Network Audio

Note:  This page is absolete since relegating the Pioneer N-50 network audio player to the junkpile where it belongs in my opinion.  Superior replacement is here.

Abstract

This was my attempt at the more conventional (i.e. cheaper) method of delivering digital audio from a PC to a hi-fi system located in a different room – network streaming to a consumer brand network audio player – and to control playback using an Android tablet.  Although it sounds OK, it’s not very good control-wise compared to what’s shown here, but was only a quarter of the cost in hardware.  The downside was in two or three weeks of effort wasted in attempting to see JRiver Media Centre push reliably to the Pioneer player over the LAN.  No matter what I tried it would fall over within half an hour (usually a few minutes) and with no useful answers from online forums, I found a workable solution in alternative controller software called BubbleUPnP which is easy to configure by a novice in a day or two.  That said, this kind of network streaming is not in my opinion a task for the faint-hearted and budget-permitting, I would recommend the USBAES/EBU converter → 110Ω balanced cable to the other room → DAC approach detailed on the page link above.  That option has no trouble with gapless playback for example and remote control is more responsive.  I finally got JRiver to work continuously by removing what I now consider to be a completely unnecessary and highly invasive and useless suite of software from my PC, namely ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite.  Giving Media Centre full trust, or disabling ZoneAlarm was insufficient.  It had to be uninstalled completely.  Shame it failed to identify itself as a malware. 😆 As a bonus, with that garbage gone, my PC was immediately supercharged.  Everything became instant!  Windows Firewall and Microsoft Security Essentials are free and work better because they are written by people who know the operating system (and what they are doing).  The only thing that the other guys seem to do well is promote fear for profit.  IMO it’s a lame dog.

A Little Background

After getting used to the convenience of my entire music library at the touch of a tablet upstairs, it was time to bring the downstairs system out of the CD dark ages too.  Only problem was that the downstairs hi-fi is too far from the PC for a USB or S/PDIF cable and the old DAC has no AES/EBU input to take a digital music stream via a 110Ω balanced cable from the Berkeley Alpha USB (USB-to-AES/EBU converter) alongside the PC.  Time to try a conventional network.  I was extremely reluctant to do this since I was not network-savvy at all (although I know a bit more now by necessity).

Also, not interested in adding a laptop, silent mini PCs or other “boot up and still be fiddling about when a CD could have finished already” devices alongside the sound system, I borrowed an inexpensive Western Digital “Live TV” renderer which had an optical cable that connected to the old/existing DAC’s Toslink input.  I tested it with JRiver which was already running on the main PC for feeding upstairs via a Berkeley.  This was always going to be a compromise since the old DAC is only 16/44.1, but at least a wireless connection would have sufficient bandwidth for it.

Anyway using JRiver’s PC interface, or its “Gizmo” Android interface it played to the WD renderer for a track or two and then fell over every single time.  The WD device simply vanished from the “Playing Now” window on the PC and reappeared at random intervals.  This happened with both a wireless network connection and a temporary CAT5e connection.  And anyway, the sound from the Western Digital renderer was very much “how do you do” – not hi-fi at all.  I put it all down to “getting what you pay for” and returned it to its owner.

Time to try something else.  The most sensible “audio only” DMR device that I could find was the Pioneer N-50.  And it has built-in 24/192 D/A conversion to boot.  Perfect (I thought).  So I got one and ran a CAT5e cable from the router to the music room.  “They” say that 192/24 is too much for wi-fi (turns out to be BS – see here).

Here’s the new RJ45 outlet:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And here’s the N-50 sitting upon the old CD player.  It connects by analogue stereo interconnects to the old C-J Premier Ten valve preamp beneath it, and with a S/PDIF coax to a transformer-coupled input of a Premier Nine valve DAC below that again (for 44.1/16 only and subsequently disconnected since it cried when accidentally fed anything but 44.1/16 with actual physical vibrations!):

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It worked out of the box, but guess what?  Same problem!  JRiver kept dropping the thing off its Playing Now list.  WTF! 😮 After weeks of fiddling, asking questions, running pointless Wireshark traces and other diagnostics nothing worked for more than a day.

What about using the Pioneer to pull from the JRiver server instead?

I tried that – using the Pioneer’s remote control as well as it’s Android application called “Pioneer ControlApp” and it worked continuously without a glitch.  This application controls the Pioneer player to pull from the DLNA library that JRiver created on the PC.

What’s the Problem then?

Problem is that Pioneer ControlApp is not user-friendly – nowhere near as usable as Gizmo (the JRiver Android interface), no cover art is displayed, no decent searching is available, only 4 tracks were listed at a time and it left the vast majority of the tablet screen blank.  Stable, but not otherwise useful.

So use Gizmo then…

No!  Gizmo is simply a remote control interface to Media Centre (in this case to control it to push to a DMR).  It will just crash again.  And tests confirmed this.

Then I found a great alternative:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s an Android application with a funny name: BubbleUPnP.  It’s a controller which can replace the JRiver control point.  Using it is a breeze.  It sees the Pioneer player on the network, you select it and go for the library on the PC.  Of course the JRiver music server (or an alternative such as Twonky or AssetUPnP) must be running in the background for FLAC playback, but Media Centre’s PC control interface does not even need to be opened on the PC.  It is stable and provides a serious level of control and user-adjustment.  It’s a slick piece of work – even in Beta.  The free version will only list and play 16 tracks of an album and has advertising, but a licence is only $4.80.  The best $4.80 that I ever spent.

Not only does BubbleUPnP see the Pioneer Network Player in its Devices list, but it also sees the JRiver renderer which can be used for playback to the upstairs music system via the Berkeley Alpha USB.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(That “Local Renderer” is just for the speakers in the Android tablet itself and was disabled after taking the photo – never to be seen again)

Slight Problem with BubbleUPnP Solved

One downside of using the bare bones BubbleUPnP Android application (compared to Gizmo) is that the tablet must remain switched on to issue the control commands for track advance etc.  This depletes the tablet batteries.  But the developers acknowledge this and provide something quite special to address it.  It’s a program called “BubbleUPnP Server” which installs on the PC.  It is not a “server” in the general sense and needs another library such as that generated by JRiver, Foobar2000 or AssetUPnP to work with.  It has a feature called “Persistent and shared Playlist for UPnP AV Renderers (OpenHome)” and it can be had for free.  It copies the playlist chosen with the Android application wirelessly to a cache file on the PC so that the tablet can be turned off and the whole playlist continues to feed to the renderer under the control of the PC.  Here is a screen shot of the tablet with the new “Pioneer Network Player (OpenHome)” selected as the renderer:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And it works in an absolutely stable manner after just a day or two on their most helpful forum and making a few tweaks.

Only Problem

Gapless playback does not work!

Alternatives

dBPowerAmp’s media library – AssetUPnP was developed for audio only and BubbleUPnP does work with it, however I found that the pause button did not work when using that library (a long hold provided Stop, but playback resumed from the beginning of the track – useless).  Although their CD ripping software is fantastic, I would not recommend AssetUPnP.  IMO, it offers nohing useful over JRiver.  Same goes for Foobar2000 which is in my opinion a complete waste of time.

A Few More Pictures:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That’s BubbleUPnP on the tablet controlling playback of a track.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And that’s the small display on the front of the N-50 showing that it’s acting as a DMR.  You just turn it on and do nothing else to it.  The BubbleUPnP along with the associated server read from the JRiver library and its all good.  The N-50 simply switches itself into DMR mode when BubbleUPnP is invoked.  Very nice.

All well and good, but the N-50 kept vanishing off the network after a few minutes unless BubbleUPnP was used as the controller.

The Breakthrough!

I did say that I tried everything right?  Well maybe not quite.  Of course one of the very first things to consider in solving the stability debacle was the firewall.  That was tested very early in the piece by disconnecting the PC from the Internet and deactivating ZoneAlarm.  I had been running their Internet Security Suite 2012.  JRiver had been given full access through the firewall, but I decided to deactivate it as a test.  With it deactvated the Pioneer machine still kept vanishing, so I (falsely) eliminated that as the cause and turned it back on.  Then last week ZoneAlarm popped up with a reminder that they wanted to extort more money, but I had decided anyway that it was an unneccessary expense since Windows Firewall and Microsoft Security Essentials are free.  So I completely uninstalled ZoneAlarm from the PC and installed the Microsoft alternatives.

Low and behold, the PC entered hyperdrive.  Media Centre fired up in about a ¼ second instead of ten, The N-50 appeared immediately, and for the very first time I was able play an entire album from the JRiver control interface without any issue.  The N-50 no longer vanished.  That Bubble could work through ZoneAlarm and JRiver couldn’t is something I cannot answer.

Update 1:

After several more weeks I decided to ditch JRiver’s Gizmo Android application as an alternative controller.  It would not maintain a connection to the PC despite a strong wi-fi signal.  The tablet maintained its wireless connection, but Gizmo repeatedly needed to enter its access key.  When the access key was logged, “Now Playing” must be clicked to see where you’re at, but the track list button vanished.   Hopelessly unstable.  The album track list was therefore unavailable and you’re stuck.  BubbleUPnP does a much better job for network playback control, so I’m sticking with that.  Gizmo is by and large bugged and therefore useless IMO.

Update 2:  Pioneer’s new gapless firmware and Android control application

Things were going OK apart from the extremely annoying gapped playback (contiguous tracks not joined).  This was a firmware issue with the Pioneer N-50.  It might be acceptable for popular music, but I love classical music and there are hundreds of opera, ballet and other contiguous track CDs ripped into my library.  Imagine playing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with 3 to 5 second pregnant pauses inserted between Boris Karloff’s narration just because the whole thing is stored on separate FLAC files corresponding to each track of the CD.  A CD player plays straight through, so why couldn’t the network player?  Beats me.

Anyway in Feb/March 2013 Pioneer released firmware v1.020 as well as new Android remote controller software.  This provided proprietary gapless playback, but it does not work gaplessly under DLNA control (set to DMR mode).  Moreover BubbleUPnP cannot control it gaplessly.  The whole system is stable when the N-50 pulls from the library over the network with the ControlApp, but this is a major cop-out!  Still no cover art displayed on the Android interface, no progress bar, no track list progression, no fast forward etc.

This half-arsed gapless playback functionality  junk implementation is a cheap trick of marketing and they should seriously pull their fingers out with a firmware upgrade!  Update 25 May 2014 – It hasn’t happened!

Morals

  1. JRiver Media Centre as controller + ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite + network streaming = TROUBLE!  😡
  2. Don’t bother wasting your life trying to push to a brand name music renderer!  Wait for the manufacturer to issue proper firmware before buying their equipment.
  3. Certain brands of so-called “security” software should be removed!

Update 3

An interesting test of the Pioneer N-50’s USB input and digital input capabilities has today (5 October 2013) revealed that they are both sonically poor compared to wired network streaming.  An HP laptop with a direct USB connection using the Pioneer’s C-media USB driver sounded terrible.  Then a Halide Bridge was tried between the laptop USB port and the N-50’s coaxial S/PDIF input and it was terrible too, but that was to be expected.  They both sounded like mush with the consistency of the mush being slightly thinner with the Halide.  Direct streaming is much more revealing.

Update 4  😀

OK.  I took the Pioneer upstairs today (8 November 2013) to the more revealing system.  I ran a Cat5e cable up the stairs to it from the PC and compared it with the sound of the W4S DAC-2 (fed by the Berkeley Alpha USB) hoping it might out-perform it, but no way!  The upstairs system reveals an horrendous sibilance in the Pioneer’s DACs.  It actually made Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies) hiss like a snake on every S which she does not!  Oh well.

Update 5:  15 Dec 2013 and still no proper gapless from Pioneer!

Well Pioneer’s Japanese web sit has yet another firmware update (Version 1.022) but it still does not address the gapless problem, so given what I said in Update 4 above, I’ve decided to ditch this player altogether!  A new page with what replaced it is here.

ZacharySmith

8 thoughts on “Network Audio

  1. Hello
    I have been looking for something as detailed as this for a while! It’s an excellent piece of work and seems much better conceived than much else that I read. I have several questions I hope you may answer if you have the time.
    1: Did you try any other audio server software – like Mezzmo or KooRaRoo?
    2: Are you happy with the quality of output from the N-50? Do you think it’s better than the Cambridge Audio or the Marantz equivalent?
    It’s a pity I didn’t see this much earlier – the one thing I might have been able to help on is the suggestion to remove Zonealarm. It’s an area I feel very strongly about, and pretty much the same goes for the Norton and McAfee equivalents. They are dreadful, and only work at all with a very powerful PC – they slow down an older PC to a crawl. But even on a fast PC they are very intrusive.
    I have been running a Linux server with a collection of around 16,000 FLAC files, into a Logitech Squeezebox which feeds a very good DAC and then into nice HiFi separates. But the Squeezebox is dying so I need to replace it – hence the N-50. JRiver is only in Beta at present and I couldn’t get it working on the Ubuntu server, but I ran it on my main PC and it picks up the files from the server no problem.
    Any comments about replacing the Squeezebox with the N-50?
    I would be very pleased to hear from you in any way!
    Kind regards,

    Mike.

  2. Hello Mike.

    1: I tried Foobar and Asset UPnP and didn’t like either. Foobar is a clunky mess and Asset played up (would not pause).
    2: The N-50 sounds excellent when using its network cable input. The USB input is poor (despite what some paid reviewers have said). As a DAC, it needs a very good digital input that the likes of a Halide Bridge cannot provide. With a Berkeley Alpha USB it might be OK but that would be ridiculously expensive. As a straight network player it subjectively sounds better than my other system with a Berkeley Alpha USB into a Wyred4Sound DAC2. I am going to do another comparison later this week (plug N-50 into the other system) to be able to say whether or not it is actually better than Berkeley Alpha USB plus W4S DAC2 in general.

    I have not experienced the Cambridge, Marantz or Logitech products.

    The only thing I dislike about the Pioneer is its hopeless ControlApp and non-standard gapless implementation. It means that BubbleUPnP cannot be used for gapless albums when the Pioneer is used in its only hi-fi mode (as a network player).

    Cheers.

    Ian

  3. Ian,

    Thank you for the helpful and speedy reply. I certainly intend to use only the network input on the N-50 and at present, although until I try it I’m not sure, I don’t intend to use the DAC part of it – preferring to use my separate DAC. I had read many articles about the Pioneer control app – I think they just don’t see that part as being particularly important. I liked the Squeezebox (had it upgraded component wise and fitted a much better power supply), but it’s getting old and flaky now.

    I’m looking at The two I mentioned as one is free and the other has a fully functional trial version but in many ways they don’t really seem to offer anything that Jriver doesn’t.

    Thanks for the help – i’ll let you know how I get on.

    Mike.

  4. Hi Mike. I compared the Pioneer directly (i.e. on exactly he same system upstairs) with the other DAC etc. mentioned and was surprised. The Pioneer is certainly not up there with the more expensive gear. See “Update 3” above.

  5. Hi Ian,

    Finally finished with my experiments (for now, anyway)! I have ended up with the music still on my Linux server, but I discovered that the Logitech media server software works perfectly with any media server, provided it’s controlled by something like Bubbleupnp. So I’m using that – I had great trouble finding any good Linux music server software – I disliked Plex, although it did work; JRiver and Serviio I just couldn’t get working at all (I’m not useless with Linux – I’ve been running a Linux server for many years, and am comfortable with command lines, making sure the correct dependencies are installed, etc.)but I think they are not given enough importance and their Linux versions lag behind the Windows ones. I even installed several Windows versions of music servers onto my main desktop machine (Windows 8.1) to try out, but although mostly they worked fine, having to run your desktop machine to stream from a server machine seemed a bit clunky, to say the least! But then I discovered by accident that the Logitech software worked (I had stopped it when I disconnected the Squeezebox).

    I have tried just about every Android controller I can find, but I should have just taken your word for it – Bubble is by far the best. Incidentally I use a Sony Xperia Tablet Z, and it just won’t run the Pioneer software at all, so I can’t even verify how rubbish it is!

    The Pioneer is connected to a Musical Fidelity M1 DAC, and while the set up clearly isn’t anywhere near as good as your main set up, it does sound very good and is an improvement on the Squeezebox. I also tried using the Pioneer’s inbuilt Dac and that’s definitely inferior to the M1.

    I’m vaguely thinking about converting the Linux server to Windows 8.1 as it does function quite well as a server because that would give me the opportunity to try out more software, but then I think maybe life’s too short and I should just listen to the music. And I quite fancy some of your other projects…

    Thanks for the help.

    Mike.

  6. Hello Ian,
    I am a fan of your blog and I always read with great interest you posts on ESP forum.
    As Mike said above, “my set up clearly isn’t anywhere near as good as your main set up”, but I have made good use of the WD gear that you discarded.
    My steup is : SYNOLOGY NAS ->Gigabyte Ethernet -> Wifi Router -> Wifi link -> WD TV Live -> Cambridge DACMagic -> DIY Preamp (Modified Jolida JD50A) -> DIY P101 -> Linn Akurate 242.
    I am using Bubble on my Android Phone and DSaudio on my Ipad to control.
    It works very well, just as well as my system when I use my Philips CDR770 as drive connected to the second digital input of the DACMagic.
    I do not need my PC, so no problem with a firewall as you had.
    Cheers,
    J-P

  7. Nice article, I’ll have to spend a bit more time reading it, but your are in the same boat as me. I love the N50, it sounds amazing playing 24 flac files. I also am having problems with an interface. We tried plex media on a stand alone server on the network, some times the N50 doesn’t see the server because of the Plex Media software…I may look at JRiver …I will have a look at the Bubble Upnp…Nice tube equipment….I have a rebuilt Golden Tube power and Pre which I did a few years back and then some additional vintage Eico HF85 pre/HF86 power amp…which I do all the mods/restore work. Thanks again for all the info.
    Dan

  8. “Nice tube equipment” does not compute. 😆 Mine was purchased years before I knew any better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *