Thursday, 27 July 2017

Streaming Near CD-Quality Internet and NAS Music for Cheapies

I have streamed music on You Tube to my hi-fi via the headphone socket of my ASUS netbook (which I have now retired) but never really liked the sound, and the ASUS was horribly slow loading You Tube pages. I started to look at various options to improve this, and then it hit me. Because, you know, I’m really smart and quick and down with modern technology.

I already have a high-quality device that will stream music from all sorts of sources. In fact I have two. The iPhone and iPad. All the streaming services have apps: Netflix, Amazon, You Tube, Google Play, Spotify, Beats, Apple Music… And there's an app called File Manager to play music stored on a NAS or a computer.

There’s only one upgrade I need, which is to put a decent DAC between the iDevice and the amplifier. The entry-level hi-fi DAC seems to be the £89 Dragonfly Black, attached via the £40 Apple Lightning Camera Adapter, which lets you power the phone and DAC from the transformer. I ordered those from Amazon, collected it from Doddle, took it home, plugged it all in, and…. instant hi-fi happiness.

As far as my slightly tired ears are concerned.

The final piece of the cheapie jigsaw is an app that streams music from a NAS or other computers. That’s File Manager Pro for iOS: the Pro upgrade gives you access to more than one device. File Manager Pro lets your iDevice access NAS and computers (it spotted my NAS, but you may need to set up others devices by IP address), and it gives you a simple Explorer interface to navigate round the files. Click the first music file in a directory and it will be cached and start playing. File Manager is smart enough to recognise that you probably want to play the other music files it can find in that directory and carries on caching and playing. Viola! NAS streaming.

You can now stream anything an iDevice can play from any computer on your network, plus music from any music streaming service that provides an iDevice app. You’re getting close-to-CD quality via the Dragonfly.

Is that it? This is where it gets embarrassing. My CD player has a USB port on the front. I’ve always thought it was for USB drives, and would be looking for files, and go off in a huff when it couldn’t find any. But hey, try anything once. I plugged in the Lightning-to-USB cable, navigated to a music folder with File Explorer and pressed play. Guess what? it works. My CD player is even better than the Dragonfly. As, to be fair, I would expect from the mid-range Marantz CD 6005. However, the Dragonfly is going to improve my listening when I’m streaming but not using the hi-fi. Like when I’m sitting in the garden. And you may not have a CD player with streaming USB input, so you should still get the Dragonfly.

For £130 if you have a recent generation smartphone, or £309 if you don't, you can stream near-CD quality music to your hi-fi from all those internet services, and you can stream any music you have on NAS or computers as well.

Yes. Almost. And certainly for less than £130, assuming you have an iDevice.

What’s missing is the library-style interface. That's for the next post.

PS: In case you have been rolling your eyes and being like "Dude, just use iTunes on your computer", here's why you're missing the point. The quality of output signal from a Mac headphone socket is not good enough: it's muffled and you will quite quickly get tired hearing it over a hi-fi. You still need the hi-fi DAC. Second, who said you had a computer? Third, even if you do, do you really want five or ten metres of USB 3 cable between you using your computer on the sofa and the DAC on a shelf? Also, that's about £60 of cable. That you are never going to use for anything else.

There are no high-quality DACs that can be streamed to from a computer over wif-if or ethernet. What does are media devices like the Apple TV or the WD TV. Take one look at the price and you know the DAC isn't going to be hi-if quality.

I know there are Internet Radios. The user interface is horrible. The upgrade path is, what upgrade path? Be serious.

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