Media in the Home–The State of Play

I’ve written a couple of posts over the past six weeks about Hi-Fi and Home Cinema, and I thought it would be useful to document the current state of play here in the Witte Wand.

Six weeks ago, I was at the point where I had come to the conclusion that Microsoft has lost the plot when it comes to integrating Hi-Fi systems into the Windows ecosystem. I was still trying to decide between Plex and Emby as the basis for an all-in-one media handling system, and I had just come across the Roon music system.

Part of the problem is that trying to base Hi-Fi audio streaming on the open protocol UPnP or Apple’s proprietary AirPlay protocol is an exercise ultimately doomed to failure. Some of the reasons why this is so are documented in this thread on the Roon Community forum.

In addition, it is clear that handling music is not the focus of either Plex or Emby – their prime objective is on handling visual media: movies and TV.

With this in mind, I decided that the way forward was to use Roon as the basis for managing and playing music to Hi-Fi quality in the house, and select between either Plex or Emby as the basis for our Home Cinema.

Music

To my mind, Roon has two key strengths. The first is that the user experience is the best of all the music systems that I’ve ever tried. The second is its underlying audio streaming protocol, RAAT (Roon Advanced Audio Transport), which is far in advance of anything else out there for handling Hi-Fi quality streaming audio that I know of. RAAT is being adopted by audio hardware manufacturers into so-called “RoonReady” devices.

PI-DACSo I’ve put together a Raspberry Pi 3 with an IQaudIO Pi-DAC+ running the IQaudIO RoonReady software into a neat little enclosure from IQaudIO, and used it to connect Roon to my Quad 44 pre-amp. For a tad over €100, I’ve got an audiophile-quality network-connected DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter) delivering audio streams to my Hi-Fi system.

hifiberryI also wanted to connect Roon to the Denon AVR-3808 used in our home cinema system. This time, because the Denon has its own internal DAC, I wanted to feed the digital audio stream straight into one of the Denon’s coaxial digital inputs. So I assembled a Raspberry Pi 2 with a HiFiBerry Digi+ card into a HiFiBerry enclosure to give me a network-connected S/PDIF device; total cost: €83.

At the original time of writing this post, HiFiBerry didn’t have RoonReady software available, so originally I installed the open-source PiCorePlayer software onto the Raspberry Pi. Roon supports Squeezebox devices, so that both the Quad and the Denon systems were recognised as Roon endpoints in the network.

Roon 49

(note: the IQaudIO device is showing as “uncertified” because Roon haven’t released a Roon build since the device was approved in-house. Roon build 1.2 is expected in a few weeks, and then this warning will go away)

Addendum 19 April 2016: In mid-April, Roon Labs released version 1.2 of Roon. As part of the release, they introduced Roon Bridge – a software package that (according to Roon Labs):

…extends Roon’s audio playback capabilities to other devices or computers in your home.

After installing RoonBridge on a device, any audio hardware attached to that device is made available to your Roon install exactly as if Roon had direct access to to the audio hardware.

This enables you to place audio outputs anywhere in your home where you can connect an Ethernet cable or muster a decent WiFi signal, and makes it that much easier to separate the media server from your listening environment.

So then what I did was to install Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi with the HiFiBerry hardware, and download and install Roon Bridge onto it.

Now both the Raspberry Pi devices are recognised as true Roon endpoints, and I don’t need Squeezebox emulation any more.

Roon 62

Movies and TV

As I said at the outset, the choice for handling our movie and TV collections was between Plex and Emby. I’ve decided to go for Emby for the following, completely personal, reasons:

  • Even though the new generation of Home Theatre clients of both Plex and Emby are still in beta, that of Emby is already more mature and appears to be evolving faster. The Plex client is still very crude, and Plex’s UI Experience team are still sitting on the pot wondering what to do as far as I can see.
  • Emby has explicitly stated that their Home Theatre client is designed to be controlled by a simple six-button remote from the ground up. Plex has gone the mouse/keyboard route, with support of a remote seemingly added on as an afterthought (it didn’t work at all in early betas). Since I want to carry on using my trusty MCE Remote, the point is awarded to Emby.

Unfortunately, neither Emby nor Plex have a clue when it comes to supporting and displaying photo collections. The photo library functions in both is embarrassingly bad. This is particularly surprising given that one of the founders of Plex is a keen photographer. It may well be that Plex will buck their ideas up and deliver a more rounded product in the future. If so, I’ll revisit my current decision at that time. Until then, my money has gone to support Emby for at least the following year.

The Music and Home Cinema Setup

As a result of all of the above, our current home network now looks like this:

Network Layout

All our media is held on the central server (with off-site backup), and can be viewed/played on any of the attached PCs/laptops/tablets. In addition the Home Cinema system can handle both visual and music media, whilst the Quad system delivers the best Hi-Fi musical experience.

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.
This entry was posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics, Entertainment, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Media in the Home–The State of Play

  1. Federico says:

    Hi Geoff

    I was learning about AirPlay, AirDACs and found Arcam, Myro etc. pretty expensive so I kept reading and your blog came out. I always play CDs; I left cassettes and VHS audio in the dust. My LPs (Thorens / Shure) still make me company once in a while, but I have to admit that the idea of playing wirelessly high quality (Apple Lossless) files stored in my phone / iPad is really compelling. I do have an Arcam A80 integrated amp and B&W 905 speakers and I am sure I’d be disappointed by Sonos Connect or Apple devices and that’s why I was considering Arcam or Myro AirDACs.
    Well, it looks like you did put together an Air DAC for $120-150, using the same DAC of the Arcam (sold here for $480) and also found an app that sounds better than AirPlay.

    Problem is, I have no idea how to program those boards/components you purchased for this specific purpose, nor I would know their UI, settings etc. but for that cost, I’d be happy to learn. So here is my question: should I buy the Arcam / Myro because repeating what you did is very complex, or despite the depth of ignorance I have on this subject, I could still do it?

    I would really appreciate your feedback; your solution is the smartest thing I have found in over 4 hours of searching here and there.

    My very best regards

    Federico

    P.s.: I’m from Milan and live in Boston US, pardon me for the italo-american English 😉

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Hi Federico,

      I think that there are a couple of aspects to your questions. The major one is “will I be able to put together a DIY DAC?”. The second one (which is, I think, implied) is “which ecosystem should I choose?”.

      The answer to the first is really down to you. Personally, I found it quite easy to assemble the Raspberry Pi plus the IQaudIO board (and the Raspberry plus the HiFiBerry board) – one simply plugs into the other, and then the two were put in the case supplied. Downloading and installing the software was also quite straightforward. I’m no expert on Linux, but I can follow step-by-step instructions, and everything went together as planned. I’ll try to put together a post of exactly what I did with the step by step instructions, then you can decide for yourself whether it’s something you’d feel confident enough to tackle. (edit: I see that someone has started an installation guide for this situation over in the Roon forum, so check that out as it develops…)

      I think you also have to consider what your answer will be for the second question. I’ve gone for Roon as my music ecosystem, because I think it is the best that is currently around. It is not cheap. It also has an architecture that requires a central device running the Core component, which manages your music library. You mentioned iPhone and iPad as your devices. Neither of these can run the Roon Core. They can only act as control devices. You would need a Mac or PC (running Windows or Linux) to act as the Core if you went for Roon. Check out the Roon Labs site for more information to see whether the Roon route is the one for you.

  2. Pingback: Media in the Home – The State of Play, part 2 | Geoff Coupe's Blog

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