Music is Served: Media Servers for Every Taste and Budget
Whatever your tastes and budget, they’re a media server to whet your appetite.
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.
(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.
The Everyday Gourmet
(average bill $1,000 to $5,000)
Most cities of respectable size have a few respectable places to have a romantic meal or entertain important guests. Expect these system to act like a maître d’ to help you find the music you want and deliver it in a refined and enjoyable fashion.
Some gourmet systems will be user-installable, but often systems like this will benefit from a professional who knows how to tweak it best.
Gourmet music servers come in several varieties, but overall they’re focused on quality and experience. Usually they have high-quality DACs (digital to analog converters) from companies like Burr Brown or Cirrus Logic and overall better audio components. These systems are designed not just for gathering your files together, but for making them easier to get to. They have much more refined user interfaces and often can be integrated with complex control systems. A gourmet server takes most of the work out of finding your media by easily sorting it into genres, letting you (or your installer) customize some features as well.
One server brand that’s really caught on with audiophiles is Olive. The company makes several server models, but they’re all distinguished by the high-end components that go into their manufacture. The Olive O3HD is a good example, offering music lovers the ability to store 1,500 CD recorded losslessly on a 500 GB hard drive. You can load CDs via the built-in TEAC drive or load files through a USB port or your network. A 192khz/24-big Cirrus Logic DAC makes sure the music is far better than just hooking your MP3 player to your A/V receiver.
The Nuvo Music Port Elite offers a healthy buffet of entertainment. The internal hard drive will store a user’s Windows Media Player and iTunes libraries and also access to cloud content from Pandora, SiriusXM and TuneIn Radio. Users can navigate their options with Nuvo’s color touchpad, an iOS app or via a control system such as Crestron, AMX or UMC. One thing that makes Nuvo stand out here is that’s it’s made for multiroom distribution. The server integrates with the company’s Renovia system which distributes up to six sources to eight zones.
The Personal Chef
(average bill $5,000 and up)
At the top of the dining heap, there’s the personal chef. Here’s where someone comes to your house, finds out exactly what you want, scours the city to get the right ingredients and cooks it all up in your kitchen for an exquisite custom experience. From media servers like that, expect the best, and pay for it.
A couple of things set these servers apart from the others. Storage is one element, but even in some entry-level or DIY systems, storage can be easily expanded. Multiroom capability is very important here. What’s the use of having access to a massive library of media if you can’t enjoy it all over the house? High-quality audio and video output is also guaranteed at this level. Just as you’d expect the top restaurants in the country to only serve the best steaks, you can take it as a given that this level of product serves high-end files.
Still, one of the main differentiators is the user experience. They handle you like a fine sommelier would by guiding you through your media selections, offering you ample background information and handing it to you with a deft touch that makes you wonder why the whole world doesn’t function this easily.
Usually systems like this either rely on their own graphic touchpanel interface (such as Crestron’s Adagio server or Meridian’s Sooloos Control 15 touchpanel) or they integrate with a control company’s interface device. Most come with apps for smart phones or tablets as well.
You’d think that at the top end of the spectrum, there would be a limited selection of offerings. Surprisingly, there’s quite a few. Meridian’s Sooloos system is an exquisite example in configurations that will get audiophile-sounding tunes delivered to every room in a house. If music variety is your primary interest, then devices like Autonomic’s Mirage MM5 server will fit the order perfectly as it combines a hard drive, several streaming services as well as cloud-access and backup which will also let you get to your music via the Internet even when you’re away from the house.
Check out our review of Autonomic’s Mirage MM5 here.
There a few products that take media serving even further by delivering you DVD and Blu-ray videos as well as music. The Vidabox system is one. It’s based on Windows Media Center, so the interface may seem familiar to people who’ve used the Media Center feature on their computers.
The top chef of this family of products is Kaleidescape. The Kaleidescape system is scalable to anyone’s media needs and able to easily help you find your way through a menu of thousands of movie and music titles. Since it stores movies losslessly on multiple hard drives, the picture experience is indistinguishable from the original Blu-ray disk. Because it’s designed as a multiroom system, you can access your collection anywhere, pause a movie in one room, then pick it up where you left off in another. The company recently launched a new feature called Kaleidescape Scenes that allows you to quickly find some of the best scenes in a movie rather than having to wade through entire films just to find a special moment. The company also offers systems preloaded with movie collections to get the user started. Collections include The Best of Blu-ray, Critics’ 150, New York Times Best DVDs, Academy Award Winners and more.
1. How many rooms do I listen to music in?
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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?