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Streaming Basics

By jsalk

29
Oct
2015

Streaming

There are many advantages to storing all of your music on a streaming device. The main one is obviously convenience. Systems can be designed so that you never have to leave your chair to change music tracks and your entire collection is at your fingertips. But there are other advantages as well.

You can search your music by artist, album, song title, genre or simply browse your collection (via an iPad or similar device). Better yet, you can create multiple playlists, each reflecting a certain musical style or mood. And the ease with which you can change tracks will change the way you listen to music forever. Once you stream, there is no going back!

But streaming is a conceptual departure from playing vinyl or CD’s and fear of the unknown can prevent a person from taking the plunge. Hopefully, the next couple of articles will shed some light and illuminate the dark unknown.

Streaming Components

There are four basic components of a music streaming system:

  1. A music storage device;
  2. A playback device;
  3. A digital to analog converter (DAC) to convert the digital bit stream to analog sound; and,
  4. A system that allows you to select tracks to send to the DAC.

If you think about it, these four components are included in your existing CD player. With a CD player, you basically have a storage device (the CD itself), a playback device (the player itself), a DAC (which is normally built into the CD player) and a remote to control the player. In a streaming system, you are simply substituting for these four components. So let’s take a look at each of the four to see what a new streaming system might look like.

Storage

A standard CD contains a collection of music tracks in the form of digital files. If you copied (a process called ripping that we will get to later) these files onto a hard drive on a computer, you would be able to play them back on your computer.

So in terms of a storage device, there are a number of possibilities. You can use your computer (as long as you have sufficient drive space available) or an old, unused computer you have lying around. A network storage device (NAS) connected to your network is another possibility. Or, for maximum flexibility, a dedicated streaming device with built-in storage. You are essentially storing the digital music files on a hard drive rather than on a physical optical CD.

Playback

Regardless of where you store your music, you will need a device that can play the files by sending the bit stream to your DAC. If you are storing music on your computer (or an old computer you have lying around unused), you can use a program on that same machine to send the bit stream to your DAC. If you have your music stored on a NAS (network storage device), you can use another computer to access the music files and serve them to your DAC. Finally, you can have a dedicated music streaming device both store and play your music files.

DAC

As mentioned earlier, a CD player normally has a DAC built in. But unless you have a high-end player, these DACs are usually not all that sophisticated and the sound quality can be all over the board. A computer also has built-in DAC circuitry. It is often capable of playing music files of higher resolution than a CD player, but the sound quality is typically not all that high either.

An outboard DAC opens up greater possibilities since there are few limitations in terms of ultimate sound quality. The only practical limitation is your budget. These DACs can be had for as little as $100 or less up to $20,000 or more. But you don’t always necessarily get what you pay for. It takes a bit of investigation to determine what kind of price/performance a given DAC offers.

Control

Obviously, you will need some system to select and play your music. If you are using a computer, player applications will typically be used to select and play tracks. The upside of this approach is that you seldom have to invest in much of anything since you already own the computer. The down-side is that you will generally be tied to a monitor/keyboard/mouse combination which may be hard to set up for remote control access.

Generally, a dedicated player will come with remote control apps that can run wirelessly on an iPhone, an iPad, an Android phone, an Android tablet or some other device. All the rest of the system can be safely tucked away since you won’t need direct access to it.

NEXT: Let’s take a look at Music File Formats

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