December 07, 2011 by Grant Clauser
Just as music sales and distribution has changed radically since Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft developed the secrete sauce for turning a big CD into a compact MP3 file, so has the way many of us store and access our music. No, I’m not talking about the iPod again. We all know that changed the universe. I’m talking about media servers. An iPod is to delivery pizza as a media server is to a full-service restaurant.
Media servers, derived from the IT server space, are devices for storing and accessing large amounts of digital media. Most of that media is music, but media servers can also be used for video and pictures. People were doing this on their own with hacked together software and hard drives years before there was an actual server market.
One of the first companies to make high-end media servers popular and easy to use was Escient, which produced the Fireball line of products. Unfortunately that brand is no longer around, but there are plenty more to fill the space.
Since the early development of music servers a funny thing happened. Just as we stopped relying on physical CDs for all our music, we’re now relying less on physical hard drives. Many music servers today not only allow you to store and access all your digital music files; they now incorporate streaming music services such as Pandora or Spotify. This means that the user isn’t limited to his or her own music collection. If it’s online somewhere, chances are you can play it at home, often for little or no money (for the music that is, the server will still cost you plenty). For this reason the definition of a media server needs to be expanded from something that stores music to something that stores and/or streams.
So what should you look for in a media server? That depends on your needs, you budget and your level of system integration. Media servers vary widely in features and functions. Some are designed for multiroom music distribution, while others have pure audiophile enjoyment in mind. For this article we consider servers in three categories though the products may overlap, so don’t get too hung up on that.
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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. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. 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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