Ted's Fun & Games Build Your Own
Stand-Alone Music Server
It's Easy!

May, 2015

I possess a great wealth of fine music of various types — classical, new age, vocals, jazz, movie soundtracks, and more.  Over the decades, my collection has been derived from various sources including store-bought CDs, vinyl discs, radio tapings, online streaming, and home-recordings.

My collection of nearly 900 CDs was stored on three big jukebox units connected to a stereo system.  This relatively convenient setup satisfied me for a while, until the sound quality began to deteriorate as the units aged.  Something needed to be done, and the seeming solution was to modernize my system by digitizing the music and getting rid of all disc players, which technology is being deprecated in any case.

Research into existing music-server technology proved revealing, disappointing, and a bit scary.  Feeling that I was not the only person wanting a simple solution to the storing and playing of music, I was surprised to learn that such devices virtually do not exist — at least, not within my price range.  I would happily have spent a thousand dollars on the right unit; but that was not to be.

Many so-called music servers on the market feature the latest connectivity features of networking, streaming, and internet radio; but most treat the actual storage and management of music as a low priority, and some of the user interfaces are comically poor.  I didn't care about any exotic capabilities.  All I wanted was a self-contained unit that simply plays good-sounding music, accommodates my entire collection, is reliable, and is easy to use.

There are high-end models that purportedly do work nicely; but the sky is the limit on their prices.  The cheapest researched unit that would begin to do a credible job retails for $2,000; and one easily could spend ten times that much.  Recently, a few vendors have begun offering less expensive units; but of those I investigated online, all are flawed in one or more ways.  Here is a partial listing of documented problems and drawbacks:

I actually tried the vaunted Logitech Squeezebox Touch; but it refused to accommodate my collection of more than 15,000 tracks.  Now, that brand-new device sits in its brand-new box, awaiting a trip to the thrift store.  (Would anyone like it for half-price?)

It seemed as if the most affordable option would be to build a server from a computer.  Many blogs on that topic (much of which is just self-complimenting drivel) detail the pros and cons of various hardware and software options, and what file types to use.  There is a lot of scary commentary about what might work and what might not, and what might sound good and what might not.  Enough technical jargon is bandied about to put off many would-be hobbyists; but now I am going to tell you not to worry about any of it.

Opting for the easiest setup I could think of, I constructed my own music server, and it works beautifully!

– PARTS –

My new system required an outlay of only $500 (prices have dropped since then):

To that stuff was added an old mouse, a couple of cables, and a power strip.  This is what the new system looks like all set up (including a cassette tape unit on the top shelf):

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The external hard disk is behind the laptop

– THE COMPUTER –

This being a stand-alone server, its sole function is to store and play music files.  Networking, the internal speaker, and all unneeded drivers are disabled.  The sound output is acquired from the USB grid.

The only connection to the outside world is by way of a USB stick, used for adding new albums.  The only program that must be used is the one that actually plays the music; and it can be launched automatically.  Boot time on my new server is under thirty seconds — a small price to pay.

Processor speed is relatively unimportant; for it doesn't take much power at all to play a music file.  Similarly, most any version of operating system probably would suffice; in fact, the older it is, the faster it would be likely to boot.

– THE DIGITAL AUDIO CONVERTER –

The function of a DAC is to convert a digital signal to a useful audio format while improving the quality of the sound in the process.  Because most computer sound cards are highly inadequate to that purpose, a good DAC is needed.

Every DAC model has different electronic circuitry that produces a unique listening experience; the only way to know for sure what one might like best would be to try them all, which is not likely to happen.  Having selected the Peachtree DAC-iT after extensive review of user ratings and comments, I am quite pleased with the resultant sound quality, which now is far better than it ever was with the old jukeboxes.  Any concerns about the technical efficiency of USB-style DACs in general seem unfounded; in fact, some feel that using USB avoids certain sound-corruption issues.

– FILE STORAGE –

The hard disks on older laptops rarely exceed 160gb in size, which is far too little for a lot of music unless all of it is MP3 files; that is why I need the external hard drive.  My 900 CDs, ripped as WAV files, consume nearly 500gb of disk space; but plenty of room for expansion remains on the 1-terrabyte drive.  Should ever I need more space, I'll get more space.

– OUTPUT –

Two RCA cables connect the DAC to an auxiliary input of a stereo receiver.  A $50 amplifier might have worked just fine; but I'll use the one I have.  Perhaps I will try some of those gold-plated cables sometime; but I have serious doubts as to whether their performance begins to justify their prices.

– SOFTWARE –

Naturally, any geek with a wire running from his navel to a PC doubtless will want a program that does everything, supports remote access, and features playlists, multiple skins, and a variety of screen options.  Among the current freeware favorites are foobar2000 and Media Monkey.  Those apps, however, are unnecessarily complicated and redundant for a stand-alone system.

All that actually is needed on the screen is a way to select albums and tracks; and it would be nice to display some album art as well.  To that end, I liked the popular Music Bee program; but I finally settled upon Boom Audio, an unpretentious freeware application that is uncluttered and proved the easiest of all to use.  On the left side of the screen is a listing of folders and tracks, selectable by either a mouse or keyboard; on the right is a 500×500 graphic of album art.

Boom Audio plays every track in a folder in alphabetical sequence, starting wherever the user chooses, then either stops as a CD player would or optionally repeats the tracks.  It also handles every type of file that I have thrown at it — WAV, FLAC, MP3, M4A, WMA, OGG.  Those file types can be mixed or matched at will within a folder.  A graphic file named cover.jpg, placed in a track folder, displays album art automatically.

Of course this software has limitations.  There is no provision for creating playlists or placing music in a queue.  I can handle that; for I have been doing so for my entire life.  No remote options are supported; but I can live with that as well.  I am not yet too old to get up and walk across the room to "change the record".  Also, one must create any desired album art.

One feature that I do miss, and which is present in most other music apps, is a progress bar.  Sometimes it can come in handy to be able to scroll around inside a track; but I have given up that toy in the interests of simplicity and efficiency.

– THE BOTTOM LINE –

The hardware selection is not limited to a Windows laptop, of course; a Mac could serve just as well.  Alternatively, you could try using the old PC in your attic; but then you would need a monitor, a keyboard and/or mouse, extra shelf space, and you would have to deal with a possibly noisy fan as well.

Alternatively, one could use a Mini-PC or even a newfangled Computer-on-a-Stick, plus all the necessary peripherals; but the total cost would be far greater than what I spent on a used laptop that does just as good a job.  On the other hand, the right computer at the core could enable a much faster boot time.

In retrospect, I am pleased that the Squeezebox didn't work out.  My nifty homemade setup has opened up new dimensions in library-editing capability.  Now I can add, delete, and arrange tracks and folders at will — even while listening to music, and no special software or disk formats are required.  I cannot adequately stress how wonderful those features are.

I find it difficult to imagine any other system being able to compete with this setup for overall functionality and ease of use.  All of the hardware requires just two feet of shelf space, the sound quality is outstanding, and I made it myself!

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