The media centre: audio (and video) done digitally

I am beginning to see that more and more serious listeners will want to manage music stored as computer files. It's simply not good enough to stop at a stack of CDs for your music. Reasons:

  • People download music. Even serious audiophiles download music, typically in FLAC files. They sometimes also download hi-res music files, e.g. 24/96.
  • People want to push some of their music to portable devices. This means that even if you have all your music on CDs, you must first rip them to disk before they can be pushed to the smartphone or tablet. Soon enough, your archive of ripped tracks exceeds your physical CD collection.
  • You may want to copy something for a friend.

So, messing around with digital music files on computer disk is now unavoidable. In that case, some serious music lovers want to make computer disks the primary media for their music. They want to use their CD player less and less.

It started with the SqueezeBox

The first generation of products to address this market was the Squeezebox, which was offered by Slim Devices till Logitech acquired the company and continued to offer the product range. Their Transporter, at about $1,200, is the high end in digital audio servers. These devices did not have storage, and could not access USB hard drives. They needed to keep a computer powered on on the LAN at all times, to pull audio files from. (Modern versions of the SqueezeBox can read USB media, or even do multi-room music delivery.)

A SqueezeBox could read audio files from a computer over the wired LAN or wireless network. It would then convert them to analog audio signals using its built-in DAC and pump them out over its RCA outputs. A display would show the folder names, track names, etc, and a remote would give you the means to control the device. With all your audio tracks on your home computer, you could use the SqueezeBox to do a full music listening session without having to get up.

The modern avatar of this is, of course, the media centre. Lots of companies entered the market after SqueezeBox, and now lots of companies are in the market here too.

Features of a good media centre

The modern media centre does the following:

  • Small (as big as a netbook or a lunchbox)
  • built around the Sigma or Realtek media processing chipsets and an ARM CPU, never Intel or AMD
  • Supports audio and video playback
  • Can pull files from some or all of the following:
    • an internal hard drive
    • external USB or eSATA hard drives
    • uPNP media servers
    • SMB file servers (the Windows file serving protocol)
    • NFS file servers (Unix and Linux file servers)
  • Good GUI displayed on your TV, easy to use
  • Can download files from servers on the Internet using BitTorrent
  • Can allow its internal hard drive to be accessed over the LAN as a shared drive on a file server, thus allow the user to transfer files into and out of the internal drive within the media centre
  • Can allow connecting the media centre to a computer over USB, making the media centre's hard drive visible as a USB storage device.
  • Can stream content from streaming sites on the Internet, e.g. YouTube, Internet Radio sites, etc.
  • Has the following connectors:
    • Analog audio output (typically stereo RCA sockets)
    • Digital audio output (coax and optical)
    • component analog video output
    • composite analog video output
    • HDMI digital audio+video output
    • Ethernet port for accessing LAN servers and the Internet
    • Two or more USB ports for accessing USB hard drives, connecting USB wi-fi dongles, etc
    • eSATA port, for connecting eSATA external drives
  • Are hard, or impossible, to use without a TV being connected for the device's UI. (A SqueezeBox, being audio-only, could not use a TV and carried its own fluorescent display for its UI.)

Essentially, a media centre acts as a bridge from the world of computer files and sends to the world of high-end audio and video systems. I do not know of a single media centre which has a 3.5" stereo audio output jack, for instance. They don't cater to portable audio listening rigs, it's quite clear.

One of the biggest reasons that people love media centres is because they can leave it on all day and all night connected to the home broadband link, and download movies and music over BitTorrent. It frees up the computer from this role and conserves electrical power.

Who makes them?

I have discovered a lot of players in this space:

  • the biggest general computer hardware brands in this space include Western Digital (their TV Live HD range of models), Seagate (their FreeAgent Theater+ range), and others. These do not support BitTorrent out of the box.
  • there are lots of specialist companies which were born just to build media centres, like Boxee, Roku, Popbox, Patriot, and others, all of which support BitTorrent.
  • Television sets are acquiring some of these features. Many modern flat-panel TV models have a USB port and can read and play back media files stored on USB storage devices. Some have Ethernet ports to access media on the LAN or Internet. I am not aware of any TV supporting BitTorrent downloads, though I am told some models exist.
  • Audio amplifiers are acquiring some of these features. Low-end amplifiers are beginning to come with Ethernet ports to access media streamed from media servers.

In this space, the most well-thought out designs are those from specialist companies. There seems to be a convergence on the choice of operating system in this product category: almost all products from all profiles of manufacturers are built on the Linux OS and open source applications for media playback. They can talk to Linux, Unix and Windows servers, just like a real Linux based computer can. And the class leader in this space is probably Popcorn Hour, a Malaysian company. Their A-200 is their entry-level model, and C-210 is their high-end model which can take a Blu-ray disk drive and handle hard drives as well as optical disks. What is amazing is that Popcorn Hour (PCH) has given rise to an entire slew of companies who have licensed the firmware from PCH and built their own products. One of the biggest of these licensees is the Chinese company Egreat ( PCH has coined a term to indicate this category of products: they call it "network media tank". Check for very active user discussion forums.

In India, you can buy the Seagate and WD media centres from big chain stores in malls -- they are now commonly available. It's also possible to find media centres by Iomega, sold with full warranty suport. But it's not possible to get a PCH product from anywhere easily. However, one very good option is to buy a WD TV Live HD media centre and replace its standard firmware with an excellent third-party firmware available free of cost. This firmware is called WDLXTV and is available from Installing this upgraded firmware gives you BitTorrent download facilities, etc.

The audiophile approach

How do you integrate a media centre with its me-too hardware and probably low-end DAC, into a high-quality audio system? Answer: get a good DAC.

Most media centres will output digital audio (coax and/or optical). If this can be fed to a good DAC, then the media centre will become transparent, i.e. it will no longer influence the quality of the audio you hear. For those of you who are ultra-sensitive to DAC jitter, you can protect your investment by getting a DAC which does its own re-clocking. Such DACs are available in the sub-$500 price range today and deliver performance unheard of only a few years back.

A DAC which will satisfy most critical audiophiles can be obtained for about $1,000 from Lavry (their Black DA10) or Benchmark (their DAC 1). There is probably no need to spend more than this on a DAC. But even at much lower prices, there is a new crop of DACs available which deliver performance which was not available at these prices earlier. These include products from HRT (their Music Streamer range) and the Musical Fidelity V-range (e.g. their V-DAC). All of these are no-nonsense affordable DACs with performance which is re-defining budget DAC performance.

So, if you combine a Popcorn Hour A-200 ($144 on Amazon) with a Musical Fidelity V-DAC ($299 on Amazon), you'll get an audiophile-quality source rig for your music system.

My investment

I have just obtained a PCH A-200 which was selling on Amazon at a very attractive price ($144). It's been one and a half years now, and it delivers everything it promises. I am not sure its audio playback will be top-notch, but then the rest of my audio system is not good enough for me to see its audio shortcomings. Someday, I'll have better amps and speakers, and then I'll tap the digital audio output of this device and have fun doing some all-night listening.

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