example of a digital wireless audio system

Digital Wireless Audio Rocks!

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Wireless Audio At Home & Road

In my view, nothing puts the sexy back into audio like digital wireless audio.

Digital audio is the merging of computer technology and the traditional home audio system. Whether you have a $30,000 audiophile system or a $300 system-in-a-box from Home Depot, digital audio will get your audio mojo working again. Going wireless just adds to the fun, flexibility, and portability.

The essence of digital audio is turning your PC or Mac into your own personal jukebox. Think of it as an iPod on steroids only you don’t have to carry it around with you. But you still can! Read on.

Draw Me A Picture Department

The diagram above provides an overview of a typical wireless digital audio setup. This one is based around Logitech’s Squeezebox product line which I’ve been personally using for several years now. Another popular alternative is Sonos.  Which is better is subject to endless debate. The best guidance I can give is if you’re an “iphone person”, Sonos may suit you better.  If you’re more of a tinkerer, like getting closer to machinery, and are an “Android person”, then I suggest Squeezebox. For me, Squeezebox is far more interesting and flexible and is a better value.

 Get The Music In There Department

It all starts with transfering (ripping) your music library from your CDs into digital files on your PC or MAC. There are many software products that can convert your CDs into digital files. Arguably the best in terms of preserving the error-free  integrity of the original CD bit pattern is Exact Audio Copy (EAC). Best of all,  EAC is free! There are other, easier to use alternatives such as AudioGrabber and Nero and even Microsoft’s own Windows Media Player. Ripping your CD collection is time consuming but you only have to do it once with each CD. After I was done I threw out the plastic CD cases, stuffed the CDs and their labels in big flippers, and parked them on a shelf. It’s literally been years since I’ve played actual CDs in my music system – home or car. And don’t forget the 1st commandment of digital data – “Thou shalt back up thy data.”  I recommend a second drive and a copy of GoodSync.

Say No To Lossy MP3’s Department

I won’t equivocate here: don’t rip your tunes to lossy compressed mp3’s! Look, if you’re going to bother to do this, why throw up to 90% (@ 128 kbps) of the information on your CDs into the bit bucket? To preserve space on your hard drive? Really? With 1TB drives costing $100 or less, storage real estate is cheap. Preserve the integrity of your music. Go with lossless compression (FLAC) or no compression at all (WAV). I personally recommend FLAC – free lossless audio codec. You can still get up to 50% reduction in file size while preserving 100% of the data – quite clever, no? However, the biggest reason to avoid mp3’s is because mp3’s just sound bad.  Check out this article which does a fair job explaining why mp3’s suck!

Squeezebox Department

Once you’ve loaded your digital jukebox the next step is linking your digital music to your home stereo system. For most of us, that means the system you have in your living room. Chances are your desktop PC/MAC or server  isn’t located  in your living room adjacent to your audio system. Sure, you could run wires from one room to another but this is both impractical and aesthetically kludgy.  And while your laptop can also be your jukebox, you don’t want to have to physically plug it into your sound system each time you want to play a tune. This is where Squeezebox comes it. For around $300 or less you can get the Squeezebox Touch which interfaces wirelessly to your digital music library and plugs into your stereo or home theater receiver/amp. If you have no home audio system you can opt for the very affordable $180 Squeezebox Radio. Not exactly high fidelity but it interfaces wirelessly and provides portability around the house.

Does It Sound Better Department

Does music delivered via wireless audio outperform a conventional CD player? Conventional CD players have to read the CD data on the fly and then convert this digital stream into an analog line signal via some type of digital-to-analog converter (DAC) before it can be amplified and heard. Wireless audio takes bit perfect data stored on a hard drive and sends every bit perfectly and wirelessly to your audio system of choice. However, this digital data still needs to go through a DAC. It really all comes down to the quality of your DAC, whether its found within a $5,000 high end CD player or a stand alone DAC unit. Assuming comparable DACs, digital audio equals or betters even the best CD player.

Going Mobile Department

You can even take your wireless digital audio jukebox on the road while leaving the jukebox itself at home. For Android phones you can pair up the apps Squeeze Player and Squeeze Commander to stream your Logitech Media Server based digital library via your wireless phone carrier while driving. Just plug your Android headphone jack into your car stereo (or just use headphones/earbuds), boot up these two apps and use Squeeze Commander to run Squeezebox as if you were at home. In fact, Squeeze Commander is an excellent third party alternative remote control for your Squeezebox player at home as well.   The price you will likely pay for this mobility is having to listen to compressed lossy audio. Even if you have all you music stored as FLAC or WAV files, you will likely have to set up Logitech Media Server to dumb down these larger files on-the-fly to around 128 kbps in order to get uninterrupted streaming through your cell phone network. Of course, if you’re in an urban area with 4G/LTE bandwidth, this may be less of an issue. You will also have to configure your home router ports to allow Squeeze Player to communicate with your Logitech Media Server. All of this gets a bit techy but if you’re into wireless digital audio and computers half the fun is figuring it all out and seeing it work!

Wireless Digital Audio Curmudgeon Department

Who won’t like wireless digital audio? Your typical audiophile Luddites probably won’t. For them nothing less than vinyl run through tube amps will do.  And the CD player/transport manufacturers will definitely not like wireless audio because it very effectively makes traditional CD players irrelevant – except for using them to rip your audio CDs into digital files. But CD’s are already dead medium walking so nothing new here. And if computers don’t interest you then wireless audio probably isn’t for you either. But for the rest of us, wireless audio rocks!

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