Media Server Fun

Back when I moved into my current house, I took the opportunity to setup a media server. In my old place, there really wasn't a good place to set one up, so I would dig out a CD or two (out of 1000+) each time I wanted to hear something. As you might expect, that got old, and I didn't listen to music as much as I'd like. Enter the HTPC. Now, I'm more than a little bit of a music and movie buff. Plus, I'm a computer geek. Why not go all the way? I started out by buying parts for 2 PCs. The first was to be a media server, and it was a desktop unit with an audio component look. The second was my home PC (this was before I switched back to Mac.) In addition to a desire to store all my music, I wanted to source music for three zones in the house and up-convert my DVDs for a large projection screen. Finally, let's combine the HTPC with a Pronto remote and I can control the lights and such. Here are the parts I used:

  • J. River - Media Center - Think of this as iTunes on steroids. It's designed for very large media libraries. It also supports images, video, 10-foot interfaces, etc. Most important for me is that it supports multiple audio zones and bit-perfect playback. MS Windows has a nasty habit of converting your 44kHz CDs to 48kHz. I didn't want any extra conversions to affect audio quality.
  • Girder - This is a pretty awesome macro tool that lets you do just about anything you want, and it can be controlled via IR.
  • SuperNudeList - It's not what you think! This handy tool will take a export from J. River Media Center and turn it into Pronto commands. That lets me choose all my albums from a remote without having to fire up a monitor on the HTPC. In fact, the HTPC never had a permanent keyboard or mouse. Just so you know, the original author's name of this tool was Nudel. That's where the name came from.
  • TheaterTek - This is a fantastic DVD player for the PC. Unlike iTunes or others, it operates like a normal DVD player, and I could easily control it via my Pronto.
  • ffdshow - This little number hooked into the video output stream and converted a standard DVD video stream to 720p or 1080p for my projector. To say it is a tweaker's dream would be the understatement of the year.
  • Roku Soundbridge - This UpNP/DLNA player gives me access to my entire library anywhere in the house. Unfortunately, Roku doesn't make them anymore.

Now I have some hardware, but I have no content. I had plenty of disk space (no RAID yet though,) so I went with a lossless encoding (FLAC.) Again, this ensured that I wasn't missing anything as I played it through my high-end system. This was a chore and a half. In the end, I ended up with 3 CD units in 2 PCs ripping in parallel, and it still took over a month to get everything ripped. Of course, now you can ship everything off to a CD ripping service, and they will take care of it for $0.25 each.

Eventually, I had a system that could play music in three areas of the house, supported UPnP and DLNA clients, acted as my primary DVD player with up-conversion, and controlled other areas (lights, etc.) in the house. It worked pretty well, but I did occasionally receive phone calls from my wife when things went funny.

I did my share of tweaking things over time:

  • Endless hours with ffdshow trying to get the best picture possible. You really can go crazy here.
  • Hacked my HTPC to allow for software RAID on Windows XP. The last thing I wanted to do was rip all those CDs again.
  • Constantly trying to get the Pronto right. I wanted it to be as easy as possible. One problem is that every time a new CD was added, I had to re-run supernudelist, and I did that a lot.
  • Used as a Time Machine backup drive. It works, but Apple prefers AFP file protocol. I kept having to reset my backups, which was a pain.

Why am I telling you all this now given that I did this years ago? I'm telling you this because I now have none of the above anymore. It's all been replaced by simple systems. I had a blast building it all myself, and I saved a ton of cash doing so. Media servers and up-converting DVD players using algorithms like in ffdshow were many thousands of dollars. I did all of this with less than $100 in software and a cheap PC. What happened?

The first to go was TheaterTek. As good as it was, it did occasionally go into strange mode, and it made people nervous. Oppo came out with a DVD plater for less than $200 that had the same up-converting chip as found in $5000 players. Score! I get my video quality, and the family gets a player that doesn't require a geek around just in case.

More recently, I started to notice a drive on the HTPC acting up. Rather than replace it, I decided it was a good time to look around for other options. After all, the server was several years old, and the drive was probably the first of many parts to start failing. What did I settle on this time?

  • Netgear ReadyNAS NVX - This gives me a lot more space to play with. In addition to being a large RAID drive, it also replaces almost everything I did on my HTPC
    • Natively supports Time Machine. I haven't had to think about it once I turned it on for our two Macs.
    • Has a DLNA server so my network-ready DVD player can show videos and photos. An added benefit is that my kids iTouch units can access this using PlugPlayer.
    • Has an iTunes server built in for my Roku Soundbridge and my two Macs.
    • Lots of other features
  • Sonos - I can't say enough good things about the Sonos system. There is a player available for each of my zones, and it works perfectly with the ReadyNAS. It literally took less than 5 minutes to set everything up and have multiple audio zones playing in the house. The sound is great. Sonos has their own controller, but you can use a PC, Mac, or iPhone/iTouch to control everything. There are other options (Logitech SqueezeBox, etc.), but I liked the Sonos. In addition to all the other great features of Sonos, it uses its own mesh network. There are two advantages to this. First, your Sonos players don't have to be near your network access point. They only have to be near another Sonos unit. Second, when you are playing music, you are not impacting your normal wireless network's bandwidth.
  • Harmony Remote - Like many Pronto units, mine's touchscreen eventually stopped working well. I was lucky. Many people only got a couple of years, but mine last far longer. Plus, it died right around the time the HTPC was going south. The Harmony is nowhere near as flexible as the Pronto, but it works for what I need now.

I've gone on too long here. Let me end by saying I now have a great system that just works, and it's incredibly simple to use. I miss that I can't add home control, and I can't really tweak anymore. At least without the option, I'm not tempted to tweak, so I actually use the system more.