Music is Served: Media Servers for Every Taste and Budget
Whatever your tastes and budget, they’re a media server to whet your appetite.
December 07, 2011 by Grant Clauser

Diner Dash
(average bill $100 to $1,000)

The music server equivalent of a family restaurant serves up a navigable media menu, but usually makes you work a little harder to get it. Maybe the service is slow or sometimes you have to send a song back to the kitchen for a little more frying pan time, but they get the job done as long as you’re not too picky and don’t want to spend a fortune on the meal.

At this level, you can start with products that aren’t necessarily designed first as servers. Yes, video game consoles can make pretty fairly functional media servers as long as your expectations aren’t too high.

Both Microsoft’s Xbox360 and Sony’s Playstation3 contain hard drives that allow you to store a lot of music. In fact, both systems are also hard drive upgradeable, so you’re not restricted to the capacity they ship with. Both systems can also act as DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) clients so you can access music stored on your PC.

After games, there are several NAS (network attached storage) products from companies like D-Link and Buffalo designed specifically for media sharing. Some, if they’re DLNA certified, can also act as a hub for spreading music around a house to other DLNA certified devices (several TVs, receivers and other products are DLNA certified). These systems can be great because they allow lots of storage, and they’re often very inexpensive. However you may sacrifice on a few counts. If you’re just using a networked hard drive, then the audio quality often depends on the device you’re networking that media too. You also may find the user interface to be unappealing.

A decent exception to this is Western Digital’s WD TV Live Hub. It combines a 1 TB hard drive with the ability to access music from network attached PC or to stream the music to other DLNA devices. When hooked directly to a sound system and PC you get a nice on-screen guide and access to several streaming services such a Pandora and Netflix.

Some basic server-type devices don’t actually store anything. You have to supply your own storage (like a BYOB restaurant, they just pour it in the glass for you). D-Link’s DPG-1200 PC-on-TV media player is one example. Is uses your Wi-Fi network to access the music on your PC and play it on your audio/video system. The two drawbacks on system like this is that they require your PC to be on, and the onscreen interface on your TV looks like your PC desktop, so it’s not very entertainment friendly.

An exception to that is AppleTV. Like the D-Link, your computer needs to be turned on in order to access your stored music, but the onscreen interface show’s Apple’s elegant design sense.

Read our review of the Sonos Play:3 here.

At the top end of the working class DIY servers is the Sonos system which stores no music itself, yet it provides easy multiroom access to music from the owners’ PC-stored music or from a host of streamer services. It offers a superior user interface via iOS or Android apps, and it’s easy for anyone to set up.


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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

Questions to ask yourself when considering a server

1. How many rooms do I listen to music in?
2. Do I enjoy background music or critical listening?
3. What’s most important, quality (stored lossless files) or quantity (streaming services)
4. Can I hook this up myself or do I need professional installation
5. Do I have lots of music or movies I don’t use because it’s too hard to organize?
6. How much time am I willing to put into loading and organizing my media?

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