Web Services – a Rant

This is less about web services and more about functionality that does not need web services but uses it anyway.

I have a large amount of video media, photographic tutorials, the family favourite movies and TV shows etc.

They are sat on an external hard drive and a copy in Dropbox. We use the Plex app to service these to the TV, and the AppleTV app to our computers and tablet devices; much easier then finding physical media.

It used to be simple, the app on the TV talked to my main computer that had the Plex server app on it and access to the media. Simple and it worked.

But like many companies they have now web offerings and offer other functionality. So now the TV app has to authenticate to their servers out there on the web before it will connect to my server and play my media.

This means now that if Plex have a service outage or my internet is not working I cannot play my media on my TV, very frustrating. Over the last few days we have seen major outages with AWS, Azure etc, causing many online services to fail. Not sure where Plex host there servers but they were out too. So no watching Plex for me last night.

Yes I get it that many people like the extra functionality but the basic stuff, streaming media from a drive in my home to my TV in my home all on the same network should still work!

At least I have coffee.

Draft Music Streaming – Part 2 of 2: Streaming music round your home

Introduction

So you have a large music collection in iTunes, Media Monkey, etc, sat on you laptop, server, NAS – choose your poison.

How do you steam that round your home and integrate you Spotify into it.

Well, I had a bit of a mess, a mix of iTunes using Airplay to stream to old Apple Express units connected to systems via the 3.5 mm audio jack. Sonos in the kitchen and Sonos in the Lounge. Decent active speakers connected into the line out connection of my MacPro in the office.

So music all round the home and different apps to manage it.

My music library was iTunes, then moved to the Apple Music app. Not bad but not brilliant when you have various sources and different end points.

So is there a simple solution. Well if your starting from scratch you could just buy active speakers to place round you home that support Apple Airplay. Most hifi active speakers now support airplay and often their own proprietary solution. The Sonos system is hard to beat and there are many others.

But what if you are like me and have a mix of systems. I have three high quality budget hifi systems in the dinning room, my office and the music room, plus Sonos in the kitchen and the lounge. They were networked via my apple wireless network through the house but this was getting old and need replacing. I needed to bring it all together with something better that would work as a whole.

The Music Library

The music system starts with your library; according to a recent search of the internet the top budget players are:

Library software:

  1. MusicBee
  2. AIMP
  3. MediaMonkey
  4. foobar2000
  5. VLC Media Player

Many of these will work with iTunes or the inbuilt Windows alternative. The ones most often used are foobar, VLC and Media Monkey.

Systems like Sonos you can just point at your music library location and manage through the Sonos application. So manage the library in one app and play it through another.

Endpoints

Apple’s Airport Express, with a USB port for storage and a 3.5 mm audio socket were brilliant. AirPlay was lossy but they were convenient and gave you the ability to manage it all through iTunes and network your none streaming devices. They were also cheap.

Some wireless access points offer this but now if your a bit of a geek and want a cheap solution you can give high quality results with a Raspbery Pi, but how to manage it.

Bringing it all together

So far all this has been very bitty. The new Sonos devices now support airplay as do most speakers but we need a better solution.

So what is the answer: well there are two ways that come to mind. Standardise on a common system, Airplay, Sonos, Bluesound etc, or a software solution that supports the different types of hardware?

If your buying new then standardising is the way, but if your like me then finding a software server solution seemed the best option and one that supported the latest losses codecs.

The solution I picked was Roon. Many hardware devices are Roon ready, it supports Sonos, Bluesound, Airplay and can bring everything together. You can even make your own Raspberry Pi endpoints that are Roon capable to connect to your hifi midi systems and separate systems.

Currently I have the Roon core software on my MacPro but may later move it together with my video Plex server software to a new NAS, it pulls my media from my iTunes library and any other library and hard disk/storage device I have and my Tidal streaming service to present it as one logical view. The endpoint software I have on the MacPro and (MacBook Pro); for listening in the office, it supports the Sonos devices and I have the software on my phone, tablet and laptop so can listen where ever I am.

My Photo editing workstation (yes my office is still not decorated and the curtains are going), MacPro, G-Tech Storage, Epson Scanner, powered Ruark Audio MR1 speakers and a Schiit Preamp with Multibit USB import DAC

I intend to add the midi system and separates systems in soon as well as building a high end hifi headphone listening station into the mix.

There are other solutions but this works out the best for me with what I currently have.

Music Streaming – Part 1 of 2: Streaming Services

Introduction

I love music.

We have music available all around most of our house. A nice midi hifi system in the dining room. A decent separates system in the music room with all our books and the piano. Quality budget active speakers in my office and a Sonos One in the kitchen diner and Sonos sound bar for the lounge, with the TV.

Most of my music is on Vinyl and CD, but the CD’s have all been ripped to a lossless format at redbook standard. With a collection of old Apple Airport Expresses and Extremes we have networked the various music devices that do not already support streaming.

So using a mix of the Sonos app, and iTunes (now Apple Music App) we can listen to any of our none vinyl music around the house. Its not perfect and I’ll be addressing that in part 2 but for now lets talk about Music Services.

Music Streaming Services

Streaming music services is not something I got into. I like hifi and will admit I was picky; in fact you could call be a hifi snob (as well as a coffee snop), but streaming round the house is convenient and the Sonos and Airplay 2 is something that is not too bad for general listening. Low quality streaming services is not something I was interested in.

The big player in streaming is of course Spotify; but I first tried streaming services thanks to the Sonos Play One I was bought for my birthday. We got it as a solution for music in the kitchen, a small standalone speaker to sit on the windowsill was ideal. When we bought it, it came with the Deezer Streaming service for free for one year.

This was a bit of a wake call. The quality was not bad for general listening, and the convenience was something I loved.

Through it I came to find more music and buy more CD’s and vinyl from artists that the streaming services had helped me discover. The services learn from what you listen too and then suggest other things you might like.

After my Deezer subscription ran out, I looked for other free offers. You generally find that broadband/mobile phone company may have a deal on offer. It was via this I managed to switch to Apple Music, and more recently I have moved to Tidal.

If your into hifi the issue with most streaming services, and most home streaming tech like Apples Airplay is that in general they are a lossy 256 kbps / 320 kbps service. For listening on bluetooth headphones and when out and about using your mobile phone as your music device this is generally fine, but for sitting down at home and actively listening, you want something better.

There are now several companies like Tidal that offer Redbook standard losses or above audio quality and if your equipment supports tech like MQA then you have a hifi streaming solution available to you.

So what streaming services is best. Well that is a difficult question. On quality its Tidal and Qobuz, for price its Spotify. The bigger issue is track availability. Some tracks are only available on some services and some tracks not at all. If you’re interested in classical music most of the main companies are poor and you better off looking at services like Primephonic.

I enjoyed Deezer and Apple Music, but have not yet used Tidal enough to be sure if its better, it is missing some music that Apple have, but the quality with the right hardware is certainly better.

New Years resolutions and projects

I did not make any real new year resolutions but there are a few things I am intending to do.

I want to get more studio photography done and I want to try and make sure that I get out to Hartsholme Park and Whisby Nature reserve a bit more often for some wildlife photograph.

This year will be spent trying to figure out what are the main types of photography I want to do and which focal length lens I prefer to do those types of photographs.  Then next year i’ll be undertaking a bit of a photographic prune of equipment and setting my self up with just what I really want.

When and and about with the Leica I have proven to myself how few focal lengths you actually need.

On a more personal note I want to continue with my diet and weight loss, I am just about there now despite Christmas but want to ensure  I do not slip back into old ways.

Lastly I want to get my music a lot better this year.  I found last year with everything that happened it was far too easy to let a couple of months slip past and I had not picked up a banjo or sat and played at our piano.  So January will be a month where I start gently but ensure I get down at least a couple of practice sessions each week.

Learn to Play Day 2016

Learn to Play Day

I am not a brilliant musician, whilst I used to be in the choir as a child, I am now limited to poor banjo and piano playing.

Not enough people play an instrument in the UK, which is a shame.  To help encourage people this weekend is learntoplayday.  As with many of these things its just not advertised enough.

Sonos add Apple Music Support

Music Man

I love music, and used to play the guitar and currently play the banjo and piano.  I now have my Hifi setup in the end room which has been turned in a music/library/studio room.

I also have some decent powered speakers in my office linked to my MacPro and my iTunes library which mostly consists of ripped CD’s.  Where we listen to the most music is in the kitchen which with our love of cooking and baking we both spend a lot our time.

For my birthday last year we have had a Sonos One in here, its pricey for what it is but does perform very well and needs little else to make it work.  It came with one years free Deezer subscription which is now coming to an end, and so I was pleased to see that Apple music in beta has now arrived for the Sonos.  Once my Deezer subscription expires i’ll give the Apple music a trial and see how that goes.

The think to remember with most of these streaming systems is you need to invest in the time and energy to let the service learn about your musical tastes.  Of course once a service is setup how you like its hard to move and go through that again which is what most of them are hoping.

The End room starts to get furnished

new room-2 new roomJust to quick snaps of the end room, now with three large book cases at one end.  This means we can finally unbox our books that have been in storage or blocking up the wing hallway for the last two years.

Not only that but I have unboxed my hi fi so we now have music in there.  Currently only two sources set up, CD and a wired input from my iPhone.  I am thinking about moving the main Apple Wireless Extreme from the living room into hear and getting a newer model for the living room.

 

Mac Sound output

Audio Midi SetupI love good music and HiFi, since getting my new Mac setup the sound quality was not quite as good as I thought it should be.  It was then I remembered that the default output was not as good as it should be.  You need to go into the Audio Midi setup program and configure it to the best settings.

See above.

Having the new Mac Desktop I now have the line out direct into the active speakers giving me better sound quality then Apple AirPlay.

 

The end room takes shape

Our spare end room over the last few months has been stripped down to bare walls and concrete floor.  We have plastered painted and decorated. Including painting the roof and open roof beams.studio-2

This weekend we finally laid the new floor.

studio-3

We just have the beading left to put round the edge and its finished.

studio

Then its new book cases and we can unbox the books and also finally setup my hifi. Then we have a smart new space which we can use as a reading room, music room and when necessary a studio space and even somewhere to layout quilts.

Hifi in the Office

So with the new Sonos speaker in the kitchen I got for my birthday last year, we have decent music in the house again that is until I finally get my separates system setup in the room we are currently decorating.

Enjoying the Sonos made me think about my office, how to get decent quality sound from the PC without too much cost.

I wanted stereo so another Sonos was not going to cut it, purchasing two would be more then a quality set of active speakers, plus I also wanted to stream from other sources not just using the Sonos app.

Quality wise, CD was good enough, most of media is either vinyl or CD and also sat in my iTunes library at 16 bit at 44 kHz which is CD quality.  I do have a few other audio files which are at studio master quality 24 bit and 192 kHz but thats just over kill for a simple budget office system.

I am lucky enough to have an Apple AirPort Express in my office, as well as providing wireless internet I have my large format Epson 3880 printer plugged into one of the ethernet ports.  The device also supports Apple Airplay at 16 bit / 44 kHz so it could act as the music source for the speakers.

So first I set a budget, then looked at small desktop active speakers that fitted that budget.  By active I mean with built in amplification.  Basically it would be a simple setup.  Apple Airplay sending my music collection from laptop, or iPhone to the AirPort Express and direct into the speakers.  This meant I could keep my current cheap computer speakers and have the computer sounds come from them leaving just the high quality audio of my music streamed to the speakers.  Longer term I might upgrade and add a high quality USB DAC into the system, driving that from the USB port in my computer.

So what did I pick, well first job a trip to the website WhatHiFi and look at what they liked, then a web search to find the best prices.  After that it was a trip to my local Hi Fi shop who offered to price match.  We had a listen, using my iPhone as a source and I picked the Ruark Audio MR1.