3 Ways to Serve Your Digital Music


Owners of the Sonos digital music system can access music directly from personalized radio service pandora.com, or jukebox-style online service napster.com.

There are several ways to get your music fix - from simple PC streaming, to Internet-based services, to full-fledged storage systems.

May. 08, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

You get it. Storing your music collection onto a hard drive is better than spinning discs on a traditional CD player. First off, you’ll be able to organize your library by genre, artist or alphabetically, making songs easy to locate. Besides that, you’ll be able to keep all your tunes on the hard drive of one machine, which means you can finally clean out the CD cases from the drawers of your entertainment cabinet. 

It’s clear why you’d want to invest in a music server, but what kind? There are a couple of basic setups to consider:

PC Streaming
The first option is to connect a streaming device to the hard drive of your computer. Any music that resides on the drive can be transmitted to speakers in a different area of the house, many times without any wiring.

Streaming devices are typically less expensive than specialty music servers, but you will need to sacrifice some of your computer’s memory for music. For those who don’t like that idea, an alternative setup is to transfer your MP3s onto a $250 network attached storage (NAS) device. “NASes have in the past been a bit geeky, but they’re starting to become more mainstream with companies like Apple starting to release products,” says Tom Cullen, cofounder of Sonos, a manufacturer of wireless audio distribution systems.

Computer-based music streaming is affordable and practical, but there are some limitations. Some systems can stream only one song at a time and require that you visit the PC each time you want to skip to a new track, engage a different playlist, or make other changes. Be sure the system you select can transmit multiple streams and comes with portable controllers, if these features are important to you.

Dedicated Servers
The second option is to buy a dedicated music server that can organize your tunes, gather cover art and other data about your songs, and distribute your tunes all over the house.

Dedicated music servers come in different sizes, based on storage capacity. A 350-gigabyte server from ReQuest, for example, can hold music from as many as 400 CDs, uncompressed. Most servers offer a few compression options. Higher-quality uncompressed music will eat up more space than MP3-grade compressed music. To keep up with consumers’ growing music collections—and the desire for high-fidelity playback—you can find servers with terabytes worth of storage which is enough room to hold thousands of CDs.

Another feature to check out is a server’s multiroom capabilities. Some servers must connect to a whole-house music system in order to deliver tunes throughout the house. This type of server is a popular choice with homeowners who like to listen to a variety of music sources, like satellite radio and cable TV stations, in addition to their server. Through the music distribution system, they can select to have a satellite radio station piped to the kitchen and music from the server sent to the family room, for example. Ideal for homeowners who plan to enjoy their digital music collection are servers that can form their own distribution network. These setups consist of a main server that transmits songs to individual slave units (each slave connects to speakers) placed at each listening location.

A connection to the Internet is a must-have for any type of digital music setup. With it, the server or computer can go to places like gracenote.com to gather the information it needs to categorize your collection. Plus, with an Internet connection, you’ll be able to download music onto your server from digital music stores like iTunes, Amazon and Walmart.com. Services differ in their pricing structures and compatibility with certain players. Some songs purchased from iTunes, for example, may have DRM (digital rights management) restrictions, which means they can be imported to only an iPod. DRM-free songs, which is the way most online music stores are heading, can be downloaded onto any type of device, including your server, a CD or any brand of portable media player.

Pay attention to the compatibility features of the server, too. Manufacturers will often embed special middleware software into their servers to streamline the download process with certain digital music stores. Servers from ReQuest, for example, are designed to support iTunes and Amazon. “You can still download music from other stores, but it’ll take a little computer experience to do it,” says Bill McKiegan, ReQuest vice president of sales and marketing. 

Web Streaming
Buying songs online is convenient, but like shopping for anything on the web, it’ll take time to wade through your choices. By contrast, subscription-based services like Rhapsody and Napster provide unlimited access to a library of millions of songs for a monthly fee. This is a great way to discover new music and artists without having to pay for every album and track you listen to. To sweeten the deal, manufacturers like Sonos and Control4 are offering owners of their digital music systems free 30-day trials to these jukebox services.

Even more effortless are Internet radio services that let you create your own personal playlists by simply choosing the songs you want to hear. By going onto Finetune or Pandora, you can type in the name of a particular artist or style of music, and the service will instantly play the songs that match your criteria. When you hear a song you don’t like, you can skip it and go on to the next. Based on your preferences, the service continually grooms your music. “Through services like these, music listening can become a more social experience,” says Cullen. “You can tell a friend about a new tune you just heard, and they can go right to the service and hear it without having to pay for it.”

As digital music services continue to evolve, manufacturers of servers and streaming devices will redefine their products, adding new features and functions to keep their products fresh and appealing to all types of consumers. “With the proliferation of jukebox and Internet radio services, digital music has become something you don’t have to be a techie to enjoy,” says Cullen. Anyone with a home that has a broadband connection can have access to a wide selection of music without having to rip their CDs onto a hard drive or boot up their PCs to download tracks.

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