Sunday, 13 February 2011

First Streaming Times


Having studied the various PC / USB / NAS / Squeezebox / Ethernet / WiFi options for approximately 12 months, I've made the decision to go down the NAS / Ethernet / Streamer route.  I'm interested in this approach as it gives the benefits of no PC nor any spinning hard disks in the listening room, the ability to use mirrored storage in the NAS for back up purposes and only one copy of the music to be accessed from around the house - even across the internet is possible with the QNAP software.
Having been to a few Linn and Naim demos, I knew that it's possible to get very good sound using streaming and accessing NAS over Ethernet.  But I'm not yet ready to spend thousands of pounds on a first try.
More research.  More tests read.  Good reviews of the Logitech Squeezebox Touch and its ridiculously good price whilst being able to deliver FLAC at up to 24 bit / 96kHz looked like a safe way to go. 

This particular story has a bit of background, so if detail is your thing, this should suit you somewhat!

System
CDs ripped using Exact Audio Copy to FLAC, so 16 bit 44.1kHz
FLAC files downloaded from Linn being a mixture of 24 bit 48 kHz and 24 bit 96kHz
QNAP TS 209 II Pro NAS using 2 x 1.5TB mirrored Seagate drives (ARM processor, Linux based firmware)
DELL laptop, Windows 7
Wired Ethernet over Mains
Logitech Squeezebox Touch
Linn black analogue interconnects
Meridian 541 pre-amp
Linn Tunebox Active Crossover
3 x Rotel RB850 power amps
Linn Tri-Active Keilidh speakers
Linn LK600 speaker cable
Comparison against Meridian 508.20 CD player

Software
A mixed bag.  Getting software installed on the NAS is a hit and miss affair, in general, despite them being recommended by Linn - but Linn only required uPnP (e.g. Twonky) and nothing bespoke / proprietary.  The SqueezeCenter server software is, therefore, immediately a compromised situation.  Being reliant on the open source community for QNAP installs means that you need one or more people out there who are enthusiastic about doing what you need to be done. In this case, there only seems to be one person who is producing the required QPKG files (that's the QNAP equivalent to and RPM in the RHEL World or an MSI in the Windows World).  It's therefore a problem if things don't work and that individual hasn't found the time to fix or look at your particular combination of NAS hardware, firmware version, QPKG version and SqueezeCenter version.  I believe the ReadyNAS range has much more support in this area, but having had an earlier Belkin NAS, I didn't want to go there again!  If you are really keen you can go command line and do the Linux install manually and I thought that might be where I might end up.

The QNAP web site is very helpful and has step by step instructions and screenshots on where to find the downloads, where to install them, how to run them etc.  Such a shame then that QNAP have redesigned their website and, of course, our helpful friends in the opensource community have changed some of the help text and instructions since the QNAP instructions were published.  I therefore had to grub around using search terms at the QNAP site (which is a bit hit and miss) to find the right files and to interpret the steps into the current version of the actual steps to take.  So, I downloaded the QPKG file and the QPKG web interface file.  They have to be in a particular directory on the NAS and that was no problem.  I ran the QPKG and it worked OK, but then you have to go off to Squeezebox (Logitech) to get the actual SqueezeCenter software - and even that isn't in a logical place - its actually at mysqueezebox.com which isn't the main Logitech site - for the QNAP box you need the Perl version of this software.  This did install OK through the QPKG software.  However, when running the SqueezeCenter (don't forget to spell it the American way or you'll find nothing!) it failed.  There is a log file which is full of fairly obscure (to me at least) error messages and hints.  However, using the hints in the log and searching for them on the QNAP forum fetched up some answers (one of which included uninstall and reinstall of the NAS firmware - scary!) but it turned out I had a QPKG that was specific to one recent version of SqueezeCenter and needed to download an earlier QPKG that was compatible with early SqueezeCenter versions and the latest version.  So a bit confusing.  It's also a bit disconcerting when running the QPKG files and the NAS tells you that you are now installing a system update...a little unsettling.  Now over 2 hours in!

In the meantime and in parallel...I downloaded the Windows version of SqueezeCenter, installed it on the DELL, pointed it to the correct directory on the NAS and it was all done in about 20 mins, including indexing my music files (but there's only 6 albums of FLAC at the moment).  This allowed me to log into my SqueezeCenter account and make sure all my stuff was ready to go there too (not that there's much to do if you just want vanilla everything), and to plug in the SB Touch and get it up and running.

Touch
This was packed very well and is done in a very restrained but quality way.  The unit itsself is much heavier than I expected and has a solid case and an aluminium stand at the back with soft rubber feet and the whole thing feels very sturdy - there are no nasty plastic moulding edges / flashing etc.  Its very thoroughly wrapped in thin cellophane which is a bit of a challenge to remove.
So, using an Ethernet cable directly to the router and sat alongside the laptop, I plugged in the Touch and switched on.  It immediately identified that later software was available, asked me if I wanted to update and off it went and the software was downloaded automatically and installed in about 5 minutes.  From there it found the (Windows!) SqueezeCentre automatically and there was my (very limited) collection of HQ rips available via album, artist, search etc.  I haven't used the touch screen as navigating via the remote is very easy to use, if a bit cheap feeling in the hand.
Once all up and running the SB Touch was moved down to the listening room and plugged into the Ethernet over mains and the main hifi system using a Linn interconnect.
In my room I'll have to think about where the SB is going to sit - the only currently available position in my rack is a bit restrictive and the screen faces 90 deg to the listening position.  Even so, although the screen is very clear and easy to read, I doubt it will be readable from the listening position.  The interface is easy to follow and very intuitive and I have no problems with it at all.  Very impressive.  I like the info available on each track - you can delve into sample rates, bit rates etc. which helps in comparing sound quality.

Listening
I used exclusively FLAC files as listed above, ripped from my CDs using EAC or, with higher quality files, downloaded from Linn.  Tracks from Jon Strong (Folk Rock), Charles Webster (electronica) from CD and Ian Shaw (Jazz / Rock?) and some piano stuff and female vocal jazz from the Linn sampler downloads.  An Ian Shaw track (A Case of You) I have from Linn in both 24 bit 48kHz and 24 bit 96 kHz formats.  Everything streams fine over the Ethernet over Mains with no dropouts and no obvious artefacts.
So, bearing in mind that its now nearly midnight, listening was not extended and these are very much initial thoughts.  At least I could use a decent volume as the kids were fast asleep and it takes a lot to wake them!  I didn't make direct comparisons with the CD player due to time limitations so observations are from memory of how the CD player sounds and I will report back when I can make actual comparisons - I'll be able to compare CDs against rips of those CDs and CD against downloaded higher res files.  But for now, it seems to me that the SB Touch has very good resolution of detail and has reasonable timing.  However, whilst pretty much all the info is there, it all feels a bit "polite" or "restrained" with tracks lacking some attack and Jon Strong's aggressive acoustic guitar playing (he's from Leeds and is singing about what Thatcher did to the North East so, as you can imagine, this track shouldn't be polite, and isn't on my CD player and definitely isn't when he's playing live with a couple of pints inside!) isn't as meaningful as it should be.  On the female vocal jazz this isn't really an issue as its politely presenting very polite music.  The electronica dance tracks were also restrained and less likely to get your foot tapping, but again the detail is there.
I guess you might remember the "inky blackness" of silence between instruments when moving from vinyl to CD?  Well this device takes that one step further - the lack of noise is stunning and is something I noticed on the Linn DS devices.  I think some might call this dryness or sterility, but I would disagree - it just makes the actual music stand out more.  Also, I noticed that the SB Touch is actually capable of demonstrating the difference between the 24/48 file and 24/96 file of the same Ian Shaw track - very impressive.
Internet radio works - I guess it'll be very sample rate dependent as DAB is.  Favourites are going to be essential here as the choice is a bit overwhelming and could be a few evenings work in itsself - hopefully its possible to manage this through the SqueezeCenter software rather than just through the Touch as the interface isn't good enough to be able to work through the full gamut (sorry Alan) of choice.  There are apps to install too, one of which allows podcast listening so that'll be the first one I give a try.
So a pretty good start.  A more direct comparison will need to be done against the CD player.  However, here's the killer point - the SB Touch was £208 including P&P and the CD player cost £1700 about 10 years ago.  Even at this early stage, I don't think I'd want to swap the CD player for the Touch, but if you were starting from scratch...

If this is the basic level, then the likes of the Cambridge NP30 and stuff coming soon from Cyrus, Arcam et al looks very promising indeed.  Perhaps I don't have to save up for that Linn Akurate DS after all?

Back to the Software
And so the above was all done listening through the Windows SqueezeCenter on the laptop.  However, the NAS version did get up and running, pointed it to the correct folder on the NAS, closed down the Windows SqueezeCenter and started up the NAS version.  SB Touch did find it, but I had to use the "change folder" option on the Touch to point to the new SqueezeCenter instance.  Everything then works well and I did a quick listen to make sure it was working.  Wonder if there's a difference in sound between the NAS and Windows versions???

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