Whole-house music system that does not depend on a home server?

As the author of an article on whole-house music systems, I thought that I would be the perfect person to give advice to a friend who has recently moved into a new apartment and wants to declutter by sending her CDs off to be ripped. Normally I recommend Sonos, but to play one’s personal music library it requires a home server. My friend does not own a desktop computer, a home NAS box, or even a high-capacity MP3 player. She does everything with her laptop (running Windows XP! (but her company will presumably eventually upgrade to a newer version of Windows)), including listen to Rhapsody (subscription digital music service). My next idea was to have her CDs ripped, then push them all up to Google Music so that they could be streamed back down to the Sonos. That doesn’t work, though, because the Sonos does not support Google Music. It also seems a little wasteful of Internet bandwidth when her entire music collection could probably fit on a 64 GB USB flash drive (and I wonder if Google Music would support high quality 320 kbps streams?). So then I thought “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could plus a USB drive into the Sonos?” But you can’t.

My next idea was the Logitech Squeezebox Touch. This says that it has a USB port and can access music or photos from a USB drive. The Logitech site says that multiple Squeezeboxes can talk to each other. It seems a little more cumbersome than the Sonos because there is no built-in amplifier (and she has no legacy stereo system). On the other hand, the box itself has a display and interface, which seems better than the Sonos, which requires an external controller of some sort (dedicated remote, PC, tablet, or smartphone).

Does anyone have a better idea? I’m kind of surprised that there aren’t more options for a person who does not have a home NAS or always-on PC.

[Update: Given that the AirPlay system works only one speaker at a time if driven from an iPod and the goal of keeping listening to muic independent from a home computer, the solution turned out to be the obvious one: Sonos plus paying musicshifter.com to rip the CDs and park them on a Western Digital 1 TB NAS (about $130 extra). Control will be via a couple of older Android mobile phones, her laptop, and maybe an Android tablet. Perhaps the NAS box can be ditched if Sonos ever decides to support Google Music. I do wish that Sonos would put a little phone-sized Android tablet on the front of their boxes so that one did not have to hunt for a controller.]

39 thoughts on “Whole-house music system that does not depend on a home server?

  1. I believe the squeezeboxen could stream from music stored at mp3tunes.com using the server at mysqueezebox.com.

    That should be, but I am not positive, controllable with a variety of Android Apps (I use SqueezeController, but I have a home server) and most likely iPhone apps.

    (If she sets up all hardware Logitech boxes, she should be able to stream Rhapsody through it.)

  2. We have a Squeezebox radio. The fit & finish of the hardware is very nice, but the software is buggy. It frequently stops while streaming, requiring a full power-cycle to get going again. Station presets simply vanish at random intervals.

    The impression I get is a company with great hardware hardware engineers, good UI designers, and so-so system software developers.

    The omission of an SD-Card or USB key slot is criminal.

  3. mp3tunes has a mysqueezebox app:

    MP3tunes Music Locker

    Category: Music On-Demand

    Requirements: Requires a free account from http://www.mp3tunes.com/mysqueezebox.

    Please log in to install this app.

    About MP3tunes

    Keep your music collection securely online in a MP3tunes Locker to enjoy on your Squeezebox player anytime. With FREE, easy-to-use software, upload your media to the locker, then tune in to play your favorite playlists, artists or albums.

    With MP3tunes and Squeezebox you can

    Securely store your music in your own private, online Locker
    Listen to your music on your Squeezebox player – without using your PC
    Enjoy the free storage! (Or get more space with a Premium account)

    Instead of the Squeezebox Touch, (or in addition to it), she could just use the Squeezebox boom, which is basically a standalone, no amp required, stereo radio like boombox device.

    It looks as though Logitech has discontinued the boom, probably because it was a useful, valuable device that cost less than the Touch. Stupid stupid marketing dumbasses.

  4. I know there are home wireless routers that can act as NAS devices via the simple expedient of a USB port to which you connect an external disk. I’d bet you a box of donuts that there exists a router that can do DLNA (or some other protocol that the Sonos can consume). Put the music on a 64GB USB stick, plug it in, and hey presto.

  5. You seem to be forgetting the option to buy an always-on PC. A cheap Linux box with more power than she’d ever need might cost a hundred bucks, no? Or maybe an old used Mac Mini? Or if it works out even an old Apple Time Machine, if she also has backup and WiFi needs as well.

  6. Is it important to be able to play the same thing at the same time in multiple rooms?

    If not, she could do worse than an iPod Touch and take her pick of:

    – a couple of Apple TVs or Airport Express with active speakers,
    – one of an increasing number of micro-HiFi systems with Airplay built in
    – Airplay compatible powered speakers

    Shouldn’t require much in the way of tech support from you either.

    (From iTunes, you can can play the same music to various Airplay devices at the same time and in sync, not sure if the iOS version can do that too, or just one.)

  7. She can theoretically get several Airport Express units, hook them up to individual speakers, and then use iTunes to stream to all of them. It should also be possible to stream from an iToy (iPhone/iPad/iPod touch).

    From my experience with Airport Express is that the reliability just isn’t there. My version doesn’t play well with all the wireless routers, and commonly drops connections.

  8. What software does she use to manage her music collection? If iTunes, she’d need to get something AirPlay compatible, such as a B&W Zeppelin Air, or a Chapter Audio Note Air with a pair of speakers (the latter also supports UPnP).

    nuForce makes the Air DAC, which will support up to 4 receivers.

    There are many companies that offer appliance-like music servers now: Cambridge Audio, Arcam, Cyrus, Naim, B&O, Olive, Yamaha, and probably others. I can’t vouch for any of them personally, but she should be wary of WiFi, which tends to stutter in all but the smallest installations. I use HomePlug 200 powerless network adapters, which are much more reliable.

  9. Does she have an Android or iPhone? Rip them all to a 64-gig micro SD and play them to a Bluetooth speaker system. (wait…I don’t think iPhone supports external storage cards…which is one of the reasons I don’t have an iPhone)

  10. I haven’t touched any of my CDs nor my iTunes collection since I got a subscription to spotify ($5/month or $10/month if you want to listen offline). From your description it sounds like that might be a good solution for this user also.

  11. Suggest that she purchase an Airport Express for $99. Put the mp3 files on her XP machine, and install iTunes. Done.

  12. You could:

    * Get an apple airport extreme wireless router ($200)
    * plug a USB stick containing all the music into it
    * get several airport express units for around the house ($80 each room)
    * point iTunes on the laptop to the music collection stored on the router and play music through iTunes


    * scatter airport express units around the house
    * store and play all the music from an iPod touch

  13. Hi Phil,

    I don’t see a problem. If you think Sonos is best (I know I do, I have three of them), then the best solution is to get her a NAS — they are incredibly cheap these days. Depending on how many Ethernet ports her router has, you may need to get a Wifi NAS (the Sonos system needs at least one Ethernet connection into the network). So in short, if her router has a single Ethernet port, you plug the Sonos into that, and you buy her a Wifi NAS. If the router has more than one Ethernet port, then buy her a regular Ethernet-based NAS (will be slightly cheaper than the Wifi version). These things are dead easy to setup and support spinning the disk down, which means that power consumption is minimal. You just want to make sure you pick the right one. Let us know if you think you will proceed this way and I’d be happy to research a NAS for you.


  14. I don’t know a good solution, but you could take a simple Android device, such as a Samsung Galaxy S WiFi (not a phone but a device like an iPod Touch), and buy a docking station for it. This gives you a Google Music-capable player with touchscreen. No remote though.

    As far as I can see, all Google Music MP3s on my phone have been preserved in their original bitrate, even those that have been streamed and cached in online mode. AACs from iTunes have been converted to MP3 though.

  15. iTunes on the laptop driving an airport express connected to a stereo works very well for me.

    I have a Sonos with a home NAS, but I found myself never playing music off the NAS and when I did a file reorg I moved the music library and never noticed.

    Apple will allegedly drive multiple airport expresses for a ‘whole house’ experience but I’ve never tried it.

    She can then rip her music onto said USB stick and is good to go when she’s home.

  16. Folks: Thanks for all of the suggestions. To answer a few questions… She does not have either an Android or an iPhone. It is not acceptable, in my opinion, to make playing music dependent upon the XP laptop being up and running. Nor is it acceptable to introduce a hard drive-based NAS or desktop PC into the house for the sole purpose of getting the CD clutter out of the house.

    Thanks for the idea of a router that can serve files off a USB stick. That had not occurred to me. Also thanks for the caution about Logitech software. I guess it makes sense that a company with so many lines of business would not do as good a job as Sonos, which can concentrate on home music.

  17. How about an iPhone or Android player? They come with remotes and some support wireless speakers, so no need to punch holes in a wall.

    iPhones are available with 64GB and Android SDs can be upgraded beyond that (I think) to support larger digital libraries.

  18. I’ve found 64G iPad + Apple TV will negate the need for a server plus provide a quick browser for doing things like ordering food. I rebuilt an older small form factor PC with FreeNAS (http://www.freenas.org) which can do all these things, but haven’t found the need to use it since we can put all our music plus movies plus Pandora on the iPad.

  19. Just want to make sure you’re not thinking of a NAS as some sort of huge big noisy box? Check out e.g. the Western Digital My Book Live (http://wdc.com/en/products/products.aspx?id=280), or a number of LaCie products (http://www.lacie.com/us/products/range.htm?id=10007) – they even have an $80 box that shares USB disks.

    There’s also something like the NAS U100 Dongle (http://www.redferret.net/?p=21812) but I don’t know anything about it, or if it’s any good.

    My router (Draytek 2820Vn) allows me to share a USB storage device, but it’s incredibly slow (copying 1GB of data could easily take 20 minutes), and to be honest, you are very limited in choice, probably quite expensive anyway, and you could end up with other problems by changing her whole Internet setup.

  20. An iPod Touch ($250 for 64GB refurbished) can stream music TO AirPlay enabled speakers. You can AirPlay enable existing speakers by attaching them to an AirPort Express Base Station for $99, get AirPlay new airplay enabled speakers, or stream to a TV with an Apple TV ($99). You can stream simultaneously to multiple speakers. Relatively cheap when compared to Sonos prices.

    Oh, I see Ryan above has made a a similar point. So I will add one more possibility. Rip everything to iTunes and sign up for iTunes Match ($25/yr). Any songs that are already in the iTunes catalog are now accessible from iCloud on any new iOS device, and are played back as 256 Kbps AAC no matter what the original file was ripped as. Refurbished iPod Touch 8GB are $169. You can AirPlay to enabled speakers as above.

  21. Consider looking at pogoplug Series 4 https://pogoplug.com/devices Here are the specs. With this product she can setup her own cloud.

    Power Requirements: 100-240V, 50/60Hz
    Drive Connections: SD x1, USB 3.0 x2, 2.5″ SATA/USM, USB 2.0 x1
    Network Connection: Gigabit Ethernet
    Drive Formats: NTFS, FAT, HFS+, EXT2, EXT3
    Web Browsers: Microsoft® Internet Explorer, Mozilla® Firefox, Apple® Safari, Google Chrome™
    Operating Systems: Microsoft® Windows XP/7, Apple® Mac OS X 10.6.6 & above
    Apps Available For: iPhone®, iPad®, Android™
    What’s Included: Pogoplug Series 4, Power cable, Ethernet cable,User manual

    Good Luck

  22. Sounds like you need a Sonos Dock + an iPod Touch. As I recall, Sonos will discontinue their own (expensive) Controller in May and you’ll need to use an Android or iDevice if you want a remote control. If the friend’s music will truly fit in 64GB, you might as well kill two birds with one stone and use a 64GB iPod Touch as both a music archive and remote control.

  23. I vote for the Spotify option if all her CDs can be found in their catalogue. I believe Sonos has a Spotify client and she can play all her music (and more) wherever she travels. Ripping CDs is so last century!

  24. The new generations of AV receivers will play everything on a 4-64 Gb USB-stick
    http://www.bestcovery.com/best-av-receiver-overalland can be remotely controlled by an old fashioned remote (awful) and a smart phone (less awful)

    She will have to choose the music being played using some kind of device that’ll probably have to be switched on while the music plays.

    Devices with big screens and big input areas (laptops, tablets) are preferable to smaller devices (smart phones) or stupid devices (headless remotes).

    Her problem is not really storing and playing the music. It’s choosing what to play in a way that is less horrible than fetching a silver disk in a cupboard.

  25. Past posts have suggested you’re somewhat Apple-averse, but have a look at iTunes Match – it is a pretty good service, and doesn’t require an always-on laptop or any home server infrastructure.

    You rip your CDs, upload them to the cloud (which in most cases is just a file match rather than an actual upload). After that, you can stream them via a $99 AppleTV and/or a $200 iPod Touch (connected to speakers via a dock, airplay, or the headphone jack). Depending on the size of the library, you may be able to keep it entirely on the iPod – iTunes allows you to decide whether to keep a local copy on a per-file basis.

  26. I have a few Squeezeboxes around the house, including the touch. I don’t believe it is possible to do much with a Squeezebox in the absence of the server software running on the LAN. Maybe you can, but nothing too useful will work (i.e. Spotify).

    Compared to the Sonos, they are harder to set up, much more flexible and noticeably sound better.

    Contrary to the person who said they had problems with the Logitech Squeezebox software, I’ve been using it for seven years and have had almost no trouble. It’s very reliable. And very hackable, if you are of that ilk, which your friend is certainly not.

    I’d stare closely at an iPod touch and a Spotify account for your friend.

  27. A question for folks that use Sonos.

    When you move from room to room, that is from one Sonos area to a different one, do you notice: a) absolutely no lag in the sound, b) a small but noticeable lag at times between what is being played in one room and what is being played in another, or c) a semi large lag constantly present between one room and the next?

    I am pretty happy with the Squeezebox because for the price I paid (one Boom + free software everywhere else) I can live with the constant and sometimes very noticeable lag.

    But it surprises me in an age of atomic clocks and ntp that there should be any lag at all and that it should not be correctable, although the Squeezebox team seems to, tends to, blame it on the difference in the various audio stacks from the different OSs on different hardware, and maybe they are right.

  28. Adding a NAS to her home network doesn’t just solve the music problem – it solves the critically important “backup her laptop” problem. While you did mention that this is a work laptop, in my experience, few employers are running proper backups in their work / enterprise environments.

    (Even if you choose the home router with USB port option, I would recommend adding a terabyte or two of spinning disk, since this would also solve both problems).

  29. Folks: I don’t think the iPod plus Sonos idea is such a great one. It requires an Apple Airport Express (one more thing to clutter the house and take up an electric outlet) connected to the Line In on a Sonos.

    But maybe the idea of using an iPod or Android tablet and then speakers that can receive music from the iOS or Android device is a better one than a Sonos cluster. Rhapsody seems to have apps for both iPhone and Android.

    Is there an Android equivalent to “AirPlay”? I know that there is a standard for music over Bluetooth to which car stereo systems adhere, but will that cover a 2BR apartment?

    Harald: I have not noticed a problem with the sound being out of sync in different rooms with the Sonos. I have used the system in a couple of different houses where it was possible to hear the sound from two different Sonos boxes at the same time and there was no audible lag.

  30. 27 answers to this blog post compared to 5 for the one regarding the cultural activities in Manhattan. Pretty sad indication of what interests the smart people who read this blog.

    I’m also saddened by the truly discouraging complexity of the solutions listed so far. Yes, it’s great fun for some people (myself included) to experiment with these things but how about the overwhelming number of people who have no clue what a computing cloud refers to, what Airplay means and so on. Not to mention that when these complicated data flows or devices will break it will be ridiculously expensive, in terms of time or money, to figure out how to fix them.

  31. Phil,

    I think your friend would be well served by Brennan. http://www.brennan.co.uk/ The player has some limitations, it is FAT32 only and the USB is slow but otherwise it is great for listeners like your friend who don’t want to geek out to listen to music. I got one for my parents, and they have no complaints. I have squeezeboxen and they seem to be fragile beasts in the software department.

  32. I agree that a good solution is:
    1. a wireless router
    2. a WD My Book World terabyte+ drive
    3. an ipod touch to use as a controller, and
    4. a laptop or any computer, and
    5. a sonos 5 or 3, and a sonos bridge

    Get the music onto the WD drive using the laptop.
    Connect the bridge to the router by ethernet, and connect the WD drive to the router by ethernet.

    Set up the music library from the WD drive, using sonos software running on the laptop. After it is set up you will no longer need the laptop. The ipod touch can totally control the sonos… no ‘other’ computer needed.

    I do this at my cottage each summer. I toss the WD, sonos bridge, sonos 5, and a spare wireless router into boxes and put them in the trunk. Days and days of driving later… at the cottage, I have my music up an running in about 10 minutes max. No internet is available or needed…. but if your friend has internet (I’m sure she does) then she gets access to all the internet radio stations too.

    The system is super simple, nearly bombproof, and sounds great. I have been doing this for a few years now. This really works well for me.

  33. Google “bluetooth audio receiver”, which does just that. Should have no problem working on Android. (or iOS) And unlike Airplay, doesn’t depend on a wifi router either.

    Could well be perfect and cheapest, though I have no idea about reliability from one corner of the house to another.

  34. Folks: I was getting truly excited about the idea of an iPod Touch at the center of the music system and a collection of AirPlay speakers, but a friend tells me that an iPod/iPad/whatever can drive just ONE AirPlay speaker at a time. To drive multiple AirPlay speakers one needs to have a standard laptop or desktop PC running iTunes (I guess a $200 netbook could do this, but the goal is/was to have a music system that doesn’t depend on a PC being up and running continuously!).

    Bas: Can the Bluetooth audio receivers be driven in parallel from one MP3 player or smartphone? I thought that the player could pair with just one Bluetooth device at a time.

    Jay: That Brennan box looks like an almost-brilliant design. The $700 price isn’t bad. It would be a complete solution to the originally posted problem if it would also drive remote WiFi speakers (every connected speaker all the time; no multizone fanciness). It doesn’t seem to have caught on that well in the U.S., which is a shame.

  35. Another vote for iTunes Match in combination with one or more cheap iDevices. As mentioned previously, iTunes Match will upgrade the sound quality of all the CDs to 256kbps. Instead of just whole house, your music collection becomes “whole Internet” as it is accessible anywhere, anytime. Use an iPod Touch and you can access the entire collection in a room or on the go. I’ve ripped hundreds of CDs like this and Match has found obscure Quebecois and Greek recordings successfully. For $25/yr I have all my music everywhere, without worrying that Spotify will track every time I listen to something. Also since all new music purchases I buy are through iTunes, it’s all immediately integrated.
    OTOH, my teenage daughter has moved mostly to Spotify so perhaps it’s a generational things. She still relies on locally stored iMusic when off the interwebs.

  36. How about iTunes Match. Don’t know the size of her library but if it’s less than 25K songs Match should work. I use it at home and it can stream to any Airplay enabled device I believe. When home all she needs to do is plug some speakers into her laptop. I have heard of people having issues with match on their phones but it works great for me at home with both my laptops and my Apple TV.

  37. Indeed, just one at a time for Bluetooth. So basically, she’ll have to decide just how important it is to have it actually on in multiple rooms at the same time, or if the capability to have music in every room (just not at the same time) is enough.

  38. The other way to go would be to have a single Airplay device and use wireless speakers to broadcast the audio around the house. We have friends who do this and it seems to work well.

  39. None of the systems are there yet. I’ve got Sonata Server (which DOES require a PC) and it’s probably the best for classical music, but it’s still a far distance from being any good at all for classical music. Like every other system, it has only three levels of hierarchy: artist, album and track. It has no idea that the 23 tracks that make up Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a theme by Paganini” are one piece, distinct from the 3 tracks that make up Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto number 2” on the same album.
    An advantage of Sonata Server is that it automatically tags tracks as you rip them by going out to 4 different online databases. But you still have to go over the tags by hand to fix them. Some of the track names are ridiculously long: “Variations on a theme by Haydn, for piano four hands (also arranged for orchestra) BZ 153.4; 3. Allegro moderato ma non troppo con carne ma senza spaghetti”. For a record of Rachmaninoff concertos played by Vladimir Ashkenazi with the London Symphony Orchestra, the “Artist” tag could be “Sergei Rachmaninoff”, “London Symphony Orchestra” or “Vladimir Ashkenazi”. If the piece is a duet, too bad — the system has no concept of how to deal with TWO artists on the same song.
    Once all your CD’s are loaded into the system, you can only find a piece if you already know where it is in there. Want to hear a Beethoven symphony? You’re in luck! The user interface shows you 36 tracks each named “Beethoven: Symphon…” Just pick the four that happen to be the symphony you want. Want to hear Maria Callas in an opera? Better go back and paw through the CD cases, because none of those music files has Maria Callas in the tags.
    Or you could type “Beethoven Symphony 5” in the search box and get 350 results, 100 for everything with “Beethoven”, 100 for every symphony and 150 for every occurrence of “5”.
    (The PROPER way to do this all is with a RELATIONAL database of course. There should be ONE row in the PIECES table for Beethoven’s Symphony #5 and ONE row in the ARTISTS table for Maria Callas. Two rows for Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony of course.)
    Anyway, after 20 minutes of searching through the database, you’ve finally found the album you want and you’re streaming it to your media player. At this point things are good because you ripped it as a lossless .flac file so it sounds exactly as it would if you had put the actual CD into your CD player.

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