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I'm Andrew. I write about the past and future of tech, music, media, culture, art, and activism. This is my blog.

A Hi-Fi Digital Audio Player for Your Home Stereo

Posted: December 15, 2017

I am building a home stereo digital media player. Specifically, a small, sleek box with two wires coming out of it that I can sit next to my turntable, and plug in to my amp. It will have wifi, and will work as a dlna/UPnP receiver, so that I can cast music to it from my media server using my phone, a laptop, a desktop, or a tablet.

This is a weekend project. I do weekend projects so that I get myself out of bed on the Saturday mornings that my S/O works. This one is one of those projects that I pick up and fiddle with for a few hours, and then leave for months and don’t touch because of a dumb problem that I’m unwilling to compromise on.

Important considerations:

  • It must look like a polished, finished product, while retaining some bespoke characteristics.
  • The audio quality must be as good or better than I would get from using a Bluetooth receiver or the headphone jack on my kindle fire. (This is a low bar to clear.)
  • Ideally no or very few buttons on the finished device.
  • Must feel fun to use more often than it’s frustrating. Should feel like magic if possible.

Hardware

I’m going to do this with a Raspberry Pi or similar. Unfortunately, the Raspberry Pi 0 and the Pi 0 W do not have analog audio outputs, and the analog audio outputs on the Pi 2 and 3 are noisy. That has derailed this projects twice already.

Now, a normal person would probably just buy an audio HAT for the Pi (I think they’re ~$30), but I decided against this for various reasons:

  • I don’t want to order a Hat and wait for it to arrive because this is very much a spare time project and by the time it gets here, I won’t have any spare time left
  • A lot of the well reviewed audio Hats aren’t compatible with the current raspberry pis, or weren’t last time I looked
  • I don’t trust myself to solder headers on to a pi zero.
  • My previous experiences with Raspberry Pi Add-on boards has been pretty subpar, leaving me less than eager to seriously consider this solution at this time.
  • (Lets be honest, I’ll go that route eventually, but for now I don’t have to. I’ll explain.)

Shortly after I shelved this project the last time, I started having problems with my (old, analog, tube) amplifier. I finally bit the bullet and got a mid-level Sherwood receiver. It has a (very) different sound signature than the old Stromberg Carlson radio tube based monstrosity I was using before, and it’s not without faults, but I like it pretty well.

Importantly, it has one feature that my Stromboli baby couldn’t compete with: HDMI ports. It’s supposed to be a home theater receiver, so it does HDMI in and out for video and audio.

I’m planning on running this Pi headless and I don’t currently have anything connected to the HDMI output of the reciever. This means that I can ignore the video, and use the Pi’s HDMI audio output. No need to worry about getting a good analog out.

It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s less complicated than buying a hat and running custom firmware and generally dealing with the raspberry pi addon ecosystem which (while I love everything about it, conceptually) is kind of not fun to deal with.

That is to say, in this case, audio over HDMI should “just work” without much intervention from me.

Software

Okay, that’s hardware out of the way. That leaves me with two big things left to figure out: Software, Physical design. We’ll start with Software.

My gut instinct tells me that I’ll be least unhappy with RasPlex. It should be easy enough to use, although not exactly easy. It will allow me to use my phone/laptop/tablet/whatever as a remote control for the Pi, while streaming from my home media sever. (That is to say I’ll keep the music on a computer in my data closet, or on a remote server, and play it through my media player, using a third device as the UI.)

I will likely try this, as a proof of concept, in the coming days. Importantly, I fully expect that this will Not feel like Magic. How far away from Magical it is will entirely determine if I stick with Rasplex. (That is to say, will it be Good Enough? I’m a big fan of Good Enough.)

The venerable DJ Sundog suggested that I take a look at Squeezebox as well. So, if Rasplex proves to be unwiedly, or generally frustrating, it will be my next stop.

If all else fails, I’m fairly certain I could rig up something adjacent to what I want using network shares, MPD, and an android app hacked together in LiveCode to serve as the controller (but, if it comes to that, this project will have to go back on the shelf for another few months until I have more than a weekend to give it.)

Design

If Rasplex proves to be a Good Enough solution, my next step is to start working on a custom case. This is one area in which I am more hesitant to compromise. I’m going to have to look at this thing all the time, and if it doesn’t look like it belongs, I’m going to disconnect it and repurpose the hardware.

There are some Off-the-shelf cases for the Pis that come close to Good Enough. I used one for the first iteration of my Game Console (we’ll get back to that one soon! Version 3 is scheduled for January 2018), but this is a different kind of animal. The Off-the-shelf cases that are available are designed to be ignored. They are utilitarian, and border on ugly (which is not to say that they are ugly, but they get pretty close.) They’re boring. That’s not what I want.

When we were running Analog Revolution, Ryan over-under-engineered some wooden cases for our custom pre-amps. They were dark stained wood, with an aluminum frontpiece. (We also put a pre-amp in this Mott The Hoople 8-track if I’m not mistaken. But that’s a story for another day.) Something in that classical 70s aluminum and woodgrain style wouldn’t feel out of place on my console, but Ryan was always the handy one, and I won’t have him around for a while yet.

The upshot of all this is that I’m going to have to get creative on the design for the case! I’m pretty excited, because I’m good at this kind of thing, and I don’t get to flex those muscles nearly often enough. For this round, I’m probably going to go digging at the local thrift stores for something I can repurpose.

I’ll follow up with another post when I have more to report.


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