Fun With Technology – Part II

Last month, I wrote about some of the ways in which consumer technology doesn’t always work as promised. Today I’ll continue with the saga of the SNAFUs I’m encountering in my quest to have a media network in the house. I should start off by pointing out that today’s episode deals with cutting-edge features of products that are not in their final state, so it’s hardly surprising that not everything works as it should. Still, I post this as a counter-balance to some of the rah-rah blog posts that I’ve seen to illustrate that things aren’t always as wonderful as they seem.

Today’s topic is the “Play to” feature that will be in the upcoming version of Windows Media Player that will ship with Windows 7. That means that when browsing my music library, instead of choosing a track (or an album) and having it play on my computer, I can send it to be played on the Denon AVR-3808 that sits at the heart of our home’s audio-visual system. What I see on the PC is something like this:

WMP12

Let’s take a closer look at the “Play to” window:

WMP12 - Play To 1

Here you can see that a track from a Kate Bush album is being played through the Denon AVR-3808. At the bottom of the window are the playback controls. The “Play”, “Pause”, “Stop” and “Track skip” buttons work correctly. In theory, I should also be able to set the volume level on the Denon via the volume control here, but this currently has no effect. This is probably because it’s an attribute in the new version 1.5 of the DLNA specification. The Denon is currently only certified to version 1.0, but a future firmware upgrade should be able to take care of this.

Well, this was all very nice, thought I, I’ll be able to assemble Playlists on my Tablet PC and use them on my Denon. But there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip… I found that many tracks simply would not play on the Denon. When I tried, the “Play to” window would report that an error had occurred on the Denon, like this:

WMP12 - Play To 2 

As you can see, it’s not a particularly informative error message, and looking through the error logs on the PC using Event Viewer didn’t reveal any more information that I could see.

What was going on? Further experimentation revealed that some tracks worked while other tracks didn’t – and it was consistent. Those that worked, always worked; and those that didn’t, always failed. And just to be clear – all of the tracks worked when I called them up off the Media servers using the Denon directly. But when I sent them to the Denon via the “Play to” feature, some of the tracks would always fail.

Finally, I found the correlation. The tracks that work were encoded using the default Windows Media Audio codec, encoding at a bit rate of 192 kbps. Tracks encoded using the Windows Media Audio Pro codec (also at a bit rate of 192 kbps) and those encoded using the Windows Media Audio Lossless codec (which uses higher bit rates) always fail with the “Play to” feature. This is a bit of a bugger, since these days I always use the WMA Lossless codec to rip my CDs to my Music Library.

So, to summarise:

Codec

Streamed to Denon via “Play to” Feature

Streamed to Denon Direct from Media Server

WMA

Works

Works

WMA Pro

Fails

Works

WMA Lossless

Fails

Works

 

As I said at the beginning, Windows 7 is still in Beta, and the Denon has not yet been certified to the new 1.5 version of the DNLA specification. So the problems could lie in either of them or both. But I do find it interesting that the Denon has no problem with all forms of WMA codecs when the files are streamed directly to it, which leads me to suspect that the issue may well lie with the current Beta of Windows 7. Whatever the cause, I hope that it gets resolved soon.

Important Update, 13 March 2009: I’ve discovered that I am in error in believing that the Denon works directly with WMA Pro and WMA Lossless streams – it doesn’t. The reason why I thought that these were working when streamed directly to the Denon (as shown in the table above) is that the streams were actually being transcoded into PCM format on the fly by the Media Servers I was using. Clearly, the servers were negotiating with the Denon over a supportable format when talking directly with the Denon. When using WMP12’s “Play to” feature, there are three devices in the chain, and a proper negotiation is not taking place. So, the server sends WMA Pro or WMA Lossless to the Denon, which can’t dealt with the formats, and the process fails.

Second Update, 14 May 2009: Using the Windows 7 Release Candidate, I’ve found that there is are scenarios where the format negotiation will fail, and ones where the negotiation will succeed. It’s all down to how you access your music files in Windows Media Player, and what the media server is. I’ll document all this and add it as a fresh entry into my blog… It’s now posted see Fun with Technology – Part IV.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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3 Responses to Fun With Technology – Part II

  1. Unknown says:

    I’m experiencing the same problem with WMA Loseless, except with the Denon 4308 and Window 7 RC. Kinda a bummer to be "so close" a really awesome capability.What Media Server do you think was transcoding to PCM? I was using the Window Home Server to stream to loseless WMA, and it works great. Did you find documentation that said it was transcoding to PCM?John

  2. Geoff says:

    John, the Windows Media Connect server and the servers in WMP11 and WMP12 will all transcode WMAL to PCM when sending directly to the Denon providing the Denon negotiates directly with them. If you look at the Denon’s display, you’ll see that the WMA icon lights up when streaming plain WMA to it, but if you stream WMAL to the Denon, then the PCM icon lights up instead, showing that the servers are transcoding the stream.I had a message from Gabe Frost in Microsoft claiming that the RC of Windows 7 would fix this negotiation problem, but as you and I have discovered, it’s still there. A workaround is to install the Asset DLNA server on to your Windows Home Server (see http://www.dbpoweramp.com/ ). You can switch the Asset server to always transcode WMAL to PCM, and then it doesn’t matter if you have the three-way negotiation set up using the Play to feature, because the Asset will stream PCM to your Denon.

  3. Geoff says:

    I’ve actually discovered that the picture is a bit more complex than I thought. Some scenarios will work, others won’t. I’m currently documenting this and will add it in as an update to this post later today.

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