Net Audio - Part 2

[Music room]

The Music Room, and the Pioneer N-50 streamer.

Author: Werner O - TNT BE
Date: October, 2013

Continuing the story

The previous article left me with a workable solution for background music streaming in the lounge, but also with a clear indication that a serious solution for the music room would demand a higher effort.

Since early 2012 I've had my sights on the Pioneer N-50 streaming DAC. Apart from purely emotional reasons (I always want to have a few Pioneer items in possession) the N-50 attracted me because of its combination of network and conventional digital inputs, including Toslink. In the music room I want to maintain a strict galvanic separation between 'dirty' components (plasma TV, DVD player) and the system proper, but my regular Apogee DAC only has one Toslink input. This was of course reserved for the DVD, leaving the TV without a path to the system. I briefly employed a toslink-to-coax convertor, with its own wall-wart, but you know how I feel about small dust collectors hidden behind the system. Something like the N-50 would solve this, bringing more clean digital inputs to the system. (There is also a cheaper N-30, essentially a '50 without digital inputs, and with a lesser power supply and output stage.)

Yet, there was also some trepidation: numerous reviews indicated how the Pioneer was seriously let down by its abysmally bad control app for iDevices and Android. What good is streaming if merely browsing records is made into self-torture? So I started to gravitate away, to more user-centered solutions.

A prime candidate was the Squeezebox Touch, but this too came with its problems. Being a cheap and nasty box it would look out of place in my equipment racks (this matters to me, the system is in full view), and anyway, the racks are four meters from my sofa: the touchscreen would be useless. But that was OK: I have a small record cabinet next to my seat. Now this could house the Touch in a most convenient way. A digital coaxial lead to the Apogee would connect with the main system and damn the galvanic isolation. Although ... adding a Behringer digital equalizer to the stack would give me additional buttons to play with and could convert to AES/EBU for the long run to the DAC. This was looking tasty ... NOT. Not with an extra pile of gear in the room, and tens of meters of cabling running to and fro. Luckily Logitech ended my dithering by discontinuing the Squeezebox series. And anyway: by that time I was already convinced that a small fanless PC hidden behind the audio gear was the way to go.

Wait a minute. Did I really want to build and maintain a PC for the music room???

[Pioneer N50 network player]

Getting there

Fortuitous serendipity led me to investigating generic DLNA controller apps. I found some, tried the demo versions and in the end purchased two, of which one was promptly discontinued. The surviving one is 8player. I tested it once more with the smart TV as sound renderer (through the Apogee), and got convinced that it would be workable. And so I finally ordered a Pioneer N-50. In the end the seemingly simplest solution won.

You can read everywhere how well the Pioneer is built (it is), and how fine it sounds (it does). There is no need to repeat any of this: it is confident and lively, doesn't attract undue attention, and in the end I hardly ever have played a disc through the MiniDAC since the N-50 arrived. (This holds for the Pioneer in its most pure sound configuration, I am not even inclined to trying its several sound processing gizmos.)

User experience then. It works, but requires rigid behaviour from the user, i.e. me. That means launching the 8player app on my iPod, assigning the N50 for playback, only then accessing the music collection on the server, the N-50 powering-on when the first track is selected for start. Use the wrong sequence and the whole shebang freezes up and has to be restarted.

And that sequence is a lengthy one. I have to navigate down deep menus to affect what in the end amounts to two or three standard behaviours:

I would that control apps allowed for user-defined presets and even macros for the most-used scenarios. (BubbleUPNP has some useful presets. It runs on Android only, and on initial testing it showed some reliability issues on my network.)

Simple, not? But the iThing always defaults to rendering on its own speaker, asking me which server to access, and whether I be interested in photos and movies.

A major issue with the Pioneer is (was, read on!) that it does not support gapless streaming. Initially I thought I could get over this, and anyway, I didn't have that many albums that needed it. Or so I thought. Only after having lived without gapless track-to-track replay did I see how many records are produced with tracks flowing smoothly into one another, and really not just classical music or live recordings. It is annoying. But no problem, with the advent of cheap large USB sticks I could copy those special albums and play them from memory, not? Not: the Pioneer also doesn't play gapless from memory stick. It works gaplessly with Airplay, but on top of resolution restrictions this is not a solution in my case. I tried Airfoil, a program that makes a PC output all of its sound over Airplay, but was less than impressed when the test computer bogged down completely. The removal of Airfoil and a lengthy repair of the OS ensued. It didn't support better than 48kHz/16 bit anyway...

Such was the state of affairs when I thought I was finalising this article: me being partly satisfied, but with growing frustration about the N-50's quirks and pervasive 'incompleteness'. (Incidentally, I was feeling exactly the same about a Fujifilm X-E1 camera). But then, almost unbelievably, the manufacturer published a major firmware update, promising gapless playback, a number of new lossless formats, higher sampling rates on the front USB input, and a better ControlApp: enough to potentially transform the N-50, and totally free of charge, thank you Pioneer!

I installed it quickly, something that went very smooth and without inducing any fear or concern (my iPad and iPod updates to iOS6 were total nightmares, ruining a perfectly fine weekend, thank you Apple).

Fired up 8player, ah, the trepidation. The Wall ... gaps ... gaps ... gaps. What the ...?

OK then, let's try a complete Pioneer environment. I started the new ControlApp. Yes, indeed, the iPod's display now shows more than 4 tracks. And it scrolls faster. But still way too slow (8player runs circles around it, and displays cover art to boot). Again That Wall, and, hurray, the gaps are gone. Still sad that, while the old ControlApp was useless, the new one is only slightly better than useless, thus still a pain in the ass. Rumours that ControlApp was in for another revision halfway through 2013 remained just rumours.

But why then did 8player not render gaplessly? Well, 8player is a DLNA controller. Pioneer's ControlApp is not. It is a dedicated network-based remote control that can do things that are impossible running just under the DLNA umbrella. Hence it is to be expected that future updates, be it to the N-50 or to third-party controllers, will not enable gapless playback with these controllers. So we really must hope for a further development of ControlApp and its user experience.

Speaking about user experience. Fate made me stumble over Linn's Kinsky control point software. I wasn't aware that Kinsky was open and UPnP compatible. It is both. If Linn do one thing right it is user experiences. It is the single one thing I like about the LP12. But alas, while Kinsky runs nicely with the Marantz, weeks of faffing around with it have not even taught me how to play a whole album without pushing a zillion buttons, nor how to make it work with the Pioneer. I'll stick to 8player, and ControlApp when I know beforehand that I'll need it.

Not about wires

The next problem was more infrastructural. The controlling app, running on an iPod, relies on wi-fi to communicate with the N50. My wireless access point is located beneath the main TV in the lounge, some six meters from the system in the music room, or eleven meters from my listening position. More important than these distances are the four solid walls on that trajectory, plus a heroic barricade of large steel-clad home appliances halfway down the road, in the laundry. Needless to say that wi-fi reliability in the music room was pretty hopeless, and thus the iPod-as-remote pretty useless.

The obvious solution would be an additional access point in the music room. This would necessitate a switch, and the actual transmitter near to the system. Not too keen on this (clutter and worst-case radiation) I purchased a wireless repeater, and set about scrutinising local wi-fi channels with the free program inSSIDer to optimally place the repeater and select the best channel. Not that there were many choices. Best was in the bedroom, ascloseasthis to my sleeping head. No thanks. The only other available socket within reach of the main transmitter was in the laundry, still two walls away from where the signal has to go. But it works just about decent enough, and most of the time the iPod acts as a reliable and quick remote. Only lately the whole wireless network started freezing up once in a while (we have added quite a few other wireless goodies, the kids are growing up...) but the quickly-adopted practice of rebooting the access point and the repeater weekly, on cleaning day, seems to solve this. I must only make a mental note that when definitive furniture is purchased for the living room it must guarantee ready access to the AP's power switch, and of course must not obstruct radiation any more than the present TV table is doing.

The softer side of things

How are things done at the file managment side? I used to employ iTunes for CD ripping and library duties, feeling perfectly happy with it. Then Apple released version 11, turning iTunes into a totally useless mess and, much to my own surprise, I dropped it quickly. It is only ever fired up for copying tracks to an iPod. Which is, like, almost never.

The music files are organised in two separate volumes on the NAS. One is (still) named iTunes, and contains MP3 and AAC material, mostly for portables. The other is named FLAC and contains, well, you get it. The directory/file structure is artist/album/track, with the track number preceding the track title as file name.

Ripping and initial automatic tagging is done with dbpoweramp. This has the nice feature that it can output FLAC and MP3 concurrently, to different drives. Additionally it can include signal processing. I use this for decoding the rare HDCDs I have (of which half, while sporting the 'HDCD' logo, actually do not have any real HDCD content!).

Tag and album art cleanup is done with mp3tag, a free program that, once more, delivers much more than can be expected. For album covers I learned that it is wise to limit its size to 512x512 pixels, and both embed it into each file and as a single external 'folder.jpg' file in the album's directory.

I no longer use a library manager as such, Windows 7's file browser and the aforementioned programs are enough. For the rare occasions I want a nicer look I use JRiver Media Jukebox, mostly for playing music when working on the PC. (My media PC is transformer-connected to a Cyrus One, and Quad L-ite speakers.)

Concluding

There you have it. Streaming changed everything. I listen to more music, using less boxes. The DVD player and turntables have seen nearly no use in the past 16 months. The outlook for the DVD is grim. The Michells less so, winter is coming, and with it the seasonal cartridge swap (Lyra out, Alaerts in). But still. Could it be that my hifi future will be single-box based? Something like a Devialet, if only it got UP&P compatibility?

© Copyright 2013 Werner O - werner@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com