Music in the air

March 27th, 2012

“You know”, my dearly beloved said to me, “It must be possible to play music in the living room more easily!”. He knows I’m an obliging sort, and an engineer, and I fell for that one hook, like and sinker. He outlined the brief in the manner of the client who knows what he wants but doesn’t know how it can be achieved – “I don’t want to bend over my old iPod to choose tracks. I’d like to play music across the network from one of the computers. Oh, and I’d like to control the playlist from my phone.”

I promised that something could be done. But it would require time, and would almost certainly require money.

So, I surveyed the existing things I had to work with:

– a Fatman iTube iPod dock / amplifier and speakers
– a classic iPod from days gone by
– a MacBook with an iTunes library full of music
– a wireless network

It ought to be possible to make that work out – all I needed was a box of tricks that would connect to the Fatman’s line input and pull music over the network. I punched “network audio player” into Google and found myself adrift in a world of solutions that didn’t quite work…

Here are some that I considered:

Logitech Squeezebox. I know that Lorna is a big fan of Squeezebox and has them all over her house. But the entry-level Squeezebox Radio is £150 and you have to be running their software on a machine that’s on all the time.

– Apple’s AirPort Express. A funny old gadget this, basically a wireless access point that also can output a line-level audio stream and be a print server. They cost £79. The audio output works using Apple’s (inevitably proprietary) AirPlay system, so that locks me (as an Android user) out from the system. Dearly beloved boyfriend has an iPhone, so he’d be all right with it. Still, possible but not ideal.

Revo Mondo Wi-Fi. This is a little adaptor device that’s designed to plug into a hi-fi. It’s mostly intended as an internet radio, and has a basic two-line display. It’s about £90 from online retailers. The underlying technology comes from a firm called Receiva, and claims to support BBC on-demand radio content (i.e Listen Again / iPlayer radio) as well as live streams.

In the process of looking at all these bits of kit I kept coming across mentions of DLNA and UPnP. I did a bit more research and discovered that these standards offered me what I wanted – a flexible, cross-platform system. So, what are they? DLNA stands for the Digital Living Network Alliance, and it’s a standards body that provides standards for networked AV systems. UPnP is one of the underlying technical standards – it stands for “Universal Plug ‘n’ Play”. For the purposes of networked AV, there are three basic items in a DLNA system:

– a media server: this is a box full of media (music, video, photos) connected to the network
– a “control point”: this is a control device, that allows a user to choose media to play
– a “media renderer”: this is a device that can receive commands from a control point and content from a media server and play it.

Confusingly, a lot of products support different bits of the standard and don’t always tell you which ones! Anyway, here’s my approach:

– Media server: MacBook running Twonky 7.0. There is quite a lot of server software out there – they all have different quirks. Twonky is easy to get going with, but it’s somewhat irritatingly bound up with Twonky’s attempt to be a social media site. I’m planning to eventually switch to a DLNA-compliant NAS device with all our media on it.
– Control point: my Android phone (HTC Desire S) running BubbleUPnP. There is a free Twonky app for Android (and iOS), but I found it a bit clunky and it also doesn’t seem to be able to adjust the volume control on a remote renderer. Note that BubbleUPnP (and Twonky Mobile) can act as a server, control point and a renderer all on the same device.
– Renderer: I bought an Archos 35 Home Connect internet radio, which cost me £88 from Amazon. The Archos box is a strange concept – basically a tiny, cheap Android tablet given a pair of kitchen-radio speakers – but it seemed like just the thing for the job. It runs BubbleUPnP also, acting as a media renderer. Because it has a little touchscreen it’s possible to interact with it directly, but I’ve mostly been using my phone to control it remotely. Note that you need the full version – costs £3 – to make Bubble UPnP into a remote media renderer: once you’ve installed the licence app, go to Settings->Local Renderer->Allow remote control and then it’ll show up as a renderer on the network. After a false start yesterday (turns out Google Play gets confused if you buy the same app twice in quick succession for two different devices on the same account) the system is working nicely now. The Archos has a 3.5mm audio out, which I’ve hooked up to the Fatman amp in the living room.

Since the Archos is an Android device, you can make it run any app you like. You’ll need to install ArcTools from AppsLib to get the full Android Market / Google Play functionality though. I like to listen to BBC radio programmes via iPlayer, which works on the Archos. My only gripe is that iPlayer’s layout doesn’t work very well with the Archos’s landscape-only screen, and so you end up scrolling a lot to find the programme you want. Since the Archos has its own internal battery and speakers, I can bring it into the kitchen (disconnecting it from the amp) and carry on listening whilst I cook.
Its other feature is a little VGA webcam above the screen, so it could be used for Skype Video or even as a security camera!

The Archos unit is a “value-engineered” product, so don’t expect Apple-like levels of user experience. The resistive touchscreen is okay – I’ve used worse (TomTom, I’m looking at you) but not as good as you might be used to. That said, I think the Archos does the job I wanted pretty well. Let’s see how the “highly valued client” gets on with it!

7 Responses to “Music in the air”

  1. William M. Connolley Says:

    FWIW I just bought a Squeezebox radio; they are £119 off Amazon. Seems to work, though I’ve only had it a day. I’m hoping to use it to erg to; it is probably just about loud enough. It takes line in from a iPod.

  2. Michael P-J Says:

    William: ah, interesting. Thanks!

    After writing this post yesterday I remembered that the only real advantage of a resistive touchscreen is that you can operate it with any old blunt instrument. A retractable ballpoint pen (nib retracted) is in fact the ideal thing to work the Archos with, as it gives a precision that isn’t possible with a blunt finger!

  3. LornaJane Says:

    I had clicked through to shout “squeezebox” :) We now have four, but with three smartphone owners in the house, it is like fighting over some kind of imaginary remote control!

    Having a computer on at all times is normal in my world, the server is low-powered and designed for it!!

  4. Michael P-J Says:

    An update: boyfriend is delighted! We tried a couple of DLNA control apps for his iPhone, and have settled on Gizmoot which is free and functional but with no frills. I might be tempted to try the slightly fancier (but pricier) Songbook UPNP if we want something a bit shinier.

  5. Michael P-J Says:

    A further update: turns out that the Archos can’t play Apple Lossless compressed files (bloody iTunes!), so we’ve taken a new approach:

    – install AirBubble on the Archos, which makes it appear as an Apple AirPlay destination
    – make sure that iTunes is running on one of the Macs
    – use Apple’s Remote app on Mike’s iPhone to control iTunes
    – I’m using Hyperfine Remote for iTunes to control iTunes and AirPlay from my Android phone.

  6. John Witts Says:

    Aboard wb Pippin, a vintage HMV wind-up gramophone does the trick……

    File storage is a bit of an issue, as the multiple hard disks it runs take up a lot of space.

    The sleeve artwork is nice though!

  7. Colin Bergin Says:

    Gizmoot has now been ported to Android. The latest iOS and Android versions of Gizmoot can browse each others music/photos and play media on each other. So it might be interesting for you to place a smart phone in a docking station with Gizmoot running that will effectively give you an network speaker than can be controlled remotely by another smart phone running Gizmoot. Enjoy !


    P.S. Any feedback is very welcome !

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