Personal blog and comfy corner of Lyra Rhodes: musician, cake aficionado, whinger...maybe just a place where I can stuff things (words!), rather than them falling down the back of the sofa

Friday, 14 August 2015

Tasty PI.. tasty HiFi


Rather than eating cake, or playing my guitar, I've been listening to much much music recently (retaining sanity 'n' all that).

Remember the days of CD players? Remember them? Like my 1980s Marantz CD-40. Even that was easier sometimes, easier than all this streaming nonsense - playing music files from a NAS drive, via flaky DLNA, involving BluRay players and variable volume levels...
And, regular readers will be aware that I'm just not-that-type-of-girl to put an iPod into an iPod dock-thingy, and be done with it. That seems to be what folks call HiFi these days. OH NO.

You don't always get what you want

So, being of an IT-geek persuasion, I put together a MoSCoW list of requirements, boring myself in the process.

(M)UST have:
1 - ReplayGain (this is like that "iTunes sound check" thing, stops a quiet then loud song blasting your head off
2 - Playlists
3 - Gapless playback (not that I possess Dark Side Of The Moon but just in case)
4 - full playback in the digital domain ("bitperfect"), no altering of the source file straight through to the DAC in my Onkyo amp (as you do)

(S)HOULD have:
1 - a nicer way of controlling the music than BubbleUpnp (it's not too bad)
2 - better library management than pesky DLNA and its media scanners, and SMB (or even NFS) file access would be nice
3 - reasonable hardware, ie don't particularly trust some random chinese Android box, for instance, I could stream direct from my phone, but the sound quality isn't quite there with that (yes, I've tried Neutron) & it locks the phone to that usage
also, SP/DIF or preferably digital coax is a must, don't trust (resampled) sound via HDMI for instance

(C)OULD have:
1 - ease of setup, but I don't mind faffing with it to set it up really
2 - ease of use by my better-half, perhaps even on smartphone

The problem

Holding all your music collection digitally then creates its own set of issues.
Much like the first digital camera you buy.
What to do with the files? How to make it easy to listen to them?

Sonos do this, as do many other companies now like Denon and Bluesound.
But they charge several arms and legs for it.

We've all been using iTunes, Winamp, JRiver etc etc from our PC's for many years, playing our music collections. Thus, we have to keep a desktop or laptop turned on, and connected. And they are often noisy things too.
Smartphone bluetooth to bluetooth adapter or speakers? That's not HiFi. Not even with aptX. Ironically, the iPod classic with its digital dock connection ain't that bad an option. But, it's limited by the Apple ecosystem and dedicated storage. And don't even get me started on "Apple Music"....

So, a mini PC, server, some kind of device, switched on all of the time, or fast turn-on, is the answer.
Cambridge Audio, Naim, Linn, NAD, Denon, Yamaha, they all produce "HiFi streamers", starting at about £350.
These devices often come with their own branded app, or else utilise DLNA. That makes me suspicious.
And the cost of suchlike is high....

A Raspberry Pi as a HiFi

The Raspberry Pi is pretty darn good at being left switched on all of the time, running well below 40 degrees and can hold a bespoke Linux build dedicated to HiFi type stuff.
I suppose when you think about it, that's all a dedicated HiFi streamer is. Anecdotally, such boxes run with customised versions of MPD (Music Player Daemon) that I've intended to use on the Pi.

So.... I think this is a good propostion, for me it ticks all of the boxes. After all, I'd kept my PC switched on in the past to play music. We all do it.
This option is way cheaper than a Cubox, or a NUC intel box.

Show me what it looks like then

This Pi 2nd generation has a "HAT" (Hardware Attached on Top) Digi+ sound output board on top made by a company called HiFiBerry which provides digital Coax and Optical outputs.
In my case that then feeds direct to my Onkyo amp, which has digital inputs.

Standard Pi recommended power supply, but many folks go the extra mile with a Linear power supply (like in a Desktop PC). At the top is my digital Coax connection, and ethernet on the left side of the pic.

How does all the software work?

I'm using Volumio.

From what I can see, it's basically Raspbian linux with MPD (Music Player Daemon) and Samba stuff thrown in.
Very clever.
Optimised, stripped down, and very very fast.

Then, MPDroid software on my Android smartphone is very good, or Cantata on my Windows PC to control it all, simply acting as a device to manage playlists, view album art, and next track/pause/play etc.

I tried all kinds of other software, like the Squeezebox architecture stuff, ie PiCorePlayer with a LMS server on my Synology NAS, and there's also MoOde, Archphile and many many more.

How do I set one of these up then?

Build the Pi, plug the Digi+ board on top and put it in the case.
Build your MicroSD card as per Volumio instructions, insert into Pi and power up.
Configure your NAS connection and other parameters within the web-based Volumio menu.

The forums are full of folks building these, putting them in custom cases, bolting on their own DAC, power supply, LCD screens, volume knobs, you name it.

But I kept it simple.

So what does it sound like? Is it usable?

Pretty good. I mean, it's not top-flight hardware, but I think there's a certain simplicity to picking up a FLAC file from a NAS, and then sending it digitally unaltered out of the digital Coax output.
For me, my money is better spent in the Analogue domain, rather than getting obsessed over the latest and greatest DAC (the one in my Onkyo amp is fine), or obsessed alongside every other audiophile with Jitter...

The overall system is VERY usable, and works very fast, instantaneous seek, play/pause/stop. It's one less thing to switch on I think, like a CD player, streamer, BluRay player (what I was using previously for DLNA).
All I have to do to get music is to turn on the Amp.

Can you give me some more detailed instructions?

Yes, I can. Because I had to pull this together from a few websites and forums (fora?). Particularly getting album art etc right is a slight challenge, and the whole process can be time consuming. However, if you library is well setup (tagged, organised) in the first place, that will help too.

I've put my very detailed instructions elsewhere on this blog so just click here.