-amplified speaker system and get great results. If you're connecting the system to a midrange or high-end A/V receiver, on the other hand, you might get better sound quality using the streamer's digital output and relying on the A/V receiver's DACs instead. If you have both options, audition each of them in your home and let your ears be the judge.
To set up the Sonos system for streaming, use the Sonos setup wizard to point the software to the locations where your music is stored. Launch Sonos Desktop Controller, click on the Music menu, and select Setup Music Library. Click on the Add a Share button and choose to add either music stored on your PC or music stored in a shared folder on your network.
Once the Sonos Desktop Controller has indexed your library, you'll be able to access those tunes on your Sonos system using your PC or the system's handheld controller. The process for setting up the Squeezebox's SqueezeNetwork is very similar.
Install Exact Audio Copy
You'll need to download and install the free program Exact Audio Copy (EAC) for this step. EAC is powerful and flexible, and it delivers extremely accurate results. Did I mention that it's free?
The FLAC codec is included in the EAC download; the EAC installation will install it automatically unless you tell the program otherwise. FLAC is also free, and--equally as important--you'll find support for it in some of the best music-streaming devices on the market, including the Sonos Digital Music System, Logitech's Transporter and Squeezebox series, and Olive's Opus No. 4. Finding FLAC support on portable music players is a little more difficult, although nearly every player that Cowon America manufactures can handle it. If you'd prefer to not replace the player you already have with one that supports FLAC, you can reencode or transcode FLAC files to another format, such as MP3, that your player does support.
Accept the EAC installation wizard's default choices by clicking the Next button at each prompt, and then allow the program to test your CD drive's features. You don't need to make any decisions until the installation wizard reaches its encoder selection step, at which point you should select FLAC.
If you'd like to use the free online database service Freedb to download details about the CDs you're ripping (album and song titles, for instance), enter your e-mail address when prompted (this won't lead to spam, but feel free to use a fake address if you're paranoid). This information will be used to create ID3 tags for the files you'll be creating. Use the default file name value in the next step (you'll change it later), but choose the expert option in the next step and then click Finish.
Get the AccurateRip Plug-In
Audio purists want rips to be as accurate as possible, a goal that AccurateRip--a third-party Exact Audio Copy plug-in--helps achieve. EAC will enable AccurateRip by default. Each time you rip a CD, AccurateRip compares your results with an online database containing the results that other people obtained with the same CD. (A rainbow-colored CD icon in EAC's bottom-right corner informs you if the CD is in the AccurateRip database; if it isn't, you can contribute your results later.)
When the ripping process is finished, EAC will generate a confidence report: If your results are in line with everyone else's, you can be sure that your rip was completely accurate. But if the comparison shows that your results are different from many others' (the program will report 'cannot be verified as accurate'), your disc might have a problem. Cleaning the disc will sometimes resolve the issue.
Set the EAC Extraction Options
Exact Audio Copy has a deep bag of tricks for yielding highly accurate results. Some of these tools are native to the program; others are plug-ins created by outside developers. I'll use some of each to achieve the best possible rips from even badly scratched CDs. Rather than go through every possible option, I'll mention only the ones for which I recommend changing their default values. Click the EAC menu and choose EAC Options from the drop-down to get started.
Uncheck the item labeled No use of null samples for CRC calculations. This will deliver more-accurate results and ensure that your ripped tracks are compatible with the widest array of software players. Uncheck Lock drive tray during extraction so that you can open the drive should the program freeze or crash during the ripping process. Lastly, change the values for 'Extraction and compression priority' and 'Error recovery quality' from their default values to High. That might slow the ripping process, but it will produce better results. Leave everything else at its default value.
Click on the General tab, click the check box next to On unknown CDs, and select the option to automatically access the Freedb database. Leave everything else at its default value, skip over the Tools and Normalize tabs, and select Filename. This is where you'll determine how EAC will name the files it will rip for you and how they'll be organized on your hard drive. Type the following characters in the 'Naming scheme' box: %A\%C\%N - %T
Now check the box labeled Use various artist naming scheme and type the following characters into the box beneath it: Various Artists\%C\%N - %A %T
The instructions in the previous two steps will have EAC create a nested directory structure in which each artist will have a dedicated subdirectory, with subdirectories within them for each album title (compilation CDs and soundtracks will be stored in a subdirectory labeled 'Various Artists'). Click the Directories tab and enter the main directory into which you want to store your ripped CDs (My Music, for instance). If you were to rip the Dire Straits CD Love Over Gold to your My Music folder, for example, the resulting directory (and the first track) would look something like: C:\My Documents\My Music\Dire Straits\Love Over Gold\01 – Telegraph Road.flac
Ignore the rest of EAC's extraction options and click OK.
Tweak the Codec Options
You won't need to make any changes to EAC's compression settings unless you're reconfiguring a previous installation. If that's the case, click the EAC menu and choose Compression Options. Click the External Compression tab and check Use external program for compression. Choose User Defined Encoder from the 'Parameter passing scheme' drop-down menu and type .flac in the 'Use file extension' box.
Type the following text string in the 'Additional command line options' box: -6 -V -T "Artist=%a" -T "Title=%t" -T "Album=%g" -T "Date=%y" -T "Tracknumber=%n" -T "Genre=%m" -T "Comment=%e" %s -o %d
That will set the amount of compression that FLAC will use. (Higher values yield greater compression but entail longer encoding times. The range is zero to eight; we're using six in this example.) The '-V' value will force FLAC to run a decoder parallel to the encoder to compare the encoder's output with the original input. Each of the text strings preceded by '-T' is a tag that embeds information into each track (artist name, song title, album title, and so on). Clear any check marks next to Use CRC check, Add ID3 tag, and Check for external programs return code, but place a check mark next to Delete WAV after compression. Lastly, choose the High quality option. Click OK.
Everything you've now accomplished in EAC needs to be done just once. If you want to experiment with other settings, or if someone else will be using your PC to rip their CDs using different values, I suggest you save this configuration as a profile so that you can restore all the program's settings in one step. Click the EAC menu, choose Profiles, Save Profiles, and give it a name.
You'll perform the remaining steps with every CD you rip.
Mind the Gaps (Between Tracks)
Commercially recorded CDs usually have gaps in between their tracks. The gaps often contain digital silence, but they sometimes contain a fade from a previous track, an introduction to the next track, or even an entire song (a so-called hidden track). A CD player will play a gap's content only when the tracks are automatically played in sequential order; in other words, if you skip to Track 3, you won't hear anything that might have been encoded in the gap preceding Track 3.
When you rip the CD, EAC will default to appending each gap to the previous track. If you want the program to append the gap to the next track, or if you want to leave the gap out entirely (which I don't recommend because you might lose important audio material), press the F4 key to have EAC detect gaps on the CD. Click the Action menu and choose the option you prefer.
Rip Some Tracks
Most of the work involved with using Exact Audio Copy to rip CDs occurs during the setup process. The actual ripping process is amazingly simple: Drop your disc of choice in the drive tray, click the Action menu, and select Test and Copy Selected Tracks (using the Compressed option from the submenu). EAC will sequentially test, rip, and then compress each of the CD's tracks to a FLAC file. The program will delete each .wav file after each compression step.
EAC will generate a 'Status and Error Messages' report at the end of the ripping process. The most important information in this report is whether each track was accurately ripped, based on findings from the AccurateRip database. You might want to save the log in the folder with the ripped tracks for future reference. Repeat this step with your entire CD library (or as much of it as you think you'll want to stream).
Calibrate Your Speakers
Once you've painstakingly made perfect rips of your audio CDs, you'll want to calibrate your speakers to ensure that you hear every note. You'll need a sound meter to accomplish the task. Radio Shack has a digital one (model number 33-2055) that sells for $50. It has a convenient thread mount on the bottom, so that you can attach it to a camera tripod (taking measurements while you hold the device will result in inaccurate readings).
You might also want to pick up some calibration software. Although even most midrange A/V receivers are capable of generating calibration test tones, you'll get more accurate results with something like Ovation Multimedia's Avia II ($50) or Joe Kane Productions' DVE HDBasics ($30). Both programs can help you calibrate your HDTV as well as your audio system.
Set the sound meter to slow response and the meter's weighting to the value that the calibration software you're using recommends (it's typically "C," and that is what you should use if you're calibrating to your A/V receiver's built-in tone generator). Mount the meter to a tripod and place it where you usually listen to music. The meter should be at ear level, aimed at the center point of your two front speakers and tilted slightly toward the ceiling. Don't move the meter once you've placed it and started the calibration process.
Your A/V receiver should allow level adjustments for each individual speaker, ranging from -10dB to +10 dB, with 0dB being the default. Before you proceed, make sure each speaker is set to the default value. Your calibration disc (or your A/V receiver, if you're going that route) will play a test tone on one speaker at a time. While the first tone is playing, increase your A/V receiver's master volume until the sound meter reads 75dB (or whatever level the software specifies). Once you've finished this step, do not change the master volume until you've finished calibrating the remaining speakers.
As the calibration disc's test tones cycle to each of the other speakers in your setup, use the A/V receiver's individual speaker adjustments (not the master volume) to cut or boost that speaker's output until the sound meter reads 75dB. When you're finished, every speaker should deliver the same volume to your listening position.