If you have kept up with the digital media revolution, you probably have a bunch of your favorite music loaded up on a computer, or perhaps like me, spread over several in different parts of the house. If you use iTunes or Windows Media Player, you can easily share these different music libraries on your home network, but this limits on which computers or devices you can actually connect and play them.
In this review, I'll show you ways to enjoy your favorite music all over the house (or around the world) and on any device. Let's start with some basics.
The basics of streaming audio over a network involve using a media server, a client player, and of course, a network connection (3G, Wi-Fi, etc.) between them. In my case, I use a PC in the basement and one on the top floor (3 stories up) as my media servers. I use my iPod touch or another portable device as my client player. Finally, I use both Wi-Fi and Ethernet cables for my network connections.
Build your own streaming server
Since I'm using multiple PCs and am steaming to more than one mobile device, I use a combination of methods. None of these are really that difficult to get working on a home network using Mac, Windows, or Linux computers. I will share the basic steps and provide the links to more detailed instructions at the end of the article.
One method I used includes a radio tuner—an AM/FM tuner called Radio Shark 2 (RS) connected via USB to a Windows 7 laptop with Linux installed as well. (Griffin Technology has discontinued RS 2, but it is still available through online stores for $30-40.) RS also works with Mac and Windows PCs, allowing you to record and time-shift radio broadcasts. I have a huge library of FM quality hit songs that were recorded using it.
Step 1. Identify a PC or Mac for the server
Your PC or Mac will need plenty of file storage space available, especially if you want to extend your media capabilities to video streaming. For streaming audio around the house as a single stream, a 100Mbps wired LAN connection will work fine for the server, but you might want to consider upgrading to a 1Gbps network card if the machine is going to be doing a lot of other network intensive tasks as well (network backups, video, etc.). If you are planning on using the computer for other purposes (download files, surf the Web, etc.) your stream may experience interruptions. I recommend that you dedicate a second computer as the server (an older one that you don't use much anymore). Most home PCs less than 5 years old will probably work fine. You don't need a super fast CPU, huge amount of RAM memory, or a high-end graphics card for simple streaming.
Step 2. Install encoding hardware/software as required
After setting up your server, you need an audio application to rip, download, or record music. You'll also need a CD drive if you want to rip from your collection. The latest version of the iTunes app for Macs and PCs has a Home Sharing feature that makes it very simple to buy music and consolidate your library to one PC in your house and also provides access to several for playback. You can share music using Windows Media Player (WMP) in a similar manner. I actually do a lot of live recording and use the excellent, free Audacity sound editor (audacity.sourceforge.net) on my basement studio system. MP3 is a reasonably good standard (there are better ones, but I'll spare the audio techno-babble about digital recording formats.) Suffice it to say, the higher the encoding rate, the better the quality of your recording, and the more space your files will require. FM quality audio has an encoding rate of around 96 kbps, and that is probably adequate for a pool party or exercise tracks. After you have configured a way to record your music (CD drive, line-in audio, etc) and software to encode the data, you need to set up a streaming service if you want to enjoy it elsewhere around the house.
Step 3. Install/configure streaming services
If you use the iTunes or Windows Media Player sharing methods already mentioned, your server is ready to go. However, manually setting up a streaming server is not really that difficult. Now you need some software to stream the files. The free WME (Windows Media Encoder) can do this on Windows based computers and can also send streams directly from an encoding device or through another media server. Personally, I prefer Icecast for my streaming server software.
Icecast (icecast.org) is an open source product that can run on a variety of operating systems. Combined with DarkIce (code.google.com/p/darkice), which streams audio directly from the sound card on Linux, I was able to quickly set up a live stream of the output file from my recorded Radio Shark tuner, which is my encoder device (See links at the end of the article for detailed instructions). Icecast and DarkIce are also available for the Mac. In my case, I run them both on my upstairs PC (as it has really good AM/FM radio reception) to provide the live radio streams. To stream audio from the much larger basement PC library, I use Simplify Media instead (see sidebar). Once your streams are up, it's just a matter of tuning them in on a client.
Step 4. Tune in your stream
Use one of the streaming clients mentioned in the sidebar to tune in the streams on your network. In my case, I use FSream (free; app2.me/2338) on my iPod touch. If you notice that the realtime stream quality is sub-par, try tweaking the stream bitrate parameters and check your network for potential slowdowns or bottlenecks. Some users have mentioned encountering problems using FStream over a 3G connection. It has a setting that will allow you to disable/enable the cell network-I would advise disabling 3G when you are connected to a Wi-Fi network. To add your favorite streams, simply enter the name and URL of the stream you want to listen to (e.g., http://hostname:port) and FStream should pick up the necessary format and bitrate information from the stream. Save your settings and return to the Play screen to play and pause your stream.
FStream will also allow you to record and time shift Internet radio stations (aiff and wav formats only). The player can be configured to pause at a spot in the stream, and subsequent play will start again from that point. This can come in handy, for example, if you are listening to a talk show on AM and don't want to miss anything.
Most of what I described does not involve setting up a custom streaming server. The media services and hardware options mentioned in the sidebar all include simple instructions. The client apps are also pretty easy to use. So go stream something and feel free to send me an e-mail or update about your own experiences! I use the Icecast admin interface to manage streams. FStream lets you record and time-shift audio streams, as well as add custom streams.
More Ways to Stream
If you want to stream your music collection to a room (or even multiple rooms) with little or no software configuration, you might consider these hardware alternatives:
- Sonos ZonePlayer S5 (sonos.com): I was able to get an in-depth presentation of this award-winning product in action at CES and review it on our blogs recently (search for Sonos at iphonelife.com). This device will allow you to play music (works with WMP and iTunes) from a computer to multiple rooms or pull from Internet services like Pandora. Your music library is completely synced and centrally controlled from your iPod or iPhone.
- AirPort Express (apple.com/airportexpress): This small and unobtrusive network device is much more than a streaming solution. It also allows you to grab music from iTunes and play it in another room on your stereo. Streaming software and apps
Looking for streaming apps and services on the Internet? Look no further than these great choices:
- OrbLive Service (Orb.com): This robust media service allows you to stream from your PC or Mac to the iPhone or iPod touch. It's optimized for 3G, Edge, or Wi-Fi networks.
- Tuner (nullriver.com/products/tuner): Tuner lets you play custom or preset Internet radio on an iPhone or iPod touch. Thousands of preset stations are available, and you can pick from a list of top stations.
- Last.fm (last.fm): This Internet music service is similar to Pandora, but with social networking and sharing features thrown in. (App available for iPhone)
- Pocket Tunes Radio (normsoft.com): This highly rated and full-featured multi-support player works with a variety of audio stream and file types, including MP3, AAC, OGG, ShoutCast, etc. You can tune in premium XM or Sirius stations as well.
- HP MediaSmart Server iStream (hp.com... search for "Istream App"): The free iPhone app provides streaming access to HP MediaSmart Server content, including photos, video, and music.
- Simplify Media/Music (simplifymedia.com): This awesome media service allows you to connect to your iTunes, WinAmp, Windows Mobile, or Rhythm Box (the Linux player) library from your iPhone or iPod touch, or any other computer for that matter.
Want to build your own live streaming server? Find detailed info at the links below:
- Stream Music using Linux, and Radio Shark (RS): natescrap.blogspot.com/2009/03/icecasting-with-ubuntu-and-radio-shark.html
- Record Live Radio with RS and Ubuntu: natescrap.blogspot.com/2009/02/record-and-play-radio-shark-in-ubuntu.html
- Radio Shark 2 Web Site: griffintechnology.com/products/radioshark2
- Intro to streaming using WME (Windows Media Encoder): microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/howto/articles/IntroEncoding.aspx
- Stream music using AirPort Express: apple.com/findouthow/mac/#wirelessmusic