For me, the revolution started with a £60 car radio/CD that also played music stored on my phone. Now I had music to satisfy the whole family, and it didn’t take up any space. Having de-cluttered the car, I started to look at the living room. Was it possible to have CD-quality sound in my living room, without the CDs?
The best-known name in the living room is probably Brennan. You might have seen their adverts in magazines, or read about the Advertising Standards Authority forcing them to point out that using their product is technically illegal. Yes, recording your CDs on a computer (aka “ripping” or “format shifting”) is illegal in the UK . You can do it in Germany, and most other sensible countries across the globe (as long as you still own the original CD), but not here. Except that many people do, because the police have more important criminals to chase, and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) said way back in 2006 that it won’t prosecute anyone for doing it. The government has announced it plans to change the law, but until then it’s as illegal as making a mix-tape was back in the 80s, so don’t do it.
If you must embark on a life of crime, then the £418 Brennan’s an easy system to use. It’s self-contained, rips the CDs to MP 3 for you, stores, searches, and plays them. No computers, networks or other complicated stuff required. If you don’t mind a bit of complicated, then there are four things to consider: file format (how you’re going to store the music), file storage (the hardware you’re going to store it on), playback device (the machine you connect to your Hi-Fi), and finally the controller (what buttons you push to find and play your music.)
MP 3 files are nice and small, so you can fit lots of them onto your mobile phone, or hard disk, but the MP 3 compression process throws away some of the sound that’s there on the CD. This is fine in the car, but if you have data already stored digitally on CD, why throw any of it away? Rip your CDs to a lossless format like FLAC. That way you’re not losing anything, and if something comes along in a few years that turns out to be better, you just convert the files you already have, and you won’t have to dig the CDs out of the loft, and insert them one at a time into your computer (again).
You can buy machines that take a stack of CDs and rip them all for you, but unless you have a truly massive collection, then you probably don’t want to spend a couple of thousand pounds on something you’ll only use once. You can download free programs to rip the CDs, or pay about £25 for the user-friendly dbpoweramp. This validates your files, and downloads the cover art. Once you’re set up, just keep a pile of CDs next to your computer, and rip another one every time you sit down next to it. It’ll probably take between 3 and 5 minutes per CD, including taking it out of the box. Yes, it’s dull, but remember – you only have to do it once.
Unless the player you choose stores files internally, you’ll need something to plug into a home network, such as a Wi-Fi network you get with a broadband router. This can either be a PC or standalone network storage (NAS). An old PC would be fine, as would a cheap, low-powered “nettop”, which could be had for about £200. A NAS box with a large hard disk inside would be slightly cheaper, and use less electricity if you left it on all the time.
There are a surprising number of players available, but the two most popular are by Sonos and Logitech. The Sonos ZonePlayer 90 costs about £280, and is intended to be expanded with additional units, (some of which have inbuilt speakers) piping music wirelessly around your home. You can, of course, have people in separate rooms listening to different music, but the really clever trick for Sonos is to play the same music in different rooms at exactly the same time. This is harder than it sounds, but it means you can walk from room to room without having any jarring interference in the middle. It literally is a party trick, but if it’s a feature you want, then the Sonos is the best place to get it. It’s easy to use, and it all just works. It doesn’t come with a controller though, and the Sonos touchscreen remote control is an extra £280.
Logitech are noticeably cheaper, their Squeezebox Touch is about £200, and with both a simple remote control, and a built-in touchscreen you don’t need to buy a separate controller. You do need to be a bit more willing to tinker with the technical stuff, as this player connects to server software that runs on your networked PC or NAS. You can buy a NAS with the software pre-installed, but it’s more likely you’ll need to install and configure it yourself, (do check compatibility before you buy.)
The sound quality from media players may not match the sound from a decent CD player, but fussy types can always buy an external digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and they should see an improvement (prices start at around £200-£300).
When I play MP 3s on my smartphone, I can flick through a list of artists and albums, make playlists, and even see the album cover art. It’s an interface so simple a four-year-old child can use it (I’m not joking). Both Logitech and Sonos have similar touchscreen interfaces, but a surprising number of other music players come with an ordinary-looking remote control, and an LCD display with a few lines of scrolling text on it. This just isn’t good enough. Some “media” players connect to your TV, and play movies as well, but I don’t want to have my TV on all the time if I’m just listening to music.
The killer feature that convinced me to part with my money was the discovery that Sonos and Logitech also have controller software for Apple and Android smartphones or tablets. A decent tablet computer is hundreds of pounds, but a cheap 7” Android tablet perfectly capable of running controller software can be had for £120 or less. In many respects it’s going to be rubbish, but it’ll do.
As if all this wasn’t revolutionary enough, most network media players also integrate access to online content. Not just Internet radio stations, but subscription services like Napster. For £50/year you get access to an awe-inspiring range of MP3 music. They don’t have everything, but they do have most of it. You can build playlists that mix online music with your ripped CD collection, and only you will know the difference.
Sonos and Logitech are not the only choices, you can spend hundreds of pounds, or thousands of pounds if you really want to. Respected Hi-Fi manufacturer Marantz in particular catch my eye, with their £380 NA7004. It’s got an LCD letterbox display on the front, but it can now also be controlled by an Android application.
What’s even more exciting is the new kid on the block, Cocktail Audio, with their £280 X10 Media Player. This is an all-in-one device like the Brennan – you just stick a CD in and it does all the rest. No computer, no separate storage, just the one box connected to your Hi-Fi and your network (£30 extra for WiFi). Unlike the Brennan it also rips to the lossless FLAC format, has a 3.5” colour display on the front, can be controlled from a tablet computer, and connects to Internet Radio stations (but not Napster). The tablet interface has had mixed reviews, and the lack of Napster will put off a lot of people, but this is a real game-changing device, and it’s bound to force the more established and trusted brands to respond.
What’s available today isn’t perfect. You really need to buy a range of products from different manufacturers, and be willing to tinker with them a bit as well. It can’t be long though, before someone produces a system that’s easy to install and use, and sounds as good as a CD. When that day dawns, I may even have finished ripping my CD collection.
(by Dominic Thomas)